Bread: Sorting through a multitude of choices

Bread-aisle-groceryMy college daughter called, via cell phone, as she strolled the grocery store to ask which type of bread she should buy. A simple question, but surprisingly difficult to answer. The bread aisle can seem overwhelming, with an abundance of choices. Our ancestors baked basic concoctions of flour, yeast, salt and water, with a bit of sugar to activate the yeast. Now bread is more “interesting,” but not necessarily healthier.

Grocery shelves are stacked with breads offering whole wheat, 100% whole grain, cracked wheat, seven grain, twelve grain, multigrain, stone ground, and enriched bread. Products may be advertised as “heart healthy,” gluten-free, “100% natural,” “with double fiber,” “containing flax and grains,”or “made with whole grain”.

I grew up in the Midwest eating sandwiches of white, processed bread. Few choices were available.  Much later, I lived in Paris for a year, and got used to the smells of fresh-baked bread from the local boulangerie. There are healthy choices available in your grocery store, but you have to know what to look for.

Processed vs Whole Grain Wheat 

wkernel2Let’s look inside a grain of wheat. There are three parts to a wheat kernel (also called a wheat berry). The hard outer covering is called bran; it is high in fiber and nutrients, as well as essential fatty acids. The majority of the kernel consists of endosperm, rich in carbohydrates and protein. The inner core of the kernel is the “germ,” rich in nutrients. This germ is the part that sprouts to grow a new plant.

This is the key difference: Whole grain products contain all three parts of the kernel (bran, endosperm and germ), whereas processed white bread is made from the starchy endosperm only.

Most wheat originates from red wheat, though you may encounter “white whole wheat” — made from albino wheat, which has a milder texture and taste. 

When wheat is refined, the kernel is pulverized; the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the endosperm. Processing removes the natural fiber to create the uniform palatable texture of refined (white) bread products. Protein and nutrients, such as B vitamins, have also been removed.

Nutritionists widely advise adding more whole grains into our diet for better health. Whole grains contain digestive fiber, proteins, essential B vitamins, along with minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. They are low in fat and free of cholesterol. Consumption of whole grains is correlated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and colorectal cancer, as well as better digestive health. Soluble fiber in whole grain helps lower cholesterol levels. Plant estrogens, known as phytoestrogens, may offer protection against some cancers.

Deconstructing the Labels

* “Wheat flour” is a term used to disguise white flour; it typically contains 25% whole wheat and 75% white flour.

* “Unbleached enriched wheat flour” is another term for refined flour.

* Multigrain bread is made from a mix of different flours; this doesn’t mean that whole grains have been used. Grains may include oats, wheat, buckwheat, barley, millet and/or flax.


* “Stone ground” doesn’t mean whole wheat. Nor does “Crushed Wheat” or  “Cracked Wheat.”


* “Bakery fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Bakery products may be made from refined flour. Check the ingredients

* Products labeled “enriched” have simply had some of these nutrients added back in. B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) and iron are used to enrich white flour.

* Breads with “double fiber” have been enriched with bran, oats, soy, cottonseed, cellulose (wood pulp filler), or inulin, a prebiotic fiber from the chicory plant.


* “Light bread” may contain lower fat content — or it may have a lower calorie count because it is sliced thinner. Water is usually the first ingredient. They are usually made with processed flour and high fructose corn syrup. Light doesn’t mean healthy.


* “Sprouted bread” is made from grains that have sprouted or germinated. During this process, enzymes are released which break down proteins and carbohydrates, which makes them easier to digest. These products, such as Ezekial breads, are typically refrigerated; they are highly nutritious, and free of artificial additives.



* Brown bread is usually made with whole wheat; it may also contain dark-colored ingredients such as molasses, cocoa, coffee, wheat germ, or raisins.

* “Gluten-free” bread has no gluten — protein from wheat, rye or barley. Brown rice flour or corn flour may be used instead.

* “All bran” is not whole grain — it uses only the bran part of the wheat kernel.

Daily-bread* “Organic bread” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients by weight, as compared to “made with organic ingredients” (70% organic ingredients) and natural (minimally processed).

* See  an extensive evaluation of the ingredients in bread in the report A Closer Look at What’s in Our Daily Bread, from The Organic Center.

What you should look for

Read the list of ingredients, which by law must be listed in order of decreasing abundance in the product.

1. Buy breads that are “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.” The first ingredient listed should be “whole wheat flour.” Not “wheat flour” or “enriched bleached flour,” or “unbleached enriched flour.”

Note that many whole wheat breads (such as the Orowheat 12 Grain) list “whole grain wheat” as the first ingredient, but  “unbleached enriched wheat flour” as the second ingredient. Remember that wheat flour is not whole grain.


2. Look for breads that don’t list sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup as the second or third ingredient. Some sugar is needed to activate yeast, and molasses or honey may be added to enhance the sweetness of whole wheat bread.


3. Look at the nutritional content. A single slice should generally contain about 100 calories, at least 2 grams of fiber, and less than 200 mg of sodium.

