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Ranch dressing can add healthy flavor to salad – or make it distinctly unhealthy

Posted by -- July 24, 2014




“You Can’t Corral Some Folks’ Taste for Ranch Dressing,” went a recent attempt-to-be-cutesy headline in The Wall Street Journal, accompanied by a subhead reading “Creamy Condiment Still a Staple Despite Healthier Habits.”

The article that ran beneath it gave a rather detailed account of ranch dressing’s popularity with today’s salad-eating crowd, and gives particular attention to the top seller in the field, Hidden Valley Ranch, which is now owned, oddly enough,  by the Clorox Company (a factoid you won’t find anywhere on its label, although we can’t imagine why not). It also offers a cursory comparison of calories between a health-food company’s Greek yogurt dressing and two conventional brands.

But other than a reference to ranch dressing as a “zingy, buttermilk and herb accompaniment” to the average salad, what’s missing from the article is any reference to the ingredients found in the various ranch dressings now on the market.

So we’ve taken the trouble to examine and compare the ingredients in the various ranch dressings we found on the shelves of our local supermarket. And we discovered something that should be of a lot more concern to ranch-dressing enthusiasts than whatever extra calories they’re getting from these products.

What we found is that a number of them – including Hidden Valley, Wish Bone and Ken’s — contain monosodium glutamate, the flavor enhancer that has been known to produce a whole range of adverse effects in sensitive individuals, some serious enough to require a visit to the ER. That should be enough to make people especially wary of dressings served at parties and get-togethers.

Such warnings should also raise a red flag for parents, since monosodium glutamate is considered by various experts in neurology to be an “excitotoxin” capable of literally exciting certain brain cells to death, posing a particular risk to children whose blood-brain barriers haven’t completely formed (and making those Hidden Valley Ranch commercials referred to in the Journal article that claim the dressing “makes vegetables delectable” and appealing to children seem genuinely chilling).

Of course, the presesaladdressings2nce of a potentially hazardous ingredient like monosodium glutamate might be easy for many people to overlook when they see health claims on a label, such as the blurb about how Wish Bone Ranch dressing helps you “better absorb vitamins A and E” and “get more goodness from your salad.” That’s why it’s important not to let yourself be distracted by ad copy and to read the actual ingredient label.

One product, Ken’s Steak House Ranch dressing, goes a step further in spoiling a good salad by tossing in some partially hydrogenated soybean/cottonseed oil, an artery-clogging source of trans fat that the Food and Drug administration now acknowledges causes thousands of fatal heart attacks every year (and once again, don’t be fooled by the “zero grams trans fat” claim on the nutrition facts label – that’s just the loophole for any amount under .5 grams to escape having to be listed.)

Not all ranch dressings are created equal when it comes to ingredients, however.  Kraft Classic Ranch Dressing, for example, doesn’t list any monosodium glutamate, nor does Newman’s, a more health-conscious brand whose label makes a point of the fact that it has “No MSG” (nor does it have the preservatives found in Kraft  as well as the other brands mentioned).

But your best bet when it comes to ranch dressing – or any other type – is an organic variety. And organic dressings aren’t particularly hard to find – in fact, both of the major supermarkets in our vicinity, Acme and ShopRite, offer their own competitively priced store brands, which taste great (without needing any neurotoxic flavor enhancers).

And that should be good news for salad lovers who like what ranch dressing does for the flavor of their lettuce, tomatoes and veggies and would like to go on using it without “increasing guilt or negative health effects,” as one consumer put it in the Journal article.

You might even think of it as salvation for your salad.

Blueberries may be beneficial, but blueberry muffin mixes may not be

Posted by -- July 22, 2014



Now that blueberry season is upon the land, a lot of people may be thinking about how great some of those nutrition-packed little fruits would taste inside of some homemade muffins.

But just what constitutes a homemade muffin nowadays? Do those made from packaged mixes really qualify? And does the quality of the ingredients really measure up to the ones used in your grandmother’s (or great-grandmother’s) recipes?

Well, that all depends.  That is to say, it depends on the kind — and the brand – of muffin mix you use.

Like the pancake mixes and syrups discussed in this blog last week, the muffin mixes available in supermarkets vary widely in terms of what goes into them, and some are just plain awful. You just have to be aware of the vast differences in these seemingly similar products – and read the list of actual ingredients they contain.

Let’s talk about the worst first. And “bottom honors” in that category go to Betty Crocker Blueberry Muffin Mix — the kind that comes in a plastic pouch that “makes 6 muffins”–  and Jiffy Blueberry Muffin Mix, readily recognizable by its mini-box, which has similar ingredients.

For starters, while both have “blueberry” in their names, neither contains actual blueberries. In fact, if you look very carefully at the Betty Crocker mix, you might be able to make out the words “imitation blueberries” and “artificially flavored,” which appear in letters that are barely distinguishable from the red background on which they appear.

