The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Friday, May 28, 2010

What the Heck Does That Mean? Food Labels Uncovered.

I'm not a meat-eater (with the exception of some seafood), but my family eats meat, and I'd argue most people around the globe would happily indulge in animal protein.

Here in the USA, food is categorized according to specific characteristics. (Information gathered from USDA website).

If a product is "certified," that means it's been evaluated by both the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Agriculture Marketing Service to meet specific standards for class, grade, or other quality characteristics. A company can certify it's own product, but it must be labeled as such. For example, "(Name of company)'s Certified Beef."

"Free Range/Free Roaming Chicken" means that the animals have had access to an area outside. Here's the thing about this, however. According to PETA, there are no USDA guidelines on how long the animals must be outdoors. And "access" does not necessarily mean the animal has actually been running around, flapping its wings in the fresh outdoor air. See for more information on this and other related topics.

"Chemical Free" is not allowed on the label because it is a misleading term and could be confusing to the consumer. Antibiotics are not considered a chemical, for example.

"Fresh Poultry" means the internal temperature of the product must not be below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. (Although it may vary 1-2 degrees below that number depending on whether it's sold within an inspected establishment or commerce.)

"Mechanically Separated Meat" is when the meat is forced through a sieve (or something similar) under high pressure to separate the bone from surrounding edible tissue. Mechanical beef is considered inedible because of the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). As an aside, BSE (as it's also called) has only been found in one cow in the USA (2003), and that cow was originally purchased from Canada. More than 180,000 cases of BSE were confirmed in Great Britain in the 1990's, and the epidemic peaked in January of 1993. There's strong evidence that the outbreak was caused by a antibiotic resistant prion, spread by feeding young calves meat-and-bone meal. Hello? Feeding meat to an herbivore? Of course there would be problems! Anyhow, in August of 1997, the FDA prohibited the use of most animal protein in ruminants' diets. (Ruminants are hoofed, horned animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. Didn't know that? Hey, neither did I until doing this research). The USDA and APHIS (since 1989) also prohibited the importation of these animals and most of the edible products made from these animals from all of Europe. (APHIS-Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service) Some sheep, by the way, have a similar disease called "scrapie." Anyhow, that's why, in a nutshell, you won't see Mechanically Separated Beef.

"Natural" means the product has been minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colorings. Why place "natural flavorings" on a label instead of listing what has been used? One reason I've found is because a company may not want to give away its "secret recipe." Still, I don't like this label. I want to know what's in my food! It seems awful sneaky, being able to be so vague.

"No hormones" in beef means that the company must provide documentation to the USDA showing that no hormones have been used in raising the animals. I'm searching to see if I can find what kind of documentation is needed. How can it be proven?

"Organic" food has stringent guidelines. The food must not have been grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sludge from sewage. Animals must have been fed food without animal by-products (thereby most likely the bovine will not have contracted BSE) and should be free of hormones or antibiotics. More on organically grown food in further posts.

There are many more labels, but these are a start to aiding you in making healthful choices for you and your family.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whole Grain? 100% Wheat? What's That Mean?

Here's an interesting tidbit for those of us who look for whole wheat products on grocery shelves.

First, let's discuss what constitutes a whole grain. According to, when a wheat germ keeps its germ, bran and endosperm in its entirety, it's considered a whole grain.

The bran and the germ are separated out to make all-purpose flour, and instead the endosperm is left, ground into a fine powder. (I dare you to visit a neighbor and ask to borrow a cup of ground endosperm.)

Enriched all-purpose flour has iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid added to it, and bleached flour has been whitened through a chlorinating process. This process has been shown to bring about a better final product (, but also has some people crying that it creates yet another carcinogen. Although I can find little to prove this, and nothing with enough credibility for me to comment about it. But bleaching flour is a chemical process. As those of you who have been reading this blog already know, I whole-heartedly believe chemical processing alters food in a negative way. See this site: for interesting thoughts on bleached flour.

Unbleached all-purpose flour is bleached by oxygen over a period of months. Because of this, unbleached flour tends to be more expensive then bleached flour, which is much quicker to process.

Rolled oats and quick oats are considered a whole grain because they contain the essential parts of the grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Graham flour is another name for whole wheat flour.