4. Color may be deceptive. Molasses, beta-carotene, caramel, coffee, cocoa, or artificial colors may be added to make the bread appear browner and healthier. Even this dark pumpernickel bread has been artificially colored — and made from enriched wheat flour.


5. Squeeze it (gently!). If the bread is overly soft, it’s probably not the best choice. Denser breads generally contain whole grains.

6. Look for additives…

And now for something extra

Bakers may add a range of ingredients to enhance flavor, texture, shelf life and/or fiber. These may include:

- Added favors: nuts, berries, seeds, dried fruits, or flax seeds enhance flavor and texture.

- Sweeteners include Sugar, molasses, honey, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners such as sucralose.

bleachedvsunbleached1- Flour bleaching agents are added to make bread appear whiter. These may include calcium peroxide, benzoyl peroxide, chlorine oxide, or azodicarbonamide. Read more about the health consequences of bleaching flour. The ground endosperm is processed with a chlorine gas bath (chlorine oxide) to oxidize and whiten the flour. The chemical alloxan is produced as a byproduct — this chemical is associated with diabetes and hyper-glycemia in lab animals.

Azodicarbonamide, also known as ADA,  was in the news as the “yoga mat chemical” – a foaming agent which gives plastics their buoyant quality. The Subway chain of restaurants recently removed ADA from their bread products.


- Dough conditioners are used to improve the texture and speed the processing of bread. These include monoglycerides and diglycerides, ammonium chloride, sodium stearoyl lactylate, DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Ester of Mono and Diglycerides), lecithin, and calcium salts. Avoid any breads with bromated flour.


- Powdered cellulose (virgin wood pulp) may be used as a filler in breads to add fiber. It is found in products such as tortillas and Fiber One Ready-to-Eat Muffins. See 15 Food Companies that Serve you ‘wood’.


- Preservatives may added to increase shelf life. These include:  calcium propionate, and natamycin.


- Artificial dyes may include caramel coloring, beta-carotene, or Yellow #5 or #6.

What does this leave?

The basic problem is that bread should be consumed soon after baking. In order to manufacture it on a large-scale, transport it, and give it an extended shelf life, bread is processed with dough conditioners and packed with preservatives and other questionable ingredients, including DATEM, calcium peroxide, azodicarbonzmide, and potassium bromate.

Some recommended bread products can be found on the website Food Facts, as well as Food Babe’s blog. These include Ezekial Sprouted Grain Bread, Spelt Ancient Grain Bread, and Good Seed Spelt Bread. Another excellent choice is Dave’s Killer Bread – made with organic whole wheat, sweetened with cane syrup and molasses. No preservatives, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or dough conditioners.


Consumer choices

We’ve concentrated on wheat products. Other whole grains include: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rye, oats, titricale, wild or brown rice. Less common varieties of wheat include bulgur, kamut and spelt.

61A3fHBpo3L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_If you have the time or inclination, there are excellent recipes for crafting your own breads at home. For example, see the Five Minute Artisan Bread recipe, or the many recipes for using home bread machines.

A wealth of choices await you at the grocery store or your local bakery. Appearances are deceptive. Breads that are labeled “Healthy Multigrain” may be baked from enriched bleached flour.

Sorting through them begins with reading the list of ingredients, and exercising your power as a consumer to make the healthiest decisions for you and your family.



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What is the risk? Is it safe to eat raw eggs?

What is the real risk of consuming raw eggs? As kids we licked spoons coated with batter left over from making cookies. Some body-builders swear by protein shakes blended with uncooked eggs — as Sylvester Stallone memorably demonstrated in the 1976 movie Rocky. Yet, the fear of bacterial infection is real, though quite small, and there are ways to minimize it.

DSCN1059Salmonella enteritidis is a type of bacteria that is the most common culprit in food poisoning cases in the United States. The bacteria can be found on both the inside and outside of eggs. Eggs can become contaminated two ways: 1) internally from the reproductive tract of a hen infected by salmonella, or 2) externally due to contact with salmonella-infected soil, feces or unwashed hands. Egg shells are porous, and micro-organisms can cross the shell boundary.

However, the risk of an egg being contaminated with salmonella is extremely low. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that perhaps 1 in 20,000 eggs, 0.005%, may be internally contaminated — this is five one-thousands of one percent.

If eggs are eaten raw or undercooked, this bacterium can cause Salmonella poisoning , also called salmonella enteritis, or salmonellosis — which usually manifests as a fever, coupled with abdominal cramps, diarrhea and/or vomiting. Symptoms typically appear within 12 to 72 hours of consuming contaminated eggs, and may last four to seven days. Most individuals recover without treatment. In severe cases, the infection may spread to the blood, then to the rest of the body, requiring hospitalization and treatment with antibiotics.

The elderly and young are particularly susceptible to salmonella poisoning, as are pregnant women and those with suppressed immune systems. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that there are 142,000 cases of salmonella poisoning each year.

To wash or not wash? Refrigerate or not refrigerate?

