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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.

Even ‘healthy’ food can harbor this gut-wrenching additive that ‘came from beneath the sea’

Posted by -- March 31, 2015


In revising our list of the top ten food additives to be avoided as we approach the third annual Read Your Labels Day on April 11, we’ve now assigned the Number 3 spot to one that wasn’t included originally – carrageenan. Used in a wide variety of products – including, unfortunately, some organic ones — 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. It can also be replaced with safer ingredients that do the same job. Yet carrageenan continues to be used by many food companies, even some that claim to have only “healthy” ingredients in their products.

Number 3:  Carrageenan

Concern about carrageenan dates back to the 1960s, when researchers linked its use in food to gastrointestinal disease and colon cancer in laboratory animals.

Two years ago, The Cornucopia Institute released a report titled “Carrageenan, How a ‘natural’ food additive is making us sick,” which detailed the scientific studies and other evidence against this additive and urges consumers to avoid foods containing it. The report noted that “(f)or individuals who consume carrageenan on a regular or daily basis, the inflammation will be prolonged and constant, which is a serious health concern since prolonged inflammation is a precursor to more serious disease,” and pointed out that there are over 100 human diseases, including cancer, associated with such constant inflammation.

The Institute, a non-profit farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, also sent a letter to the FDA asking the agency to reconsider  a citizen petition filed in 2008 asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of carrageenan in food, which was turned down by the agency in 2012. The petition was submitted by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, a “physician-scientist” at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been studying the effects of this additive for almost 20 years, publishing 18 peer-reviewed papers on the subject.

Tobacman stated, “When a body of publicly funded scientific literature points to harm from consuming a common, widely used yet unnecessary food ingredient, the FDA should act in the interest of public health,” the Institute’s letter said,  adding that every claim that supports the safety of carrageenan in foods and beverages “can be refuted, based on strong scientific evidence.”

Carrageenan comes from red seaweed and can be processed into either what’s called “food grade” or “degraded.”  Degraded carrageenan, recognized as a “possible human carcinogen” and not permitted in food, is extremely inflammatory — so much so that it is used extensively in scientific studies to induce inflammation in laboratory animals on which to test anti-inflammatory drugs. While “food grade” sounds a lot nicer, numerous studies have shown even small levels of this version commonly used in food products are enough to cause inflammation in the human colon, and  what’s even more disturbing, it appears that “food grade” can turn into the potent inflammatory and carcinogenic “degraded” version in the human GI tract.

A stain on the organic industry’s reputation

If all this sounds bad, perhaps even worse is the permitted use of carrageenan in organic foods.

Back in 2012, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a group that determines what non-organic ingredients can be used in organic foods, approved, by a one-vote margin, the continued use of carrageenan in the certified organic food supply.

According to the Cornucopia Institute, the carrageenan lobby group “convinced enough corporate-friendly NOSB members…to ignore the disturbing findings of dozens of independently funded and peer-reviewed studies…” including those that found high rates of colon cancer in laboratory animals fed the “food grade” carrageenan. As the Institute observed “Organic foods should be a safe haven from harmful ingredients. In fact, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law governing organic foods, requires that non-agricultural ingredients must be determined safe to human health and not deleterious to the environment before they can be added to organic foods. After all, if organic food isn’t safer than conventional food, what’s the point, right?”

Avoiding carrageenan in your diet (and your pet’s diet as well) is yet another reason to read the ingredient label, even on organic foods.

Although industry predictably is trying to convince consumers with assurances that carrageenan is perfectly safe, as the Cornucopia Institute said in its letter to the FDA:  “…there are no benefits to society or public health from adding carrageenan to foods or beverages. It is added solely to change the texture of food. Already, some food manufacturers are replacing carrageenan with other thickeners and stabilizers, or eliminating thickeners altogether and asking their customers to shake the product before consumption. If carrageenan is prohibited, the food industry will quickly adapt.”

