Posts in Health
We’re About to Start Seeing More Early Deaths from Diabetes

Hip-hop pioneer Phife Dawg died this week at the age of 45, from complications of diabetes. His early death is a harbinger of tragedies to come.

Photo by Rodrigo Vaz via Getty

A Tribe Called Quest's Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, died on Wednesday at age 45 from complications of diabetes. Phife was known for being a pioneer of hip-hop, and, to a much lesser extent, as having a sweet tooth. (A few bars into the 1991 track "Buggin Out," he notes, I drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper.) Taylor was diagnosed with the disease in 1991, at the age of 20.

A 20-year-old diagnosed with diabetes was once exceedingly rare—the disease was called "adult-onset" diabetes for a reason. But increasingly children and young adults are being diagnosed in alarming numbers. The rise was noted with concern back in 2000, when the American Diabetes Association published a consensus statement on the subject. A 2014 study found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among ten to 19-year-olds rose 30 percent between 2001 and 2009. By 2012, fully one half of the entire US adult population had either diabetes or pre-diabetes.

There's a common perception that people who have diabetes can just take meds and live a normal life. A growing industry normalizes the disease with lotions, supplements, medications, magazines, and food and drinks that cater to a diabetic population. But as Taylor's death illustrates, diabetes is not something to take lightly, and this is especially true for those diagnosed young, since living with the disease for longer can lead to worse outcomes. Complications include blindness, end-stage kidney failure, stroke, and numbness in the extremities—which means wounds go unnoticed, get infected, and can result in amputations. Taylor was so sick that in 2008 he required a kidney transplant from his wife, Deisha Taylor.

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Carl's Jr. Unveils Grass-Fed Burger With Side of Nudity

Originally published in The Huffington Post

According to the logic of fast food companies, caring about the province of your food or the state of your health is akin to snobbery, pretentiousness, and even being part of the "nanny-state." But fast-food marketers are also aware that the tide may be turning. Several recent McDonald's advertisements are case in point. In one new ad, the company specifically calls out "foodies" and "gastronauts," positioning its food as food for the "average Joe" and implying that "real Americans" do not and should not care about the quality of their food. But then, in a separate ad campaign, McDonald's attempts to appeal to those same "foodies" it disparages by claiming to be transparent about the ingredients in its food (if only on a very cursory level).

Now, Carl's Jr. is taking a page out this playbook but with a different tactic. Since fast food by its very nature is food that requires a certain amount of nescience -- about what it's doing to your health, about the environmental costs, about the poor treatment of millions of animals required for its products, and about the fair treatment of workers all along the food chain -- the introduction of the first "all-natural" "grass-fed" burger represents a potential shift in the fast food paradigm.

Sure, other fast food companies have made nods to "health," like in the case of McDonald's oatmeal, and the food industry has long made various health claims with "low-fat" or "no-cholesterol" on its products, but bringing a grass-fed burger to a major fast food outlet is significant. This isn't Chipotle or Shake Shack, which are branded as healthier fast food; this is Carl's Jr., a company that has never made any claims to health or sustainability.

So it's interesting to see how the company chose to introduce this burger: With Charlotte McKinney, a woman many have described as "a Kate Upton lookalike" nearly naked and strutting through a farmer's market to a chorus of ogling men. The viewer first confronts a mostly naked McKinney who basically moans, "I love going all natural. It just makes me feel better. Nothing between me and my 100 percent, all-natural juicy, grass-fed beef." This advertising tactic works to masculinize the concept of caring about the province of your food and the state of your health since the food industry has historically portrayed this concept as weak or effete.

While previous Carl's Jr. ads were equally demeaning, they were less surprising because they were hawking products that were damaging to our health and our environment as well -- they seemed perfect bedfellows. Grass-fed and all-natural, at their best imply a respect for nature, a respect for the health of our bodies and a concern about both human and animal welfare, so to see this paired with the most crass form of sexist advertising is deeply jarring. Granted, as a woman, I am not Carl Jr.'s target audience. In a statement about the new burger, Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl's Jr. said, "We've seen a growing demand for 'cleaner,' more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we're proud to be the first major fast food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu...Millennials include our target of 'Young Hungry Guys' and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations."

But this is not the standard lean-chicken-breast-and-protein-shake variety of concern about what men put into their bodies -- (as deeply misguided on nutrition as that is) grass-fed beef, is actually a nutritionally sound and environmentally responsible approach to eating beef. It also stands for a much more humane way of raising animals for food, allowing them to graze on pasture and eat their natural diet, rather than cramming them into filthy feed lots and stuffing them with antibiotic-laced corn.

Will the food industry's attempt to capitalize on the "growing demand for cleaner more natural food" ruin the grass-fed designation, just at it did with organics in some cases? Where will all this grass-fed beef come from? It's not hard to imagine the industry tweaking the requirements for beef to be "grass-fed" in the same way that the egg industry claims "free-range" with thousands of hens housed in a crowded and filthy structure with "access" to a door that may or may not allow them to ever step foot outdoors. Is grass-fed just the next buzz word in food marketing that will quickly lose its meaning?

The fact that Carl's Jr. can even market this burger as "all-natural" is highly questionable. Beyond its grass-fed patty, the honey wheat bun contains roughly 30 ingredients including artificial flavors, hydrogenated soybean oil (trans-fat), and a bevy of other chemical flavor enhancers and preservatives. The ketchup contains high fructose corn syrup, the mayonnaise contains preservatives and flavor enhancers, and the pickle chips have more of the same. All told, you're consuming about 60 ingredients in that "all-natural" burger.

I'm left wondering if the target audience of men aged 18 to 34 will actually care about the province of their food and their health on the deeper level that the return to grass-fed beef represents. We can only hope that the Carl's Jr. ad is selling this demographic short in anticipating that the way to sell them on the importance of cleaner, fairer, more humane food is by exploiting women in sexist ads.

A Not-So-Subtle Meditation on Sugar

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As people streamed out of the Kara Walker installation “A Subtlety” on a recent Sunday afternoon to buy an ice cream cone from one of the trucks idling outside the old Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront, I wondered how many thought about the jarring contradiction: paying homage to the bodily harms involved in the harsh industrial process inherent in refining sugar, then consuming the industrial concoction that is a Mister Softee-type ice cream cone.

Since so much of Ms. Walker’s work relies on the inherent contradictions that exist in contemporary American culture, especially as they relate to our brutal history, were the trucks, perhaps, even part of the exhibition? In a way, it felt like the perfect ending, punctuating her point.

In a similar vein, as (the mostly white) people posed in front of her giant sugar sphinx and took selfies with the statue behind them, something felt deeply wrong. People standing and smiling in front of this 35-foot-high and 75-foot-long sugar depiction of a black “mammy” — which renders the black female body in pure white and was made of 160,000 pounds of sugar as if it were just another New York City tourist attraction added to the sense that something about the entire experience was seriously amiss.

And this feeling was enhanced by the smell that hits you upon entering the old Domino factory. At first, it’s just overly sweet, but the sweetness quickly deteriorates into a sickly, oppressive smell, making it difficult to stay in the space for long. That, combined with the molasses-coated sculptures of black children carrying oversized baskets that were in various states of decay or destruction (some smashed into pieces on the floor), and the factory walls stained with large swaths of dark reddish-brown drippings, created an overwhelming presence to the great violence that still laces sugar production, as it has for centuries.

This very sugar refinery was long notorious for its terrible working conditions, even well into recent history. Beginning in 2000, the plant was the site of one of the longest labor strikes ever in New York City: 286 workers protested wages and working conditions for 20 months. The owners of the Domino sugar empire — the world’s largest refiner of cane sugar that imports sugar from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere — have been accused repeatedly of labor exploitation. The United States Department of Labor lists Dominican sugar as being produced by children or forced labor, bringing into focus the fact that the legacy of unfree labor, exploitation and violence is at once part of our past and our present.

Sugar has a long and sordid history. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean and southern United States were the first large-scale monocultures for producing a highly profitable product — the prototype for our current industrial agriculture system. As the author and anthropologist Sidney Mintz puts it, even before capitalism had arrived as the dominant economic structure, the early plantation systems were “agro-industrial” due to “the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority…This was because neither mill nor field could be separately (independently) productive.” Mintz adds that “the combination of field and factory, of skilled workers with unskilled, and the strictness of scheduling together gave an industrial cast to plantation enterprises.”

The sugar plantation/factory also separated production from consumption and the worker from his tools, which helps to define the lives of these mostly unfree workers between the 16th and late 19th centuries in the New World. And while slave laborers were the first to produce sugar en masse for worldwide consumption, the working class found comfort in sugar, which became less a symbol of power and more a symbol of profit as it was transformed from an upper-class luxury into a mainstay and even necessity of the working-class diet. “The introduction of foods like sucrose made it possible to raise the caloric content of the proletarian diet without increasing proportionately the quantities of meat, fish, poultry and other dairy products,” writes Mintz.

Which brings us to today, when the people suffering most from diet-related illness brought on in large part by the overconsumption of sugar are poor people of color. Corporations which provide cheap calories that fill the belly while also providing pleasure effectively profit off populations with limited means. Diabetes (almost all of which is Type 2) is 66 percent higher among Hispanic Americans and 77 percent higher among African-Americans as compared to their white peers. African-American women suffer more from the disease than any other group: One in four women older than 55 has diabetes, and African-American women have the highest rates of two of the worst complications resulting from diabetes — amputation and kidney failure.

Sugar is particularly toxic for those with diabetes, and many Americans are eating tremendous amounts of it; the most recent estimate is three pounds of sugar per week, or 156 pounds per year. At this rate of consumption, sugar does previously unimaginable things to our bodies at increasingly younger ages, prompting the name-change of adult-onset diabetes to Type 2 diabetes — one in three children born in 2000 will develop the disease, and many children in this generation will not outlive their parents.

For most Americans, sugar is close to impossible to avoid — it laces the bulk of the processed foods that we rely on for nearly every meal. And we continue to import more than 200,000 tons of sugar a year from the Dominican Republic, despite the known labor violations.

