Author Archives: kristin wartman

Safe Shmafe: How Slate’s Latest Article on Pesticides Got It (Really) Wrong

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Last week, Slate published an article claiming that — counter to popular assumptions — the pesticide levels on most of the produce we eat are nothing to worry about. The title says it all: “Organic Shmorganic: Conventional Fruits and Vegetables are Perfectly Healthy for Kids.”

In one sensational, simplistic article, author Melinda Wenner Moyer appears ready to undermine the 50-year battle that organic food advocates have waged against an increasingly monolithic industry to provide healthy, uncontaminated food. In the piece, Moyer concludes that conventionally grown produce that harbor pesticide residue are not harmful for kids and are not much worse than their organic counterparts.

Moyer points to the fact that organic farms often use pesticides of their own. However, she also admits that most organic pesticides break down in the environment more easily and are less likely to contaminate the soil and water. That alone is a good enough reason to support organics since runoff from agriculture is the number one polluter of America’s waterways. Also, by Moyer’s own admission, pesticides are used in organic agriculture as a last resort, limiting our exposure even further.

Moyer asserts that since synthetic pesticides are engineered to be used in smaller quantities, that might also somehow make conventional food less toxic overall than organic. But this sounds like the industry talking — why wouldn’t we seek to further regulate all toxic substances on our foods, whether organic or not, rather than concluding we might as well eat the conventional foods?

Beyond Residue

When Moyer says that pesticides are “perfectly healthy for kids,” she doesn’t specify whose kids. It’s clear that she hasn’t considered farmworkers’ families and those who live near agricultural fields. These populations are routinely exposed to large quantities of pesticides and are greatly impacted.

Moyer claims she is focusing primarily on the heath effects of consumers. But the logic of separating our own health from environmental health and worker health is specious. Just ask farmers.

Kira Kinney, an organic farmer in New Paltz, New York, finds Moyer’s compartmentalized argument especially troubling. “The author says she is only looking at this narrow window of residue on produce, but I do not understand, as a grower, how one can break apart the farm process to only look at things in such narrow focus,” says Kinney.

Kinney sees Methyl bromide — a fumigant that is being phased out in produce production, but is still in use on some farms — as a good example. “It is applied to the soils of most conventional strawberry farms — and other produce [farms] as well. It basically kills everything living in the soil, and makes lots of people sick in areas where this gas is being pumped into the soil,” she says.

Even if we focus strictly on the direct health effects for consumers eating produce grown with pesticides, Moyer makes gross oversights. She starts the article off by saying, “I can’t help but wonder whether giving my son organic food really makes a difference to his health, considering that he’s been known to lick the bottom of his shoes, kiss my poop-sniffing dog, and eat crackers — someone else’s — off of the preschool floor.”

In fact, these are two completely different issues. Recent science on the microbiome, or bacteria in and on our bodies, shows that kids who grow up with dogs have a healthier microbiome and exposure to a variety of bacteria likely helps to improve our immune systems. But this has absolutely nothing to do with pesticides.

Or perhaps it does. There is evidence to suggest that one pesticide, glyphosate, the ingredient used in the ubiquitous Roundup may disrupt and kill beneficial bacteria in our guts leading to impaired immune function and a cascade of ill health effects.

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise since pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides work to kill organisms indiscriminately. There are also numerous studies that show use of these various “cides” disrupts soil microflora, so why not our own as well?

Dose: Not as Straightforward as You Think

The basis of Moyer’s argument is that “the dose makes the poison” when it comes to the toxicity of pesticides. This concept is the cornerstone of toxicology and many toxicologists will tell you that’s all there is to it: Ill effects occur along a linear curve depending on how much of the toxin one is exposed to. However, much of the conventional thinking on this matter is being overturned.

I asked Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine, about this theory. Blumberg works with endocrine disrupting chemicals and many pesticides fall into this category.

“Endocrine disrupting chemicals most assuredly work at low doses that produce what we call “non-monotonic,” or nonlinear, dose responses,” Blumberg says. “There are many cases where a low dose of a chemical has one effect, whereas a higher dose either has no effect, or an opposite effect.”

The idea that the dose makes the poison, says Blumberg, “makes the assumption that the dose-response curve must be linear. As even laymen know, there are precious few responses in nature that are linear.”

