What’s In Your Fitness Supplement?

In today’s New York Times article, “Army Studies Workout Supplements After Deaths,” Peter Lattman and Natasha Singer write about the Defense Department’s inquiry into the safety of dimethylamylamine (also known as DMAA), a common ingredient in workout and fitness supplements sold at GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe.

The ingredient has been implicated in the sudden deaths of two young soldiers, aged 22 and 32, who died of heart attacks while exercising.  The Army’s safety review is currently underway, but the Defense Department has already removed all products containing dimethylamylamine from stores on military bases.

I admire the Army’s swift action.  When civilians question the safety of a product, their concerns are followed by debates, petitions for recall, paperwork, studies, lawsuits, and — if all goes well — eventually, action.  Military bases are a different story; the military has long functioned as more of a bureaucratic establishment. The military does not live and breathe by funding from pharmaceutical companies and food manufacturers, much like so many of our elected officials.  When the Army bans an ingredient from its military bases, the public should take note.

In addition to the untimely deaths of the two soldiers — whose toxicology reports both noted the presence of DMAA — the army had also received “reports of liver and kidney failures, seizures, loss of consciousness and rapid heartbeat in other military personnel who have used products containing DMAA,” according to the article.  USPLabs, the maker of DMAA, compared the effects to those of caffeine.

If the effects of DMAA are like those of caffeine, then why are fitness buffs and the manufacturers of fitness supplements choosing DMAA over caffeine? Here’s why:  Because the effects of DMAA are more like those of methamphetamine. DMAA was first developed my pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.  When doctors noted that its effects were amphetamine-like — and medical literature reported that its effects were more powerful than heart-stopping ephedrine — Eli Lilly stopped marketing it as a pharmaceutical, and DMAA quietly resurfaced as a dietary supplement.

Let’s examine what went wrong here.

Who is regulating the safety of dietary supplements?  The answer, in short, is no one.  In 1994, the FDA decided to consider anything labeled a “dietary supplement” as a special category of food, not as a drug.  As the FDA explains, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), “the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it is marketed.”  In fact, the safety of dietary supplements is only regulated by those who stand to benefit from their sale: the manufacturers. The DSHEA was a major boon for lobbyists of the manufacturers of dietary supplements, who had engaged in a massive campaign intended to bring about this legislation.  The New York Times called the act “ill-conceived” and “a formula for covering up problems.”  A Time magazine article described the act as giving manufacturers “virtually free reign to market products defined as dietary supplements, while severely limiting the FDA’s ability to regulate them.”

Does this mean that all dietary supplements are harmful?  Absolutely not.  What this means is that you must research the safety of your dietary supplements on you own — because our government is not doing it for you.

The good news is that plenty of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and herbs fall under this category as well.  One example is Stevia.  Stevia, also called “sugarleaf” and “sweetleaf,” is an herb related to the sunflower family.  Stevia has been available as a sweetener around the world for decades, and has been widely used in Japan since the 1970s.  In powder form, the naturally sugar-free, calorie-free herb, which has little effect on blood glucose levels, was an obvious answer to the United States’ sugar addiction.  Unfortunately, due to the FDA’s close ties to the manufacturer’s of artificial sweeteners, stevia was not approved as a food additive.  However, through the DSHEA loophole, stevia was available in health food stores as a dietary supplement. (In 2008, the FDA approved a chemical extract of Stevia, known as rebaudioside A, as a food additive; the approval just so happened to coincide with Coca-Cola’s launch of Truvia and PepsiCo’s launch of PureVia, two highly-processed forms of rebaudioside A with additional non-Stevia additives and flavors.  Truvia and PureVia are extremely different from true Stevia, and many side effects have been reported.)

The onus to research dietary supplements falls on you. In the United States, the fact that you can legally purchase a substance labeled as a “dietary supplement” has absolutely nothing to do with its safety.