Much easier to read, however, are the health claims on the bottom of the pouch– like 120 calories, 120 grams of sodium. 12 grams of sugars and just one gram of saturated fat (or 4 percent of daily value) per ¼ cup mix – which attempt to disguise just how unhealthy this product really is. For example, while recent research has exonerated saturated fat as a threat to cardiovascular health, trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO, is now held responsible for an average of 7,000 fatal heart attacks a year – and this particular mix contains enough PHO to actually register 0.5 grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel. By contrast, most products containing PHO get away with pretending to have “zero trans fat,” due to the FDA loophole that discounts any amount under that. But maybe that’s because there’s additional PHO in the “artificial blueberry flavor bits.”

notblueberriesLike some of the pancake mixes we discussed, these products also contain aluminum in the form of sodium aluminum phosphate, which has now been directly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. And that’s not to mention the artificial colors in those artificial blueberry bits.

Now, you might think the Betty Crocker Wild Blueberry mix, which comes in a box, is better by virtue of the fact that it includes a can of actual blueberries. Well, that is an improvement of sorts.  But it still contains both PHO (although not quite as much, since it claims zero trans fat) and aluminum – as does Krusteaz Wild Blueberry Muffin Mix, which also provides a small can of actual berries.

A better option on the ‘standard brands’ scene

A surprisingly superior alternative, however  — perhaps reflecting that some “standard brands” are starting to become more responsive to health concerns — is Duncan Hines Simple Mornings Blueberry Streusel Premium Muffin Mix, which not only has real blueberries, but claims to have “Real Ingredients, Nothing Artificial.” And indeed, there’s nothing on the ingredient list that would seem to belie that claim – no PHO, no aluminum in its baking powder, no artificial colors or flavors (it also makes a point of having “no high fructose corn syrup,” although we were unable to find any listed in even the worst mixes).

Organic ingredients, of course, are still your best bet from a health standpoint for several reasons, and for those consumers who prefer to use them whenever possible, we recommend the Organics brand of apple cinnamon muffin mix put out by European Gourmet Bakery.  All you have to do is add fresh or frozen blueberries.

But what’s important to remember is, healthy “homemade” blueberry muffins are easy enough to make —without having to start from scratch. And given the abundance of blueberries in season (and the fact that they’re available in frozen form year-round), any product that contains trans-fat filled “artificial blueberry bits” deserves to be laughed off the shelf.

‘Largest research effort’ yet confirms nutritional superiority of organic crops

Posted by -- July 17, 2014


Back in 2012, when the news media were trumpeting the claim by a team of Stanford University doctors that the nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods were “insignificant,” we responded by citing various studies offering clear evidence that organic foods were nutritionally superior in a number of ways.

Now, a new study in the United Kingdom described as “the largest research effort of its kind” has strongly reinforced the conclusions of the earlier ones we talked about in that blog.

The analysis of 343 studies by a multinational group of experts, led by Newcastle University and published in the current British Journal of Nutrition, concluded that organic crops and the foods made from them are up to 60 percent higher in key antioxidants than those that are conventionally grown.

“Based on the findings of this study, if an individual were to switch from a conventional to an organic diet, they could have a 20-40 percent increase in antioxidants without a simultaneous increase in calorie intake,” was how it was summed up by Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center based in Washington, D.C.

“In other words, for the same amount of food, eating organic delivers a significantly higher dietary intake of healthy antioxidants.’

What the Newcastle researchers discovered “strongly support the existence of health benefits stemming from consumption of plant-based organic food and beverages,” noted one of the study’s authors, Professor Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University

Lead author Carlo Leifert said the new study represents “an important addition to the information currently available to consumers which until now has been confusing and in many cases is conflicting.”

Co-author Dr. Gavin Stewart added that this time, the availability of a much larger “evidence base” allowed for better statistical methods to be used in drawing conclusions.

But the results of the latest analysis weren’t just limited to the further corroboration of organic’s nutritional value. It also found that conventional fruits, vegetables and cereals were four times likelier to contain residues of toxic pesticides than organic ones, which contained nearly 50 percent less cadmium, a highly toxic metal that accumulates in the body and can result in such problems as kidney failure, liver damage and skeletal softening.

Findings like that are a reminder of the main reasons for organic’s increased popularity with consumers – factors that those Stanford doctors and the media somehow overlooked when they tried to make it appear that the advantages of buying organic were negligible or illusory.

The fact is that the consumers who are increasingly switching to organic products or regularly purchasing them are doing so because it’s the one way they can feel they’re protecting themselves and their families from ingesting toxic chemicals – whether in the form of pesticides, contaminants in soil or sewage sludge (which is often used in conventional farming), or a whole host of harmful additives that are regularly used in the manufacturing of processed foods.

Additionally, many are choosing organic because of concerns about the environment – for example, the cumulative effects that pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers have on the soil, air and water, the threat toxic chemicals pose to endangered honey bees and pollinators, and of their likely role in climate change. Organic consumers can also sleep better at night, knowing that the products they’re buying aren’t responsible for poisoning agriculture workers here and abroad, as many conventional crops now do thanks to massive applications of neurotoxic and carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides.

So you might say that this additional confirmation that such products are also more nutritious – or, put another way, more like the foods that people used to eat before modern agricultural practices robbed the soil of nutrients and replaced them with poisons –is simply the extra-healthy icing on our organic cake.

