Archive for April, 2011
Written by Kim Ujifusa for the AllergyKids Foundation
My journey into better health practices and food consumption began in a way I would not have chosen. But, perhaps necessity and tough circumstance does breed a desire to change things, and for that I am thankful.
For weeks my daughter Grace had been tired. I had noticed bruising on her legs, but nothing atypical of a rambunctious newly five year old. But, my intuition told me to check on the bruising nonetheless. I sent an email to her doctor and was told to bring her in at my convenience for a check up. Not more than a few days after that email was sent, Grace ran a fever of 104, was vomiting, and could barely move from fatigue. Naturally, I took her right to the doctor. The doctor presumed it was a viral bug, after her Strep test came back negative and we had clearance to go home. We were told to return if it got any worse. But, I was unsettled. Something was not right. I asked her to please check Grace’s leg bruising (which was not much more than small blue bruises) and that is when the doctor went pale. She ordered immediate blood work on Grace.
Once, when I visited the phlebotomist for routine blood work I can remember commenting about how well behaved and calm the child in front of me was. He was having his blood work done and acted as though it was nothing at all. The phlebotomist whispered to me, “Those are the ones we worry about. Those are usually the ones who have something serious going on.” As my precious little child lay in my arms that day having her blood drawn, she was listless and limp. Those words persisted in my head and I knew Grace was facing something bigger than we had experienced before.
As we received word on her test, the doctor informed me that Grace most likely had Leukemia and we were told to head straight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital because there wasn’t a moment to lose. My ears became hot, my head felt too heavy to hold up. I remembered tasting saltiness in my mouth and I realized tears were streaming down my face, but I don’t remember fully registering what was happening. I do, however remember the look on Grace’s face…the fear in her eyes. I remember every detail from that moment, though after that time events sort of spiraled into a darker abyss of foggy memories. I particularly remember feeling the need to protect Grace from fear, so I calmly told her everything would be fine, we just needed to get her body stronger. In my mind, I realized the enemy her body faced was much more than a trifling cold.
After a Bone Marrow Aspirate and more blood work, Grace was officially diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia or A.L.L. She immediately received a spinal tap with Intrathecal Methotrexate and started heavy doses of chemotherapy. For two and a half years Grace received injections, spinal taps, oral doses of chemotherapy, and what I would sum up as plain old poison to kill her Leukemia.
During treatment she also acquired a secondary condition called ImmunoThrombocytopenia Pappules or ITP for short. It is a platelet condition in which she makes platelets but her body destroys them, leaving her covered in bruises, blood streaks, bloody noses, and potentially the ability to bleed to death. It was frightening to say the least!
So, where do our minds go during chaos, turmoil and hardship, but to the darkest corners of self-doubt and confusion? I was monumentally confused how a healthy little body could become so ill and quite frankly how many sick little children lived in hospital beds. It was dumbfounding to think there were not really any solid answers about how kids get Leukemia. There were merely schools of thought about what MIGHT cause Cancer. Grace was blessed to enter remission from her Cancer, but the curability rate, even now with our amazing technology was only 85% for Leukemia, which means many children are dying of it even as I write. And, my mind and heart could not be settled. Had I done something while I was pregnant to cause her illness? I don’t think so…I’m a stickler for caution while pregnant. Had Grace encountered something toxic in her youth? No! So, how had Gracie become so ill? That is when I decided to stop beating myself up over the things I might have caused and do something I could hold on to for dear life…learn. I read everything there was to read about Childhood Cancers. And, on my reading extravaganza, I learned a lot about Cancer in general, and guess what kept popping up in the literature? I kept reading research about the possibility of our food making us sick. I was dumbfounded! How is it possible that our food sources could be contaminated and making us sick? At first I was horrified, then angry, and then just felt helplessly under the control of those who regulate our food systems. But, just like I had to stop beating myself up about Grace getting Cancer, I decided I was totally confined by my emotions about toxic food and instead found myself more empowered by actively changing things for my family.
