Archive for April, 2015

With ‘Read Your Labels Day’ just around the corner, here’s our current summary of the very worst ingredients to look for

Posted by -- April 9, 2015

Read Your Labels Day 2014 flat


It’s almost here! Saturday will be the third annual Citizens for Health Read Your Labels Day.  And in case you’re wondering why we chose April 11 for the occasion, it’s because of what you get when you dial 411 – information!  And information is what you absolutely need before buying any of the many processed foods available in today’s supermarkets in order to keep those products from having a serious impact on your own health and that of your family.

And by information, we don’t just mean the kind provided by front-of-package claims, or the “Nutrition Facts” label, which is often misleading and omits the most important facts about what’s in those products.  We’re talking about reading the part of the label that’s often least visible, where actual ingredients are listed. Because a lot of those ingredients are basically unfit for human consumption, despite being designed as GRAS “generally recognized as safe” by the industry-friendly Food and Drug Administration. And many products contain not just one, but two or more of them.

So here, now, is a summary of the ones we consider the ten you should most avoid – the ones we’ve updated you on during the past month – leading up to our choices for the “worst of the worst”:

Number 10: Artificial colors

The FDA’s admission that at least 96 percent of children aged 2-5 years are being exposed to at least four artificial colors in food products – FD&C Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1 –came six years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned it have nine such dyes banned — and that an interim warning label be posted on foods containing them that they “cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.” While an FDA committee concluded there was not enough evidence to take regulatory action, some companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle USA, have started acting on their own to remove them from products in response to consumer pressure.

Number 9: BHA and BHT

These preservatives, which are made from coal tar or petroleum and banned in Japan and most of Europe, have long been the focus of health and behavioral concerns. Over 30 years ago studies found that after both were fed to pregnant mice, they weighed less, slept less and fought more than normal controls, and  their offspring were born with altered brain chemistry. BHA is also listed as a carcinogen in California. But it wasn’t until “Food Babe” Vani Hari circulated a petition on the Internet noting that BHT is absent in the European versions of popular cereals that Kellogg’s and General Mills started making moves to eliminate it here as well, further demonstrating that pressure from consumers to have harmful additives removed from products does get results.

Number 8: Potassium bromate

Used to “improve” flour and make more uniform, attractive bakery products, potassium bromate has already been banned in many other countries. The FDA, however has merely asked the baking industry to voluntarily stop using it – despite a petition from CSPI back in 1999 noting that the agency had known since 1982 that it could cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and other organs in animals and asking that its use be prohibited. While some commercial brands have replaced it, brominated flour is still widely used in restaurants and bakeries. In fact, General Mills, makers of Pillsbury and Gold Medal brand flours, offers 22 different brominated flours at its “professional baking solutions” site. Which is as good a reason as any to inquire about the ingredients in bakery items before you buy them.

Number 7: Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)

This additive, which is used to keep beverages from appearing cloudy, accumulates in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals. In fact, it has never actually been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, where its status has been in limbo for more than three decades. It finally took an Internet petition launched by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen, along with TV’s Dr. Oz calling BVO his “number one shocking health threat in your food” to get the countries two leading beverage manufacturers to agree to remove it from products. When we recently checked, however, it was still being listed in Pepsi’s popular soda brand Mountain Dew.

Number 6: ‘Hidden forms of MSG’ (e,g., hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, sodium and calcium caseinate)

MSG” is a designation not just for monosodium glutamate, but for more than 40 ingredients containing “free” glutamate, or glutamic acid, as contrasted to the kind that’s naturally “bound” in foods like tomatoes. And these additives can turn up in all kinds of products, usually as flavor enhancers, or as sources of added protein, even those that claim to have no added MSG. And their presence. even small amountgs can cause devastating reactions in highly sensitive people, making nearly all processed foods a dangerous proposition for them.

Number 5: Monosodium glutamate

This “big kahuna” of flavor enhancers is used to perk up the taste — or at least the way we perceive the taste — of all manner of foods, from snacks to soups (including standard brands like Campbell’s).  But is effects can be a lot worse than the relatively mild “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” attributed to it many years ago, In some cases, they can send unwary consumers to the ER, or even cause atrial fibrillation. It’s also an “excitotoxin” – so named because it can literally excite brain cells in the hypothalamus to death, especially in children and the elderly – which was why it was removed from baby food many years ago.

