Why is soy lecithin in your processed foods?

Soy lecithin is a nearly ubiquitous food additive, found in a great many processed foods and personal care products on the market today. A few commonly-used examples include cooking spray oil, salad dressings, mayonnaise, margarine, ice cream, bread, tortillas, cookies, soups, chocolate, candy, chewing gum, protein and granola bars, tea bags, cough drops, skin lotion, lip balms, cosmetics, and medicines, as well as paints, textiles, lubricants, waxes and animal feed.

tea-lecithinEven if food products don’t specifically list soy lecithin, they may be marked “Contains soy.”

Chemically, soy lecithin is an emulsifier, meaning that it takes polar and non-polar ingredients that would not normally mix (such as oil and water), and helps them to homogenize and remain mixed. This is due to the fact that the lecithin molecule has both hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic parts. Soy lecithin is particularly useful in stabilizing oily mixtures such as salad dressings and mayonnaise. It serves the same purpose in candy bars to keep the fatty cocoa butter mixed with the cocoa and dairy – to enable a smooth, velvety mouth feel. It also helps prevent the crystallization of sugar in chocolates.


Soy lecithin also functions as a surfactant to reduce the surface tension of water. For this reason it is added to foods to allow substances to mix more smoothly in water without clumping. In baking, soy lecithin is used as a conditioner to make the dough easier to work with. Similarly, it is found in some tea products – to prevent the ground tea from clumping. It functions as a thickener in soups.

Soy lecithin has lubricant properties, and is used as a moisturizer in lip balms, cosmetics, lotions, and many other personal care products on the market.

Soy lecithin is rich in the essential nutrient choline, and used as a dietary supplement to support liver function, neurotransmission, cardiovascular health, muscle development and healthy metabolism. There is some research indicating that soy lecithin helps lower cholesterol levels. 

In modern innovative cooking techniques such as molecular gastronomy, soy lecithin has found new uses — to make light, airy foams and mousses out of nearly any water-based liquid – such as coffee. Here it acts as a stabilizer to make the foam last longer. See: How to make a soy lecithin foam using an inversion blender. 

soy-lecithinWhat exactly is lecithin? The molecular formula of lecithin is C35H66NO7P. Lecithin, found in the cells of living organisms, was first discovered by the French chemist Maurice Gobley in 1850; it is an oily substance, a mixture of phospholipids and oil. Chemically, a phospholipid has two hydrophobic fatty acid chains and a hydrophilic end consisting of a phosphate group — linked by a glycerol molecule.

Lecithin can be derived from soybean oil or egg yolks; it is also present in peanuts, wheat germ and canola oil. Soy lecithin is most widely used because it is inexpensive, a byproduct of soybean oil production (soybean prices are kept low, partly due to federal price supports).

gum-lecithinAre there valid concerns about soy lecithin? Soy itself is a common allergen, but the soybean allergen is associated with the protein fraction of the bean. Since the majority of the protein is removed during the processing of soy lecithin, it does not typically induce allergic reactions. Yet, some claim to have allergies even to soy lecithin — and try to avoid even products such as chewing gum.

Many people express concerns about genetically modified soy – or remnants of the agricultural pesticides used while growing soybeans. There are some indications that  soy may exhibit estrogenic effects, acting as an endocrine disruptor. This certainly warrants further research.  In addition, there have been studies on the exposure of pregnant rats to soy lecithin, which may be associated with sensorimotor deficits in offspring.

tortilla-soyLecithin is approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the status GRAS — “Generally Recognized As Safe”. The European Union allows it as a food additive.

Should you worry? Unless you never touch processed food, you will simply not be able to avoid soy lecithin and other additives. Small amounts are probably not going to harm you. Our concern should be over the large number of products that we regularly consume or use on our body which contain soy lecithin. When necessary, seek alternatives. Consumers need to be informed — and get in the habit of reading labels.

For more information: Soy Lecithin Fact Sheet


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Contaminants from fast food packaging

We’re all well aware of the unhealthy nature of most fast food, frequently high in salt, saturated fats and added sugars. Now it appears that there is another cause for concern: the wrappers used to package that food. These paperboard boxes or waxy wrappers, designed to repel water and grease, are often impregnated with fluorinated chemicals that may be toxic. This is worrisome, not just due to health consequences for humans, but also for the potential environmental impact after disposal, when these chemicals may leach into soil and groundwater.

wrappingA recent study, Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging, released in the February 2017 issue of Environmental Science & Technology Letters, tested wrapping materials using particle-induced gamma ray emission spectroscopy to detect the presence of fluorine.

