The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Coming Up...More Research, More Information

I apologize for slacking off. I wanted to write an article at least every couple months. I've done various research, found topics of interest, etc. But writing the articles has been an arduous task and work and kids have been my first priorities, so the writing has been placed on the back burner. However, I plan on finding fresh topic of interest this fall, and if anyone has any topic ideas, please email me at: writerchick33(at)ymail(dot)come. Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What Is the Ketogenic Diet?

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Every now and then when I’m looking for something new to research I come across a hidden gem. This time the gem is more common, but brilliant nonetheless. You may have even heard of it: the Ketogenic Diet. According to my research, this diet has proven to help people suffering from epileptic seizures, diabetes, cancer, and even bi-polar disorder.
So what is it?
History Behind the Ketogenic Diet
It began in Ancient Greece as a treatment for many ailments. Although it was considered a beneficial fasting treatment, the scientific reasoning was yet unknown. Over time it developed into a role of detoxification that helped people control their epileptic seizures. Dr. Russell Wilder of the Mayo Clinic ended up with the final credit, however, as his studies and trials became popularized in the 1920s. His colleague, Mynie Peterman, tweaked the diet and tested it on patients, discovering a great decline in patient seizures when used.
In the late 30s, early 40s, the invention of anticonvulsant drugs placed the diet on the backburner, and up until the 1990s, drugs were normally used to control epilepsy. Then NBC’s “Dateline” covered a story about a toddler that continued to have epileptic seizures despite modern means of controlling it. The boy, Charlie Abraham, son of a Hollywood producer, recovered while on a strict diet called the…you guessed it!...ketogenic diet.
How Does This Diet Work?
Carbohydrates provide fuel your body needs for energy. They also enter the small intestine and become converted to glucose, fructose, and simple sugars. For some people, this causes problems.
The ketogenic diet is low in carbohydrates, high in fat and adequate in protein. In this respect, it’s similar to the faddish so-called “low carb” diets, however this diet is very strict. It provides just enough protein for the body to grow and repair itself, and avoids carbohydrates of any kind.
What Conditions Might It Help?
Epileptic Seizures
When carbohydrates are not consumed, the body uses the consumed fat as an energy source. Long story short, it elevates the ketone bodies in the blood, therefore preventing the frequency of seizures.
According to other research, cancer cells live off of glucose, so if you avoid carbohydrates and sugars, the cancer cells are deprived of glucose, starve, and die. Healthy cells, however, can burn fat to survive and don’t need glucose.
A ketogenic diet can help people suffering from diabetes because a low-carb diet can help improve blood sugar control and insulin levels. However, it’s best to discuss with a doctor before proceeding because suddenly quitting carbs can be dangerous to someone who is taking insulin.
Bi-Polar Disorder
When people suffering from mood swings—including people diagnosed with bi-polar disorder—go on a ketogenic diet, they discover a vast improvement in mood. This is because it acidifies the blood, thereby decreasing intracellular sodium accumulation, which stabilizes mood.
This diet is very strict and regulated. Before attempting it (or any diet), you need to talk to your doctor, as there are risks involved, especially if you are taking particular medications that affect your blood sugar levels. For people looking to simply lower their glucose levels, a modification of this diet can also be effective. Look into the Paleo diet, Atkins diet, or even the MCT oil diet.
As usual, I’m including links so you can do your own research and decide if this is something you might want to attempt. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid...More Than a Mouthful