This was the very sugar that Ms. Walker used for the exhibit. Domino donated 80 tons of it (she “only” used 40), highlighting the grotesque waste of resources in which we all partake. Beyond the human rights violations are the environmentally costly processes of production itself, from the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the sugar to the pollutants spewed into the environment as it is refined.

And so Ms. Walker’s “A Subtlety,” which closed this past Sunday, connected in so many critical ways the issues of racial and sexual oppression with the industrial processes that go into much of our food supply. Indeed, we are all increasingly made of sugar, and our consumption of it makes us complicit in the violence and destruction that Ms. Walker rendered visible in her sugar sphinx — yet at the same time we are victims of this damage, borne out in our own bodies.

This also appeared in The New York Times

Safe Shmafe: How Slate's Latest Article on Pesticides Got It (Really) Wrong

images-1 Last week, Slate published an article claiming that -- counter to popular assumptions -- the pesticide levels on most of the produce we eat are nothing to worry about. The title says it all: "Organic Shmorganic: Conventional Fruits and Vegetables are Perfectly Healthy for Kids."

In one sensational, simplistic article, author Melinda Wenner Moyer appears ready to undermine the 50-year battle that organic food advocates have waged against an increasingly monolithic industry to provide healthy, uncontaminated food. In the piece, Moyer concludes that conventionally grown produce that harbor pesticide residue are not harmful for kids and are not much worse than their organic counterparts.

Moyer points to the fact that organic farms often use pesticides of their own. However, she also admits that most organic pesticides break down in the environment more easily and are less likely to contaminate the soil and water. That alone is a good enough reason to support organics since runoff from agriculture is the number one polluter of America's waterways. Also, by Moyer's own admission, pesticides are used in organic agriculture as a last resort, limiting our exposure even further.

Moyer asserts that since synthetic pesticides are engineered to be used in smaller quantities, that might also somehow make conventional food less toxic overall than organic. But this sounds like the industry talking -- why wouldn't we seek to further regulate all toxic substances on our foods, whether organic or not, rather than concluding we might as well eat the conventional foods?

Beyond Residue

When Moyer says that pesticides are "perfectly healthy for kids," she doesn't specify whose kids. It's clear that she hasn't considered farmworkers' families and those who live near agricultural fields. These populations are routinely exposed to large quantities of pesticides and are greatly impacted.

Moyer claims she is focusing primarily on the heath effects of consumers. But the logic of separating our own health from environmental health and worker health is specious. Just ask farmers.

Kira Kinney, an organic farmer in New Paltz, New York, finds Moyer's compartmentalized argument especially troubling. "The author says she is only looking at this narrow window of residue on produce, but I do not understand, as a grower, how one can break apart the farm process to only look at things in such narrow focus," says Kinney.

Kinney sees Methyl bromide -- a fumigant that is being phased out in produce production, but is still in use on some farms -- as a good example. "It is applied to the soils of most conventional strawberry farms -- and other produce [farms] as well. It basically kills everything living in the soil, and makes lots of people sick in areas where this gas is being pumped into the soil," she says.

Even if we focus strictly on the direct health effects for consumers eating produce grown with pesticides, Moyer makes gross oversights. She starts the article off by saying, "I can't help but wonder whether giving my son organic food really makes a difference to his health, considering that he's been known to lick the bottom of his shoes, kiss my poop-sniffing dog, and eat crackers -- someone else's -- off of the preschool floor."

In fact, these are two completely different issues. Recent science on the microbiome, or bacteria in and on our bodies, shows that kids who grow up with dogs have a healthier microbiome and exposure to a variety of bacteria likely helps to improve our immune systems. But this has absolutely nothing to do with pesticides.

Or perhaps it does. There is evidence to suggest that one pesticide, glyphosate, the ingredient used in the ubiquitous Roundup may disrupt and kill beneficial bacteria in our guts leading to impaired immune function and a cascade of ill health effects.

This shouldn't come as a big surprise since pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides work to kill organisms indiscriminately. There are also numerous studies that show use of these various "cides" disrupts soil microflora, so why not our own as well?

Dose: Not as Straightforward as You Think

The basis of Moyer's argument is that "the dose makes the poison" when it comes to the toxicity of pesticides. This concept is the cornerstone of toxicology and many toxicologists will tell you that's all there is to it: Ill effects occur along a linear curve depending on how much of the toxin one is exposed to. However, much of the conventional thinking on this matter is being overturned.

I asked Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine, about this theory. Blumberg works with endocrine disrupting chemicals and many pesticides fall into this category.

"Endocrine disrupting chemicals most assuredly work at low doses that produce what we call "non-monotonic," or nonlinear, dose responses," Blumberg says. "There are many cases where a low dose of a chemical has one effect, whereas a higher dose either has no effect, or an opposite effect."

The idea that the dose makes the poison, says Blumberg, "makes the assumption that the dose-response curve must be linear. As even laymen know, there are precious few responses in nature that are linear."

Since toxicologists assume the linear dose response, the EPA rarely, if ever, tests for what exposure at lower levels may mean. But in Blumberg's research, he routinely finds effects on the development of fat cells and the prevalence of obesity at levels near to or below what's known as the "no observed adverse affect level" (or NOAELs) and sometimes at or below the EPA-established tolerable daily intake.

In one study Blumberg found that the fungicide triflumizole caused changes to fat cells, and increased fat cell size at levels 400 times below the EPA approved NOAEL and four times lower than the tolerable daily intake.

Furthermore, Moyer relies on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) data to back up her claim that pesticide residues are harmless. This is a huge oversight since the process by which pesticides receive EPA approval is riddled with conflicts of interest. Blumberg described the process like this: The EPA asks companies that are introducing new chemicals to perform basic tests, including tests for carcinogenesis and reproductive harm, for example. The company then performs these tests in-house or asks a contract laboratory to do them and shows the data to the EPA.

"Despite this clear conflict of interest, the EPA says, 'thank you very much,' talks about the issue for a while, and then either approves, or disapproves the chemical for use based on the industry supplied data, which may or may not be complete," says Blumberg.

Very Little Human Data

Another key point is that the EPA makes its safety determinations without any human data. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that, "Because humans are exposed to lots of things, you can't get a cause-effect sense for a single pesticide. So, when they make a 'safety' determination, it is without the benefit of human data."

Blumberg added that the EPA rarely tests these chemicals directly, nor conducts an independent investigation. Instead, the agency often performs computer modeling studies that estimate what an average person might consume based on assumptions about the residues on food. (These models are what Moyer refers to in the Slate article.)

However, the EPA does not ever test the exposure levels actually found in consumers. Nor does it look at levels in those applying the pesticide, nor their families, nor those who live close to where these pesticides are applied. In other words, Blumberg says, "Populations are never sampled to assess whether exposure falls within the range predicted by the modeling studies."

Zoeller says that the EPA's capabilities are severely limited due to built-in industry protections. "[The EPA] have been given the task of evaluating whether a chemical is harmful, not if it is safe. The statute protects the industry, not the consumer. EPA is caught in the middle."

Zoeller added that Moyer's article makes the mistake of claiming "safe levels" of pesticides. "I doubt seriously that EPA risk assessors would say it like that. They would say that according to the data they have, 'levels of exposure below X should not produce adverse effects.' There's a big difference," he says.

Pesticides' Combined Effects

Moyer seems to be arguing that since we are exposed to so many toxins on a daily basis, pesticide residue makes little difference. That's a dangerous assumption. In fact, limiting our exposure to pesticide residue on food, whenever possible, is smart precisely because it's one factor we can control.

What's more, Moyer's article makes no mention of the combined effects of these toxins. One 2011 study found that the widespread decline in male reproductive health may be linked to increased exposure to a combination of pesticides, which have not been adequately tested.

Another 2012 study found that the combined effects of widely used pesticides exceed the effects of individual pesticides. To date, there is not nearly enough data on these combined effects, even though the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, through food and drinking water.

These dangers are especially worrisome for children and pregnant women. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently warned about the dangers of exposure to pesticides and other toxins, as the average woman is exposed to an estimated 163 unique chemicals per day, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The bottom line is that most data that suggests pesticide residue is safe is the result of a deeply conflicted regulatory system. Under our current system, we rely on the companies manufacturing these chemical to find them dangerous, rather than an independent entity to prove them safe. As such, these chemicals have never been deemed safe for children, expectant mothers, or anyone else at the doses most Americans are currently being exposed to.

We now know that low levels of these toxins can adversely effect our microbiomes and our reproductive health, while increasing the risk of obesity. So why not err on the side of caution?

Indeed, as Blumberg puts it, "If we wait for such proof [in humans], despite numerous animal studies that should have alerted us to the potential dangers of specific chemical exposure, we have utterly failed to protect the public."

A version of this article first appeared on Civil Eats.

Bad (and Good) Eating Habits Start in the Womb

Last week my piece "Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb" appeared in TheNew York Times and generated a lot of interest and  commentary — it was the number one most emailed story on the entire site for over a day. I find this to be an encouraging sign that people are really concerned about the food they eat, and especially about the health of their babies and children. Click here to listen to an interview I did for New Hampshire Public Radio discussing my piece. Below is a description from NHPR's website.

You may be familiar with the ordeal of introducing children to broccoli and spinach.  Two new studies suggest that finicky eaters might have picked up their discriminating habit in the womb. Forget genetics, personal responsibility, and discipline. Your taste for junk food and soda may have a lot to do with how your mother satisfied her cravings.

Kristin Wartman, is a food, politics and health journalist. She recently wrote about the new science of food choices for the New York Times.

Photo: Rafael Viana Araujo via Flickr Creative Commons

Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb

THE solution to one of America’s most vexing problems — our soaring rates of obesity and diet-related diseases — may have its roots in early childhood, and even in utero.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research organization in Philadelphia, have found that babies born to mothers who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breast-feeding are more open to a wide range of flavors. They’ve also found that babies who follow that diet after weaning carry those preferences into childhood and adulthood. Researchers believe that the taste preferences that develop at crucial periods in infancy have lasting effects for life. In fact, changing food preferences beyond toddlerhood appears to be extremely difficult.