Since toxicologists assume the linear dose response, the EPA rarely, if ever, tests for what exposure at lower levels may mean. But in Blumberg’s research, he routinely finds effects on the development of fat cells and the prevalence of obesity at levels near to or below what’s known as the “no observed adverse affect level” (or NOAELs) and sometimes at or below the EPA-established tolerable daily intake.

In one study Blumberg found that the fungicide triflumizole caused changes to fat cells, and increased fat cell size at levels 400 times below the EPA approved NOAEL and four times lower than the tolerable daily intake.

Furthermore, Moyer relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) data to back up her claim that pesticide residues are harmless. This is a huge oversight since the process by which pesticides receive EPA approval is riddled with conflicts of interest. Blumberg described the process like this: The EPA asks companies that are introducing new chemicals to perform basic tests, including tests for carcinogenesis and reproductive harm, for example. The company then performs these tests in-house or asks a contract laboratory to do them and shows the data to the EPA.

“Despite this clear conflict of interest, the EPA says, ‘thank you very much,’ talks about the issue for a while, and then either approves, or disapproves the chemical for use based on the industry supplied data, which may or may not be complete,” says Blumberg.

Very Little Human Data

Another key point is that the EPA makes its safety determinations without any human data. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that, “Because humans are exposed to lots of things, you can’t get a cause-effect sense for a single pesticide. So, when they make a ‘safety’ determination, it is without the benefit of human data.”

Blumberg added that the EPA rarely tests these chemicals directly, nor conducts an independent investigation. Instead, the agency often performs computer modeling studies that estimate what an average person might consume based on assumptions about the residues on food. (These models are what Moyer refers to in the Slate article.)

However, the EPA does not ever test the exposure levels actually found in consumers. Nor does it look at levels in those applying the pesticide, nor their families, nor those who live close to where these pesticides are applied. In other words, Blumberg says, “Populations are never sampled to assess whether exposure falls within the range predicted by the modeling studies.”

Zoeller says that the EPA’s capabilities are severely limited due to built-in industry protections. “[The EPA] have been given the task of evaluating whether a chemical is harmful, not if it is safe. The statute protects the industry, not the consumer. EPA is caught in the middle.”

Zoeller added that Moyer’s article makes the mistake of claiming “safe levels” of pesticides. “I doubt seriously that EPA risk assessors would say it like that. They would say that according to the data they have, ‘levels of exposure below X should not produce adverse effects.’ There’s a big difference,” he says.

Pesticides’ Combined Effects

Moyer seems to be arguing that since we are exposed to so many toxins on a daily basis, pesticide residue makes little difference. That’s a dangerous assumption. In fact, limiting our exposure to pesticide residue on food, whenever possible, is smart precisely because
it’s one factor we can control.

What’s more, Moyer’s article makes no mention of the combined effects of these toxins. One 2011 study found that the widespread decline in male reproductive health may be linked to increased exposure to a combination of pesticides, which have not been adequately tested.

Another 2012 study found that the combined effects of widely used pesticides exceed the effects of individual pesticides. To date, there is not nearly enough data on these combined effects, even though the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, through food and drinking water.

These dangers are especially worrisome for children and pregnant women. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently warned about the dangers of exposure to pesticides and other toxins, as the average woman is exposed to an estimated 163 unique chemicals per day, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The bottom line is that most data that suggests pesticide residue is safe is the result of a deeply conflicted regulatory system. Under our current system, we rely on the companies manufacturing these chemical to find them dangerous, rather than an independent entity to prove them safe. As such, these chemicals have never been deemed safe for children, expectant mothers, or anyone else at the doses most Americans are currently being exposed to.

We now know that low levels of these toxins can adversely effect our microbiomes and our reproductive health, while increasing the risk of obesity. So why not err on the side of caution?

Indeed, as Blumberg puts it, “If we wait for such proof [in humans], despite numerous animal studies that should have alerted us to the potential dangers of specific chemical exposure, we have utterly failed to protect the public.”

A version of this article first appeared on Civil Eats.


Bad (and Good) Eating Habits Start in the Womb

Last week my piece “Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb” appeared in The New York Times and generated a lot of interest and  commentary — it was the number one most emailed story on the entire site for over a day. I find this to be an encouraging sign that people are really concerned about the food they eat, and especially about the health of their babies and children.

Click here to listen to an interview I did for New Hampshire Public Radio discussing my piece. Below is a description from NHPR’s website.