This ‘hearty breakfast’ can either be a great way to start the day or hazardous to your heart, your brain and your general health

Posted by -- July 15, 2014




What could be a cheerier way to start the day than with a hearty breakfast of old-fashioned pancakes (or flapjacks, as they used to call them in the Old West) hot off the griddle and oozing with syrup?

And what could possibly be wrong with such an all-American culinary tradition?

Nothing, unless those pancakes are made from any of various “brand name” mixes readily available in your supermarket, While some of these products might try to fool you into thinking they’re perfectly healthy, many of them contain ingredients that can put you at risk of both sudden death from a heart attack and a slower demise from the memory-robbing scourge of Alzheimer’s disease.

And then there’s the syrup –which all too often is little more than high fructose corn syrup, adding to the list of health hazards those pancakes might represent.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t just as easily enjoy a truly healthy and hearty pancake breakfast – which is something I’ll return to in a minute.

But first let’s talk about those pancake products you’re best advised to avoid – like that familiar standard from Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima Original Complete Pancake and Waffle Mix, to which you “just add water to create a stack of fluffy and yummy pancakes.”  The box also makes the health claim that it contains “no artificial coloring or preservatives.”

But here’s what it also contains (in addition to bleached flour):

  • artery-clogging trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated oil, a substance that the Food and Drug Administration  is now actually proposing be phased out of foods after acknowledging that it leads to an estimated 7,000 fatal heart attacks a year;
  • aluminum in the form of sodium aluminum phosphate, a substance that has now been directly linked to Alzheimer’s (having long been a “suspect”) after substantial amounts were found in the brain of an early-onset victim of the disease whose work had involved aluminum exposure, and
  • sodium caseinate, a form of free glutamic acid, similar to monosodium glutamate in the adverse effects it can have on MSG-sensitive individuals (and which is regarded by  neuroscientists as among the “excitotoxins” that threaten brain health, especially in children).

Another popular brand, Hungry Jack Complete Buttermilk Pancake & Waffle Mix, from the J.M. Smucker Co., represents itself as a “good source of calcium & 6 vitamins plus iron.” But it also comes with the same partially hydrogenated oil and sodium aluminum phosphate, plus two artificial colors – Yellow 5 and Red 40.

Then there’s the “Original Pancake and Baking Mix” from Betty Crocker’s Bisquick. Now, Betty Crocker is “someone” we’ve known all our lives, even though no such person ever actually existed (This “cultural icon” was created by General Mills back in 1921 to answer “consumer inquiries”) and Bisquick has been around for nearly as many years.  But don’t let that “history” fool you – when you check out the ingredients, you’ll find that it, too, contains both sodium aluminum phosphate and partially hydrogenated oil – in fact, enough to register 1 gram of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label (whereas the other brands mentioned show 0 grams, taking advantage of that “trans fat loophole” that allows anything with less than 0.5 per serving to appear as if they have none).

What about that syrup?

Of course, pancakes wouldn’t be nearly as good-tasting without lots of syrup, which makes for a number of additional choices. the Aunt Jemima pancake mix box, “for example, reminds us that the product “Tastes great with Aunt Jemima Syrup.”  But a quick glance at the ingredients in both Aunt Jemima Original Syrup and Lite Syrup reveals that either one will add yet another unhealthy ingredient to the ones already in the mix – high fructose corn syrup, which various studies have linked to obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and various other ailments (in fact, it’s the very first ingredient in the “Lite Syrup.”). The same holds true for both Hungry Jack Syrup and Mrs. Butterworth’s.

So what about the “sugar-free” syrups offered by these brands.  Instead of HFCS (which isn’t really sugar at all), they contain the synthetic sweetener, aspartame, another neurotoxic substance that poses a potential threat to brain health.

But here’s the good news: there are readily available alternatives that are much healthier. One familiar brand in particular, Log Cabin, offers both an all-natural Pancake Mix that contains ingredients like whole wheat flour and evaporated cane syrup, with none of the harmful additives found in those other mixes (and which we found selling at just 50 cents more than the Aunt Jemima). On its box you’ll also find the message “It’s not just what’s in our syrup that makes it great. It’s what’s not. No high fructose corn syrup.” In fact, one of the two syrup varieties it offers, Log Cabin All Natural Table Syrup, consists mostly of brown rice syrup, water, sugar and brown sugar, with no really objectionable ingredients.

For those pancake lovers who don’t mind spending just a bit more, there are also organic mixes available. One we found on a supermarket shelf is Immaculate Organic Pancake & Waffle Mix, which makes a point of having “no aluminum baking powder.”  And of course, nothing beats pure maple syrup, which offers actual health benefits  — and some store brands can be found at a fairly reasonable price.

So, yes, you can still enjoy that traditional all-American pancake breakfast – without worrying about what it may be doing to your heart, brain or general health. But only if you know what brands to look for – and which ones to avoid.

Oh, and one other thing – don’t use anything on those pancakes but real butter.

Revisiting (and revising) a ‘Ritzy’ old commercial

Posted by -- July 10, 2014




This summer, it seems that more processed food products than ever are vying for a spot in our backpacks, picnics or barbecues.

