Preservatives are chemical compounds that are added to both liquid and solid food products in order to stave off bacterial and mold growth, prevent oxidation of lipids, and stabilize aesthetic quality attributes like color. While opponents of preservatives argue that they are unnecessary and pose risks to human health, it is a fact that consumers typically evaluate a product initially by its appearance. If something looks bad, very few people will buy it.
The food industry has long incorporated preservatives into products, therefore, and has fiercely defended their use as safe and effective. So where does the real truth lie about preservatives? Well, as usual, it’s somewhere in the middle.
Let’s take a look at a few of today’s most popular preservatives, and we’ll see why they’re present and what risks they may pose to the average consumer.
Sodium benzoate is a common antimicrobial preservative in liquid products. When dissolved in water, sodium benzoate dissociates into a sodium ion and a benzoate ion, which picks up a hydrogen from a water molecule to become the active preservative molecule, benzoic acid. Under the acidic conditions of most drink products, benzoic acid interferes with the glucose metabolism of many microbes, helping to slow or prevent spoilage.
Three main health concerns surround the use of benzoates in food. The first is that sodium benzoate has been shown to exacerbate asthma symptoms in a small percentage of asthmatics who suffer from severe or uncontrolled symptoms.
Concern over this effect certainly is valid basis for extra care. Yet, the fact that a relatively tiny segment of the population is negatively affected is not justification for eradicating benzoates from the food supply.
A related phenomenon is benzoate allergy, which impacts on an even smaller portion of the population. Indeed, it is a very rare condition. As with any allergen, those who suspect a problem should avoid benzoates. The vast majority of the population will be just fine.
In light of the relatively rare, but potentially serious, incidences of benzoate hypersensitivity and allergy, I would support a more aggressive labeling requirement for benzoate ingredients. A small but noticeable warning statement, like those used for products that may contain peanut residue, could suffice. Such a label would require little from food producers and would give adequate warning to those few who might have good reason to avoid benzoates.
The second concern over benzoate preservatives stems from recent research suggesting a link between sodium benzoate and child hyperactivity. There are a few problems with this association, however.
First, the study in question also evaluated artificial colors for any connection to a hyperactivity response. Because the colors and the benzoate were in the same beverage, it is not possible to determine now what caused the observed effect.
In addition, many reports related to this study have over-generalized the results, claiming that “artificial ingredients” and “food additives” as a class are a cause of ADHD and hyperactivity in children. This hype is simply false, . It is an illustration of the fear-mongering that opponents of the food industry frequently dish up. In reality, the study in question highlights that more research is warranted to illuminate which of the beverage compounds studied, if any, may contribute to childhood hyperactivity.
The final health concern surrounding benzoates is benzene formation in drinks that contain ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C. It’s true that beverages with benzoate and ascorbic acid can produce benzene, a known human carcinogen. In almost all cases, however, the amount of benzene produced in is exceedingly low, well below the limit for drinking water (5 ppb).
If the benzene controversy still puts your paranoia into overdrive, then just buy drinks that contain vitamin C or benzoates but not both: an easy solution to a problem that probably amounts to nothing in the first place!
Potassium sorbate is another popular beverage preservative, often found paired with sodium benzoate. Potassium sorbate and other sorbate salts produce sorbic acid when dissolved in water. Sorbic acid prevents the growth of many mold and yeasts.
Sorbates have a great safety record and have not been implicated in any ill health effects in humans. In animal toxicity studies, potassium sorbate has been shown to be about as toxic as table salt. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the world leader in bloated, hyperbolic anti-food industry rhetoric, deems sorbates to be safe.
Next up are sulfites, which are prevalent in wines and dried fruits, as well as in some commercial shellfish. Commercial sulfiting agents include sulfur dioxide and the sodium and potassium salts of sulfite, bisulfite, and metabisulfite. Sulfites are used in wine production to halt fermentation at a desired time and to prevent bacterial growth. They are used in some dried fruit, most notably apricots and prunes, to prevent enzymatic browning and spoilage. They’re also used in some shellfish, especially shrimp, to reduce the incidence of “blackspot,” a discoloration of the flesh.
Sulfites are exceedingly useful commercial preservatives and are considered safe for almost everyone. Still, sulfites are known to increase asthma symptoms in about one out of every twenty asthmatics. Like benzoates, sulfites generally only cause problems for those with severe and/or uncontrolled asthma.
Avoidance of sulfites is relatively easy these days, given the amount of mandatory food ingredient labeling. One area where sulfites often remain incognito, however, is the wine industry. Luckily, an increased awareness of sulfite reactions has prompted many wineries to offer sulfite-free products, tailored to those sensitive to the preservatives.
There also are rare occurrences of sulfite hypersensitivity outside of the asthmatic population. Generally, symptoms are usually mild and include hives and nausea. The headache that some people get after drinking red wine was once thought to be caused by sulfites, but that explanation has been called into question. Though it is still poorly understood, other compounds in red wine, such as tannins, are suspected as well of causing the headache.
Nitrates and nitrites are another class of preservatives often found in processed meat products. Nitrites stabilize the red color of many meat products and, along with sodium chloride (table salt), also prevent the growth of the bacteria that produces botulism toxin. Nitrates are simply nitrites with another oxygen atom attached. In many foods, nitrates slowly degrade into nitrites over time, acting as a kind of “time-released” preservative.
Unfortunately, nitrites are known to react with secondary amine compounds, also found in many food products, to produce nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are found in tobacco smoke, too, and research has shown that about 90% of nitrosamines are carcinogenic. Clearly, not a good preservative byproduct.
Fortunately, all commercial cured meat producers in the US are required add vitamin E, vitamin C, or erythorbic acid along with nitrites. These ingredients prevent the formation of nitrosamines.
Opponents of nitrites in foods contend that the risk of nitrosamine formation still exists and that other common preservation methods, like refrigeration, could be employed in lieu of chemical preservatives. While there is really very little risk from nitrites in cured meats, they are almost always loaded with salt, fillers, and other non-meat additives. While an occasional hot dog isn’t going to kill you, it may well be the best course simply to swear off the unfortunately delicious creations that populate the processed meats section of your grocery.
