Read the Label

(Originally published as a four part series for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

Part One

For the great majority of human history, most people cooked all of their own food and they always knew exactly what was in it. Then, in the twentieth century, our standards began to change. Food processing methods developed primarily for soldiers – and later, astronauts – became increasingly acceptable for everyone. Canned foods, spray dried and freeze dried foods, reconstituted foods, refined foods, refined and re-enriched foods, instant foods, frozen foods, and preservatives all gradually became part of the typical American diet. Meanwhile, the addition of artificial colors and flavors made food more . . . fun.

Many of these foods taste pretty good, and are cheaper, more convenient, and easier to prepare than fresh, whole foods, so it’s not all that surprising that we embraced them. What is surprising is that we just trusted that what food corporations were doing to our food was okay. Most people don’t even look to see what’s in the packaged foods they buy.

If you care at all about what goes into your body, you should read food labels. In case you don’t already do this, I’m going to introduce you to this practice in stages. For the first month, all you have to look at is three things, all of which are in the Nutrition Facts panel.

The first thing to look at is the serving size and number of servings per package. I used to have a favorite muffin that contained bits of carrots and apples. I ate one a couple times a week. It was called “Healthy Muffin.” I was a bit groggy each time I ate one, but I didn’t suspect the muffin, since, after all, it was “Healthy.” Like most people who buy muffins out of a pastry case at a café, I never saw the ingredients or a Nutrition Facts panel. Then, one day, a Dragontree employee brought in a stack of papers that had been mistakenly delivered to her house. Get this: it was a nutritional analysis that had been ordered by the company that made those muffins. What are the chances?! The employee thought I’d be interested in checking it out. I was.

I flipped through the pages until I found the analysis for my favorite muffin. Let’s see . . . 200 calories . . . not bad. Now, number of servings . . . wait a second! This muffin was considered to be FOUR servings. That’s 800 calories per muffin! The second thing to look at is the number of calories per serving, which you need to multiply by the number of servings you consume. As I’ll discuss later, calories aren’t as meaningful as conventional dieticians have led us to believe. But they aren’t meaningless either. 800 calories is a lot to metabolize at once – especially when it’s almost entirely sugar.

Since most people eat the whole muffin at once, setting the serving size as a quarter of a muffin was clearly an attempt to manipulate consumers’ perception of the nutritional value (or liability) of the product. This is an exceedingly common practice. As you may know, Coca Cola began in a six ounce bottle which, over the years, became an eight ounce bottle, and then a twelve ounce can. Later they introduced the sixteen ounce bottle and then the twenty ounce bottle. The twenty ounce bottle contains two-and-a-half eight ounce servings, but most people drink the whole thing. Cereals are another good example of unrealistic serving sizes. If you like to enjoy a bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs cereal for breakfast (I’m sure it’s chock full of nutrients), be aware that a serving is just three-quarters of a cup. Same for granola. Back in high school, I remember going through a box of cereal in a day or two. That’s like twelve servings of cookies and milk.

The third thing to look at in the Nutrition Facts panel is Sugars, which can be found in the Total Carbohydrate section. Sugar is sugar. Whether it’s white granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave “nectar,” maple syrup, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, date sugar, or rice syrup, all caloric sweeteners (with the partial exception of sugar alcohols) act as sugar in the body. There are minor benefits to choosing, say, raw local honey or blackstrap molasses over refined sugar, but sweeteners of all kinds should occupy a very small place in our diets. For most Americans, restricting consumption of sweeteners would make more difference in our overall health than any other dietary change, except perhaps reducing portion sizes.

For a long time, people thought that fructose, a sugar with a “low glycemic index” – meaning it has a small impact on the amount of glucose (sugar) in our blood – was healthier than other sweeteners. We now know that just the opposite is true. Fructose consumption raises our “bad cholesterol,” causes weight gain, and makes us produce fat that tends to gather in and around our abdominal organs (this is called visceral adiposity or abdominal obesity) which is a major risk factor for diabetes and various inflammatory diseases. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – a sugar extracted from processed corn, which is manipulated to maximize its fructose content – is one of the primary contributors to the obesity epidemic. Agave “nectar,” a cleverly marketed fad sweetener, actually contains more fructose than HFCS.

