Posts in Parents & Children
The Bacteria Babies Need

Originally published in the New York Times June 17, 2018

 Image by Ariel Davis via the  New York Times

Image by Ariel Davis via the New York Times

We may be missing the key to one of the biggest boons to public health since the introduction of iodine into the food supply in 1924.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis, have found that a strain of bacteria called B. infantis that is thought to have been the dominant bacterium in the infant gut for all of human history is disappearing from the Western world. According to their research, this was probably caused by the rise in cesarean births, the overuse of antibiotics and the use of infant formula in place of breast milk.

Indeed, nine out of 10 American babies don’t harbor this bacterium in their gut, while researchers suspect that the majority of infants in less industrialized countries do.

Bruce German, a professor of food science and technology and one of the U.C. Davis researchers, says, “The central benefits of having a microbiota dominated by B. infantis is that it crowds all the other guys out” — especially pathogenic bacteria, which can cause both acute illnesses and chronic inflammation that leads to disease.

Read more on why infant exposure to micro-organisms is important.

Studies suggest that by the time babies without B. infantis are children, they are more likely to have allergies and Type 1 diabetes and more likely to be overweight. This change to the infant gut may be at the root of the rising prevalence of diseases and ailments, from allergies to certain cancers.

Dr. German and his colleagues learned about the missing bacterium by studying breast milk. They found that the milk contains an abundance of oligosaccharides, carbohydrates that babies are incapable of digesting. Why would they be there if babies can’t digest them?

They realized that these carbohydrates weren’t feeding the baby — they were feeding B. infantis.

What can new mothers do to ensure that their babies have this beneficial bacterium? At the moment, nothing.

If you live in the industrialized world, you probably can’t pass B. infantis on to your baby. Not even if you give birth vaginally, breast-feed exclusively and eat well.

B. infantis is not the only endangered bacterium in the West, and babies aren’t the only ones affected. By studying mice, researchers at Stanford have found that a lack of dietary fiber — which is missing from most processed foods — results in the loss of important bacterial strains.

Once these strains are gone, the only way to get them back will be to deliberately reintroduce them.

In a study funded by a company that plans to do just that, Dr. German and colleagues fed B. infantis to breast-fed babies. They found that it took over the entire lower intestine, crowding out pathogenic bacteria.

Read on how good bacteria can prevent deadly infection in babies.

Although it’s too early to know if these babies will turn out to be healthier than their peers, the hope is that the presence of B. infantis for the first year or two of life will help prevent colic, allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers later in life.

Dr. German envisions a future when it will be common for us to add the bacterium to some of our foods, much as we did with iodine.

But just inoculating babies with B. infantis won’t be enough. We should also give their mothers the opportunity to breast-feed.

The bacterium can’t survive without the carbohydrates it depends on. While companies are trying to figure out how to add oligosaccharides into infant formula, it will be very difficult to replicate the complexity and concentration of the carbohydrates that are naturally present in breast milk.

While the decision to breast-feed is often framed as a personal choice, most women have no choice. Only 15 percent of workers and 4 percent of the lowest-paid workers in the United States have access to paid family leave, which means they often can’t afford to stay home with a newborn.

Many other nations — like Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Slovakia — manage to provide working parents with more than a year’s worth of paid family leave.

We should do the same. It’s not just about better personal health, but about better public health, which has been in decline in this country for decades.

We’d also be wise to heed these findings on the microbiota as a harbinger of what’s to come. The promotion of infant formula in place of breast milk, and our reliance on processed foods into adulthood, have had some unforeseen and frightening repercussions for our health. The industrialization of our food supply is changing us from the inside out.

No One Knows Exactly How Much Herbicide Is in Your Breakfast

Originally published on VICE May 11, 2016

Last week, lawyers in New York and California initiated a class-action lawsuit against Quaker Oats for selling oatmeal labeled "100% natural," even though it contains trace amounts of the not-so-natural chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide known as Roundup. Labeling aside, the suit brings up an even bigger question: How freaked out should we be about chemicals in our breakfast?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared glyphosate "a probable human carcinogen" last year, heightening consumer concern about the use of the herbicide on our foods. Glyphosate is mixed with other chemical ingredients to make Roundup (which is manufactured by the biotech company Monsanto), and is widely used on food crops to kill unwanted weeds in agricultural production; it's also frequently used in home gardens. The IARC report pointed to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans who are occupationally exposed to the herbicide, and noted the prevalence of rare liver and kidney tumors in animals exposed to glyphosate.

