Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fluoride and Fluoridated Water's Link to Thyroid Disease

This common additive to your water supply, and ingredient in the toothpaste you and your children use may be contributing to the increased rates of hypothyroidism -- and other health concerns -- in the U.S. . . without improving dental health.

*Note: there are links to many other medical problems besides Thyroid Disease; Fluoride lowers IQ, messes up your pineal gland, causes premature puberty in females, and can cause dental and bone fluoridosis.

What is Fluoride?

Fluoride is an element from the halogen group, as are iodide and chloride. It is commonly added to the water supply as hydrofluosilicic acid, silicofluoride or sodium fluoride. Fluoride is also found as an additive in toothpastes and some mouthwashes, as a tooth decay preventive ingredient.

Why is Fluoride Used?

Fluoride is used to fight tooth decay in children. The key initial studies purporting to demonstrate its effectiveness as an anti-cavity fighting compound were performed back in the 1940s. Those studies, conducted in Grand Rapids, MI in 1945, in Newburgh, NY in 1945, in Brantford, Ontario in 1945, and in Evanston, IL in 1947, are now being called into question. According to Dr. Philip Sutton, author of "The Greatest Fraud: Fluoridation" *A Factual Book, Lorne, Australia, 1996), these studies are actually of dubious scientific quality.

More recently, other studies attempting to document the effectiveness of fluoride have been conducted. Dr. John Yiamouyiannis examined the raw data from a large study that was conducted by the National Institute for Dental Research (NIDR). He concluded that fluoride did not appear to have any decay preventing success, as there was little difference in the DMFT values (the mean number of decayed, missing or filled teeth) for approximately 40,000 children. It did not matter whether they grew up in fluoridated, non-fluoridated or partially fluoridated communities. (Yiamouyiannis, J.A. "Water Fluoridation and Tooth Decay: Results from the 1986-87 National Survey of U.S. Schoolchildren", Fluoride, 23, 55-67, 1990).

A larger study has been conducted in New Zealand. There, the New Zealand National Health Service plan examines the teeth of every child in key age groups, and have found that the teeth of children in non-fluoridated cities were slightly better than those in the fluoridated cities. (Colquhoun, J. "Child Dental Health Differences in New Zealand", Community Healthy Services, XI 85-90, 1987).

Although children's teeth have improved steadily from the 1930s to the 1990s, this improvement appears to be independent of the addition of fluoride to the water. A study has yet to be conducted that specifically addresses whether the addition of fluoride affects the quality of teeth, while controlling and accounting for other factors and other sources of fluoride.

Despite growing questions about the effectiveness of using fluoride to fight tooth decay - and increasing concerns of the safety of this practice -- over 60 percent of the United States' water supply is fluoridated. Most of those cities are in the eastern part of the U.S.

What are the Concerns Associated with the Addition of Fluoride to the Water Supply?

The most recognized problem with the ingestion of too much fluoride is dental fluorosis. This condition is characterized by the failure of tooth enamel to crystallize properly in permanent teeth. The effects range from chalky, opaque blotching of teeth to severe, rust-colored stains, surface pitting and tooth brittleness.

This condition, though worrisome, may not be the key concern , at least according to some researchers. Dr. Phyllis Mullenix believes, based on her research, that fluoride acts in a way that lowers the I.Q. of children ("Neurotoxicity of Sodium Fluoride in Rats", Mullenix, P. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 17 (2), 1995).

Dr. William Marcus, believes that a study conducted by Battelle for the National Toxicology Program on the toxicology of fluoride shows that there were dose-related increases in bone cancer in male rats. Dr. Marcus also questions the removal by peer reviewers of cancers at other sites in the rats as well. Especially worrisome to Dr. Marcus is the fact that that levels of fluoride that caused the cancers in the rats were lower than those seen in humans who ingested lower amounts, but for a longer period. These levels are generated because fluoride is accumulated in the body and is not secreted.

Dr. Marcus was formerly the chief toxicologist for the EPA's Office of Drinking Water, but was fired in 1991 after insisting that an unbiased evaluation of fluoride's cancer potential be conducted. Marcus fought his dismissal, and was able to be reinstated after demonstrating in court that it was politically motivated.

An article in the Irish Times of Dublin on August 16, 1999, reports that Dr. Hans Moolenburgh's research in Holland found that up to 4 percent of people using fluoridated water experienced health problems. These problems ranged from gastrointestinal disorders to mouth sores to rashes to headaches to forms of arthritis to more serious concerns such as cancers and neurological complaints.

Studies dating back to the 1950s have shown links between Down's Syndrome and natural fluoridation. Ionel Rapaport also showed how the age of women bearing Down's Syndrome children decreased in direct relation to the increase of fluoride in the water supply. The more fluoride that was in the water, the younger the age of the women bearing Down's Syndrome children.

Even those who aren't convinced of the toxicity of fluoride should be concerned about the level of fluoride added to the water supply. The optimum level was set in the 1940s at approximately 1 ppm (equal to 1 mg/l). This was based on assumptions that the total intake of fluoride would be 1 mg/day, assuming 4 glasses of water were drunk per day. However, current intake of fluoride comes not just from the water supply. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa and reported in the November issue of the Journal of American Dental Association found that 71% of more than 300 soft drinks contained 0.60 ppm fluoride. Toothpaste, beverages, processed food, fresh fruits and vegetables, vitamins and mineral supplements all contribute to the intake of fluoride. It is now estimated that the total amount of fluoride ingested per day is 8 mg/day, eight times the optimum levels.

An additional and less well studied concern is the interaction of the fluoride compounds added to water with other water additives. Most studies examining the addition of fluoride to water have used sodium fluoride, however, most communities use the less expensive forms such as silicofluoride, hydrofluosilicic acid or sodium silicofluoride. A 1999 study of 280,000 Massachusetts children shows that levels of lead in blood were significantly higher in communities using these cheaper compounds than in towns where sodium fluoride was used or where the water was not treated at all. ("Children's Health and the Environment", 17th International Neurotoxicology Conference, Little Rock, Arkansas, October 17-20, 1999).

Aluminum compounds are frequently added to the water supply as clarifying agents. On its own, aluminum is not readily absorbed by the body, however, when fluoride is present, the two form aluminum-fluoride, which is easily absorbed. A long term study published in 1988 found that even low levels of aluminum-fluoride in drinking water delivered more aluminum to the brain than concentrated aluminum fluoride. The same study found that low levels of aluminum fluoride and sodium fluoride found in "optimally" fluoridated water cause severe kidney damage and lesions to the brain similar to those found in Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Dr. Robert Isaacson, State University of New York, found that when aluminum fluoride is added to the food of rats, the rats developed short-term memory problems, smell sensory loss and other characteristics of Alzheimer's disease. (Isaacson, R. "Rat studies link brain cell damage with aluminum and fluoride in water" State Univ. of New York, Binghampton, NY, Wall Street Journal article by Marilyn Chase; Oct. 28, 1992, p. B-6).

What are the Thyroid-Specific Concerns?

Is fluoride in part the reason for near epidemic levels of hypothyroidism in the United States? Some experts and researchers believe this is the case.

Fluoride had been used for decades as an effective anti-thyroid medication to treat hyperthyroidism and was frequently used at levels below the current "optimal" intake of 1 mg/day. This is due to the ability of fluoride to mimic the action of thyrotropin (TSH). It makes sense, then that out of the over 150 symptoms and associations of hypothyroidism, almost all are also symptoms of fluoride poisoning.

Researcher and advocate Andreas Schuld has also found that excess of fluoride correlates with other thyroid-related issues such as iodine deficiency. Fluoride and iodine, both being members of the halogens group of atoms, have an antagonistic relationship. When there is excess of fluoride in the body it can interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. It is possible that iodine deficiency, which is the most common cause of brain damage and mental disability in the world, could be lessened by simply cutting back on the use of fluoride.

The Future of Fluoride

Some advocates believe that the truth about fluoride does not reach the public easily because fluoride, produced as a toxic waste byproduct of many types of heavy industry - such as aluminum, steel, fertilizer, glass, cement and other industries -- must be disposed of somewhere. If it's not used as an additive to water, manufacturers would have to pay millions of dollars to dispose of it properly, so the pressure to keep fluoride listed as a healthy additive to water-and not as an environmental toxin that requires costly disposal - is great and political pressures to keep fluoride in the drinking water is strong.

And the U.S. government has been one of the key supporters for fluoridation. Despite the questions regarding fluoride's effectiveness and safety, the administration's stated federal health objective is to increase the number of Americans with fluoridated tap water from previous levels of 62 percent to 75 percent in 2000.

Given half a century of support for fluoridation, it's also not likely that the American Dental Association will backtrack on its support for fluoridation.

Some cities are taking action, and making the decision to stop fluoridating their water supply - or not to fluoridate in the first place. For example, the City Council of Santa Barbara, California voted in late November of 1999 in favor of a resolution that "disagrees with and rejects the State's recommendation to fluoridate the city's public water system." With this action Santa Barbara joined the California cities of Santa Cruz, El Cajon, La Mesa, Escondido and Helix, Riverview, and Lakeside water districts that have each passed protective resolutions or ordinances in 1999. The cities of San Diego and Sunnyvale have ordinances prohibiting fluoridation that pre-date the State's law. The city officials of Santa Barbara indicated that adding a chemical to the water supply to medicate everyone was not the right approach and requested that the City's staff look into other programs to help children obtain fluoride for dental health.

