Did you happen to see the New York Times article earlier this week about how deep decay has become such a problem for preschoolers – preschoolers! – that anesthesia is being used more often in their dental care? What makes this state of affairs so sad is that it’s so preventable. Just cutting back on sugary drinks alone would make a big difference. For instance, one study found that in communities getting improved access to good water and nutritional support, and with limited access to soft drinks, children had up to 44% fewer cavities than in non-intervention communities. Imagine the improvement if they ate fewer processed foods – especially refined carbs – as well!
But it’s not just kids who are getting too sugared up. Lots of us eat far too much of the stuff. But since Robert Lustig and colleagues, writing earlier this year in Nature, argued that sugar should be regulated as a toxin, kicking the habit seems to have become a more popular subject to talk about…or promote a product with.
Recently, I got a press release with the subject line “How to Kick Your Sugar Habit in 21 Days,” pitching a “hydration challenge” – to shift from soft drinks to water – that ultimately promotes a flavored bottled water called Hint. Perhaps participants will use the product to transition from soda to plain water. Perhaps they’ll love it so much, they’ll go right on drinking it. After all, this “essence water” contains no sweeteners and is calorie-free. It’s just water and “natural flavors.” Must be healthy, no?
As Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation,
Open your refrigerator, your freezer, your kitchen cupboards, and look at the labels on your food. You’ll find “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” in just about every list of ingredients. The similarities between these two broad categories of flabor are far more significant than their differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste.
* * *
Consumers prefer to see natural flavors on a label, out of belief that they are healthier. The distinction between artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd, based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. “A natural flavor,” says Terry Acree, a professor of food science at Cornell University, “is a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology.” Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods. Amyl acetate, for example, provides the dominant note of banana flavor. When you distill it from bananas with a solvent, amyl acetate is a natural flavor. When you produce it by mixing vinegar with amyl alcohol, adding sulfuric acid as a catalyst, amly acetate is an artificial flavor. Either way it smells and tastes the same. The phrase “natural flavor” is now listed among the ingredients of everything from Stonyfield Farm Organic Strawberry Yogurt to Taco Bell Hot Taco Sauce.
A natural flavor is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one. When almond flavor (benzaldehyde) is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived through a different process – by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate – does not contain any cyanide. Nevertheless, it is legally considered an artificial flavor and sells at a much lower price. Natural and artificial flavors are now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few people would associate with Mother Nature. Calling any of these flavors “natural” requires a flexible attitude toward the English language and a fair amount of irony. (p. 120, 126-27)
So what about the natural flavors that are used in Hint? One participant in a discussion of the product over at PaleoHacks describes an attempt to find out:
So I wrote to the company to inquire about exactly what that means. I can’t access my personal email right now so I can’t copy/paste their reply, but they said something like… “We use only natural ingredients to match the flavor as closely as possibly and we take great care to make sure it’s healthy” or something like that. It sounded like a dodgy answer, but at the same time, I did get the notion that they understand that people might be concerned about it….
While the poster was “comfortable with their reply,” others pointed to a different issue: If you need flavored water, why not just make your own? It’s certainly cheaper to squeeze or pour a bit of juice into a glass of filtered water.
It’s also better for the environment.
Bottom line: Yes, kicking the soft drink habit and drinking more water is an undeniable good. Your body needs water to do what it was designed to do. Your teeth will thank you for not feeding the microbes that cause decay.
But shouldn’t consuming less of anything mean buying less?
Image by elycefeliz, via Flickr
PS – I’ll be taking a short break from blogging. Regular posts will resume on Friday, March 30.