Monday, June 09, 2014

10 Banned Foods

This is a response to an open invitation to fact-check an infographic. As such, it's mostly addressed to that person. However, I should state for the record that he knows more about chemistry than I ever care to (my knowledge is strictly high-school level, or at least what should be high school level), so the portions where I either "explain" a chemical process or link to an explanation are not for his benefit, but for the benefit of anyone who's stumbled upon this and chosen to read along.

The infographic is from Dr. Joseph Mercola, of whom I'll have more to say at the end.

(Apparently the theme here is that if a food is banned anywhere in the world for any reason, Americans should stop eating it, which I note without judgement)

Now before I start, I'll say for the record that I'm not an M.D., nor am I a medical professional of any sort. What I present here are logical responses to the infographic. They are not medical opinions, they're just opinions. They are not medical advice. Also, they're completely dependent upon the sources from which I drew them. The point here is to provide other points of view so that you don't feel pressured into blindly accepting the spurious advice of one person with the title of "doctor". One doctor's opinion is the start of a conversation, not the end. Again, I'll have more to say at the end.

In the following, unless otherwise obvious from context, "they" refers to Dr. Mercola and/or whoever in his organization researched and composed the infographic.

That said, here are my comments about the 10 foods he lists:

1. Salmon

I didn't bother to check facts on this one, but took them as given because I've seen them before. However, facts without logic mean nothing. Please note:

  • Wild-caught salmon doesn't begin to satisfy the demands of the who have to eat something
  • The antibiotics fed to farmed salmon are to counter the higher risks noted. 
  • Farming salmon reduces the risk of over-harvesting and endangering the species. 

Obviously, due to the risks of commercial over-fishing (which is why you know what tilapia is and see far less tuna), limits must be set on the harvesting of wild salmon. This is all well and good if you want to pay exhorbitant prices for wild salmon or hop in your private plane to fly yourself to Alaska with your hip-waders and rod, but doesn't do much if you're a mom trying to feed your kids some fish.

Remember logic: if A is "better for you" than B, that does NOT equal "B is bad for you". It just means that A is better.

2. Genetically engineered papaya

ALL of the risks noted are for "GE foods", and not a single one is for papaya specifically. While this indicates an nonspecific fear of GMO foods in general, it does not indicate any particular health problem with this variety of papaya. Indeed, lists a number of "problems" with the strain, all of which are economic, due to the closing of markets. None of the problems listed are health-related. One thing in particular is known, though... they have a lower incidence of ringspot virus, which nearly wiped out papaya in Hawai'i, the only place where it's commercially grown in the United States. Feel free to interpret this limited range as a business opportunity.

The GMO variety is presumed to be of risk because their ringspot immunity is granted to them by a gene that produces papaya ringspot virus protein, which is designated a "potential allergen" because it is chemically similar to a known allergen.

3. Ractopamine-tainted meat. 

There is only one study on the effects of ractopamine on humans (from 2012), and it examined only six men. It was severely limited for ethical reasons, only to verify that the effects on humans were similar to those already recorded for primates.

The infographic says that it's banned in "160 countries across Europe". There aren't 160 countries in Europe. There are about 50 if you list Russia (mostly Asian) and the Vatican, 28 of which are in the European Union. OK, so they aren't really careful with language.

There are 196 countries in the entire world  Twenty-seven other countries have declared ractopamine to be safe, leaving 159. Or 158 if you're China. OK, so somebody's math is off somewhere.

Apparently what has happened here is that someone took the approximate number of countries in the world, subtracted the number that have specifically declared ractopamine to be safe, and decided that it must be banned in the the rest without considering the possibility that a large percentage of them have other things to worry about and haven't expressed an opinion one way or the other. But it may very well be something close to that number. Or not. The problem is that I haven't been able to find a complete list of them anywhere... just the iffy math.

The word "poisoned" is in scare quotes here as well. Why? Because it's not defined. This number isn't from a medical source, it's from the Sichuan Pork Trade Chamber of Commerce in China [PDF]

4. Flame Retardant in drinks.

Water is also a flame retardant. So is baking soda. The use of the term here is 100% purely for scare value... it is otherwise meaningless.

The reason brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is in these drinks is as an emulsifier. Citrus drinks separate when left to sit, and this keeps them mixed up.

They state that BVO was originally patented as a flame retardant. The patent for BVO as a flame retardant in polyurethane foam was filed Nov 20, 1997. Its use as an emulsifier in soft drinks began in 1931. Perhaps there's an earlier patent that I can't find, but even so it wouldn't mean anything. I've made papier-mache pinatas using flour as paste. I wouldn't on that basis shout that bread should be banned because it's made of glue.