You may be familiar with the ordeal of introducing children to broccoli and spinach.  Two new studies suggest that finicky eaters might have picked up their discriminating habit in the womb. Forget genetics, personal responsibility, and discipline. Your taste for junk food and soda may have a lot to do with how your mother satisfied her cravings.

Kristin Wartman, is a food, politics and health journalist. She recently wrote about the new science of food choices for the New York Times.

Photo: Rafael Viana Araujo via Flickr Creative Commons


Just Say No to Antibacterial Soaps

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We are approaching flu season and there’s one scene that’s becoming more and more common: people and parents dousing themselves and their children with antibacterial soaps. But this aggressive tactic may actually be causing more harm than good. That’s because antibacterial soaps, much like antibiotics, don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria — they just obliterate them all. And without the good bacteria protecting us, we may be more likely to get sick in the first place.

The trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies are called the microbiome — research into the microbiome is hot right now with new and exciting studies regularly making headlines. The microbiome makes our lives possible and in fact these bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by a lot — ten to one — and play a crucial role in our health. Recent research implicates a compromised microbiome in diseases and chronic conditions ranging from allergies, diabetes, and obesity, to autism, depression, and schizophrenia. And our chances of contracting flu, colds, and even being susceptible to food poisoning is likely based on the health of our microbiome. Scientists are now theorizing that the health and diversity of our gut bacteria, in particular, may be at the very root of our overall health. A recent New York Times piece looks at how our compromised microbiomes may be what’s causing the modern allergy epidemic:

The prevalence of allergic disease and asthma increased between two- and threefold in the late 20th century, a mysterious trend often called the “allergy epidemic.”

These days, one in five American children have a respiratory allergy like hay fever, and nearly one in 10 have asthma.

The article posits that suburban and city residents who lack exposure to the diverse bacteria found on farms suffer a damaged microbiome which compromises our bodies’ ability to develop a healthy immune system, which can differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. As is the case with allergies, a less-than optimally healthy immune system can overreact to various environmental triggers. The Times article takes the reader to Amish farm country in rural Indiana where rates of allergies among children growing up on farms are significantly lower than for their city dwelling peers:

The earlier exposure begins, it seems, the greater the protection — and that includes during pregnancy. Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.

In another recent article in The New Yorker the microbiome is featured with an emphasis on mental health. The article presents recent research showing that germ-free environments lead mice to become more anxious, depressed, and hopeless. This is because much of our serotonin is produced in the gut, up to 80 percent by many accounts, and a lack of healthy and diverse bacteria in the gut interferes with serotonin production. The article also cites research that shows a lack of beneficial bacteria made mice obese and prone to diabetes. Again, what we are exposed to as babies is crucially important:

Organisms that are present when we’re two months old may have shaped our brain, but they have long since disappeared when we hit twenty or forty or sixty. Indeed, while a recent summary in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests that bowel bacteria may provide insight into “autism, schizophrenia and anxiety,” the authors also emphasize the role that timing plays in the microbiome’s influence over the developing brain.

Both of these articles and countless others point to the importance of what happens to you as a newborn baby and in utero. According to the Times article, “What happens to your mother during the nine months before your birth may affect your vulnerability to many diseases decades later, from heart disease and obesity to schizophrenia.”

For those reading this, that ship has sailed — but how can you help optimize the microbiome of future generations? Short of moving to the country and taking up farming, there are several key elements. When possible, have a vaginal birth. During the baby’s trip down the birth canal, he or she acquires important bacteria from the mother that is specifically tailored for the baby. Researchers have found that a mother’s bacteria change during pregnancy to help provide specific protection for the newborn. A recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that infants born by cesarean lacked a specific group of bacteria found in infants delivered vaginally, even if they were breastfed. While a cesarean birth sometimes cannot be avoided, most women are able to breastfeed. This is the single most important thing a mother can do to guarantee a healthier microbiome.  Researchers found that infants who were strictly formula-fed, compared with babies that were exclusively or partially breastfed, also had significant differences in their gut bacteria. The researchers wrote:

We want parents (and physicians) to realize that their decisions regarding c-section and breastfeeding can impact their infant’s gut microbiome, and this can have potentially lifelong effects on the child’s health,” says postdoctoral student and first author Meghan Azad, University of Alberta.

And while having babies in tow while milking cows is not possible for most city dwellers, ensuring that your baby is exposed to a variety of bacteria is possible. Beyond breastfeeding, the next most important thing is to avoid antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial products. These products kill all the bacteria wherever you put them. Parents who constantly use antibacterial soaps before touching their baby or who clean the baby’s toys and clothes with antibacterial soaps are doing a major disservice to the baby and his or her microbiome.