Egg-washEven if the egg did not originate from a hen infected with salmonella, it may have come in contact with the bacteria through manure or feces. In the United States, it is standard USDA practice to wash chicken eggs in warm water with mild detergent and then treated with a chlorine sanitizer. This sounds like a logical step, and yet, in Europe, it is actually illegal to wash and sanitize eggs. The EU maintains that washing removes the egg’s natural wxy cuticle coating, which provides a natural barrier to bacteria and pathogens. Some U.S. producers spray the washed eggs with a thin layer of colorless mineral oil.

Eggs sold in the European Union (EU) are not required to be refrigerated prior to sale, as EU regulations maintain that chilled eggs left at room temperature could be covered in condensation — and this moisture could facilitate bacterial growth. Research by the National Institute of Health showed that for eggs infected with salmonella, storage at room temperature for up to two weeks had no significant effect on the growth of bacteria; after twenty-one days, bacteria contamination of unrefrigerated eggs was pronounced.

Another difference is that British producers vaccinate their hens against salmonella; only a small percentage of American producers vaccinate.

Note that eggs purchased from grocery stores may already be one to three weeks old.

To cook or not cook?

Digesttibility-raw-eggsSome fitness pros believe that there is more bioavailable protein from an uncooked egg — hence their inclusion in protein shakes. In fact, the data suggests the opposite. A 1998 study by Belgian physiologists determined that 94% of the protein is digested for cooked eggs, versus 55 to 64% of the protein for raw eggs. In fact, you’d be better off eating a hard boiled egg with your protein. 

According to an article on, “Some older athletic diets used to propose eating just raw eggs. This is a foolish attempt at taking in additional protein. Eating raw eggs (or raw egg whites) will only result in about 50% absorption of the available protein. That means that if you eat enough raw eggs to give you 40 grams of protein, your body will only absorb 20 grams. Eating just raw egg whites results in the same (or worse). Egg whites have a huge amount of a substance called ‘avidin,’ which loves biotin. As a matter of fact, once the avidin-biotin forms a bond, the body can’t break it apart. So y ou will develop a partial or full Biotin Deficiency Syndrome. Cooking your eggs (or egg whites) will quickly denature the protein avidin and will allow you to absorb 90% of the protein. In short, always cook your eggs.”

Catching-Fire-cookingPrimatologist Richard Wrangham further explores the health benefits of cooking food in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, arguing that our evolutionary success is, in part due to our shift to using fire to cook food.

Reasonable Precautions

To prevent the risk of salmonella infection, purchase eggs from a refrigerated case, and dispose of any cracked or dirty eggs. At home, eggs should be kept refrigerated at ≤ 40° F (≤ 4° C).  Eggs should be thoroughly cooked, to a temperature of at least 160° F, until the yolk and white are firm. Note that sunny side up eggs and eggs over easy do not attain this minimum temperature. Casseroles and other egg dishes should also be cooked to a temperature of 160° F (72° C). Eat immediately, or refrigerate any leftovers. Obviously, wash hands and kitchen surfaces after contact with raw eggs or chicken.

Salmonella outbreaks often occur in restaurants, where large quantities of eggs are mixed and left at room temperatures for extended periods. One bad egg can literally spoil the whole bunch.

51Uv0c16uMLDishes that call for raw eggs — such as Hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing, homemade ice cream and eggnog — should be made with pasteurized eggs. Most eggs are not pasteurized, but some are labeled “Pasteurized Shell Eggs” – these eggs have been treated to a temperature sufficient to destroy Salmonella bacteria. The patented process that allows eggs to be pasteurized in their shells (without cooking the egg), involves immersing the eggs in warm water paths for set time periods. Pasteurized eggs are more expensive, but just as nutritious; they are safe to use in smoothies, or undercooked in sunny side up eggs…or if you wish to lick the spoon from your cake or brownie mix.

New safety regulations went into effect in 2010 for egg producers having 50,000 or more egg-laying hens; in 2012 these regulations expanded to medium-scale producers (3,000 to 50,000 hens). These regulations require preventative measures involving testing and monitoring of hens, rodent control, and the use of refrigeration during egg storage and transportation.

Theoretically, organically grown eggs should have a lower incidence of salmonella, since chickens are not kept in tightly packed conditions where diseases can easily spread. Statistically, this seems to be supported by data: larger commercial producers have a higher incidence of bacterial infections. Read this article for an argument for buying eggs from Farmer’s Markets.

Not just eggs: Outbreaks of salmonellosis have been attributed to consumption of chicken, pork, raw milk and cheese.The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that one in eight broiler chickens was contaminated with salmonella. Poultry should be thoroughly cooked, to an internal temperature of 165° F (74° C).

salmonellosis-symptoms-raw-eggsSalmonellosis can also arise from fruits and vegetables such cantaloupe, tomatoes, raw almonds, spinach, lettuce, and alfalfa sprouts – largely due to bacterial contamination from soil or groundwater contaminated with animal feces. “Once Salmonella gets on and into a tomato, the fruit acts like an incubator,” writes Ewen Callaway in New Scientist. Particularly when you’re traveling, it is be cautious of fruits and vegetables which may be unwashed or washed in contaminated water. Washing fruits and vegetable in cold water doesn’t necessarily eliminate salmonella, as the bacteria can adhere tightly to the surfaces, forming an adhesive biofilm.