The bigger question, though, is about the health effects of BVO. As with everything, including water, this comes down to dosage. The only documented cases of bromism I saw involving human beings had the patients consuming FOUR LITERS OR MORE of citrus-flavored soda PER DAY. One was treated with hemodialysis and recovered, though it was not determined whether that specific ingredient was at fault. Another just quit drinking the sodas and recovered.

If you're ingesting that much of any flavor of anything, STOP IT. It's not the substance at fault, it's you.

5. Processed foods with artificial food colors and dyes

I always am skeptical when I see "Research has linked" in association with any claim about anything. All it usually means is "someone suspects". Otherwise, they'd be saying "[this study] has established that [this substance] causes [this disorder]."

I especially am leery here. Dyes can vary greatly in their chemical compositions, so lumping them together and saying "dyes cause all this stuff" is logically unsound, and probably factually so. In any case, some "artificial" dyes are "nature identical"... chemically indistinguishable from the natural dyes they replace. So how is it reasonable to presume that they are "bad" when the identical molecule from a different source is not? An example: Blue #2 is just indigo dye. It's exactly the "blue" of "blue jeans". Whether it's extracted from a plant, or from snails, or synthesized, it's still indigo. In 3,000 years nobody's complained about it, health-wise... so why is Dr. Mercola listing it? No reason really, he just lists the four most popular dyes.

As for the others, I know jack about them except that they're "azo dyes", and that Red 40 replaced Red 2 and Red 3 because Red 40 was deemed safer. I'm just going to link to the Wikipedia article for Red 40 since it describes the two yellows as well (Sunset Yellow and Tartrazine)

Other than link to these specific dyes I can't address the claim because it's too broad. Yes, they do list four specific dyes, but as we've seen, that list is only drawn from frequency of use.

As an aside, I hate the common usage of the word "processed". It means anything, and therefore nothing. The simple act of butchering is "processing". In fact, Dr. Mercola's website rails against "deli meat". I don't know what deli he frequents, but if it's a real one, it's kosher, and the products are a damned site more natural than any of the pills and supplements he hawks on his website. It's just a further example of sloppy language.

6. Arsenic-laced chicken.

As always, dosage. Though the infographic states the arsenic-based drugs "make animals grow quicker and make the meat appear pinker and fresher," that appears to be inaccurate by implication. These drugs were used to kill off infections, ward off disease, and produce a healthier animal. Get that? The feed was given in such doses as to produce a healthier chicken, not in doses that kill it off. That's why they grew quicker and had better meat.

Furthermore, you are much larger than a chicken. A dose that keeps a chicken healthy isn't likely to make you sick. However, that's the drug, and not necessarily the arsenic.

As you know, chemistry is tricky... just because something starts out as safe, that doesn't mean it stays that way. Likewise, as we'll see with the next substance, just because something starts out as dangerous, it doesn't necessarily stay that way, either. Atoms are lost and gained. Molecules are split and recombined. New molecules are formed. (My questioner knows all of this intimately. I'm stating that for the rest of you.) In this case, there's a concern about raised levels of inorganic arsenic found in rice, which is often fertilized with poultry droppings.

Last year the FDA withdrew approval for three of the four arsenic-based drugs that exist, so this criticism is largely obsolete. The last drug, Nitarsone, is the only known treatment for histomoniasis, a disease fatal to turkeys. Nitarsone is an organic drug. (Don't get excited; that just means it contains carbon... but where arsenic's concerned, that's important).

On the infographic the risks listed are those of eating arsenic itself, not chicken.

7. Bread with potassium bromate.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information relates that when potassium bromate (KBrO3) is fed directly to rats (orally), it is a carcinogen, and also causes kidney problems in humans, also when fed directly and orally.

In bread it is used as an oxidizing agent to form bonds in the gluten. In doing so it gives up its oxygen and becomes potassium bromide. Unless you're seriously overdosing, this is harmless. The alternative to using the oxidizing agent is to age the flour (in open air, not sealed)... then knead the fool out of the dough then let it rest and knead it again so that the oxygen is taken from the atmosphere. This is time-consuming, and because it's often skipped at home that's why you'll find that some commercial breads are softer than your best attempts. It's not your ingredients, it's your process. You've got to let the dough rest.

Nevertheless, it's possible that if it's not properly used in the baking of bread that some potassium bromate may be left behind, and if you ate large quantities of poorly prepared bread you may develop problems. Fortunately the bread aisle is full of unbromated alternatives.

8. Olestra/Olean

I had to laugh. One of the risks given is that rats that were fed the stuff gained weight. Usually that's a "risk" attributed to "food". Nevertheless, this is the stuff that also advertises its own side effects, such as "leaky bowels" and "oily anal leakage".

Personally, I prefer baked chips and fries to those that have been oil-fried; and while this is in some packaged foods I don't know of any fast-food restaurants that use it (nor would they continue to after the word got out).

