Nitrates in and of themselves are not harmful, but what our body does with nitrates may or may not be dangerous to health. In the mouth, bacteria and other enzymes turn nitrates into nitrites. In turn, nitrites may form one of two different chemical compounds in the body: nitric oxide or nitrosamine. Read More
Synthetic fats may be as bad (if not worse) for your health as synthetic sugars. Unfortunately, identifying these chemical additives on ingredient panels can be challenging. Synthetic fat production began with the creation of Crisco, the first shortening to be entirely made from vegetable oil. Crisco, that old-time kitchen staple with which Grandma used to make amazing pie crust, was introduced to the market in the mid-1920s, and by the thirties and forties, everyone who was anyone used Crisco. Free cookbooks were even handed out with Crisco recipes. Crisco became the ingredient of higher society! What an amazing marketing feat to have been able to convince people living on farms that they needed to buy a synthetic fat for cooking instead of using the butter and lard they could render from their own animals. Some think that the cardiovascular health problems in the US began with the introduction of processed vegetable oils and fats into our diet.
Since Crisco, many synthetic fats have hit the market. The best-known synthetic fat in production today is known as olestra (OleanTM), which was approved for use in foods by the FDA in 1996. This product was created by the NutraSweet Company by chemically binding a sugar molecule (sucrose) to a fatty acid, resulting in a sucrose-polyester compound that looks, tastes, and feels like fat. Our bodies do not have the necessary enzymes to break down this material and it passes through the digestive tract without being digested or absorbed. In larger amounts, this synthetic material can function as a stool softener and cause malabsorption symptoms, such as abdominal cramping, excessive gas, and loose bowel movements. Olestra intake has also been associated with decreased intestinal absorption of some nutrients and vitamins.
Simplesse, a synthetic “fat” made from egg and dairy whey protein, is currently used in commercially prepared salad dressings, sauces, yogurts, and other cold foods—it can’t be used in hot foods. Simplesse was created by breaking down whey protein molecules into tiny microparticles, one micron in diameter. The tiny size of the particles gives the product its fatty texture and other properties. At the present time, research for potential health effects on this material is lacking. These microparticles are highly processed and I prefer eating packaged foods without nebulous ingredients such as whey protein concentrate, milk protein, or dairy protein, all approved labels for “Simplesse.”
Trans fats, which are fatty acids created by the hydrogenation of unsaturated oils, are inexpensive, stable, synthetic vegetable oils that increase the shelf life of the products that contain them. Trans fats have a less greasy feel than other fats and have been used in all kinds of processed foods for many years. Research has shown trans fats to be associated with the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and many other inflammatory diseases. Because trans fats have been associated with coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death, the FDA began requiring labeling of all foods containing trans fats in 2006. Under public pressure, the FDA in 2013 made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in human food. A governmental ban on trans fats, approved in 2015, will require US food manufacturers to remove trans fats from all food products by 2018. In preparation, many processed food companies have already changed their recipes and replaced trans fats with other materials thought to be less hazardous.
One such material that food companies are now using is known as interesterified fat. These synthetic fats are generated by using naturally occurring fat molecules, referred to as triacylglycerols, which are composed of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. Our digestive enzymes recognize these components and are able to break them down during the digestive process. The length and composition of the fatty acids give a fat molecule its physical properties and biochemical characteristics. Using this knowledge, interesterified fats are created biochemically by swapping or rearranging the location and length of the fatty acid chains to create unique molecules with desirable properties, such as a long shelf life. But as research accumulates, these products are being discovered to cause significant health problems.22 There are currently no labeling requirements for interesterified fats. If an ingredient says 0 grams trans fat or no trans fat, check the ingredients and see if the product contains vegetable oil. If it does, you can be certain that the product contains either fully hydrogenated vegetable oil, interesterified fats, or less than 0.5g per serving of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is considered a small enough amount to be labeled 0 grams.
