Update: What’s In Your Orange Juice?

UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has confirmed that their orange juice is not sourced from Brazil. I first wrote about the presence of carbendazim in shipments of orange juice to the United States earlier this month, and recommended that consumers purchase only 100% Florida orange juice to avoid the unregulated levels of carbendazim in foreign shipments. You can read my original post here.

In an email to Wellness and Equality, a representative from Trader Joe’s writes:

 Presently, all Trader Joe’s refrigerated, fresh orange juices are made with oranges sourced from Florida, Mexico and California. Our vendors regularly perform third-party quality assurance audits. In light of recent concerns related to orange juice concentrate, our orange juice suppliers are currently conducting additional testing. Two of our refrigerated orange juice labels state they are from USA, Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica. However, our suppliers have confirmed that the oranges currently used in our product are actually from Florida.

Buying Seasonal Produce: A Guide

Yesterday, following my own advice, I picked up two fruits that I don’t routinely buy.  The first was a bag of bright orange, organic Minneolas.  My second purchase was an Asian pear, an apple-shaped, light brown fruit.

Minneolas are a cross between grapefruits and tangerines, and look like an orange with a protruding nipple.  I ate one of the Minneolas as soon as I got home.  The Minneolas had a delightfully overpowering orange scent, and the fruit tasted absolutely delicious — flavorful and sweet.  With its soft tangerine-like flesh, it was also much easier to peel than a typical orange.  At some point I realized I have eaten Minneolas before, known by their more common name: tangelos.  They are also sometimes called honeybells.

Today, I sliced open the Asian pear.  It was crisp and juicy, with a grainy Jicama-like texture. Unfortunately, the taste was flat and bland.  I ate an Asian pear for the first time a couple years ago, during an October visit with a friend.  You might think it strange that I remember, but that Asian pear was pretty incredible. (It was also quite the memorable visit with my friend, a vegetarian visiting the South for the first time.)  We had sliced an enormous Asian pear and some cheese as a snack, and the flavor of the pear had been AMAZING!  That October pear had been much larger than the current small pear, and incomparably more flavorful.

Some quick research on seasonal produce turned up information I wish I’d had at the grocery store.  Minneolas are hitting their seasonal spike right now. They’re a winter fruit with their highest peak in January.  (Fun fact: Minneolas tend to have plentiful seasons every other year, so buy them up this year or you may be waiting until 2014 for the same quality!)  Asian pears — not to be confused with traditional pears — are long past their seasonal prime.  Unlike their traditional cousins, Asian pears are a summer fruit.  I must have had the fortune of catching a late bloomer that October, though there’s little hope of an Asian pear like that during January in the heart of winter.

Buying locally-grown produce is not always easy, especially for someone who lives in the Midwest and loves tropical fruits, like mangos and strawberries. According to this fascinating interactive map from Epicurious, the “growing season” in my state is currently dormant.  While I appreciate the merits of locally-grown, I’m not about to forego fresh fruit due to a dormant growing season.  Now buying produce in season — wherever it’s grown — is something I can do.  Why buy produce in season?  For quality, taste, and price.  If only grocery stores labeled seasonal fruits and vegetables!

Since most grocery stores don’t label their seasonal produce, print out this list of seasonal produce and take it with you.  Although the seasonal produce may vary depending where you live, I have compiled the list below to get you started, thanks to help from the blog Wisebread and the information available at FruitsInfo.com.

  • WINTER PRODUCE: DECEMBER, JANUARY, FEBRUARY

Fruits: oranges (traditional and mandarin), grapefruits, tangelos, tangerines, lemons, papayas, pomegranates, bananas, kumquats, persimmons, pears (traditional)

Veggiessweet potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, leeks

  • SPRING PRODUCE: MARCH, APRIL, MAY

Fruits: pineapples, mangos, apricots (spring/summer), cherries (spring/summer), blueberries, nectarines, currants, figs

Veggies: lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus, spring peas, okra

  • SUMMER PRODUCE: JUNE, JULY, AUGUST

Fruits: apricots (spring/summer, cherries (spring/summer), strawberries, blueberries, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, kiwi, raspberries, plums, blackberries, honeydew, Asian pears (summer/fall)

Veggies: lettuce, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, green beans, eggplant

  • AUTUMN PRODUCE: SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER

Fruits: Asian pears (summer/fall), grapes, cranberries, apples, pomegranates, oranges, tangerines, traditional pears (fall/winter)

Veggies: lettuce, spinach, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, winter squash, mushrooms (fall/winter)

Do you have a suggestion to improve this list?  Or know of a more complete list available online?  Please leave a comment to share.