It's probably worth noting why this stuff was invented in the first place. It's a fat substitute that got traction only because fat's gotten a bad rap from nutrition fear-mongers. Be careful what you reflexively trash... the alternative is almost always worse.

9. Preservatives BHA and BHT

Let's take them separately, just to be different. Yes, I know, they say that these are "toxic" preservatives, but they also have been remarkably fact-challenged already.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative. For instance, they say BHA "is known to cause cancer in rats". Yes. In abnormally high doses that is true. In hamsters, too. But not in mice... not even a little bit. In mice it seems to retard other carcinogens. And while NIH "reasonably anticipates" that it could be a human carcinogen, no one has found a link at usual levels of intake.
"Comparison of the present results to a similar study using BHT clearly indicates that BHA at equivalent dietary doses is considerably less toxic than BHT"
So let's look at BHT.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is an anti-oxidant. And the same people who decry the scary sounding "chemical" go out of their way to find other anti-oxidants that are claimed to retard aging. Some studies say it increases cancer risk, others say it decreases the risk, the usual upshot of which is that it might not actually affect it one way or the other. In point of fact, you can buy BHT in health-food stores. $12.95 for a big bottle full of capsules of the stuff from Vitamin Research Products. Folks gotta make up their minds. It's terrible when "Big-Pharma" or "Big-Agra" or "" sells it, but just peachy when Big-Vita sells it.

10. Milk and dairy products laced with rBGH

That would be the "recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone" you hear about. Once again they need to fact-check, and in this case I'm going to link you to's page on the subject. I'm using this as a source because if you're going to claim a thing causes cancer, you should be paying attention to what the people who specialize in cancer actually say.

Here are a couple of choice quotes:
"Bovine growth hormone levels are not significantly higher in milk from rBGH-treated cows. On top of this, BGH is not active in humans, so even if it were absorbed from drinking milk, it wouldn't be expected to cause health effects."
"Of greater concern is the fact that milk from rBGH-treated cows has higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone that normally helps some types of cells to grow. Several studies have found that IGF-1 levels at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors."
Just so we're clear on this... the issue isn't about products "laced with rBGH", it's about the higher levels of IGF-1 in cows treated with rBGH. Now, you might thing this is picking nits, but not when medicine is involved. Getting it wrong leads people to ban the wrong damned thing. (and yes, I may have it wrong, too... that's why you get other opinions).

The infographic mentions that cows treated with rBGH have higher incidents of mastitis (udder infections), but rightly notes they are also given more antibiotics. It's not the rBGH that questions, but the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"Some studies have shown that adults who drink milk have about 10% higher levels of IGF-1 in their blood than those who drink little or no milk. But this same finding has also been reported in people who drink soymilk. This suggests that the increase in IGF-1 may not be specific to cow's milk, and may be caused by protein, minerals, or some other factors in milk unrelated to rBGH. There have been no direct comparisons of IGF-1 levels in people who drink ordinary cow's milk vs. milk stimulated by rBGH.
"At this time, it is not clear that drinking milk, produced with or without rBGH treatment, increases blood IGF-1 levels into a range that might be of concern regarding cancer risk or other health effects."
So while IGF-1 can contribute to cancer, this is present in comparable levels in all milk-drinkers, even when rBGH hasn't been administered to the cows, and even when there are no cows at all, as in soy milk. That would sound like cause for advice to avoid milk in general were it not for the matter of dosage and daily allowances. Read the site for more info.

Can I Trust The Source?

I'm sure he has a selection of very
flattering pics on his own site

Now, about who they are. As noted, they are, or more specifically Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has hollowed out quite a lucrative niche in the health advice industry.

Apparently Dr. Oz likes him, though doesn't. In fact, the site gives nine reasons to ignore Mercola.

Steven Novella M.D., professor of neurology at Yale, vilifies Mercola on the NeuroLogica Blog for Mercola's dangerous stance on vaccines. Being wrong on vaccines doesn't necessarily mean Mercola's wrong on nutrition, but he has established a pretty firm track-record for fear-mongering. reports that the FDA has ordered Mercola to stop illegal claims. Again, that doesn't mean that these claims are illegal. It just establishes that he's willing to make illegal claims and has a track record of doing so. published an article on Mercola entitled "15 Years of Promoting Quackery".

Dr. Mercola is entry #274 in The Encyclopedia of American Loons.I find this entry to be entirely on-point.

Given Mercola's track record, anything he says is at best questionable; by which I mean you should question it and get a second opinion. That said, my opinion is that your second opinion should be your primary opinion, so get a third. Of course, Mercola might respond that of course the entire medical and scientific establishment are against him, because everyone but him is in the pocket of Big-something. That would be putting words in his mouth, so I won't suggest it.

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