Many vegetable oils are highly processed foods extracted from seeds and other plant materials, margarine included. Margarine was first created in the early 1800s as an inexpensive substitute for butter. Early margarines were made from animal fat, but now, margarine is manufactured from a vegetable oil substrate. The manufacturing process is not as secret as the process for creating high-fructose corn syrup and can be found on the Internet. It is as follows:
Synthetic Fats: The Recipe to Create Margarine
- Seeds from plants such as corn, cotton, soybean, and safflower are collected and the oils are extracted by utilizing hexane, an organic (Organic in this context means that it contains carbon atoms— six carbon atoms in the case of hexane). The process of extraction results in free radicals.
- The oil is steamed to remove most of the impurities, thereby destroying the vitamins and natural antioxidants found in the
- Hydrogen gas is bubbled through the liquid oil in the presence of a catalyst (usually nickel). This forces unsaturated fatty acids to become saturated and solid. The more complete the hydrogenation process, the firmer the finished Margarine undergoes partial hydrogenation to make it semi-solid. The resulting lump of gray grease contains a high content of trans fats.
- Emulsifiers are mixed in with the mixture to remove lumps and the mixture is bleached to change the gray color to
- A second steam cleaning removes any odors that may be attributed to residual chemicals in the mixture.
- Chemists add artificial colors and yellow dye to make the product appear more palatable. The final product is then packaged and marketed as a healthier alternative to butter!
In my home, we use natural fats. Organic butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and even lard are my preferred cooking fats. All lard, however, is not equal. A healthy, pasture-raised, organically raised pig that hasn’t been raised on GMO grain, antibiotics, or hormones is a preferable source of lard. As animal fat accumulates toxins, eating or cooking with lard will potentially expose one to the toxins an animal was exposed to during its life. If you are going to cook with lard, make it yourself by rendering the pork fat and then storing it in a jar. Lard can be frozen, refrigerated, or placed in a clean canning jar on the shelf. If the fat is properly rendered, lard should last for up to a year in the refrigerator or three years in a freezer.
Are artificial sweeteners safe? There are some things you should know before bringing them into your diet. Read More
Are canned foods healthy? The answer is mixed. Canned fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as their freshly picked counterparts, as processing destroys some of their vitamins and other nutrients. But the nutritional loss from processing doesn’t make these products harmful. The quality of the fruit or vegetable chosen for processing and the materials chosen for packaging are both very important.
Cans, one of the oldest methods for storing food, can be made of steel, tin-coated steel, or aluminum. There has been an interesting evolution of aluminum cans — and if you’re wondering are canned foods healthy, this has been a point of concern. Initially, cans were implicated in lead poisoning, as the sealing process utilized a lead-containing metallic alloy. Health issues also arose from the corrosion of the tin lining by acidic foods, which caused toxicity. As a solution, cans were lined with a plastic coating containing BPA. Now a known endocrine disruptor, BPA can leach into the food contained within the can. Acidic foods and those cans exposed to increased temperatures will result in more BPA leaching out into the food. Just as with plastic bottles, chemical companies have made new BPA-free can liners. But many of these new chemicals are also turning out to be endocrine disruptors. It is preferable to purchase canned vegetables and fruits in glass jars, especially acidic foods, such as tomato sauce. If a can’s lid is not vacuum-sealed, toss it out. Botulism caused by Clostridium bacteria can contaminate improperly canned food and result in severe illness.
Frozen foods are processed, but less so than canned goods. There is no concern for plastic-related toxins dissolving into frozen food, and frozen vegetables contain much less salt than their canned varieties. Avoid consuming traces of pesticides and herbicides by eating frozen organic fruits and vegetables rather than conventionally grown produce, as with canned goods.
Photo by Bernard Hermant.
Wondering what are healthy grains for your family? It’s a harder question to answer than you might think.
Milled wheat was the first processed food. Now, growing, harvesting, storing, and packaging wheat and flour is a highly complex process, with each step utilizing chemicals and, as mentioned earlier, irradiation. Read More
Are beans toxic?