The Unhealthy Truth, written by the founder of AllergyKids, made a huge, positive change in my life by helping me see that you don’t have to totally flip your universe upside down, but gradually integrate positive changes in your lifestyle until it becomes a joyful habit. I now do such simple things, like buying the right milk, buying frozen fruit in bulk and making delicious smoothies (with fillers like Flax seed and spinach and things my children never even notice but their bodies thank them), and carefully reading labels before making purchases. We haven’t felt deprived of anything, but we just incorporate these changes fluently and we are healthier for it. I have noticed that I have fewer headaches and fatigue and I see my kids energized and less grumpy as well. In fact, on the days where they consume foods with lots of dyes I see a HUGE difference. And, as an added bonus-Grace’s platelet condition finally started trending upwards as we made more positive food choices. It seemed the more she consumed berries, flax, vegetables and, I would venture to say, healthier milk her body wasn’t so taxed by toxins and it could finally start healing. Interestingly, many people including her Oncologist-give the food theory absolutely no power. But, I saw the positive changes with my own eyes. I KNOW that it made a difference with her recovery and platelet condition after two and a half long years of Cancer treatments. I am endlessly thankful that I found this information when I did and I will shout its praises to anyone who will listen!
I will never own a box of Macaroni and Cheese again unless it’s organic!
Meet Orren Fox, a 14-year old boy from Newburyport, MA, who keeps 26 chickens and 4 ducks . He is one of AllergyKids’ Food Heroes who, inspired by a neighbor’s chickens, instantly realized that he had a passion for their care. He got his first dozen chicks when he was 9 years old, and with the help of an amazing mom, he has been eating fresh eggs ever since. You can follow him on Twitter @HappyChickens.
There are all sorts of really interesting things to learn about food, actually I imagine you might not have really THOUGHT about food. Maybe someone hasn’t taught you about food. Most kids would rather think about other stuff.
But just for a minute, right now, stop and ask yourself – What did I have for breakfast? Ok now, think – Where did all those ingredients come from? Who made that bagel? What time did they have to get up? Where did that egg come from? Where did the chicken live and how did it live? If you knew the animal was poorly treated would that make a difference? Or not? Where did the orange juice travel from? Florida? California? Have you ever traveled to those states? Is it a long way from California or Florida to your house? How much gas did it use to ship the OJ that far?
All really interesting questions I think.
1. Vegetables taste great with butter and cheese.
Honestly, what doesn’t. Even asparagus, really even asparagus. I know there are some people who will say butter and cheese aren’t healthy, but hey I’m a kid and actually I think these are true foods or “real foods.” They aren’t chemically made in a laboratory. They come from recipes not chemical compounds or lab experiments. Maybe that is too harsh. But I understand eggs and cheese, I know where they come from. I don’t know what SODIUM TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE is, so I Googled it (here is what Wikipedia says – Polyphosphates are moderately irritating to skin and mucous membrane because of their alkalinity). Hmm. Not really interested in eating that.
Actually most veggies that you grow yourself or that come from your neighborhood farm taste completely different than those from the buckets in the supermarket. I actually think the veggies in the supermarket don’t really taste like much. A carrot that was harvested yesterday tastes very different from one that was harvested a few weeks ago, then spent the next few days on a truck, then the next few days sitting in the supermarket. I think the flavor must just drain out of everything as time passes. Also in the supermarket there are very few types of veggies or fruits. Very rarely would you see a Green Zebra or a Brandywine, and those are just tomato variations! Each of these variations tastes completely different, we are only really offered one or two types of tomatoes at the supermarket. These two types of tomatoes are the kinds that travel well and that are easiest to ripen or harvest. I actually don’t like the kind in the supermarket, I like Brandywines. They are sweeter.
I think kids might like veggies if they could choose the varieties they like, but they can’t because the choice is so small. I wouldn’t eat tomatoes if I could only eat the kind in the supermarket.