So to which ones will we give the honor? All too often, it goes to those products with which we feel most comfortable — especially when their packages boast of health benefits. And as a result, we fail to look at what’s actually in them, and whether they’re really as reliable from a health standpoint as we’ve been led to believe, either previously or currently.

Take Nabisco’s Ritz Crackers, for instance.  These circular golden-brown snacks in the red box with the blue and yellow logo is as familiar as an old family friend. Many of us also associate them with the late beloved actor Andy Griffith and the famous signature line he delivered in that 1970s TV commercial: “Everything tastes great when it sits on a Ritz.”

Given that level of nostalgic familiarity, — along with the claim that Ritz Crackers are “baked with whole wheat with 5g whole grain” — we might just take for granted that this is the sort of product whose integrity we can trust, and not bother looking at its ingredients list. And so we might never realize that it contains such additives as partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, one of the sources of artery-clogging trans fat that the Food and Drug Administration admits are responsible for approximately 7,000 fatal heart attacks a year and has now proposed be phased out of the food supply (although that may take some time). Or high fructose corn syrup, the cheap laboratory sweetener that studies have linked to obesity, diabetes and a number of other serious ailments.

We might also not realize that much healthier alternatives may well be sitting nearby in the same aisle, if not on the same shelf. Our local supermarket, for example, offers Wild Harvest Organic butter-style golden rounds crackers, which you’d find nearly impossible to distinguish from a Ritz in appearance and which taste quite similar, if not better. The same can be said of Late July Organic “Classic Rich” Crackers. But being organic, these brands contain no partially hydrogenated oil, HFCS or other potentially harmful additives.

(We did, however, notice one thing that’s different about the Wild Harvest product – the serving size, which is nine crackers compared to five for the Ritz. Had the latter an equivalent serving size, not only would things like the sodium content be similar, but the actual amount of trans fat in the Ritz, which is listed as zero thanks to a labeling loophole that allows anything under.5 grams of trans fat not to be counted, might well have to be disclosed on the box.)

And what about those toppings?

Of course, Andy Griffith, in leading up to his famous line in that commercial, also gave a number of examples of what he was talking about, such as “peanut butter and jelly on a Ritz cracker.”

Well, yes, even after all these years, that’s still a combo you might want to try, using some other familiar, trusted brands, like Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Smucker’s Concord Grape Jelly. But before you do, you might also want to keep in mind that the Smucker’s is going to add to the amount of HFCS you’re ingesting (so much for those claims that it’s fine when used “in moderation”), and the Peter Pan is going to subject your cardiovascular system to even more of that heart-attack-inducing partially hydrogenated oil.

Fortunately, there are better options readily available – such as Welch’s Natural Concord Grape (or Natural Strawberry) spread whose label notes that it contains no high fructose corn syrup (unlike the regular Welch’s, which does contain it) and various natural and organic brands of peanut butter, which contain nothing but…peanuts (and perhaps a little salt).

And then there was this suggestion from Andy: “You hungry? Then have some onion dip on a crisp Ritz cracker.”

Yes, let’s.  The Lay’s French Onion Dip we found on display in a nearby aisle, might be just the ticket. Of course, it would add a couple of other potentially harmful additives to what’s already in the Ritz – the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate and another member of the free glutamic acid family, whey protein concentrate.

Then again we might try topping those crackers with some healthy-sounding spinach dip from another old, familiar brand – Utz. In addition to monosodium glutamate and whey protein concentrate, that would provide some yeast extract, yet another form of MSG in disguise, not to mention artificial color (titanium dioxide) and two preservatives.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any dips that were much better than those, ingredient-wise – which is why we recommend that you whip together some of your own, using the simple expedient of sour cream as a base and adding some onion, spinach or avocado. Or you could opt for some of the fine salsa products that are now available with fresh, natural ingredients and none of those nasty additives, such as Green Mountain brand.

Yes, those would go very well on crackers – the kind made with healthy natural or organic ingredients.  But, despite our long years of familiarity with them, that’s not a description of Ritz Crackers.

Sorry about that, Andy, wherever you are.

A ‘study’ in collusion: Cornell and the Corn Refiners

Posted by -- July 8, 2014




When we refer to “a study” done at some prestigious university, we’re usually talking about scientific research in which the effects of a particular substance on animal or human subjects have been carefully evaluated over a period of time, and then published in a peer-reviewed professional journal.  A number of such studies cited in this blog, for example, have suggested a link between high fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity, diabetes and other ailments.

But that’s not the sort of “study” that recently made headlines (and even made the Today Show) after being conducted by a team of “researchers” from Cornell University.

Their 40-page paper, “Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes,” was published not in any kind of scientific or medical journal, but one entitled Food Quality and Preference.  According to its description, “This study investigates food fears that are ingredient-based, focusing on the case of high-fructose corn syrup” and was based on “results of a national phone survey of 1,008 U.S. mothers.”

But then, the lead author, Professor Brian Wansink, doesn’t exactly fit the conventional image of a scientist.  He’s rather a member of the university’s “Applied Economics and Management Department” with a Ph.D. in food psychology and consumer behavior. But he is the director and founder of a “laboratory” — the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which “is independently funded by grants and consumer groups” and “focuses on better understanding consumers and how they relate to foods and packaged foods.”