A teaspoon of sugar weighs about four grams. So, if you think an Odwalla Superfood green juice sounds healthy, consider that a 12 ounce bottle of it contains 56 grams of sugars, or the equivalent of 14 teaspoons! A pint sized bottle of Minute Maid orange juice: 48 grams of sugars. A mere eight ounces of grape juice: 36 grams of sugars. A Clif Bar: about 24 grams of sugars.  A bottle of SoBe green tea: 50 grams of sugars. A 20-ounce bottle of Vitamin Water: 32 grams of sugars. Yoplait Original 99% fat free, Lemon Burst yogurt: 31 grams of sugars. A Balance Bar: about 17 grams of sugars. A tiny 4 ounce cup of Mott’s Regular Applesauce: 22 grams of sugars. A 16-ounce glass of Newman’s Own Virgin Lemonade: 54 grams of sugars. A can of Chunky Roadhouse Chili: 26 grams of sugars. A cup of dried apricots: 69 grams of sugars. A Lara Bar – Key Lime Pie flavor: 24 grams of sugars. A half cup of raisins: 49 grams of sugars.

If you are interested in losing weight, you must pay attention to the sugar content of what you eat and drink. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum intake of 24 grams of “added sugars” per day for women and 36 grams for men. This is a pretty decent guideline, except that they unfortunately don’t speak to, or limit, “natural sugars.” The Lara Bar mentioned above could be considered as having only “natural” sugars, since it’s sweetened with dates, but 24 grams of sugar is 24 grams of sugar. That’s a treat – whether we consider the sugar “added” or not – and nobody needs more than one small treat per day. Just pay attention to the sugars content on labels and choose the lowest sugar option.

There are a few key ways to cut down on sugars. First, don’t assume that “nutrition bars” and products with healthy names are truly healthy. No “nutrition bar” containing more than about five grams of sugar is nutritious. If you really feel that you need something convenient, sweet, and chewy with protein, one decent product with minimal sugar is called Quest Bar. Same with cereals – choose only those that contain five grams of sugars per serving (or less, ideally).

Second, as you may have noticed in the food examples above, it’s really easy to drink a huge amount of sugar. Skip the fruit juice and stick to drinks without added sugar. If you need a sweetener, use some stevia leaf extract. If you’re addicted to sweet juice drinks, try brewing up a batch of fruity tea, chill it, and add stevia.

Third, whenever possible, make your own. If you made chilli, or soup, or tomato sauce, chances are, you wouldn’t think to put sugar in it – but you’ll find it in virtually all the store brands. If you like sweet yogurt, get plain nonfat yogurt, add some fruit, and (if you need it) some stevia or erythritol to sweeten it. Fourth, get used to not having everything taste super sweet. Learn to appreciate subtly sweet things.

Next time, we’ll look at more of the elements of food labels. You’ll be an expert in no time. Meanwhile, remember just three things: serving size, calories, and sugars. Don’t get obsessive; just observe, do some good things for yourself, and pat yourself on the back when you do.


Part Two – Dietary Fats

In part one of this article I introduced three things to start looking for on food labels  – serving size, calories per serving, and grams of sugars. The crux of the article was that we should all understand how much sugar we’re consuming, and cut it down as much as possible. This month I’ll introduce a few more items from the Nutrition Facts panel.

But first, I’ll address a comment I made last time: calories aren’t as significant as most dieticians would have us believe. Maybe I should have said they’re not as simple as dieticians would have us believe. We often hear that weight loss is primarily a matter of exercising more and eating fewer calories per day. Or we’re told that 2000 calories is the proper amount for someone of our sex and age. There are a number of things wrong with this way of thinking about calories, but since this is an article about reading food labels, and not a lesson on human nutrition, I won’t get too much into that here.

The short version is this: (1) How many calories you consume in a day is less significant than how much you eat in a sitting. If you stuff yourself at one meal each day, even if you eat light the rest of the day and end up with a total of, say, 1500 calories over the course of the day, that one incident of overeating could keep you from losing weight. (2) If you eat a high fat, moderate protein, and very low simple carbohydrate diet, you will probably end up consuming lots of calories, because while carbs and proteins have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9. If you eat this way and you avoid letting yourself get full, you could have five meals a day, possibly greatly exceeding your recommended caloric intake (not to mention your recommended fat intake) and still end up losing weight. There are several good books on this type of diet. One that I like is the Rosedale Diet. If you’d like to read more about my recommendations for weight loss, check out this article I wrote a few years ago. Now, back to the label.