Thanks to one of my blog readers, I’ve come up with an interesting, albeit unfounded, theory. He mentioned that beans gave him headaches. Since canned beans are popular, being that they don’t need to be soaked first because they’re already packed in liquid, I assumed this was the type he consumed. So I checked out the ingredient list.
Both my Wegman’s brand black-eyed peas and my Bush’s Best Garbanzos beans contained Disodium EDTA. Both also informed the consumer (in parenthesis) that the substance was used to “promote color retention.” Upon doing some research, I came up with a different explanation for its usage.
Before I explain further, let’s break this solution down so we can understand what Disodium EDTA is.
EDTA is short for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. This acid is considered a chelating agent. A chelating agent neutralizes harmful metal ions found in water-based substances. When a metal reacts with a non-metal, the metal atom loses its electron in the outer shell. It then becomes what is known as an ion, and it forms a salt. Thus the name “disodium EDTA.” EDTA decreases a metal ion’s reactivity.
Here’s where things get interesting. EDTA is also used to treat lead poisoning and skin irritations caused by chromium, nickel, and copper metals (this is called chelation therapy). And we know that beans are canned in metal containers. Yes, a plastic coating is used. But what if…and this is my pragmatic mind speaking here…what if the reason why EDTA is added isn’t so much to keep the color, but to help prevent the metals from the aluminum can from harming our bodies?
I know, I know. My imagination is going full throttle. So I have to wonder…how does ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid retain vegetable color?
The patent to this design was filed in May of 1968. According to my study, EDTA was either added to brine or to the syrup following the brining process in order to keep pickles crisp. Pickles are generally produced in glass jars. So this does not help my theory, although it does prove that manufacturers use EDTA to improve texture in food.
I looked into this further and discovered that when one consumes a lot of EDTA, it can absorb the metals in our bodies that are necessary for human health, such as zinc, and leave us deficient in these metals.

Okay, so what about headaches? Can EDTA cause them? The simple answer is yes. People going through chelation therapy may have headaches due to the sodium content or the lowered blood glucose. But this is when EDTA is used to treat heavy metal poisoning or removing plaque on artery walls caused by arteriosclerosis.  The amount used is higher than what is used in food processing. But is the EDTA in canned food causing headaches? The jury is out on that one. I have searched the web far and wide, and there’s enough information written about ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid to make my eyes cross. Some people report those symptoms along with stomach issues, but I have found nothing conclusive. I also can’t find a single shred of evidence that manusfacturers use EDTA in order to prevent metal contamination from canned goods.

But I’d love to hear from anyone who is positive EDTA has caused their migraines, headaches, or even stomachaches. As I am well aware, sometimes it is the consumer that finds side effects from consuming products. How many times have you heard of a lab rat complaining of a headache? None? Right. And lab experiments are how the majority of chemicals are tested for safety and side effects.

Okay, so my theory about companies using Disodium EDTA to prevent heavy metal contamination in their products seems a little far-fetched, but it does have me thinking. After all, not everything is always what it seems. If anyone knows that, it’s the Amateur Food Detective.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chewing Xanthan Gum

Okay, so the title of this piece is a little tongue-in-cheek (not to be confused with gum in cheek, ha ha), because obviously xanthan gum isn’t the candy you might use to appease a wailing child. It’s a food additive, and like most additives, it has both a negative side and positive side.
If you’ve ever read the ingredients on a bottle of salad dressing or sauces, or even on packages of ice cream, you will likely find xanthan gum listed. Like polysorbate and carrageenan, it keeps ingredients from separating and making the product appear inedible. It can also help thicken the product.
Xanthan gum is made by fermenting glucose, sucrose, or lactose with the bacterium Xanthomonus campestris. This bacterium is the same one that creates the black spots on cauliflower and broccoli. Your mouth watering yet?
If you’re allergic or sensitive to corn or soy, you may wish to avoid xanthan gum, as companies may be using these ingredients in its production. It’s also possible it could cause bloating and abdominal pain for some people. This could be because it’s a carbohydrate with 7 grams of fiber per tablespoon. However, take a look at this post by someone who has abdominal distress after consuming products containing xanthan gum:
I’ve also read that exposure to xanthan gum might cause migraines, skin irritation, or in the case of bakers working with the powder, throat and nose irritation.
Now on to another interesting part of my discovery. In the 1970s, an experiment performed on people who were looking to lose weight showed that taking xanthan gum in capsule form (two 550 milligrams 20-30 minutes before meals) helped shed weight. Another study following that one also affected weight loss, but it was a slow loss.
I find this interesting, because in all my research I can’t find anything where people have tried taking xanthan gum for weight loss. I’ve found that several people use it in smoothie recipes or baked goods (especially if they can’t consume products containing gluten). If you know of anyone who has used xanthan gum to aid in their weight loss plan, please have them contact me. I’d love to interview him or her.
The FDA regards xanthan gum to be safe. FAO/WHO could not find any toxic effects or carcinogens attributable to the gum. So although people may be sensitive to this product or allergic to the ingredients it’s derived from, in general it seems to be a harmless product.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Arsenic and Old Rice