In the end, take reasonable precautions.


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Banana Equivalent Dose — or BED

Many worry about radiation exposure — particularly after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster released significant amounts of radionuclides, such as iodine-131 and cesium-137 into the atmosphere and ocean. Increased exposure to radiation may also come form living near a nuclear power plant, flying in an airplane, or from undergoing certain medical procedures, such as X-rays, mammograms or CT scans.

It’s important to remember that radiation is a natural factor in the environment. You are exposed to background radiation in the air, in the soil, in the food we eat, even in our own bodies. In your home, radiation comes from typical construction materials, such as bricks and wallboard, granite countertops and tile floors, through cat litter, or even from the soil or bedrock beneath your house.

On average, 82% of your total annual exposure to radiation is from natural sources, most of that from radon. A wonderful graphic (shown to the left) is from the xkcd website. Note that we’re talking about ionizing radiation, the type of exposure absorbed by body tissue that can potentially damage human cells.

One measure that has been proposed to illustrate natural radiation exposure is the Banana Equivalent Dose (more technically the biologically effective dose) or BED. This refers to the radiation exposure from eating one banana. In fact, all foods are slightly radioactive, but bananas are particularly rich in potassium, which is the major source of natural radioactivity in plant matter. And 0.1% of potassium consists of the radioactive isotope Potassium-40 (40K), which decays with a half-life of 1.25 billion years. For an average banana, that yields about 14 decays per second. This translates into a microscopic amount of radiation, which is quantified as 0.1 micro Sievert or mSv.

Obviously bananas won’t kill you. They won’t set off a Geiger counter; they don’t glow in the dark. There are rumors that crates of bananas have set off radiation detectors at customs — but these are most likely urban legends. Trace levels of radiation are also found in foods such as beans, nuts, seeds and potatoes. Even human bodies are naturally radioactive. Sleeping next to someone for eight hours yields a dose of 0.05 mSv. This works out to half a BED – which seems quite appropriate!

To put it in perspective, fifty bananas would be the equivalent of the radiation dose of a dental X-ray; eating 70,000 bananas would equal one chest CT scan.  The yearly dose per person from food is estimated at 400 micro sieverts . The maximum yearly dose permitted for U.S. radiation workers is 50,000 mSv.

Is the BED a valid measure of radiation exposure? Maggie Koerth Baker writes that the potassium-40 in bananas is a poor choice, “because the potassium content of our bodies seems to be under homeostatic control. When you eat a banana, your body’s level of Potassium-40 doesn’t increase. You just get rid of some excess Potassium-40. The net dose of a banana is zero.” But it takes time for the body to remove excess potassium, during which time doses can accumulate.

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The Golden Spice of Life?

DSCN1055Widely touted as a “superfood,” the world’s healthiest spice, or the “golden spice of life,” turmeric has been in use for at least four thousand years. The deeply colored yellow-orange spice is what gives Indian curry its distinctive yellow color and savory flavor. The taste might be considered somewhat bitter and peppery. Turmeric is not a cure-all, though it has been touted as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and even an anti-cancer agent.

First how do you pronounce it? Most people drop the first “r,” enunciating TOO-mer-ik, but it is also considered correct to say TUR-mer-ik or even TYOO-mer-ik.

Where does it come from?

turmeric_varietiesTurmeric, also known as Indian saffron, the poor man’s saffron, haridra, or haldi. The powder is obtained from the rhizome (root stock) of Curcuma longa, a perennial herbaceous plant that is related to ginger. The plant, a member of the Zingiberaceae family, grows in India and tropical regions of Southern Asia.

Over thirty different varieties are known, with names such as Alleppey Finger, Erode and Nizamabad Bulb. The fresh rhizomes are boiled, then drained and dried in the sun for up to two weeks, before being ground to obtain the powdered golden spice.

The active ingredient of turmeric is the compound curcumin (typically comprising 3 to 6% of turmeric), along with volatile oils and resins. The volatile oils enhance the flavor and aroma of the spice. Note that curcumin is not related to cumin, another spice used in Indian cuisine — that comes from the seeds of a different plant. Chemically, curcumin consists of curcuminoids, complex compounds which are linear diarylheptanoids.

A Versatile Spice with Multiple Uses:

Turmeric is one of the main ingredients of curry – the others being coriander, cumin, fenugreek and chili pepper, with the possible addition of garlic, ginger, asafetida, cardamom, nutmeg or black pepper . Note that the term ‘curry’ does not refer to a single spice, nor a spice of uniform consistency; rather it is a Western invention, dating back to the British occupation of India.

Six-spices-indianMore authentic Indian recipes do not call for curry powder, but rather for complex combinations of spices, such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, garlic and asafetida (hing), and black cardamom, stored in a traditional spice tray, as shown in the picture to the right. (You can find these gorgeous stainless steel Masala Dabba spice trays, for about $20 online).