Glyphosate is the most commonly used broad-spectrum herbicide in the world. Its use rose globally from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion pounds in 2014. This spike coincides with the introduction of "Roundup Ready" GMO crops, which are genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. In addition, even some non-GMO crops, including wheat, oats, barley, and beans, are sprayed with glyphosate in a practice called desiccation, which dries the crops and speeds ripening. This has prompted concern about increased residues—as has the fact that, in 2013, the EPA raised the allowable limit for glyphosate residue in food. This means there's a good chance glyphosate residue lurks in both GMO and non-GMO foods. (The use of glyphosate, as well as many other pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, are prohibited in organic farming, so certified-organic foods are likely free of these residues.)

Testing done on a sample of Quaker Oats Quick 1-Minute Oats at an independent lab and paid for by the Richman Law Group, which is representing plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, found levels of glyphosate at 1.18 parts per million. The EPA currently allows up to 30 parts per million in cereal grains. A spokesperson for Quaker Oats wrote in an emailed statement to VICE, "Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are trace amounts and significantly below any limits which have been set by the EPA as safe for human consumption." Echoing that sentiment, an EPA spokesperson, also in an emailed statement to VICE, wrote, "In setting tolerances for pesticide residues on various foods, 

EPA ensures that there will be a reasonable certainty of no harm to people when they consume food containing residues resulting from use of the pesticide."

In other words, both Quaker Oats and the EPA take the position that you should not worry about glyphosate residue in your oatmeal or elsewhere because the levels are below the threshold the EPA has set for "no harm."

Researchers cannot ethically test the effects of glyphosate in a randomized controlled experiment on humans, so instead they have to rely on animal studies as well as large-scale observational studies, in which they make associations (for instance, between farm workers with occupational exposure to glyphosate and increases in lymphoma). And given the findings so far, scientists who study environmental chemicals strongly disagree with the idea that low levels of glyphosate are harmless. Fourteen of these experts recently published a consensus statement expressing concern that the herbicide may be an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), which means it has the potential to be biologically active even in extremely low doses. (Despite this, the EPA does not consider glyphosate to be an EDC.) Thousands of separate studies on EDCs have shown that low-level exposure could have detrimental health effects—including an increased risk for certain cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, and developmental problems. This suggests that even trace amounts of chemicals like glyphosate found in oats or other foods could 

be carcinogenic or disruptive to other important biological functions. "Hormones themselves are active at parts per trillion and parts per billion levels [in our bodies]," John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at the research and policy nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, told VICE. "In the real world of biology, those levels have huge effects. Hormone-disrupting chemicals can also be biologically powerful at those doses."

Studies have shown that glyphosate may interfere with fetal development and causebirth defects, and while much is still unknown, emerging work in rodent models shows that it has effects on male reproductive development. The endocrine system is exquisitely sensitive to very low dosages of EDCs, Andrea Gore, professor and Vacek Chair of pharmacology at the University of Texas, told VICE, and this is especially true when it comes to developing fetuses, infants, and children. "Small fluctuations from the norm can change developmental processes and lead to a dysfunction at the time of exposure, or sometimes, many years after exposure," she said.

Given the research on endocrine disruption, the levels allowed by the EPA are too high, and have no basis in science, Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at UC Irvine, told VICE. "This is a political decision rather than one based on reasonable, peer-reviewed science." Blumberg is especially concerned about desiccation, which could mean there are potentially even greater 

amounts of glyphosate residue on our foods than previously accounted for. "Glyphosate and other herbicides were never intended to be used [as desiccants], and I am truly astonished that the EPA allows it absent a showing of how much glyphosate or other herbicides are present on the final product."

Another concern is that Roundup is actually a mixture of glyphosate and other potentially harmful chemicals—a combination that has never been tested. Tests are performed on glyphosate alone, a fact several scientists VICE spoke to pointed to as being a major and often overlooked concern.