There’s a new villain in town, and its name is arsenic.
You probably remember reading about high levels of arsenic found in apple and grape juice. Consumer Reports ran a similar investigation on rice and discovered “measurable amounts” of arsenic in nearly all of their 200 samples.
Before I go into what this means for our health or explain how arsenic ends up in our rice supply, let me describe the two different types of arsenic: organic and inorganic.
According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), arsenic is “a semi-metallic element found in soils, groundwater, surface water, air, and some foods.” It occurs naturally and is usually found combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. When combined with these elements, it’s referred to as inorganic arsenic. When arsenic is combined with carbon and hydrogen, it’s called organic arsenic.

Most of the time, organic and inorganic arsenic compounds don’t have a taste or a scent, and are impossible to detect in food, water, or air. Arsenic is no longer produced in the U.S. and is imported from other countries. Most of it is used to preserve wood so it doesn’t rot. You’ve probably heard of the term “pressure-treated wood.” In 2003, manufacturers quit producing this type of wood for play structures, decks, picnic tables, and other items sold for use in residential areas. Inorganic arsenic was once used as a pesticide in cotton and orchard fields, although now organic compounds are used, mostly on cotton plantations.

What I found interesting is that arsenic can change form. It can become attached to or separated from particles. But it cannot be destroyed. And guess what? It’s everywhere. It becomes carried on the air. It washes into lakes and streams. Some fish and shellfish take in arsenic, although most of the time it’s in a less harmful organic form. We are exposed to arsenic through eating, drinking, and breathing.

Most of the arsenic we take in comes from food, with seafood being the most predominant. Rice and rice cereal, mushrooms, and poultry often contain arsenic as well. According to the EPA, people generally take in about 50 micrograms of organic arsenic (from several different sources) a day. We take in the more dangerous type of arsenic, inorganic arsenic, a much smaller amount; generally 3.5 micrograms a day. Both organic and inorganic leave the body through urine.

Consuming high amounts of inorganic arsenic can kill you. Swallowing lower levels may cause nausea, stomachaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can also cause a lower production of red and white blood cells, which creates fatigue, abnormal heartbeats, nerve problems, and blood vessel damage. Long-term exposure can cause skin cancer, warts on the palms, soles, and torso, and an increased risk of liver, bladder, and lung cancer.

The EPA mentions that there is very little information on how organic arsenic affects humans. It’s considered less harmful than inorganic, although long-term exposure in animals has shown to result in diarrhea and in kidney damage.

Now that you’re aware of what organic and inorganic arsenic is and where it’s found, I’ll go into detail about what Consumer Reports found in its analysis.

First of all, they discovered that white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri , and Texas had higher levels of both organic and inorganic arsenic in their tests than rice samples from any other place. In general, brown rice contained more inorganic arsenic than white rice. Why? Because only the hull is removed in brown rice. The bran that remains has a high concentration of arsenic. When this bran is removed, so is some of the arsenic. (Consumer Reports November 2012 p. 22, 24)

So how did the inorganic arsenic end up in our rice? Insecticides. As usual, man has come up with a way to both keep our food safe from bugs and parasites and poison us, all at the same time. The use of these pesticides was banned in the 1980s, but as I pointed out earlier, you can’t get rid of arsenic. And now it lingers in our soil. The same soil where we grow our food. Also, and this is ludicrous to me, arsenic is permitted for use in animal feed for a purpose similar to antibiotics. The fertilizer produced from these animals contaminates crops with arsenic.

If you’d like to know how much rice is considered safe for children and adults to consume, check out this Huffington Post article:

Okay, that concludes my research on the Consumer Reports findings. Let’s take a look at tests the FDA performed. First of all, let me stress that there isn’t any FDA approved limit for arsenic in most food. But here is what the FDA states on its website: “The FDA has collected and tested rice for total arsenic for about 20 years. On September 19, 2012, the FDA released the first analytical results of nearly 200 samples of rice and rice products tested for both total and inorganic arsenic. The FDA is collecting and analyzing more than 1,000 additional rice and rice product samples, and will post additional data as results become available.”