The researchers positively identified the synthetic chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in about half the samples of food wrapping. After testing over 400 samples, Laurel A. Schaider et al. identified  PFAS in 56% of dessert and bread wrappings, 38% of sandwich and burger wrappers, and 20% of the paperboard containers (such as french fry or fried chicken boxes or pizza boxes), as shown in the illustration (above) from their research paper. Their testing included wrappers from food chains such as Carl’s Jr., Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Wendy’s and Taco Bell. In contrast, paper cups showed negligible levels of PFAS.

Note that their research did not investigate whether these chemicals are transferred to the food products themselves. This question warrants further investigation. Yet, PFAS have been consistently detected in samples of human blood. For further background, see the EPA’s Research on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

200px-pfa_structure-svgThese manmade organic molecules, PFAS, or more generally, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), are chains consisting of carbon and hydrogen, where fluorine atoms substitute for hydrogen. Teflon is an example of a perfluorinated compound. The strong flourine-carbon bond gives the molecules their stability, resistance and durability. Because they do not easily degrade or break down readily, the substances tend to persist in the environment.

These compounds are found in many surfactants, such as nonstick coatings on cookware, as well as protective, stain-resistant coats applied to carpets, upholstery and waterproof clothing. They may be in some dental floss and cosmetics, as well as microwave popcorn bags. They are essential in foams used to fight fires. Their use in outdoor gear, such as Gore-Tex, has been opposed by Greenpeace in their Detox campaign — for hikers and snowboarders inadvertently slough off residues into pristine wilderness areas, as well as into urban sewage during laundry.  See Greenpeace’s Chemistry for any weather: Tests of outdoor clothes for perfluorinated toxins.

mjAnimal studies have linked exposure to PFAS to reproductive and developmental problems, as well as obesity, decreased fertility, suppressed immune function and increased risk of cancer. PFAS have been associated with changes in hormone levels, as well as altered liver, thyroid and pancreatic function. PFAS also tend to bioaccumulate, or build up in the body over time.

Dave Andrews, of the Environmental Working Group, reports that, “The FDA has approved 20 next-generation PFCs specifically for coating paper and paperboard products used to serve food. These chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and trade secrets mean that, in some cases, the limited safety data submitted to the EPA does not publicly disclose the identify of the specific chemicals or even the companies submitting them for approval.” Greater transparency is called for, particularly involving our food supply and packaging.

An unfortunate episode exposed humans living in Parkersburg, West Virginia to elevated levels of fluorinated chemicals during the 1990s, when leaks from a nearby DuPont factory allowed chemicals to enter the public water source. An extensive article, Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia, by Maria Blake, discusses this episode in detail.

dupont-teflonAfter cows and children in the Parkersburg area starting becoming severely ill — and “the water in the creek turned black and foamy” — a federal lawsuit was filed in 1999. DuPont factory workers frequently reported bouts of nausea and vomiting, which they referred to as “Teflon flu.” Further investigation revealed that the chemical giant, DuPont, had dumped thousands of tons of sludge containing perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) onto a nearby landfill as well as into unlined pits which fed into the town’s drinking supply. DuPont’s own research had found that the chemicals were linked to birth defects, cancer and liver problems in animals. DuPont paid a fine, settled a class action suit and established filtration plants in nearby water districts. And there are still thousands of personal injury suits awaiting trial. Note that DuPont has rigorously denied all charges of wrongdoing. The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception, by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept, provides a more thorough look at the environmental and legal issues of this case.

teflon-pfaSome fast food restaurants switched to the paper-based wrappings in an attempt to be more ecologically sensitive and reduce reliance on the environmentally unfriendly styrofoam containers. As evidence has accumulated, over two hundred scientists from around the world recently demanded curbs on the use of fluorinated compounds, in order to limit their release into the environment. In the Madrid Statement, the European Union has taken steps to regulate and restrict the use of fluorinated compounds.

Further toxicology testing is needed and greater industry regulation is required, though that is unlikely with the current U.S. administration. The FDA should intervene to impose tighter restrictions on the use of fluorinated compounds in consumer products. We also need more extensive investigation to identify safer alternatives. Greater public awareness can enable people to exert pressure on manufacturers and restaurants — and to make more informed consumer choices.