There is also added concern over the ingredient triclosan, which is the antibacterial agent found in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies as well as toys, trash bags, kitchen utensils, and bedding. In recent animal studies, scientists have found that triclosan causes hormone-related problems including an increased risk of infertility and early puberty. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently stated that, “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.” And the FDA is reviewing the safety of triclosan, which has existed on the market since the 1970s without adequate studies demonstrating its safety. According to an article on CBS News, “The Endocrine Society, a group of doctors and scientists who specialize in the hormone system, flagged triclosan four years ago as an ingredient that alters levels of thyroid hormones and reproductive hormones like testosterone and estrogen.”

We are just beginning to understand how our overly sterile modern living environments might be causing more harm than good. Over the next several years we will likely uncover more and more evidence to prove that our war on bacteria is damaging future generations and ourselves. For now though, make it a priority to avoid all antibacterial products — including that antibacterial soap you thought would keep you and your kids from getting the flu. Good old fashion soap and water works just fine.

Photo from Cleveland.com


The Shutdown: Our Food Safety, Health and Welfare at Stake

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This man was sleeping outside Prospect Park last Friday morning

While Congress battles it out over health care reform, the resulting government shutdown will have far-reaching impacts on food safety, environmental protections, food production and farming. It also has serious implications for the health and nutrition of many Americans. Depending on the duration of the shut down, it could be nothing less than catastrophic for a great number of people.

For those same Americans to whom the Republicans are so opposed to providing adequate health care, the shutdown will also affect their already limited ability to access healthy foods, further harming their health. This will be especially true for those most in need — namely the nine million pregnant women and new mothers who rely on the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that states will be able to fund WIC for a week and beyond that additional funds may be available through October, however, the USDA warns that state agencies “may still face funding shortfalls associated with FY 2014 obligations during the shutdown.”

WIC is a critically important program that provides healthier food options for pregnant women and new mothers who are poor, have medical problems, or are considered to be at “nutrition risk.” WIC also provides important health referrals to the nine million people who currently rely on the program. And when considering the negative long-term effects that poor nutrition has in utero and in young children, the true costs of cutting funding for WIC have not been accounted for.

Which brings us back to health care. Many politicians fail to see that the state of the economy depends in large part on the state of health among all Americans. American health is on a downward trend and by cutting crucial food funding for the poor, especially pregnant women and new mothers, we will only exacerbate this trend.

The shut down also means that the USDA’s communications offices are now closed. So, if important information about food safety comes to light, we probably won’t know.

USDA databases that provide import market information for farmers will also be closed. Modern Farmer reports that, “Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops.”

Small family farmers will also be affected since many are dependent on loans from the USDA and delays on loans will likely cost many their farms — as many as 1,400 small farmers are likely to lose their farms as a result of the shutdown, according to Rural Foundation Advancement International.

Other agency shutdowns that will affect our food system include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is essentially completely shut down except for current work on Superfund sites. This means the EPA will stop monitoring air pollution and pesticide use.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will eliminate much of its food-safety checks, including “routine establishment inspections…monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has stopped taking new patients for clinical research and its hotline for medical questions is closed.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has stopped its flu program and says that it will have a “significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations.” The CDC has also stopped providing “support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance.”

And while the USDA will continue to inspect meat, dairy, eggs and food imports with 87 percent of its employees still working, the agency has also said that if a violation is indeed found it may not have the resources to fully investigate. The USDA plan also warns that, “A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency.”

The FDA, which is responsible for inspecting the majority of the food industry, will not be functioning in this capacity during the shutdown. Typically, the FDA inspects 80 food facilities a day and files reports on those in violation of health codes. This means an end to important investigations and reports, like the one that brought a peanut facility to a close last year after a salmonella outbreak.

It’s beginning to look like what Republicans have wanted all along: To eliminate social programs to help the poor and scale back on regulations particularly when it comes to the environment and our food supply. But what kind of country would that look like? Currently four out of five Americans live in danger of falling into poverty and are struggling with joblessness.

These Americans are reliant on social programs like WIC or food stamps (which will continue to be funded at least through October) and without this help many will be forced to decide between medications, rent, or food.