Number 4: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal)

This pervasive artificial sweetener, found in most “diet” drinks was allowed on the market over the objections of FDA advisers after having has been known to cause brain tumors in rats and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys. It also has been the subject of thousands of reports of adverse effect, ranging from migraines to vision problems to memory loss. Despite that, it is still often represented as a “healthy” alternative to caloric sweeteners, and the dairy industry has even petitioned the FDA for a change that would make it easier to feed aspartame-laced milk to school kids. But with new research –for example, a study last year having found that women who drink just two diet sodas a day have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes – more and moreconsumers are becoming leery of it, as are some companies (such as Yoplait, which has removed it from its “Lite” yogurt).
Number 3: Carrageenan

Used in a wide variety of products to give them a nice texture, fatty “mouth feel” and a good appearance, this tasteless, non-nutritive seaweed derivative has long been known to cause harmful gastrointestinal inflammation and intestinal lesions. But what’s especially disturbing is that it’s found in some organic foods, the National Organic Standards Board having approved its use by a one-vote margin in 2012. If nothing else, that’s a good reason for reading the ingredients label on organic products as well as conventional ones.

Number 2: Partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO (a.k.a. trans fat)

It will soon be a year and a half since the FDA proposed removing this artery-clogging substance, which gives products a longer shelf-life but causes an estimated 7,000 fatal heart attacks a year, from the GRAS list. But despite the fanfare that greeted that announcement, the agency has yet to take concrete action – even though a subsequent study showed PHO also impairs memory. Of course, it’s always possible the FDA itself simply forgot to act on this much heralded plan – but what’s more likely is that it was put off by objections from the food and baking industries.

Number 1: high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS (along with ‘fructose’)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t want this cheap laboratory sweetener in their food, according to a recent Nielsen international health and wellness survey. And there are good reasons for that, as studies (including a recent one from Harvard Medical School) have consistently linked HFCS to health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Such popular rejection has prompted an increasing number of processed food companies to specify that their products contain “no HFCS.” But at least a couple of the products making that claim now have “fructose” listed as an ingredient – one which the Corn Refiners Association claims is actually HFCS-90. Whether or not it is, “fructose” is a component of sugar that by itself or in unbound form (as in HFCS) the body has far more trouble assimilating than the “bound” glucose-fructose combo of which plain sugar consists.


As additives go, it’s still the ‘worst of the worst’ – with even more support from science and a brand new ‘spinoff’

Posted by -- April 7, 2015


With this Saturday designated as Citizens for Health’s third annual Read Your Labels Day, we’ve finally come down to the number-one additive we strongly suggest you shun when examining those ingredients labels and deciding what products to put in your shopping cart.  And it’s the same one that topped our list last year – although this time, we’ve added a new variant that has started popping up on more and more of those labels.

Number 1: High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS (along with ‘fructose’)

There can no longer be any doubt about it – most consumers simply don’t want high fructose corn syrup in the processed foods and beverages they buy.  That was made quite evident back in January by a Nielsen international health and wellness survey’s finding that “in the U.S., high fructose corn syrup was public enemy #1 and 65 percent of consumers said it was very or moderately important to buy products with labels touting its absence.”

And that preference has been reflected in the increasing number of processed food packages on which “no high fructose corn syrup” is prominently displayed, as well as by food companies that have announced they are dropping the sweetener from products. (There are, however, instances where claims of “no HFCS” are misleading, as we shall see).

Not that the HFCS manufacturers haven’t been attempting to fight back. Their lobbying group, the Corn Refiners Association, has continued to make HFCS appear to be pretty much the same thing as the sugar (or sucrose) it replaced (even though the Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2013 that it isn’t), in addition to sponsoring university surveys of consumers purporting to show that they suffer from unfounded “food fears” fanned by Internet rumors.