Here's what I find interesting. The FDA recommends that wheat flour not be listed as a whole wheat or whole grain because wheat flour does not contain all parts of the grain. Manufacturers can list "10 grams of whole grains" though, for example. I'd like to know what, exactly, does 10 grams mean? I can't measure that when I make my sandwich, so I can't tell if most of the product is "filler."

Even something labeled "stone-ground" or "multi-grain" might not have the same nutritional value of whole grain bread. Would you have known that if you saw a loaf on a shelf, a lovely drawing of a wheat field across its molasses-dyed slices? Of course not. You'd think, "Gee, this bread is perfect. Rich in fiber. And multi-grain, so it must contain more than endosperm."

There aren't enough regulations to help consumers choose their bread wisely. It's easy to be fooled when most of us think wheat bread means...well...wheat bread, germ and all. But if you want to choose the healthiest alternative, go for the one that lists whole grain first thing in the ingredients. And then look for one that doesn't contain high fructose corn syrup. We've all heard about the negative effects of that stuff.

Ah, but that's another day, another post.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lowering High Cholesterol

I have high cholesterol. I'm not talking border-line high risk levels. I'm talking scary high levels. The kind you'd expect from someone who's 500 pounds and eats hot dogs and potato chips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

Except I'm not overweight, and I don't eat a high fat diet. In fact, when I mention my cholesterol levels to others (somehow it tends to be a topic of conversation with those of us slipping into middle-age), they gape, sputtering, "But you're thin!"

Ah, yes. Thanks for the compliment, and, by the way, sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary.

My levels generally hover around the 380's for total cholesterol. And in case you're a cholesterol novice, the American Heart Association recommends total cholesterol level to be below 200 mg/dL, stating this means the likelihood of developing heart disease is low, as long as other risk factors aren't in place, such as high blood pressure. But that's another blog article for another time.

As you can see, my risk level for heart disease is high according to the AHA. Yet I'm not 100% convinced cholesterol is the evil weapon of death doctors make it out to be.

Still, I'm always trying to lower it.

First, let me explain what makes up the total cholesterol numbers. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. The American Heart Association mentions that being under 100mg/dL is "optimal." LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol. Lipoproteins are made of fat and protein (Medline Plus: Too much LDL being carried through the arteries can clog them.

HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It's also called "good" cholesterol because it offers protection from heart disease. There are a number of theories about how this works, one being that it carries LDL from the body. However, this is simply a theory, there may be much more to it than that.

Cholesterol tests can also determine triglyceride levels, which are leftover calories stored in fat cells for later use. The American Heart Association states that under 150 mg/dL is a normal level.

In my studies on myself, when I avoid all meat (with the exception of fish), I generally lower my cholesterol level by 70 mg/dL. In 2002, after being a fish-eating vegetarian for several months, my total cholesterol level dropped to 301 mg/dL.

When I added a statin to my daily regimen, I actually was able to get my level down to 199 mg/dL.

I went back to eating meat when trying to conceive my first child, and remained that way for years (until recently). I also had to stop taking the statin. My levels went up again.

Last year, after having two children and no longer nursing the second one, I went back to check my levels. I'd not eaten red meat in years, and only consumed small amounts of turkey, pork and chicken. My levels: 337 mg/dL total. LDL: 272 mg/dL. HDL: 52. Triglycerides: 58.

I wanted to try Niacin before going back to a statin again.

Niacin is purported to raise one's HDL (considered the "good" cholesterol in your body) by 15-35%, according to the Mayo Clinic ( Niacin is one of the B vitamins, used to convert carbohydrates into energy.

I'm going to divulge my cholesterol numbers during this trial period. While on 500 mg. a day of Niacin, my total cholesterol dropped to 308. LDL: 239 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. While on 1000 mg. of Niacin, it went down a teensy bit more. Total: 293 mg/dL. LDL: 226 mg/dL. HDL: 55 mg/dL.

The totals weren't low enough to please my doctor, but boy! I was thrilled. Under 300? Great.

My doctor placed me on a statin, and I went off of the Niacin. Total cholesterol on 20 mg. of a stain: 240. LDL: 179 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 65 mg/dL. Cholesterol on 40 mg: 211 mg/dL. LDL: 147 mg/dL. HDL: 49 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 73 mg/dL.