Last in our review are butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). BHT and BHA have terribly scientific names that look horrendous on food labels. Nevertheless, many companies include BHA and BHT in their products because they are excellent antioxidants, effective in slowing the development of oxidative rancidity in high fat foods like potato chips.
There is no direct evidence that either BHA or BHT is carcinogenic in humans. But one widely cited group of studies on BHA showed an increased incidence of forestomach tumors in mice, rats, and hamsters.
There are a few problems in generalizing this evidence for carcinogenicity to humans. First of all, we don’t have forestomachs. Because the increase in tumors was seen only in this particular organ, the claim of heightened cancer risk in humans is a bit flimsy. Additionally, the higher incidence of forestomach tumors was only seen in the group of animals with the highest level of BHA consumption, at around 1% of their diet. That is a truly insane amount of BHA that no human would ever approach.
On the balance of present data, BHT and BHA are safe additives. They are used at very low levels in a relatively small number of foods and have little, if any, evidence for carcinogenicity in humans.
Furthermore, in recent years, many food companies have been moving away from BHT and BHA because they tend to “dirty” a product’s ingredients statement with their long, intimidating names. If you’re really worried about the presence of these two compounds in a favorite food, look around the grocery store a bit. You’ll very likely be able to find a similar product that uses alternative methods of preservation.
If you’ve read the review of food colors from a few months back, then you’ll see some common themes in this conclusion. Preservatives serve a necessary purpose in our modern food supply. Without their use, many products would spoil in a matter of days. It’s just a fact of life in this era that we demand foods that can be stored and still retain their fresh qualities.
Almost all of the preservatives in this review have been shown time and time again to be safe for nearly the entire population, but there will always be exceptions. If you’re a severe or uncontrolled asthmatic, it’s probably best to avoid sulfites and benzoates. If you find a random imported cured meat product with nitrates or nitrites but without vitamin E, ascorbic acid, or erythorbic acid added, don’t eat it.
Outside of these limited qualifications, preservatives are safe for almost everyone. Don’t buy into the hype of advertising, food package labels, or rabid anti-industry activists claiming all sorts of ill effects from preservatives. Read the science on these ingredients instead of biased reviews and hyperbolic, paranoid rhetoric.
As always, if you see an ingredient listing with which you’re not familiar, look it up. Find real data to support any positive or negative claims you hear. If you have trouble, email me and I’ll do my best to answer your question. You can be sure that you’re not the only one looking for those answers. While it’s important to always be watchful of what we put into our bodies, rational, scientific assessment of food ingredients is the best approach to maintain both health and sanity.
Nutrition Perfected has partnered with Prevention Magazine to host a live streaming web event
! They will be presenting their picks for Best Packaged Food Awards for 2011. There will also be a live Q&A session during which you will be able to pick up great tips for making healthy eating choices and how to fit productive nutrition into your busy schedule. Check back on March 1st for the live show and chat session! The event will be hosted on the Live Web Event
page here on NutritionPerfected.com!Check out a promo video for the event on Prevention.com!
The concept of a school feeding program has existed for over 100 years in America. It began in Philadelphia with a single school in 1894. By the late 1930s, 15 states had instituted legislation authorizing school lunch programs. Most of them provided the meals at cost, while a few provided low or no cost food to needy children. National support for a permanent school feeding program came in 1946 when President Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act. The act created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which still regulates and oversees the familiar school lunch program in effect today. Significant changes to the program have occurred throughout the years, with the last major round of revisions taking place from 1994 through 1996.
Despite the efforts of legislators and school officials, the NSLP has been accused of short‐changing the children of this country nutritionally in order to save money and support federally subsidized cash crops like corn. The NSLP is required to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which is published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA issued the latest DGA on January 31st, 2011. It contained a number of statements reflecting what, for a government agency at least, constitutes progressive thinking. “Groundbreaking” firsts for this year’s release included a focus on whole grain products and a general recommendation to eat less and use smaller portion sizes. Amazing, I know.
The guidelines from the DGA that apply to school lunch programs are pretty limited. NSLP is required to provide no more than 30% of calories by way of fat and no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat. In addition, the school lunch must contain 1/3 of the daily value (DV) for protein, calories, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. While those requirements generally sound positive, there is a lot of room to maneuver in bad directions in the name of short term cost‐savings and convenience.
For example, the government’s recommended level of protein consumption comprises only 10% of the overall diet’s calories. It is apparent, therefore, that the majority of school lunch food will be high in carbohydrates.
The DGA also suggests that half of all grain foods be “whole grain.” As you may know, the nutritional difference between whole and refined grains is enormous. While half is good, therefore, more would be better. In addition, the whole‐grain suggestion says nothing about the relatively low nutrient density, non‐grain vegetables that are the stalwarts of school lunches. The most popular of these offenders is the potato. With some schools literally celebrating “Tater Tot Day,” it doesn’t look good for student nutrition any time soon.
School lunches are operated at the top by the NSLP. The NSLP’s nutritional guidelines are set by the USDA’s DGA (enough acronyms yet?). So, in the end the sad state of school lunches can’t be blamed entirely on the NSLP.
The root of the problem is that the USDA is using 20 year‐old dietary recommendations. The agency needs to get with the times and to promote lower glycemic index foods, with more protein and fiber.
Funding for school lunches needs to be a higher priority, too. If we are to feed our kids properly, we’re going to have to pay for the effort. I don’t care whether the money comes from taxes or from a reallocation of funds now spent wastefully (and there’s plenty of that around).
If we want to compete globally then our kids must learn efficiently, and that requires proper fueling every day. Let’s not short‐change our future.
With the current school lunch program as unfit as the average American, the best option is to feed your child from your own cupboard. Yet, a parent faces many of the same concerns as the government when deciding what to pack. How do you strike the best balance between convenience, acceptance, nutrition and cost?
The answer is: carefully. On one hand, your child’s tastes and preferences must be taken into account, or they’ll just trade your carrot sticks for honey buns. On the other hand, the kids can’t make all of the decisions: school lunches will consist of fruit rollups and Twinkies! Find a reasoned middle ground.