Happy produce picking!

What’s In Your Orange Juice?

Early this month, the FDA announced that shipments of Brazilian-sourced orange juice contain carbendazim, a fungicide that has been linked to infertility, testicular damage, and birth defects.

Carbendazim is not approved for use as a fungicide in the United States.  In 1996, a US Supreme Court awarded Donna and Juan Castillo $4 million after Donna was inadvertently sprayed with the fungicide while pregnant with their son, John. John was born with no discernable eyes.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that John’s severe birth defects were a direct result of Donna’s exposure to carbendazim.

Coca-Cola has admitted “its [brands] and its competitors’ brands” of orange juice have been contaminated with carbendazim — but refused to name specific brands.  Coca Cola is the owner of Simply Orange and Minute Maid; Tropicana and OceanSpray are owned by Coca-Cola’s competitor, PepsiCo.  The FDA has admitted that contaminated juice is currently on grocery store shelves in the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said that carbendazim levels up to 80 parts per billion are not considered harmful.  However, the FDA has declined to state whether they will follow the EPA’s recommendations regarding safe levels of the fungicide.  “We are saying that if we find any juice that presents a safety hazard, we’ll take steps to remove it from the market,” FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey told USA Today. 

Carbendazim belongs to a class of fungicides that fight a fungus called eyespot.  Eyespot causes dark, round spots on fruit, making it unattractive to consumers.  Ironically, fungicides are considered the least effective solution to eyespot, since eyespot quickly becomes resistant.

Orange juice, whose popularity in the United States was influenced by our need to get Vitamin C to American soldiers serving overseas during World War II in a product with a long shelf life, has an interesting history.  Today, consumers are faced with many choices: concentrate, not-from concentrate, Vitamin D-fortified.

Here’s are some quick tips to purchasing healthy, natural orange juice:

1.  Buy 100% Florida Orange Juice.  In this case, the affected orange juice is from Brazilian groves.  Some would argue that the legal pesticides used in the United States are in some cases even worse than those that are illegal; however, in the case of orange juice, the United States has tighter regulations than Brazil.  Most orange juices sold in the United States are a blend of Floridian and Brazilian juices, so check the label to be sure you’re purchasing orange juice harvested only from American groves.

2. Skip Calcium & Vitamin D-Fortified: Increasing evidence shows that our bodies do not process added vitamin supplements in the same way that we process those vitamins when consuming the foods that naturally contain them.  If you are short on calcium and Vitamin D, eat foods rich in calcium (dairy products, broccoli, almonds, brazil nuts, and leafy greens) and take a 10 minute stroll outdoors (for your daily dose of Vitamin D).  In fact, supplemental calcium and Vitamin D from unnatural sources have no demonstrated benefit and could even be harmful.

3. Skip Not-From-Concentrate: Or don’t.  Whether you’re purchasing From Concentrate or Not-From Concentrate orange juice, your juice is heated, pasteurized, stripped of flavor, stored for up to a year in million gallon tanks, and then re-flavored with a cocktail of flavor-enhancing chemicals that the FDA does not require be listed as ingredients.  Some juices, such as Whole Food’s 365 brand, buck this trend and do not allow the use of “flavor packs,” which are standard in the orange juice industry.  On the other hand, orange juice from concentrate undergoes this process and is stripped of its water content, which is re-added before packaging.  Concentrating the orange juice is one small step among many — and the least concerning from a health standpoint.  If you prefer the taste, go ahead and buy not-from-concentrate.  If you don’t have a preference, save yourself the extra dollar.