These spices are often sautéed with ghee or oil to bring out the full flavor of the spices. Vegetarians might try this Chickpea Curry recipe on You can sample more recipes of Indian cuisine involving turmeric, such as Kofta Curry, in the cookbook Six Spices: A Simple Concept of Indian Cooking, by Neeta Saluja

5 spice jacket 1st glly.inddMany cooks are overwhelmed by the number of spices necessary to recreate traditional cuisine. Five spices, Fifty dishes, by Ruta Kahate offers a simplified approach, presenting recipes that revolve around only five basic spices: turmeric, coriander, cumin, mustard and cayenne pepper, to create vegetarian and meat-based dishes.

Turmeric is in wide demand by the food processing industry, as synthetic colors are increasingly avoided. Turmeric is  widely used a natural food coloring to impart a deeper color to a diverse range of products including: butter, margarine, salad dressings and cheese, ice cream and yogurt, as well as baked goods, popcorn, gelatin, and even orange juice. Turmeric imparts a vivid color to soup broths and salad dressings. Turmeric is used as a flavoring additive for many mustard blends, as well as for sausages, pickles and relishes.

Turmeric is also used to color fabrics, and it is found in cosmetics. In India, turmeric paste is applied to the skin, as part of a traditional wedding; the Rasam (Ritual) of Haldi is performed one day before the wedding ceremony. Turmeric spice is mixed sandalwood powder along with milk or almond oil. The bridal glow mask is said to impart a healthy glow to the skin — and protect from evil spirits. You can make your own Turmeric Facial Mask from turmeric, rice flour and yogurt — it is said to soften the skin, and relieve the symptoms of acne.

Health Benefits:

DSCN1045Turmeric, or more specifically, curcumin, acts as an antioxidant, meaning that it scavenges free radicals in the body. The compound has been promoted as an anti-inflammatory. Topical pastes made with the powder can be applied to the skin to relieve the pain associated with wounds, bites, arthritis and an antiseptic for disinfecting sores.

Herbal remedies involving turmeric has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years, particularly  as part of the Ayurvedic tradition. It was been used as a dietary supplement to relieve stomach, intestinal and liver disorders. Among the many claims, it is said to stimulate the gallbladder, reduce cholesterol level, aid in digestion and relieve irritable bowel syndrome.

There are preliminary indications that turmeric may be useful to inhibit the spread of cancer, in particular prostate and colorectal cancer, but clinical trials are few. Initial indications show that turmeric may correct cystic fibrosis in mice. Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles are undergoing regarding turmeric’s effect on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

turmeric-supplement-spiceYou can easily incorporate turmeric spice to your diet through recipes such as those listed above — or you can sprinkle it on your salad or sandwich or add it to your soup or stew. There are also pure herbal supplements containing turmeric (specifically curcumin).

Turmeric is considered safe for general use, but there are few systematic studies involving larger, therapeutic doses of the spice. Possible interactions may occur for individuals using blood-thinning medications, non steroidal pain relievers, drugs to reduce stomach acid, or those undergoing treatment for diabetes.

No guarantee it will keep away evil spirits.

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Acrylamide: A hazard from high-temperature cooking

News reports are full of lists of food additives to be avoided, ranging from artificial sweeteners to MSG, BHA and BHT, trans fats to sodium nitrate, sodium sulfite, and sulfur dioxide… as well as food dyes and high fructose corn syrup. Controversies rage over the long-term health consequences of ingesting these common food additives. However, there is great concern over another chemical, acrylamide, which is NOT an additive, but a by-product of cooking.

Acrylamide is a chemical that forms in plant-based, high carbohydrate foods when they are cooked – by frying, deep frying, grilling, roasting or baking – at high temperatures. Roasting any bean, seed, nut or grain produces acrylamide. It is generated during the browning process. In contrast, boiling, steaming and microwaving do not appear to lead to the formation of significant levels of acrylamide. It is found in processed foods, as well as home-cooked and restaurant-prepared foods.

acrylamideMore specifically, Acrylamide is an organic molecule (C3H5NO), also known as 2-propenamide, that forms in starchy foods that contain natural sugar as well as asparagine, an amino acid. Acrylamide forms at temperatures over 100° C (373° F) during the browning of the Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction first described in 1912 by French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. This involves a reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar (such as glucose or fructose) that requires heat. This browning step is crucial to imparting flavor, color and texture to food.  Consider the difference in taste and feel between eating a doughy pizza crust and a crispy golden brown one.

Where has acrylamide been detected? It is found in cookies, crackers, potato chips, French fries, breakfast cereal, popcorn, nuts, peanut butter, biscuits, bagels, pizza crust and bread. Acrylamide is also found in coffee and beer, as well as cocoa powder and chocolate products. Acrylamide is also found in certain canned products, such as black olives, sweet potatoes and pumpkin, as well as dried fruits.

What is the danger?

AcrylamideToxicityA 2002 study by researchers of the Swedish National Authority first identified levels of acrylamide in foods. However, note that acrylamide has been a part of our diet since humans first began cooking food by fire. Subsequent research found that high levels of acrylamide are associated with increased risk of cancer and reproductive problems in laboratory animals, including rats, mice, monkeys, dogs and cats. Specific results of exposure to rodents included tumors of the testes and thyroid, cancer of the uterus, as well as lung cancer. Note that these were levels far higher than found in the human diet.