2. Food tastes better when you grow it yourself.
Food tastes better because your work is in it. I am an impatient gardener, so for me the food tastes great because I have had to wait for it to go from seeds to seedlings to flowers to fruit to ripe fruit. Somehow that makes it taste like you did it. So i guess there is a little bit of pride in those vegetables.
3. Growing food is hard work, a real accomplishment, and really satisfying.
I drowned the first tomatoes I tried to grow. I just kept watering them. They didn’t stand a chance. I just couldn’t believe that dry soil was very good for the plants, so I kept watering them. Of course they never grew. It actually made me really sad and I felt as if I would never be a farmer. I learned and the next year I didn’t drown them, I was a little more patient. Just a little, actually. I also talked to anyone who would talk to me about growing tomatoes.
I started them in little peat pots at home in a sunny window, then slowly put them outside each day to “harden them off”, at this point I almost froze the seedlings to death. I forgot to bring them in one night because I was so distracted by playing basketball, I completely forgot them. I was lucky, it didn’t get too cold that night. Once they were sturdy enough to plant into the ground I dug little nests into the ground and put them in. I practically expected to come back the next day and have ripe tomatoes. At this point the garden looked so tidy and organized. All the plants in their nests all in a row. Wow. Gradually the weeds invaded. I have to say, I like weeds. I would pull them up and give them to my hens. The hens loved them. Sometimes I would take a few of my hens into the garden with me. They were great helpers, until one day they discovered the green tomatoes. One tomato gone..after all of that work and tending! As it turned out we had a very very wet June and a tomato blight so only a few of my 8 tomato plants produced fruit. The ones that did were fantastic. I think they tasted especially good because I know how much work went into caring for them. They really did taste different!
4. Being adventurous with food is a great way to get good attention from adults.
Oddly some adults are surprised when kids eat vegetables. Eat a bowl of spinach or asparagus and see the reaction you get! Adults are stunned. I have this bad habit of grabbing a handful of spinach and jamming it into my mouth, people are astonished. Selfishly it feels good to have people pay attention to you.
5. Farmers are really inventors and are happy to tell you what they know.
I am friends with my local farmer, Matt. I went to visit him at his greenhouses. He had a problem. It cost a lot to heat the greenhouse during the winter to grow greens. So what did he do? he figured out a way to lower the ceiling so that he was only heating about 9 inches off the ground. This way he was able to keep the amount of fuel he used way way down and therefore the greens were affordable. Very inventive!
6. Keeping a compost bucket near the sink is a great way to use food you don’t eat – my hens love my leftovers.
Food is hard to grow, it seems ridiculous to throw it out. Uneaten food has so many uses. I actually feed most of it to my hens, they love it. In fact the other day I took my leftover burrito out to them and they went crazy! I am about to learn about worms and am probably going to get a worm farm so that we can take all of our newspapers and food waste and “feed” it to the worms to make delicious soil. Obviously healthy food comes from healthy soil, so I am going to employ some worms to do some work. They are going to be my farm workers. I actually think I might make a t-shirt that says “I (heart) worms”!
7. Good food comes from healthy soil, so don’t throw your trash out the window.
I am amazed when I see trash on the side of the road, or the other day someone threw their cigarette on the ground. Woah. I guess this just doesn’t make sense to me. Right now I don’t know that much about soil, it seems like there is TONS to learn. I’m going to start with my farm workers the worms and begin to learn more. What I do know is that garbage doesn’t help our soil, our earth. Basically the soil = the earth. So farmers are really the most important people when it comes to taking care of the planet. I read somewhere that someone said “Farmers are stewards of the earth”, I think that is really true.
8. Cooking is really fun. Think about it… fire, knives, and lots of people telling you that your are amazing.
The thing about cooking is that most people don’t think kids can do it, because of the knives and fire. Actually we can. We know it is dangerous and that we need to be careful, but if a kid doesn’t learn how to cook how can they possibly feed themselves when they become an adult? Imagine not knowing how to cook for yourself. What would you do? You become completely dependent on someone else feeding you. I think that probably means eating fast food or food that is already prepared. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that is the most healthy food. I think the goal of that food is sit on a shelf for a long time and not go bad. Also it is amazing the kind of praise and attention you get when adults know you can cook.
