Category Archives: Diet & Nutrition

Sugar & the Modern Food Environment (Guest Post)

From the blog of Dr. Bill Glaros – Used with permission


Sugar has one thing going for it: It makes things taste good. And it’s a taste we’re born to prefer.

In the natural settings that human primate ancestors evolved in, sweetness intensity should indicate energy density, while bitterness tends to indicate toxicity. The high sweetness detection threshold and low bitterness detection threshold would have predisposed our primate ancestors to seek out sweet-tasting (and energy-dense) foods and avoid bitter-tasting foods. Even amongst leaf-eating primates, there is a tendency to prefer immature leaves, which tend to be higher in protein and lower in fibre and poisons than mature leaves. The “sweet tooth” thus has an ancient evolutionary heritage, and while food processing has changed consumption patterns, human physiology remains largely unchanged.

And therein lies the problem. Food and beverage manufacturers bank on this preference: Sweet sells, and we pay. The average American diet is so sugared up, we now eat over a hundred pounds of added sugars each year – roughly double what we ate a century ago. And what have we gotten for it? Not much nutrition but lots more obesity and illness. As Dr. Robert Lustig noted in his widely read and commented upon article in Nature earlier this year,

Authorities consider sugar as ’empty calories’ – but there is nothing empty about these calories. A growing body of scientific evidence is showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases. A little is not a problem, but a lot kills – slowly….

Is it really coincidence that industry front groups have been putting out more pro-sugar messages than usual? The month after publication of Lustig’s article, the International Food Information Council added a “Sugars and Health Resource Page” to pound home the point of how wholesome, safe and healthy sugar can be.

More recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published a set of articles on a major source of sugar: soft drinks. As noted in the lead editorial,

Sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages alone, which are the largest single caloric food source in the United States, approaches 15% of the daily caloric intake in several population groups. Adolescent boys in the United States consume an average of 357 kcal of the beverages per day….

Unlike carbohydrates with high fiber content, sugar-sweetened beverages are nutrient-poor and are often associated with consumption of salty foods and fast foods. An emerging association between the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease is a major concern.

Before the end of the day, the beverage industry was in full spin mode, tossing out unreferenced “facts” that largely sidestep the issues at hand. That “forty-eight percent of overweight and obese individuals drink no sugar-sweetened beverages” says nothing about those who do. And while it’s true that sugary drinks aren’t the sole source of increased caloric intake, they still play a role (in all their super-sized glory).

More, soft drinks offer nothing nutritionally – one reason why they’ve become an easy target for regulation. With processed food, you still get some nutritional value with the junk. With soft drinks, you get nothing but colored sugar water with some preservatives (and maybe a vitamin or two thrown in if it’s an “energy” or “smart” drink).

And it’s not just about the sugar. Too often, junk foods and soft drinks replace real, nutrient-dense foods. The fuller we get on that highly processed stuff, the less we eat things like vegetables and whole fruit. That displacement, in fact, may play a crucial role in the health damage we see from sugar-intensive diets. As Dr. Weston Price wrote in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,

There is very little of the body building minerals in maple syrup, cane syrup from sugar, or honey. They can all defeat an otherwise efficient [healthy diet]. The problem is not so simple as merely cutting down or eliminating sugars and white flour, though this is exceedingly important. It is also necessary that adequate mineral and vitamin carrying foods be made available [to the body].

But sugar is so nice! you say. Indeed, it is – and even nicer when used less often and in smaller amounts. Here are 12 great tips from Mother Nature News to help get you started.

Image by kaibara87, via Flickr


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“Gluten-Free” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Low Fiber”

Commenting on last month’s post about whole grains, a reader raised an issue that’s often overlooked: How to get enough fiber when eating gluten-free. “I’ve been looking for more fiber in foods,” she wrote, “and find that often, but not always, whole grain labeled foods have more of it.” Gluten-free choices, she added, “typically have little fiber in them.”

And that’s true – but only insofar as you think of grains as your main source of fiber. Gluten and fiber, however, do not go hand in hand.

Unlike gluten – a protein composite – fiber isn’t a nutrient. It’s the part of edible plants that we can’t digest (“roughage”), yet it affects how nutrients are absorbed and the composition of gut flora. Most known for promoting regular bowel movements (keeping a person “regular”), it’s also been shown to lower cholesterol, normalize blood glucose and insulin levels, and reduce risk of some cancers.

Only some edible plants contain gluten, but all contain fiber. This leaves you with an incredibly diverse selection of foods!