And in some cases, it already is in the process of doing so, if only in response to consumer pressure.  As we reported last year, after “Food Babe” Vani Hari alerted her followers to the dangers of carrageenan,” WhiteWave Foods, the company that makes Horizon and Silk brands, announced it would be removing carrageenan from those products.  While still maintaining carrageenan was safe, the company said consumer “feedback” had indicated “it was time to make a change.”

Apparently, then, such “feedback” is what’s really required to get this inflammatory additive and other pernicious ingredients out of our food.  That begins with reading the ingredients label on products (even organic ones, where carrageenan is concerned), avoiding those with harmful additives, and letting the manufacturers of those foods know the reason why.

Aspartame still a ‘devil in disguise’ – but studies steadily eroding its phony ‘good guy’ image

Posted by -- March 26, 2015

Aspartame chemical formula on school chalkboard

Although we’ve moved it from second to fourth place among the top ten additives to be avoided in our countdown to the Citizens for Health “Read Your Labels” Day April 11, the neurotoxic artificial sweetener aspartame can still be found in any number of products, and is still often being misrepresented as a “healthy” alternative to caloric sweeteners.

There have, however, been encouraging indications that the food industry is starting to have reservations about it, such as the decision last summer to remove it from Yoplait “Lite” Yogurt (where its presence turned a supposedly healthy product into a distinctly unhealthy one).


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

The evidence of the ill effects produced by this excitotoxin cousin of MSG continues to mount from year to year, with a University of Iowa study last year having found that women who drink just two diet sodas (which are all sweetened with aspartame) a day have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. Another 2014 study out of the University of North Dakota looked at the effects of aspartame consumption on healthy adults who consumed a high-aspartame diet for eight days followed by a low-aspartame diet for eight days, with a 2-week period in between.

When on the high-aspartame diet, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests. “Given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level of 40-50 mg/kg body weight/day,” noted an abstract on the study, “careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health.”

But then, such results hardly seem surprising, given that studies done over 40 years ago connected aspartame to the development of brain tumors in rodents and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys.

As we noted a year ago, “the aspartame fiasco is an example of how one bad regulatory decision can set the stage for a host of subsequent evils. In this case, the ‘original sin’ was a Food and Drug Administration commissioner’s decision more than three decades ago to ignore the agency’s own scientific advisers by clearing this laboratory-created synthetic sweetener for entry into the food supply, where it was soon firmly ensconced.

“Aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet), which was accidentally discovered by a chemist working for Searle while looking  for a new ulcer drug, is made up of three neurotoxic chemicals – substances that are toxic to brain cells.

Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner, a Washington, D.C. Attorney and author of the best-selling book The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA, along with his advocacy group managed to keep aspartame off the market for 11 years until 1981, when its use was approved over the advice of FDA scientists as well as the agency’s Public Board of Inquiry that previously had concluded that it should not be permitted in the food supply.

That official OK was about as clear an example of corporate influence in government as has ever been seen, an obvious political favor to the then head of Searle, Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald Rumsfeld) by the incoming Reagan administration for his help on the transition team. Turner summarizes the entire aspartame fiasco as a case of “political toxicity and biological toxicity working together to create toxic health problems for the public.”

“Before long, thousands of aspartame-related health complaints about everything from migraines to memory loss to dizziness to vision problems were being reported to the FDA, which even acknowledged that adverse reactions might be possible, but did nothing to reverse the decision.

“Today, a growing number of health-conscious consumers avoid aspartame like the plague, avoiding any product described as “low calorie” or “sugar free. That, however, hasn’t deterred the dairy industry from attempting to pass off aspartame-laced milk on school kids in a very underhanded manner.

Will aspartame in milk be the new ‘standard’?

At present, the industry’s petition that we reported on a year ago, which would allow the “standard of identity” for milk to be altered to allow for the addition of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, is still pending before the FDA. The petition filed by the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association would “amend the standard identity of milk” (and 17 additional dairy products). If the FDA agrees, it would allow flavored milk with added artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to be labeled as just “milk,” eliminating the now-required “low-cal” notice on the front of the package.