Politicians have also helped to blur the distinction.  Recently, for example, Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) proposed a bill labeled the “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2015” (or SWEET Act), the text of which includes statements such as “Adults who drink one sugar-sweetened beverage or more per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, regardless of income or ethnicity.”(Of course, almost all the beverages it talks about contain no sugar, only HFCS)

The media and various web sites have also done their part to compound the confusion.  Just last week, for example, an article at Rodale News claimed “research suggests that a steady diet of sugary, processed foods can mess with insulin in the brain” which “may trigger what some experts call type 3 diabetes, aka Alzheimer’s disease” (the term ”sugary” being frequently applied to foods containing HFCS). And stories at both The Washington Post and the Huffington Post websites both featured a video from the American Chemical Society that claimed “the current scientific consensus is that there’s no difference” between the two sweeteners.

But even while making that assertion, the narrator of that video had to acknowledge that fructose “can do a number on your liver” and had been directly linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Maybe that’s because so many studies have been finding that to be the case, it can no longer be ignored.

The key difference that research has uncovered

In just the past year, for example, Harvard Medical School researchers found that fructose “may have a particularly deleterious effect on health” by making people obese, less responsive to insulin and prone to develop fatty liver disease and abnormal blood lipid levels, which are precursors to diabetes and heart disease. They determined that blood levels of the hormone FGF21, which helps regulate the accumulation of fat, undergo a rapid and acute elevation following fructose ingestion. (Raised FGF21 levels in both humans and animals had already been linked by one of the study’s  lchexead authors to obesity, insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.)

Their conclusion was based on a study involving 21 adult subjects, about half of whom were lean and fit and the rest suffering from obesity and at high risk for diabetes. All were given either 75 grams of glucose, the same amount of fructose or a mixture of the two to drink at various times.

In all subjects, the glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream and into fat and muscle tissues and converted into energy, had no immediate effect on levels of FGF21, with only mild changes detected three or four hours later. But the fructose, which is absorbed directly by the liver and raises triglycerides that can lead to problems such as diabetes and heart disease, caused levels of the hormone to sharply increase by 400 percent on average within just two hours of being consumed.

All of which might help explain the results of a 2013 University of Southern California study that found that countries using high-fructose corn syrup had rates of diabetes that were about 20% higher than countries that didn’t mix the sweetener into foods.

But the persistent misidentification of HFCS as “sugar” hasn’t been the only source of confusion surrounding this laboratory sweetener.  It’s also often referred to by the media as “corn syrup,” which is actually the name of an older sweetening agent that contains no fructose. And within the past few months, we’ve found a couple of products that claim to have “no high fructose corn syrup” but do list “fructose” as an ingredient.

According to a posting on the website of the Corn Refiners Association, “fructose” is the term currently being used instead of HFCS-90, a type of high fructose corn syrup that’s 90 percent fructose, which is a much higher amount than the 42 or 55 percent found in regular HFCS and allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. When we contacted Kellogg’s about one such instance, however, a company spokesperson replied that “Kellogg products in the U.S. do not contain this ingredient. The ingredient ‘fructose’ on our packaging is not high fructose corn syrup and is simply ‘fructose’ as listed.”

Whatever the case, what’s becoming ever more evident is that “fructose” that’s neither bound with fiber, as it is naturally in fruit, or with glucose to form sucrose, has a far different effect on our bodies than traditional sugar — one that can lead to metabolic dysfunction and a whole range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart trouble and even pancreatic cancer.  And that whether it’s a component of high fructose corn syrup or simply “fructose” per se, its continued presence in so many food products is hazardous to both our individual and collective health.

On that point, both consumers and scientists are increasingly in agreement.

Trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil: the condemned killer that got a reprieve

Posted by -- April 2, 2015


The next additive on our list of the top ten to be avoided in our countdown toward Read Your Labels Day 2015 is one we decided deserves to be much closer to the top than it was last year. That’s because it’s the only one on this list that the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges is a killer – but still can’t seem to bring itself to do something about.