Oh, and one other thing.  This particular Ivy League “study” was funded by the Corn Refiners Association, the industry group representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup. Or so we were informed in an e-mail Monday night by Dr. Aner Tal, an associate researcher on the project.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Unlike other studies of HFCS that have attempted to determine how it affects our health, this one was intended to analyze why consumers harbor “fears” of this particular ingredient (and presumably, others as well) and to “suggest new insights for understanding how public health, industry, and consumer groups can more effectively target and address ingredient fears.”

But it gets better.

Unlike all those stuffy studies done by scientists in lab coats scrutinizing biological effects and such, this one, says Professor Wansink,  is “a really cool study” designed to help you get over any fears of food ingredients you may currently suffer from, “put things in perspective, and “become a smarter, savvier consumer.”

And the best way to do that, he advises, is to stop getting your info from the Internet, which is the instigator of all your ingredient angst.

“Read about food ingredients on the Web.  It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts,” he tells us at the beginning of a cute, chatty little video called “Who’s Afraid of Food,” which is easily accessible on (where else?) the Web. But then, this isn’t anything you have to read (although there is written material that follows it) — you can simply assimilate it from the brief, friendly classroom-type lecture he gives, in which he questions what it is “that causes people to have these terrible ingredient food fears.” First, he says in a voice tinged with sarcasm, it was sodium that was “the enemy. Then it was fat, then it was sugar, then it was, high, ah, fructose corn syrup, then it was MSG, then it was lean, finely textured beef.” Why is it, he asks, that people get all “excited and concerned” about such things “for a brief period of time?”

But of course! It’s what they’re reading at their “favorite websites” (might this be one such site, do you suppose?), rather than consulting “mainstream media” and “health-care professionals.” That, and what they hear from friends on social media – people with whom they tend to share a “cluster of other beliefs” and from whom they need “social approval” (In fact, there’s a “sophisticated scale” for measuring that, he informs us.) Oh, and a tendency to hate ingredients that are contained in foods they also hate.

Dr. Wansink’s education elixir for your “food fears”

Finally, after he gets done performing his instant in-depth analysis of why you have these apparently groundless aversions to various additives, Dr. Wansink (who is, after all, a sort of ‘food Freud’) suggests a simple solution to your problem.  The key to getting over such fears, he says, is learning “how a certain ingredient is made or produced” along with its history.

But wait – it gets even better!

To demonstrate the hypothesis that such knowledge can help consumers who might otherwise “exaggerate and overweigh perceived risks” of a product “such as high-fructose corn syrup” (as the study’s summary puts it), half of the mothers surveyed were given a three-sentence recap of a sweetener’s history while the other half weren’t.  And sure enough — those who received the information rated it as healthier than those who didn’t.

So did learning a few “real” facts manage to change those subjects’ minds about high fructose corn syrup?  Well, actually, no – but then HFCS wasn’t the sweetener in question here. What they were asked to evaluate instead was stevia, the naturally sweet herb now used throughout the world, to which a number of health benefits have been attributed, but never any adverse side effects.

So why, exactly was stevia used to prove this point? “We looked at Stevia because we wished to examine food fears more generally than just HFCS, which for us was a case study,” was how Dr. Tal explained it in response to our query.

But who’s afraid of stevia? True, the FDA a number of years ago tried to brand it as an “unsafe food additive” following a “trade complaint” it received, reported to have come from the NutraSweet Company– but that was before it the food and beverage industry decided it might make a neat alternative sweetener. If consumer “food fears” include stevia, that’s news to us.

But, as we noted earlier, this wasn’t the usual type of study we’re used to seeing from great universities. It was more along the lines of a marketing survey – the kind usually done by public relations firms on behalf of clients in the food and beverage industry to address “perception” problems and recommend ways that consumers can be reassured that their concerns are groundless. Which is exactly what the Corn Refiners association has been attempting to do in regard to HFCS for the past several years.

And you have to admit that they really scored with this so-called “Cornell study,” if media attention can be viewed as a measure of success. But  maybe the reason it got so much attention is precisely because it wasn’t one of those boring and often difficult-to-fathom studies about the health effects of food additives performed by actual scientists and researchers – the kind that are seldom discussed in any detail by mainstream media, featured on shows like “Today,” or mentioned by health-care professionals.

Those are the kinds of studies that you‘re more apt to read about on the Internet.

Foolish food questions (and answers) posed by financial paper’s ‘quizmasters’

Posted by -- July 3, 2014

quizA year ago, we encouraged readers of this blog to consider the 4th of July an opportunity to declare “independence from industry’s attempts to inveigle you into ingesting fake foods and ill-advised additives on a continuous and sustained basis.”

This year, we would like to urge all of you to continue doing so – especially when it comes to resisting attempts to deliberately mislead you about the nature of those fake foods and atrocious additives.

Of course, to hear the spokespeople and surrogates for Big Food tell it, such misleading information is what you’ll find on ‘the Internet.” To get the real facts, they claim, you need to look to reliable sources of information. That, presumably, would include Big Media – like The Wall Street Journal.