Unless you’re very familiar with them, the answer might surprise you.
Beans are nutritious, but can be dangerous if not prepared properly. Beans, particularly red kidney beans, need to be cooked at a high temperature by boiling for at least ten minutes before they are eaten. Bean plants, like other legumes, produce lectins, a class of compounds that has been shown to have antifungal, insecticidal, and antibacterial traits, among others. Lectins can be toxic and inflammatory and can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Before cooking beans in a slow cooker, you need to process them in one of two ways. Either precook the beans in a pressure cooker, or presoak the beans for twelve hours and then boil them for at least ten minutes. Either of these methods will neutralize the lectins and avoid toxicity. If neither of these options are possible, use canned beans instead of raw beans. Lima beans contain a compound called linamarin that will turn into the poisonous compound hydrogen cyanide after it is eaten. Make sure to cook raw lima beans for at least ten minutes in boiling water to deactivate this toxin.
Buying the healthiest chicken has never been harder. Many have seen horrifying images and videos of factory poultry farms where chickens live in such tight quarters that they have no room to move. Many factory hens never see natural daylight. With natural day-night cycles, egg-laying chickens and ducks lay more eggs during the summer season when daylight is longer. In the winter, they get a rest. With that in mind, factory poultry farmers artificially increase the daily light duration with lamps so their chickens will produce more eggs year-round. Instead of eating small plants and insects, factory chickens eat feed consisting of grains, including GMO corn.
Similar to cattle and fish, poultry farmers inject their birds with antibiotics to try and keep them free of disease. Despite the use of antibiotics, chickens still get sick, probably because the pesticides and herbicides that lace their feed destroy the normal bacterial flora in the chickens’ guts, leaving them with unhealthy intestinal biomes. Before the 1980s, people ate raw eggs without any fear of getting sick. Since then, though, the incidence of Salmonella infections has been on the rise. Today, signs in restaurants warn of eating eggs that aren’t cooked thoroughly for fear of Salmonella. GMO feed with glyphosate residue has been implicated in disturbing the microbiomes of poultry, killing off beneficial bacteria and leaving behind those that are less susceptible to the chemical, such as Salmonella and Clostridium. This may in part explain the increased incidence of Clostridium and Salmonella infections in cattle, poultry farms, and conventional egg production factories. However, the risk of salmonella persists in free-range and certified organic chicken populations.
If you’re truly dedicated to eating the healthiest chicken — and you have the ability to raise your own — I highly recommend it. Chickens are fun to watch, and collecting fresh eggs is a special gift each day. Otherwise, try to find a source of poultry and eggs that are not mass-produced from a factory farm. Be a savvy shopper and understand the deceptive labeling techniques used by some factory farms. Words like “all natural” mean nothing. Unfortunately, descriptions such as “free range,” “cage free,” and “naturally raised” are also misleading and don’t really mean what they sound like they mean. It is best to ignore marketing ploys. A more useful label is one that specifies “organic eggs.” In order to receive the organic label, the laying chickens aren’t fed any GMO grain and are raised on land that has been free of pesticide and fertilizer use for at least three years. “Free-range” means the chickens have the ability to go outside, but this might mean that they are predominately housed indoors with access to just a small outdoor concrete slab. Making sure that your eggs are fully cooked will help eliminate the risk of acquiring a Salmonella infection.
It’s important to know the difference between healthy dairy products and products that may have been compromised by current practices.
There are many different varieties of milk in the market. The most natural milk product is unprocessed “raw milk,” only sold in select markets. Raw milk is better tasting and teeming with its own microbiome, which has beneficial health effects, including protecting children from the development of allergies. But there is an increased risk of acquiring an infection from drinking raw milk. Most retailers sell milk which has been pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized and homogenized. Further processing creates subcategories of whole milk, including 2% milk, 1% milk, fat-free milk, lactose-free milk, and others.