5. Eat an orange instead: Avoid the empty sugar rush of fruit juice by treating yourself to the fruit itself.  The fiber in an orange helps slow down your body’s processing of fructose, which is less jarring for your body and mind.  Drink a tall glass of water and eat an orange.  Compared with juice, the whole fruit always has fewer calories, less sugar, and more fiber.

5. Buy Fresh-Squeezed or Organic: If you can afford it, buy fresh-squeezed or organic orange juice.  The pasteurization process strips orange juice of its flavor, which is why chemical flavor packs are used to compensate.  Fresh-squeezed orange juice bypasses this problem altogether.

Orange you glad you read this post?

Update 1/18: Since I do my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, I have sent a Product Information Request to Trader Joe’s, asking whether their orange juice has been affected by the contaminated shipments from Brazil. You can read Trader Joe’s response to me here. 

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Improved Sutures & Prosthetic Limbs

If the poor reputation of genetic engineering is leaving you depressed, you have to read this: Notre Dame professor Malcolm Fraser’s team of researchers is using their transgenically-engineered silkworms to produce silk that is strong enough for “sutures, artificial limbs and parachutes.”  That’s the power of genetic engineering in the right hands!

Although silkworms lend themselves to farming, we have long known that spiders have the strongest silk — with tensile strength comparable to steel!  But spiders’ sprawling webs are unwieldy when compared with silkworm’s dense cocoons, and spiders tend to be cannibalistic and territorial, making farming difficult.  Try as they might, no one had found a commercially-viable way to harvest spider silk.

So Fraser’s team engineered silkworms with both silkworm and spider proteins to produce the best of both worlds.  If the transgenic silkworms’ silk is used to create parachutes, this story of genetic engineering could prove — literally — uplifting.

Watch the video here.

Does Your Body Know You’re Eating Genetically-Modified Foods?

Yes, according to a new study that could have enormous impact on studies of cross-species communication, predator-prey relationships, and co-evolution.

First, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a brief refresher in high school biology.  Since 1958, molecular biologists have relied upon the Central Dogma to outline the rules of transfer of biological sequential information.  As you may remember from high school biology, DNA makes RNA makes protein.   In special cases, RNA makes DNA, RNA makes RNA, and DNA makes protein.  But protein doesn’t make protein, protein doesn’t make RNA, and protein doesn’t make DNA, or so says the Central Dogma.

Parsing complex studies and understanding the pathways of human DNA is an incredibly complex task.  Even if you are able to do so, it’s extremely difficult to write about such science at a level that laypeople (like myself) can understand.  Today in The Atlantic, Ari Levaux manages to do exactly that in his story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food.”  As a lover of analogies, I admire the way Levaux compares our current understanding of genetics to ordering pizza:

The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.

We’ve known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don’t code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it’s also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the safety of genetically-modified food — the argument that “gene transfer” moves in one direction — has relied on the Central Dogma.  In simple terms, the FDA has trusted the basic idea that when you eat a piece of fruit, that fruit’s genetic material is not able to effect your genetic material.

But the new findings turn this argument on its head.  Lead by  Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, the Chinese researchers identified microRNA belonging to genetically-engineered plants (such as rice and cabbage) in human blood and tissue.  MicroRNA are fragments of RNA (the messenger between DNA and proteins) that typically silence or repress certain proteins by binding to and destroying the RNA that would have created that protein.  Indeed, the plant microRNA was found to inhibit a protein in human blood, “suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms,” writes Cristina Luiggi in her article, “Plant RNAs Found In Mammals,” published by The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Take a moment to note that ‘kingdom’ is the broadest of the seven major divisions of taxonomy.  We’re not talking about species or genus or family or order or class or phylum; we’re talking about genetic transfer across kingdoms — from vegetable to animal.  This is big news in the science world.

If the results of this study are verified, gene transfer is more complicated than humans ever imagined.  When you eat a piece of fruit, the genetic matter of that fruit (microRNA) is, in fact, communicating with — and influencing — your body’s genetic make-up (via protein inhibition).

