"Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it ..."

We talked previously about the USDA Organic label and what we can learn from it … a lot, but ….  The “but” is the USDA Organic label is just a starting point, you have to search deeper to really understand what is in the food you eat.  Your missionshould you choose to accept it, is to read and, more importantly, understand the words on the ingredient labels on the food you eat.  Go to your pantry or to the grocery store, pick up processed (packaged) “food” you normally eat, and read the ingredient label.  Can you pronounce and do you understand the words written there?

Here’s a mini guide to some of those unpronounceables and imponderables (do you think some of the names were chosen specifically to make them foreign to you?).

Xanthan Gum

Xanthan gum seems to be a universal ingredient in processed foods.  Pick up any bottle of prepared salad dressing, even the “organic” ones, and see if you can find one without xanthan gum … mission impossible. Xanthan gum is used in wide range food products, such as sauces, dressings, meat and poultry products, bakery products, confectionery products, beverages, dairy products, and others.  In bottled salad dressing that contain spices, xanthan gum helps to suspend the spices as well as maintain a smooth and consistent texture.  From mayonnaise to frozen entrées to yogurt, xanthan gum is a staple ingredient in most shelf-stable foods.  For example, xanthan gum helps create the desired texture in many ice creams.  Toothpaste often contains xanthan gum as a binder to keep the product uniform.  In gluten-free baking, xanthan gum is used to give the dough or batter the stickiness that would otherwise be achieved with gluten.  

What is xanthan gum?  It is a popular food additive that works as a thickener and stabilizer.  While several feedstock crops (soy, wheat) may be used to create xanthan gum, it is overwhelmingly produced from corn, specifically industrial agriculture Field Corn No. 2.  Production starts by fermenting corn syrup with Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria that causes rot in certain vegetables.  The combination produces a coagulated liquid that is then separated from the rest of the fluid, rinsed, pressed, dried and ground into a powder.

Xanthan gum was approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1968 and is deemed Generally Recognized as Safe.  The World Health Organization has deemed the ingredient safe for consumption.  Xanthan gum is also commonly used commercially in drilling fluids in the oil industry to provide viscosity, solid suspension, and fluid-loss control.  How’s that for a “universal” product that is safe to eat … but is it healthy?

Xanthan gum has been associated with digestive problems and has been implicated in allergic reactions and autoimmune disease.  [Lerner, Aaron, and Torsten Matthias, “Changes in Intestinal Tight Junction Permeability Associated with Industrial Food Additives Explain the Rising Incidence of Autoimmune Disease,” Autoimmunity Reviews, 14(6) June 2015, pp. 479-489 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autrev.2015.01.009].

Guar gum works the same as xanthan gum and is used the same way.  It is derived from guar beans, which are mainly grown and processed in India; xanthan gum from corn is more prevalent worldwide.

You have worked hard to eat healthily, buying and using organic foods.  Unfortunately, the industrial food system is so pervasive that it is virtually impossible to escape it; you purchase organic but find you are still ingesting Field Corn No. 2.  However, don’t lose faith, you can succeed.

Here’s a recipe for an easy to make lemon vinaigrette:

Lemon Vinaigrette

¼ cup organic red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons organic Dijon mustard (Moutarde de Meaux Pommery)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon Fleur de Sel

¼ teaspoon pepper, freshly ground

½ cup organic olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Whisk red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, oregano, garlic, Fleur de Sel, and pepper together in a small bowl.  Slowly stream olive oil into vinegar mixture, whisking briskly.  Beat lemon juice into mixture.  Pour dressing into a sealable container (jar, bottle) and shake until emulsified.  Makes about 1 cup and will stay fresh in the refrigerator for two weeks or more.

For those who prefer a creamy dressing, here’s a recipe for an easy to make ranch dressing:

Ranch Dressing

1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced

¼ cup buttermilk

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup sour cream

¼ teaspoon onion powder (normally we advocate using fresh ingredients, but fresh onions will leak liquid that will make the ranch dressing runny)

¼ teaspoon garlic powder (same comment here about garlic)

½ teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon Kosher salt

Put buttermilk and basil in a blender and run on low for 30 seconds.  Put the green buttermilk into a bowl and add the remaining ingredients.  Stir vigorously to combine.  Makes about 1 cup and will stay fresh in the refrigerator for two weeks or more.