9. Eating a strawberry, an apple, a pear, a peach, blueberries straight from the plant is surprisingly awesome.
Hard to believe a dusty warm strawberry tastes so great but it does. It really does taste dramatically different from the ones you buy in the store. The one in the field tastes juicy and sweet. The texture seems right for a strawberry, kind of prickly with the seeds and gentle with the fruit. A ripe strawberry sort of melts, in fact I don’t think you even need to chew. I think because it is so ripe and because you found it, is part of the reason it tastes so great. This may sound funny but picking fruit or veggies yourself is kind of like treasure hunting. It is really satisfying to find a ripe strawberry, or a homegrown green bean. It feels like finding buried treasure. Even if you are picking an entire garden of green beans it is hard work but really rewarding.
10. Food should be a school subject – Food is biology, history, art, chemistry, PE, drama, Spanish and Latin all in one.
The thing about food is it teaches a lot of different subjects all in one. Obviously it is covers material in biology – photosynthesis, species classification, ecosystems, and causality. It is also history because the place where your garden is being planted probably has a growing history and it would makes sense to understand it before jumping in. For example, what was growing here before my garden, is the soil clean as a result of what was here before me, what have other gardeners/farmers planted here before and had success with? It is definitely PE because it is so physical! Growing food also requires Latin because many of the seed names are in Latin. And I think it is art because in a lot of ways growing a garden meets the definition of art “the products of human creativity, the creation of beautiful significant things”.
Actually what is more significant than growing food? Maybe most importantly it is math. Think about it, schedules, costs of seeds, how much space is needed. It all involves math, many, many calculations. Like my farmer friend Matt realizing he could grow greens during the winter if a head of lettuce was going to cost 7$, but no one would by it. Most of that 7$ was the cost of heating the greenhouse, so he figured out how to lower the ceiling in his greenhouse and heat a very little bit of the greenhouse, making his greens affordable.
11. You can have a big impact on the environment, depending on what you choose to eat.
I have been reading a lot lately that eating meat isn’t great for the environment. Obviously people have different opinions about this, but from what I have read factory farms are not good for the environment. Also if we choose to eat more of our food from things that are raised and grown nearby, that food doesn’t have to be shipped all over the place and therefore doesn’t use up a lot of gas to move it around. Maybe we could eliminate some traffic jams by eating local. I’m not sure we can eat everything from nearby, but just making the effort to buy more of our food from local farmers we automatically reduce the amount of food that has to be trucked around. This just logically makes sense to me.
12. That chicken you’re eating is a really cool animal.
I am reading JSFoer’s new book Eating Animals and he talks about the time his babysitter said “You know that chicken is chicken, right?” I’m afraid most people know that but don’t really want to think about it. It is hard to imagine. Many people have never “met” a chicken before and this is what makes it possible to eat chicken. When you do meet this interesting animal, it is hard not to realize they are very much like other animals. Maybe even like animals you love. They have personalities, likes and dislikes. Do you know any other animals like that? Do any live with you? Maybe I’ve said enough. If you are going to eat chicken, I would encourage you to consider how that animals was raised and slaughtered for you to be eat. If it were tortured would you still want to eat it?
By Orren Fox
Written by Lynette Johnson is Tennessee Regional Director for the Society of St. Andrew
When you’re choosing peaches in the grocery store, do you ever marvel at how they’re all the same size and shape, how the colors are so perfectly matched from one to the next, how there aren’t any blemishes or spots on them? And then, do you ever wonder about how that happens? I mean, really, is that the way peaches grow?
American consumers expect the freshest and the best, ideal fruits and vegetables, not too ripe, not too tender, and definitely pretty. (Tell the truth, don’t you even pick through those peaches in the display to make your selection?) And the USDA has grading standards that shape our expectations for peaches and for every other type of produce we buy.