Ultra-pasteurization has been around since 1993 in the US, but was used in Europe for many years before. During this process, milk is heated to 280°F with steam for two seconds and then rapidly cooled, killing virtually all of the bacteria within the milk. Most conventional milk and almost all organic milk in the US are now ultra-pasteurized. This technology increases the shelf life from one or two weeks to several months, which is efficient for a supermarket that doesn’t want to worry about its milk spoiling too fast. During ultra-pasteurization, though, some milk proteins become denatured, meaning that they lose their structure, function, and perhaps digestibility. Perhaps even more important, nutritional value is diminished for milk that has been ultra-pasteurized. Paying higher prices for organic milk that has been ultra-pasteurized may seem silly, yet these products do have fewer contaminants than their conventional alternatives.
Dairy cattle in the US are raised differently from beef cattle. Dairy cattle can be injected with a synthetic form of growth hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBGH), developed by Monsanto, which stimulates cattle, goats, and sheep to produce more milk. Milk produced by cows treated with rBGH is associated with increased levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). The American Cancer Society has questioned whether or not there is a link between IGF-1 and cancer. To date, no direct link has been defined, but many countries, including the EU, have banned the use of rBGH. Due to a backlash from the public on this technology, there has been a drop-off of its use over the years — a boon for the marketplace in terms of the availability of healthy dairy products, but other problems remain.
Milk production in the US is also associated with markedly elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone, the female sex hormones. This may be related to the practice of artificially inseminating cattle while they are still producing milk from their previous pregnancies, which increases milk production. This practice occurs on conventional as well as organic farms. Many scientists have questioned whether or not the development of human cancers, such as breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer, is associated with the elevated female sex hormone levels in commercial milk. Statistical analysis has also shown that men who drink whole milk increase their risk of developing and dying from prostate cancer.
As a result of excessive milk production stimulated by rBGH administered from 60 to 305 days during the lactation period, cattle suffered a 25% increase in udder infections, known as mastitis, during this treatment period. This painful condition can release pus and bacteria into the milk. If the milk is subsequently pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized, and homogenized, any potential pathogens in the milk are killed. However, the cattle raised in conventional farms are given antibiotics to treat mastitis. In addition, most dairy cattle are prophylactically injected with antibiotics each year to prevent them from getting the condition. Residue of the circulating antibiotics in the cow’s blood can then be secreted into the milk. As a result, some milk contains traces of antibiotics, some of which, the FDA recently discovered, have not even been approved for use in dairy cattle.
Dairy products made from conventional milk, such as butter, cheese, sour cream, whipped cream, half-and-half, and heavy cream, are all made from the same dairy farms that inject their cattle with antibiotics, and yes, antibiotics have also been found in these foods — making it difficult to be sure about what constitutes healthy dairy products. Organic milk producers are forbidden to treat mastitis with antibiotics, and therefore take greater care to ensure their animals are living in clean quarters and have healthy immune systems. Given the status of the US dairy market, I opt to feed my family organic dairy products, but sparingly.
Fish and seafood are an excellent source of protein and nutrition, but it can be hard to know the safe fish to eat, as the world’s oceans have become polluted with materials ranging from plastics to hard metals. Mercury is the third most toxic naturally occurring substance in the world, behind lead and arsenic. Methyl mercury is the most toxic contaminant in the world’s fish. Coal-fired power plants, which emit particulates into the air, including mercury, have rained toxins upon the world’s oceans, elevating mercury levels in the fish that live there. Thankfully, these plants are slowly either being phased out or retrofitted with scrubbers that remove dangerous contaminants before exhaust is emitted into the air.