The fun comes when you start thinking about other ingredients you can add to either the vinaigrette or ranch base: other herbs (tarragon, thyme, rosemary, sage, cilantro, parsley, oregano, etc.); spices (pepper, cumin, curry, paprika, coriander, etc.); mushrooms; tomatoes; cheese crumbles (feta, gorgonzola, blue cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, etc.); bacon; vegetables (red onions, shallots, radishes, celery, carrots, peppers, all kinds, etc.); berries (blueberries, strawberries, black berries, etc.); the list is almost endless.  All fresh and no xanthan gum or guar gum.

Food Additives

Define “food.”  

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition, defines “food” as, “[m]aterial, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.”  

Merriam Webster has a corresponding definition, “material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy,” but goes on, “such food together with supplementary substances (such as minerals, vitamins, and condiments).”  

What about chemicals that may be added to “food” that do not have to be listed on the ingredients label, many of which have never been tested for consumption safety, either short-term or long-term?

Suffering from insomnia and like scary stories.  Read the Food and Drug Administration Food Additives Status List [https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/food-additive-status-list].  Start with substances not included, that is, those specifically excluded, those for which other agencies are responsible for food safety … pesticide chemical from 40 CFR 180 for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set tolerances in food … obviously safe substances not cited in a regulation as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) … synthetic flavoring substances in 21 CFR 172.515 … indirect food additives, 21 CFR Parts 175, 176, 177, & Part 178 … color additives, 21 CFR Parts 70, 71, 73, 74, 80 & 82 … for which there are separate lists.  Scared yet?

Now go to the FDA list of “approved” food additives, of which there are thousands.  Some are readily identifiable, like spices.  Others, however, require a degree in chemistry or biology to understand the words and a medical or pharmacological degree to understand the impacts on the human body.  Just because an additive is “safe to eat” does not mean it is healthy.

The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is, “[t]o empower you with breakthrough research to make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment. … Since 1993, the Environmental Working Group has shined a spotlight on outdated legislation, harmful agricultural practices and industry loopholes that pose a risk to our health and the health of our environment.”  [https://www.ewg.org/who-we-are/our-mission]

The Environmental Working Group publishes a “Dirty Dozen” list of food additives that pose the greatest danger to health.

“Nitrates and nitrites (which turn into carcinogenic nitrosamines when heated at high temperatures):  Used to color, preserve, and flavor processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and salami; a “probable” carcinogen according to the World Health Organization.

Potassium bromate:  Found in bread and other baked goods; linked to various cancers; not allowed in food in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the European Union.

Propylparaben:  Used in baked goods; believed to be an endocrine disruptor; also may be carcinogenic.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT):  Used as a preservative in cereal and other foods; caused cancer in animal tests.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA):  Similar to BHT; listed by California as a carcinogen.

Propyl gallate:  Used in food with animal fats, like lard and sausage; may be carcinogenic.

Theobromine:  Used in chocolate, bread, and sports drinks; in animal testing it had possible effect on reproduction and development.

Flavorings, natural or artificial:  Even when these say “natural,” they may be extracted using other chemicals that aren’t listed.  Anytime you see a word like “flavors” or “spices,” it’s cause for concern.  Natural vanilla flavor comes from beavers’ anal glands.  Look it up if you don’t believe me.

Artificial colorings:  Associated with everything from cancer to hyperactivity in children.

Diacetyl:  Flavoring, like the “butter” taste in microwave popcorn; has been deemed hazardous for the workers in the factories where it’s used.

Phosphates:  In thousands of foods; linked to risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

Aluminum additives:  Such as sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate; used as stabilizers; linked to neurotoxicity.

Calcium propionate:  A preservative used in flour that affects your gut flora and produces neurotoxins that cause ADHD and autism.”

[https://www.ewg.org/consumer-guides/ewgs-dirty-dozen-guide-food-additives]

How many of these additives are in the food you eat?  You would naturally think that it is the FDA’s mission to protect us, and specifically our health.  However, decades of experience show that the FDA is often more about protecting industrial food processors that regularly make large political contributions, than consumers.  Who’s guarding the henhouse?

The graphic below shows the options industrial food processors can use in dealing with the FDA.  It should be obvious that industrial food processors more often than not use “Option Two” when deciding to use food additives.  It is up to you to decide which “Outcomes” are the most likely.