Acrylamide is labeled a genotoxic carcinogen, as it may cause cancer by interacting with an organism’s genetic material. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that, “Acrylamide is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.” It may also cause damage to the reproductive and nervous systems in humans, including impaired muscle function, and could potentially play a role in pancreatic cancer, as well as neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzeheimers .

How much acrylamide is safe?


Typical levels of acrylamide in foods (in ppb) in individual servings of potato chips typically range from 200 to 400 parts per billion (ppb). See a complete listing on FDA website. Levels of acrylamide in breakfast cereals range from 25 to 500 ppb. Levels can be quite high in roasted nuts; a single serving of roasted almonds can be as high as 450 ppb. A few representative samples are shown in the table; data are from the FDA website.

International organizations such as the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulate that exposure to acrylamide should be “as low as reasonably practicable” or ALARP. The International Agency for the Research of Cancer (IARC) has classified Acrylamide as “2a,” declaring it a potential carcinogen to humans. Acrylamide is included on California’s Proposition 65 ‘right to know’ list of chemicals regarded to cause cancer or reproductive problems.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not declared acrylamide a health risk to humans, and they do not recommend dietary changes to avoid acrylamide. However, studies are ongoing to assess the risks to humans of dietary acrylamide. Additional data and risk factors for acrylamide can be found on the EPA website.

How can I avoid acrylamide?

Acrylamid levels are no different for organic vs. non-organic food. The best way to limit your exposure to acrylamides is to eat a healthy diet, incorporating  a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lean meats, and to limit your intake of processed foods. A typical American household has been estimated to spend nearly 90% of their food budget on processed foods.

ToastWhen cooking at home, manufacturer’s instructions for frying or baking should be followed. Higher levels of acrylamide form when foods are cooked at a higher temperature, or for longer cooking times. The main recommendation is to avoid over-cooking food. Bread should be toasted to a pale brown, not a dark brown color. Significantly, frying has been found to lead to the highest levels of acrylamide. French fries or roasted potatoes should be cooked to a golden yellow, rather than a crispy brown color.

Additional tips from the U.S. National Toxicology Program recommend frying foods at temperatures lower than 338 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not store raw potatoes in the refrigerator, and soak raw potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes, then dry before roasting or frying.

DSCN0615Raw nuts, rather than roasted nuts will  have lower levels of acrylamide.

Levels of acrylamide in baby foods are generally negligible, with the exception of teething biscuits and processed sweet potatoes.

Acrylamide forms in coffee when the coffee beans are roasted, not during the brewing process, so the length of brewing has no effect on acrylamide levels.

The process of roasting cocoa beans produces acrylamide. There’s more acrylamide in dark chocolate than milk chocolate.

Tobacco appears to be a major contributor to acrylamide exposure. Preliminary studies indicated that acrylamide biomarker concentrations are four to five times higher in smokers vs. nonsmokers. The easiest way to avoid acrylamide is to avoid smoking as well as exposure to second-hand smoke.

What about other sources?

A related compound, polyacrylamide, is used in the purification of drinking water, where it acts as a coagulant, combining with solid materials to make them easier to remove by filtration. During this process acrylamide is released. The EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act regulates contaminants in drinking water as Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLG); this limits the quantity of polyacrylamide that can be added to raw (unpurified) water. See: Basic Information about Acrylamide in Drinking Water. 

Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. The chemical is also used in grouts and cements, as well as the industrial processing of paper, fabrics and dyes. Acrylamide and polyacrylamide are also found in certain cosmetics.

What changes is industry implementing?


In 2005, California filed suit against manufacturers of potato chips and french fires, to require them to notify consumers about acrylamide. Companies singled out included McDonald’s Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Kettle Foods, Frito-Lay, Proctor and Gamble, and H.J. Heinz. These companies avoided trial by agreeing to pay fines, change their labeling procedures, and reduce levels of acrylamide in their foods over a time period of three years.

There is no simple solution to eliminate acrylamide in all foods, but the food industry is developing procedures to reduce the formation of acrylamide in processed foods. A switch to the enzyme, asparaginase has been shown to reduce acrylamide levels. Another pathway has explored agricultural innovations, such as increasing soil sulfur levels, or reducing nitrogen levels in crops.

Few systematic studies have yet been completed on the long-term effects on humans. Further research is needed to illuminate the potential hazards of exposure to acrylamide. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has begun a full assessment, evaluating levels of acrylamide in foods, and the associated toxicity to humans. They anticipate releasing a draft of their scientific opinion in 2014, and final recommendations in 2015.

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Cosmetics: Untested and Unregulated

How many personal care products do you use daily? Few of us keep a tally, reaching regularly for soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, deodorant, hand lotion, facial cleanser, fragrance, sunscreen, lip balm, acne cream, foot powder, or hand sanitizer. Men might add shaving cream, aftershave, or hair gel. Women might add facial moisturizer, makeup, powder, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, blush, lipstick, and nail polish. But then you need more chemicals to remove that makeup, eyeliner or nail polish. In addition, there are products to color, lighten and straighten your hair, or remove unwanted hair from your body. On average, Americans use between 9 to 15 products a day, applying over 126 different chemicals to their skin. I suspect many of us use even more than this on a daily basis, in an endless quest for lasting beauty and youth in a bottle.