“What’s really interesting about children is, the preferences they form during the first years of life actually predict what they’ll eat later,” said Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist and researcher at the Monell Center. “Dietary patterns track from early to later childhood but once they are formed, once they get older, it’s really difficult to change — witness how hard it is to change the adult. You can, but it’s just harder. Where you start, is where you end up.”

This may have profound implications for the future health of Americans. With some 70 percent of the United States population now overweight or obese and chronic diseases skyrocketing, many parents who are eating a diet high in processed, refined foods are feeding their babies as they feed themselves, and could be setting their children up for a lifetime of preferences for a narrow range of flavors.

Read the full article

Just Say No to Antibacterial Soaps

hand-sanitizer-children-schooljpg-fb88b109e3996591 We are approaching flu season and there's one scene that's becoming more and more common: people and parents dousing themselves and their children with antibacterial soaps. But this aggressive tactic may actually be causing more harm than good. That's because antibacterial soaps, much like antibiotics, don't discriminate between good and bad bacteria — they just obliterate them all. And without the good bacteria protecting us, we may be more likely to get sick in the first place.

The trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies are called the microbiome — research into the microbiome is hot right now with new and exciting studies regularly making headlines. The microbiome makes our lives possible and in fact these bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by a lot — ten to one — and play a crucial role in our health. Recent research implicates a compromised microbiome in diseases and chronic conditions ranging from allergies, diabetes, and obesity, to autism, depression, and schizophrenia. And our chances of contracting flu, colds, and even being susceptible to food poisoning is likely based on the health of our microbiome. Scientists are now theorizing that the health and diversity of our gut bacteria, in particular, may be at the very root of our overall health. A recent New York Times piece looks at how our compromised microbiomes may be what's causing the modern allergy epidemic:

The prevalence of allergic disease and asthma increased between two- and threefold in the late 20th century, a mysterious trend often called the “allergy epidemic."

These days, one in five American children have a respiratory allergy like hay fever, and nearly one in 10 have asthma.

The article posits that suburban and city residents who lack exposure to the diverse bacteria found on farms suffer a damaged microbiome which compromises our bodies' ability to develop a healthy immune system, which can differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. As is the case with allergies, a less-than optimally healthy immune system can overreact to various environmental triggers. The Times article takes the reader to Amish farm country in rural Indiana where rates of allergies among children growing up on farms are significantly lower than for their city dwelling peers:

The earlier exposure begins, it seems, the greater the protection — and that includes during pregnancy. Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.

In another recent article in The New Yorker the microbiome is featured with an emphasis on mental health. The article presents recent research showing that germ-free environments lead mice to become more anxious, depressed, and hopeless. This is because much of our serotonin is produced in the gut, up to 80 percent by many accounts, and a lack of healthy and diverse bacteria in the gut interferes with serotonin production. The article also cites research that shows a lack of beneficial bacteria made mice obese and prone to diabetes. Again, what we are exposed to as babies is crucially important:

Organisms that are present when we’re two months old may have shaped our brain, but they have long since disappeared when we hit twenty or forty or sixty. Indeed, while a recent summary in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests that bowel bacteria may provide insight into “autism, schizophrenia and anxiety,” the authors also emphasize the role that timing plays in the microbiome’s influence over the developing brain.

Both of these articles and countless others point to the importance of what happens to you as a newborn baby and in utero. According to the Times article, "What happens to your mother during the nine months before your birth may affect your vulnerability to many diseases decades later, from heart disease and obesity to schizophrenia."

For those reading this, that ship has sailed — but how can you help optimize the microbiome of future generations? Short of moving to the country and taking up farming, there are several key elements. When possible, have a vaginal birth. During the baby's trip down the birth canal, he or she acquires important bacteria from the mother that is specifically tailored for the baby. Researchers have found that a mother's bacteria change during pregnancy to help provide specific protection for the newborn. A recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that infants born by cesarean lacked a specific group of bacteria found in infants delivered vaginally, even if they were breastfed. While a cesarean birth sometimes cannot be avoided, most women are able to breastfeed. This is the single most important thing a mother can do to guarantee a healthier microbiome.  Researchers found that infants who were strictly formula-fed, compared with babies that were exclusively or partially breastfed, also had significant differences in their gut bacteria. The researchers wrote:

We want parents (and physicians) to realize that their decisions regarding c-section and breastfeeding can impact their infant's gut microbiome, and this can have potentially lifelong effects on the child's health," says postdoctoral student and first author Meghan Azad, University of Alberta.

And while having babies in tow while milking cows is not possible for most city dwellers, ensuring that your baby is exposed to a variety of bacteria is possible. Beyond breastfeeding, the next most important thing is to avoid antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial products. These products kill all the bacteria wherever you put them. Parents who constantly use antibacterial soaps before touching their baby or who clean the baby's toys and clothes with antibacterial soaps are doing a major disservice to the baby and his or her microbiome.

There is also added concern over the ingredient triclosan, which is the antibacterial agent found in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies as well as toys, trash bags, kitchen utensils, and bedding. In recent animal studies, scientists have found that triclosan causes hormone-related problems including an increased risk of infertility and early puberty. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently stated that, "the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water." And the FDA is reviewing the safety of triclosan, which has existed on the market since the 1970s without adequate studies demonstrating its safety. According to an article on CBS News, "The Endocrine Society, a group of doctors and scientists who specialize in the hormone system, flagged triclosan four years ago as an ingredient that alters levels of thyroid hormones and reproductive hormones like testosterone and estrogen."

We are just beginning to understand how our overly sterile modern living environments might be causing more harm than good. Over the next several years we will likely uncover more and more evidence to prove that our war on bacteria is damaging future generations and ourselves. For now though, make it a priority to avoid all antibacterial products — including that antibacterial soap you thought would keep you and your kids from getting the flu. Good old fashion soap and water works just fine.

Photo from Cleveland.com

Vegan Foods, Diet Products, and Other Big Food Scams

Last week I did two interviews both relating to how the industrial food system loves to tell us how its products will help us lose weight and be healthier. Tuesday, I was on Chef Erica Wides' show Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to talk about vegan and vegetarian "foodiness" products, as she calls them. Wides defines foodiness as fake food, made to look like real food that often makes some kind of (false) health claim. When it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods, people often think they are eating better simply because they don't eat meat. The trouble is, people often resort to the packaged and processed versions of vegan or vegetarian food. As an example of how these foodiness products are worse than the read thing, take a look at the ingredients for two products we discussed on the show: Pizza-Pizza-Pizzaz

Toffutti Pizza:

WHEAT FLOUR (UNBLEACHED), CRUSHED TOMATOES, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, SALT, YEAST, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED (CORN), OREGANO, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC. The dairy-free cheese contains the following: WATER, EXPELLER PRESSED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, NON-GMO (TOFU, SOY PROTEIN) NON-DAIRY LACTIC ACID BLEND OF NATURAL GUMS (LOCUST BEAN, GUAR, CELLULOSE, XANTHAN AND CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC SUGAR, POTATO FLAKES, VEGETABLE MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT.

Veja-Links:

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00941_2898924704Click here to listen to the full half hour episode.

On Friday I went on Huff Post Live for a segment called "Myths and Facts about Weight Loss." I am sometimes reluctant to do these types of interviews because the focus on weight loss and obesity is a bit misguided. I think we need to focus on the consolidation of the food supply and the way in which the industrial food system is at the root of our collective health and weight problems. Which is why I always emphasize that the solution to weight loss is to eliminate industrial foods from your diet as much as possible. This perspective shifts the blame from the people stuck in an industrial food paradigm to the horribly skewed food system pumping out terrible products. The best way to do this is to emphasize the important of eating real, whole foods. So, what are real, whole foods?

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organically grown)
  • Fresh meats like beef, poultry, pork (preferably pasture-raised, if possible)
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, butter (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Herbs and spices
  • Plenty of filtered water

What's the rest of what you see on grocery store shelves, in fast-food restaurants, and on TV? Packaged and processed foods. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, I guarantee you will lose weight. But even more importantly, you are refusing to participate in an industrial food system that has proven to make people sick, devastate the environment, and exploit people, animals, and natural resources. Once you commit to taking a stand against that, the weight loss seems like an added bonus. For more, you can watch the whole interview here and the two minute version here.

FDA: Working Hard to Protect Industry
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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made two moves in recent days that seemingly address consumer concerns on some hot button issues. First, it banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) based epoxy resins in coatings for baby formula packaging. Second, it proposed a limit on how much arsenic is allowed in apple juice. Looking more closely at these decisions, however, it seems that FDA is really more interested in appeasing industry, than doing its duty to protect the public.

So what action is the FDA really taking? Due to intense consumer demand, manufacturers of infant formula packaging have already stopped using BPA. And, based on the new standard for arsenic levels, 95 percent of companies that make apple juice are already in compliance.

The FDA’s BPA ban is actually an abandonment petition coming from industry stating that it is now illegal to use BPA for those specific products—but it does not say anything about the safety of BPA.

“It is a ban but it’s a ban that was initiated by the industry,” Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, said in a recent telephone interview. “They have not taken action on the safety of BPA even though they have been pressured to. But when industry comes in and says, ‘This is no longer being sold,’ that’s an easy out for them because if industry didn’t agree and FDA tried to ban it or take action, maybe the industry would go after them.”

The FDA made a similar move last year when it banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups when nearly all U.S. manufacturers had already stopped using BPA for those products. The move was mainly said to be about “boosting consumer’s confidence.”

Both the FDA and the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, have said that the BPA ban is in response to marketplace demands, not due to safety concerns regarding the ubiquitous substance.

And there are an abundance of safety concerns regarding BPA as well as increased public awareness about the potential dangers of BPA. The American Chemistry Council has repeatedly dismissed the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that link BPA to a wide range of health concerns including various types of cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity.