But peaches (and every other fruit or vegetable), outside of supermarkets, aren’t nearly so similar or so perfect. What happens to the rest of them?
More than 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year in this country. And that’s pre-consumer waste! We’re not talking about the kale I bought, but didn’t use, that’s slowly turning to mush in the crisper of my refrigerator. This is produce that never even gets to the grocery store. It is food left unharvested in fields or graded out in packing houses. It is mislabeled, mispackaged, or misdirected in shipping. Ultimately, it becomes fodder for livestock, it’s plowed under or is left to rot in landfills.
There’s a high environmental cost for all of this, of course. There’s the water and energy used in growing and harvesting that are wasted, and then there’s the greenhouse gases produced as all that produce rots away. Every ton of food rotting in a landfill produces emissions equivalent to driving a car for a year[i].
But the impact is much more than environmental. While all this fresh, nutrient rich produce is going to waste, 50 million Americans will face food hardship this year; 44 million Americans now receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits. And these struggling neighbors of ours are turning to non-profits for food assistance, even as non-profit budgets have been pruned, pared, and puréed. Feeding America™ affiliates and thousands of other food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, emergency food programs, senior and child nutrition programs, etc. across the country are struggling to find nutritious food to serve their clients.
Somebody ought to do something. Somebody ought to connect the dots. Somebody ought to find a way to recover some of that staggering quantity of produce that’s being wasted and move it to agencies feeding people at risk for hunger.
Somebody is. A lot of people are, actually.
The Society of St. Andrew has, in fact, been doing just that since 1979. Recovering produce in 35 states and distributing it in 48, over the last 32 years we’ve recovered 622 million pounds of fruits and vegetables (1.866 billion servings) that we’ve always provided free of charge and always in quantities that can be used quickly and without waste to agencies serving people in need. In 2010 alone, we recovered and distributed 28.1 million pounds of produce—that’s roughly equivalent to four football fields, piled four feet high with fruits and vegetables!
Our Potato and Produce Project works to secure large-load (28,000-45,000 pound) donations by networking with trucking companies, packing houses, warehousers, and distributors. We’ll move these loads to areas where they’re most needed, distributing them either through large food banks or through volunteer-intensive ‘crop drops’, in which the load is ‘dropped’ at a central location and quickly parceled out to many partner agencies nearby.
The Gleaning Network connects farmers and growers with volunteers in their immediate area who enter fields and orchards to ‘glean’ (pick, gather, or dig) produce remaining after harvest. Produce is taken immediately to nearby agencies for their use, creating a rapid, local farm-to-fork cycle that is often complete in 72 hours or less, as gleaned produce is served at table in a feeding program or distributed in food boxes through a local food pantry. This effective, efficient grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor program, with its community sharing model, mobilized 31,000 volunteers in 2010 and provided 54.3 million servings of food.
Everything that the Society of St. Andrew does is a ‘win’ for the community and the country, in both the short and the long terms:
- Farmers share what they cannot sell—and their on-farm food waste is reduced. Their hauling and composting costs go down, and they get a receipt for their donations that helps them on their taxes next year.
- Volunteers glean—and grow community spirit. They work together and achieve measurable results that make a real difference in the lives of people nearby. Even people who are in need can join in gleaning, doing what they can to help themselves and to help others.
- Receiving agencies get good, nutritious food at no cost—and that frees more of their limited budget funds to acquire and serve critical proteins to their clients, too—a double benefit!—enhancing the nutritional quality of what they provide even more.
- Hungry people—men, women, and children—eat better foods. They are healthier, less at risk for diseases, and better able to function, because their bodies are nourished.
- The state, covering health care costs for many of the poor, benefits by spending less for health services as nutrition improves. Emergency hospitalizations decline; obesity declines; diseases related to poor nutrition decline; child health improves; prenatal outcomes improve; and children attend school more often and perform better while they’re there.