Colorful vegetables and fruitsRather than looking for gluten-free grain-based products, look to fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as legumes (beans, peas), nuts and seeds.

Eating a wide variety of these foods can ensure a healthy fiber intake (a minimum of 25 grams daily is generally recommended). Some, of course, deliver more fiber than others. One serving of white beans, for instance, gives you almost a whole day’s worth: 19 grams! Individual vegetables and fruits can range from 2 or 3 grams per serving to more than 10. Mix a variety together with salad greens, and again, you’ve met a good part of the recommended daily intake.

You can learn much more about these gluten-free, high-fiber foods here.

When you have any kind of food sensitivity that makes you define your diet by what you can’t have, it can be all too easy to overlook the wealth of things you can. Focusing more on the latter, you may find yourself depending less on finding analogs to replace foods you miss – gluten-free bread or pasta, for instance – and enjoying the adventure of discovering new foods you like and that deliver the nutrition you need.

Image by 365 Dias que Acalmaram o Mundo, via Flickr

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Whole Grains & Partial Truths

Despite all the “good food”/”bad food” hype you hear, healthful eating isn’t really so confusingly complicated. Stick to a diet based on whole foods (ideally organic), including lots of fresh produce, a minimum of industrially processed food and sugars, and a good amount of variety, and you’ll do fine.

Or, as Michael Pollan famously put it, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The problems largely arise when we venture into the area of commercially manufactured food. Those adjectives matter, for strictly speaking, most all food is “processed” in some way before we eat it – through cooking, say, or even just mixing ingredients together. Commercial manufacture takes it to a whole different level, often using ingredients that would otherwise never be found in your kitchen (and that your body has no need of).

grain_anatomyIt also tends to beat the nutritional life out of its food-sourced ingredients, which is one reason for the recent emphasis on whole grains. The refining process strips nutrients and fiber from the grain. Whole grains and whole grain flours keep more of the good stuff by using all layers of a kernel: bran, endosperm and germ.

But just because something is “whole grain” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthful – a point pounded home by a recently released Harvard School of Public Health study. The gist of it? “Current standards for classifying foods as ‘whole grain’ are inconsistent and, in some cases, misleading….”

[Lead author Rebecca] Mozaffarian and her colleagues assessed five different industry and government guidelines for whole grain products:

  • The Whole Grain Stamp, a packaging symbol for products containing at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving (created by the Whole Grain Council, a non-governmental organization supported by industry dues)
  • Any whole grain as the first listed ingredient (recommended by the USDA’s MyPlate and the Food and Drug Administration’s Consumer Health Information guide)
  • Any whole grain as the first ingredient without added sugars in the first three ingredients (also recommended by USDA’s MyPlate)
  • The word “whole” before any grain anywhere in the ingredient list (recommended by USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010)
  • The “10:1 ratio,” a ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber of less than 10 to 1, which is approximately the ratio of carbohydrate to fiber in whole wheat flour (recommended by the American Heart Association’s 2020 Goals)

* * *

They found that grain products with the Whole Grain Stamp, one of the most widely-used front-of-package symbols, were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, but also contained significantly more sugar and calories compared to products without the Stamp. The three USDA recommended criteria also had mixed performance for identifying healthier grain products.

Of course. The first, second and fourth standards in particular allow for a lot of wiggle room – which is exactly how you get things like the magically health-haloed whole grain Lucky Charms and other sugarific cereals.


Not mentioned on that General Mills web page is the fact that “sugar” is the second most abundant ingredient in every product shown except Kix, in which it’s the third ingredient. (All include multiple sugars, as well.) They don’t have much to say about the artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and other additives either; nor the presence of GMOs in those products made with corn.

But, hey, they’re whole grain, so they must be good, right?


Of course, we’ve talked about this kind of thing before, and the moral of the story remains the same:

Ignore the front of the package; read the ingredients and nutrition info instead. And if you decide to consume the product, do in moderation.

And in case you’re wondering, the Harvard study found that the AHA guidelines gave the best indication of healthfulness:

Products meeting this ratio were higher in fiber and lower in trans fats, sugar, and sodium, without higher calories than products that did not meet the ratio.

Grain diagram via the Whole Grains Council

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After Prop. 37…

Prop. 37’s defeat was a disappointment to those of us who value the right to know and who care about the quality of our food, our health and the environment. It remains up to us to do our homework, ask questions and stay informed so we can make good choices while shopping.