The only admission that you're likely to see is the 1997 addition of warnings on toothpaste tubes, that now say: "Don’t Swallow—Use only a pea-sized amount for children under six." and "Children under six should be supervised while brushing with any toothpaste to prevent swallowing." In areas where the drinking water already contains fluoride, brushing more than once daily with more than a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste can cause fluorosis, the discoloration and spotting of the teeth that affects an estimated 20% of children.

What Can You Do?

Besides learning more about the effects of fluoride and getting involved in your community's decisions regarding water fluoridation, you can buy an unfluoridated, natural toothpaste, such as Tom's of Maine, particularly for young children.

You can also pay attention to the water you drink, and use filtered or bottled waters. Some water filters can remove fluoride from the water, but carbon-based filters such as the Brita filter do not, so be sure to find the right type of filter for fluoride.

Many bottled waters contain no additional fluoride. You can find out the fluoride and other mineral content of your favorite bottled waters at Bottled Water Web's Bottlers listing. (This link is no longer active). Evian, and Perrier, for example, contain no measurable fluoride, but Calistoga brand has 0.9 parts per million.

Yogurt: FDA Plays Hide the Poison

The National Yogurt Association (NYA) has petitioned our FDA (Fatal Drugs Allowed) bureaucracy to ditch the requirement that chemicals added to food must be identified by name on the label. NYA wants to conceal their use of aspartame, otherwise called NutraSweet and Equal, from consumers. Like maybe they’ll call it natural flavor or some other imaginative alias.

Now why would they want to do that? Because smart consumers know about aspartame toxicity and avoid it like the plague. (It is.) A few days ago Equal producer Merisant filed for bankruptcy, reporting assets of $331 million against $561 million debt. Their submarine is $230,000,000 under water.

Once aspartame/NutraSweet/Equal was the billion-dollar queen of sweeteners. One that the FDA faithfully refused to approve for 16 years from the date it was created. Don Rumsfeld ran G. D. Searle, the company making it. He was Reagan’s buddy, so hours after Ronnie was inaugurated, in the middle of the night, the honest FDA Commissioner was fired. Next morning stooge Arthur Hayes was appointed who approved aspartame over the objections of FDA’s scientific board, then bailed out into the arms of NutraSweet’s PR firm as a consultant on a ten year contract for $1000.00 a day. He sold his soul for $365 million dollars.

Three congressional hearings and countless research reports and papers by renowned doctors confirm the deadly chemistry of aspartame, a multi-potential carcinogen concluded the Ramazzini Institute after a 3-year study on 1,800 rats. FDA listed 92 adverse reactions, including death, in their report on 10,000 consumer complaints volunteered by American consumers. Even the National Soft Drink Association petitioned FDA to deny aspartame approval, which objections were published in the 5/7/1985 Congressional Record, Senate.

The Jan.15, 2009 Federal Register, pg 2446-7 notes:

With respect to NYA’s recommended provision that would permit yogurt to contain non-nutritive sweeteners and be labeled simply “yogurt” without a specific declaration of the non-nutritive sweetener in the name of the food, comments were varied…. several consumers and at least one State government agency strongly opposed this provision … that removal of this identification would be misleading to consumers and could prove harmful to those individuals with Phenylketonuria.

Next comes consumer and dairy farmer objections to the NYA proposal that cheaper, inferior and imported ( from China?) ingredients be OK’d in what they’ll call yogurt. You see, when they make it cheaper they get richer, and who do you think you are to be told its just phony toxic stuff called “yogurt”, not the real thing.

The FDA concludes this action will promote honesty and fair dealing. How fair is hiding poison and concealing trash in your food? Consider exporting and misleading other countries as well. The public has to learn to only buy organic yogurt - know what’s in it.

NCL Study Links Aspartame To Leukemia/Lymphoma

EFSA blesses formaldehyde-forming aspartame on April 20
NCI backs study linking formaldehyde to leukemia, lymphoma on May 14

From Mission Possible International

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced April 20, 2009: …”on the basis of all the evidence currently available including the [second] published ERF study there is no indication of any genotoxic or carcinogenic potential of aspartame and that there is no reason to revise the previously established ADI (allowable daily intake) for aspartame of 40mg/kg bw/day.” Truth be told: aspartame is an addictive excitoneurotoxic, genetically engineered, carcinogenic that interacts with virtually all medications.

EFSA is blinded by allegiance to commercial interests so it invents objections to acclaimed medical research, disregarding the suffering, ruined lives and death their cupidity brings to Europe.

In 2005 the renowned Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences reported a rigorous three years study on 1,800 rats, concluding: aspartame causes significant increases in lympomas/leukemias and is a multi-potential carcinogen. EFSA invented “deficiencies” in the study to protect manufacturers pet poison. The second study, ERF 2007, entirely verified the first. Dr. Morando Soffritti, who led both projects, noted that so much formaldehyde developed in aspartame-exposed rats that their skin turned yellow.

Who is the European Food Safety Authority? In 2002 a review of aspartame a review of aspartame y the European commission, Scientific Committee on Food attempted to pass off this deadly addictive drug as safe. An assessment by the European Anti-Fraud Agency (OLAF) revealed the opinion was written by a single person and not by the entire Scientific Committee on Food. OLAF did not reveal the name of this individual or any scientific expertise or conflict of interest he/she had.

Astonishingly, one unnamed individual writes each opinion of the committees. Next, persons, often industry consultants, review the draft. What is clear: neither the author nor the Committee (including industry consultants) considered or had familiarity with the scientific research detailed in the 2002 analysis.

The European Commission, Scientific Committee on Food is defunct and reviews are now conducted by EFSA, which is composed of many of the same scientists with conflicts of interest who were on the earlier bureaucracy.

America’s FDA approved aspartame as a synthetic sweetener in 1981. However, studies given the FDA by the manufacturer hide the fact the poison caused tumors in lab rats.

An interesting twist of formaldehyde fate

On May 14, 2009, the National Cancer Institute confirmed the link between formaldehyde and cancer. The NCI’s Laura E. Beane Freeman, Ph.D. reported that an extended analysis of workers exposed to formaldehyde was associated with a 37 percent increased death-risk from lymphoma and leukemia. “The overall patterns of risk seen in this extended follow-up of industrial workers are consistent with a causal association between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the blood and lymphatic system and warrant continued concern,” Online: Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

According to Kristina Fiore of MedPage Today, “Since the 1980s, the Institute has studied a cohort of 25,619 workers employed before Jan. 1, 1966 in 10 industrial plants that produced formaldehyde in molded-plastic products, photographic film, decorative laminates and plywood. The formaldehyde cohort, originally assessed through Dec. 31, 1979, was then updated through Dec. 31, 1994.”

Researchers have not yet identified the mechanism by which formaldehyde causes leukemia but the pattern is consistent with “a possible causal association, with the largest risks occurring closer in time to relevant exposure.” She called for further study to “evaluate risks of these cancers in other formaldehyde-exposed populations and to assess possible biological mechanisms.”

Toxicologist, Dr. George Schwartz, told team NutraSweet in 1999 they had presented a one-sided self serving polemic defending their potentially dangerous product and said, “As one example, your comment that “formate is quickly eliminated by the body” is demonstrably false. .. The study done by Trocho et al, Formaldehyde derived from dietary aspartame binds to tissue components in vivo. Life Sciences 63:5:p.337-49, 1998, clearly demonstrates cellular persistence and accumulation, or in layman’s terms, that formaldehyde can remain and accumulate in the body.”

It is absolutely established formaldehyde converted from the methyl ester in aspartame embalms living tissue and damages DNA.

EPA listed formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen in 1987. In 2004 the International Agency for Research on Cancer went further classifying formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen” based partly on research suggesting a link to leukemia.

Dr. Woodrow Monte (Aspartame: Methanol and the Public Health) in New Zealand saw that the New Zealand Food Safety Authority was concerned formaldehyde was found in pajamas. He wrote: “If you are concerned about formaldehyde in your pajamas then think twice about taking it with your breakfast cereal. Aspartame or Equal, the controversial sweetener virtually forced down the throats of the American FDA by the notorious former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (the president of the company that produced it) turns into Formaldehyde inside your children’s bodies. It is well known aspartame or Equal (E951/951) turns into wood alcohol when it is consumed, however, few people realize this wood alcohol morphs into formaldehyde in the cells of the human body. Formaldehyde is a Class 1 causing agent (the world class of carcinogen) and is responsible for everything from sick house syndrome to birth defects. Definitely something we don’t want to see in Pajamas but most certainly not in our food.”

Dr. James Bowen said: “Other examples of this toxic axis are the extreme poisonings caused by formaldehyde, which plasticizes corpses, and is a deadly carcinogen. Both acute and chronic poisonings from methanol with the several other synergistic poisonings from aspartame ingestion steadily accumulate within aspartame consumers until finally hastening or culminating in fatal events.”

“The NCI study confirms the work of Dr. Soffritti,” said Mission Possible Director Dr. Betty Martini. “Now we have to get the NCI to realize that the ‘biological mechanisms’ that cause formaldehyde-induced cancers from workplace exposures are likely to be identical to the ‘biological mechanisms’ causing aspartame-induced cancers. Research shows formaldehyde, which aspartame produces, causes lymphoma and leukemia in both lab rats and people. EFSA’s general review of aspartame will be completed in November. With their tight relationship with industry what should we expect? Perhaps they’ll remember Mark Twain’s words: “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

FDA has admitted aspartame carcinogenicity; nevertheless the NCI and NIH recently said aspartame is a safe artificial sweetener.