How can you avoid dimethylamylamine and DMAA?  In a health safety alert to athletes, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association warns of the effects of dimethylamylamine and advises athletes to:

  • Avoid the following substances: methylhexaneamine, a 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), dimethylpentylamine (DMP) 4-methylhexan-2-amine, Geranamine, geranium oil, geranium extract, geranium stems, geranium leaves
  • Avoid the following products: Jack3d (USP Labs), Lipo-6-Black and Hemo-Rage Black (Nutrex), Spriodex (Gaspari Nutrition), F-10 (Advanced Genetics), Clear Shot (E-Pharm), 1.M.R. (BPI Sports), and many others.
  • Avoid products with names or marketing performance terms such as “stacked,” “muscle,” “mass,” “tren,” “bol,” “anabolic steroid,” “legal steroid,” “power,” “blast,” “energy,” “stimulant,” and others.
  • Use your best judgement.  Unfortunately, due to the extremely permissive regulation of dietary supplements, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association notes multiple “instances where a supplement actually contained ingredients that were not listed on the label.”

If you must supplement your workout, keep it simple: Drink a cup of coffee.  Since we know the human body responds differently to extracts than to ingredients in their natural form, avoid caffeine-containing supplements as well.  Better yet, let the workout itself raise your heart rate, and skip the stimulants altogether.  Your only have one heart; your next fitness shake, drink, pill, or supplement, could be your last.

Still unconvinced? Visit Supplement Safety Now.

Photo Credit: William P. O’Donnell for The New York Times

Advertisements

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.

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. 

ABOUT Wellness & Equality: Read our mission statement here and learn about our basic health model here. If you like what you see, follow us on Twitter @WellandEqual or share a post with your friends by clicking the Facebook icon below the article.

Curious about our values? We believe in the power of unbiased research. Wellness & Equality is committed to staying true to our values. Each article takes days or weeks of research and writing, plus the costs of maintaining this website. Without funding, we are unable to tackle some extremely important topics.

If you are in a position to help, you can help us raise the funds for more articles soon:

SUPPORT WELLNESS & EQUALITY BY CLICKING HERE

Spread the word. Together, we can change the nation.

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, soft drinks 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 you should give up your daily glass of orange juice.

Now PepsiCo is no angel.  Shame on PepsiCo for destroying evidence.  When you’re the defendant, no evidence is probably best, regardless of innocence or guilt, since our justice system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt and a lack of evidence creates doubt.   Still, if Ball is lying, PepsiCo could probably have won this case without resorting to destruction of evidence.  Though it seems unlikely to me 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 — acidic content is not incriminating.

Disagree?  Leave a comment!

Welcome!

The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis in public health. Americans are more ill than they have ever been in history. Recent studies predict that by 2020, more than 80 percent of American men and more than 70 percent of American women will be overweight or obese. Not only are Americans as a population more ill than they have ever been, but the neediest among us are suffering most of all.

The disparity in health among social classes is growing rapidly. The gap in premature death rates between the poorest and richest Americans has almost doubled since 1980.  This disparity begins in the womb — low socioeconomic status is strongly linked to low birthweight — and the disadvantages continue throughout life. In 2009, 600,000 of Chicago’s 3 million residents lived in urban neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, new studies are pulling back the curtain on food deserts, and challenging the old assumption that poor people choose unhealthy food voluntarily.  In reality, they often do not have access to healthier options. In America today, the best predictor of health is social class.

Food is one part of the health equation, but it is only one part. Wellness is about more than diet and exercise. It’s about our daily patterns and activities. It’s about exposure to toxins and chemicals. It’s about education, and awareness.

WELLNESS & EQUALITY is a progressive health blog.  Health, at it’s core, is simple. Our modern world, however, is complex; simple, natural living has become nearly impossible without thoughtful effort. The goals of this blog are to bring awareness to contemporary health concerns, including health-related inequalities, and to encourage a conversation about how we can alter the fate of millions of Americans — including ourselves.