One of the simplest things we can do is support those brands, corporations and stores that support the right to know – and think twice about whether we really want to support those that oppose it. The Cornucopia Institute’s Prop. 37 donor posters are a fine reference:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

There are a number of good shopping guides out there, such as this one from the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Responsible Technology. There are also many good online resources for finding quality, GMO-free foods and other products both here in Southern California and nationally:

  • The LA Times’ guide offers info on farmers’ markets from Santa Clarita to Temecula, Long Beach to Ontario. While not all vendors deal in organics, a great many do – and, of course, you can speak directly to those who grew the food and learn as much as you care to know about how it was raised.
  • To find local food elsewhere in the state, use the directory provided by the California Federation of Certified Farmers’ Markets.
  • Of course, farmers’ markets aren’t your only option. Local Harvest is a directory of family farms, CSA programs, restaurants and other sources of local, organic food.
  • Likewise, the Eat Well Guide can help you find sellers of local, sustainably raised food across the US and Canada. Listings range from farms to restaurants to bakers, butchers and stores.
  • For finding non-GMO foods and products of all sorts, the Institute for Responsible Technology’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide is a terrific resource.
  • Finally, there’s the Good Guide, which features an even wider array of products, with ratings to separate the truly green from the greenwashed.

There is one good thing that’s come out of the fight over Prop. 37: more people than ever are aware of issues around GMOs and the power of agribusiness and the food industry. That progress is nicely illustrated by this infographic just released by the Non-GMO Project:

Click to enlarge

Of course, if you have a rebellious, culture-jamming streak, you could always start labeling it yourself

Cross-posted (modified)

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The Future of Food

Heading toward next week’s election and the vote on GMO labeling here in California, a documentary worth watching again:


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The Right to Know If It’s GMO

A slightly different version of this post
was first published on Know Thy Health.
Used with permission.

Here in California, Big Ag, Big Food and other GMO backers continue to assault us with their anti-Prop. 37 propaganda.

prop·a·gan·da, n.
1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.

You see, these folks are very, very worried that we’re being mislead about the miracle of faux-food. They don’t want us to be confused.

In that case, you’d think they’d be all for Prop 37, because all it does is clear things up. Specifically, Specifically, it requires that raw or processed food “made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways” be labeled as such. Exemptions are made for alcoholic beverages and foods that

  1. Are “certified organic.”
  2. Are unintentionally produced with GMOs.
  3. Are made from animals given GMOs but are not genetically modified themselves.
  4. Contain trace amounts of GMOs.
  5. Are given for medical treatment.
  6. Are sold for immediate consumption.

It also prohibits labeling or advertising GMO foods as “natural.”

Scary stuff, huh?

Really, it all boils down to the right to know what’s in food we don’t grow or make for ourselves. If GMOs are safe and wonderful, corporations should have no qualms about people knowing when they’re buying GMO (and when they’re not). Indeed, at least one scientist who worked on the first GMO tomato, Belinda Martineau, is on the record as saying that the biggest industry misstep has been to resist disclosure.

Not labeling, she says, makes the industry look like it has something to hide. She believes labeling is an opportunity.

“This is one of the best ways the industry can turn public opinion around, is to be honest, to be transparent. And to come out and be proud of their products.”

But, of course, there is mounting evidence that GMO foods do carry health risks. Industry understands that even suspicion of a problem might keep people from buying their products.

Hence, its heavy investment in the campaign against transparency – over $34 million to date (vs. less than $4 million by those who favor labeling). After all, quite a few of them have bought up organic and other “natural” brands, seeing as how more and more Americans are demanding more wholesome food. This is nicely illustrated in The Cornucopia Institute’s latest infographic of funders for each side of the battle. (More here) They’re also making it known who’s MIA: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Newman’s Own, Hain and Driscoll.

As they say, as California goes, so, eventually, goes the nation. We hope this proves true once again.

Read more about Prop. 37 and its implications:


Image by MillionsAgainstMonsanto, via Flickr

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On the Latest “Organics Are No Better for You” Story…

Notice any headlines this week that looked like this?:

Since news of the study broke, a lot of excellent commentary has already been published about it and the way much mainstream media chose to spin it. So rather than sound like a broken record, here’s a sample of key points, followed by an article I received via email from the Cornucopia Institute.

  • Sarah Pinneo: “Media Coverage of Stanford’s Organic Foods Study Is Half Baked” (HuffPo)

    Informed buyers of organic aren’t expecting to get more vitamin C from their strawberries. It’s what’s not in the strawberries that makes organic better: toxic pesticides. And it’s what’s not running off the fields and into the water supply. And it’s what’s not poisoning the people who work in those fields, and the honeybees who pollinate them…
    Read More

  • Tom Philpott: “5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short” (Mother Jones)

    In reality,…the study in some places makes a strong case for organic — though you’d barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what’s known among academics as a “meta-analysis”—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn’t meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.