As with any meal planning exercise, a school lunch should focus on the fundamentals: a base of protein and fiber with some fruits and vegetables to round it out. So what does that look like in practice? A sliced chicken or turkey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread is always a good start. You can also send some more “entrée‐like” dishes in Tupperware containers, like chicken with rice and beans or lean beef with whole wheat pasta and low fat sauce. Tofu also can work well as a protein source for school lunches, but remember that tofu often has a very high moisture content and can waterlog anything around it between the hours your child leaves the house and their lunch period. If you’re including tofu in a child’s lunch, therefore, make sure to prepare and package it in a way where it remains appetizing and doesn’t interfere with other lunch ingredients.
After you’ve sorted out a significant portion of protein, add in a fruit and some colorful, crunchy vegetables. Stick with high nutrient‐density fruits, like berries, bananas, and tropical fruits. For vegetables, it is often best to pack them raw. They retain some nice texture and have a fresher flavor than processed veggies. Remember, the goal is for the food to end up in your kid’s stomach, not the lunchroom trash can. If they really don’t like something, then work with them. This issue can’t be forced because kids are essentially on their own at school.
The school lunch program is a valuable part of our education system. But it still has a long way to go before it will maximize the potential of students in this country. Budget shortfalls and the demands of “convenience” have engendered some truly unhealthy school lunch products. Until the NSLP comes around, the best option is to feed your child with a home‐packed lunch.
As with any other meal, a school lunch should be based on proper nutritional fundamentals and must also take into account your child’s particular preferences. After all, it’s not going to do them any good if they don’t eat it. Excellent nutrition is imperative to the education process. Give your child the best chance at success with the right meals and snacks before, during and after school.
Of all food ingredients, monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, has one of the worst reputations around. On some of the more inflammatory anti-MSG websites, it is implicated in an astoundingly wide array of health problems, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, seizures, fertility problems, memory loss, stuttering, and others. Fortunately, as vehemently as the anti-MSG crowd will deride the common Asian flavoring compound, the truth is that their claims are almost completely unsupported by well-planned and well-executed clinical research. It’s time to learn the truth about MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”
Many traditional East Asian cooking styles have for centuries utilized seaweed as a flavoring ingredient in broths and other dishes. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that a Japanese chemist and professor named Kikunae Ikeda isolated and identified MSG as the source of seaweed’s savory flavor. Since then, MSG has become a favorite additive in foods from all over the globe, valued for its somewhat unique ability to impart a strong umami (or savory) flavor. Around two million tons of MSG are sold every year worldwide. China produces almost 75% of the world’s MSG and consumes almost 70%.
Now, let’s get a bit of background knowledge before we proceed. Glutamic acid is one of many naturally occurring non-essential amino acids prevalent in a huge variety of foods, especially those high in protein. The ionic form of glutamic acid is known as glutamate. Glutamate is a human neurotransmitter that plays an important role in learning and memory processes. Monosodium glutamate, the popular food ingredient, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. In solid form it is a white crystalline powder that dissolves easily in water. When consumed or dissolved, MSG dissociates into two parts, an atom of sodium and a molecule of glutamate. While glutamic acid is an important component of a huge number of foods, free glutamate is processed differently by the body.
Problems began for MSG in 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a biomedical researcher in Maryland, wrote a letter that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine detailing a collection of symptoms he had experienced upon eating at Chinese restaurants, including numbness in the neck and upper torso, weakness, and heart palpitations. Following Dr. Kwok’s letter, decades of research ensued trying to determine what, if any, risks were involved with MSG consumption.
The first large-scale review and opinion of MSG’s safety in food was released by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in 1980. The researchers concluded that MSG was safe for humans at the levels commonly used in food, but that further research was warranted. In the early 1990s, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association each released reports affirming the safety of MSG as a food ingredient. A 1995 report published again by the FASEB at the request of the FDA agreed with its last MSG review in that the compound is safe for humans. However, it also reported that a very small percentage of the population may have a sensitivity to MSG that could manifest through a number of transient and generally benign symptoms. As well, the FAESB brought up the possibility that MSG may temporarily worsen asthma symptoms in some severe and uncontrolled asthmatics.
One of the best studies on alleged MSG hypersensitivity in humans was published in 1998 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. It was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, multiple challenge investigation that tested 130 subjects who had self-reported as having had adverse reactions to MSG consumption. The study found that while consuming large amounts of MSG (five grams [that’s a lot!]) alone caused a higher number of negative reactions than a placebo, the sensitivity was not reproducible when the MSG was given with food. In addition, the frequency with which the test subjects reacted to the MSG was low, the symptoms were inconsistent between tests, and the effects were not serious. And remember, these test subjects were individuals who already believed that they were sensitive to MSG!
The results of this extremely well-designed study indicate that a large majority of adverse reactions attributed to MSG are very likely caused by something else, including the psychosomatic induction of unpleasant symptoms. While there does seem to be a relationship between significant MSG consumption and hypersensitivity reactions in a very small percentage of the population, the research indicates that MSG is generally quite benign. Beyond the 1998 MSG study, numerous other trials have looked into the same safety issue with similar results. In several studies, MSG was given to human subjects in relatively gigantic amounts (over 100 grams per day!) in the presence of other food and found no pathologic effects at all. However, in studies where MSG was consumed alone, varying levels of sensitivity were observed. Unfortunately, many of those studies were poorly designed or uncontrolled. In addition, the appearance of symptoms couldn’t be correlated with blood concentration of glutamate and the negative reactions to MSG didn’t fit very well to the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome profile.
The truth is that we don’t know everything about MSG. According to decades of research, it appears that MSG is not the boogeyman that it’s often made out to be. A small percentage of the population may have some level of sensitivity to the compound, but the effects seem to be short-lived and relatively harmless. Severe or uncontrolled asthmatics may want to limit their consumption of MSG to be on the safe side. The upshot here is that for the overwhelming majority of the population, MSG is safe. There is no good reason to ban it from your diet. Marketing executives will try to use the bad press on MSG as a tool to advertise their products, but in the end the data just doesn’t support their negative claims. As with all things, moderation is almost surely the best answer. Have some (healthy) Chinese food, but don’t eat it every day or even every week. MSG used in moderation can add great flavor to dishes with zero caloric impact. Don’t go crazy with it and you will be just fine. And for those who believe that you’re sensitive to MSG, consider designing a little double-blind study of your own and really see what happens. You may be surprised!