The website mentions that their analysis is consistent with the findings from Consumer Reports. However, it is yet to be proven that consuming great amounts of rice or rice products causes the types of illnesses associated with arsenic. The FDA is continuing its study on arsenic in rice, but at this time does not feel the public needs to be alarmed. They stress that people should eat a balanced diet with a variety of grains.

The FDA found that the average rice or rice product contained 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. Although the FDA doesn’t have a safety standard for arsenic in food at this time, it has set the safety level for water at 10 micrograms in one liter of bottled water or 10 parts per billion (ppb), which was adopted from the EPA’s standard. So if you consume one serving of rice, you are well within the limits of safety according to this measure. Two servings may put you over the limit, depending on the levels of arsenic within the product. This limit was set in 2001.

The EPA states that in drinking water, inorganic arsenic is more prevalent than organic arsenic. They linked arsenic in drinking water to the health risks I mentioned earlier, thus set this standard to protect consumers.

There is still more research to be done, but as it stands now, here is a recap of my findings:

The EPA found a connection between health risks and arsenic in water. Rice is grown in water. It absorbs both organic and inorganic arsenic well. Inorganic arsenic can cause cancer. Organic arsenic is less toxic. It cannot be proven that consuming rice or rice products cause cancer. There is no set standard of how much arsenic in rice is safe for consumption. If using the guidelines given for water consumption, most levels in one serving of rice are safe for adults and children. (Remember, a serving for children is less than a serving for adults. Check labels to determine how much one serving is for individuals.)

This is another case of possible sensationalism mixed with a need to be aware of what one is putting into his or her body. Until more research is done, we won’t know if consuming large quantities of rice over a lifetime may be a health risk. But I will leave you with one more finding I discovered. In America, the liver and stomach cancer incidences and death rates are higher for Asians and Pacific Islanders than for any other ethnic group. According to, one cause is a bacterium called H. pylori. But I want to put this thought out there…what if one of the reasons the Asian population has more occurrences of stomach cancer is because they consume more rice than some other ethnic groups? I’d be curious to know if anyone has done any research on this. So far I have not found any sources that can provide me any information on this matter. But if I do, you will be the first to know.

photo credit:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

So What's Soy Lecithin, Anyway?

Today I picked up three different snacks that my children eat on a regular basis. Many of the ingredients were the same, such as unbleached flour. One other common ingredient was present in the snacks as well: soy lecithin.
Now, I’m no cave dweller. I’ve been aware this product exists, and I’ve even pondered its role in food production. I just never researched it before. However, as I happen to be a very curious person, I couldn’t help but wonder what is this that my children are consuming? And is it something that can be digested on a regular basis without repercussions on our health?
As it turns out, there’s a lot of information out there on this product. You could spend the next two years reading up on it. You know, if you had a soy lecithin obsession. But I’m going to break it down for you in easy terms.
First off, back in the mid-1800s lecithin was made with eggs. Now it’s most often made using soybeans. Phospholipids are extracted from soybean oil and used as an emulsifier (aka thickening agent) in products such as margarine or bottled salad dressing. What are phospholipids? Glad you asked.
You produce some phospholipids organically within your body. They make up the cell membrane. When it’s in your food, it allows fat and water to mix so that the fat moves easily through your cells and vessels. Think about how if you pour a cup of oil into a bowl of water, the two substances remain separate. Phospholipids help meld the two so that they take on a single property.
Okay, back to soy lecithin. It’s used to extend the shelf-life of foods, and to prevent them from crumbling. It improves texture and enhances nutrition. It’s in crackers, cookies, breads, pastas, meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. Not only is it used in food products, it’s also used in paints, waxes, and lubricants.
Here is what you need to know about its pros and cons:
Pro: Lecithin provides a great source of choline, which is similar to folate as it helps with brain and memory development, according to The body produces some choline, but we also ingest it through food. (Lean beef, salmon, cauliflower, and eggs are all great sources of choline.) So lecithin essentially can help with memory and cognitive function.
Con: Soy and soy products have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer for adult females. Also, in a study at John Hopkins Medical Institution, rats consumed soybeans containing genistein* (yes, I had to look up that word, too…more in a sec), which is organically a part of soybeans. These rats then had offspring with lower testosterone levels, smaller testes, and larger prostrate glands.
*Genestein is an isoflavone…yes, more research was done to figure out what that was, too. Isoflavone functions as an antioxidant as well as something that affects the body in a similar way as estrogen. It’s present in soybeans.
Pro: Lecithin helps the body break down fats. It helps the body produce more digestive juices, which in turn aids in breaking down food in the stomach.
Con: Soybeans are oftentimes genetically modified. Studies of tests performed on animals have shown that genetically modified foods have negative effects on laboratory animals, including abnormal cell growth and a high mortality birth rate. What this means for humans is up for debate.
Also, soy is one of the eight most common allergens, according to the FDA. It’s estimated that .2% of the U.S.’s population is allergic to it. However, it can be noted that most of the food made with soy lecithin has so little soy protein (which is the major allergen) that it’s difficult to know how much can be consumed before an allergic reaction occurs.
So what does this mean for the average unaware consumer? That, as usual, the jury is still out on soy lecithin’s safety. But at least now you know why it’s used and what it does. So far I have yet to discover an emulsifier that I can confidently promote as 100% safe. However, it seems to be in most of the products my family consumes, and I’m not sure I’m ready to pull the plug on those quiet yet. Though I feel the need to be more aware of what foods contain soy lecithin and how often we’re eating them. What do you think?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Maltodextrin is a what...?