Are genetically-modified foods unsafe?  The truth is, we don’t know.  We won’t know for several generations, since animal studies suggest that the full effects of consuming genetically-modified foods are not realized until the third generation of consumers.

But while we wait for science to catch up, age-old wisdom tells us, “You are what you eat.”  Today, Americans eat the same food that has been designed to make our cows gain as much weight as quickly as possibly: genetically-modified corn and soy.  And it has: cows that eat GMO corn and soy feed gain more weight faster than cows ever have in agricultural history.  We humans eat this same GMO corn and soy, and some of us even eat the cows raised on a diet of GMO corn and soy.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this would make us fat, too?  And it has: American obesity has reached an all-time high.

In the meantime, the European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries require genetically-modified foods to be labeled.  Labeling works on multiple levels, because it also means that special care must be taken to ensure that GMO foods do not contaminate non-GMOs.  With no real need to separate the two, the United States’ regulations on GMO-contamination are inevitably less strict.  In fact, because of this, in 2007, Europe rejected shipments of U.S. rice after discovering that the U.S. rice contained strains of engineered genes that had never been approved for human consumption — neither by the E.U. nor by the U.S.

UPDATE 1/18: Both Slate and the blog at Scientific American have published rebuttals to Levaux’s piece. 

My personal view is that, as American consumers, we should be informed about the contents of our food — that is, whether we are spending our money on genetically-modified food or not — so that we can make the decision for ourselves.

What about you?  Take the poll below to share your thoughts:

Photo Credit: I love the Tim Burton-esque photo accompanying Levaux’s Atlantic article (Dirk Ercken for Shutterstock).

Why The PepsiCo Mouse Story Is Scare-Tactic Journalism

If you have a weak stomach, feel free to skip this story.  In November of 2009, Ronald Ball of Wisconsin purchased a can of Mountain Dew from a vending machine.  Ball claims he took a swig from the can, felt ill, and poured out the contents of the can to find a mouse carcass.  As Ball’s story goes, he sent the mouse to PepsiCo at their request, and they destroyed the evidence.  He’s now suing PepsiCo.  The story was first reported by MadisonRecord.com in July 2010.

Though the lawsuit has been unfolding for more than a year, it’s just now gaining mainstream publicity due to PepsiCo’s stomach-churning defense.  Experts for PepsiCo argue that Ball’s claim must be false because after 30 days in a can of Mountain Dew, the mouse would have morphed into a “jelly-like” substance due to the acidic content of Mountain Dew.

The response of most outlets has been something along the lines of “If Mountain Dew can eat away the carcass of a mouse, what is it doing to the inside of your body?”  There are many reasons not to drink Mountain Dew and soft drinks in general (one of which I wrote about yesterday) but their acidity levels is one of the least causes for concern.

Mountain Dew’s acidic quality is probably due to concentrated orange juice and citric acid — the only natural ingredients it has.  Many natural, healthy foods and drinks are acidic.   Yes, acidic liquids can disintegrate bones and teeth, but that’s why we brush our teeth and don’t gargle with them.  A healthy human body is used to ingesting acidic substances.  In fact, our own stomach acid has a pH of 2.00 as compared with Mountain Dew’s 3.22.  As this pH chart shows, lime, lemon, and cranberry juice are more acidic than most soft drinks.  While soft drinks tend to hover at the top of the chart, other fruit juices, teas, and coffee are distributed throughout.

I hate to say this, but a mouse carcass in a variety of citrus juices would probably meet the same “jelly-like” fate.  That doesn’t mean your daily glass of orange juice is the root of your health problems.

PepsiCo is no angel and shame on PepsiCo for destroying evidence.  If Ball is lying, PepsiCo could probably have won this case without resorting to destruction of evidence.  Though it seems unlikely that an in-tact mouse made its way into a can of Mountain Dew, PepsiCo’s destruction of evidence makes me wonder.

Their defense regarding the disintegration of the mouse, however, is a legitimate explanation that does seem to debunk Ball’s claims.  PepsiCo is savvy enough not to admit something incriminating — and acidic content is not incriminating.

