Nutrition News on my Radar
There have been several seemingly unrelated news stories these past few weeks that set off my nutritionist red-flag radar. Taken together, however, they underscore the ongoing importance of knowing the provenance of the food and supplements that we put into our bodies (and feed to our families). Living in America, whose food supply is often touted as among the safest in the world, it’s easy to settle into a sense of complacency. We assume (very incorrectly) that the FDA or our trusted food retailers make sure that nothing dangerous winds up on store shelves. We assume (also incorrectly) that everything written on a food or supplement label is true, and that products being marketed to us have been tested for safety before being sold.
If you don’t have time to keep reading, I offer the following list of nutrition guidelines I follow in my life and in my clinical practice to help me and my clients make the best choices when faced with imperfect information.
If you have the time to keep reading, see the discussion below about the recent news stories that prompted this little rant on my soapbox, and an explanation of how I came to believe the guidelines below.
- When it comes to food, I trust smaller food companies and marketers more than bigger ones.
- When it comes to dietary supplements, I trust bigger companies more than smaller ones.
- I avoid using dietary supplements as an “insurance policy.” I recommend using them judiciously to fill nutrient gaps in your diet or to treat a specific condition if recommended by a credentialed professional. No healthy person should ever need protein powders or greens powders, period. I reserve the former for malnourished patients with serious food intolerances or restrictions, and never recommend the latter, period.
- When it comes to baby food, organic absolutely matters and is worth paying the price premium.
- When it comes to adult food, if you can’t afford organic for all foods, follow the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”list for guidance of how to set your spending priorities.
- Avoid shopping at Wal-Mart for food.
Let’s start with the recent release of the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 report in which they review test results from USDA analysis of conventionally-grown produce to determine which contain the highest and lowest amounts of pesticides. The result of this analysis is a list of the “Dirty Dozen,” or foods for which choosing organic should be highest priority, and a list of the “Clean Fifteen,” which had the lowest amounts of pesticide residues. I follow this list religiously, even when it means paying a lot more for organic versions of fruits like berries. If the fresh, organic version is cost prohibitive on a Dirty Dozen food, I will buy frozen organic over fresh conventional, or I’ll skip it entirely. It’s worth reading the full report; it’s a pretty compelling reminder of why organic is important when you realize that a single bell pepper can have up to 15 DIFFERENT pesticide residues on it.
Of particular note this year, the EWG’s analysis looked at baby foods for the first time, specifically about 200 samples of Green Beans, Pears and Sweet Potatoes. The issue of pesticide exposure in babies is particularly important since they’re so small and developing so quickly; relatively small amounts of pesticides build up in a tiny body faster than in a grown-up body, and given their rapid development, certain types of pesticides (such as known neurotoxins like organophosphates) may have a detrimental impact developing nervous systems. The sweet potatoes were pretty clean and free of pesticides. The green beans much less so; organophosphate pesticides were found on close to 10% of samples. And as for the pears, the analysis found that 92% of samples had pesticides in them, with a quarter of the samples containing 5 different pesticide residues. Alarmingly, 3 of the pear food samples even included a carcinogenic pesticide called Iprodione that the FDA has NOT approved for use on pears. This is a stark reminder that just because it’s against the law to use certain chemicals in agriculture, it does not guarantee that profit-minded growers (particularly abroad) will abide by this law. And we can’t trust large food companies to test all the ingredients they source from scores of suppliers globally before using them. My conclusion: buy organic baby food if you can’t make your own.
Interestingly, though, I trust large supplement manufacturers more so than smaller ones. Larger, well-established companies (like GNC, for example) are more likely to own their own manufacturing facilities (or at least use reputable contract manufacturers’ facilities), more likely to have the resources to do purity testing of the raw ingredients they purchase before putting them into a formula, more likely to test samples of the final product to make sure it contains what its supposed to, and more likely to have risk averse legal departments so afraid of being sued that they ensure compliance with best-in-class manufacturing and documentation specifications.