A note to readers: The nutrition facts label to the left is from a Carl's Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger. I think this kind of information might be worth knowing, no? 1500 calories with 47 grams of saturated fat? Wow...
With all of the debate that occurred over the content and passage of the healthcare reform bill of 2010 (H.R. 3590), one argument still rages that makes no sense whatsoever. The bill, signed into law in March of last year, made it mandatory for all restaurants with over 20 locations to display the caloric content of all dishes on menus or serving stations (as in a buffet setting) and to have more in-depth nutrition stats available for the customer at all times. These requirements also apply to vending machines. Unfortunately, as much as the obesity epidemic in this country is costing us, both financially and socially, not everyone is on-board with the new plans. I’d like to highlight the opposition’s ridiculous argument against the new laws and also share some related thoughts on the detrimental mindset possessed by many Americans regarding the discussion of proper nutrition and its relationship to public health.
The major argument leading the backlash against menu labeling in restaurants is that some people simply don’t want to know what they’re eating. They prefer to be blissfully unaware of the content of their meals. They often overtly state that they don’t want to feel “guilty” about what they are having for lunch. Unfortunately, that is an argument based on cowardice and, at the same time, attempts to prevent those who do want the information from obtaining it easily. To me, it’s akin to what you often see on the TV show “Intervention” that profiles drug and alcohol addicts before, during, and after a family intervention to heal their addiction. When confronted by the damage they are doing to themselves and others, the addict often flatly denies the existence of a problem and becomes extremely defensive, even to the point of physical aggression. In the same vein, people who are eating blatantly harmful food generally know what they’re doing to themselves and, if they considered it for a minute, would see how their actions affect the well-being of the country at large. When shown the facts, however, they seem to cower from the truth and hide behind an argument that “eating this food once in a while isn’t so bad.” The truth is that the folks who actually consume unhealthy food only once in a while don’t mind the labels because they don’t feel guilty about what they’re eating. The people who feel guilty are the ones who regularly make poor choices and understandably don’t want to face themselves in the mirror. In the end, their argument makes no sense. It’s simply an attempt to continue along in their comfortable state of denial while simultaneously impinging upon the positive efforts of others.
Unfortunately, the mindset of “I don’t want to know” is pervasive in this country. I was reading an article recently that presented the results of an interesting recent study into child and adolescent exercise habits in relation to organized sports. The primary message of the article was that even kids who are on sports teams and practice regularly often don’t achieve the recommended minimum exercise time. According to the researchers, skill training and other relatively passive activities dominated many team practices.
Despite the intriguing results and the useful advice resulting from the study, a large proportion of public responses to the article were defensive and negative. There were complaints that the readers were being called “bad parents” and that “scientists should stop telling us how to raise our children.” These arguments might (though probably not) make sense in a society that had proven itself successful at raising healthy children. However, in a country where close to a quarter of children are either overweight or obese, we need all the help we can get. Again, the outcry against scientists over-advising parents and intruding into personal matters is, I’d have to assume, coming mainly from parents who simply don’t want to face that facts about their child’s health and their parenting missteps. Parents who actually look out for the best interests of their kids would most likely be receptive to potentially helpful research. Guilt resulting from poor parenting choices is not a good reason to give up efforts towards improvement. If you slack off and don’t change your car’s oil for 7,000 miles, ignoring the “change oil soon” light isn’t going to solve the problem. You simply have to step up and change the oil. Don’t hide behind excuses and dodge responsibility for yourself and your children. Take a positive attitude towards new scientifically-guided advice and put the recommendations into action to help your family become happier and healthier.
Denial is not the answer. It’s not a good reason to argue against menu labeling and it’s not a good reason to berate news outlets for communicating the results of the latest health-oriented research. Our success as a nation and as a species has come primarily from progressive acceptance of new technology and information. The world is not flat, my friends. And our country is not healthy. Take advantage of our robust research and communication systems and use them as tools to guide yourself and your family towards a healthier life. Accept your past mistakes and move on to better habits. You can make positive changes regardless of your current situation. But the first step, as they say, is to admit that you have a problem.
The word “superfruit” has no technical definition. It is not a scientific term and has no particular attributes or qualifying threshold values of any compound. In fact, it’s simply a marketing idea that entered the public sphere around 2005 and has continued to saturate the minds of consumers (and the pockets of food and beverage producers) ever since. As a concept that has no real denotation (definition) but does have many connotations, it’s worth a look into the idea of the “superfruit” in order to understand how it might actually be of use to you as a health-oriented consumer.
In many cases, a regular old fruit is upgraded to superfruit status due to its antioxidant properties. By now, most people have come to understand that antioxidants are generally good for you. However, there are more to antioxidants and the analysis of their presence in a food product than meets the eye. Antioxidant compounds are defined as those capable of preventing the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical process in which one molecule donates or loses and electron from one of its atoms and transfers it to another molecule. While oxidation is a normal part of everyday life at the cellular level, it can go awry. When oxidation happens at the wrong place or time, it can cause problems in DNA structure, protein folding, and other intricate processes within cells, leading to cancer, decreased cellular function, development of cataracts, and other issues. The agent of poorly-timed oxidation is often the free radical. A free radical is a molecule that has lost an electron and is therefore extremely reactive. In fact, it will react with almost anything it happens to run into that can donate an electron. As it steals an electron, it completes its electronic structure and goes on about its normal business. However, its molecular victim is not so lucky. Because it is now down one electron, it becomes a free radical and begins searching for an electron to re-stabilize itself. This process of cyclic attack is known as the free radical cascade.
Fortunately, there is a solution to the cascade problem: antioxidants. While there is a myriad of different types of molecules that can function as antioxidants, they all are similar in that they are able to donate an electron without becoming a free radical themselves. Usually, this ability to effectively absorb free radical oxidation is due to particular structures built into the atomic organization of the antioxidant compound. One such structure is the phenol ring. A popular group of antioxidants is known as the “polyphenols” because each member contains more than one phenol ring. In the case of polyphenolic antioxidants, their phenol rings are able to donate an electron to a roaming free radical but, because of the way electrons are shared between carbon atoms in a phenol ring (electron delocalization), the polyphenolic compound remains stable and does not become a free radical. There are atomic structures other than the phenol ring that confer similar antioxidant ability, but their detailed description goes beyond the scope of this article.