Disagree?  Leave a comment!

Soft Drinks and Sports Drinks: Would You Drink Flame Retardant?

If you drink soft drinks or sports drinks, such as Mountain Dew or Gatorade, keep reading.  Since the Environmental Health News published this story last month, it has been picked up by Gizmodo (you can read that story here), The Huffington Post (you can read that story here), Scientific American, and many others.

Our story begins with the chemical element called bromine.  Bromine is a toxic, corrosive liquid named after the Greek word for stench (“bromos”).  Pure bromine is a dark red color and gives off an extremely unpleasant odor.  It is considered a hazardous material because it causes severe burns to the skin and its vapor is a strong irritant to the eyes, nose, throat.  Although free bromine doesn’t occur on its own in nature, stores of it exist in the ocean, and it can be extracted through a chemical process.

To “brominate” something is to combine it with bromine.   Somewhere along the line, scientists decided to “brominate” vegetable oil and found that the resulting compound — brominated vegetable oil — worked really well as a flame retardant for plastics, a lead-eating additive for gasoline, a swimming pool sanitizer, etc.

Around the world, the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) as a flame retardant is raising health concerns.   Research shows that mammals exposed to brominated vegetable oil store up bromine in fat and muscle tissue.  A study of 20 American mothers found that all had detectable levels of brominated flame retardant in their breast milk.

Because bromine is a member of the halogen group, it displaces iodine.  Iodine is a requirement to human life, and especially important in thyroid functioning.  A deficiency of iodine is considered one of the leading causes of preventable mental disability.  In animal studies, BVO exposure has caused reproductive damage; neurological damage; severe behavioral problems; and permanent organ damage to the heart, kidneys, and testicles.

Most countries are clear on the fact that BVO is NOT a food. More than 100 countries have banned its use in food, including Europe, Japan, and India, and many are working to ban its use altogether — as a flame retardant in plastics, etc.  The United States missed the memo and approved BVO as a food additive.

In 1970, unable to ignore serious health concerns, the FDA pulled brominated vegetable oil from it’s GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) food list and placed the substance on a special “Interim” list.  According to the FDA, the Interim list was designed for cases when “new information raises a substantial question about the safety [of a substance].”  The substance in question would remain on the list “while the question raised is resolved by further study.”

What happened next?

Nothing.

The FDA never revisited brominated vegetable oil, never took into account the countless new studies that have emerged since the 1970s, including reports of its horrifying side effects on the unfortunate humans who have consumed too much Ruby-Red Squirt, and never re-evaluated the safety of brominated vegetable oil.  As a result, since 1970, brominated vegetable oil has been hanging out on the FDA’s Interim list and added to American soft drinks and sports drinks.

In the United States, food manufacturers found a special role for brominated vegetable oil in citrus-flavored soft drinks and sports drinks.  Lightweight citrus flavors tend to float to the top of a drink, but bromine atoms are very heavy and help weight down the lightweight citrus flavors, so BVO is used a stabilizer that helps citrus flavors stay suspended in the drink for an even distribution of flavor.  BVO also helps maintain the cloudy appearance of artificial citrus drinks that consumers equate with fresh-squeezed lemons.  Even I have fallen to prey to believing that the lemon-colored haze of sodas has something to do with citrus juice.  In actuality, that’s the magic of brominated vegetable oil.

In fairness, when elements are combined, the properties of the individual elements may change; theoretically, harmful elements can become tolerable compounds and harmless elements can become dangerous compounds.  Still, if we know bromine is harmful, who wants bromine atoms in their body?

The same manufacturers using BVO as a food additive in the United States have found alternatives to brominated vegetable oil — better or worse, we don’t know — which are currently used in Europe.  The decision to continue using brominated vegetable oil in the United States is a blatant disregard for public health.

My prediction is that American soft drink companies will find a replacement for BVO very soon — not because new studies will surface that are any more damning than those already in existence, but because anyone who does a quick Google search of brominated vegetable oil will probably stop drinking citrus-flavored soft drinks and sports drinks.  With the recent coverage of BVO gaining maintstream publicity so swiftly, that’s going to hurt sales.  Cast your vote next time you go to the grocery store.