    In another post I’ll get to the question of nutritional benefits — the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks…
    Read More

  • Michael Pollan: Interview with KQED News (KQED)

    I think we’re kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it’s more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable. That’s the stronger and easier case to make.

    * * *

    It depends on your values. If you’re concerned about nutritional value and taste, you might find that the local food, which is more likely to have been picked when it was ripe, is better. Because any food that’s traveled a few days to get to you or been refrigerated for a long time is going to have diminished nutritional value. That argues for fresh being more important than organic.

    But if you’re concerned about pesticides – let’s say you’re pregnant or have young kids you’re feeding – than you might choose organic, because it will have on balance fewer pesticide residues. You may also be concerned with the welfare of the people picking and the farmers growing your produce, or you may be concerned about soil health – that would argue for organic too…
    Read More

Thinking Outside the Processed Foods Box — Health and Safety Advantages of Organic Food

By Mark A. Kastel
Senior Farm Policy Analyst
The Cornucopia Institute

I have enjoyed a virtually exclusive organic diet for the past 30 years. But I was deeply unsettled by a September 4 New York Times article and a similar Associated Press story casting doubt on the value of an organic diet.

In terms of the extra cost and value of eating organically, I have always subscribed to the adage “pay now or pay later.” While my personal experience does not provide much in terms of a scientifically legitimate sample size, in the last 30 years, after suffering from pesticide poisoning prompted my shift to an organic diet, I have exceeded my insurance deductible only once, due to an orthopedic injury. And my doctor keeps telling me how remarkable it is that I, at age 57, have no chronic health problems and take no pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, the analysis done by Stanford University physicians in the articles noted above did not look “outside the box” as many organic farming and food advocates do.

They discounted many of the studies, including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply’s nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years. This has been attributed to the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.

Furthermore, there are many externalities that impart risk on us as individuals and as a society, which the physicians failed to look at. For example, eating organic food protects us all from exposure to agrichemicals contaminating our water and air.

Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80%-90% contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organics.

Interestingly, there have been virtually no long-term studies on human health impacts of ingesting GMOs, although many laboratory animal and livestock studies have led to disturbing conclusions. The best way to operate using the “precautionary principle,” as European regulators mandate, is to eat a certified organic diet.

Current research now indicates that some of Monsanto’s genes are passing through the placenta into human fetuses and into the bloodstreams of adults and children. Organics is a way to prevent your children from becoming human lab rats testing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or a myriad of other novel life forms.

Stanford researchers, cited in the recent press accounts, dismissed statistically significant differences between agrichemical (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc.) contamination in conventional and organic food.

The researchers might trust the FDA to set ” safe levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in the food we serve our families but many parents have decided to set a lower threshold close zero as possible. even doctors at stanford confirm demonstrably pesticide contamination organic food.

In supporting this cautious approach, there is a growing body of scientific literature that suggests it’s not just the gross level of toxic contamination that pesticides present but rather minute amounts of these toxins can act as endocrine disruptors, or mimickers, sometimes triggering catastrophic and lifelong abnormalities in fetuses and developing children.

Is it worth experimenting with the health of future generations when we know that there is a demonstrated safe alternative—organic food?

To illustrate the difference, researchers at the University of Washington published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives that documented a tremendous drop in organophosphate pesticide contamination, in the urine of children, after just three days on an organic diet. This is hard science that did sway the Stanford investigation’s conclusion.

Scientists have also recognized that we must take into consideration the disproportionate quantities of food that children consume relative to their body weight, especially of certain fruits and vegetables that have been found to be highly contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Furthermore, their study failed to look at the cumulative effects of contamination in many different food items in one’s diet. Again, children, for developmental reasons, are especially at risk.

Both the New York Times and AP stories did touch on a number of advantages, like lower levels of contamination from antibiotic-resistant pathogens. But that was also dismissed by stating that these could be ” killed during cooking. however we know that inadequate cooking does take place and cross-contamination can easily occur in residential kitchens. so again I pose the question how many potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant organisms do you want to bring into your home?

Although there is conflicting science on whether or not organic food is truly nutritionally superior, there is no doubt that in terms of many parameters, organic food is demonstrably safer.

I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that’s produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I’m getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice for family farmers.

Also see “5 Reasons We Should Continue to Eat Organic Produce” (Mother Nature Network)

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