In addition, a recent study published this June in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives changes our understanding of how BPA is absorbed by the body. Researchers found that BPA is absorbed under the tongue and goes directly to the bloodstream, resulting in a much higher exposure to the chemical.

Of further concern is the fact that without clear government regulations, manufacturers can replace BPA with other chemicals that may be just as harmful. (I wrote about this in a previous article for Civil Eats).

“Anything that substitutes for BPA should have to go through a screen for hormonal activity,” Hansen said. “There is a report that looks at 16 different replacements for BPA and I would suspect all of these have the same hormonal activity.”

Hansen was more optimistic about the FDA’s new federal limits on arsenic in apple juice. The new regulation says that apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could be removed from the market and companies could face legal action. But the FDA stressed that most companies on the market are already below that threshold.

Much of the concern around apple juice stems from a Consumer Reports finding published last year in which researchers tested 28 different apple juices bought from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Five samples of apple juice tested and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 parts per billion federal limit for bottled and drinking water, according to the report.

Consumer Reports also found high levels of lead in apple juice and grape juice as a result of insecticide use. The report also brought to light the fact that for the past decade, most concentrate has come from China (PDF) and concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there.

Hansen said the new limit is important because, for the first time, it puts a federal limit on the amount of arsenic in a juice product. But the limits don’t address the arsenic found in grape juice, nor the levels of lead in any juice products. “Yes, that is problematic,” Hansen said. “It’s good that they’ve done it for apple juice but they should be doing it in other juices as well. We found [arsenic] in grape juice and FDA’s own data has found it can show up in pear juice as well.”

While inorganic and organic arsenic are both found in these juices, it was originally thought that inorganic arsenic was of greatest concern, since it is a known carcinogen. According to the FDA, inorganic arsenic has also been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

Organic arsenic was once thought to pass through the body more quickly and not cause harm. However, the FDA now states that organic arsenic may cause harm as well. “Some organic forms can be even more toxic than the inorganic,” Hansen explained.

The arsenic found in apple juice is largely the result of years of arsenical insecticides being applied to apple orchards, Hansen said.  He added that the science on arsenic is evolving so that scientists now believe it is far more toxic than was previously thought.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wanted a limit as low as three parts per billion, but the FDA is putting that limit at 10 parts per billion, a threshold that the vast majority of manufacturers already meet.

According to an Associated Press article, “All of the experts—including the government and the consumer advocates—agree that drinking small amounts of apple juice isn’t harmful. The concern involves the effects of drinking large amounts of juice over long periods of time.” But for the public, that language is vague—especially for an overburdened consumer scanning labels and reading ingredients for products on grocery store shelves.

Furthermore, a new study found that the combined effect of estrogen and arsenic significantly increases the risk of prostate cancer. BPA is one of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals in our food supply that has an estrogen-like effect in the body. Therefore, it is possible, that within that plastic bottle of apple juice is a potent concoction of chemicals that may lead to prostate and other forms of cancer.

Ultimately, the public is left with many questions regarding the safety of foods, beverages, and packaging—all of which the FDA is supposed to screen. According to the FDA’s Web site, its designated role is “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality…of most of our nation’s food supply…”

What will it take for the FDA to do its job and protect the American people? So far it seems that public and consumer pressure haven’t been enough. The FDA has yet to respond to the two million comments on the petition to stop the approval of genetically engineered salmon or the one million comments on labeling genetically modified foods.

As is the case with the latest BPA ban and proposed limits to arsenic in apple juice, the public is left with no clear answers and no real assurance that the agency has its best interest in mind.

Photo: baby drinking formula, by Shutterstock

This article also appeared on Civil Eats

All Calories Are Not the Same -- WATCH: TED Talk

[ted id=1774] In this compelling TED talk, Dr. Peter Attia says that insulin resistance and diabetes cause obesity — not the other way around as the conventional wisdom holds. More importantly, he says it's the refined grains, starches, and sugars in our diets that cause insulin resistance in the first place. Meaning, it's not how much we eat but what we eat -- more proof for the argument that all calories are not the same, contrary to what the food industry wants us to believe. It won't be long before Big Food will have to acknowledge the science and take responsibility for its poor quality food products, rather than insisting that all calories are the same and scolding Americans to simply "eat less and exercise more." Dr. Attia says that obesity is really just a proxy for the underlying illness that is insulin resistance. He says that by blaming the obese, we are blaming the victims in a food system gone awry. Our processed food supply — which is heavily reliant on refined grains and sugars — is the real culprit here.

Bloomberg's No Beyoncé: The Real Dilemmas with the Soda Ban
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The Bloomberg administration is back in court three months after a state court judge barred New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to create a city-wide ban on sugary beverages over 16 ounces. Reports of the latest court proceedings say that the judges were more sympathetic to lawyers from the American Beverage Association than to those from the Department of Health. Marion Nestle agrees and writes that, “the judges were much tougher on the DOH attorney than on the one from the ABA.”

Perhaps this is because the ABA has swayed public opinion so thoroughly in its opposition of the soda ban with its insidious and seemingly grassroots campaign, “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.” This organization says it represents New Yorkers, businesses, and community organizers but is in fact a creation of the beverage industry itself. By using the language of “choice” the industry has persuaded many New Yorkers that by defending the billion-dollar beverage industry, they are in fact, standing up to elites like Bloomberg as well as protecting their civil liberties. Last July, paid canvassers hired by the beverage industry stopped New Yorkers on the street to sign petitions. So far, more than half a million people and businesses have signed on to protect New Yorker’s freedom to choose what size sugary beverage to buy.

Public opinion was also swayed back in January, when the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation sided with the beverage industry and opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s ban. This move brought the issues of race, class, choice, and agency to the fore in a debate seemingly about the prevalence of sugary drinks and their connection to the rates of diet-related disease and obesity. The ensuing conversation has shed light on the vast chasms across racial and class lines when it comes to reforming our food system and regulating our food industry.

The proposed soda ban highlights one crucial tenet about Americans: We do not like being told what to do. Rather, we prefer to be seduced by slick marketing and sexy ad campaigns. This way, it’s as if we have chosen one particular product based on a sense of self-identification — the ultimate goal of advertisers and corporations. The most obvious recent example of this is the marketing confluence of Beyoncé and Pepsi. Here we have the glamorous (svelte and healthy) mega pop star hawking a product that we know leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.

Of course, Beyoncé is only one in a long list of celebrities that shill for these beverage corporations: Elton John, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Madonna, LeBron James and Sofía Vergara are among the many others. Our American obsession with fame and wealth is partially why these endorsements work so well; the other part has to do with this concept of choice; after all, Pepsi’s tag line has long been, “The choice of a new generation.”

The question of choice is a sticky one in this soda ban debate since the billion dollar advertising industry has led Americans to believe they have unlimited choices when it comes to food and drink. Most Americans scoff at the idea of their “choices” actually being dictated to them by some outside force; but the reality is that we actually don’t have unlimited choices when it comes to our food. In fact, most options on grocery store shelves boil down to choosing products from roughly a handful of large corporations, often made using the same ingredients — corn and soy. Four companies make 75 percent of breakfast cereals and snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of all ice cream. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of all beef and control 70 percent of all milk sales.

Bloomberg can certainly wield great power with the soda ban, causing critics to cry overreach and nanny-state — but what about these corporations? And the billion dollar advertising industry? The difference is in the presentation: Bloomberg is no Beyoncé. When Beyoncé tells us what to drink we listen; when Bloomberg does, there’s outrage.

It’s worth asking the NAACP and Hispanic Federation why they don’t oppose Beyoncé’s marketing of Pepsi when we know that diabetes rates are 77 percent higher among African Americans and 66 percent higher among Latinos than their white peers. It’s been widely reported that both organizations receive funding from Big Beverage corporations, and thus opposing them has become too risky. As Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a New York Times article, “Their opposition makes the battles harder. It gives credibility to the industry’s arguments, which are typically self-serving.”

These organizations argue that the ban will unfairly harm bodega or other small business owners, which has validity since the ban seems arbitrary in its application. Why is a 20-ounce Frappuccino from Starbucks, with a whopping 79 grams of sugar, exempt from this ban simply because it contains dairy? By comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of Coke contains 65 grams of sugar and is not exempt. This example highlights two key contradictions: Large corporate stores won’t suffer financially from the ban; and there is an air of class discrimination between the people who typically buy these beverages.

Ben Jealous, NAACP President and CEO, has said that the organization would support a comprehensive ban. “This is the troubling part: this ‘ban’ wouldn’t have been a ban at all, in that it would have stopped it from the mom and pop shops, it wouldn’t have stopped it at 7-Eleven,” Jealous said on the Chris Hayes show. “How are you banning soda if you’re not banning ‘Big Gulps’?”

Bloomberg’s soda ban, while perhaps a step in the right direction, is akin to a band-aid on the big gaping wound that is our inequitable food system. The opposition to the ban by the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation shines a spotlight on that wound.

Public opinion is a powerful tool and the beverage industry is pushing all the right buttons to sway New Yorkers into siding with an industry that causes demonstrable harm to our health. If the judges agree that the ban is encroaching on our “freedom to choose,” then they too are missing the bigger picture.

But perhaps the most salient lesson to come out of this debate is just how limited changes to the food system will be if we do not address class and racial inequality. The claims of paternalism against Bloomberg’s ban are valid — the very concept of the ban implies that certain people are not capable of making good decisions on their own and strips them of agency. The trick is that the corporations are playing the same game. They aren’t giving consumers any more credit than Bloomberg is — they just make it so that when they tell us what to do, it’s a whole lot more sexy.

Pay People to Cook at Home

THE home-cooked family meal is often lauded as the solution for problems ranging from obesity to deteriorating health to a decline in civility and morals. Using whole foods to prepare meals without additives and chemicals is the holy grail for today’s advocates of better eating.

But how do we get there? For many of us, whether we are full-time workers or full-time parents, this home-cooked meal is a fantasy removed from the reality of everyday life. And so Americans continue to rely on highly processed and refined foods that are harmful to their health.

Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans. It makes it easier for the industry to sell its products as real American food, with real American sensibilities — namely, affordability and convenience.

I believe the solution to getting people into the kitchen exists in a long-forgotten proposal. In the 1960s and ’70s, when American feminists were fighting to get women out of the house and into the workplace, there was another feminist arguing for something else. Selma James, a labor organizer from Brooklyn, pushed the idea of wages for housework. Ms. James, who worked in a factory as a young woman and later became a housewife and a mother, argued that household work was essential to the American economy and wondered why women weren’t being paid for it. As Ms. James and a colleague wrote in 1972, “Where women are concerned their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital.”

Radio Show: Let's Get Real - Omega 3's Come From Fish, Not Cookies

splash3.1 Listen to my guest appearance on the radio show, Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network. Chef Erica Wides and I talk about a favorite creation by the food industry, "functional foods."

Here's how the show's producer describes it:

Today's Let's Get Real is all about fake food nutrition- stuff like enhanced peanut butter & low-fat dairy. Well, Erica Wides is here to tell you that these products are not food! Joining Erica in the studio is nutrition educator, Kristin Wartman, and she's on the show to debunk the mythology of foodiness nutrition. Learn about the differences between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and why skim milk cannot be considered a whole food. Hear about some food products that are some of the biggest culprits of false foodiness nutrition!

Click below for the archived show:

http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/3443-Let-s-Get-Real-Episode-53-Omega-3-s-Come-From-Fish-Not-Cookies
Jane Brody Gets It (Really) Wrong "Debunking" Health Myths
Beef and chicken log glued together with transglutaminase (meat glue.)

Jane Brody, a long-time health columnist for The New York Times, has undoubtedly written great columns over the years, but her most recent one, published on December 31, 2012, was not one of them. In fact, this column, which claims to debunk health myths, is one of the most misinformed columns on health, nutrition and the environment to be published recently in the Times, filled with factual errors as well as outdated nutrition information. The piece warrants a detailed rebuttal, because so many people turn to the Times and to Brody for health advice and this time she was way off the mark. The impetus for the piece, Brody says, is that we should, “start the new year on scientifically sound footing by addressing some nutritional falsehoods that circulate widely in cyberspace, locker rooms, supermarkets and health food stores.” This made it all more the disturbing to read a list of health myths she’s allegedly debunking. Instead, Brody reinforces some old myths and creates some new ones along the way.

A few sentences into the piece she writes, “when did ‘chemical’ become a dirty word?” quoting Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal. This should immediately raise a red flag to anyone familiar with this common refrain touted by spokespeople for Big Ag and Big Food. Sure, chemicals are everywhere, and are the basis of even the most pure and natural food, but when most people refer to chemicals in their food it usually means they are concerned with synthetic chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, or as highly processed ingredients that end up in food products. Brody goes on to say that Schwarcz is “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds.”

It turns out, Schwarcz heads the research office at McGill that is officially listed as a resource institution affiliated with The Council for Biotechnology. This group, according to its website, “communicates science-based information about the benefits and safety of agricultural biotechnology and its contributions to a sustainable food chain. Its members are the leading agricultural biotechnology companies.” Which biotech companies? Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta, among others, all of which are responsible for the development and sale of the aforementioned synthetic chemicals that many Americans are trying to avoid in their diets. Despite this fact, Brody urges her readers to use Schwarcz’s tips and “make wiser choices about what does, and does not, pass your lips in 2013.”

So what are Schwarcz’s and Brody’s tips? She begins her “debunking” with cured meats, claiming that organic or not, cured meats should be avoided. But cured meats, sourced sustainably and preferably locally, can certainly be part of healthy diet — they are a traditional food that humans have been eating for thousands of years. Prior to refrigeration, we cured meats to keep them from spoiling. Modern cured meats have been vilified for containing nitrosamines, which have produced mutations in cells cultured in the laboratory and cancer in animals treated with very high doses.

While I agree that the nitrosamines (also called nitrates or nitrites) present may cause problems when consumed in very high amounts, Brody writes them off for another reason: Their high saturated fat and salt content. But, as I’ve written before, fatty meats from pastured, organically raised animals are not a health hazard. In fact, it appears that fat from these animals has beneficial and health promoting effects. Further, the scientific data does not support the claim that saturated fat is harmful to our health. (For more on fat see this article I wrote, or read this article by Gary Taubes.)

As for the issue of salt: There is no doubt that a diet high in processed foods throws our sodium and potassium balance out of whack, but eating salty foods is not necessarily bad, especially if you also eat plenty of vegetables and other foods high in potassium. The research on eating a low-salt diet, which has also become dietary dogma much like the low-fat campaign, also appears to be based on little real science. (For more on salt, see my article, or read this article from Gary Taubes.)

Brody then moves on to meat glue. You may remember this scandal last year; there was concern that lesser cuts of meat were being glued together with this substance and unsuspecting consumers were eating it. Aside from the questionable practice of misrepresenting the quality of the meat being sold, this presents a food safety issue since various cuts of meat can be glued together affecting how the meat cooks and whether or not bacteria on the glued surfaces of the meat is killed during cooking.

Meat glue is an enzyme called transglutaminase. The company that produces transglutaminase, Ajinomoto, also produces aspartame and MSG. In spite of its being sold for human consumption, there isn’t much research on tranglutaminase so we don’t really know its effects. However, Brody implies its safety since the famous chef Wylie Dufresne uses it in his cooking. She then goes on to say that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), “and there is no reason to think otherwise.”

But getting something listed as GRAS is hardly a rigorous scientific process. For another piece, I interviewed Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union who told me that he had little faith in the GRAS designation since makers of products can voluntarily register their own product as GRAS and the FDA will often approve them without any real oversight or safety testing.

Next up, trans fats. I thought most health practitioners, writers, and scientists all agreed that trans fats are bad for us and should not be used for cooking or added to processed foods. But not so for Schwarcz and Brody. Brody mentions conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a naturally occurring trans fat that is present in grass-fed milk and meat in relatively high amounts. It is in fact, very healthful and has been shown to help in burning fat and building muscle. Brody gets this right, but then says that certain trans fats can be “legally, and healthfully added to dairy products, meal-replacement bars, soy milk and fruit juice.

To be clear: You cannot eat an extracted or synthetic element of a whole food and expect to get the same health benefit as you would from eating the food itself. Vitamins, minerals, fats, and all nutrients exist within the matrix of a food; there are synergistic factors involved when eating a whole food that cannot be replicated in a lab. This is always true, which is why “functional foods” are nothing more than a marketing scheme (see Pepsi with added fiber or orange juice with omega-3 fatty acids.).

And then, perhaps the worst offense of all, Brody defends genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the basis of their potential health benefits, while also minimizing the importance of growing foods organically. She writes, “Organic producers disavow genetic modification, which can be used to improve a crop’s nutritional content, enhance resistance to pests and diminish its need for water.” This reads like a press release written by Monsanto and ignores all the evidence that shows GMO crops are actually causing super pests, super weeds, and increasing the need for pesticides — hardly a recipe for better nutrition and health. Brody in a reference to the infamous Stanford study (Stanford, it turns out, has funding ties to the agricultural giant Cargill) says that while organic foods are not likely to be more nutritious, they are kinder to the environment. This begs the question: When will we stop separating human health from the health of our environment?

Finally, Brody jumps on another topic that I thought most health advocates also agreed upon: The problems with farmed salmon. It’s hard to tell exactly what Brody thinks about it, she seems to defend it while also pointing out some of its flaws. She writes, “There may be legitimate concerns about possible pollutants in farmed salmon.” May be? Possible pollutants? The Environmental Working Group found that farmed salmon is contaminated with five times the amount of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) than its wild counterpart and contains more than 100 other pollutants and pesticides. The report by EWG states that “frequent farmed salmon eaters may exceed government health limits for these pollutants, which are linked to immune system damage, fetal brain damage, and cancer.”

The National Academy of Sciences recommends that the government focus on reducing exposures of PCBs for girls and young women in the years well before pregnancy, since some PCBs are linked to brain damage and immune deficiencies for exposures in utero and in early childhood. I’d say these are some “legitimate concerns.” Farmed salmon is also highly problematic for the health of our oceans. Farmed salmon are raised in highly concentrated pens, much like a factory feedlot for beef, pork, or poultry. Feed waste in these pens contains pesticides and antibiotics as well as fish excrement which amass on the ocean floor. It is then swept out into the ocean by currents and creates destructive plankton blooms and destroys shellfish and other sea life.

Color options for dying farmed salmon

Brody goes on to say that the dye used to color farmed salmon pink is a “nonissue.” I wouldn’t call it that — some fish farmers use astaxanthin, a pigment and antioxidant that is found naturally in algae, as Brody points out — but others use an artificial, petrochemical-based dye. The dye fed to farmed salmon is only a nonissue since there is simply no good reason to eat farmed salmon in the first place. Plus, farmed salmon would be a dull grey color if it weren’t for the dye — anytime you have to dye a food to make it look appetizing, you shouldn’t be eating it.

Brody ends on a strong note, however, with her advice to eat nuts since they are “heart-healthy.” This is correct but it’s not because the fat in them is unsaturated, which she says —it’s because they are an unadulterated, whole food. It’s a shame that she didn’t apply this common sense knowledge to the rest of her column.

With all the nutrition misinformation out there, one would expect Jane Brody and The New York Times to be more careful about relying on an “expert source” with ties to the biggest agricultural and food companies in the world to debunk health myths. These corporations have a vested interest in keeping the public confused about what constitutes a healthy diet because their products do not meet any kind of criteria for human health or the health of our environment. Only a misinformed and confused public will continue to buy and consume foods that are sabotaging their health and the health of the planet — unfortunately, Brody’s latest column only adds to this disturbing trend.