Here are some alternatives to consider:

Need your caffeine fix?  Brew a cup of organic coffee.  (Yes, tea is probably healthier than coffee, but if you’re used to soft drinks, the level of caffeine in coffee will give you a more comparable caffeine kick.)

Like the sweet taste of sports drinks?  Add a splash of 100% fruit juice to your good old H20.

Do you prefer drinks with carbonation?  Add carbonated water to your 100% fruit juice.

Worried about electrolyte balance?  Although electrolyte balance may become important in extreme cases (marathons, ultramarathons, Ironman competitions, etc.), many sports drinks don’t have the appropriate ratio of electrolytes to effect levels of electrolytes anyway.  Good news: Your body is designed to balance its own electrolyte levels.  In fact, some of the so-called “performance boost” athletes find from sports drinks may come from the brain’s response to the taste of sugar.  If you’re an extreme athlete, consult with your coach, but remember, humans got along just fine before Gatorade.

Just can’t give up sweetened drinks?  At the very least, check the label. Don’t buy drinks with brominated vegetable oil (or BVO) listed as an ingredient. Even better, choose all-natural and organic drink brands.

Drinks to Avoid: Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange, Powerade Strawberry Lemonade and Fresca Original Citrus.

Update: This issue is finally gaining mainstream attention!  Read the New York Times article “Drink Ingredient Gets A Look,” published Dec. 13, 2012.

Sodium: The Scapegoat

Cardiologists and chefs don’t always agree, so Michael Fenster, who is both a professional chef and an interventional cardiologist, offers a unique perspective in his article, “Don’t Hold The Salt: Attempts to Curb Sodium Intake Are Misguided,” published today on The Atlantic website.

Fenster’s article will likely prove controversial.  For years, salt has been the scapegoat of the American diet.  The FDA’s blame of salt for high blood pressure is like finding a correlation between wearing skydiving gear and falling to one’s death in a skydiving accident.  Sure, most people who die while skydiving are wearing skydiving gear; however, the act of wearing skydiving gear does not cause death.  While salt is found in most processed foods at extraordinarly high levels, abundant research shows that salt is not the culprit.  Salt is merely one ingredient in the chemical cocktail of processed foods, and processed foods are the problem.

It is an undisputed fact that the majority of Americans’ salt intake comes from processed foods and pre-prepared foods (think: Kraft, General Mills, McDonalds, and any restaurant chains where food is uniform at every location, not restaurants with actual chefs), not from table salt or home-cooked meals.  Perhaps because the FDA is well-connected to food manufacturers, the administration has generally avoided suggesting that overweight Americans eat less processed foods (such a simple recommendation!).  Instead, the FDA recommends that Americans eat more fruits and vegetables (a stance that is less upsetting to their food manufacturing friends).  In the interest of your health, you should consider the FDA primarily an undercover ally of food manufacturers, with a side interest in American health.  Indeed, almost every head of the FDA comes from a background in food manufacturing, or is highly connected within that world.

To start, a little history on salt:

The mineral salt (NaCl) is Planet Earth’s oldest food seasoning.  For thousands of years, salt has been and continues to be the safest, most natural method of food preservation.  Across diverse populations, salt consumption is surprisingly consistent, though rates of disease vary.  Over the past 50 years, salt consumption by Americans has remained roughly the same — about 3.7 grams of sodium per day, on average — according to the results of a 2010 Harvard study.  The same study noted that the rates of high blood pressure and heart disease in America have increased over the past 20 years, which perplexed the researchers.  A 2009 study conducted by UC Davis professor David McCarron analyzed the urine samples of more than 19,000 people in 33 countries over a 24 year period and found that individuals averaged about 3.72 grams of sodium per day.  A 12 year study conducted in Switzerland turned up a similar number — 3.68 grams of sodium per day.