Every American would be best served by understanding that the health of Americans comes first and defunding social programs, regulatory agencies, and independent research will only further undermine America’s deteriorating health, which in the end, will cost us a lot more than a failing economy.

 


Vegan Foods, Diet Products, and Other Big Food Scams

Last week I did two interviews both relating to how the industrial food system loves to tell us how its products will help us lose weight and be healthier. Tuesday, I was on Chef Erica Wides’ show Let’s Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to talk about vegan and vegetarian “foodiness” products, as she calls them. Wides defines foodiness as fake food, made to look like real food that often makes some kind of (false) health claim. When it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods, people often think they are eating better simply because they don’t eat meat. The trouble is, people often resort to the packaged and processed versions of vegan or vegetarian food. As an example of how these foodiness products are worse than the read thing, take a look at the ingredients for two products we discussed on the show:

Pizza-Pizza-Pizzaz

Toffutti Pizza:

WHEAT FLOUR (UNBLEACHED), CRUSHED TOMATOES, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, SALT, YEAST, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED (CORN), OREGANO, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC. The dairy-free cheese contains the following: WATER, EXPELLER PRESSED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, NON-GMO (TOFU, SOY PROTEIN) NON-DAIRY LACTIC ACID BLEND OF NATURAL GUMS (LOCUST BEAN, GUAR, CELLULOSE, XANTHAN AND CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC SUGAR, POTATO FLAKES, VEGETABLE MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT.

Veja-Links:

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00941_2898924704Click here to listen to the full half hour episode.

On Friday I went on Huff Post Live for a segment called “Myths and Facts about Weight Loss.” I am sometimes reluctant to do these types of interviews because the focus on weight loss and obesity is a bit misguided. I think we need to focus on the consolidation of the food supply and the way in which the industrial food system is at the root of our collective health and weight problems. Which is why I always emphasize that the solution to weight loss is to eliminate industrial foods from your diet as much as possible. This perspective shifts the blame from the people stuck in an industrial food paradigm to the horribly skewed food system pumping out terrible products. The best way to do this is to emphasize the important of eating real, whole foods. So, what are real, whole foods?

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organically grown)
  • Fresh meats like beef, poultry, pork (preferably pasture-raised, if possible)
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, butter (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Herbs and spices
  • Plenty of filtered water

What’s the rest of what you see on grocery store shelves, in fast-food restaurants, and on TV? Packaged and processed foods. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, I guarantee you will lose weight. But even more importantly, you are refusing to participate in an industrial food system that has proven to make people sick, devastate the environment, and exploit people, animals, and natural resources. Once you commit to taking a stand against that, the weight loss seems like an added bonus. For more, you can watch the whole interview here and the two minute version here.


FDA: Working Hard to Protect Industry

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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made two moves in recent days that seemingly address consumer concerns on some hot button issues. First, it banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) based epoxy resins in coatings for baby formula packaging. Second, it proposed a limit on how much arsenic is allowed in apple juice. Looking more closely at these decisions, however, it seems that FDA is really more interested in appeasing industry, than doing its duty to protect the public.

So what action is the FDA really taking? Due to intense consumer demand, manufacturers of infant formula packaging have already stopped using BPA. And, based on the new standard for arsenic levels, 95 percent of companies that make apple juice are already in compliance.

The FDA’s BPA ban is actually an abandonment petition coming from industry stating that it is now illegal to use BPA for those specific products—but it does not say anything about the safety of BPA.

“It is a ban but it’s a ban that was initiated by the industry,” Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, said in a recent telephone interview. “They have not taken action on the safety of BPA even though they have been pressured to. But when industry comes in and says, ‘This is no longer being sold,’ that’s an easy out for them because if industry didn’t agree and FDA tried to ban it or take action, maybe the industry would go after them.”

The FDA made a similar move last year when it banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups when nearly all U.S. manufacturers had already stopped using BPA for those products. The move was mainly said to be about “boosting consumer’s confidence.”

Both the FDA and the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, have said that the BPA ban is in response to marketplace demands, not due to safety concerns regarding the ubiquitous substance.

And there are an abundance of safety concerns regarding BPA as well as increased public awareness about the potential dangers of BPA. The American Chemistry Council has repeatedly dismissed the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that link BPA to a wide range of health concerns including various types of cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity.

In addition, a recent study published this June in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives changes our understanding of how BPA is absorbed by the body. Researchers found that BPA is absorbed under the tongue and goes directly to the bloodstream, resulting in a much higher exposure to the chemical.