- Landfills are less burdened, and the environment is less taxed as food is eaten rather than trashed.
Other organizations all across the country are waking up to the challenges of recovering food waste to feed the hungry. If you’re interested in being part of a growing movement, see if there’s an organization already at work in your community and join their efforts. If you’d like to find out more about the Society of St. Andrew, visit our website, www.endhunger.org, and consider partnering with us.
To learn more about food waste in the United States, see Jonathan Bloom’s Wasted Food blog.
To learn more about gleaning (and who’s doing it), read the USDA’s pamphlet, Let’s Glean.
To find a food pantry near your home that will accept fresh produce from your tree or garden, visit Ample Harvest.
Lynette Johnson is Tennessee Regional Director for the Society of St. Andrew. Follow her on Twitter @SoSATN.
[i] “[The UK’s Waste Resources and Action Programme] revealed before Christmas that about 6.7 million tonnes of food a year is dumped in bins. This represents a third of all food bought for consumption at home and is worth a total of £8 billion, or an average £400 for every household. However, by preventing this scale of food waste about 15 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year would be saved, the equivalent of taking one in five cars off the roads.” (emphasis added) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article3701660.ece
31,035,791 cars on road in Britain (2009) ::: 1/5 cars = 6,207,158 cars http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1264282/Number-cars-road-falls-time-Second-World-War.html
6.7 million metric tonnes of food waste reduction is equivalent to removing 6.2 million cars from road
[Metric tonne conversion to US ton: 1 metric to .907184 US]
6.1 million US tons of food waste reduction is equivalent to removing 6.2 million cars from road
By Alex Formuzis, EWG Vice-President for Media Relations and father of two
Around this time last year the health-conscience crew at KFC headquarters gave the American consumer the Double Down chicken sandwich – 540 calories of bacon and cheese with no veggies, smashed between slabs of fried chicken instead of buns.
At the time I thought Fast Food couldn’t sink any lower.
I was wrong.
This time the cause for my stomach churn is Burger King and its latest product, the Meat Monster burger that delivers 1,160 calories via a mountain of:
- two beef patties
- a piece of chicken
- two strips of bacon
- two slices of cheese
- teriyaki sauce
- if you want, add a fried egg and/or a fish patty on top – but that’s extra.
Along with the whopping calorie count come 24 grams of saturated fat, 12 grams of sugar, 240 miligrams of cholesterol, 54 grams of carbs and 2,290 miligrams of salt, according to a breakdown by the folks at Consumerist.
Currently, this is only available in Japan.
Here in the U.S. it’s estimated that roughly 75 percent of all health care-related spending goes to treat chronic diseases, many of them associated with a diet high in calories, fat and sodium from regularly indulging in meals like the Meat Monster.
Comparatively little is spent on preventive care, including helping people get access to and eat healthy, nutritious food like fruits and vegetables.
We’re the richest and one of the fattest populations in the world. Not our proudest achievement.
The number of American adolescents who are overweight or obese has tripled since 1980. One of the primary reasons is the easy access kids have to cheap, ready-made fast foods and sweet, fizzy drinks. In many places the fast food joint has replaced the park as the place where kids hang out before and after school.
A 2009 study conducted by economists at Cal/Berkeley and Columbia universities found that kids at schools within walking distance (500 feet) of a fast food restaurant will likely have an obesity rate at least 5 percent higher than kids who aren’t so “lucky.”
Another 2009 study cited in the same Reuters article, by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, found that residents of neighborhoods heavily populated with fast food restaurants are at greater risk of suffering a stroke.
Both these scenarios typically confront families who live in inner-city neighborhoods and depressed rural communities throughout the country, where fast food chains and junk food mini-marts are often the only available and affordable options.
In a recent analysis by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, researchers reported that:
“Fast food is the most unhealthy food product marketed to children, other than sugar-sweetened beverages, and is relentlessly and aggressively targeted toward children starting as young as age two. Food marketing to children negatively influences the dietary choices and health of society’s most vulnerable citizens.”