The important thing to remember is that not all antioxidants are the same and that they may not behave similarly in the body. In addition, a single food may contain a number of different types of antioxidants. However, despite these significant complexities to the antioxidant picture, marketing professionals often boil down the antioxidant capacity of a product to a single number: its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value. A food’s ORAC value indicates its ability to neutralize a particular type of free radical known as a superoxide. The ORAC value is a poor choice to represent the potential health benefits of a food for a number of reasons. First off, the ORAC rating is determined using trials performed in a test tube, not a human body. Not all of the antioxidants in a product are absorbed or are bioavailable within the body following ingestion. Therefore, the data resulting from ORAC testing do not accurately represent a food’s antioxidant impact on a human subject.
Secondly, the ORAC test examines a sample’s effect on only one kind of radical. Besides superoxide, there are a number of other types of free radicals within the body that may be affected differently by a particular antioxidant. Generalizing the antioxidant capacity of a compound based on its interaction with only one type of radical limits the utility of ORAC data in assessing the potential healthfulness of a food product.
Essentially, marketing professionals in the food industry assume that the public is dumb, lazy, and easily convinced of almost anything. Unfortunately, they are too often proven correct. They like the ORAC value because it’s simple, involves catchy, “scientific” terminology, and makes nice little bar graphs that fit perfectly on packaging display panels. If you’re reading this blog, however, you’re on the right track to getting away from the norm and learning how to investigate facts for yourself. As a small side note, I hope that you continue your research into topics like this one even beyond reading the NP Blog. Search for other information on the subject, take a look at some recent journal articles, and stretch your brain a bit. Not only will you learn something new, but you can actually apply this stuff to improve your everyday life! The search for knowledge is essential for a productive mind, so keep at it.
Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. As with all foods, the producer is trying to minimize costs and maximize profits. The superfruit concept is a perfect vehicle for these goals. First of all, the “superfruit” name is an unregulated buzzword that means nothing but which the public loosely associates with health. Secondly, because superfruits are often incorporated into products as juices, it’s easy to hide the actual amount of the advertised fruit present. A great example of this deceptive practice occurs all the time in the case of juice blends. Food companies are required by law only to state the total percentage of juice in the product and not the percentage of each individual juice used. So, a product may contain less than even 1% of each superfruit juice and still include all of the graphs, pictures, and shady “health claims” on their labels that pertain to the superfruits. Remember, these exotic juices are expensive! For example, I can advertise a juice blend product that is plastered with pictures of pomegranates, acai berries, and goji berries. I can put a “100% fruit juice” statement on the front of the bottle. I can include all the ORAC information on the side panel on the packaging and talk about how acai is imported from the amazon and has an incredibly high concentration on antioxidants. However, when I formulate the product, I can use 98.5% white grape juice (cheap and nutritionally anemic), 0.5% goji berry juice, 0.5% acai juice, and 0.5% pomegranate juice. I can then flavor the product with “natural flavors” that add only around another 0.01% of actual “superfruit” juice to the final beverage in order to disguise the fact that I’ve essentially made colorful grape juice. Finally, I can sell the juice blend at a premium price in a fancy bottle with awesome graphics and bright colors.
As you can see, the superfruit game has a lot of holes through which food manufacturers can slide. It’s up to you to pay attention to the labels and search out the important information. If a company isn’t overtly up front and honest about the complete formulation of its “superfruit” product, then it’s most likely a waste of your money.
So what’s the best answer if the ORAC value, while popular, is unreliable and food manufacturers are clearly in the business of deceiving the consumer? Well, stick to the fundamentals and you will very likely be just fine. Regularly consume relatively large amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables, especially berries and cruciferous products. Search out the largest variety of plant foods (including the so-called “superfruits”) that you can in order to ensure that a wide range of antioxidants and other useful phytochemicals make it into your body. Consistency and variety are more important than potency, in most cases. In addition, some research has shown that too much of a good thing can have ironically negative consequences. Compounds that normally act as antioxidants can actually become pro-oxidative! So eat your fruits and vegetables and don’t believe the hype. Many fruits with high antioxidant concentrations can be quite good for you in moderate amounts, but there’s much more to fruits and vegetables than their antioxidant capacity. Forget the marketing misinformation and do some research of your own. Remember, if the package is bright, colorful, and fancy, then someone is most likely trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
A note to readers: I REALLY wanted to call this article, "Genetically Modified Foods - Does GMO = OMG?!" But I decided that, since this blog contains only the classiest, professional work (see picture to left), it would be wise to go with the more traditional title. Anyway...
The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been a contentious one for almost two decades. In many parts of the world, fears abound over potential health problems and the prospect of environmental catastrophe, all stemming from the production and consumption of GM foods. While the paranoia is gradually decreasing, lots of misinformation is still thrown about regarding genetic engineering and GM foods. What exactly are GM foods and what are the risks and benefits they confer to both the individual consumer and to the ecosystems in which they are grown?
The first major intersection of genetic engineering and foodstuffs occurred in 1987 with the first tests of a modified version of the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae on strawberry fields in California. The bacteria, which commonly lives on the surface of crops, normally produces a protein that allows ice to more easily begin crystallizing, causing damage to the host plant. However, the strain of P. syringae used in the experiment had been engineered without the gene needed to produce the protein in hopes of reducing frost-induced crop loss. Though the data looked positive following the trial, they couldn’t be fully trusted due to environmental activists destroying some of the test crops in protest of the experiment.