In a reader quiz it provided earlier this week under the heading, “Packaged-Food Puzzle: What’s the Smart Choice,” that venerable publication tried to show us how we might make wrong assumptions when attempting to choose the healthiest food products. “It isn’t easy to judge food by its packaging,” the introductory copy pointed out. “Marketing by companies and our own perceptions can make us assume certain items are healthier than others, but often comparisons in specific areas are more complicated.”

It then went on to note how “Overall nutrition can’t be judged by one or two elements alone” and that we should “evaluate complete food-label information” before asking us to test our knowledge of how certain foods “stack up against each other.”

Keeping that advice in mind, we thought we’d find out how well we fared on this particular quiz. Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far.  In fact, had this been a real test conducted in a real classroom, we would probably have been ejected for pointing out just how foolish some of these questions were – and how the comparisons between two products involving just one or two criteria contradicted the paper’s own recommendation that we “evaluate complete food-label information.”

Let’s start with the first item – a question about which snack item has less sodium, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish or Doritos Nacho Chips. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the difference between the sodium content of both is negligible – 250 milligrams for the Goldfish compared to 210 for the nachos – there’s the fact that sodium is the least thing we should be concerned with when it comes to making a “smart choice” between these products.

When you read the “food-label information” related to ingredients, what you’ll discover is that the Doritos, which the Journal seems to regard as healthier because it has slightly lower sodium, contains the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, which has been linked to countless adverse reactions, as well as whey protein concentrate, which is another form of free glutamic acid, three artificial colors and artificial flavor. Not that the Goldfish are perfect in the additive department, either – they contain autolyzed yeast, which is also a form of disguised MSG – but they’re not nearly as bad, ingredient-wise, as the Doritos.

But, hey, we can hear someone say ,”It’s OK to get the Doritos instead of the Goldfish, because The Wall Street Journal says they’re actually healthier.”

A dumb or dumber choice?

Then there’s the question about which cookie would be the smarter choice by virtue of having “less sugar” – Oreos or Real Fruit, Fat-free Fig Newtons (both made by Nabisco). Ta-da – it’s the Oreos, two of which the paper says have four fewer grams of sugar (although our own comparison between the two revealed that there is only one gram of difference in a serving size).   But far more important, both products contain high fructose corn syrup, which studies have linked to obesity, diabetes and a number of other health problems. Of course, the Newtons do have some “real fruit” in the form of figs, which the Oreos don’t, so maybe that makes them a tad more healthy.

Another query wants you to decide which item has fewer carbohydrates – Healthy Choice Chicken & Dumplings or Campbell’s Chunky Creamy Chicken & Dumplings. And the correct answer is the Campbell’s Chunky, with only 16 grams of carbs, six less than the Healthy Choice. The fact that the Campbell’s also contains monosodium glutamate, along with two other brain-zapping forms of free glutamic acid, soy protein concentrate and soy protein isolate, didn’t even merit consideration.  Not that the Healthy Choice is so healthy, either – it contains yeast extract and isolated soy protein, both also disguised forms of MSG.

As with the cookies, the “packaged-food puzzle” here should really be in regard to not which  is “the smart choice,” but rather which would be the dumber one.

Not that all the items pictured in the quiz were in the bad-food category, however. One product – the Chicken Enchilada Bake from Evol, a Boulder, Colo.-based natural food company that uses hormone-free chicken and no additives – sounds like it might actually be pretty healthy. But leave it to the Journal quizmasters to discover that a smarter choice would be Banquet Zesty Smothered Charbroiled Patty Meal from ConAgra, consisting of a pork and mechanically separated turkey (AKA “turkey ooze”) patty complete with a bevy of additives, including soy protein concentrate, the preservative BHT and caramel coloring, an artificial color containing a potential carcinogen.

Why? It seems the Banquet has 100 fewer calories – 280 vs. 380. So much for not judging food by “one or two elements alone.”

But then, maybe a really “smart choice” would be for The Wall Street Journal to confine its advice to financial issues – and leave food recommendations to those who know how to “evaluate complete food-label information.”

Have a happy Independence Day!

Juice boxes: are they really any better than soda?

Posted by -- July 1, 2014



I’d be hard pressed to find anyone, outside of maybe the beverage industry, who considers soda to be a “healthy” drink – especially since high fructose corn syrup came to be the sweetening agent in nearly all caloric soft drinks, a development that coincided with “epidemics” of obesity and diabetes never seen when old-fashioned sugar was used.

But what about juice and juice drinks – especially the kind found in those super-convenient boxes that have become today’s ‘beverage rage’, especially with kids who always seem to be chugging from them?

Of course it all depends on what’s actually in those little aseptic containers. Not all juice boxes are created equal, as you’ll discover if you bother to examine the ingredients in the various ones that sit side-by-side in the juice-box aisle of your supermarket.

For instance, you might be surprised to learn that, just like soda, some are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Some can be very sneaky, like Kraft’s CapriSun juice drinks. It’s hyped as containing “no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives” and “25% less sugar than leading regular juice drinks,” but has HFCS as the second ingredient after water.  The same goes for Hi-C fruit-flavored drinks, made by Coca-Cola.