In conversations, I’ve found that people tend to assume that such personal care products are tested for health and safety. Yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has absolutely no authority to review or approve cosmetic and skin care products–or even to require companies to test such products. In general, these products are NOT approved or tested before they go to market — one exception involves certain regulated color additives.

The $50 billion industry polices itself through the voluntary Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) — which is funded by the industry’s trade association. In other words, it regulates itself. In fact, the CIR has evaluated fewer than 20% of cosmetic ingredients in widespread use. In its thirty year history, only eleven ingredients have been found unsafe; in any case, the findings of the CIR are not legally binding on companies; compliance is voluntary. Nearly 90% of the ingredients used in the manufacture of U.S. cosmetics have not been tested for safety.

More than 500 products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients currently banned in Canada, Japan or the European Union, which maintain stricter oversight. Many widely used personal care and beauty products contain phthalates, mercury, toluene, petroleum distillates, parabens and other chemicals that may be associated with increased risk of cancer, birth defects, or disruption of the reproductive system. Even small amounts used consistently over a lifetime can add up to substantial doses of potentially harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, the label “Natural” is no guarantee of ‘greenness’ or purity.

Of particular concern, lead has been consistently found in lipstick. Lead is a neurotoxin, associated with language and learning disabilities. According to a clarification on the FDA’s own website: “No, the FDA has not set limits for lead in cosmetics” — though it does regulate lead in color additives. Another class of potentially harmful chemicals: Phthalates. These industrial solvents are found in hair spray, nail polish, perfumes and deodorants. These chemicals (banned in Europe) are recognized as hormone disruptors, associated with damage to the liver, kidneys and reproductive systems.

These days, hand sanitizer is pushed at kids like candy. One advertisements read: Kills 99.99% of germs! Mothers carry bottles in their purses, smearing it over kids’ hands before a meal. Bottles sit next to my bank teller, store cashiers, even teacher’s desks. But in this case, the cure may be worse than the disease. What you’re getting with your dose of hand sanitizer is Triclosan, an antibacterial compound that is also found in toothpaste, face wash, and deodorant. The EPA registers it as a pesticide. The American Medical Association warns against triclosan, as it may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Triclosan is associated with liver and thyroid disfunction. In nature, it is toxic to aquatic wildlife. Humans have an immune system that has developed to deal with germs–not triclosan.

In addition, synthetic fragrances, found in shampoos, shaving creams, lotions, even “unscented” products are common allergans, associated with asthma attacks, contact dermatitis, thryoid disruption and immune system damage. In an independent investigation, “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested fragrance products on the market. They found fourteen unlisted chemicals, claimed as trade secrets, ten substances associated with allergic reactions, and four hormone-disrupting chemicals.

These products do not just affect humans, for chemicals enter the environment, passed through urine, washed down the drain through hand washing or bathing, or when unused products are thrown into the trash. Traces of these PPCPs (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products) are widely identified in waterways across the nation, affecting aquatic wildlife, such as amphibians and fish and birds, as these chemicals enter the food chain. More research is needed on the cumulative effects of PPCPs on the environment.

Too few of us take the time to read the labels — even on products we use daily. Propylene glycol, tocopheryl acetate, propylparaben, emulsifying wax, methylparaben, and petrolatum are a few of the chemicals in the hand lotion we smear on our skin. How can you find out what’s in your child’s toothpaste? How about your makeup? EWG, the Environmental Working Group maintains Skin Deep, a searchable database with safety profiles on cosmetics and skin care products, with listings for over 70,00 products. The Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients offers a compilation of chemical listings. Also see The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

A visual summary of the issue can be found in the graphic: Fatal Attraction: What’s really in your beauty products? See the video: What’s in your makeup?

A few hundred companies have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Business Network, pledging to eliminate harmful or toxic chemicals from personal care products. Legislative action is pending; The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 (H.R. 2359) would require full disclosure of ingredients and give the FDA authority to ensure that personal care products are free of harmful ingredients. There is increasing pressure for the FDA to regulate the use of nanotechnology in food and cosmetics. Nanomaterials in these products are currently unlabeled and untested, but there are indications that they enter the bloodstream when we ingest them — or through contact with skin.

The cosmetics industry generates immense profits off these products. Sales by L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, topped $26 billion last year. They profit from our ignorance — while promoting unattainable (for most of us) levels of physical perfection and beauty.

We have a choice between dozens of types of shampoo and skin creams which offer to make our hair silky and our skin smooth, but we’re given little data on the decision that maters — basic safety.

Support companies that fully disclose chemicals in their products. We deserve to know.

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School Lunches? Our Kids Deserve Better

Pizza, chicken tenders, fish sticks, hot dogs, French fries, tater tots, jello and chips are all too common staples served to U.S. students — resulting in school lunches that are consistently high in saturated fats and sodium. 34% of the calories in a typical school meal come from fat. When I first toured our local elementary school, the principal stated that a kid could conceivably choose to eat pizza every single day. Certainly some do.