Salt is a requirement of animal life.  Sodium deficiency or low levels of salt in the bloodstream, also known as hyponatremia results in neurological symptoms and organ failure in humans.  A 2010 article by Robert Schrier, “Does Asymptomatic Hyponatremia Exist?”  published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Nature Reviews Nephrology found that even mild — and often undiagnosed — hyponatremia is associated with increased risk of bone fracture and bone disease.  A study of patients being treated for hip fracture found that these patients had a 67-fold higher risk of showing low blood levels of sodium.  Do low levels of sodium in the blood cause bone disease then?  We don’t know the answer for sure, since an association does not guarantee a causal relationship.

What we do know is that the levels of sodium found in your blood probably have little to do with how much salt you consume.  This is good news!  With appropriate amounts of water, your body will largely regulate your blood sodium levels on its own.   Full-blown hyponatremia is not typically caused by a lack of consumption of sodium since the mineral is so abundant and our bodies are such sophisticated regulators; hyponatremia is more commonly the result of complications from other ailments.  Just as hyponatremia is not caused by undersalting your food (though it can be caused by drinking too much water — generally only a problem for athletes and formula-fed infants), hypernatremia (that is, too much sodium in your blood) is not caused by oversalting your food.  If you try to prove me wrong by drinking excessive amounts of seawater, you will more likely make yourself sick before succeeding.

If our bodies are built to regulate salt intake, why all the hype about salt?

Good question.

Here’s why the FDA has been allowed to get away with using salt as a scapegoat:  because of the association between blood sodium and high blood pressure.   Since high blood pressure is associated with increased mortality, the medical industry has long hunted for a culprit, and ultimately settled on salt and cholesteral.  The reason for such a conclusion is that some studies have found increased salt intake can increase blood pressure.  (This finding is not surprising since many high-salt diets are the result of a diet of highly-processed foods).  Since it’s generally accepted that people with low-to-normal blood pressure have lower mortality rates than those with high blood preassure, the assumption is that a reduction in salt, and therefore a decrease in blood pressure, will translate to a decrease in mortality.

Unfortunately, the transitive property doesn’t seem to apply here.  Just as you won’t save any lives by telling skydivers to stop wearing skydiving gear, recommending against salt is no solution to the American health crisis.  In fact, dietary salt reduction does not lower mortality rates, and might even increase mortality rates.  Consider the evidence: A 2011 analysis of randomized clinical trials published in the American Journal of Hypertension explored the link between dietary salt reduction and mortality rates and found “no strong evidence of any effect of salt reduction [on] morbidity… and also showed no strong evidence of benefit.”  According to the analysis, “Salt restriction increased the risk of all-cause mortality in those with heart failure.”

Fenster references one study that finds the highest mortality rates among people with the lowest levels of sodium intake, and another that shows the safest range of salt intake lies somewhere between 2.3 and 7 grams of sodium intake per day — well within the natural regulations of your tastebuds!  The FDA’s current recommendation is 2.3 grams per day for healthy young adults and 1.5 grams per day for blacks, those with health problems, and older adults.

One of the only studies ever to suggest a relationship between salt consumption and increased illness and death was the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found rates of illness and death related to salt intake increased only among the overweight.  (The study used “personal recall,” not urine samples, to estimate salt intake.)  In other words, the study found that if you eat too much salt and you’re overweight, you have increased risk of illness and death as compared with those who are not overweight.  Again, to use our skydiving analogy: If you wear skydiving gear and you go skydiving, you are more likely than someone who does not go skydiving to die in a sky-diving related accident.  Common sense tells us that the gear is irrelevant to this equation.

By choosing one component of processed foods to vilify (in this case, salt), the FDA gives food manufacturers an escape route.  Lawmakers want to pass laws that seem to support health — but they don’t want to lose the backing of powerful corporations.  Blaming salt is an excellent compromise for lawmakers and food manufacturers.  If such regulations limiting sodium become law, food manufacturers can simply pump their products full of artificial flavors and additives that mimic the taste of salt, label these Frankenfoods as “low sodium,” and voila — problem solved!  Whereas chefs who use real ingredients — including the age-old and time-tested seasoning of salt — will have much more trouble abiding by such regulations.

Another win for food manufacturers, and one more step in the wrong direction for American health.