The other day a friend and I were munching on tortilla chips at her house when she began to develop a funny feeling in her throat. The start of what seemed to be an allergic reaction. She took something for it immediately, but the situation caused me to jot down the ingredients that might have caused her throat to swell. The one she pondered about was maltodextrin. I promised to look into it for my blog, so here it is.
What is maltodextrin?
Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate made from rice, corn, or potato starch, though it can also be derived from barley or wheat. First, the starch is cooked down, then an acid or enzyme is added to further break down the starch. It’s used as either a sweetener or an inexpensive thickener or filler. It’s found in sugar substitutes such as Splenda and Equal. It’s also found in salad dressing, pudding, cereal, snack food, sauce, and canned fruit. It’s used as a binding agent in medication.
Is it similar to sugar?
Maltodextrin has a higher glycemic index than table sugar and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. One caveat: there is a type of maltodextrin that is called “starch resistant maltodextrin.” This has a lower glycemic index and doesn’t cause the huge spike in blood sugar levels. But the majority of food containing maltodextrin is not starch resistant.
Is it safe for consumption?
The FDA considers maltodextrin to be “Generally Recognized As Safe.” (GRAS for short.) It’s supposedly easily digested.
Are there some people who should avoid maltodextrin?
People with celiac disease may be unable to consume maltodextrin, depending on the source from which it’s made. If you have celiac disease, it would be prudent to stay away from products that contain maltodextrin unless they are labeled gluten free.
People with Type 2 Diabetes should avoid products that contain maltodextrin because it causes a spike in blood sugar and can affect insulin levels.
Maltodextrin has also been found to cause heart palpitations and chest pain in some people. If you discover this to be the case, see a health practioner.
Some women with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrom) should avoid foods with a high glycemic index, therefore it would be a good idea to avoid products with maltodextrin.
Here’s something of interest: maltodextrin is sometimes used by bodybuilders to help increase energy during exercise and to gain weight. Gain weight? Hm. Also, maltodextrin can increase LDL, or the “bad cholesterol” in your body. Those who have allergies to wheat and corn may have a reaction that may include (and is not limited to) rashes, heavy sweating, and difficulty breathing. So although the FDA regards maltodextrin as GRAS, it can potentially harmful to particular individuals.
Although I can’t be positive maltodextrin is the cause of my friend’s allergic reaction, it certainly could be another reason why my cholesterol is high, or why people with glucose intolerance have stomach problems after consuming this additive. At any rate, I learned something new. It seems that America uses an awful lot of different types of emulsifiers for our food products. And it seems we are becoming an unhealthier nation for it.