Note: For 30 years the neurotoxicity/carcinogenicity of aspartame have been demonstrated in numerous studies posted on the sites below. This research is confirmed by the case histories of thousands of victims who suffered dread infirmities or died from the myriad complications from this chemical poison. This could end if the NCI announces workplace formaldehyde and dietary formaldehyde have the same affect on the body and produce the same cancers.

FDA Toxicologist, Dr. Adrian Gross, told Congress in 1985 aspartame violates the Delaney Amendment because it causes cancer and an allowable daily intake should never have been allowed to be set.

Russell Blaylock, M.D. said in “Health and Nutrition Secrets to Save Your Life”: “So in the case of diet drinks in aluminum cans, the very toxic brain aluminum fluoride compound co-exists with multiple toxins found in aspartame, thus creating the most powerful government-approved toxic soup imaginable.”

Aspartame… it’s not just in diet foods anymore

Remember when aspartame (brand name: NutraSweet) first came out? It promised to have none of the aftertaste of other artificial sweeteners on the market, and virtually zero calories. You could lose weight by simply swapping aspartame for sugar… in your coffee, tea, soft drinks and so on. A drawback was that aspartame wasn’t stable and lost its sweetness over time, but that was merely a minor inconvenience. At least the product was safe (we were told), having been approved by those guardians of public health, the FDA (in the US) and the Food Standards Agency (in the UK).

However, if you do a bit of reading, you’ll find there are a lot of concerns about the safety of this supposedly innocuous sweetener, and the road to its approval… well let’s just say those pesky bumps were ironed out by some pretty high-profile names. A 2005 article which appeared in The Guardian detailed some aspartame concerns:

Safety of artificial sweetener called into question by MP

There is also this very revealing video on aspartame produced by a Fox news station in Washington DC, which was never shown outside its local broadcast area.

A short article on aspartame reactions can be found here.

As for the claims that aspartame helps people lose weight, a study at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that people who drink diet soft drinks don’t lose weight, they gain it.

If you’ve decided to avoid aspartame, it’s not as straightforward as you may think.

Aspartame is now added to a whole raft of food products, both diet AND “regular” ones which also contain sugar. You’ll also find it in products that you may never imagine would have sweeteners in them at all, like crisps and cider.

So what’s a would-be aspartame avoider to do?

1. Look for the words “no added sugar”, “sugar-free”, “diet” or “light” on packaging. This MAY indicate the presence of artificial sweeteners. However, some products which are sweetened naturally may also have the words “no added sugar”, so there is no need to avoid ALL products labelled as such.

2. Don’t assume that just because a product is sugar-sweetened, it is free from artificial sweeteners. An increasing number of products are sweetened both with sugar AND artificial sweeteners. One product commonly containing both sugar and aspartame is chewing gum. In fact, it is now quite difficult to find any chewing gum without aspartame.

Another product containing both sugar and aspartame is Robinsons Fruit Squash.

Here is a picture of “no sugar added” Robinsons Fruit Squash. Note the presence of the artificial sweeteners aspartame and saccharin in the ingredients list.

Robinsons squash with aspartame

Now here is a picture of “regular” Robinsons Fruit Squash. It not only contains sugar, as you would expect, but ALSO contains aspartame and saccharin.

Robinsons squash with sugar AND aspartame

3. Be aware that the statements “no artificial flavours” and “no artificial colours” have nothing to do with whether a product has artificial sweeteners like aspartame in it.

4. Also be aware that a product labelled “suitable for vegetarians” may still contain aspartame and/or other artificial sweeteners.

5. Don’t assume that all products in a health food shop are free from aspartame. They probably aren’t.

6. Look for products which are certified organic; such products are prohibited from containing aspartame. Click here and here for more info on organic standards.

7. Be aware that some products which wouldn’t logically contain sweeteners, may contain them. As an example, the following flavours of Walkers crisps contain aspartame: prawn cocktail, Sensations Thai sweet chilli, Sensations caramelised onion & sweet balsamic vinegar.

8. Realise that some vitamins and medicines contain aspartame. It seems that current UK laws require that this be mentioned on the labelling.

9. Read the ingredients list. This encompasses all of the above guidelines into one easy-to-remember one. For most products, the ingredients list will indicate the presence of aspartame, which may also be listed as “NutraSweet” or by its E-number, E951.

10. Be very careful with alcoholic beverages, which do NOT have to list ingredients unless alcohol content is UNDER 1.2%. There appears to be no requirement under the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) guide “Labelling requirements for alcoholic drinks” to list artificial sweeteners. However, the FSA guidelines on aspartame labelling state:

As well as the general requirement for foods to carry a list of food additives and other ingredients, products containing sweeteners such as aspartame must show the statement ‘with sweetener(s)’ on the label close to the main product name. Foods that contain both sugar and sweetener must carry the statement ‘with sugar and sweetener(s)’. In addition, foods that contain aspartame must be labelled with a warning ‘contains a source of phenylalanine’.

It would appear that alcoholic beverages which contain sweeteners therefore do have to indicate this on the label.

Another point on cider: you may have read something about the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which “is an independent, voluntary, consumer organisation which campaigns for real ale, real pubs and consumer rights”. Although CAMRA’s Definition of Real Draught Cider & Perry states that the beverages may contain neither added flavourings nor colourings, this is not, unfortunately, the case with sweeteners:

Sweetener may be added to fully fermented Cider/Perry to make it sweet or medium.

Therefore, cider brands jumping on the CAMRA bandwagon are not necessarily free from aspartame or other artificial sweeteners.

If you want to avoid aspartame, you’ll need to become a label-reader. You may have to squint to read those tiny ingredients lists, but at least you won’t be buying blindly.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lipsticks Contain Lead note:
Finding lead in lipstick is only the start to the problems one would find here if a realistic investigation for toxic chemicals and heavy metals were to take place. We see this kind of a campaign by nonprofits all the time. Rather than alert consumers to the fact that people should not wear cosmetics at all, they use this single toxicant as if it is the only toxicant in the product. So then the industry replaces that single chemical with another chemical that isn't so well-known in sort of a bait-and-switch routine. It's a win-win situation for both nonprofit and industry because the product remains on the market and the toxicant du jour of the nonprofit is born.

However, using such stuff is hazardous to one's health. Not to mention the fact that it says a lot about the person wearing it — "I need to make myself look better. I am ugly, or too old, or too young, or any number of reasons that point to the fact that I don't think my appearance is sufficient." Cosmetics are the result of the combination of slick and very expensive advertising that is most of the cost of the product, and Hollywood cinema imaging, neither one of which is healthy. One last comment on the ingredients: Even if all the colorant and medium is nontoxic, there must still be a preservative, which are toxic by nature.

Lipsticks tested by a U.S. consumer rights group found that more than half contained lead and some popular brands including Cover Girl, L'Oreal and Christian Dior had more lead than others, the group said on Thursday.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said tests on 33 brand-name red lipsticks by the Bodycote Testing Group in Santa Fe Spring, California, found that 61 percent had detectable lead levels of 0.03 to 0.65 parts per million (ppm).

Lipstick, like candy, is ingested. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of public health, environmental and women's groups, said the FDA has not set a limit for lead in lipstick.

One-third of the lipsticks tested contained an amount of lead that exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 0.1 ppm limit for lead in candy -- a standard established to protect children from ingesting lead, the group said. Thirty-nine percent of the lipsticks tested had no discernible lead, it said.

"It's critical that manufacturers reformulate their product," said Stacy Malkan, a co-founder of the coalition. "It's possible to make lipsticks without lead, and all companies should be doing that."

Lead can cause learning, language and behavioral problems such as reduced school performance and increased aggression. Pregnant women and young children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, the group said in its statement. Lead has also been linked to infertility and miscarriage, it said.

Procter & Gamble Co's makes Cover Girl brand and France's L'Oreal is one of the largest cosmetic companies in the world.

Over the last three months, more than 20 million toys made in China have been recalled, mostly due to the use of lead paint.

The coalition said that some less expensive brands it had tested, such as Revlon, had no detectable levels of lead, while the more expensive Dior Addict brand had higher levels than some other brands.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association trade group said in a statement that lead was a naturally occurring element that was not intentionally added to cosmetics.

The FDA has "set strict limits for lead levels allowed in the colors used in lipsticks, and actually analyze most of these to ensure they are followed," the association's statement said. "The products identified in the (CSC) report meet these standards."

L'Oreal's U.S. arm said its products are reviewed and tested by a safety team that includes toxicologists, pharmacists and doctors.

"All the brands of the L'Oreal Group are in full compliance with FDA regulations" as well as safety requirements in international markets, L'Oreal USA said in a statement.

P&G said in a statement that the quantity of lead a consumer might be exposed to from its lip product "is hundreds of times less than the amount that she would get from eating, breathing and drinking water."

"Lead builds up in the body over time and lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day, every day, can add up to significant exposure levels. The latest studies show there is no safe level of lead exposure," said Dr. Mark Mitchell, president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.

Sexy For Her . . . For baby, it could really be poison

Toxic chemicals linked to birth defects are being found at alarming levels in women of childbearing age.

And according to new laboratory tests (see chart at right), these same chemicals are being added to popular cosmetics and beauty aids, from Poison perfume to Arrid Extra Extra Dry deodorant.

Manufacturers use these chemicals, known as phthalates (tha-lates), to add flexibility and help dissolve other ingredients. They're also used in industrial adhesives, and in medical and consumer goods made with polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC).

But phthalates have been shown to damage the lungs, liver and kidneys, and to harm the developing testes of offspring.

These results come from animal tests which, according to government scientists, are relevant to predicting health impacts in humans.

Despite this, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate phthalates in cosmetics. In most cases, phthalates aren't even listed on the label.

The FDA must act now. All cosmetics - as well as food-related and medical products containing phthalates - must be labeled. And manufacturers should publicly pledge to voluntarily remove phthalates as quickly as possible.

Phthalate-free alternatives are available in every product category. And some companies have already announced phase-out policies.

In the meantime, we believe that every consumer - indeed, anyone who cares about the health of future generations - should demand action from companies and the FDA. Learn more at

After all, Eternity is a long time.

The New York Times advertisement by CHE Partner David Fenton showed a young woman sniffing a bottle of perfume. "Sexy for her," said the text. "For baby, it could really be poison." In July, CHE Organizational Partners Health Care Without Harm and the Environmental Working Group, along with a national network that includes many CHE Partners concerned with chemicals as a risk factor for health called Coming Clean, released "Not Too Pretty," a groundbreaking report that describes the harmful effects of aggregate exposure to chemicals called phthalates that can damage the lungs, liver and kidneys, and can harm developing testes during fetal development. The report tested popular fragrances, hair sprays and deodorants purchased from four drug stores. The report was announced with a full-page ad in the New York Times that listed specific products that contained these toxins. Go to for a full report.

What Are You Wearing?

Off-the-shelf samples of hair products, body lotions, deodorants and fragrances, including those listed below, were analyzed by an independent testing lab for the presence of phthalates. Four were found: BBP, DBP, DEP and DEHP. The phthalate content of listed nail polishes comes from manufacturers' information and ingredients listings on labels.

Products listed below as "phthalate free" contained no detectable trace of the four compounds. Products listed as "contain phthalates" contained one of the four, while those noted with an asterisk contained more than one.

Total phthalate exposure comes from repeated small individual doses from cosmetics and a wide range of products containing PVC plastics, including shower curtains and window shades; some plastic food packaging; and medical devices such as IV fluid and blood bags. Other sources of phthalate exposure include paints, pesticides and printing inks.

Hair Sprays
Contain Phthalates
Aqua Net Professional Hair Spray* LA Looks Styling Gel: Extra Super Hold Suave Naturals Ocean Breeze Extra Control Spray Gel TRESemme European Freeze-Hold Hair Spray* VO5 Crystal Clear 14 Hour Hold
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Industry aims to strip local control of food supply

Environmental and healthy-farming advocates are learning what tobacco-free campaigners learned in the 1990s: When local governments step up to protect their community's citizens, industry responds by taking away the authority of local governments.

In spring 2004, three California counties and two cities passed ordinances that restricted growing genetically modified organisms. In response, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County), earlier this month gutted and then amended Senate Bill 1056 with some of the broadest and most sweeping pre-emptive language ever written in the Legislature. Its purpose? To override existing local restrictions, prohibit any future initiatives that might restrict genetically engineered crops and eliminate local control of seeds and plants. Essentially, to hijack control of our food supply.

Just as the tobacco industry acted to restrict local tobacco controls in 20 states, agribusiness corporations and their affiliated associations are behind the moves to thwart local efforts to restrict the growing of genetically modified foods. In the 2005 session, 16 state legislatures, including California, introduced bills prohibiting local control of seeds and plants. The nearly identical language used in each of the bills illustrates a systematic and ordered approach to stifling community decision-making. Agribusiness councils, whose leadership includes members such as bioengineering firms Monsanto and Syngenta, are promoting the legislation while the bills' initial language has been developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative public-policy organization.

What will such pre-emptive laws do to local control? According to Tom Campbell, director of the California Department of Finance, "state pre-emption laws can do two things. They can overturn the will of the people in the event an initiative has passed, and they can prevent the introduction of laws on the same subject from being introduced in the future." Pre-empting local authority stifles citizen participation in the democratic process and should give pause for any legislator or citizen. What are voters in Mendocino and Marin counties to think when their votes to restrict genetically modified crops and protect local food and farming are worthy of so little respect?

There is no denying that agricultural biotechnology is a complex and controversial issue. You would think this would be all the more reason public debate and discussion should be encouraged, not silenced. Yet if legislators such as Florez have their way, citizens will lose an opportunity to be part of the discussion to resolve one of the most challenging issues of our time. Local initiatives and citizen actions restricting genetically modified crops are a signal to the Legislature that Californians are concerned about this new technology and, in the absence of government leadership, are taking matters into their own hands to protect their environment, economy and health.

Proponents of SB1056 assert that California needs uniformity and homogeneity with regard to seed laws and that the state could not possibly handle a patchwork of laws passed by local government. Yet, if local authority over seeds is taken away by the state, then so is every farmer's choice not to use genetically engineered seeds and plants. Once genetically engineered plants are released into the environment, historically preserved and heirloom seed strains are forever affected, according to a 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Diverse agricultural economies may suffer from losses due to this contamination. For example, if organic crops become contaminated with genetically engineered pollen, those farmers may lose their organic certification.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which he stated, "I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but the people, and if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take the power from them." That critical power is now being challenged, as state Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata (Humboldt County), noted: "Regardless of how you feel about the (genetically modified organism) issue, taking away local voters' rights is a serious threat to democracy."

Organic Erosion

Will the term organic still mean anything
when it's adopted whole hog by behemoths
such as Wal-Mart?

Marin Sun Farms, in Point Reyes, is a collection of ranches on more than 2,000 acres of rolling, certified organic pasture. All year long, cattle and chickens speckle the hills, free to roam and graze at their leisure.

The Hereford and Angus cows, in fact, are never confined. They are grass-fed, except during winter, when they also eat hay and silage. The chickens' typical diet of plants and insects is supplemented with organic grains, which they eat at night, in the winter and in otherwise foul weather when kept in their portable coops. When you imagine an organic cattle ranch, Marin Sun Farms is probably pretty close to what you picture — though maybe not exactly.

No synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides are used on the pasture, and the animals are hormone- and antibiotic-free. But even though most of the land is certified organic, the cows and chickens raised there are not.

One reason is because the owner, David Evans, obtains cows from partner ranchers who use synthetic "wormers" to control parasites — a violation of organic standards. But Evans has been slowly accumulating a base herd with an eye toward becoming entirely organic.

Lately, however, Evans has begun to wonder if the USDA "Certified Organic" stamp will be worth the annual fee, which could run more than $1,000. His pastures — the largest certified organic acreage in Marin County — may seem large, but they are dwarfed by their corporate counterparts.

As Evans knows, organic food has become big business. According to the Organic Consumer's Association, sales could hit $18 billion this year, with half coming from conventional supermarkets. Though still only about 2.5 percent of the agricultural market, demand for organic has grown 20 percent annually in recent years, and most of the top-selling brands are now owned by agribusiness behemoths.

Dean Foods, for example, owns White Wave (maker of Silk soymilk) and Horizon Organic, the No. 1-selling organic brand across the country. Unilever owns Ben & Jerry's Organic. Groupe Danone, a French corporation, recently bought Stonyfield Farm. Even Wal-Mart is plunging deeper into the market, announcing it would dramatically increase its organic offerings.

And if you think Evans' 2,000-plus organic acres is a lot, take a look at Earthbound Farm, which grew from a 2 1/2 acre raspberry and lettuce farm to the largest organic produce operation in North America, with $350 million in annual sales and more than 150 growers on 30,000 organic acres under its control.

Evans worries that the influx of these big companies — with their industrial production methods, profit obsession and political muscle — will dilute organic standards and, potentially, render the USDA stamp irrelevant. "If big business kills the name," Evans said, "why go organic?"

He's not alone. Many critics foresee an erosion not only of organic standards but also of the movement's true ideals — which include localism and sustainability as much as eschewing chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Indeed, a battle is raging in organic food production, and it has already split the industry: between those willing to sacrifice ideals for growth and those who think organic should remain small, local and transparent.

The 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill hacked the split between these groups into a chasm. A rider on the bill legalized, for the first time, the use of synthetic substances in the processing and post-harvest handling of organic foods.

What particularly worries purists is that the rider was sponsored by the Organic Trade Association, a lobbying group that represents the interests of big corporations. And, though virtually all of the 38 synthetics are considered harmless — and in fact were already being widely used — some believe that codifying their use may pave the way for others that may not be so harmless.

Jim Riddle, former chairman of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA in setting organic standards, said that what was most alarming about the rider was the secretive method used to attach it. According to Riddle, the rider (which is an amendment to the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act) was snuck into the bill — inserted after an appropriation's conference committee had adjourned, in order for the corporations pushing the amendment (Kraft Foods was a leader) to avoid debate. This way, Riddle said, "There's no author, no one to be held accountable."

Brian Baker, research director for the Organic Materials Review Institute, described the rider issue as a "volatile situation" because of organic consumers' dedication to purity. He pointed out that after the first set of organic standards were set in 1997, allowing for sewage sludge, irradiation and genetically modified organisms, the USDA received more than 300,000 letters of protest from furious consumers.

When asked about the long-term ramifications of the rider, Baker said he wouldn't "take sides," though he acknowledged it "could open the door" to other synthetics.

The very existence of any synthetics in organic food remains unfathomable to some — perhaps no one more so than Arthur Harvey, a 74-year-old blueberry farmer from Maine. A purist, Harvey believed that the organic standards of 2002, and their inclusion of a national list of allowable synthetics, violated the original 1990 law, which he believed banned all synthetics. In January 2005, a federal appellate court agreed with him. The court's ruling would have banned all synthetics had it not been for the OTA rider. But Harvey didn't give up; he found fault with the rider, too, and is back in court.

Though a Maine district court dismissed his latest case in November, Harvey is appealing the decision. At issue is a category of synthetics known as "food contact substances." The USDA is currently allowing more than 600 of these in the processing of organic foods — in addition to the 38 synthetics legalized by the rider.

Not only would these FCSs be exempt from listing on ingredient labels, they would not be required to be on the national list — thus they'd be exempt from review or approval by the NOSB. And, according to Riddle, some are toxins, such as dimethyl dicarbonate, an antimicrobial added to fruit juices (even those that say "100 percent juice"); and a substance containing methyl chloride, a flammable gas once used as a refrigerant.

"There's no language in the Organic Foods Production Act, the regulation or the court ruling to empower this invisible allowance of substances that don't even appear on the national list," said Riddle, "which never have been reviewed by the NOSB, and have never gone through a rule-making process or even a public comment period."

Caren Wilcox, executive director of the OTA, would not comment on the rider because she was not with the organization when it was attached. She also declined to comment on the issue of "food contact substances" because of Harvey's suit. She asserted, however, that "there has always been a place for synthetics" in organic foods. She added that it would "be impossible to produce" organics without synthetics such as ozone, to resist bacteria; chlorine, a disinfectant; and bleached lecithin and ascorbic acid.

Harvey disagrees. A producer of his own blueberry jams, Harvey was motivated (during the brief period when it appeared synthetics would be banned) to find an organic alternative to a synthetic pectin he'd been using as a thickening agent. It took some experimentation, but eventually he discovered that apple pomace would do the trick.

"I think any manufacturer of organic products is terrified they won't be able to use synthetics," he said. "Because they are cheaper, and easier to handle. If you're using pomace, as we are, well, every batch is a little bit different. So it can be a headache. But it is a natural, organic product, and I feel much better about making jam this way."

Wal-Mart's burgeoning market presence is another divisive issue. At a shareholder's meeting in early 2006, Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott declared that Wal-Mart would significantly increase its organic offerings. (These already make up a wide array, from milk and produce to breakfast cereal and salsa.) The announcement panicked critics who feared that Wal-Mart's business model of low prices — Wal-Mart has said its goal is to sell organics for only 10 percent above conventional prices — would pressure organic suppliers to cut corners, thereby diluting the label.

In September, the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin watchdog group, published an analysis of Wal-Mart's early influence on the organic market. The study found that not only was Wal-Mart "cheapening the value of the organic label" by sourcing most of its products from "industrial-scale factory farms and Third World countries," but also — on multiple occasions and in multiple stores — labeling non-organic food as organic with misleading in-store signs.

The study even discovered Wal-Mart selling "organic" baby formulas containing synthetic ingredients prohibited by U.S. organic standards.

"This is disturbing and a serious problem," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the institute, said in a November news release accompanying a legal complaint to the USDA. "Consumers, who are paying premium prices in the marketplace for organic food, deserve to get what they are paying for."

In a recent interview, Kastel speculated that the labeling problems, which he and his staff photographed, probably stemmed more from detachment and a lack of dedication to organics than from purposeful deception.

(Karen Burk, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, replied to the charges by saying, "we believe it to be an isolated incident should a green organic identifying tag be inadvertently placed by or accidentally shift in front of the wrong item." She did not comment on the infant formula.)

The study also found that because of its stringent price demands, Wal-Mart obtained little organic food from U.S. family-scale farms, but most from major agribusiness companies, industrial-scale farms and foreign countries.

Kastel illustrated how Wal-Mart's low-price-only policy has hurt small farmers and "cheapened" the organic label.

After one of Wal-Mart's original organic milk suppliers, Organic Valley — a co-operative of small organic dairy farmers — refused to acquiesce to Wal-Mart's demands, the giant retailer turned to Horizon Organic (owned by Dean Foods) and Aurora Dairy, both of which have been accused of exploiting ambiguities in the organic standards to confine thousands of cows in feedlot-like conditions with little time spent grazing on pasture. (The law says cows must have "access to pasture," but doesn't say how much or how often.)

"Wal-Mart's dependence on factory farms," the study concluded, is a typical example of its "philosophy of sourcing products from the least expensive supplier regardless of the impact on product quality, the environment or our nation's workers."

Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumer's Association, echoed these criticisms.

"When you get into bed with Wal-Mart, you forget your ethics because of the money involved," Cummins said. "But you simply cannot act in organic the same way you did in conventional because consumers are looking for more than just low prices."

Cummins added that even if the aforementioned practices by Wal-Mart, Horizon and Aurora technically fulfilled organic standards, they nevertheless violated organic ideals like animal rights and the preservation of fossil fuels. "How organic can food really be that is shipped halfway around the world?" he said.

Which brings up another concern: how to insure that organic products grown outside U.S. borders are actually organic.

The USDA's National Organic Program is ultimately responsible for the integrity of all organic food sold in the United States, but it does not conduct inspections. Instead, it accredits third-party agencies to inspect the farms, processors and retailers that seek certification.

Currently, there are 40 accredited foreign certifying agents (and 55 domestic). But serious questions remain about the integrity of the process in some countries — especially China. The USDA, in fact, has yet to make an inspection tour of what Kastel described as China's "government-controlled certification system," even though the United States is already importing huge amounts of Chinese organic products.

(When asked for comment, Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said that the associate deputy administrator of the NOP, Mark Bradley, would be flying to China later this year to conduct reviews.) Proponents of small-scale organic say foreign sourcing is a key factor in the dilution of the label, because transparency, another important organic ideal, is lost. Knowing your farmer, visiting his ranch and seeing how the food is grown — gathering any kind of story behind the food — becomes virtually impossible when organics are obtained from overseas.

"I'd rather spend $5 on some locally grown, organic strawberries than $2.50 for some Chilean farmer's strawberries at Wal-Mart," David Evans said. "Why would I want to save $2.50 on those Chilean strawberries when I don't really know how they were grown, under what conditions or if they were really grown organically?"

But, as even the most vehement critics of industrial organic concede, there are benefits to Wal-Mart's — and other big corporations' — market presence. Perhaps the most significant is the removal of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers from the ecosystem: As demand rises and huge retailers like Wal-Mart seek to meet it, conventional acres will transition to organic, and whether those are in the United States, Chile or China, it will be good for the environment.

Drew and Myra Goodman, the owners of Earthbound Farm (one of Wal-Mart's top suppliers), estimate that their business alone has been responsible for eliminating almost 10 million pounds of synthetic fertilizer and 313,000 pounds of chemical pesticides. This is a significant boon to the environment and to national health, not only for the removal of pesticide residues from food, but also by preserving petroleum, which is used to create synthetic fertilizer.

A study by the Rodale Institute found that organic farms fight global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere by sequestering it in the earth at a rate of 3,670 pounds per acre. With the Goodmans' 30,000 acres, that would mean Earthbound Farm alone has removed the equivalent of more than 7,500 cars from the road.

Peggy Miars, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz, one of the nation's largest organic certifiers, believes the benefits of big businesses' market presence outweigh the potential negatives.

Miars said the USDA standards are strict enough (though she acknowledged ambiguities existed) that the label would remain strong, and, in addition to the environmental benefits, she said big corporations would create greater awareness, boost demand and create more markets. "If consumers who never thought much about organic foods see them at their local Wal-Mart," she said, "they may investigate more, maybe even stop by a farmers' market. This would increase demand and the end result is it would be good for organic."

But others maintain that even in the best industrial organic models, there are aspects that mirror conventional agriculture and conflict with organic ideals — such as the use of migrant farmworkers, aggressive business practices designed to crush competition, reliance on monocrop at the expense of diversity and mass expenditures of fossil fuels in distribution and production.

"There's a long list of benefits of small-scale organic that you don't get with industrial," said Helge Hellberg, the executive director of Marin Organic, an association of organic producers dedicated to "creating the first all-organic county in the nation."

Like Hellberg, most of Marin's organic community does not view Big Organic as a direct threat to their own farms or way of life — "we're far removed from the Wal-Marts of the world," is how Evans put it — but they remain an advocate for the preservation of the nation's small farms, yet another ideal not addressed by the industrial model.

"We're still losing 400 family farms in the U.S. every week to development," Hellberg said. "The industrial model, even if it's organic, will not stop that. We're still shipping food an average of about 2,000 miles from where it's grown to where it's consumed. The industrial organic model will not address that."

But will the local model address skyrocketing demand? While much of agribusiness's market presence can be chalked up to profit seeking, even some proponents of small-scale organics think the industrial model may have its place — for supplying populations in less agriculturally sustainable areas, such as Las Vegas or Albuquerque, for example.

Hellberg, however, believes local, small-scale organics should be the aim. He said he's seen "the most arid and horrible soils turned around," and he pointed to Marin's movement as an example he believed could be replicated in other places — if not practically, than at least the "mind-set." He said Prince Charles' November 2005 visit was due to the innovation, tradition and dedication to ideals of the area's organic farmers.

The biodiversity of Peter Martinelli's Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas, where more than 40 crops are grown on 5 acres; Dennis and Sandy Dierks' Paradise Valley Produce, where unique fertilization methods such as fermenting seaweed and other microbes to enhance soil fertility are used, and where the coho salmon are making a comeback because of a healthier watershed; and Warren Weber's Star Route Farms, the longest continuously certified organic farm in California, are all examples of the sustainable model — and were all "certainly a draw" for His Royal Highness.

When asked if he thought some ideals needed to be sacrificed to meet rising demand, Hellberg said: "No, I think the opposite is true. Smaller scale agriculture, artisan food production, true relationships, integrating agriculture in your local region and building upon it: That is the model that shows the most benefits. It is the closest to the heart and there's no place on earth where you can't apply it."

Evans agrees. "The most conscious way to buy food is straight from the farmer," he said. "There's a lot of room for growth in this country for that kind of relationship. Even better than organic is local organic, and that's a niche that the big guy just can't get in on."

Unhappy Meals

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

Uh-oh. Things are suddenly sounding a little more complicated, aren’t they? Sorry. But that’s how it goes as soon as you try to get to the bottom of the whole vexing question of food and health. Before long, a dense cloud bank of confusion moves in. Sooner or later, everything solid you thought you knew about the links between diet and health gets blown away in the gust of the latest study.

Last winter came the news that a low-fat diet, long believed to protect against breast cancer, may do no such thing — this from the monumental, federally financed Women’s Health Initiative, which has also found no link between a low-fat diet and rates of coronary disease. The year before we learned that dietary fiber might not, as we had been confidently told, help prevent colon cancer. Just last fall two prestigious studies on omega-3 fats published at the same time presented us with strikingly different conclusions. While the Institute of Medicine stated that “it is uncertain how much these omega-3s contribute to improving health” (and they might do the opposite if you get them from mercury-contaminated fish), a Harvard study declared that simply by eating a couple of servings of fish each week (or by downing enough fish oil), you could cut your risk of dying from a heart attack by more than a third — a stunningly hopeful piece of news. It’s no wonder that omega-3 fatty acids are poised to become the oat bran of 2007, as food scientists micro-encapsulate fish oil and algae oil and blast them into such formerly all-terrestrial foods as bread and tortillas, milk and yogurt and cheese, all of which will soon, you can be sure, sprout fishy new health claims. (Remember the rule?)

By now you’re probably registering the cognitive dissonance of the supermarket shopper or science-section reader, as well as some nostalgia for the simplicity and solidity of the first few sentences of this essay. Which I’m still prepared to defend against the shifting winds of nutritional science and food-industry marketing. But before I do that, it might be useful to figure out how we arrived at our present state of nutritional confusion and anxiety.

The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, “Eat more fruits and vegetables”?) And so, like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters.


It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by “nutrients,” which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like “fiber” and “cholesterol” and “saturated fat” rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

Nutrients themselves had been around, as a concept, since the early 19th century, when the English doctor and chemist William Prout identified what came to be called the “macronutrients”: protein, fat and carbohydrates. It was thought that that was pretty much all there was going on in food, until doctors noticed that an adequate supply of the big three did not necessarily keep people nourished. At the end of the 19th century, British doctors were puzzled by the fact that Chinese laborers in the Malay states were dying of a disease called beriberi, which didn’t seem to afflict Tamils or native Malays. The mystery was solved when someone pointed out that the Chinese ate “polished,” or white, rice, while the others ate rice that hadn’t been mechanically milled. A few years later, Casimir Funk, a Polish chemist, discovered the “essential nutrient” in rice husks that protected against beriberi and called it a “vitamine,” the first micronutrient. Vitamins brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and though certain sectors of the population began to eat by its expert lights, it really wasn’t until late in the 20th century that nutrients managed to push food aside in the popular imagination of what it means to eat.

No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Na├»vely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called “saturated fat.”

The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue McGovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein sitting in the middle of its plate. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington. This was precisely the tack taken by the National Academy of Sciences when it issued its landmark report on diet and cancer in 1982. Organized nutrient by nutrient in a way guaranteed to offend no food group, it codified the official new dietary language. Industry and media followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids and carotenes soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible substance formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.


The first thing to understand about nutritionism — I first encountered the term in the work of an Australian sociologist of science named Gyorgy Scrinis — is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the “ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather, all pervasive and virtually inescapable. Still, we can try.

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’s famous injunction to “let food be thy medicine” is ritually invoked to support this notion. I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy. This is what we usually have in mind when we speak of the “French paradox” — the fact that a population that eats all sorts of unhealthful nutrients is in many ways healthier than we Americans are. So there is at least a question as to whether nutritionism is actually any good for you.

Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions between foods. So fish, beef and chicken through the nutritionists’ lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients are on their scope. Similarly, any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain (or, more precisely, the known nutrients).

This is a great boon for manufacturers of processed food, and it helps explain why they have been so happy to get with the nutritionism program. In the years following McGovern’s capitulation and the 1982 National Academy report, the food industry set about re-engineering thousands of popular food products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and less of the bad, and by the late ’80s a golden era of food science was upon us. The Year of Eating Oat Bran — also known as 1988 — served as a kind of coming-out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America. Oat bran’s moment on the dietary stage didn’t last long, but the pattern had been established, and every few years since then a new oat bran has taken its turn under the marketing lights. (Here comes omega-3!)

By comparison, the typical real food has more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism, if only because something like a banana or an avocado can’t easily change its nutritional stripes (though rest assured the genetic engineers are hard at work on the problem). So far, at least, you can’t put oat bran in a banana. So depending on the reigning nutritional orthodoxy, the avocado might be either a high-fat food to be avoided (Old Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (New Think). The fate of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather, while the processed foods are simply reformulated. That’s why when the Atkins mania hit the food industry, bread and pasta were given a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the protein), while the poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the cold.

Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.


So nutritionism is good for business. But is it good for us? You might think that a national fixation on nutrients would lead to measurable improvements in the public health. But for that to happen, the underlying nutritional science, as well as the policy recommendations (and the journalism) based on that science, would have to be sound. This has seldom been the case.

Consider what happened immediately after the 1977 “Dietary Goals” — McGovern’s masterpiece of politico-nutritionist compromise. In the wake of the panel’s recommendation that we cut down on saturated fat, a recommendation seconded by the 1982 National Academy report on cancer, Americans did indeed change their diets, endeavoring for a quarter-century to do what they had been told. Well, kind of. The industrial food supply was promptly reformulated to reflect the official advice, giving us low-fat pork, low-fat Snackwell’s and all the low-fat pasta and high-fructose (yet low-fat!) corn syrup we could consume. Which turned out to be quite a lot. Oddly, America got really fat on its new low-fat diet — indeed, many date the current obesity and diabetes epidemic to the late 1970s, when Americans began binging on carbohydrates, ostensibly as a way to avoid the evils of fat.

This story has been told before, notably in these pages (“What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” by Gary Taubes, July 7, 2002), but it’s a little more complicated than the official version suggests. In that version, which inspired the most recent Atkins craze, we were told that America got fat when, responding to bad scientific advice, it shifted its diet from fats to carbs, suggesting that a re-evaluation of the two nutrients is in order: fat doesn’t make you fat; carbs do. (Why this should have come as news is a mystery: as long as people have been raising animals for food, they have fattened them on carbs.)

But there are a couple of problems with this revisionist picture. First, while it is true that Americans post-1977 did begin binging on carbs, and that fat as a percentage of total calories in the American diet declined, we never did in fact cut down on our consumption of fat. Meat consumption actually climbed. We just heaped a bunch more carbs onto our plates, obscuring perhaps, but not replacing, the expanding chunk of animal protein squatting in the center.

How did that happen? I would submit that the ideology of nutritionism deserves as much of the blame as the carbohydrates themselves do — that and human nature. By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did. We’re always happy to receive a dispensation to eat more of something (with the possible exception of oat bran), and one of the things nutritionism reliably gives us is some such dispensation: low-fat cookies then, low-carb beer now. It’s hard to imagine the low-fat craze taking off as it did if McGovern’s original food-based recommendations had stood: eat fewer meat and dairy products. For how do you get from that stark counsel to the idea that another case of Snackwell’s is just what the doctor ordered?


But if nutritionism leads to a kind of false consciousness in the mind of the eater, the ideology can just as easily mislead the scientist. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

What’s going on here? We don’t know. It could be the vagaries of human digestion. Maybe the fiber (or some other component) in a carrot protects the antioxidant molecules from destruction by stomach acids early in the digestive process. Or it could be that we isolated the wrong antioxidant. Beta is just one of a whole slew of carotenes found in common vegetables; maybe we focused on the wrong one. Or maybe beta carotene works as an antioxidant only in concert with some other plant chemical or process; under other circumstances, it may behave as a pro-oxidant.

Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:

4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that what reductive science can manage to perceive well enough to isolate and study is subject to change, and that we have a tendency to assume that what we can see is all there is to see. When William Prout isolated the big three macronutrients, scientists figured they now understood food and what the body needs from it; when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, O.K., now we really understand food and what the body needs to be healthy; today it’s the polyphenols and carotenoids that seem all-important. But who knows what the hell else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot?

The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn’t matter. That’s the great thing about eating food as compared with nutrients: you don’t need to fathom a carrot’s complexity to reap its benefits.

The case of the antioxidants points up the dangers in taking a nutrient out of the context of food; as Nestle suggests, scientists make a second, related error when they study the food out of the context of the diet. We don’t eat just one thing, and when we are eating any one thing, we’re not eating another. We also eat foods in combinations and in orders that can affect how they’re absorbed. Drink coffee with your steak, and your body won’t be able to fully absorb the iron in the meat. The trace of limestone in the corn tortilla unlocks essential amino acids in the corn that would otherwise remain unavailable. Some of those compounds in that sprig of thyme may well affect my digestion of the dish I add it to, helping to break down one compound or possibly stimulate production of an enzyme to detoxify another. We have barely begun to understand the relationships among foods in a cuisine.

But we do understand some of the simplest relationships, like the zero-sum relationship: that if you eat a lot of meat you’re probably not eating a lot of vegetables. This simple fact may explain why populations that eat diets high in meat have higher rates of coronary heart disease and cancer than those that don’t. Yet nutritionism encourages us to look elsewhere for the explanation: deep within the meat itself, to the culpable nutrient, which scientists have long assumed to be the saturated fat. So they are baffled when large-population studies, like the Women’s Health Initiative, fail to find that reducing fat intake significantly reduces the incidence of heart disease or cancer.

Of course thanks to the low-fat fad (inspired by the very same reductionist fat hypothesis), it is entirely possible to reduce your intake of saturated fat without significantly reducing your consumption of animal protein: just drink the low-fat milk and order the skinless chicken breast or the turkey bacon. So maybe the culprit nutrient in meat and dairy is the animal protein itself, as some researchers now hypothesize. (The Cornell nutritionist T. Colin Campbell argues as much in his recent book, “The China Study.”) Or, as the Harvard epidemiologist Walter C. Willett suggests, it could be the steroid hormones typically present in the milk and meat; these hormones (which occur naturally in meat and milk but are often augmented in industrial production) are known to promote certain cancers.

But people worried about their health needn’t wait for scientists to settle this question before deciding that it might be wise to eat more plants and less meat. This is of course precisely what the McGovern committee was trying to tell us.

Nestle also cautions against taking the diet out of the context of the lifestyle. The Mediterranean diet is widely believed to be one of the most healthful ways to eat, yet much of what we know about it is based on studies of people living on the island of Crete in the 1950s, who in many respects lived lives very different from our own. Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and little meat. But they also did more physical labor. They fasted regularly. They ate a lot of wild greens — weeds. And, perhaps most important, they consumed far fewer total calories than we do. Similarly, much of what we know about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet is based on studies of Seventh Day Adventists, who muddy the nutritional picture by drinking absolutely no alcohol and never smoking. These extraneous but unavoidable factors are called, aptly, “confounders.” One last example: People who take supplements are healthier than the population at large, but their health probably has nothing whatsoever to do with the supplements they take — which recent studies have suggested are worthless. Supplement-takers are better-educated, more-affluent people who, almost by definition, take a greater-than-normal interest in personal health — confounding factors that probably account for their superior health.

But if confounding factors of lifestyle bedevil comparative studies of different populations, the supposedly more rigorous “prospective” studies of large American populations suffer from their own arguably even more disabling flaws. In these studies — of which the Women’s Health Initiative is the best known — a large population is divided into two groups. The intervention group changes its diet in some prescribed manner, while the control group does not. The two groups are then tracked over many years to learn whether the intervention affects relative rates of chronic disease.

When it comes to studying nutrition, this sort of extensive, long-term clinical trial is supposed to be the gold standard. It certainly sounds sound. In the case of the Women’s Health Initiative, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the eating habits and health outcomes of nearly 49,000 women (ages 50 to 79 at the beginning of the study) were tracked for eight years. One group of the women were told to reduce their consumption of fat to 20 percent of total calories. The results were announced early last year, producing front-page headlines of which the one in this newspaper was typical: “Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds.” And the cloud of nutritional confusion over the country darkened.

But even a cursory analysis of the study’s methods makes you wonder why anyone would take such a finding seriously, let alone order a Quarter Pounder With Cheese to celebrate it, as many newspaper readers no doubt promptly went out and did. Even the beginner student of nutritionism will immediately spot several flaws: the focus was on “fat,” rather than on any particular food, like meat or dairy. So women could comply simply by switching to lower-fat animal products. Also, no distinctions were made between types of fat: women getting their allowable portion of fat from olive oil or fish were lumped together with woman getting their fat from low-fat cheese or chicken breasts or margarine. Why? Because when the study was designed 16 years ago, the whole notion of “good fats” was not yet on the scientific scope. Scientists study what scientists can see.

But perhaps the biggest flaw in this study, and other studies like it, is that we have no idea what these women were really eating because, like most people when asked about their diet, they lied about it. How do we know this? Deduction. Consider: When the study began, the average participant weighed in at 170 pounds and claimed to be eating 1,800 calories a day. It would take an unusual metabolism to maintain that weight on so little food. And it would take an even freakier metabolism to drop only one or two pounds after getting down to a diet of 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day — as the women on the “low-fat” regimen claimed to have done. Sorry, ladies, but I just don’t buy it.

In fact, nobody buys it. Even the scientists who conduct this sort of research conduct it in the knowledge that people lie about their food intake all the time. They even have scientific figures for the magnitude of the lie. Dietary trials like the Women’s Health Initiative rely on “food-frequency questionnaires,” and studies suggest that people on average eat between a fifth and a third more than they claim to on the questionnaires. How do the researchers know that? By comparing what people report on questionnaires with interviews about their dietary intake over the previous 24 hours, thought to be somewhat more reliable. In fact, the magnitude of the lie could be much greater, judging by the huge disparity between the total number of food calories produced every day for each American (3,900 calories) and the average number of those calories Americans own up to chomping: 2,000. (Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it.) All we really know about how much people actually eat is that the real number lies somewhere between those two figures.

To try to fill out the food-frequency questionnaire used by the Women’s Health Initiative, as I recently did, is to realize just how shaky the data on which such trials rely really are. The survey, which took about 45 minutes to complete, started off with some relatively easy questions: “Did you eat chicken or turkey during the last three months?” Having answered yes, I was then asked, “When you ate chicken or turkey, how often did you eat the skin?” But the survey soon became harder, as when it asked me to think back over the past three months to recall whether when I ate okra, squash or yams, they were fried, and if so, were they fried in stick margarine, tub margarine, butter, “shortening” (in which category they inexplicably lump together hydrogenated vegetable oil and lard), olive or canola oil or nonstick spray? I honestly didn’t remember, and in the case of any okra eaten in a restaurant, even a hypnotist could not get out of me what sort of fat it was fried in. In the meat section, the portion sizes specified haven’t been seen in America since the Hoover administration. If a four-ounce portion of steak is considered “medium,” was I really going to admit that the steak I enjoyed on an unrecallable number of occasions during the past three months was probably the equivalent of two or three (or, in the case of a steakhouse steak, no less than four) of these portions? I think not. In fact, most of the “medium serving sizes” to which I was asked to compare my own consumption made me feel piggish enough to want to shave a few ounces here, a few there. (I mean, I wasn’t under oath or anything, was I?)

This is the sort of data on which the largest questions of diet and health are being decided in America today.


In the end, the biggest, most ambitious and widely reported studies of diet and health leave more or less undisturbed the main features of the Western diet: lots of meat and processed foods, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything — except fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In keeping with the nutritionism paradigm and the limits of reductionist science, the researchers fiddle with single nutrients as best they can, but the populations they recruit and study are typical American eaters doing what typical American eaters do: trying to eat a little less of this nutrient, a little more of that, depending on the latest thinking. (One problem with the control groups in these studies is that they too are exposed to nutritional fads in the culture, so over time their eating habits come to more closely resemble the habits of the intervention group.) It should not surprise us that the findings of such research would be so equivocal and confusing.

But what about the elephant in the room — the Western diet? It might be useful, in the midst of our deepening confusion about nutrition, to review what we do know about diet and health. What we know is that people who eat the way we do in America today suffer much higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people eating more traditional diets. (Four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet.) Further, we know that simply by moving to America, people from nations with low rates of these “diseases of affluence” will quickly acquire them. Nutritionism by and large takes the Western diet as a given, seeking to moderate its most deleterious effects by isolating the bad nutrients in it — things like fat, sugar, salt — and encouraging the public and the food industry to limit them. But after several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly (mortality from heart disease is down since the ’50s, but this is mainly because of improved treatment), and rates of obesity and diabetes have soared.

No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?

In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant. Similarly, cow’s milk did not start out as a nutritious food for humans; in fact, it made them sick until humans who lived around cows evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. This development proved much to the advantage of both the milk drinkers and the cows.

“Health” is, among other things, the byproduct of being involved in these sorts of relationships in a food chain — involved in a great many of them, in the case of an omnivorous creature like us. Further, when the health of one link of the food chain is disturbed, it can affect all the creatures in it. When the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk. Or, as the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard put it in 1945 in “The Soil and Health” (a founding text of organic agriculture), we would do well to regard “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.

In many cases, long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communications up and down the food chain, so that a creature’s senses come to recognize foods as suitable by taste and smell and color, and our bodies learn what to do with these foods after they pass the test of the senses, producing in anticipation the chemicals necessary to break them down. Health depends on knowing how to read these biological signals: this smells spoiled; this looks ripe; that’s one good-looking cow. This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners.

Note that these ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients. Even though the foods in question eventually get broken down in our bodies into simple nutrients, as corn is reduced to simple sugars, the qualities of the whole food are not unimportant — they govern such things as the speed at which the sugars will be released and absorbed, which we’re coming to see as critical to insulin metabolism. Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Such a relationship with corn syrup might develop someday (as people evolve superhuman insulin systems to cope with regular floods of fructose and glucose), but for now the relationship leads to ill health because our bodies don’t know how to handle these biological novelties. In much the same way, human bodies that can cope with chewing coca leaves — a longstanding relationship between native people and the coca plant in South America — cannot cope with cocaine or crack, even though the same “active ingredients” are present in all three. Reductionism as a way of understanding food or drugs may be harmless, even necessary, but reductionism in practice can lead to problems.

Looking at eating through this ecological lens opens a whole new perspective on exactly what the Western diet is: a radical and rapid change not just in our foodstuffs over the course of the 20th century but also in our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal. The ideology of nutritionism is itself part of that change. To get a firmer grip on the nature of those changes is to begin to know how we might make our relationships to food healthier. These changes have been numerous and far-reaching, but consider as a start these four large-scale ones:

From Whole Foods to Refined. The case of corn points up one of the key features of the modern diet: a shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates. Call it applied reductionism. Humans have been refining grains since at least the Industrial Revolution, favoring white flour (and white rice) even at the price of lost nutrients. Refining grains extends their shelf life (precisely because it renders them less nutritious to pests) and makes them easier to digest, by removing the fiber that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars. Much industrial food production involves an extension and intensification of this practice, as food processors find ways to deliver glucose — the brain’s preferred fuel — ever more swiftly and efficiently. Sometimes this is precisely the point, as when corn is refined into corn syrup; other times it is an unfortunate byproduct of food processing, as when freezing food destroys the fiber that would slow sugar absorption.

So fast food is fast in this other sense too: it is to a considerable extent predigested, in effect, and therefore more readily absorbed by the body. But while the widespread acceleration of the Western diet offers us the instant gratification of sugar, in many people (and especially those newly exposed to it) the “speediness” of this food overwhelms the insulin response and leads to Type II diabetes. As one nutrition expert put it to me, we’re in the middle of “a national experiment in mainlining glucose.” To encounter such a diet for the first time, as when people accustomed to a more traditional diet come to America, or when fast food comes to their countries, delivers a shock to the system. Public-health experts call it “the nutrition transition,” and it can be deadly.

From Complexity to Simplicity. If there is one word that covers nearly all the changes industrialization has made to the food chain, it would be simplification. Chemical fertilizers simplify the chemistry of the soil, which in turn appears to simplify the chemistry of the food grown in that soil. Since the widespread adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in the 1950s, the nutritional quality of produce in America has, according to U.S.D.A. figures, declined significantly. Some researchers blame the quality of the soil for the decline; others cite the tendency of modern plant breeding to select for industrial qualities like yield rather than nutritional quality. Whichever it is, the trend toward simplification of our food continues on up the chain. Processing foods depletes them of many nutrients, a few of which are then added back in through “fortification”: folic acid in refined flour, vitamins and minerals in breakfast cereal. But food scientists can add back only the nutrients food scientists recognize as important. What are they overlooking?

Simplification has occurred at the level of species diversity, too. The astounding variety of foods on offer in the modern supermarket obscures the fact that the actual number of species in the modern diet is shrinking. For reasons of economics, the food industry prefers to tease its myriad processed offerings from a tiny group of plant species, corn and soybeans chief among them. Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and that 3,000 of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web. Why should this matter? Because humans are omnivores, requiring somewhere between 50 and 100 different chemical compounds and elements to be healthy. It’s hard to believe that we can get everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.

From Leaves to Seeds. It’s no coincidence that most of the plants we have come to rely on are grains; these crops are exceptionally efficient at transforming sunlight into macronutrients — carbs, fats and proteins. These macronutrients in turn can be profitably transformed into animal protein (by feeding them to animals) and processed foods of every description. Also, the fact that grains are durable seeds that can be stored for long periods means they can function as commodities as well as food, making these plants particularly well suited to the needs of industrial capitalism.

The needs of the human eater are another matter. An oversupply of macronutrients, as we now have, itself represents a serious threat to our health, as evidenced by soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. But the undersupply of micronutrients may constitute a threat just as serious. Put in the simplest terms, we’re eating a lot more seeds and a lot fewer leaves, a tectonic dietary shift the full implications of which we are just beginning to glimpse. If I may borrow the nutritionist’s reductionist vocabulary for a moment, there are a host of critical micronutrients that are harder to get from a diet of refined seeds than from a diet of leaves. There are the antioxidants and all the other newly discovered phytochemicals (remember that sprig of thyme?); there is the fiber, and then there are the healthy omega-3 fats found in leafy green plants, which may turn out to be most important benefit of all.

Most people associate omega-3 fatty acids with fish, but fish get them from green plants (specifically algae), which is where they all originate. Plant leaves produce these essential fatty acids (“essential” because our bodies can’t produce them on their own) as part of photosynthesis. Seeds contain more of another essential fatty acid: omega-6. Without delving too deeply into the biochemistry, the two fats perform very different functions, in the plant as well as the plant eater. Omega-3s appear to play an important role in neurological development and processing, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose and the calming of inflammation. Omega-6s are involved in fat storage (which is what they do for the plant), the rigidity of cell walls, clotting and the inflammation response. (Think of omega-3s as fleet and flexible, omega-6s as sturdy and slow.) Since the two lipids compete with each other for the attention of important enzymes, the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s may matter more than the absolute quantity of either fat. Thus too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3.

And that might well be a problem for people eating a Western diet. As we’ve shifted from leaves to seeds, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in our bodies has shifted, too. At the same time, modern food-production practices have further diminished the omega-3s in our diet. Omega-3s, being less stable than omega-6s, spoil more readily, so we have selected for plants that produce fewer of them; further, when we partly hydrogenate oils to render them more stable, omega-3s are eliminated. Industrial meat, raised on seeds rather than leaves, has fewer omega-3s and more omega-6s than preindustrial meat used to have. And official dietary advice since the 1970s has promoted the consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, most of which are high in omega-6s (corn and soy, especially). Thus, without realizing what we were doing, we significantly altered the ratio of these two essential fats in our diets and bodies, with the result that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the typical American today stands at more than 10 to 1; before the widespread introduction of seed oils at the turn of the last century, it was closer to 1 to 1.

The role of these lipids is not completely understood, but many researchers say that these historically low levels of omega-3 (or, conversely, high levels of omega-6) bear responsibility for many of the chronic diseases associated with the Western diet, especially heart disease and diabetes. (Some researchers implicate omega-3 deficiency in rising rates of depression and learning disabilities as well.) To remedy this deficiency, nutritionism classically argues for taking omega-3 supplements or fortifying food products, but because of the complex, competitive relationship between omega-3 and omega-6, adding more omega-3s to the diet may not do much good unless you also reduce your intake of omega-6.

From Food Culture to Food Science. The last important change wrought by the Western diet is not, strictly speaking, ecological. But the industrialization of our food that we call the Western diet is systematically destroying traditional food cultures. Before the modern food era — and before nutritionism — people relied for guidance about what to eat on their national or ethnic or regional cultures. We think of culture as a set of beliefs and practices to help mediate our relationship to other people, but of course culture (at least before the rise of science) has also played a critical role in helping mediate people’s relationship to nature. Eating being a big part of that relationship, cultures have had a great deal to say about what and how and why and when and how much we should eat. Of course when it comes to food, culture is really just a fancy word for Mom, the figure who typically passes on the food ways of the group — food ways that, although they were never “designed” to optimize health (we have many reasons to eat the way we do), would not have endured if they did not keep eaters alive and well.

The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating. You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat. The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? The answer by now should be clear.

It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we’d have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That’s not what we’re doing. Rather, we’re turning to the health-care industry to help us “adapt.” Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society — estimated at more than $200 billion a year in diet-related health-care costs — is unsustainable.


To medicalize the diet problem is of course perfectly consistent with nutritionism. So what might a more ecological or cultural approach to the problem recommend? How might we plot our escape from nutritionism and, in turn, from the deleterious effects of the modern diet? In theory nothing could be simpler — stop thinking and eating that way — but this is somewhat harder to do in practice, given the food environment we now inhabit and the loss of sharp cultural tools to guide us through it. Still, I do think escape is possible, to which end I can now revisit — and elaborate on, but just a little — the simple principles of healthy eating I proposed at the beginning of this essay, several thousand words ago. So try these few (flagrantly unscientific) rules of thumb, collected in the course of my nutritional odyssey, and see if they don’t at least point us in the right direction.

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

“Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.