Parents have ready access to information about what their kids are eating — most school districts now post menus online. For example, see a sample menu from the Chesterfield County Public Elementary School. For this particular week, on Monday, kids could pick between Hot Dog on a Bun, Chicken Fillet Sandwich, a Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich or Entree Salad. They could then select two additional add-ons from: potato, tossed salad, baby carrots, fruit or juice.

A study of 1000 Michigan sixth graders found that those who regularly ate school lunches were 29% more likely to be obese than their peers who brought home-made lunches. Of course there is no guaurantee that lunches brought from Mom and Dad are home-spun marvels: Pre-packaged “Lunchables,” potato chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are laden in fats and salt. Children raised on the concept of fast food and “kid foods,” including Happy Meals, Fruit by the Foot, Dora the Explorer yogurt, Goldfish, and Scooby-Doo Macaroni & Cheese have acquired a persistent taste for salt, fat and sugar. Parents have an obvious role to play in modeling healthy eating.

The U.S. is behind the game. Other countries have already launched improvements to school lunches. Take a look at a visual comparison of U.S. lunches to those from around the world. South Korea’s selection of Mushroom soup, rice, egg, tofu, kimchi and bean sprouts look far healthier, but most likely not to the taste of a majority of American kids.

A recent infographic from the website GOOD compared school lunches with prison food. Guess which turned out to be superior? An average prison meal includes more protein and vegetables than a typical school meal. A school meal is even worse than fast food: McDonald’s tests their ground beef five to ten times more often than the USDA tests beef sent to school.

The first new nutritional standards in fifteen years are being imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, part of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010. Unveiled in January, these measures would limit the caloric count of meals served – and add whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk, as well as more variety in fruits and vegetables. New limits will restrict sodium, saturated fat and trans fats. Flavored skim milk will be on the menu – due to persistent lobbying by the dairy industry.

And yet, House Republicans are urging that such mild reforms be scaled back, claiming that the FDA is relying upon “soft sciences” rather than “hard science” to formulate such guidelines.  They also cite the burden of increased costs in an economic downturn. Let’s not politicize this issue: raising healthy kids doesn’t have to bring up fears of a “nanny state.”

The National School Lunch Program, created by President Harry Truman in 1946, is a federally-funded program to provide free or reduced-price meals to children from low-income families. For the 2009-10 school year, 31.6 million children participated on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the lunch program is tied to another historic monstrosity: agricultural subsides. The U.S. government encourages over-production of dairy, corn and beef by subsidizing these industries. According to basic economic theory, a surplus would normally drive down prices. So the government buys these food surpluses and provides the products to schools. Note that very few of these subsides go to growers of broccoli or spinach.

One basic problem is that very few adults eat what our kids eat. In one district, an anonymous “Mrs. Q” committed to eating 162 school lunches. She blogged about it on Fed up with Lunch, describing her experiences consuming popcorn chicken, bagel dogs, applesauce, and red-colored ice. Pizza was typically served once a week. She noted that kids only had 20 minutes to eat lunch, so many kids began by eating dessert.

There have been many local attempts at innovation. School districts have experimented with food presentation, providing artfully-arrayed locally-grown fresh choices instead of processed food slapped on a tray. One school district used psychology to influence kids’ choices. renaming foods, such as “x-ray vision carrots” or “lean, mean green beans.”  Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley began the Edible Schoolyard Program, creating student-run farms where kids could grow what they ate. Josephine Lauer runs the Organic School Project to encourage healthy choices in Chicago schools. In California, the Golden Carrot program encourages alternative, sustainable nutrition in schools. Information and sample menus, including vegetarian options, can be found on this site from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Of course, gardens aren’t an option for a school in the inner city. Funding remains an obstacle for poorer districts, when budget cuts are requiring schools to cut back on basics.

So what can we do? A few simple measures:

  1. Let kids create: Making your own salad is a lot more appealing than the same old green beans or chopped carrots.
  2. Go with fresh instead of processed: crunchy carrot sticks or snap peas are more appealing than mushy canned peas. Provide apples over applesauce, cherries over red-flavored ice.
  3. Let kids see where food comes from: many schools have had success with gardens, where kids tend tomato and zucchini plants. Kids are much more likely to eat what they’ve participated in growing. This doubles as a lesson in science and business.
  4. Stop letting agricultural subsidies decide what’s on the menu. School lunches have a surfeit of high fat dairy products, corn and high fructose syrup.
  5. Avoid fried and processed foods as much as possible. Challenge kids beyond the narrow range of so-called “kid foods.” Kids can learn to eat grilled chicken instead of popcorn chicken, roasted potatoes instead of french fries, baked zuccini instead of hot dog on a stick.
  6. Try an international flair. This doesn’t mean cheesy nachos, but perhaps Thai coconut vegetables or Indian chicken curry. Pass out chop sticks instead of plastic forks to stimulate interest.
  7. Have school officials eat with the kids. If principals and teachers ate the same foods as the students, they would most certainly demand improvements.

We can do better. Our children deserve better.

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