But if a “juice drink” with HFCS as its main flavoring ingredient isn’t exactly the kind you had in mind, there are better choices available, such as Honest Kids Organic Juice Drink, made by Honest Tea. It says it has “one-half the sugar” of other such beverages.  While it may sell for a bit more, on our trip to the store, it was on sale as the same price as the HFCS-laced CapriSun.

CapriSun, however, does offer an HFCS-free “all natural 100% juice” in juice boxes. Nestle’s Juicy Juice Fruitfuls “flavored juice beverage blends” also have no HFCS listed among their ingredients.

What else is in that fruit-flavored water?

That’s not to say that fruit juice – even without HFCS and other additives – is necessarily an advisable choice, either. There has been some controversy lately about the fructose such products contain and its effect on our metabolism when it’s unaccompanied by the fiber found in actual fruit. Dr. Michael Goran, who recently found higher-than-expected fructose levels in soft drinks, is one expert who has raised a red flag about this. His recommendation is that if you’re going to buy juice at the store, it be diluted with 50 percent water.

Now, that should seemingly be no problem for juice-box purchasers who are concerned about this, as there are now fruit-flavored water drinks available in juice boxes  (if we can still refer to them as such).

But hold on! Before you opt for the one that advertises itself as a “fun way for kids to hydrate” — CapriSun’s “Roarin’ Waters” Flavored Water Beverage – there’s something you should know.  That’s right – just like the brand’s fruit drinks, it contains high fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient – not to mention Splenda (sucralose) artificial sweetener.

A far better choice is Apple & Eve Water Fruits, which says it contains “real fruit juice and coconut water” and “no bad stuff,” meaning artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup.”

After all, it’s bad enough that soda contains all that “bad stuff.”  You certainly don’t need to have it added to whatever alternative beverages are in those little boxes you might either give your kids or choose to bring along on a family picnic, hike or volleyball game.

Are you adding a powerful pesticide to your morning coffee?

Posted by -- June 26, 2014



A new study has concluded that a “novel, effective, and human safe approach for insect pest control” might be in the offing. And that should sound like good news.

But what might make it seem somewhat less so – even perhaps a bit disturbing – is the fact that a lot of us are already ingesting this supposedly ”safe” alternative  pesticide.  And not as a residue, either, but in the form of a no-cal sweetener – one we sprinkle on foods and beverages and can find already added to juice and other items by food manufacturers.

It’s Cargill’s Truvia®, a seemingly benign and healthy product described on its website as having “natural, great-tasting sweetness born from the leaves of the stevia plant.” But it’s not the relatively small amount of stevia found in Truvia that apparently possesses pest-control potential.  The thing that does is identified in the name of the study, which appears this month in the online publication PLOS ONE: “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia, Is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide.”

Followers of this blog might recall that last year, Truvia was the subject of a couple of lawsuits claiming that the erythritol it contained wasn’t the “simple, natural ingredient “found in fruits like grapes and pears,” as it was being described, but rather one “derived from corn starch in a patented process.” (At least one of those cases – a class-action suit – has reportedly since been settled, with some adjustments made to the label.)

Now comes news that researchers from Philadelphia’s Drexel University, engaged in what appear to have been some very meticulously conducted experiments, have found that feeding Truvia and erythritol to fruit flies shortened their lives considerably, as well as impeding their “motor skills.”

They determined this after comparing both the flies’ longevity and climbing ability with those of control groups whose diets consisted of various kinds of sweeteners, natural and synthetic,“nutritive” and “non-nutritive.” But the only one that really seemed to ‘zap’ the flies was the Truvia – and the more of it they got, the faster they succumbed.

Don’t blame stevia

A further comparison of Truvia results with those of another product, Pure Via, indicated that “stevia plant extract was not the toxic element in these sweeteners.” Although both contain stevia, Pure Via uses dextrose as its “bulk component,” while Truvia uses erythritol. This is especially interesting is light of the attempts by the Food and Drug Administration a few years back to keep stevia off the market by labeling it an “unsafe food additive,” even though it had been thoroughly tested for safety in Japan, and has been used for centuries without any adverse reactions ever being associated with it.

This particular study, however, was not intended to cast doubt on the safety of either erythritol or Truvia, as the FDA once did with stevia. In fact, it notes how a “large body of literature has shown that erythritol consumption by humans is very well tolerated and indeed, large amounts of both erythritol and Truvia are being consumed by humans every day throughout the world.”

The purpose instead seems to be reflected in the suggestion that it may possibly offer a solution to the “large worldwide need and demand for environmentally safe and effective insecticides.”And perhaps it will – although as the authors note in their conclusion, “Further study will be required to determine if erythritol is toxic to other insect species.”

What we would ask, however, is whether “further study” is also indicated to determine whether or not it may be toxic to humans in light of this new data, despite all that “literature” that says it isn’t.