This recent article featured in the Chicago Tribune, however, really highlighted the chaotic, Wild-Wild West nature of the supplement industry, which is not bound by the same safety regulations as are required for foods. Smaller companies looking to make a quick buck don’t have the capacity (or interest) to oversee their manufacturing process (which may be done in China or other countries with similarly lax standards), don’t have the budget or capabilities to test raw ingredients to ensure they are what they say they are, and don’t have the organizational skills or manpower to keep adequate records of what’s even in each of their formulas. The result? Products routinely wind up on shelves contaminated with heavy metals, or containing wildly inappropriate doses of vitamins or minerals (not reflected on the label), or adulterated with illegal substances like hormones or stimulants. And the only way to stop it is for someone to get sick enough to file a complaint with the FDA so that an investigation is triggered.
If a trusted and credentialed health practitioner has advised you to take a supplement to address a gap in your diet or to help treat a medical condition, my advice is to look it up on Consumerlab.com to find a brand available near you that has been independently tested for purity and content. I do not suggest taking daily multivitamins “just in case,” and do not recommend giving babies and kids multivitamins either unless they have tested positive for a nutrient deficiency. The American diet, even a relatively crappy one or picky toddler one, is generally sufficient to prevent overt vitamin and mineral deficiencies. (The exception is Vitamin D for kids, which I use for my kids and do recommend supplementing, though several brands have been approved for safety/content by Consumerlab.com).
If you can’t vet every product online, I’d suggest sticking with the bigger, more reputable brands. I like GNC and Nature Made products overall and Nordic Naturals for fish oil. I’d think twice about using protein powders– a category of products that is often contaminated with heavy metals– and use real, protein-rich foods to meet protein needs instead. I wouldn’t bother at all with Greens Powders or pills. These are in no way an acceptable substitute for eating your vegetables. If you simply cannot eat veggies, then drink a V-8 or the equivalent. A green fruit smoothie that contains token amounts of Spirulina is not the same as drinking a vegetable juice, and is not an appropriate substitute calorically. Avoid any product marketed as a weight loss supplement at all costs.
Lastly, there is the ongoing issue of genetically modified (GMO) foods making increasing inroads into our grocery stores. GMO foods do not have to be labeled, though any product labeled organic should not contain any GMO ingredients. The latest news worth sharing is that Monsanto has developed an unholy new genetically modified corn called Bt corn, which is reportedly being sold at Wal-Mart this summer. This corn’s claim to fame is that it fends off insects by causing their stomachs to explode once they’ve eaten it. Call me paranoid, but Monsanto’s assurances that this toxin would break down long before it makes it to the bellies of my two babies is hardly a comfort; no conflict of interests there, right? Yet another reason to buy organic... or at the very least, to not buy food from Wal-Mart unless its explicitly labeled organic.
While I go into sticker shock every time I buy groceries (and yes, each time one of my kids throws an organic blueberry off their highchair, I *will* chase it down and pick it up… those things are expensive!), I also know that Americans still pay less for food as a percentage of total income than they ever have (9.4% of disposable income in 2010… the lowest level since the USDA began tracking this measure in 1929), and far less than do people in most countries in the world. We are spoiled by the availability of cheap food that has freed up money for us to spend elsewhere. Most of us think nothing of spending $3/day on fancy espresso drinks or $20 per week on manicures or at the car wash, but balk at the extra fifty cents per pound of organic bananas or extra dollar per container of organic berries that are destined to go into our bodies.
To me, this suggests our collective spending priorities are in need of an adjustment. Personally, I can’t think of anything MORE important than the quality, safety and wholesomeness of the food I put inside of my body day in and day out, and that I feed to my young, still-developing kids. I have given up a lot of other luxuries in order to be able to afford the best quality of food I have access to, and this latest spate of news is an important validation to me of why I make this choice.
Stepping off my soapbox now.
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