I taught my children about the mercury in fish early in their lives. During a beach vacation one summer, my family and some friends were waiting on a dock to embark on an evening cruise boat so we could enjoy the sunset on the water. Fishermen had come in from a day at sea and were busy cleaning their catch. My children were fascinated as a man cut the head off of a beautiful yellowfin tuna and gutted it. I watched from afar, letting them both have a bit of independence on their vacation. After a few minutes though, my seven-year-old son screamed out, “Eww! I can see the mercury!” The fisherman looked at my child and then at me with horror and said, “There’s no mercury in this fish!” Afterward, he muttered some words about how the world was being ruined by environmentalists and the like. I corrected my son and told him that he was not “seeing” the mercury, but that it was still in there.
How can I know the safe fish to eat?
Mercury bioaccumulates. Therefore, in general, the larger the fish, the greater the concentration of mercury and the more you eat of them, the more that will accumulate in your body. Small fish haven’t had enough time to accumulate as much of the toxin. Keep in mind that no amount of mercury is good for you. Mercury is a neurotoxin and can cause all kinds of problems in adults, including nervousness, muscle twitching, tremors, decreased cognition, and muscle atrophy. Mercury can affect a child’s development and can cause fetal anomalies in pregnant women. For this reason, children and pregnant women should be especially careful not to eat too much fish. The EPA set up guidelines based on body weight, designating the maximum mercury intake per day to be 0.1 micrograms per kilogram (2.2 pounds) per day. That equates to 7 micrograms per day, or 49 micrograms a week for a 70-kilogram (154-pound) person.
Fish that contain the highest levels of mercury include tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and some types of tuna, including bigeye and ahi. Apologies to my fellow sushi lovers—these types of fish have been documented to contain over 100 micrograms of mercury in 4 ounces and should be avoided.
A middle tier of fish that contains between 40 and 80 micrograms of mercury per 4 ounces of cooked fish includes bluefin tuna and albacore tuna, canned white tuna (other than light tuna), yellowfin tuna, marlin, skipjack tuna, and lobster.
Lower levels of mercury have been found in salmon, light tuna (canned), pollock, tilapia, catfish, trout, and cod. Calamari (squid), clams, oysters, and shrimp also fall into this category. These species contain fewer than 40 micrograms of mercury per 4 ounces.
Research has been performed weighing the risk of mercury toxicity with the benefits of eating micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and the EPA-FDA recommendations for 2017 are for women and children to eat two to three servings of fish per week—one serving from the middle tier and the remaining serving(s) from the lowest tier. Children under 10 should eat no more than three ounces of fish per week if the type of fish being eaten contains mercury. If you aren’t sure how much this is, buy a small food scale. You’ll be surprised at how little that actually is.
The Natural Resources Defense Council website (www.nrdc.org) lists types of fish and rates each variety by its level of typical mercury contamination. Familiarize yourself with this list and refer to it for the safe fish to eat while you are shopping or eating out. Another great resource for safe fish to eat is www.SeafoodWatch.org. The easiest way to approach buying fish is to do some homework before going to the store. Pick out your favorite types of fish and figure out using a calculator what amount of fish you and your family can safely eat in a meal. Remember that the weights are based on the weight of the fish after it is cooked, so take that into consideration before your purchase.
The mercury levels listed are based on wild-caught fish. Farm-raised fish have a more controlled diet, and may therefore contain lower amounts of mercury than wild-caught fish. But these fish are typically raised in sectioned-off areas of offshore seawater, where they are potentially exposed to sources of pollution run-off from the land, including PCBs and dioxins. This is important to consider since dioxins are very difficult to get rid of once they are in your body—their half-life in the human body has been measured to be 7.1 years! The most common varieties of fish now raised in farms include salmon, tilapia, sea bass, catfish, and cod. Farm-raised fish are fed feed, commonly including grains such as GMO corn and soy, which, as previously mentioned, may contain traces of pesticides and herbicides. Farm-raised fish are also commonly fed antibiotics to keep diseases and pests under control. With the exception of methyl mercury, most toxins are stored in the skin and fat, so it is best to trim off the fat and skin before eating any fish.