Trans fats and hydrogenated oils should always be zero. While I’m much less concerned about people’s fat consumption than most mainstream dieticians, there’s one form of fat we should all stay away from: hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils. In the hydrogenation process, oils that are normally liquid at room temperature are induced to become semi-solid. The result is a synthetic product that has found its way into many of our foods. In the ingredients list, you’ll see it as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil (sometimes with the name of the oil it was derived from, such as “partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil”) or vegetable shortening or margarine. It’s very popular in commercial candy bars, baked goods, and fried foods.

Partially-hydrogenated oils are generally worse than completely hydrogenated oils, but neither one has any place in the human body. When an oil is incompletely hydrogenated, trans-fatty acids (trans fats for short) often result. Trans fats contribute to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Starting in 2006, the FDA has made food manufacters declare the amount of trans fats a food contains in the Nutrition Facts panel. Overall, this has been a great thing, with most food companies eliminating or greatly reducing hydrogenated oils from their recipes. However, there is a small loophole. If there is less than half a gram of trans fat per serving, the manufacturer can say it contains no trans fat. As we know from last month’s examination of serving size, people don’t often eat just one serving of a packaged food. Therefore, if a food labeled as containing zero grams of trans fat actually contains 0.4 grams per serving and you eat several servings, you can still consume plenty of it. So, it’s best to look for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list and if it’s in there, choose something else.

Saturated Fat and Cholesterol: Relax. The FDA groups saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium together at the top of the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easy for consumers. The FDA and “health experts” [their words] advise that we consume as little as possible of these items. But, while I agree on trans fats and I mostly agree on sodium, I think that with dietary cholesterol and saturated fats, this is an area where the mainstream hasn’t caught up to the science.

One leader in the science world whose views on cholesterol contradict the mainstream is Dr. Fred Kummerow, a 98-year-old researcher on fats. Over a career spanning more than 60 years, he has published 459 papers, including one just recently in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease, in which he argues that dietary cholesterol  is not the cause of heart disease.

In the same way that mainstream dietary experts decided that too much dietary fat must be the cause of too much body fat, they also assumed that too much dietary cholesterol and solid (saturated) fats are the reason for too much cholesterol deposited in our blood vessels. Neither is true. While we’ve gone low-fat, low-cholesterol, and high-sugar with our foods over the past several decades, we’ve only gotten fatter and more prone to dying of cardiovascular disease.

Even when there is a lot of cholesterol is in your blood, it’s still not a straightforward predictor of death. A Dutch study that followed people age 85 and older – Total Cholesterol and Risk of Mortality in the Oldest Old – found that high cholesterol was associated with longer life. Among those who died of cardiovascular disease, cholesterol levels were insignificant – some had high cholesterol, some medium, some low. Meanwhile, researchers found that “mortality from cancer and infection was significantly lower among the participants in the highest total cholesterol category than in the other categories, which largely explained the lower all-cause mortality in this category.” Another scientific analysis of 21 studies found no significant evidence connecting saturated fat consumption with coronary artery disease. If you still don’t believe me, even America’s medical sweetheart, Dr. Oz, is changing his tune on dietary fats, if that means anything to you.

I won’t say that dietary cholesterol and fats are universally healthy, though. Consumption of oxidized cholesterol and fats is definitely a contributor to cardiovascular disease, according to Kummerow and others. We get these from reusing oil, from frying at high heat, from overconsuming polyunsaturated fats (especially highly heated), from using rancid oils, and from smoking (which causes oxidation). In general, frying is not a healthy way to cook food. But you knew that. As for the polyunsaturated fats, re-read my article on rancidity (oxidation) and be sure you know how to smell it.

If you’re getting your cholesterol and saturated fats from natural foods that haven’t been fried at high heat – such as egg yolks (poached or boiled), fish, avocado, coconut, butter (ideally organic, pasture butter), unprocessed lard from free-range pigs, modest amounts of high quality poultry and red meats – you generally don’t have to worry about the saturated fat and cholesterol content on your food labels.


Part Three – Lab to Table

In part one and part two in this series, I wrote about what to look for in terms of sugars, fats, and serving size in the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels. Next month, I’m going to return to the Nutrition Facts panel for a few more details, but in this article we’re going to look more broadly at indicators of food quality and contamination.