Now I am going back to being a fish eating vegetarian, taking a statin, and exercising regularly. I am also trying to quit eating foods that contain white flour (more on the effects of bleached flour on our health in another post), and trying to consume less sugar. In a few months, I will know how effective all this is in lowering my cholesterol, and I will post the findings here. But this is what I hypothesize:

1) Niacin helps raise HDL cholesterol levels, but not enough to make a significant difference in my numbers.

2) Niacin helps lower LDL levels, but not enough for my levels to be where the American Heart Association feels they should be for better heart health.

3) Becoming a pesce-vegetarian (fish and dairy eating) lowers my numbers significantly.

4) Statins are an effective means for lowering cholesterol.

5) Statins alone will not bring my cholesterol down to a level that satisfies the American Heart Association's recommendations.

My biggest questions are: why do some people naturally produce an overabundance of cholesterol, and others don't? Why do some people with high cholesterol live long lives if it's such a terrible killer? Are cholesterol lowering drugs more hype than help? Another column, another day, but I will do my best to answer these questions and others like them.

For an interactive chart sent to me by the marketing manager of Healthline (which is very interesting to read, by the way) check out:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ADHD and Pesticides...a buncha bunk?

So now there's a study linking pesticides to ADHD. But it raises the question: if pesticides cause ADHD, how come in towns where produce is purchased from the same supermarket, not all children have ADHD?

You can argue that not all children eat the same produce, and we know strawberries contain more pesticides than, say, an orange. You can also argue that some people wash their produce better than others do (and some may not wash it at all).

You may be scratching your head, wondering what I'm talking about. In case you haven't been scanning news articles on the Internet lately, a study by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that their study has found a possible link between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and concentrations of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates in the urine of 8-15 year olds.

I'm going to break this down a little. According to the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, organophosphates are "the most common pesticides used in Peruvian agriculture." (Dec. 2006)Crops they're used on: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, alfalfa, apples, grapes and garlic. By the way, the study they conducted found OPs (as the chemical is called) to be dangerously toxic to agriculture workers when handled without wearing the proper attire and not taking the right precautions.

Forty OPs are registered with the EPA in the U.S., according to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics study, and the US Pesticide Residue Program Report's 2008 study found OPs in almost a third of frozen blueberries and strawberries, and almost 20% of celery samples.

The study took urine samples from 1,139 children, and 119 met the ADHD criteria. Here we must wonder if there are biases. The diagnosis was made through interviews with a parent and based on "slightly modified criteria" from Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. This interview was conducted via telephone. I can't find any evidence of a doctor making an evaluation based on observing the child's behavior, thus may I make the hypothesis that some children may have been labeled ADHD, but perhaps not be clinically considered ADHD.

The study found that children with higher levels of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates in their urine were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Again, I question why only 119 children had this diagnosis when certainly more than that must have consumed similar levels of OPs in their diet.

I definitely believe pesticides are dangerous, even toxic, especially for the workers who use these chemicals on a daily basis, and probably for their offspring as well. But I am not quick to believe in a positive link between ADHD and OPs. Neither does the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also points out that there are more studies to be done before they close the book on this case.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Polysorbate and IBS

Here is another food additive that may be causing you trouble. Have you ever eaten a meal and suffered from cramping and diarrhea soon afterward? Check the ingredients. You may find polysorbate listed. Polysorbate is an emulsifier, used to keep oils from separating in cake frosting, for example. You'll find it in cake mixes, Cool Whip, pancake mix, sometimes even prepackaged fish fillets or chicken nuggets.

I don't mean to alarm you, but polysorbate is also often found in cosmetics, again to keep the make-up from separating. That's right. The chemical used in your foundation may be making its way to your stomach via the pre-made cake you purchased for your son's birthday.


But that's the least of your troubles if you have a sensitivity to the substance, like I do. If I consume it, I know it. I'm sick for hours until it leaves my system.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest claims polysorbate is safe for consumption. I'm not so certain.

According to a Japanese food safety study (yes, I had to really work to find information), studies showed no carcinogenicity and no genotoxicity. However, the study has found that diarrhea was observed as a major symptom. (

The listings for polysorbate are with numbers such as 20, 60, 65 and 80. This has to do with the molecular structure and is too complicated to go into here. Not to mention I have difficulty understanding it myself. It has to do with hydrophilic vs. lipophilic proportions, all very scientific.

By the way, polysorbate is derived from fruits and berries; an artificial creation through food processing.