The first genetically engineered food product hit the shelves in the early 1990s in the form of the “Flavr Savr” tomato. Calgene, a Californian company later acquired by biotech giant Monsanto, had engineered the plant to have a slower softening process, though its other ripening attributes like sweetness would develop normally. Tomatoes are often harvested while still green and hard in order to better survive the rigors of transport. Soft, ripe fruit often get smashed or otherwise degraded as trucks bump along rough roads. The Flavr Savr was designed to be both tasty and durable. Unfortunately, due to competition from conventionally bred cultivars (plant varieties), problems with production rates, and troublesome harvesting technology, the Flavr Savr never made a big move on the tomato market. However, it did pave the way for future growth in the GM food market.
Today, there are many genetically modified food crops available, including soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, sugar cane and beets, rice, squash, and others. Their engineering bestows benefits including herbicide, pest, and virus resistance, as well as higher nutritional content by way of increased endogenous production of vitamins and essential fatty acids. In fact, a large majority of soybeans, cotton, and corn grown in the US is now genetically modified organisms, most engineered for herbicide and/or pest resistance. Believe it or not, if you live in the US and many other parts of the world, you almost certainly consume GM foods on a regular basis.
Despite the widespread and longstanding consumption of GM foods by millions if not billions of people, controversy persists over the safety of GM foods in regards to both human health and environmental integrity. While most concerns over GM crops are generally unfounded, it is worth taking the time to understand how GM foods are assessed and approved.
To assess any potential dangers a GM food may present to human health, the product is first analyzed by the manufacturer to determine if it is “substantially equivalent” to its corresponding natural version, if one exists. Substantial equivalence is evaluated by comparing the biochemical profiles of the two foods, including their various carbohydrates, fatty acids, metabolite compounds, and proteins. If the values of the GM food’s components fall within the range of variation of the natural products, then they are deemed to be substantially equivalent. While the standard of substantial equivalence has proven robust enough to prevent any major adverse reactions in the public to GM foods, critics argue that the standard of equivalence is not defined clearly enough nor has a specific procedure for testing been established. In addition, processed or purified products (e.g. oils, sugars, etc.) can be assessed for substantial equivalence independent of their source plants. GMO opponents have claimed that this “loophole” may allow harmful compounds into the human food supply due to the laxity (in their eyes) of the substantial equivalence standard.
If a novel GM product has no natural counterpart, it is evaluated using a seven-part standard safety test. The test begins with an analysis of any new DNA in the product and the proteins or metabolites it may eventually produce. It also includes analysis of the chemical composition of the product, including nutrients, allergens, and toxins. Then, the risk of gene transfer to microorganisms present in the human gut is evaluated. Any new compounds in the product are assessed for possible human allergenicity. Finally, an estimate is calculated to determine how much of the product might be consumed in a normal diet, whether the data indicate any possible nutritional or toxicological risks and, if so, further animal testing is performed to investigate any potentially harmful characteristics of the product.
While opposition groups to GM foods have long claimed that these novel products aren’t tested sufficiently before public release, there has yet to be a documented adverse reaction to any GM food. In addition, these pre-market testing procedures have proven their effectiveness by actually finding allergens in GMO products before release and have allowed the safe removal of the offending foods from the development pathway.
The evidence amassed to date tells us that GM foods pose little to no risk to human health. While there can always be more stringent testing, a balance must be struck between corporate and public interests. If testing is too lengthy or expensive, companies will simply stop developing new products, much like what has happened to the pharmaceutical industry. The current safety testing procedures for GM foods do a fantastic job at both protecting the public and encouraging continued development of needed agricultural technologies.
One of the most commonly cited, real-world instances of “potentially harmful” compounds entering the food supply by way of GM crops was the contamination of corn used to produce Taco Bell hard taco shells with a small amount of a GM variety known as StarLink, which was approved only for use in animal feed. Twenty-eight individuals reported symptoms of allergic reaction resulting from the consumption of the taco shells. It was postulated that “Cry9C,” a protein in the StarLink corn, was the culprit.
Then as now, however, those claims of allergenicity are beset with credibility issues.
First, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention performed analyses of the blood of those reporting allergic reactions and found no evidence that the corn had caused their symptoms. Second, allergens are proteins, like the suspected Cry9C protein. The production of a hard taco shell requires frying the corn tortilla in oil at around 365 degrees F. At that temperature, essentially all proteins in the tortilla are denatured, which means that their shape is altered fundamentally, even fragmented. That the tiny amount of Cry9C present in the StarLink material also was denatured at the time of consumption further reduced whatever risk of allergenicity the protein posed in the taco shell. Accordingly, although the recall of the contaminated corn arguably was warranted on regulatory grounds, the fear-mongering and paranoia that followed were unfounded and irrational.
There’s also the argument against GM crops based on potential hazards they might pose to their surrounding ecosystems and the global environment. On the positive side, pest-resistant cultivars have significantly lowered the need for pesticides in many areas. In addition, GM crops also allow for a reduction in farming-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to more limited use of pesticide spraying equipment and a shift from conventional tillage to reduced/no till practices. Compared to 1996 levels of GHG emissions, GM crops provided global savings of approximately 32.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in 2006 alone. That’s the equivalent of taking over 6.5 million cars off of the roads for a year. In addition, GM crops have provided substantial farm-level income increases by way of increased yields, better quality produce, and increased replanting efficiency.
On the negative side, opponents of GM crops have raised concerns about the novel cultivars’ impact on biodiversity, weed resistance, and gene transfer to non-GM crops. On the issue of biodiversity, both sides of the issue agree that it is an important subject to watch. Theories have suggested that, were GM traits passed onto wild relatives, then other native species could be out-competed into extinction. In addition, the release of a particular crop variety with a major advantage over all others could lead to the use of only one cultivar, significantly decreasing crop biodiversity. Yet, while gene transfer between species has been recorded in GM crop locations, no significant negative effects have been noted. As well, seed companies work to prevent the use of a single cultivar by introducing the same trait into many different varieties of a crop. Therefore, the chance of one cultivar becoming overwhelmingly dominant is quite low.
Finally, the issue of weed resistance is worthy of attention and study. Gene transfer from GM crops to wild plants has been shown to occur. However, the occurrence of such an event is extremely rare and the resulting hybrids are often sterile, much like mules and the familiar yellow bananas we find in grocery stores. Despite the low risk of problems with weed resistance, issues have arisen in some areas of the southern US with crop field infestations of herbicide-resistant plants, particularly pigweed. In most cases, the problem was managed by crop and herbicide rotation. In some rare cases, the fields had to be abandoned. Fortunately, the benefits of GM crops grossly outweigh the rare problems they may cause with the development of resistant weeds.