The One-Two Punch: Big Food Gets Kids Hooked Early and Often

If we knew that there was epidemic among our children that would cause them to die at increasingly younger ages and if we also knew that this disease was entirely preventable, wouldn't we do everything in our power to eradicate it?

In fact, we do have an epidemic and it's largely driven by our reliance on highly processed, cheap convenience foods. The United States is hardly alone on this front, but our food culture is distinct from most other industrialized nations in a crucially important way -- we have virtually no regulation for advertising food and drink and we require very little in the way of labeling.

In a few weeks, Californians will decide if genetically modified foods (GMOs) should be labeled. Labeling GMOs will force greater transparency on the part of food producers and it represents a potential shift for consumers to regain a measure of control over their own food. But the US will still lag far behind many European countries, which not only have been labeling GMO foods for years but in some cases, also require warning labels for junk foods and have strict regulations on the types of foods and beverages advertised, particularly to children.

There's good reason for this. Studies show that Big Food corporations aggressively market unhealthy foods to children and in some cases children exhibit "brand recognition" and brand loyalty before they can even speak. A forthcoming study in the journal Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, found that toddlers identify the golden arches for McDonald's before they even know the letter M. After looking at more than 100 brands, researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and University of Kansas Medical Center study found that children are more likely to choose foods with familiar logos and that the majority of these foods are high in sugars, fat and sodium. Even more alarming, researchers found that seeing an advertised logo trips the pleasure and reward regions of children's brains -- areas of the brain that are also implicated in obesity and various types of addiction, including drug abuse, researcher Dr. Amanda Bruce said.

Another recent study suggests that highly processed foods are addictive. Researchers in the journal Current Biology report that when they fed M&M candies to hungry rats, their levels of enkephalin (an opiod with similar effects to other drugs in this class) increased. The more the rats' enkephalin went up, the faster they ate the M&Ms. The researchers reported that the rats would not stop eating the M&Ms until the candies were taken away.

But that's not all -- the food industry is actively shaping the palates of our children. While the food industry insists that it only advertises to children "to influence brand preference," a study published in the journal Appetite found that the industry works to "fundamentally change children's taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods." This study dovetails with Dr. Bruce's findings since researchers found that the awareness of fast food brands was a significant predictor of what they call the "Sugar-Fat-Salty" palate preference in children.

Data is also surfacing that obese children are less sensitive to taste. Researchers in Germany found that on the intensity scale, obese children rated all flavor concentrations lower than did those in the normal-weight group. They believe this may be due to the fact that leptin, the hormone that regulates appetite and makes us feel full, might also affect the sensitivity of taste buds. It is suspected that people who are obese or overweight are resistant to leptin, making them feel hungrier and driving them to eat more.

Not only does obesity or overweight affect taste, but it also affects memory and learning. A study in Pediatrics found that teenagers with metabolic syndrome (a precursor to diabetes, which includes having high blood levels of glucose, low levels of "good" cholesterol, high triglycerides, abdominal obesity and high blood pressure) had lower scores on tests of mental ability and significantly lower academic performance in reading and arithmetic. MRI scans of these children also showed reduced volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in forming and storing memories.

The picture emerging from these recent findings is that children are becoming hooked on highly processed foods at a very young age. This changes their palate preferences for salty, fatty, sweet foods, leads to weight gain and metabolic syndrome, affects brain processes -- and ultimately, perpetuates a vicious cycle.

So what is to be done? European countries, which have lower rates of obesity and diet-related disease, provide some answers. In 2007, the French government ordered all food advertisements to carry warning labels urging consumers to stop snacking, exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables. The warning label also reads, "Consuming these foods may be harmful to your health." In Sweden and Norway, all food and beverage advertising to children is forbidden. In Ireland, there is a ban on TV ads for candy and fast food and the ban prohibits using celebrities to promote junk food to kids.

It's time for American politicians to address the lack of regulation for Big Food and the advertising industry. We now have the science to prove that the content of highly processed foods coupled with the marketing of them to children and toddlers is amounting to a national health crisis.

Over the past 15 years, the percentage of new cases of Type 2 diabetes, formerly known as adult-onset, has skyrocketed among children -- from three to 50 percent. Approximately 12.5 million of children and adolescents aged two to 9 years are obese and since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.

Diabetes, along with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease are becoming shockingly common in children and adolescents. We know these conditions arise primarily from poor diets and are driven by our consumption of ultra-processed foods.

A startling USDA report from 2006 states that since the percentage of children who are overweight has doubled and the percentage of adolescents who are overweight has more than tripled, "If we do not stem this tide, many children in this generation of children will not outlive their parents." To put that another way: If trends don't change, the surge in diet related disease among children means that many parents will watch their children die. That was the prediction from experts six years ago and we have yet to see any substantive action from Washington.

Our leaders must get tough on these corporations and stop insisting that it comes down to choice and personal responsibility. This is a myth perpetuated by the food and advertising industries so they can continue to harm our children and threaten the health of our nation with impunity. In what other circumstance would we allow an epidemic of such grave proportions debilitate our children unchecked? We've long been looking for the smoking gun — it seems we've found it.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Image: FastFoodHealth.org via Babble.com

Radio Interview: New Thinking On Weight Control

My latest radio interview with Dr. Robert Zieve on Healthy Medicine Radio. We discuss deceptive marketing by Big Food corporations, how a 'calorie isn't a calorie' and how obesity could be caused by malnutrition.

Healthy Medicine #143: New Thinking on Weight Control

Dr Zieve talks with author Kristin Wartman about how much obesity could be caused by malnutrition and her article "The Obesity Paradox."

http://healthymedicine.org/html/popups/hmr1-143.html

Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray

"All natural." "Farm-fresh." "Cage-free." Thanks to phrases such as these, consumer confusion is common when it comes to understanding and buying food. The battle raging in California over the labeling of genetically modified foods illustrates just how much labels do indeed matter -- to consumers as well as to corporations. The recent paper by Stanford researchers claims that organically grown foods are no better for our health than conventionally grown foods, further complicating the debate over which labels can and cannot be trusted. Headlines about the report seek to simplify: A New York Times headline read, "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce;" CBS News claimed, "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests."

Others have already pointed out that organic food is about more than just nutrition, but it's worth mentioning that there are many compelling reasons to buy organic that go beyond one's personal health, including:

• minimizing pollution, • reducing harm to farm workers and • reducing the public health risk posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Further, the study did note one major personal health reason for supporting organic: limiting one's ingestion of pesticides. But the paper's key finding -- at least, as reported by the mainstream media -- is that organic foods do not contain significantly higher levels of nutrients than conventional foods, and that's what made the headlines.

While the analysis by the Stanford researchers seems fairly conclusive, the implications of its findings are actually extremely narrow given the infinite variety in agricultural practices. The range of products produced under an organic label range from those produced on an "industrial-organic" scale to those produced by small and mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA's standards with their methods.

At one end of this scale are companies like Horizon Organic, which sells USDA-certified organic milk. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, the sixth largest food company in North America. Large food corporations of this scale wield immense power to influence organic standards. Walmart, which sells the Horizon brand and is the largest retailer of organic milk in the country, has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the use of the word organic on various product labels and in the case of Horizon's organic milk, whistleblowers found it was actually being produced in large-scale factory farms without adhering to organic standards, like access to pasture. Instead, the Cornucopia Institute found that Dean Foods was confining as many as 10,000 cows to large buildings and feedlots and operating "phony 'organic' feedlot operations."

On the other end of the scale are small-scale, grass-based farms -- some certified organic and some not. In a recent report put out by Compassion in World Farming vast differences in nutrient value were found in animals raised in "higher-welfare" settings (on pasture, with space to graze and forage for their natural grass diets) versus those raised in intensive confined, "lower-welfare" settings (in confined feedlots, eating diets designed to pack on weight as fast as possible, including grain and daily doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics). One key finding was that the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in milk from pasture-based systems was between 53 and 184 percent higher than the milk from animals raised in confined, intensive settings. The report also found higher amounts of vitamin E and beta-carotene in milk from pasture-based systems versus conventional ones.

In terms of organic versus non-organic meat, the Stanford paper says that there is no difference in nutrition between the two. Again, research has shown that there are significant differences when it comes to pasture-raised meats. A report put out by Animal Welfare Approved states that ruminants raised on pasture alone have milk and meat that contains three to five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Various studies have shown that CLA is protective against cancer, can lower levels of LDL cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis and reduces blood pressure. The Compassion in World Farming report found that pasture-raised beef has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids and a more favorable (lower) ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively-raised beef. The report also states that pasture-raised beef contains more vitamin E and beta-carotene than conventionally produced beef.

Just as the quality of animal products depends largely on what the animals were fed, the nutrition content of vegetables is dependent on the quality of the soil in which they were grown. Vegetables grown in mineral-rich, healthy soil (that hasn't been depleted by chemical fertilizers, lack of biodiversity and little to no crop rotation) have been found to be far more nutritious than vegetables grown on monocropped, intensive farms. Various studies have shown that the nutrient density of vegetables, including many crucial vitamins and antioxidants, have dramatically decreased over the years with soil depletion due to industrial farming methods. Again, the Stanford paper does not discern between vegetables grown on an industrial-organic scale versus those grown on biodiverse, multi-crop farms.

Eric Herm, an author and cotton farmer in Ackerly, Tex. explained how significant he believes the difference is between produce grown on the industrial organic scale versus produce grown on biodiverse farms. "What I've seen over the years, is that crop rotation is not only the key to healthy soil, it is vital in the long term health of all living creatures. There is far more microbial activity, plants are healthier and more resistant to disease, drought and insect damage," he wrote in an email. "The soil feeds the plants that feeds us. Sick or weak soil will grow weaker plants with less fruit and vitality. The healthier the soil, the more vitality within the plant and the fruit it produces, therefore giving us more vitality. It's common sense really. Organic monocropping will not have the long-term benefits of a diverse farming operation."