Of further concern is the fact that without clear government regulations, manufacturers can replace BPA with other chemicals that may be just as harmful. (I wrote about this in a previous article for Civil Eats).

“Anything that substitutes for BPA should have to go through a screen for hormonal activity,” Hansen said. “There is a report that looks at 16 different replacements for BPA and I would suspect all of these have the same hormonal activity.”

Hansen was more optimistic about the FDA’s new federal limits on arsenic in apple juice. The new regulation says that apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could be removed from the market and companies could face legal action. But the FDA stressed that most companies on the market are already below that threshold.

Much of the concern around apple juice stems from a Consumer Reports finding published last year in which researchers tested 28 different apple juices bought from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Five samples of apple juice tested and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 parts per billion federal limit for bottled and drinking water, according to the report.

Consumer Reports also found high levels of lead in apple juice and grape juice as a result of insecticide use. The report also brought to light the fact that for the past decade, most concentrate has come from China (PDF) and concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there.

Hansen said the new limit is important because, for the first time, it puts a federal limit on the amount of arsenic in a juice product. But the limits don’t address the arsenic found in grape juice, nor the levels of lead in any juice products. “Yes, that is problematic,” Hansen said. “It’s good that they’ve done it for apple juice but they should be doing it in other juices as well. We found [arsenic] in grape juice and FDA’s own data has found it can show up in pear juice as well.”

While inorganic and organic arsenic are both found in these juices, it was originally thought that inorganic arsenic was of greatest concern, since it is a known carcinogen. According to the FDA, inorganic arsenic has also been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

Organic arsenic was once thought to pass through the body more quickly and not cause harm. However, the FDA now states that organic arsenic may cause harm as well. “Some organic forms can be even more toxic than the inorganic,” Hansen explained.

The arsenic found in apple juice is largely the result of years of arsenical insecticides being applied to apple orchards, Hansen said.  He added that the science on arsenic is evolving so that scientists now believe it is far more toxic than was previously thought.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wanted a limit as low as three parts per billion, but the FDA is putting that limit at 10 parts per billion, a threshold that the vast majority of manufacturers already meet.

According to an Associated Press article, “All of the experts—including the government and the consumer advocates—agree that drinking small amounts of apple juice isn’t harmful. The concern involves the effects of drinking large amounts of juice over long periods of time.” But for the public, that language is vague—especially for an overburdened consumer scanning labels and reading ingredients for products on grocery store shelves.

Furthermore, a new study found that the combined effect of estrogen and arsenic significantly increases the risk of prostate cancer. BPA is one of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals in our food supply that has an estrogen-like effect in the body. Therefore, it is possible, that within that plastic bottle of apple juice is a potent concoction of chemicals that may lead to prostate and other forms of cancer.

Ultimately, the public is left with many questions regarding the safety of foods, beverages, and packaging—all of which the FDA is supposed to screen. According to the FDA’s Web site, its designated role is “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality…of most of our nation’s food supply…”

What will it take for the FDA to do its job and protect the American people? So far it seems that public and consumer pressure haven’t been enough. The FDA has yet to respond to the two million comments on the petition to stop the approval of genetically engineered salmon or the one million comments on labeling genetically modified foods.

As is the case with the latest BPA ban and proposed limits to arsenic in apple juice, the public is left with no clear answers and no real assurance that the agency has its best interest in mind.

Photo: baby drinking formula, by Shutterstock

This article also appeared on Civil Eats


All Calories Are Not the Same — WATCH: TED Talk

In this compelling TED talk, Dr. Peter Attia says that insulin resistance and diabetes cause obesity — not the other way around as the conventional wisdom holds. More importantly, he says it’s the refined grains, starches, and sugars in our diets that cause insulin resistance in the first place. Meaning, it’s not how much we eat but what we eat — more proof for the argument that all calories are not the same, contrary to what the food industry wants us to believe. It won’t be long before Big Food will have to acknowledge the science and take responsibility for its poor quality food products, rather than insisting that all calories are the same and scolding Americans to simply “eat less and exercise more.” Dr. Attia says that obesity is really just a proxy for the underlying illness that is insulin resistance. He says that by blaming the obese, we are blaming the victims in a food system gone awry. Our processed food supply — which is heavily reliant on refined grains and sugars — is the real culprit here.