According to an FDA spokesperson we, the agency has received almost 45,000 comments on the petition, has now completed our review of all the comments, and is “actively working on developing a response to the petition as resources permit.”

As we noted last year, “the dairy industry claims this would be all for the benefit of American kids. ‘Promoting more healthful eating practices and decreasing childhood obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing our country today,” notes the petition, which also states that the phrase “reduced calorie…’ according to market research, ‘doesn’t appeal to children’.

“But what it does reflect is that milk consumption is way down, especially in schools where the amount of calories in the products sold in school lunchrooms are starting to be “officially” limited, and the feeling of the dairy industry that in order to sell more milk – the aspartame-sweetened kind, that is – they’ve ‘got to hide it from the kids’.

“Fortunately, a lot of American consumers and parents who have by now become familiar with aspartame’s long and ugly “rap sheet” – which includes actually promoting, rather than discouraging obesity — are no longer willing to go along with the idea that this neurotoxic additive is a “healthy” alternative to sugar, as reflected by the amount of public outrage the petition has sparked, including a counter-petition to “tell the FDA we don’t want aspartame in our milk,” and over 40,000 comments sent into the FDA docket.

“But it does leave one to wonder about how a really bad additive actor, believed to have caused brain tumors in one set of test animals and brain seizures in another (the latter after being fed a milk-based formula), to say nothing of countless other adverse health effects, can come to be categorized  as a “safe and suitable sweetener” for chocolate milk being sold to school children.”

‘Glutamic bombs’ — all members of the MSG family – still lurking in numerous food products

Posted by -- March 24, 2015


As we continue this year’s countdown toward what Citizens for Health has designated as “Read Your Labels Day,” on April 11, we are once again recalibrating and updating our list of the top ten food additives to be avoided, both to allow for any new developments in the past year and to accommodate a ‘new’ ingredient that we’ll be talking about shortly (although some of our readers may have already guessed its identity).

That’s why we’ve now not only condensed what were three classifications into two, but expanded one of them.  Both cover related ingredients that experts have dubbed “excitotoxins” (because they can literally excite certain neurons in the brain to death) and that we like to refer to as “glutamic bombs.”

Number 5: Monosodium glutamate

Not much has changed in the way this “flavor enhancer” 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). As we noted a year ago, “it allows products with bland or sparse ingredients to taste really exciting, both saving companies money and adding immensely to sales.”

The history of monosodium glutamate, as we also pointed out, use is a sneaky one as well. This substance, which is misrepresented as “natural,” but which is actually anything but (consisting of oldbay1a processed free form of glutamic acid, rather than the natural kind that is bound up in certain fruits and veggies)  found its way into more and more products during the 1950s and ’60s, its use having reportedly doubled in each decade since the 1940s. In addition to being marketed as an ‘off the shelf’ flavor enhancer, it was also at one time added to baby food. But in the late 1950s, researchers tested the chemical on infant mice and discovered it destroyed nerve cells in the inner layers of the retina.  A decade later, prominent neurosurgeon Dr. John Olney, found it had a similar effect on cells, or neurons, in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Disclosure of that information to Congress in 1969 was enough to get monosodium glutamate voluntarily removed from baby food, to which it was being added in amounts equivalent to those that had produced brain damage in test animals.

In addition, monosodium glutamate (often called MSG for short, although as we shall see, that label also applies to a number of other ingredients as well) can cause a range of “side effects,” ranging from mild to severe that can necessitate a trip to the ER.  These can include everything from migraines to seizures to uncontrollable anger (could this be one of the causes of “road rage?”) to atrial fibrillation, or AFIB.

While many people who know they are hypersensitive to monosodium glutamate try hard to avoid it, we were appalled last year to discover a flagrant misrepresentation that could well result in its being inadvertently consumed by such individuals. This deception involved the use of the name and image of a familiar product, Old Bay Seasoning, which is MSG-free, to identify a line of “Old Bay Seasoned” snacks put out by Herr’s which actually list monosodium glutamate as an ingredient.