The conclusion here is that GM foods pose little risk to human health. They are studied quite extensively before being put on the market, and the screening procedures have been so successful that no significant health issues related to GM foods have ever been reported. The fact is that GM crops are eaten every day by millions of people in the US alone with no ill effects. On the environmental side, GM crops pose a very small threat to their natural environments. While the concern over gene transfer to non-GM plant species is real, it has never been shown to cause a problem with ecosystem biodiversity. Unfortunately, there is a small risk of resistant traits to undesirable weed plants that can then infest crop fields. However, with diligent farming practices the detriments of such species can be all but avoided in most cases. GM foods offer the farmer and society at large a way to produce healthier, more bountiful produce in a way that is less harmful to the environment. We need higher yields and lower environmental impact to deal with our fast growing human population. Let’s embrace the technologies that we have and get over the irrational fears surrounding GMOs.
We’re almost a week into 2011 now and many gyms, health clubs, and diet centers are bustling with a swell of new members, thanks to the time-honored tradition of the New Year’s resolution. Come back in February though, and the scene may look a bit sparser. What is it about the New Year’s resolution that leads to this utterly predictable progression from discipline to eventual surrender? Clearly it’s not such a bad idea to make productive goals for one’s self, especially at notable times of change like the beginning of a new year. The period of transition from one year to the next allows us time to reflect on our achievements and failures, our moments of glory and our downhill slides. It gives us a clearer perspective on what we currently are and where we want to go. So what’s the problem?
The first major mistake that people make when beginning to execute their fresh, ambitious New Year’s resolutions is to jump into too many changes at once. For example, say your resolution is to lose 20 pounds over the next year. It’s a common goal and one that is dearly needed in the lives of many individuals (though I’d personally rather it be framed in terms of body fat percentage). However, if you’re currently a desk jockey with a busy schedule, adding five or six outings to the gym per week may simply be too much to handle at first. Besides the physical ramifications of such a large-scale change to your exercise output, abruptly altering your lifestyle in big ways can often lead to a quick jumping of ship. It may be more reasonable to plan a trip or two to the gym per week and find time to fit them into the schedule. Later, as you become used to the new weekly timeline, you will be able to open up more space and continue to add sessions as needed. Jumping into any large commitment tends to induce at least a bit of anxiety. By applying your new exercise and nutrition goals slowly but surely to your current lifestyle, you will find the results to be much more satisfying, productive, and sustainable over time. Remember, a small improvement is better than no improvement at all.
The second mistake often seen with New Year’s resolutions is to expect too much too soon. While this problem is an ever-present plague in the nutrition and fat loss industry, it is especially prevalent around the New Year. Big goals and big ambitions can seem insurmountable when viewed as one large block. Taking the example of losing 20 pounds again, viewed as a lump sum, it’s a pretty significant number. When people don’t see the first 10 pounds come off by the end of January, they often start to panic and may even abandon the plan entirely. One way to avoid the stress of making small progress towards a large goal is to break the big number down into smaller, intermediate goals spread out rationally over time. That way, you always have an achievable, short-term goal on which you can focus. As the small landmarks are reached, the overall progress will grow and grow without you even having to consider it. Three to five pounds of fat loss per month is a good goal for most people. If you have a lot of fat to lose and are starting with some notably bad eating and exercise habits, you can set more aggressive goals, but always be sure to keep your expectations within reason. Setting proper goals is the first step to success and it doing it right often requires a level of objective self-assessment that many people aren’t used to. In the end, though, you will find that small, approachable goals set out over time will provide you with a much easier path towards big achievement.
Finally, and this may be the biggest issue of all regarding New Year’s resolutions, there tends to be a sense that, because we have failed with so many resolutions in the past, it’s ok to give up on your new ones, as well. The fact is that a resolution should be just that, a decision to become resolved, resolute to achieve your goal. Determination is a big part of being successful in many areas of life. You simply have to have a reason to make it happen. For some it may be about overall health, blood pressure, cholesterol, or well-placed concern over future complications from carrying excess fat and a lack of exercise. For others the driving force may be more present. Diabetes, mobility problems, or an inability to do what you want to do in your daily life can all be great motivation to stick to your resolutions. There are still others who want more out of their bodies, whether it’s greater sports performance, better endurance, or more strength and power. Whatever your reason for making a resolution this year, keep it fresh in your mind. When training gets hard (and it does), you will need to be able to focus on the reason why you are there.
This year, don’t just make a resolution. Design a plan for success with reasonable, small goals spread out over time. Make changes to your lifestyle slowly but surely to allow yourself time to adjust. Know your motivation and keep it in mind at all times. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks and small failures. They are a part of the process and are common to everyone’s experience, especially when making big life changes. Finally, get your friends and family on board, either by actively joining in with you as you make improvements or by simply being there to support you and help to keep you on track. Be resolute in your decisions and be accountable to yourself and your goals. 2011 can be the year that you permanently change your life for the better, so stick with it!
One of the most self-defeating comments I often hear from those I counsel on nutrition and exercise is that they “can’t make progress” because they are [insert age here]. You hear the same thing from individuals who are in their sixties, fifties, forties, and even thirties! It’s amazing how little confidence many people have in their bodies’ adaptability and capacity for positive development. Fortunately, the truth is that even quite elderly folks can make fantastic progress in areas including muscular strength, balance and stability, cardiovascular function, and overall measures of wellness (blood lipid profile, blood pressure, and others). I’d like to present just one example of a person who has made great progress in health and ability despite some very serious setbacks. She is living proof that no matter your age and level of fitness, you can make excellent improvements if you put your mind to it.
Barb was active as a young adult, skiing throughout college and overcoming a minor weight gain during college through the Weight Watchers program (decades ago, when it was a bit less “commercial”). In her late thirties, Barb got back into ice skating, a sport she had participated in as a child, but had given up long ago. For almost the next twenty years or so, she continued skating while balancing a job and raising two young children. Her rather serious dedication to skating and solid nutritional foundation allowed her to maintain a satisfactory and stable body weight and levels of strength and fitness. It goes to show you that, even with a real life to handle and an exercise regimen that is, at most, of moderate intensity, portion control and practical application of correct dietary fundamentals can hold you in good stead.