First, I want to add one more note to a statement I made in my last article. I claimed that consuming cholesterol through your diet generally does not negatively affect your blood lipid profile (cholesterol and related substances). Right after releasing my article, I discovered a study just published in the journal Metabolism which looked at this very issue. Individuals with metabolic syndrome (a combination of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes or pre-diabetes, and unhealthy blood lipids) were put on a reduced carbohydrate diet and split into two groups. Participants in the first group ate three egg whites a day for 12 weeks; members of the other group ate three whole eggs with yolks every day for 12 weeks. As you may know, egg yolks are the most cholesterol-rich food, so conventional doctors and dieticians recommend avoiding them – especially for those with metabolic syndrome.

Yet the results of the study contradict this advice. Atherogenic dyslipidemia (the blood cholesterol profile most associated with cardiovascular disease risk) improved for both groups. However, there was a significantly greater improvement among those who ate three egg yolks a day than for those who just at the whites. In other words, when people added a TON of dietary cholesterol, their blood cholesterol profile improved. Furthermore, the yolk-eaters also experienced improvements in diabetic factors.

Now, I’m going to attempt to cover a vast and difficult topic in a small amount of space. Here’s one more thing to look for on food labels: Organically Grown (OG) and Non-Genetically-Modified.

When I was getting my degree in botany and studying organic farming twenty years ago, the industry was poorly regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had no official role, and it was up to independent certification companies to develop standards and award the OG designation. Now the USDA runs the National Organic Program, which sets the standards and accredits independent certifiers to administer them. Organic certification means a lot of things, but in short, it ensures that foods and other agricultural products were produced without synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering, and certain natural-yet-harmful substances. It also ensures that a certain measure of sustainable practices are utilized, meaning agricultural methods that can be indefinitely sustained because they are not depleting or disruptive to the environment.

I’ve always avoided saying that everyone should eat exclusively organically grown foods, partly because I know they’re expensive and I don’t believe that the “organically grown” designation automatically means that a product is healthy or better than an equivalent product without this designation. OG junk food, for instance, is still junk food.

It costs money and takes time to become certified as an organic grower. Many small growers avoid the use of chemicals and employ sustainable methods, but simply haven’t gotten certified. So, when you buy a conventionally grown crop or product, you might get something that’s as good as OG. Or, you might get something that was genetically modified, fed entirely with synthetic fertilizers, sprayed with many different chemical pesticides, irradiated after harvest, and treated with a chemical mold inhibitor before being shipped to your grocery store. And, by the way, that chemical laden product could easily have come from your friendly neighbors at Happy Sunshine Family Farms. It’s great to support your local economy, it’s great for the farmers to have less middleman involvement, and it’s great to avoid the environmental impacts of shipping food long distances, but don’t assume that local means less chemicals.

When you can’t buy everything OG, it can be hard to know what your best choices are. A great resource is the report published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which analyzes pesticide data collected by the USDA and FDA, and compiles a list of the crops with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues. If you’re going to buy some conventionally grown foods, you can choose crops from the bottom of the list (least residue) and wash them thoroughly with produce soap. And if you want to save your money to buy just a few OG items, choose from the worst offenders. This year’s 12 worst offenders are (in descending order of residue): apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and hot peppers. Conventional apples are glaringly bad. A single apple could have up to 48 different kinds of pesticide residue on it. And this is after being washed.

Synthetic pesticides are broadly toxic to humans and most other organisms. Think about it: We saturate our food crops with insect poison – famers have to wear protective suits while spraying it – and then we EAT it. There is so much research clearly demonstrating their damaging effects on health that it’s just silly to debate it at this point. Part of the problem, however, is that the health problems related to pesticide exposure tend to develop over a long period of time.

For instance, a recent study shows that when pregnant women consume foods with a common pesticide residue there is an increased risk of impaired cognitive development in their children. But it doesn’t start to show up until they’re 12 months old. Another study on prenatal exposure to pesticides demonstrated impaired memory and reduced IQ in children at age 7. Delayed toxicity makes it easier for manufacturers to claim that pesticides are safe. You could eat an apple with high levels of pesticide residue and feel fine, in the same way that you could use a can of spray paint in an unventilated room – once in a while – and feel fine. But while you’re unlikely to expose yourself to spray paint in an unventilated room day after day, you might very well eat an apple every day of your life.