Number 2: Partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO (a.k.a. trans fat)

Its purpose is mainly to extend the shelf life of the products to which it’s added.  But in the process, partially hydrogenated oil can also shorten the lives of those who consume it by clogging their arteries with trans fat.  Not only do they increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, but they decrease your “good”  HDL cholesterol. After estimating that 20,000 Americans suffer heart attacks every year and 7,000 die from the effects of PHO, the FDA in 2013 proposed that it be taken off the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list and phased out of processed food. In fact, it was widely assumed at the time that a prohibition on trans fat was already a ‘done deal’ – for example, Dr. Mark Hyman, writing in the Huffington Post, began by saying,  “Thank God! Trans fats are banned at last”.

But nearly a year and a half later, the initiative remains stalled, while this lethal substance remains in many products, particularly things like cookies and baked goods.

How many products? Well, at the beginning of September, a study by the New York Department of Health and Public and Mental Hygiene found that one in 10 processed foods still contained PHOs – and that 84 percent of those products are labeled as having “zero trans fats.” How do they get away with doing that?  By taking advantage of what we call the “trans fat loophole,” which allows any amount less than 0.5 percent to be reduced to “zero” on the label (never mind that there’s no really “safe” amount—or that the actual amounts consumed can easily exceed that threshold).

But the increased risk of dying from a heart attack isn’t the only reported result of consuming such products. Last November, researchers at the University of California in San Diego found they may also act to impair memory after testing 1,000 young and middle-aged men who had not yet been diagnosed with heart disease after having them fill out questionnaires about their dietary habits.  The subjects were given a “recurrent word” in which they were asked to remember whether certain words had already been shown to them on a series of 104 flash cards. When the results were compiled, it was found that the ones who ate the most PHOs could recall 11 or 12 fewer words than their peers, even when other factors were taken into account.

Study author Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the college, described that as “a pretty big detriment to function,” given that the average number of words accurately recalled was 86. In fact, the researchers were able to estimate that every additional gram a day of trans fat consumed resulted inh 0.76 fewer words committed to memory. Golomb hypothesized that trans fats do far more than damage the cardiovascular system.  She considers them to be “metabolic poisons” whose energy-sapping oxidative effects can effectively put brain cells that retain memories out of commission and even cause them to die off.

PHOs must go? Not so fast!

Now, given all that, you’d think the FDA wouldn’t waste any time in banishing this heart- and-brain-damaging ingredient from grocery shelves. After all, protecting us from things like that is their job, isn’t it?

You might think so.  But the fact that nothing further has happened since the phase-out was proposed (with a lot of accompanying hoopla) would seem to indicate that the agency is having second thoughts. Could it be that a little pushback in the form of comments from industry (among the more than 1,500 received on the proposal during the comment period) is all it takes to clog the gears at the FDA as surely as PHOs clog our arteries?

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, urged the agency to replace its proposed ban on PHOs “with a fundamentally different approach that will achieve a policy aim that will be supported by consumers, industry and the agency.” Such a “prudent” course of action, the GMA maintained, could consist of  a “less onerous proposal that builds on already existing programs that are successfully driving trans fat consumption to lower levels,” lest the food supply be significantly disrupted and consumers “unjustifiably denied access to products such as baked goods, pastries, confectioneries, some flavors, seasonings and many other products.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by Mark B. Andon, Ph.D., vice-president, research, quality and innovation at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, who contended that dropping the GRAS status of PHOs “would place potentially thousands of food products at risk of being deemed adulterated due to the presence of an ingredient that has been safely and commonly used in foods for over 50 years.”

The food giant General Mills likewise expressed the opinion that “current low intakes of trans fat are safe” and suggested that a level of trans fat below 0.2 grams per serving either be established as the new “zero” (as did the American Bakers Association) or become a “threshold limit.”

As an apparent result, we were told back in September by Marianna Naum, Ph.D. of the Strategic Communications and Public Engagement Staff of the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine: “We continue to review comments to the proposal and at this time aren’t able to conjecture on date of next action.” When contacted late last week, she indicated that had not changed.

In other words, this condemned killer has been given an apparent reprieve – at least for now.  But that doesn’t mean you want to let it into your house – and the best way to keep your family safe is to check all processed food packages for the presence of “partially hydrogenated oil” before you check them out of the supermarket.