At 55 years old, Barb stopped skating and began to pursue professional photography, another lifelong passion. However, she kept up with her semiannual skiing trips. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, over the next couple of years she found herself less steady on her skis and felt like her ability to perform to her maximum had diminished along with her regular physical activity. Luckily for Barb, a family member who had an interest in weight lifting encouraged her to begin a resistance training program in order to get back and even improve her muscular strength and overall stability. At 58, Barb began a full body weight training protocol with a professional trainer. Despite her misgivings at the beginning, she made excellent progress and began to notice positive changes not only in her strength and performance, but also in the size of her muscles and the shape of her body. She was surprised that a weight lifting program could make such big improvements to a 58 year old woman. But that’s the beauty of the human body: no matter how old you are, if you eat correctly and exercise properly according to your goals, you can improve both your physical ability and body composition.
Unfortunately, after six months of productive training, Barb was dealt a terrible blow: she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, a disease of the uterus. She underwent almost a year of treatment, including rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Her body was hit hard by the sometimes fatal medication and procedures, but she did far better than many other people facing similar situations. Her doctors and fellow cancer survivors commented on her strength and toughness throughout the treatment. In fact, she credits her improved physical condition going into the diagnosis with her ability to take on the punishing solution to her disease.
Despite being depleted and weakened by the chemo and radiation, Barb survived her treatments and was told that her cancer was in remission. Less than six months later, she was back in the gym with a new trainer, ready to begin the process of rebuilding her body. Now, a year and a half later, the only remnant of her battle with cancer is the slightly softer hair she grew after losing much of her original hairdo. She has been making consistent progress since undertaking her new weight training protocol and continues to push for improvement. At 61 years old, she is proof that age is no excuse for poor health or performance.
Keep this story in mind next time you feel like you might be “over the hill”. If a cancer survivor in her 60s can make noticeable improvements in her physical strength and body composition, so can you. Fortunately, we are born into an incredibly adaptable machine. Even if it’s been mistreated for decades, it will respond positively if you make the choice to change today. Excellent nutrition and properly executed exercise can make a big difference in how you look and feel, no matter what year you were born. In the upcoming new year, make your health and ability your biggest priorities and don’t get yourself down because you feel too old to improve. Whether you’re 30, 40, 50, 60 or beyond, the right fundamentals can make a difference for you.
Protein is slowly becoming better recognized for its uses besides basic muscle repair and maintenance. Academic research and the mass media together are starting to spread the word. Hopefully consumers will take notice and urge the food industry to invest their R&D efforts towards food that will maximize protein’s multiple beneficial effects, including satiety (the feeling of being full), blood sugar control, and relatively high thermal effect (energy used to process and integrate the dietary proteins into the body). I’ve chosen two recently published peer-reviewed journal articles and one mass media story to share with you highlighting some up-to-date information on related to protein and the human diet.
The first journal article (reference #1) was performed by an international team of researchers and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of November. This study investigated the utility of four different kinds of diets in keeping off lost weight. The four types of diets used in this study were: low protein content and low glycemic index, low protein content and high glycemic index, high protein content and low glycemic index, and high protein content and high glycemic index. 548 individuals completed the study, giving credence to the results of the work due to the large sample size. If the sample size of a study is low, conclusions drawn from its data are less likely to apply generally to the rest of the population. However, in this case, they had plenty of subjects.
The researchers found that the best diet for maintenance of lost weight was one that had a relatively high protein content and a relatively low glycemic index. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, these results should come as no surprise. As we know, a low glycemic index diet helps to maintain satiety, stable energy levels, and low insulin levels, keeping the fat production machinery in low gear. A high protein content is beneficial on all levels, complementing the generally low glycemic index of the entire diet.
The second study (reference #2) was executed by a team of US researchers and was published in the journal Obesity in September. They aimed to evaluate the effects of protein consumption and meal frequency on hunger and satiety in overweight and obese males. They included only 13 subjects in this study, but it still serves as a good base for further research. The study participants were assigned to eat either 14% or 25% of their calories as protein. In addition, they were divided again into groups eating either three or six times per day.
The researchers concluded that a higher protein diet significantly increased satiety and that eating fewer meals may also help you feel fuller longer. While the first conclusion is not surprising, the idea that eating fewer meals may actually help satiety is unexpected. Generally, a greater meal frequency is suggested to help curb hunger, an effect I have found in my own counseling experience. However, the data on this issue was somewhat conflicting, possibly due to the quite small sample size of 13 individuals used in the study. I would suggest that a similar study be performed using far more subjects to clarify the results of this trial. In addition, I would also like to see a third group included that consumes around 40% of their calories from protein. I would hypothesize that the increased satiety seen in the 25% protein group vs. the 14% protein group in this initial study would be even more exaggerated with 40% of calories consumed as protein.
Finally, we have an example of the same theme presented by the mass media for consumption by the generally public (reference #3). Unlike the journal articles, which present pretty hard core statistical evidence at lengthy descriptions of their methods and reasoning, this MSNBC release lays out some simple principles and suggestions for everyday incorporation of protein into an everyday diet. They also back up their claims with evidence gleaned from recent scientific articles, which is nice to see. They touch on the thermal effect of protein, as well as its satiety-inducing properties. The article also mentions the current push to raise the FDA guidelines on suggested protein intake, which is a fantastic idea, in my opinion. We need more articles like this published by large, popular media outlets. The public needs to get information in simple, bite-sized packages and I’m glad to see MSNBC doing their part.
Both scientific journal articles and mass media stories can be good sources of nutrition-related information. However, before you believe either source, it’s always prudent to critically analyze how their conclusions were formulated and the reliability of their data. In addition, try to double check for further evidence supporting any new claim you run across. Even journal articles can be wrong from time to time, which is why replication is so important in the scientific process. Do your part to support the truth and rely only on strong, repeatable, data and well-founded, rational conclusions.