But, as we nmsg2oted, there other forms of MSG besides monosodium glutamate — ones hidden under other names.  And those are the ones covered by our sixth category of undesirable additives:

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

Assurances like “NO MSG ADDED” can often be found on the labels of food products that actually contain manufactured glutamic acid that may be concealed under the names of more than 40 different ingredients.

Like monosodium glutamate itself, these additives in even small amounts can cause devastating reactions in highly sensitive people, making nearly all processed foods a dangerous proposition for them. One such individual was the late Jack Samuels, who with his wife Adrienne, a Ph.D. focusing on research methodology, founded the Truth in Labeling Campaign, sharing studies and information they learned over decades of research at their web site

And if you want to know why such dangerous ingredients are still allowed in food, we suggest you read The Man Who Sued the FDA, by Adrienne Samuels, which documents Jack and Adrienne’s own story of  ‘discovery’ in regard to MSG that spans several decades. The story of how the Food and Drug Administration gave in to industry interests – and continues to do so – in allowing such dangerous additives to be so widely used in so many food products is not only shocking in itself, but a powerful reminder of how important it is to read those ingredient labels– even when you think you can trust a product because of its familiar brand name.

Wire service confirms collusion we disclosed between industry and dietitians

Posted by -- March 19, 2015


When you’re looking for expert advice on what and what not to eat and drink, who ya gonna ask?

Why a registered dietitian, of course! After all, who can you trust for an authoritative and impartial answer about whether or not something is good for you if not a trained, credentialed and certified professional in that very field?

Or so goes the conventional wisdom, in any case. The reality, however, is often not quite so simple and legit, as this blog has revealed on a number of occasions.

But you don’t just have to take our word for it. The inside story of what really goes on in the murky world of food industry “consulting” has now been disclosed by the Associated Press, complete with ‘confessions’ of sorts from individuals on both sides of such transactions.

“We have a network of dietitians we work with,” admitted Coca-Cola spokesman Ben Sheidler, who added, “Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent.”

And one such dietitian, Robyn Flipse, who wrote a “sponsored article” suggesting that a mini-can of Coke might make a great snack, which appeared on the sites of major news outlets, said she came up with the idea at the behest of a public relations agency for the company that asked her to do a piece on heart health.

Flipse also acknowledged having worked with the American Beverage Association for years, with one of her jobs being to disseminate social media rebuttals to the idea that so-called “sugary drinks” (which actually contain high fructose corn syrup rather than sugar) cause obesity and offering her “expert” opinions to news outlets. She further noted that she would ask the PR agency if she should say something to refute negative information in a story about artificial sweeteners as well.

Well, that certainly explains a lot.

It explains, for example, the column I found posted online by the Gannett newspaper Florida Today that I talked about in a Food Identity Theft blog last May – one written by Susie Bond, identified as a registered/licensed dietitian and nutritionist for Health First’s ProHealth & Fitness Centers, and  appearing under the headline “More from Susie: sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup.”

Surprise, surprise!

Here’s what I wrote back then:

“When we first read Bond’s attempts to debunk the ‘myths’ regarding HFCS, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d seen this all somewhere before. And as it turned out, we had – at none other than the ‘Sweet Surprise’ website maintained by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group that has spent huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that this cheap synthetic sweetener is nothing more than a “natural” form of ‘sugar made from corn’.

“That wasn’t the only thing we discovered on revisiting the ‘Sweet Surprise’ site, however.  Because there, in a section labeled ‘in the News’ was – yes, you guessed it – a link to the very same article.

“But since the column consisted of only a slightly rewritten restatement of the claims already made at the site, it looks like the only purpose served by that link is to lend more seeming legitimacy to the CRA’s long-held position that HFCS is really no different from natural sugar.   The similarity was so pronounced, in fact, that Bond’s last two ‘myths’ are virtually identical to those listed on the website about HFCS supposedly being ‘banned in Europe’ and ‘subsidized by the U.S. government’.  Coincidence?”

Apparently not.