Farmer Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics farm, a multi-crop farm in New Paltz, N.Y. agrees. "I definitely think there is a difference in what I grow compared with industrial organic. To me these two things are nothing alike. There is no holistic approach to industrial organic -- it is all about yield, yield, yield," she wrote in an email. "They do whatever it takes to get the most out of any given crop. Large scale organic is much the same as conventional agriculture in that it is all numbers -- get the most yield in the fewest days."

Given the wide-range in practices that can be lumped under the term "organic" and the fact that the bulk of organic foods bought and sold in America come from systems that are more accurately described as "industrial organic" the true impact of the Stanford findings becomes less apparent.

Recent events in California's fight over the labeling of genetically modified foods would indicate that the companies that sell industrially-produced organics do not necessarily support the ideals their customers do: the largest organic food brands in the country, including Kashi, Cascadian Farm and Horizon Organic have joined the anti-labeling effort, contributing millions of dollars to defeat the ballot initiative, Proposition 37. The parent companies to these organic brands are Kellogg Company, General Mills and Dean Foods, respectively.

"It's ironic this [Stanford] study is coming out of California, where food companies have spent more than $25 million this year trying to battle Prop 37 and prevent the labeling of GMOs in the state of California," Herm wrote.

Labels do matter -- and what the Stanford analysis brings to the fore is the need for deeper, more comprehensive studies on the infinite shades of gray when it comes to agricultural practices. Are we satisfied to continue lumping foods under two simplistic categories -- organic or conventional? With Big Food corporations now heavily invested in organic foods, what does the organic label actually mean? As producers, consumers and advocates this paper should push us to have conversations that are not so black and white.

Originally published on Ecocentric

Sunny Side-Up: In Defense of Eggs

Also published in The Atlantic

What is the most heart-healthy diet? The answer to this much-debated question just became more controversial after a study in the forthcoming issue of Atherosclerosis reported that egg yolks are nearly as bad for your arteries as cigarette smoke. After years relegated to the do-not-eat list for fear of cholesterol-raising effects, the humble egg was finally making its way back into mainstream acceptance as a heart-healthy food full of healthy fats and protein. But it appears this latest study may indeed send us back to the days of egg-white omelets and Egg Beaters.

The study's authors surveyed more than 1,200 men and women, with an average age of 61.5, who were attending vascular prevention clinics. The author's claim that regular consumption of egg yolks is about two-thirds as bad as smoking when it comes to increased build-up of carotid plaque, a risk factor for stroke and heart attack.

But many believe there are issues with this study's methodology as well as the way the authors drew their conclusion. First, the study was based on recall questionnaires, which are notoriously unreliable. More importantly, the authors singled out one food from the patients' diets and determined this caused the trend towards atherosclerosis. They could have picked another food at random -- say the toast eaten with the eggs -- and drawn an associative relationship between toast and atherosclerosis.

"I think it's dangerous to look at just one food and deduce that the trend you see is caused by that food," MIT researcher and senior scientist Stephanie Seneff wrote to me in an email regarding the study.

Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, also wrote to me in an email, "[The study] did not measure or control other aspects of diet such as intakes of meats, fruits, or vegetables and did not control for lifestyle factors such as physical inactivity. The data could be useful for generating some hypotheses, but it is difficult to draw any causal conclusions."

Despite these flaws, the damage to the reputation of egg yolks may already be done. "It's very worrisome that these authors of the egg-yolk-is-bad article have managed to come up with a fairly simple and relatively compelling story which will scare a lot of people away from eating egg yolks," Seneff said.

The study has potentially serious consequences for people trying to improve their health and reduce their risk of stroke and heart disease -- and that's because most people should be eating more eggs, and particularly the yolks, not fewer. That's what Seneff told me in a recent phone interview. She and her team at MIT are working on some compelling new research about the role of dietary fat and cholesterol and our health. Her research is so counter to the current dietary dogma that it sounds shocking at first: Seneff believes that Americans are actually suffering from a cholesterol deficiency rather than excess. She's concerned that studies like these only serve to confuse the public more about the role of dietary cholesterol. Seneff believes that cholesterol has been wrongly vilified and in fact, foods that contain high amounts of cholesterol -- like egg yolks and other animal proteins -- are key to improving heart health, maintaining a healthy weight, and staving off many diet-related diseases.

Of course, not everyone agrees. There are conflicting studies to show that dietary cholesterol both does and does not affect our blood levels of cholesterol. "Much of the cholesterol in the blood is produced endogenously," Hu wrote. "However, dietary factors (fats and cholesterol) can influence serum cholesterol levels." An article about eggs on the Harvard School of Public Health's website reads, "While it's true that egg yolks have a lot of cholesterol -- and so may weakly affect blood cholesterol levels -- eggs also contain nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, and folate."

The picture becomes even more complicated because elevated cholesterol levels do not necessarily mean one is at greater risk for a heart attack. More than 60 percent of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels and the majority of people with high cholesterol never suffer heart attacks. Many studies now show that high LDL (the so-called "bad cholesterol") and heart disease are not linked. In 2005, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons reported that as many as half of the people who have heart disease have normal or desirable levels of LDL. Also in 2005, researchers found that older men and women with high LDL live longer.

Dr. J. David Spence, the first author of the egg yolk study and professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University, told me in an interview that serum cholesterol is "not the be all, end all of vascular risk." He's more concerned about what happens to our cholesterol levels after we consume cholesterol-containing foods, rather than our fasting cholesterol levels, which is what's checked at the doctor's office. "Egg yolks only raise fasting cholesterol by about ten percent," he said. "But four hours after you eat a high cholesterol meal you get inflammation in the arteries, there's increased oxidative stress, the increase in oxidized LDL cholesterol--which is the most harmful form or cholesterol -- is almost 40 percent, and you have impairment of the function of the artery lining."

Spence is concerned that people do not know just how much cholesterol is in one egg yolk. "For people who are at high risk for heart attacks and strokes the recommended amount of cholesterol is below 200 mg a day and one large egg yolk has 210 mg of cholesterol--there is more cholesterol in one egg yolk than the total recommended daily intake of cholesterol," he said. "To put that in perspective, one egg yolk has more cholesterol than a Hardee's Monster Thickburger which contains 12 ounces of beef, three slices of cheese, and four slices of bacon. I know the burger is worse than the egg because it also has saturated fat but the cholesterol per se is harmful and in fact, cholesterol is permissive of the harmful effects of saturated fats."

As such, Spence recommends switching to egg whites or to egg-substitutes and eating a diet that is low in animal fats and low in cholesterol. "I tell my patients to learn how to make a nice tasty omelet or frittata with egg whites, or--what I like even better--is a carton of scrambled eggs with no cholesterol. They're called Egg Beaters, or Better-n-Eggs," Spence said.

Better-n-Eggs is an egg substitute product that contains 98 percent egg whites and includes these additional ingredients: corn oil, water, natural flavors, sodium hexametaphosphate, guar gum, xanthan gum, color (includes beta carotene).

Is Spence concerned about the various additives and the processing that goes into these types of products? "No. I'm more concerned about the cholesterol in eggs."

It's worth pointing out that many of the nutrients found in eggs are found in the yolk. Among many other nutrients, egg yolk contains lecithin, which helps the body digest fat and metabolize cholesterol; betaine and choline which lower homocysteine levels; glutathione, which helps fight cancer and prevents oxidation of LDL; lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to prevent colon cancer; and biotin, a B vitamin crucial for healthy hair, skin, and nerves.

I asked Spence what he thought about the various nutrients found in egg yolks -- if we eliminate eggs from our diets won't we be missing out on these nutrients? "Oh come on," he said. "You can get those nutrients a lot safer if you eat them in other foods that aren't loaded with cholesterol. There are no nutrients in the egg yolk that you need."

The MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff would beg to differ. In fact, research she is currently working on shows that one crucial nutrient -- sulfur, which egg yolks contain in very high amounts -- may be the underlying deficiency to our collective problems with cholesterol and heart disease. "The key to everything may just be sulfur," Seneff says.

Sulfur is a mineral found in several foods, including vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and kale. It is also found in very large amounts in animal proteins -- one of the best-known sources is egg yolk. When sulfur combines with four oxygen molecules, it becomes sulfate. Sulfate is combined with cholesterol to produce cholesterol sulfate in large amounts when our skin is exposed to sunlight as well. Sulfation is important to enable cholesterol transport to all the tissues.

The research Seneff and her team are working on is a complete reevaluation of our understanding of cholesterol and its role. It's a fairly complex biological process but put simply, Seneff believes that the build up doctors find in arteries is "cholesterol trapped in the wrong place," or cholesterol trapped in the plaque. The reason it's trapped in the plaque is because the LDL is damaged from excess sugar in the blood. As a result of our highly processed, starchy, sugary diets, many Americans have excess blood sugar. Once the sugar has damaged the LDL it cannot go back to the liver where the cholesterol would be processed and recycled back into the body. The plaque then builds up in the arteries, where it "waits for the opportunity to become cholesterol sulfate, which all of the body's systems need," Seneff says. "The bottleneck is the sulfate. Cholesterol needs sulfate to be mobile. The damage then is a consequence of lack of cholesterol and lack of sulfate."

This may be why a much larger study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found "no overall significant association between egg consumption and heart disease." In fact, the study of 118,000 people found that those who ate five or six eggs per week had significantly lower mean serum cholesterol levels than those who ate one egg per week. Plus, the daily nutrient intake of people who ate eggs was much higher than the non-egg eaters.

In the public imagination, cholesterol is the villain whose only function is to clog up arteries. "This is the complete wrong picture," Seneff says. "It's very easy to imagine plaque build up -- but it's not the correct picture. Cholesterol is vital -- it is a precious substance in our bodies. Cholesterol is to animals what chlorophyll is to plants."

Are we to increase our consumption of egg yolks as Seneff suggests or completely eliminate them as Spence advises? What we need are clear guidelines, not influenced by industry, that present a straightforward approach to weight loss and a healthy body. The simplest answer currently available is to eliminate processed foods from our diets -- the saturation of processed foods into our diets tracks most closely with the rise in obesity and diet-related disease in this country. So when presented with confusing dietary advice or questions while food shopping ask yourself this simple question: What's my least processed option? Take that one.