So how did I come to realize I was sensitive to this substance? Again, I discovered that every time I consumed food made from a specific type of pancake mix, I would have cramping and diarrhea. I had no problem with another type of pancake mix. Only a small amount of ingredients differed, one being...oh, you know. Yes. Polysorbate. The rest of the dissimilar ingredients were ordinary ones which I ate in other foods without incident.

I also discovered that whenever I ate a food that caused major gastronomical difficulties, the ingredient list always specified polysorbate. I now know to avoid this substance.

The Link Between Migraines and Carrageenan

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 6-8% of men, and 15-18% of women in Europe and America have migraines each year. A migraine is defined as a headache that lasts between 2 hours to several days, and pulsates on one side of the head. It's often aggravated by being physically active, harsh noises, and bright lights. A migraine can also be painless, instead creating visual impairment such as halos.

Many times a cause can not be found for migraine sufferers, although often it is triggered by stress, environmental conditions, or food.

Over the years I have suffered terrible migraines...the kind that have me throwing up, unable to do much else other than lie in a dark bedroom, forehead pressed into my pillow. Through mild experimentation I have come to find these foods as triggers: red wine, smoked aged cheese, and movie popcorn butter.

Recently I have made a discovery that's made a tremendous difference in my life. Carrageenan, a derivative of seaweed, brings on a 48-hour migraine for me.

What is carrageenan used in, you ask? (Even if you didn't ask, I'll tell you.) Ice cream. Yogurt. Many frozen dinners. Artificial crab (made from white fish, which is cheaper). explains that carrageenan is used as a food thickener--in place of animal-based gelatin, for example. Being that it's made from seaweed, it's considered 100% vegetarian.

Problem anything that's been can have side effects for some people.

Again, I took a look at a study by the World Health Organization. Interestingly enough, one of their studies determined that carrageenan lowered cholesterol and lipid levels in humans (2003 study). A good thing, right? But it also mentioned gastrological problems in mice. WHO found carrageenan safe for consumption. And I found nothing on migraine problems mentioned in their studies.

However, if you look at other sites on-line, you'll find I'm not alone in my carrageenan discomfort. Considered a MSG, it brings suffering to others as well. (

Would you like to know how I discovered carrageenan as a substance to avoid? I ate ice cream. Yes. Simple as that. I had a two day migraine (milder than the type I was accustomed to throwing up and I was able to function on a nearly normal level, though the pain was intense). Chalking the migraine up to having eaten late that day, I consumed the ice cream again. Same thing occured: two day headache. I checked the label and noted that the only item that wasn't in other foods I'd eaten in the recent past was carrageenan. Fast forward a week. I ate a seafood sub from Wegman's grocery. Migraine city. Two days. Again. Next time I visited the store, I checked the ingredient list on the imitation crab. Yep. You guessed it. Carrageenan. Since then, I've tried to check labels before purchasing. But a few times I'd been in a hurry and had forgotten. Every time I came down with a migraine, I discovered I'd consumed something with carrageenan in it.

What I'd like to know is why it does this to me and not everyone else. But that is something to discover another time. For now, I have made a calculated observation: carrageenan can cause migraines.


Growing up in the 1970's was a lot different than growing up in 2010. There wasn't a debate on whether high fructose syrup contributed to diabetes, or worries over the statistics of rising childhood obesity. For one thing, no one ever heard of high fructose, and kids didn't have a lot of junk food to choose from.

Oh sure, my sister and I drank soda instead of water, ate potato chips for breakfast if we wanted to, and spent plenty of time in front of the television. But we still managed to remain thin and healthy.

The question

Some would argue that we had great metabolism. Others might say we didn't have cell phones or computers back then, so we spent more time running around outdoors. All of this is true. But what if there's a much larger story behind this mystery? What if what we are putting into our mouths...even the salads and the low-calorie fruit drinks...are messing with our bodies?

What if an innocent sandwich is bringing in toxins that give us migraines, or a piece of cake is driving our stomach to revolt against us? Because for me, I have found both of those to be true. And with a little detective work and some painful experimentation, I have discovered foods that are making me sick, and foods that have packed pounds on my gut and rear end. And they could be doing the same to you, as well.

Follow me as I research and cover topics about the food we grow, produce, and consume. Because I plan to uncover some nasty little secrets corporations don't want you to know.