The Truvia website claims the product is “safe for all individuals” — even those with irritable bowel syndrome — and that “nearly everyone will be able to use Truvia® natural sweetener in their diet with no problems,” except for perhaps “a few who are extremely sensitive.” But a casual Internet search reveals that consumers have reported suffering a variety of adverse reactions to Truvia, including gastrointestinal distress, migraine headaches, dizziness, rashes, extreme fatigue, mouth sores, and pains in the head, neck and shoulders, and that such symptoms disappeared shortly after they stopped using the sweetener.

Apart from simple allergies, might such individuals be responding to whatever it is about the erythritol in Truvia that singularly sent the fruit flies in that study into an early death spiral?  The researchers themselves acknowledge that their work “did not address the physiological or molecular mechanisms of erythritol toxicity.” Given what we now can deduce – that it seems to interfere with some vital survival mechanism for at least one living organism  — isn’t that something someone perhaps should be doing, along with indexing the instances of those adverse effects?

Maybe what Truvia is really meant to be is a swatter, rather than a sweetener.

A little knowledge can make food labeling claims a lot less confusing

Posted by -- June 24, 2014



An article in The Wall Street Journal Monday headlined “The Gluten-Free Craze: Is It Healthy” makes an interesting point about food manufacturers trying to get in on a health craze that actually only affects a small minority of consumers.

In reality, the only people who need be concerned about gluten, the article points out, are those with celiac disease – a condition affecting less than one percent of the population – although, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, another 18 million Americans suffer from “gluten sensitivity” that may cause feelings of discomfort.  Yet “gluten-free” claims have proliferated, and have been a driving force in the sales of many products, including some that never even contained gluten.

And that, some experts charge, could be causing consumers to make choices that aren’t necessarily in their best interest – for example, by buying “gluten-free” items that actually have fewer nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts.

Of course, “gluten-free” is only one of a number of health claims used on product labels, as the article also points out.  Here at Food Identity Theft, our job is to help consumers sort them all out, identifying those that are actually “part of the solution” to food-related problems and others that are problematic in themselves.

A good example of the latter are trans-fat free labels,” which the Journal notes are being used on products such as milk, “even though milk never contained the artificial kind of trans fats that clog arteries.”

But that’s not the real problem with “zero trans fat” claims, which, as we’ve so often pointed out, can be genuinely deceptive, since the Food and Drug Administration gave food companies a loophole big enough to drive a trans-fat truck through by allowing anything below 0.5 grams to be rounded out to “zero.”  And that can add up to a significant daily intake of trans fat, which the FDA now admits causes about 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year.

Of course, the problem will be eventually solved should the FDA’s proposed phase-out of partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), the main source of dietary trans fat, eventually take effect.  But until that time, no “trans-fat free” claims, including those found on the Nutrition Facts Panel, can be assumed to be accurate.  Consumers must instead check the actual ingredients for the presence of those tell-tale PHOs.

Then there are those “No MSG” declarations, which most people would take to mean that the product contains no monosodium glutamate, the flavor enhancer that some experts consider neurotoxic, and to which many people suffer a whole range of adverse reactions. But that often merely disguises the presence of “disguised MSG” in the form of ingredients such as hydrolyzed protein, sodium caseinate and autolyzed yeast, which are other forms of free glutamic acid that can have similar effects.

“No sugar” claims, of course, can be even more spurious, since what they usually mean is that the product contains some type of artificial sweetener — usually aspartame, a source of countless adverse reaction complaints ranging from migraines to seizures to vision problems (and which, like MSG, has been labeled by neuroscientists as an ‘excitotoxin” capable of exciting certain brain cells to death, especially in children and adolescents.) Perversely, aspartame also has a particularly debilitating effect on a relatively small group of people who suffer from a condition called PKU, and is supposed to carry a warning to that effect.  But both its presence and the accompanying warnings have become all but imperceptible in many products since NutraSweet lost its patent on this controversial chemical sweetener and it went generic.

A claim worth celebrating

One claim that the Journal compares to “gluten-free” in the way it has resonated with many consumers is “no high fructose corn syrup,” with products so labeled having “jumped 45% in the past four years, to $921 million.” But there’s a big difference between the two, in the fact that HFCS, a caloric laboratory sweetener, is a product that may negatively impact most, if not all consumers, since it’s been linked by studies from various prestigious universities and medical institutions to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and heart problems (something missed by the writer of the Journal article, who erroneously attempted to equate the “deleterious effects” of HFCS with those of cane sugar and agave nectar.)

If anything, the facts that, as the Journal points out, more than a third of U.S. adults are obese, that diabetes has risen sharply in recent years and that we now eat over 450 more calories daily than 40 years ago may well be related to the proliferation of HFCS in processed foods over the past two or three decades, despite its growing unpopularity with consumers.

The article also quotes food historian Abigail Carroll’s observation that “Food corporations have figured out how to adapt their foods to become solutions to health problems and at the same time capitalize on the confusion itself.”

But all it takes to dispel that confusion is a little knowledge – of the real effects of various widely used food additives (like those on our “top ten to be avoided” list) and whether or not they’re listed on the ingredients label.  Oh, and of any effects that certain foods or ingredients might have on you personally, such as whether you’re unable to assimilate, or especially sensitive to, something like gluten.  That helps, too.