The report by the Rudd Center may be the most extensive to date focusing on Fast Food’s marketing assault on American children. According to the Yale researchers, the industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on advertising and other media, and the average child between 2 and 5 years of age watches 2.8 fast food ads every day.
Our friends at Burger King and McDonalds pledged to clean up their acts and improve the way they pitch to children. But the Rudd researchers found that both chains ramped up their television advertising to kids from 2007 to ’09:
“Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.”
The report goes on:
- McDonald’s web-based marketing starts with children as young as 2 at Ronald.com.
- McDonald’s and Burger King created sophisticated websites with 60 to 100 pages of adver-games and virtual worlds to engage children (McWorld.com, HappyMeal. com, and ClubBK.com).
- McDonald’s 13 websites attracted an average of 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors each month in 2009.
- Nine restaurant Facebook pages had more than one million fans each as of July 2010.
Smartphone apps were available for eight fast food chains, providing another opportunity to reach young consumers anytime, anywhere.
Overworked, exhausted parents don’t stand a chance against this onslaught. It’s the equivalent of the Erickson family from two doors down facing the NFC champs in the Super Bowl.
Crunchtimefood’s Sherri York does provide some helpful tips for parents looking for ways to steer their kids away from junk food and eater more fruits and vegetables. But perhaps the best advice on this front is: Just do it — the longer you wait, the harder it gets.
Artificial colors are everywhere, it seems. But so is the artificial sweetener, aspartame—the basis for NutraSweet and Equal. It’s used in everything from Diet Coke to Yoplait yogurt. And since it was one of the chemical additives mentioned in association with the Southampton study, a groundbreaking study in England that led to consumers insisting that artificial dyes and preservatives be removed from Kraft’s food products sold in the UK, it’s probably a good idea to take a look at its use here in the United States.
Aspartame has been linked to a host of deadly diseases, including brain tumors, brain lesions, and lymphoma and removed from children’s products in other countries. But if you want to understand both the science and the politics of synthetic ingredients and how they have been so widely adopted, aspartame is a classic example.
The story of aspartame begins in 1981, when the substance was first approved by the FDA as an artificial sweetener for human consumption. Fourteen years later, in 1995, the chief of the FDA’s Epidemiology Branch—the division that monitors the incidence of diseases and medical problems—reported that in those fourteen years, complaints about aspartame constituted 75 percent of all FDA reports concerning adverse reactions to food.
Of course, just because someone reports a complaint doesn’t mean the complaint is justified. Either a patient or a doctor might believe, incorrectly, that aspartame caused a condition that was actually caused by something else. So let’s not rely on people’s (and doctors’) reports. Let’s take a look at the scientific research that has been done.
Here are just a few conditions that aspartame has been accused of causing:
* Weight gain: A 1997 study at the university of Texas Health Sciences Center, reported at a meeting of the American Diabetes Association, found a “41 percent increase in the risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.” These findings were supported by another study, published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, showing that 5 percent of subjects who reported symptoms from aspartame also reported a “paradoxic weight gain.” And a study in the International Journal of Obesity likewise found that women who were dieting tended to take in more calories after consuming aspartame than after ingesting either sugar or water.
* Memory lapses: A 2001 Psychology Today article reported on a Texas Christian University study suggesting that aspartame users were more likely to report long-term memory lapses. “After reporting his findings at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting,” the article continued, “[psychology professor Timothy M.] Barth [,Ph.D.,] cautioned that he thinks it’s premature to condemn aspartame. But he does worry about the largely untested effects of long-term use.”
* Brain tumors: In November 2006, the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology published a scientific paper saying that aspartame, might be responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of people who develop brain tumors. Reported in a 60 Minutes broadcast, the Swedish study found a link among elderly and middle-aged people between drinking diet sodas and developing certain types of large brain tumors.