The bottom line on salt?  Leave your food prep to nature and to human beings — not machines and scientists — and you should be just fine.

Photo Courtesy: Leigh Beisch for Sunset.

Who Loses Weight and Keeps It Off?

I have long been a fan of Tara Parker-Pope’s writing, but her recent article, “The Fat Trap,” published in last week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, was particularly intriguing. In the days since it’s publication, almost every newspaper and magazine has weighed in (pun intended) to promote or critique the article.  In “The Fat Trap,” Parker-Pope seamlessly weaves personal anecdotes with statistics and studies as she delves into one of the most serious health questions facing America: Why are we failing to lose weight?

Although I’m not overweight, I write “we” because we are all affected by the obesity epidemic.  On a philosophical level, I believe the world’s problems are interconnected and that we solve our own problems when we have compassion for others and work together to solve one others’ problems.  On a literal level, if you are an American taxpayer, obesity is your problem, too, regardless of your weight.

I have always had compassion for overweight people.  First, I feel fortunate for the health education I’ve had in my life, and I feel it’s quite possible I could have been overweight without it.  Second, as a woman, I have certainly felt the shame of feeling fat.  In my opinion, it’s a given that the vast majority of overweight people don’t want to be overweight.  If you desperately don’t want to be fat, and are working as hard as you possibly can not to be fat, is it really your fault that you’re still fat?  Although conventional wisdom takes issue with my premise that most overweight people are working hard not to be overweight,  I believe many are.  And in so many, many ways, I feel that we could be doing more as a nation to help overweight people reach their health goals.

According to the studies referenced in Parker-Pope’s article, once people gain weight, they are statistically unlikely to lose the weight and keep it off.  If they do manage to lose the weight, they will have to work harder — for their entire lives — in order to maintain that new weight than a person who never gained and lost the weight to begin with.  Parker-Pope’s article shadows this select and successful few, and lists their characteristics.  People who maintain a significant weight loss for the long-term share these 5 traits:

  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Exercise daily
  • Weigh themselves daily
  • Eat consistent foods and don’t “cheat” on holidays or weekends
  • Watch less television than the average American (about half as much)

I found this to be one of the most fascinating parts of the article!  Who is winning the weight game?  It’s not people who are dieting in the traditional use of the word — that is, temporary depravation; instead, it’s people who have made positive changes in their lives and are committed to maintaining these changes forever.

(Slate Magazine‘s response to Parker-Pope’s piece pointed out that in normal or underweight people, these behaviors may seem disordered.  You can find Parker-Pope’s response to the Slate piece here.  Eating disorders are a complicated subject, but I mostly agree with Parker-Pope’s response.)

It’s unfortunate news for those hoping for a get-thin-quick scheme — but it’s important for overweight people to know that the only diet that will work is a diet that can be maintained over the course of one’s entire life.  For overweight people, the 3000-calories-to-a-pound rule is a myth.  For you, there may be more calories, or fewer.  The only way to find out is to know yourself, and to work at maintaining a healthy weight — learning along the way — until you succeed.

My only issue with the article is its quiet acceptance of Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel’s dismissal that slowing the pace of weight loss could make a difference in the body’s ability to sustain lost weight.  According to Parker-Pope, Leibel claims that “the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it.”  I’m interested to know what research Leibel has to back up that sweeping claim.  My understanding is that long-term studies on the subject haven’t yet been completed.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence and expert opinion has historically suggested that slow weight loss is more sustainable than quick weight loss.  Why is Leibel so quick to dismiss a natural, sustainable path to weight loss?

Clearly, permanent weight loss is a complicated task.  Perhaps the real message in this article is the importance of prevention.  Childhood obesity is a preventable condition, and grossly unfair to our nation’s children, who have so little say in the matter.

Regardless of your weight, this article is a worthwhile read.  If you have lost weight and kept it off, what has helped your success?  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic seems to have similiar concerns regarding Rudolph Leibel’s quick dismissal of slow weight loss.  In his brief opinion piece, Coates provides more anecdotal evidence (his own) in support of weight loss at “a glacial pace.”