Food News for Late June

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  • This week, Mother Jones reported on a new study that confirms what was previously thought about Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical found in food packaging and, as a result, in 98 percent of Americans’ urine. BPA is thought to be an obesogen — an organic pollutant that leads to obesity through non-caloric pathways. I wrote about BPA and other obesogens last year for The Atlantic and interviewed two prominent researchers who are concerned about these toxins and their effects on our health. These studies provide more evidence that the idea of “calories in, calories out” is faulty in our current food environment. As Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco said in my article:

“I don’t believe in the energy balance model, which is calorie-centric,” he says. “I believe in the fat deposition model, which is insulin-centric. The reason is that by altering insulin dynamics, you can alter both caloric consumption and physical activity behavior. This has been my research for the past 16 years.” What Lustig means is that by increasing circulating insulin — often as a result of consuming too much fructose — people become hungrier and more fatigued, which results in overeating and little motivation to exercise.

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  • In another study reported last week, researchers found that too much sugar can damage the heart. “When the heart muscle is already stressed from high blood pressure or other diseases, and then takes in too much glucose, it adds insult to injury,” one of the researchers said.
  • The American Medical Association said it would recognize obesity as a disease. I am not so sure this is a good move since it will allow pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on the new classification and treat obesity with drugs rather than lifestyle and diet modifications. The Times reports, “And it could help improve reimbursement for obesity drugs, surgery and counseling.” If counseling means sound nutrition and lifestyle advice that could be promising but chances are doctors will recommend surgery and drugs before counseling. “Two new obesity drugs — Qsymia from Vivus, and Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals and Eisai — have entered the market in the last year,” according to the Times. My tweet from last week sums up my take:

Bloomberg’s No Beyoncé: The Real Dilemmas with the Soda Ban

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The Bloomberg administration is back in court three months after a state court judge barred New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to create a city-wide ban on sugary beverages over 16 ounces. Reports of the latest court proceedings say that the judges were more sympathetic to lawyers from the American Beverage Association than to those from the Department of Health. Marion Nestle agrees and writes that, “the judges were much tougher on the DOH attorney than on the one from the ABA.”

Perhaps this is because the ABA has swayed public opinion so thoroughly in its opposition of the soda ban with its insidious and seemingly grassroots campaign, “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.” This organization says it represents New Yorkers, businesses, and community organizers but is in fact a creation of the beverage industry itself. By using the language of “choice” the industry has persuaded many New Yorkers that by defending the billion-dollar beverage industry, they are in fact, standing up to elites like Bloomberg as well as protecting their civil liberties. Last July, paid canvassers hired by the beverage industry stopped New Yorkers on the street to sign petitions. So far, more than half a million people and businesses have signed on to protect New Yorker’s freedom to choose what size sugary beverage to buy.

Public opinion was also swayed back in January, when the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation sided with the beverage industry and opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s ban. This move brought the issues of race, class, choice, and agency to the fore in a debate seemingly about the prevalence of sugary drinks and their connection to the rates of diet-related disease and obesity. The ensuing conversation has shed light on the vast chasms across racial and class lines when it comes to reforming our food system and regulating our food industry.

The proposed soda ban highlights one crucial tenet about Americans: We do not like being told what to do. Rather, we prefer to be seduced by slick marketing and sexy ad campaigns. This way, it’s as if we have chosen one particular product based on a sense of self-identification — the ultimate goal of advertisers and corporations. The most obvious recent example of this is the marketing confluence of Beyoncé and Pepsi. Here we have the glamorous (svelte and healthy) mega pop star hawking a product that we know leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.

Of course, Beyoncé is only one in a long list of celebrities that shill for these beverage corporations: Elton John, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Madonna, LeBron James and Sofía Vergara are among the many others. Our American obsession with fame and wealth is partially why these endorsements work so well; the other part has to do with this concept of choice; after all, Pepsi’s tag line has long been, “The choice of a new generation.”

The question of choice is a sticky one in this soda ban debate since the billion dollar advertising industry has led Americans to believe they have unlimited choices when it comes to food and drink. Most Americans scoff at the idea of their “choices” actually being dictated to them by some outside force; but the reality is that we actually don’t have unlimited choices when it comes to our food. In fact, most options on grocery store shelves boil down to choosing products from roughly a handful of large corporations, often made using the same ingredients — corn and soy. Four companies make 75 percent of breakfast cereals and snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of all ice cream. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of all beef and control 70 percent of all milk sales.