But what might have looked to the uninformed like blatant plagiarism was actually just business as usual for the partnership that has formed between the food industry and a group of so-called “professionals” who are supposed to be giving us the benefit of sound, scientific advice on health and nutrition.

As I observed in that blog, “far too many registered dietitians and nutritionists are unduly influenced by industry groups and large food corporations that maintain a huge presence at their conferences with booths and seminars. (A recent one in California even had lunch catered by McDonald’s!) The situation has become so embarrassing to some of the more conscientious members of this group that they’ve rebelled and formed their own group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, as we reported here more than a year ago.”

So what the AP has now reported should really come as no big surprise, but more like a confirmation of the collusion that’s become so commonplace in the American marketplace that they don’t even have to try to hide it anymore.


The ‘brominated brothers’: one partly down, one still standing

Posted by -- March 17, 2015


Next on the Food Identity Theft list of additives to avoid that comprise our annual countdown to  “Read Your Labels” Day are the two we call “the brominated brothers”  brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate, which we’ve now moved down to the seventh and eighth positions.

Number 7: Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)

Ten months ago, much was made of a promise by the nation’s two largest soft drink makers, the Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola companies, to drop brominated vegetable oil, the sole purpose of which is to keep certain kinds of beverages from appearing cloudy. The decision  by the two companies to get rid of this unhealthy ingredient, which was already banned by the European Union, India and Japan, was a result of petitions launched on the website by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen, that amassed more than 200,000 signatures and ensuing pressure from consumers, augmented by television’s Dr. Oz, who called BVO his “number one shocking health threat in your food” The affected products include the soft drinks Fanta and Fresca, put out by Coke, and Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and Amp energy drinks.

Following those announcements, we said BVO would remain on our list of the ten most undesirable food additives “for the time being, until it’s actually been removed from the products in question.”

So why are we still listing it?  Well, because so far, those promises have only been partly kept.

While a scan of products in our local supermarket found no sign of BVO in any of the Fanta and Fresca varieties on the shelf (or in Coke’s energy drink Powerade, the subject of another petition launched by Kavanagh), it was still listed as an ingredient in the popular soda brand Mountain Dew.

So once again, here’s the “rap sheet on BVO:

It isn’t just that BVO is used as a flame retardant, which Kavanagh noted in her petition and which alarmed a lot of consumers. 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.

And if that’s not enough, it was described by the website Marketing Daily as “a synthetic chemical formed by bonding vegetable oil to bromine,” which is “a heavy, volatile, mobile, dangerous reddish-brown liquid,” according to

Then there’s this from the holistic website “All bromines are endocrine disruptors (that) can also interfere with iodine absorption by the thyroid, breast tissue and prostate tissue, causing nutritional deficiencies which can promote cancer.”

There’s also a frightening bit of information that we featured in a blog post at the end of 2011:

“While the FDA has set a ‘safe limit’ for BVO at 15 parts per million, (an) Environmental Health News article describes several cases of bromine poisoning in humans following BVO-containing soda binges, including a 1997 report of ‘severe bromine intoxication’ in a patient who drank two or more liters of orange sodas every day.”

In other words, this innocent-sounding additive is nothing that the FDA should ever have allowed to be added to beverages in the first place.

But despite its safety status having remained in limbo all these years   — and a lawsuit that Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner and Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), filed against the FDA to prohibit BVO use back in the 1970s – the federal regulators have still not taken steps to order its removal from food (or more specifically, beverages).


Number 8: Potassium bromate

Used to “improve” flour and make more uniform, attractive bakery products, potassium bromate (or bromated flour) has been on the list of carcinogens in California since 1991. And while many other countries have banned its use entirely, the Food and Drug Administration  has merely asked the baking industry to voluntarily stop using it.

According to the American Bakers Association, if potassium bromate is used “properly” no detectable residues will be found; however, if too much is used, or any number of other procedures are not followed (such as proper temperature settings or baking time) a residue of this carcinogenic additive will end up in the finished product.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has also pointed out that FDA tests going back to 1992 and 1998 found levels of bromate in “several dozen baked goods” that would be “considered unsafe by the agency (FDA).” One sample, CSPI noted in a press release “had almost 1,000 times the detection limit.”