* Lymphomas, leukemia, and other cancers: A long-term Italian study conducted by Italy’s Ramazzini Foundation by Morando Soffritti and his colleagues and published in the summer of 2005 in the European Journal of Oncology linked aspartame to lymphomas and leukemias in animals. A 2005 followup study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that aspartame was linked to a significant increase in cancer of the kidney and peripheral nerves.
Now, this Italian study has also been the subject of controversy. Both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and our own FDA concluded that these findings were not cause for concern.
Likewise, the FDA claimed to have found “significant shortcomings” in the Italian study, shortcomings that “compromised” its findings. In August 2007, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority concurred, issuing a press release criticizing the study and affirming the safety of aspartame.
Further criticism of the Italian study came, implicitly, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which published a study in April 2006 finding no meaningful link between aspartame and leukemia, lymphoma, or brain tumor. The study relied on 1995 and 1996 surveys completed by 340,045 men and 226,945 women—obviously, a huge number—detailing what they ate and drank. Based on followup data from this sample, the NCI concluded, you couldn’t link aspartame and cancer.
However, the NCI study also had its critics, who pointed out that the Italian study was designed to measure lifelong consumption of aspartame, focusing on its cumulative effects, rather than considering only a few years. Moreover, the humans in the NCI study were middle-aged, whereas, according to neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock, “The greatest risk of leukemia and lymphoma would be in a younger population (young children and adolescents) and they would need to be exposed regularly from early in life.” (I shuddered at this one, thinking about how many diet sodas unknowingly are consumed by moms during pregnancy).
Clearly, this is a case where the experts would appear to disagree. So, let’s dig deeper. Who benefits from saying aspartame is safe? The aspartame industry. And guess what? An analysis of peer-reviewed medical literature conducted by Ralph G. Walton, M.D. and cited in a CBS/60 Minutes segment that aired in December 1996, found that 100 percent of the studies in their review that had been funded by the aspartame industry found that aspartame was safe.
And what about the non-industry funded studies? Dr. Walton’s analysis found that of the 90 non-industry funded studies, 82 of them, or a whopping 92 percent, identified one or more problems with aspartame.
You got it: All the industry-funded studies said aspartame was completely safe. Ninety-two percent of the independent studies said aspartame poses at least some dangers.
And if you need a little more insight into industry-funded research, I can cite a very unlikely source: a group of leading agrichemical corporations (you know, Monsanto, DuPont and ADM): “The report said private companies’ research is directed toward their own sales and profits, and that federal research is needed to address long-term and overlooked needs.”
That point is reiterated by a team of researchers, including Harvard’s David Ludwig, as well as other researchers from Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., who reviewed 206 articles published during 1999-2003. The researchers concluded, “Funding source was significantly related to conclusions when considering all article types. . . Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.”
In other words, when industry pays for a study, it tends to get science that supports the safety of its products. And when a study is independently funded—as with the 82 aspartame studies—it is far more likely (in the case of aspartame, 92 percent more likely) to be critical of a food, drink, or additive, with, as Dr. Ludwig at Harvard had just pointed out, “potentially significant implications for public health.”
So if someone tells you that there’s still a lot of controversy about aspartame, technically, they’re right. But as Europe takes precautionary measures and Kraft, Coca Cola and other American companies remove it from the products they are selling in other countries, the French are now asking for a warning label of this synthetic sweetener for pregnant moms.
Sure, the industry insists that it’s safe. But the independent scientists, on the other hand, insist that aspartame is dangerous—and it’s a message that they’ve been repeating for more than forty years.
In light of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in American children under the age of 15 and that 1 in 8 women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes (with 90% of those cancers being environmentally triggered), wouldn’t it make sense to exercise this precaution in the United States, too, so that pregnant moms could make an informed choice when it comes to exposing their unborn babies?
And while correlation is not causation, given how many complaints have been filed with the FDA and the fact that aspartame has been removed from children’s products in other countries, a warning label might not be a bad place to start.