Pesticides and Herbicides

Industrially grown produce is treated with toxic chemicals designed to kill insects and other pests.  There is no question that residues of these chemicals make their way into our bodies, even when we vigorously wash them before consuming them.  These chemicals have been linked to cancer, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and many other ailments.  An available alternative is organic agriculture, buying organic produce even though it is more expensive.

The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the top twelve industrial agriculture, that is, non-organic, fruits and vegetables to avoid because of pesticide and herbicide concerns.

EWG also publishes a list of industrial agriculture fruits and vegetables typically unaffected by pesticides and herbicides.

Other Concerns

As if emulsifiers, additives, pesticides and herbicides in and on food are not enough to concern you, there are antibiotics, hormones and issues associated with genetic modification to consider.

While designed to prevent or treat infection, the vast majority of antibiotics in agriculture are given to animals to stimulate growth.  Excessive antibiotic use disrupts the microbiome of both the animals as well as the people that consume animal meat, causing inflammation, weight gain and promoting the growth of superbugs.  The superbugs make their way into produce when animal manure is used for fertilizer.

Cows and sheep in industrial agriculture are treated with estrogens and other growth hormones to make them grow bigger faster, and more profitable.  There is considerable evidence that drinking milk from dairy cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) leads to early-onset puberty in girls.  The FDA allows six hormones in the food supply that also accelerate early-onset puberty, including progesterone, testosterone, estradiol and estriol.  A high-sugar diet, caffeine and artificial sweeteners also contribute.

There is an on-going, at times very vocal, debate about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  The objectives were higher crop yields, more insect resistance, and less dependence on toxic pesticides; the data show those objectives have not been met.  While the United States continues to allow GMO crops, they are banned in the European Union.  Notwithstanding the opposition of the industrial agriculture companies, in the US all food containing GMOs must be so labelled.  A stroll through the grocery store reveals that the lack of GMOs is an apparent marketing advantage, but not necessarily a price advantage, for food products that do not contain GMOs.

A common adage is, “you are what you eat.”  In his book Food: WTF Should I Eat (Little, Brown and Company, 2018) Dr. Mark Hyman sets forth guidelines for foods to avoid:

“Anything with ingredients that are difficult to pronounce.  These products surely contain substances that belong in a chemistry set, not in your body.

Anything that didn’t exist in your grandmother’s day – maybe even your great-grandmother’s day, depending upon how old you are.

Anything containing soybean oil.

Anything containing high-fructose corn syrup.

Anything with the word “hydrogenated” in its name.

Anything advertised on TV.  Have you seen a commercial for broccoli or sardines during the Super Bowl?  The worst foods get the most airtime on television.

Anything with a cute name.  Froot Loops are not a good source of fruit.

Anything you can buy at a drive-through window.

Anything with monosodium glutamate (otherwise known as MSG), even though the FDA says it is safe.  It’s an excitotoxin – a neuro-transmitter that is known to kill brain cells.  We associate it with Chinese cuisine but food companies use it in many items without our knowledge.  They even try to hide its presence, calling it “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “vegetable protein,” “natural flavorings,” and even simple “spices.”  Spices?  Tricky, right?  And the worst news – it induces hunger and carb cravings, so you’ll eat more of it.  It’s what they give to lab rats in experiments to fatten them up!

Any food in an aerosol can.

Anything called “cheese food” (which is neither cheese nor food).

Anything with artificial sweeteners.

Anything with any type of additives, preservatives, or dyes (of which we eat about 2 ½ pounds per person per year).

Any food with more than five ingredients on the label unless they are all things you recognize, such as tomatoes, water, basil, oregano, salt.”

Wow!!!  What a list!!!  And way beyond the ken of the typical skier or ordinary person. 

In our daily lives and daily diets it is virtually impossible to avoid all of the listed “food” categories.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to copy the Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” list, walk through your pantry or a grocery store, pick items you eat regularly off the shelves, and compare the ingredient list with the EWG list.  Or, copy Dr. Hyman’s guidelines, and do the same.  It will not take very long for you to see the reality that much of what we call “food” does not meet even the most basic definition of the word.  You are then faced with a dilemma, do you continue your regular eating patterns, or do you decide to make a change?  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Books, 2006) Michael Pollan directs you to the periphery of grocery stores to shop for the foods you want to eat.  Stay out of the center of the store, that’s where most of the store and producer profits are found, in the “food” that is not really food.

… “As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” … the Secretary of Agriculture or the Administrator of the FDA, that is ….