Please note that there are genetically modified crops that aren’t on the EWG’s list because we don’t often purchase them for direct consumption from the grocery store, but they still end up in many processed foods and are worth avoiding. Many of our biggest crops are now predominantly grown from genetically modified seed. The major GM crops include: sugar beets (the source of most of our sugar), potatoes (25% of which are eaten by humans; the rest used for starch in processed foods and fed to livestock), field corn (for corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal, maltodextrin, and animal feed), soybeans (for soybean oil, soy protein, animal feed; almost guaranteed to be genetically modified if not OG), cotton (the source of cottonseed oil, a very common food additive), canola (rapeseed – the source of canola oil and animal feed), alfalfa (for animal feed), squash, papayas, and tomatoes. Although I wrote earlier in this article that you should look for non-GM foods, the unfortunate part is that you’ll never see the words genetically modified on a food label. The GM crop industry, led largely by the Monsanto Corporation, has successfully lobbied to avoid the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered crops in the U.S.  However, organically grown foods are guaranteed to not be derived from genetically engineered stock.

There are many ways in which crops are genetically modified to improve yields and make them easier to grow. One of the most successful and widely utilized feats of genetic engineering was Monsanto’s development of “Roundup Ready” crops. Monsanto makes the most popular herbicide in the world, called Roundup (glyphosate), which kills virtually all plants by disrupting a certain enzyme. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready plants are not affected by Roundup, so farmers can spray their fields with the herbicide to kill all the weeds without harming their crop.

The only problem is that these plants often have a lot of glyphosate residue (Monsanto just successfully petitioned the EPA to increase the allowed limit), so even if you don’t have a problem with eating a GM plant, you should know that you’re likely consuming Roundup with it. In studies, rats fed GM corn or administered minuscule amounts of Roundup (as low as 0.000007% of the current limit) developed tumors, liver damage, kidney damage, and sex hormone disruption. A new article in the journal Entropy discusses the mechanisms by which glyphosate affects human health. Although humans don’t contain the particular enzyme that makes plants susceptible to this chemical, the study explains that it instead disrupts a vital enzyme in our liver, which makes us prone to a host of problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Even when we don’t directly consume pesticides or GM crops, we must consider other ways in which they negatively impact us and our environment. When these chemicals are applied, they don’t stay in one place. They drift through the air, either as they’re being sprayed or attached to eroding soil that’s blown by wind or moved by rain. Pesticides and fertilizers leach into and contaminate ground water, and get into our waterways, where they kill fish and other wildlife. Pesticides are decimating our populations of bees, bats and other vital pollinators (bats also play a key role in controlling insects such as mosquitos).

Many GM crops are fed to farm animals and cause changes to their meat and milk that aren’t yet fully understood, but at the least, these foods become contaminated with glyphosate. The development of GM crops has led to a huge shift toward monoculture – where the majority of famers are all growing the exact same variety of a given crop (such as Monsanto brand Roundup Ready soybeans). This exposes us to a greater risk of massive crop loss, because if a microbe or insect comes along that is especially effective at ruining this particular variety of the plant, the lack of genetic diversity means that all of the existing crop is susceptible, which is less likely when farmers grown a more diverse range of species. GM crops also cross pollinate with nearby non-GM crops, so even farmers who don’t want to grow GM crops may end up with altered genetic material in their plants.

You can trust me. I’m not a zealot. I’ve carefully weighed all the available information over the past two decades, and I believe that the regulations haven’t caught up to the science yet. Pesticides do vary in their degree of toxicity, but without knowing specifically what a conventionally grown crop was sprayed with, you’re best off minimizing your exposure.


Part Four

In part one of this series, I wrote about serving size, calories, and sugars. In part two, I discussed fats and cholesterol. In part three, I explored some of the issues around genetically modified and conventionally grown foods (meaning, probably sprayed with pesticides and grown with synthetic fertilizers). This time we’re going to talk about some things that just don’t belong in our food.