"The actual product used is a mixture of chemicals, combined to increase the effectiveness of the active ingredient," Myers said. "The actual product mixture is never tested in regulatory testing. Never—even though that is what people are exposed to."

The widespread use of Roundup means there are potentially many food products—some carrying an "all-natural" label on their packaging—that also contain glyphosate residue. But consumers would have no way of knowing: Despite having a set limit for the herbicide residue in food, and despite the fact that it was introduced to our food system in 1974, the FDA has never monitored levels of glyphosate in food. 

But in February of this year, the agency announced that it would begin monitoring levels in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs. Notably absent from this list is the food in question in the lawsuit: oats. The FDA would not provide any further information about this when contacted by VICE, but a spokesperson said the agency has recently developed "streamlined methods for testing glyphosate."

There doesn't seem to be any disagreement about the presence of glyphosate in our oatmeal; Quaker Oats and the EPA admit it's there. It's likely in myriad other food products as well. And that's the deeper relevance of this lawsuit: It points to the fact that so much is unknown or undisclosed about what actually ends up in our food. Where regulatory agencies have dragged their feet, and where food manufacturers continue to make dubious claims on labels, consumers are taking matters into their own hands with class-action lawsuits—Kim Richman of Richman Law group, for instance, has also filed class action lawsuits in regard to the presence of trans fats and GMOs in foods.

R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies endocrine disruptors, said that there are several examples of how the government has failed to protect the consumer when it comes to environmental chemical exposure. He points to flame retardants and chemicals called PCBs. "We now know we exposed pregnant women and kids to these chemicals, which affected brain development—we 

have heard this story over and over again," Zoeller told VICE. "The government is using a strategy that hasn't protected people."

Everyone can agree that more research in this area is necessary; the EPA is currently reviewing last year's IARC findings. The real question is, will glyphosate prove to be another notorious environmental chemical that we'll later learn harms human health? And if that's even a possibility, how shall we hedge our bets in the meantime?

 

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

Pizza is a Vegetable? Congress Defies Logic, Betrays Our Children
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If there were any lingering doubts as to whom our elected representatives really work for, they were put to rest Tuesday when Congress announced that frozen pizza was a vegetable. The United States Congress voted to rebuke new USDA guidelines for school lunches that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and instead declared that the tomato paste on frozen pizza qualified it as a vegetable. For this we can thank large food companies -- in this case ConAgra and Schwan -- which pressured Congress to comply with their financial interests. It simply doesn't suit the makers of frozen pizza, chicken nuggets and tater tots for schools to offer real food in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many conservative lawmakers are also insisting that the federal government shouldn't tell people what to eat. This is the same argument Sarah Palin used against Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to the rallying cry, "nanny-state."

But the government clearly does not control the food Americans eat. Corporations do. In this case ConAgra and Schwan are quite literally determining what the vast majority of our school children will be fed in school cafeterias: A veritable chemical concoction made to look like pizza. These are the ingredients for the "traditional 4x6 school pizza" made by ConAgra:

CRUST: (Enriched wheat flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, soybean oil, dextrose, baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch, monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate), yeasts (yeast, starch, sorbitan monostearate, ascorbic acid), salt, dough conditioners (wheat flour, salt, soy oil, L-cysteine, ascorbic acid, fungal enzyme), wheat gluten, soy flour).SAUCE: (water, tomato paste (31 percent NTSS), pizza seasoning (salt, sugar, spices, dehydrated onion, guar and xanthan gum, garlic powder, potassium sorbate, citric acid, tricalcium phophate and soybean oil (prevent caking)), modified food starch). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA

CHEESE: (Pasteurized part skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA

CHEESE SUBSTITUTE: (Water, oil (soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil with citric acid), casein, milk protein concentrate, modified food starch, contains 2 percent or less of the following: sodium aluminum phosphate, salt, lactic acid, mozzarella cheese type flavor (cheese (milk, culture, rennet, salt), milk solids, disodium phosphate), disodium phosphate, sorbic acid, nutrient blend (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin and vitamin B-12), vitamin A palmitate).

It's not even pizza, much less a vegetable. (And if you think that's bad take a look at the ingredients for the "Pepperoni, Reduced Fat Pizza").

This vote by Congress makes it abundantly clear who calls the shots when it comes to feeding our nation's children. According to The New York Times food companies have spent $5.6 million lobbying against these new rules.

Meanwhile, writer Ed Bruske brings up an important, related point on The Slow Cook. He writes:

[This] also provides a vivid illustration of what happens when you go after the foods kids most love in the lunch line. Pizza is the all-time favorite school lunch food, followed by potatoes in all their guises. Essentially, the proposed new guidelines would sharply cut back on foods kids really like, and replace them with things they hate: vegetables, beans and whole grains. Turns out there are huge amounts of money at stake behind the foods beloved by the 32 million children who participate in the national school lunch program. Frozen food companies are protecting their share the best way they know how: using their clout with their local congressman.

He goes on:

Other efforts to mess with pizza also have failed. In Berkeley, for instance, elementary school children get a rectangular pizza made with a locally-produced whole wheat crust. Middle schoolers, however, insist on a round pizza, which has to be sourced through a wholesale food distributor ... As I've learned sitting in on meals at my daughter's school the past two years here in the District of Columbia, children will go to great lengths to avoid the foods adults consider "healthy." Vegetables, beans and whole grains -- they typically get dumped in the trash. Kids will spend inordinate time picking the spinach out of fresh-cooked lasagna, for instance, before wolfing down the pasta.

So, the real question is, why do children want pizza, potatoes and pasta while vehemently eschewing green vegetables, beans and whole grains? This hasn't always been the case. Keep in mind that industrial food as it exists today has only been around for roughly 60 years. Much of what we take as the truth about what kinds of food kids love and hate is largely dictated by the food industry itself. The idea that kids won't eat vegetables is a construct invented by the food industry and reinforced by well-meaning parents, school lunch programs and government officials.

Herein lies the brilliance of the food industry -- not only has it created a myriad of products but it also created the idea that children want industrial food products above all else. While most Americans have bought into this notion, it's simply not true. Children 100 years ago couldn't have possibly eaten the industrial foods they are eating today. But listening to parents and children now, you'd be convinced that they will only eat industrial foods. Bruske writes that the middle schoolers in Berkeley "insist" on round industrial pizza.

How was this notion started? The food industry literally shapes and changes the palates of our children. Constantly eating sugary, salty and fatty food products adjusts taste preference to the point that simple, real foods taste bland and unappealing. 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 food industry works to, "fundamentally change children's taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods."

This makes it all the more outrageous that Congress won't stand up to Big Food to say it will not allow financial interests to trump the health and well-being of America's children. With one out of five four-year-olds now obese, the health of our nation's children is in such a sorry state that the food movement may have some unlikely allies on this front. According to the Associated Press, a group of retired generals criticized the move by Congress, calling the decision a national security issue since obesity has become the leading medical disqualifier for military service. Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group called Mission: Readiness said in a letter to members of Congress before the final plan was released, "We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program."

But this is what Congress has done. It has let the American people down and failed to protect our children. As Michele Simon astutely points out, "Congress has hijacked the USDA regulatory process to do the food industry's bidding." How much longer will we allow Big Food and our government to propagate lies about food and compromise the health of our nation's children for their financial and political gain? Please join the movement and attend Occupy Big Food's rally this Saturday from 1 to 3 in Zuccotti Park.

ADHD: A New Study Says, It's The Food
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Over five million children ages four to 17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States and close to 3 million of those children take medication for their symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But a new study reported in The Lancet last month found that with a restricted diet alone, many children experienced a significant reduction in symptoms. The study’s lead author, Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands, said in an interview with NPR, “The teachers thought it was so strange that the diet would change the behavior of the child as thoroughly as they saw it. It was a miracle, the teachers said.” Dr. Pessler’s study is the first to conclusively say that diet is implicated in ADHD. In the NPR interview, Dr. Pessler did not mince words, “Food is the main cause of ADHD,” she said adding, “After the diet, they were just normal children with normal behavior. They were no longer more easily distracted, they were no more forgetful, there were no more temper-tantrums.” The study found that in 64 percent of children with ADHD, the symptoms were caused by food. “It’s a hypersensitivity reaction to food,” Pessler said.

This is good news for parents and children who would like to avoid many of the adverse side effects associated with common stimulant drugs like Ritalin used to treat ADHD—and bad news for the pharmaceutical industry. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that common side effects from the drugs are sleeplessness (for which a doctor might also prescribe sleeping pills) headaches and stomachaches, decreased appetite, and a long list of much more frightening (yet rarer) side effects, including feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless, and new or worsening depression. But Pessler’s study indicates that up to two-thirds or two of the three million children currently medicated for ADHD may not need medication at all. “With all children, we should start with diet research,” Pessler said.

There are also questions about the long-term effects of stimulant drugs and growth in children. After three years on Ritalin, children were about an inch shorter and 4.4 pounds lighter than their peers, according to a major study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2007. A 2010 study in the Journal of Pediatrics disputed these findings, but all the study’s authors had relationships with drug companies, some of which make stimulants. According to Reuters, “The lead author, Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph Biederman, was once called out by Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley for the consulting fees he has received from such drug makers.”

This is just one example of how the powerful billion-dollar drug industry designs and interprets studies to suit their interests. Since the 1970s, researchers not tied to drug companies have been drawing connections between foods, food additives, and the symptoms associated with ADHD but many have been dismissed or overlooked by conventional medicine. One of the earliest researchers in this field was Dr. Benjamin Feingold who created a specific diet to address behavioral and developmental problems in children. The Feingold diet, as it is now called, recommends removing all food additives, dyes, and preservatives commonly found in the majority of industrial foods.

There are a multitude of credible scientific studies to indicate that diet plays a large role in the development of ADHD. One study found that the depletion of zinc and copper in children was more prevalent in children with ADHD. Another study found that one particular dye acts as a “central excitatory agent able to induce hyperkinetic behavior.” And yet another study suggests that the combination of various common food additives appears to have a neurotoxic effect—pointing to the important fact that while low levels of individual food additives may be regarded as safe for human consumption, we must also consider the combined effects of the vast array of food additives that are now prevalent in our food supply.

In Pessler’s study the children were placed on a restricted diet consisting of water, rice, turkey, lamb, lettuce, carrots, pears and other hypoallergenic foods—in other words, real, whole foods. This means that by default the diet contained very few, if any, food additives.

As I see it, there are two factors at work in this study: One being the allergic reaction to the actual foods themselves and the second being a possible reaction to food additives, or combinations of food additives, found in industrial foods. Both certainly could be at play in the results of this study, although the discussion of Dr. Pessler’s study thus far hasn’t addressed the latter issue.

One theme in the discussion of the story has been skepticism from mainstream media—the recent Los Angeles Times article (the only major daily newspaper to cover the study) was very skeptical, if not dismissive. The author writes, “Previous studies have found similar effects, but, like this one, they all had fundamental problems that made it easy for doctors to dismiss them.” NPR interviewer, Guy Raz asked a question invoking this tone as well, “Now, you’re not saying that some children with ADHD should not be given medication, right?” Pessler does say that there are some children and adults who might benefit from pharmaceuticals but her research indicates that far too many are being medicated unnecessarily—and this is the crux of the story.

The Los Angeles Times article ends on this note: “‘To be sure, the prospect of treating ADHD with diet instead of drugs would appeal to many parents,’ Dr. Jaswinder Ghuman, a child psychiatrist who treats ADHD says. ‘But parents who want to give it a try should be sure to consult their child’s physician first, she warned: ‘It’s not that simple to do appropriately.’”

Call me old-fashioned, but changing your child’s diet seems a lot “simpler” than altering his or her brain chemistry with a daily dose of pharmaceuticals. It does takes patience, trial and error, and commitment to complete an elimination diet—taking a pill to target symptoms certainly requires less effort on the part of the doctors, family and child. While no one is denying that ADHD is a complicated web of symptoms with potentially many contributing factors, why not start by examining the most basic and fundamental cornerstone of our health—the foods (and non-foods) we put into our bodies.