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

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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.