BPA Free Baby Bottles Now Law, But We’re Not in the Clear

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a ban on the use of bisphenol A, or BPA, in baby bottles and children’s cups. BPA is an estrogen-mimicking chemical that has been used in hard plastics, the linings of cans, food packaging, and dental fillings, among other places, for years. We’ve reported about the dangers of BPA on Civil Eats here, here, and here. This move essentially made official a practice that many manufacturers of baby bottles and cups already follow in response to growing pressure from consumers.

Questions of safety remain when it comes to the use of any plastic products that come in contact with our foods. The FDA ban is raising concern and creating headlines about what manufacturers will substitute in place of the BPA. A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that all plastics contain estrogenic activity (EA) and in some cases, those labeled “BPA free” leached more chemicals with EA than did BPA-containing products. The study’s authors write, “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free.”

EA interferes with our endocrine system, a complex signaling network that is made up of glands (the thyroid) as well as glandular tissue and cells within organs (testes, ovaries, pancreas, etc). Our endocrine systems use hormones that send signals to our various organs and tissues that work over minutes, hours, weeks, and years. The processes these hormones regulate include metabolism, growth and development, and sexual reproduction. As hormones travel in the blood to reach each body part, the specific molecular shape of each hormone fits like a key-in-a-lock into receptors on target tissues. Endocrine disrupting chemicals may interfere with, block, or mimic the action of our hormones. As a result, EA and endocrine disruptors have been linked in hundreds of studies to brain development problems, breast and prostate cancer, birth defects, learning and behavioral problems in children, early onset of puberty, and obesity.

Manufacturers are now flaunting their “BPA free” versions of products as though they are safe and free of toxins—but it turns out BPA is possibly just the tip of the iceberg. Bisphenol S, or BPS, is another chemical that manufacturers are using to replace BPA and it may be just as harmful. In a study this year in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers wrote, “As the evidence of the toxic effects of bisphenol A (BPA) grows, its application in commercial products is gradually being replaced with other related compounds, such as bisphenol S (BPS). Nevertheless, very little is known about the occurrence of BPS in the environment.”

In this study, the authors found BPS present in 16 types of paper products, including thermal receipts, paper currencies, flyers, magazines, newspapers, food contact papers, airplane luggage tags, printing paper, paper towels, and toilet paper. The thermal receipt paper samples contained concentrations of BPS that were similar to the concentrations of BPA reported earlier and raised alarm for some scientists. BPS was also detected in 87 percent of currency bill samples. The authors write that several other related compounds are also used to replace BPA: bisphenol B, bisphenol F, and bisphenol AF. BPA and BPS are found in high concentrations in canned foods, BPF has been found in surface water, sewage sludge, and sediments, and BPB was found in human serum in Italy. “Limited studies have shown that BPS, BPB, and BPF possess acute toxicity, genotoxicity, and estrogenic activity, similar to BPA,” the authors write, adding that, “The environmental biodegradation rates of BPS and BPB were similar to or less than those of BPA. Although considerable controversy still surrounds the safety of BPA, the potential for human exposure to alternatives to BPA cannot be ignored.” The researchers also note that people may be absorbing BPS in much larger doses—19 times more than the BPA they absorbed when it was more widely used.

Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in an e-mail, “There are emerging data to show that BPS is an estrogen but relatively less on the other chemicals. Therefore, it is hard to say with certainty at the moment whether the BPA replacements lack estrogenic activity. BPA free means simply that—that the product is stated to be BPA free.”

I asked Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families if she was concerned about the substitutes being used in place of BPA. “We are very concerned that BPA could be replaced with products that are just as risky, or even more risky. The federal government is not doing what is needed to protect the American public, either in their regulation of BPA or any of these potential substitutes.”

But the FDA continues to insist that BPA is still safe. In a recent New York Times article, Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods said that the agency, “has been looking hard at BPA for a long time, and based on all the evidence, we continue to support its safe use.”

Zuckerman added that part of the problem lies in the heavy influence that industry has on members of Congress and the FDA. “Whenever the FDA does something to improve patient safeguards, Members of Congress get lobbied by the industry involved and some of those Members pressure [the] FDA to back off,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This has happened for years but the last few years have been even worse than usual.”

At Mother Jones, Tom Philpott points out that the heavily monied interests behind BPA are none other than the chemical giants Dow and Bayer who produce the bulk of BPA. Frederick S. vom Saal, curators’ professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and BPA researcher told me that BPA represents a $10 billion a year industry. It’s important to note that the recent FDA ban comes at the behest of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that denies any negative health effects from BPA. Why would they have done this? “[The American Chemistry Council’s] petition to the FDA puts it plainly: ‘All Major Product Manufacturers Have Abandoned the Use of Polycarbonate’ (BPA). In other words: Go ahead and ban it—it’s already been phased out and a ban gives the appearance of strict oversight,” Philpott writes.

By creating the ban, the FDA at least acknowledges that babies and children should lessen their exposure to BPA. But what about the rest of the population? “BPA remains in millions of food and beverage containers that affect the BPA levels of pregnant women, children of all ages, and all adults,” Zuckerman wrote to me in an e-mail. “The impact on the developing fetus and young children, and on breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, are of particular concern to our Center. One study indicates that BPA may interfere with the effectiveness of chemo for breast cancer patients.”

The FDA should concede that if BPA is a risk for babies and children, it is most likely a risk to all of us. And what about the various substitutes that will be used for BPA and the numerous other toxins lurking in the plastics and other containers that package our foods and drinks? “FDA’s decision is a step in the right direction, but it is a baby step,” Zuckerman said. “They have done the minimum.” Blumberg added that the answers to all of these questions are complex. “We do not know nearly as much as we need to know,” he said. “I think that it is prudent to reduce our consumption of packaged foods of all sorts for a variety of reasons, including reducing exposure to contaminants from the containers.”

A Calorie, Is A Calorie, Is A Calorie, Or is it?

Recently, I wrote here on Civil Eats that it may not be long before the food industry will be proven wrong about their two favorite messages: All calories are created equal, and it’s all about personal responsibility. Well, it appears that science may be one step closer to proving at least half of that equation wrong and that in fact; all calories are not created equal. The latest study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this week, found that when it came to weight loss and maintaining weight loss, those who ate a low carbohydrate, high fat diet kept more weight off than those who were on either a low glycemic diet or a low fat, high carbohydrate diet.

While all participants in the study ate the same number of calories, the types consumed varied. The low fat diet contained 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 20 percent fat. The low glycemic diet contained 40 percent carbs, 40 percent fat, and 20 percent protein (with a focus on minimally processed foods). The low carb diet had 10 percent of calories from carbs, 60 percent from fat, and 30 percent from protein.

Compared to those on the low fat diet, those following the low carb diet burned 350 calories more per day and those on the low glycemic diet burned 150 calories more per day.

The most compelling part of this study is that it calls into question the long-held belief in the scientific and medical communities that all calories are created equal. This is a message the food industry has also seized on since it means they can continue to pump out ultra processed nutritionally void foods and tell Americans to “eat them in moderation.” If all calories are created equal, the food industry says, then there are no bad foods.

But this message doesn’t just come from the food industry, Marion Nestle, a long-time critic of Big Food, has spoken about calories in a similar way. She wrote on her blog that the JAMA study was too small (it had 21 participants) and that more research was needed outside of a controlled setting. She’s quoted in USA Today saying:

Longer studies conducted among people in their own environments, not with such controlled meals, have shown “little difference in weight loss and maintenance between one kind of diet and another.” More research is needed to show that interesting results like these are applicable in real life, she says. “In the meantime, if you want to lose weight, eat less.”

I disagree. As a nutrition educator, I think that telling people to “eat less” is largely ineffective and continues to place the burden on the consumer as part of the personal responsibility credo. On the other hand, telling people to eliminate processed, refined carbohydrates and sugars, while eating plenty of high quality fats, proteins, and vegetables seems to be a more workable solution to stimulating weight loss. Part of the reason this may be so effective is because simple carbohydrates and sugars actually stimulate appetite and cravings, while fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates like vegetables, beans, and legumes satiate and stabilize blood sugar.

A recent report put out by the World Public Health Nutrition Association found that processing does matter, noting that ultra processed foods are “habit-forming and some would say often at least quasi-addictive. They do displace healthy meals, dishes and foods and thus are liable to cause obesity or else at least mild malnutrition.”

The addictive factor of these foods is highly problematic and there’s evidence to suggest that eating sugar makes you crave and consume more sugar starting with our experiences as babies and even in utero (see a recent article on Gilt Taste for more on this).

And according to Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Francisco, a low carb diet or a low glycemic diet is what helps keep our insulin levels low, he believes that elevated insulin levels are at the root of obesity. “To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton: It’s the insulin, stupid. The reason any diet will work is because it lowers insulin. And a diet that doesn’t, like the traditional low-fat diet, won’t work,” he said in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that once my clients cut sugar and simple carbohydrates from their diets their cravings for these kinds of foods quickly dissipate. It’s only observational, but I see it repeatedly and so do other nutritionists and doctors I know.

Over online at The New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote about the JAMA study with a conclusive evaluation, “The message is pretty simple: unprocessed foods give you a better chance of idealizing your weight—and your health. Because all calories are not created equal.”

But there’s still no consensus among doctors, nutritionists, researchers, or writers.

The implications for coming to a scientific consensus about whether or not types of calories do matter cannot be understated since it could effect regulation for Big Food as well as the dietary recommendations from the government which translates to (among other things) what children eat in school every day. Right now, MyPlate recommends that Americans eat an average of 6.3 servings of grains a day. Even the American Diabetes Association recommends a high carbohydrate and low fat diet. But if the results from this latest study are accurate, all of these recommendations may ultimately prove harmful. Acknowledging that all calories are not created equal and that ultra processed foods are detrimental to everyone would go a long way in changing our crash course with diet related disease and death.