In 1999 CSPI submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration to ban this additive, saying that “The FDA has known since 1982 that potassium bromate can cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and other organs in animals,” with additional studies over the years all confirming its toxic properties.

While some commercial brands have replaced potassium bromate with other dough-enhancing additives, brominated flour is still widely used in restaurants and bakeries. General Mills, makers of Pillsbury and Gold Medal brand flours, offers no less than 22 different brominated flours at its “professional baking solutions” site. Bottom line: if a bakery can’t tell you what ingredients it uses in making its cakes, cookies and bread, it’s time to find another bakery. The oddest product that we found potassium bromate in – considering its big “benefit” is to promote yeast rising — was New York brand flatbreads.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Read Your Labels Day countdown – as well as a new addition to the list.

Cereal makers poised to ditch one of these two controversial preservatives

Posted by -- March 13, 2015


Here at Food Identity Theft, we consider the approach of our third annual “Read Your Labels Day” as an opportunity to both update you on any developments concerning our 10 top additives to be avoided and if necessary, to change the order of importance we’re assigning them if we think it’s indicated.

In the latter regard, the changes we’re making this year include moving “trans fats,” which was ninth on our list, much closer to the top (and also renaming the category “partially hydrogenated oil”), and moving the preservatives BHA and BHT to ninth place because of some encouraging new signs in the marketplace.

Number 9: BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoulene)

Just as artificial colors are in the process of being phased out by about the country’s two biggest chocolate makers, Nestle’s and Hershey’s (as noted in our previous blog), one of the above named preservatives may also be on the verge of being dumped by two major cereal manufacturers, General Mills and Kellogg’s.

As we noted a year ago, both BHA and BHT, which are banned in Japan and most European countries, have been found to alter brain chemistry in mice exposed prenatally.  In fact, by adding these chemicals to its list of “eliminated” ingredients, the Feingold Diet almost doubled its success rate for treating kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)!

But, as in other instances, it wasn’t until a contemporary champion of consumer advocacy, “Food Babe” Vani Hari, got involved with a petition on the Internet that things started to click in regard to anything being done by the industry to find replacements. As she pointed out, the fact that European versions of some of the top-selling cereals made by these companies don’t contain BHT shows that it’s not an essential ingredient.

Not that whether General Mills or Kellogg’s will acknowledge that Hari deserves the credit or that “food safety” has anything to do with their reevaluation.  A General Mills media relations manager is quoted as saying the company was “well down the path of removing it from our cereals … not for safety reasons, but because we think consumers will embrace it,” while a spokesperson for Kellogg’s has maintained that the company has been in the process of “actively testing” natural alternatives to BHT “to ensure the same flavor and freshness,” adding, “we know some people are looking for options without BHT.”

Both BHA and BHT, which are actually made from coal tar or petroleum, have been the focus of behavioral and health concerns for decades, although the Food and Drug Administration continues to allow the use of these industrial anti-oxidants in food products (as well as medicines and cosmetics).

Over 30 years ago studies found that after pregnant mice were fed BHT and BHA, their offspring were born with altered brain chemistry. According to the researchers, “the affected mice weighed less, slept less and fought more than normal controls.” On top of that, BHA is considered a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization and listed as a carcinogen in California.

While there has been some controversy over how much BHT should be considered potentially carcinogenic, Hari wants to know why it’s “OK for Americans to eat this risky chemical for breakfast when these companies have already figured out a way to make and sell their cereals fine without it?”

ADHD-linked artificial colors may be starting to lose their luster

Posted by -- March 10, 2015


The good news about artificial colors, tenth on our list of food additives to be avoided, is that they’re now showing signs of fading from the food scene. That became evident just last month when the country’ two best known makers of chocolate candy announced they were phasing such synthetic dyes out of their products.

First Nestlé USA announced its commitment to removing FDA-certified colors, like Red 40 and Yellow 5, as well as artificial flavors, from all of its confections. By the end of 2015, more than 250 products and 10 brands including such standard candy bar brands as Butterfinger, Crunch, Chunky, Raisinets, Goobers, Oh Henry and Baby Ruth candy bars. The products will begin appearing on store shelves by mid-2015. “We’re excited to be the first major U.S. candy manufacturer to make this commitment,” noted division president Dorren Ida.

Not to be outdone, Hershey’s came out a few days later with its own ‘clean-label initiative” that not only included a pledge to “transition existing products” to exclude not only artificial colors and flavors, but high fructose corn syrup (our number one additive to be avoided) as well.

Such movies have not only come about in response to consumer pressure, but from an acknowledgment by the Food and Drug Administration 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. And that came six years after a petition was submitted to the FDA by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking that nine such food colorings be banned — and that an interim warning label be posted on foods containing them that they “cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.” (The agency’s initial response to that and nearly 8,000 comments on the topic  was to convene  a Food Advisory Committee, which concluded there was not enough evidence to take regulatory action.)

But, as we reported here last September, research has increasingly demonstrated a connection between the consumption of synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems in kids. A few years ago, for example, studies were performed at Yale University’s Department of Pediatric Neurology to determine the effects of five common synthetic food dyes on baby rats. Only unlike experiments that have used excessive amounts of substances in question, these used the equivalent of the “real world” exposures our kids have to these dyes. And the results were alarming – the rats became hyperactive and showed diminished learning ability.

Nor is this an effect that has been confined to lab rats. A couple years ago, a British study, published in The Lancet, which found that artificial food dyes increased hyperactivity in children, prompted the American Academy of Pediatricians to acknowledge a link between their consumption and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and to recommend parents try removing them from the diet of a child who suffers from the condition.

Or as we observed, the road to Ritalin could well be paved with all those FD&C’s you see listed among the ingredients of today’s processed food products. In fact, the link between food dyes (and certain other ingredients, as well as foods themselves) and behavioral problems in kids has been known for quite a while. It goes back to the 1970s when the late Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a California pediatrician and pioneer in the field of allergy and immunology, discovered the connection between what we eat and how it affects the way we feel and act. Since then, the Feingold Center he founded has helped scores of kids with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder by eliminating certain additives from their diets – all without resorting to drugs such as Ritalin.

Of course, as in the case of other ingredients, European regulators have already beat us to the punch. Since 2010, they’ve required food products containing these unnatural hues to carry a warning label stating that consumption “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

But wait – there’s more!

And hyperactivity isn’t the only health problem that might be caused by these fake hues. Red dye No. 40, a petroleum derivative and the most commonly used artificial color, has been known to cause allergic reactions such as hives and swelling around the mouth, and is a suspected carcinogen. Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine) has been linked to chromosomal damage and may cause allergic reactions and migraines. Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow), currently banned in Norway and Sweden, can cause gastrointestinal distress, swelling of the skin, nettle rash and migraines, and may also be carcinogenic.  And Blue No. 1, or “brilliant blue,” which has been banned in France and Finland, may trigger asthma, low blood pressure, hives and other allergic reactions. (It also caused serious complications and death in hospital patients when used in feeding tube solutions several years ago.)

But then, as we also previously noted, the entire history of artificial colors has been colored by controversy. While they may make products appear more attractive, they represent just the kind of chemical additives we should delete from our diets – something that’s especially true for kids. But then, the fact that so many supposedly “harmless” coloring agents have been found to be otherwise is hardly surprising when you consider their origins and backgrounds. Many of the older dyes were made from coal tar – a thick, black liquid derived from, well, coal. (Now, does that sound like anything you’d like to ingest?) Some are still in use today, while many newer ones are petroleum extracts.  They may also contain measurable amounts of toxic contaminants, such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

Stay tuned for more updates on our top ten ingredients to be avoided (along with an extra one) in advance of our third annual Read Your Labels Day April 11.