First, Watch Out for Long Lists of Ingredients. Most foods with dozens of ingredients are highly processed. For example, Morningstar brand meatless sausage patties are made with 44 ingredients, many of them quite unnatural. The mere fact that they aren’t made of meat doesn’t make them a healthier alternative. Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cereal has 21 ingredients. Now, eleven of those ingredients are added vitamins and minerals, which might impress a health conscious consumer, but please keep in mind that truly healthy, whole foods don’t need to be fortified. Now for some specific ingredients to look for:

Bovine Growth Hormones (commonly referred to as rBST and rBGH, plus a number of other steroid hormones) are widely administered to cows for the purpose of increasing milk production in dairy cows and building muscle in beef cattle. You won’t see hormones listed on a label, though. If you want milk without hormones, the only way to know for sure is if it’s listed as “rBST-free” or “rBGH-free” or if it’s certified organic. Many states require the use of labeling recommended by the FDA, which states that the FDA has found no difference between the milk of cows treated with hormones and those not treated with hormones. However, in 2010, the Sixth Circuit Court found that there is indeed a difference between these two forms of milk. Milk from hormone-treated cows is less healthy. Also, the cows themselves are less healthy when they are treated with these hormones. Look for meat that is labeled as “naturally raised” or, even better, “certified organic.” Seek out milk, cheese, and yogurt that are “rBST free” or “growth hormone free” or, better yet, “certified organic.” And both beef and milk are best when they come from pasture-raised cows. Food for thought: the use of bovine growth hormones is banned in nearly all developed countries, including the entire European Union.

Artificial Sweeteners are everywhere. Starting with saccharin (Sweet ‘n’ Low) in the late 1800s, and later cyclamate, aspartame (NutraSweet / Equal / AminoSweet), and sucralose (Splenda), we’ve added these sugar substitutes to a massive number of processed foods and drinks. The reason: sweetness is good, but sugar is bad. As a result of the development of non-caloric sweeteners, we have seen a gradual decline in obesity over the past century. Just kidding. They haven’t really changed anything except adding a confounding factor to the investigation of unusual health problems. It’s hard to say that these chemicals are outright toxic, but we do know that some people have a sensitivity to them – aspartame in particular – that can lead to a wide array of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, depression, irritability, nausea, vision changes and more. There have been a massive number of adverse incidents associated with aspartame reported to the FDA. I just don’t like fake sugars because they’re made in laboratories and are totally foreign to the human body. NutraSweet is good to have around though – it’s a really effective ant killer.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA ) are preservatives you’ve probably consumed thousands of times. They help prevent rancidity and the development of off-flavors in packaged foods, and they are also used to preserve drugs, rubber, and cosmetics, and to embalm corpses. Most foods that have BHT or BHA added to them weren’t healthy to begin with. Studies show BHT and BHA are probably carcinogens. As with artificial sweeteners, low doses aren’t outright toxic, but it seems worthwhile to avoid long term consumption. When we consider the rise in rates of cancer over the past few centuries, I think it’s worth looking at what else has changed in human diets and lifestyles over this time period, and of course, one of the biggest differences is the cocktail of chemicals we breathe, absorb through our skin, and ingest that are completely new to us. Why not avoid some when it’s easy to?

Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate are used to preserve meats. In the human body, they lead to the production of chemicals called nitrosamines, which are probably carcinogenic. In particular, they may be associated with cancers of the digestive tract. Nitrosamine production seems to be increased when meats are charred, and it’s reduced by the addition of vitamin C. So, avoid nitrates and nitrites, but when you must have some charred meat, take some vitamin C with it.

Potassium Bromate is used to make some breads, rolls, and muffins more fluffy. It is a strong oxidizer, meaning it does the opposite of what anti-oxidants do. In the human body, this means it is potentially damaging to cells. It is considered a likely carcinogen, and its use has been banned in most developed countries, but not the United States.

Artificial Colors make foods more exciting, but they really have no place in our bodies. Most are come from petroleum. Lots of people have negative reactions to them that are subtle enough that we don’t make the connection on a per-meal basis. Kids seem most sensitive to them, with the exacerbation of ADD/ADHD, asthma, and skin problems most common. Reactions to artificial colors seem to be antagonized when they’re combined with certain preservatives, such as sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. Unfortunately, many processed foods due contain both synthetic colors and preservatives.

High Fructose Corn Syrup. I don’t need to tell you it’s bad, right? It comes mostly from genetically modified corn. Some manufacturers use a process that leaves mercury residue in the final product. It’s a major contributor to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It’s just garbage. While you’re at it, avoid Agave Nectar – it’s almost the same thing.

I don’t love giving people lists of foods to not eat. People feel scolded, deprived, and guilty. So, I could just as easily say, “Stick with whole, pure, natural foods.” But I know that people’s capacity to make food from scratch is limited, especially when working and traveling. We all have times when we need to grab something easy . The less often you do this, the less you need to think about the ingredients. The more often you do it, the more attention you should pay to the labels.


Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten