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Banning Fructose (aka refined sugar and HFCS)


Above: Presentation “Sugar: A Bitter Truth” by Dr. Robert Lustig.

HFCS = high-fructose corn syrup

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post incriminating aspartame as a substance that could possibly cause cancer or other unforeseen health problems in the future. Although it is my personal belief that sometime down the road, problems associated with long term aspartame consumption would surface, my concern over aspartame’s effect on human health is not unfounded. Despite the fact that results from preliminary aspartame research in rodents are still inconclusive , I still firmly believe that aspartame usage could cause damage to health slowly but surely. However, even if aspartame consumption does not demonstrate any health problems in the future, avoiding this substance will at least give me the peace of mind. And perhaps this is why I will also soon begin to regulate my sugar intake. No, I am not referring to reducing sugar intake to the recommended daily level, but actually reducing the consumption of a specific type of carbohydrate: fructose. (Although reducing total sugar intake is also a good idea, it is not the focus of this post).

“Natural sweeteners” include the common refined sugar and the more ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup. If a processed food is not sweetened by an artificial sweetener like aspartame, it is usually sweetened by one of these “natural sweeteners.” However, how “natural” are these sweeteners? And more importantly, does the “naturalness” of these sweeteners guarantee their safety to health? This last question is answered by Gary Taubes on the Health News section of the New York Times via an article titled “Is Sugar Toxic?”.

In “Is Sugar Toxic?”, Taubes, writer and independent investigator in health policy, summarizes a presentation (see video above) given by Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician at the University of California San Francisco Medical School. In his presentation, Lustig introduces his hypothesis that sugar, more specifically the fructose that makes up approximately 50 % of refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, is actually a toxic substance when consume at high qualities and/or chronically. Furthermore, increased and prolonged consumption of fructose could lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.

(And this is not about the number of calories in the sugar:
“It’s not about the calories,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s [fructose] a poison by itself.” – Dr. Robert Lustig
It needs to be emphasized that Fructose within the sugar is the real culprit.)

Lustig’s hypothesis, at first glance, might seem ludicrous and unbelievable because yes, we all know that overconsumption of sugar contributes to fat accumulation and obesity, but to claim that sugar is toxic might be blowing the sugar consumption problem out of proportion. However, Lustig’s hypothesis is formulated based on decades’ work of many independent scientists whose research were not financially supported by beverage companies, processed food companies, or any other commercial venture that sought to use science to prove the safety of their in fact dangerous products.

While Lustig provides many convincing evidence on the dangers of fructose consumption, one piece of scientific evidence especially helped to convince me of the validity of Lustig’s hypothesis. This simple fact is that fructose is only metabolized by the liver and thus increased consumption of fructose places increased metabolic burden on the liver, which turns fructose into fat when the metabolic machinery of the liver can no longer handle the large influx of fructose. From understanding this piece of information, I am able to understand the deductions that Lustig make on the effect of fructose consumption on health. For example, Lustig shows via data collected from rigorously conducted experiments that consumption of high fructose corn syrup leads to development of fatty liver that impair the metabolic system, namely the insulin and blood sugar control system, of the consumers, thus leading to metabolic syndrome,(a disease of insulin resistance, the precursor to type 2 diabetes), obesity, and finally type 2 diabetes.

In his presentation “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” (see above video), which was summarized by Taubes in his detailed article “Is Sugar Toxic?”, Lustig make many claims. Some of his claims include: 1) fructose consumption, not fat, is the main cause of metabolic diseases, obesity, and diabetes, 2) some cancers are caused by over production of insulin on an insulin resistant body and 3) fructose consumption can even produce fatty livers and metabolic diseases in lean people because “calorie in” no longer equals “calorie burned” in the world of biochemical processes of metabolism. Lustig make many other claims in his presentation, all of which are well supported by scientific evidence. I’m confident that you will be convinced by his eloquent presentation. Just now, he has convinced me of the evils of fructose.

[Fructose] is “the most demonized additive known to man.” –Dr. Robert Lustig
Perhaps I’m not this extreme, but removing as much fructose from my diet as possible might just give me the peace of mind that eliminating aspartame has.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2011 in In our food...

 

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Food Coloring

Food for thought…
Easter bunny reading newspaper article on FDA restricting food dye use on Easter eggs.
Above: A fun cartoon of an Easter bunny reading a newspaper article about FDA restricting food dye use on Easter eggs, suggesting that food dyes might not be entirely safe.

Food coloring is a very common additive to our food. Many processed food we consume contain this substance in order to provide consumers with the “expected color” for a particular food. For instance, consumers expect banana or lemon puddings to be yellow while they expect their oranges to have brilliantly orange skin (yes, orange food coloring is sometimes injected into the skin of oranges to give off-season and not-so-great-looking oranges the bright orange color that we usually see in very well grown oranges).

Studies have shown that when a food does not have the expected color, it is perceived to taste different from the same food that does have the expected color. A study on the effect of food coloring on the perceived taste of Cheetos with the normal cheesy-looking orange color and Cheetos without the fo¬¬¬od coloring (which leaves it in a grayish color) discovered that consumers found the regular Cheetos to taste cheesier and that they derived a lot of pleasure from eating these Cheetos. In contrast, consumers who ate the gray Cheetos didn’t like them very much and reported that these Cheetos didn’t have the same amount of cheese as the regular colored Cheetos although both Cheetos were exactly the same except for the color. Because food coloring or food dyes are tasteless, it can be concluded from this study that the perceived difference in the taste of the Cheetos is entirely psychological; the difference in taste is generated by expectations. Based on results like this, it is no wonder that the food industry depends so heavily on the usage of food coloring in the production of its food. And this industry is reluctant to add a warning label on its food to inform consumers that ingesting food coloring could possibly cause undesirable side effects such as increasing hyperactivity in ADHD patients and causing ADHD-like symptoms in non-ADHD populations.

Using food coloring has the benefits of allowing consumers to have a better experience with the food they eat and allowing food companies to sell more of their products. However, is food coloring safe to consume? As mentioned above, food coloring could cause undesirable health problems in some consumers, and recent research supporting the link between hyperactivity and food dye use renewed the concern that the regulation on the use of this potentially harmful substance is not strict enough. Despite the findings of new research, a committee at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted, on March 31, 2011, to continue to allow the use of food dyes without warning labels. This decision is based on the committee’s belief that data generated from recent research do not produce enough evidence that food dyes could cause hyperactivity in most children, especially those that do not have ADHD. Therefore food companies should not be required to add warning labels that could unnecessarily damage sales.

Like research for many other food additives such as aspartame and MSG, research into the safety of food coloring has not yet provided strong data proving the safety or the harmfulness of food dyes. Therefore, it is hard to decide whether we should continue to consume these artificial substances or not. For now, this decision is based on personal preference rather than government regulations. However, it is important to be informed of these issues and to evaluate new research data objectively in order to make the best decision on whether to consume or not consume these food additives. Maybe we will be surprised * in what we will find out in the future!

* I just want to share this interesting fact: The coloring agent Brilliant Blue G (BBG), a relative of the approved food dye Brilliant Blue FCF (FD&C Blue No. 1), had been found to protect motor neurons in the spinal cord of rats that had experienced spine injury and thus allowing them to recover part of their mobility. This finding led to the hope that BBG could be used to treat humans who have experienced similar spinal injures. Currently, more research is being done on BBG. Who knows, perhaps in the not distant future, BBG’s relative Brilliant Blue FCF, the one we consume, turns out to be neuro-protective also, and those who consume more blue M&Ms’ have a better chance at recovering from spinal injury if it does happen.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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MSG vs. Aspartame: Different, Individualized Perceptions

MSG_pic3
Above: MSG use is more prevalent than many people believe or know. Many processed foods such as chips contain MSG.

I have a habit of crunching on snack foods periodically while working on a very long homework assignment for a very long time; eating snacks seems to give me comfort and relieve my stress. So while working with a friend on such an assignment “requiring” the periodic consumption of, on that day, Pringles, I came to register the fact that I was actually ingesting monosodium glutamate or more commonly known as MSG when I informed my friend of the “unhealthiness” of my choice of junk food snacks. This fact bothered me a little, not because I didn’t know most chips contained MSG but because I realized for the first time that I was ingesting this potentially harmful substance willingly and without caution. I was surprised at myself, who is strictly opposed to any consumption of aspartame, to not be also banning MSG from my diet. I became intrigued by the question of why I eat MSG-containing foods so often while abstaining from aspartame. What makes these substances so different to trigger such different responses? Could my reaction to MSG explain why so many others continue to consume aspartame? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer through this post entry.

Although MSG and aspartame have very different chemical structures and pharmacological actions in the body, MSG and aspartame resemble each other in several ways. For example, both MSG and aspartame are food additives that enhance the flavor of food, both are approved by the FDA as safe for consumption (MSG categorized as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance by FDA and a comprehensive review of aspartame research by Magnuson et al in 2007 shows that aspartame consumption at current level is safe), and the safety of both have been supported and challenged over the years. While both the proponents and opponents for the use of either substances come from all over the world, it seems to me that aspartame is more accepted in the United States while MSG is more accepted in Asian cultures.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I’ve consumed meals cooked with MSG ever since I was able to eat solid food. Although my parents only used MSG occasionally in soup, my grandparents cooked almost every dish with MSG. To my grandparents, adding MSG is as normal as adding salt. After eating this chemical almost every day for their entire lives, my grandparents remain healthy to this day. Myself of course continue to each this substance, albeit much rarer after moving to the United States. So far, I have not had any side effects from previous MSG use or current consumption of MSG containing food.

Although my grandparents and I did not experience immediate side effects or long term health consequences from consuming MSG, I understand that, like every chemical substance, a portion of the population do react unfavorably to this substance. Thus, knowing this, why do I still feel comfortable consuming MSG and not aspartame? Similarly, why is it more acceptable to consume aspartame than MSG in the United States? The answer, I believe, is the “got used to” factor. Every since I was young, I have consumed MSG with my family and relatives, and therefore MSG doesn’t seem dangerous at all. However, with all my relatives around me opposing the consumption of aspartame, citing its toxic effects and the danger it poses to health, I have grown up viewing aspartame as a very dangerous substance that I should never consume. In contrast, many of my peers growing up in more Americanized home environments (this include all ethnicity and nationalities, even Asian Americans, etc) are much more comfortable consuming aspartame, but they are as against consuming MSG as I am against aspartame consumption!

It is very interesting to me how despite the similarities between MSG and aspartame mentioned above, people developed opposite perceptions on their relative safety. This make me wonder whether many other such food additives and food by themselves (processed food most likely) are consider healthy or not healthy only because we have been exposed to them for such long periods of time that they’ve become an integrated part of our lives so we no longer question their safety? (i.e. food coloring).

MSG_pic2
Above: Some claims about the dangerous effects of MSG on health.

For fun…food for thought:
Cartoon of MSG usage in Chinese food
Above: Cartoon about MSG from an original artist on www.cartoonstock.com..

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2011 in In our food...

 

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Aspartame vs. Lab Meat, both artificial but only one “edible”

combined
Above:Poster depicting aspartame as a harmful substance and a picture of a petri dish representing the possible production of laboratory meat in the future.

I’ve always been interested in all aspects of the food I eat. Questions such as “what is this food made of?” and “is this food healthy?” often still occupy my mind while I eat. Although I still do eat unhealthy food, finding out about the ingredients of a food sometimes propels me to stop eating a food permanently. For example, after finding out that many zero-calorie drinks contain aspartame, I went on a month-long campaign to not only forbid myself from drinking any beverage or eating any food sweetened with aspartame but also to convince my friends to do the same. My friends, although all of whom listened to my rationale about the uncertain and potentially harmful health effects of aspartame, didn’t all follow me in my ban of the sweetener. Without concrete evidence proving that long-term use of aspartame could be harmful to health, most of my friends decided to continue using this sugar substitute and to risk developing unforeseen illnesses in the future. I, however, remained convinced of aspartame’s harmful effects on the human body, believing in the results of scientific studies of animal models indicating that prolonged aspartame use leads to cancer in rats. Conclusions drawn from experiments in rats, which are very similar to humans in many different ways such as physiology and biochemistry, are definitely very important to my choice of ingesting a certain food or beverage. Even today, months after my initial discover of aspartame’s potentially harmful effects and the prevalence of this sweetener in our foods and beverages, I still completely avoid any product containing this substance.

Although my campaign to end aspartame consumption within the circle of my friends might have failed, I am somewhat surprised to find that my strong opposition to artificial zero-calorie sweeteners can be applied to another artificial product, lab meat. An article titled “South Carolina scientist works to grow meat in lab” published Sunday (Jan 30, 2011) on Yahoo! News by Harriet McLeo details the production and argument for the production and consumption of engineered meat, aka meat grown in a petri dish and not from a cow, pig, or chicken. It is interesting to me that opposition to this artificial meat is so strong that neither the FDA nor the NIH would fund Dr. Mironov to develop the technology to mass produce meat in a lab. The opposition, however, is not derived from scientific evidence of the harmful effects of this meat on the human body, or even on rats, but rather it comes from the fact people still feel uncomfortable about the idea of consuming bioengineered meat. From the attitude of the general public, it can be safely concluded that engineered meat will not likely become part of meat market very soon. My question is, why do people feel more comfortable consuming potentially very harmful substances such as aspartame while not willing to give artificial, but so far relatively healthy and safe, meat a chance in the meat industry?

The content of a food or drink indeed have profound influence over the way we eat and drink every day. Throughout this blog, I will continue to examine the relationship we have with food from various perspectives and aspects. I hope to use this blog to point out some interesting current events, to share some of my thoughts, and to elicit some thoughtful responses from the online community!

Note: The original link to the article “South Carolina scientist works to grow meat in lab” from Yahoo! News has expired. The article now hyperlinks to Reuters.com, which continues to host this article.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2011 in In our food...

 

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