The living conditions of farm-raised fish differ among countries and even between locations within a given country. It is not possible to generalize about the kinds of contaminants or the concentration level of contaminants in a given species of fish. I try to stay away from farm-raised fish, even though they are much lower in price.
Mussels have been shown to accumulate high levels of butyltin compounds, a chemical used in plastics and boat maintenance products. Unfortunately, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon as these compounds don’t degrade quickly and have been found in mussels even five years after bans on the chemicals have gone into effect in some countries. Butyltin is an endocrine disruptor and a toxin that can impair the immune and central nervous systems. For this reason, it is best to limit your consumption of mussels.
Aside from fish, shrimp is the most commonly eaten seafood in the US. Would you believe that only 2% of the shrimp imported into this country is inspected by US regulatory agencies? Most shrimp is farm-raised and, like other types of fish, can be contaminated with a myriad of heavy metals and chemicals, including pesticides, dioxins and PCBs. Shrimp contaminated with antibiotics banned in the US, such as chloramphenicol and nitrofuran, a known carcinogen, arise on occasion. Curiously, there are no research articles proving or disproving the safety of shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico after the notorious Gulf oil spill and subsequent spraying of over a million gallons of Corexit, a toxic oil dispersant. For this reason, I opt for fish from other locales. It’s harder to find wild-caught shrimp in the grocery store, but it can always be ordered online.
Understanding meat safety is a key element in ensuring your family’s health. Before the industrialization of food, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats were pastured and slaughtered for their meat once they were physically mature, except in the case of veal and lamb. The amount of time needed for an animal to grow to sufficient size was dictated by the quality of the pasture, the weather, and the genetics of the breed.
The industrialization of meat brought us images of horrific living standards and inhumane slaughtering processes in factory farms. Instead of grazing on grasses, these cattle may be tied to posts in feed lots where they are fed grain, such as GMO corn.
In the US and in many other countries, hormones are administered to the livestock to make the animals grow faster. Many steroid hormone drugs, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions have been approved by the FDA for use in beef cattle and sheep. The EU has not given approval to these same drugs. The FDA has not approved steroid hormones for growth purposes in dairy cattle, veal calves, pigs, or poultry.
Animals in factory farms are commonly injected with antibiotics to help protect them from the increased risk of illness that comes from their dirty, confined living quarters and their unnatural food source. The FDA has approved prophylactic antibiotic use for animals until slaughter. It was only until recently that the FDA allowed the administration of arsenic to cattle—after detecting arsenic in meat, the FDA finally removed it from the list of acceptable treatments in 2015. The widespread use of antibiotics has come under more scrutiny as superbugs, resistant to antibiotics, are becoming more and more common.
In addition to antibiotics and an unnatural diet, factory-farmed meat can also be altered by the animals’ stress levels. Stress causes the excessive production of cortisol, which leads to biochemical changes in an animal’s cells. Meat from a stressed animal will have a different color, tenderness, and perishability than the meat from a non-stressed animal.
Meat safety is understood in different ways around the world. In a spiritual sense, when eating, one consumes a physical form with an underlying frequency and energy. Eating the meat of a healthy, vibrant animal may impart a greater sense of well-being to us than eating the meat from an animal that has been chained to a feed lot, living a life of constant stress. Respect for an animal’s “energy” permeates many cultures around the world. I wonder if the energy within the meat might be even more important for our health and well-being than the biochemical makeup of the meat.
For optimal meat safety, if you choose to eat beef, lamb, pork, and veal, it is best to eat organic varieties, or in the case of beef, grass-fed beef. A label from the American Grassfed Association will reliably indicate that you are purchasing grass-fed beef that has not been fed corn. Depending on where you live, local farmers may pasture their cattle without injecting them with steroids or antibiotics. You can have a quarter or side of beef sectioned into various cuts, and many packages of ground beef as well. This is not only economical, but you know that you are eating the meat from one cow.