Bloomberg can certainly wield great power with the soda ban, causing critics to cry overreach and nanny-state — but what about these corporations? And the billion dollar advertising industry? The difference is in the presentation: Bloomberg is no Beyoncé. When Beyoncé tells us what to drink we listen; when Bloomberg does, there’s outrage.

It’s worth asking the NAACP and Hispanic Federation why they don’t oppose Beyoncé’s marketing of Pepsi when we know that diabetes rates are 77 percent higher among African Americans and 66 percent higher among Latinos than their white peers. It’s been widely reported that both organizations receive funding from Big Beverage corporations, and thus opposing them has become too risky. As Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a New York Times article, “Their opposition makes the battles harder. It gives credibility to the industry’s arguments, which are typically self-serving.”

These organizations argue that the ban will unfairly harm bodega or other small business owners, which has validity since the ban seems arbitrary in its application. Why is a 20-ounce Frappuccino from Starbucks, with a whopping 79 grams of sugar, exempt from this ban simply because it contains dairy? By comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of Coke contains 65 grams of sugar and is not exempt. This example highlights two key contradictions: Large corporate stores won’t suffer financially from the ban; and there is an air of class discrimination between the people who typically buy these beverages.

Ben Jealous, NAACP President and CEO, has said that the organization would support a comprehensive ban. “This is the troubling part: this ‘ban’ wouldn’t have been a ban at all, in that it would have stopped it from the mom and pop shops, it wouldn’t have stopped it at 7-Eleven,” Jealous said on the Chris Hayes show. “How are you banning soda if you’re not banning ‘Big Gulps’?”

Bloomberg’s soda ban, while perhaps a step in the right direction, is akin to a band-aid on the big gaping wound that is our inequitable food system. The opposition to the ban by the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation shines a spotlight on that wound.

Public opinion is a powerful tool and the beverage industry is pushing all the right buttons to sway New Yorkers into siding with an industry that causes demonstrable harm to our health. If the judges agree that the ban is encroaching on our “freedom to choose,” then they too are missing the bigger picture.

But perhaps the most salient lesson to come out of this debate is just how limited changes to the food system will be if we do not address class and racial inequality. The claims of paternalism against Bloomberg’s ban are valid — the very concept of the ban implies that certain people are not capable of making good decisions on their own and strips them of agency. The trick is that the corporations are playing the same game. They aren’t giving consumers any more credit than Bloomberg is — they just make it so that when they tell us what to do, it’s a whole lot more sexy.


Food News for Early June

In (roughly) weekly installments I will scan the news for important and interesting food, health, nutrition, and food politics stories and compile them here. Below are my picks for top news in the past week:

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  • The idea that “low-fat” equates with a healthy food product is one of the biggest health myths out there, yet many people still believe it according to a new study in the journal Appetite. The study also found that calorie labeling had little effect on consumer perceptions of health. This confirms my take on the ineffectiveness of labeling calories in fast food restaurants, which I discussed on Huff Post Live a couple of weeks back.
  • An article in The Atlantic links gastrointestinal disorders with autism. This is something many alternative health practitioners have been saying for years and it appears to be gaining mainstream recognition. I wrote about diet and ADHD in 2011 when researcher Lidy Pelsser completed a dietary study that found that in children with ADHD, fully 64 percent had symptoms that were caused by food. “It’s a hypersensitivity reaction to food,” Pessler said.
  • A new study from Brown University using MRI imaging of babies brains found that breast-fed babies have significantly enhanced brain development compared to babies fed formula or a combination of breast milk and formula:

The research found that by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula exclusively or who were fed a combination of formula and breast milk. The extra growth was most pronounced in parts of the brain associated with language, emotional function, and cognition, the research showed.

  • This interesting piece explores the many issues with modern wheat from the perspective of a woman with gluten intolerance (but not celiac disease). She was desperate to be able to eat bread and ended up at Tartine bakery in San Francisco (the same bakery that Michael Pollan praises in Cooked) where the bread is made by traditional fermentation methods rather than utilizing yeast, which is used for most commercial breads sold in the U.S. Fermentation breaks down the gluten in wheat and therefore makes it easier to digest. One of the most startling quotes from the piece is when one of the research scientists says, “Every person could have a gluten sensitivity at any point of time in their life. Every time you eat a really high enriched flour or all-purpose flour generated products at high levels, you’re taking a chance.” Meaning that when we eat these products in excess we run the risk of damaging our intestines and becoming unable to digest gluten.

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