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Synthetic Grass: a solution to brown lawns or a health concern?

An ongoing drought in California has led to parched fields, brown lawns, and drying reservoirs, with no end in sight. Severe water restrictions are in effect, with mandatory cuts of 25% in many areas.

ShowImageHomeowners are restricted to watering two to three times a week, threatened with steep fines for over-watering. As a result, Governor Jerry Brown called for the removal of 50 million square feet of lawn across the state. Lawns are particularly thirsty, accounting for over a third of urban water use. Each square foot of live grass can guzzle 55 gallons of water a year. With the incentive of generous rebates ($2 to $3.75 per square foot) for ripping out those lush green lawns, many homeowners are replacing turf with drought-friendly or native plants or cacti; others layer mulch, bark, pebbles or gravel. But of course cactus and gravel don’t make a friendly surface for children’s play or games of soccer.

Increasingly homeowners are choosing artificial turf — though it is banned in some areas, such as Pasadena and Glendale. Business is booming for turf companies, who say their product is much improved over the stiff AstroTurf of old — developed by Monsanto in the 1960s and most famously installed in Houston’s Astrodome.

turf_crosssection-shaw_sportNewer products are softer and more grasslike. Synthetic turf is marketed as a water-saving, weed-free alternative, safe for pets and children’s play areas, as well as for year-round, all-weather sports fields and putting greens. But it’s not cheap. The average cost per square foot can run $7 to $10, fully installed. It requires a drainage layer and multi-layer backing system, with a granular infill. Replacing a basic 15′ by 20′ area (300 square foot yard) could run $2100 to $3000.

Typically the turf is made of plastic polymers consisting of polyethylene fibers. Some such as SYNLawn  are more environmentally friendly than traditional petroleum-based polymers, using biobased polymers from soybean oil, with added ‘Celceram’ (a recycled product from coal) to add strength and durability. The infill for artificial turf consists of sand or more typically tiny black granules — pebbles of Crumb Rubber from pulverized recycled car and truck tires — which gives it more bounce, particularly for use on athletic fields. New crumb rubber must be periodically added. There are organic alternatives for infill, such as coconut fiber and cork.

Environmental and Health Concerns

Synthetic turf is tire_crumbnot without controversy. Certainly the faux turf does require less water and maintenance, with decreased use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and no need for gas-powered, carbon-emitting lawn mowers. Plus grass clippings are one of the largest components of municipal solid waste. Yet plastic in the fake grass (frass to some) will decompose over time, leaching chemicals into soil and storm water. Tests of the leachate water from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection found levels of zinc, manganese, and chromium harmful to aquatic organisms. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservatism conducted a study of leached chemicals from crumb rubber found zinc, aniline and phenol released above groundwater standards. Whereas natural grass filters rainwater, synthetic turf may lead to excessive water runoff during heavy rainfall. In addition, artificial turf does not support natural biodiversity; it forms an ecological dead zone. Nothing eats it or lives on it.

The artificial turf may heat up the yard as much as 80 degrees (F) hotter than natural grass, leading to unpleasant rubber odors, and the potential for heat-related illness. The fields can become so hot that they need to be watered to cool them to acceptable levels.

Artificial turf has an expected lifespan of 8 to 20 years. Where will the carpet-like sheets go afterward, but to disposal at the local landfill? One football field may contain 120 tons of crumb rubber pellets. Some fear that we are creating a future solid waste problem. The turf companies currently making money off sales will most likely be out of the picture by the time this becomes a significant issue.

Is it safe? The Synthetic Turf Council consistently maintains that the surfaces are safe, but the EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission have undertaken only “limited” studies, and have said that more testing needs to be undertaken. The crumb rubber used for infill contains heavy metals and chemicals such as benzene, benzothiazole, chromium, cadmium, mercury, lead, halogenated flame retardants, carbon black, and polycyclic aromatic compounds, among others listed by the EPA. This particulate matter may be absorbed through direct skin contact, ingestion or inhalation. Gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted and may be inhaled as the material heats up in the sun. Benzothiazole (BZT) is one of the compounds that easily volatizes from rubber; it “exerts acute toxicity and is a respiratory irritant and dermal sensitizer.” In particular, rubber dust gets on athlete’s or children’s hands, where it can be ingested. According to USA Today, several studies have found “potentially harmful lead levels in turf fibers and in rubber crumbs,” exceeding the federal hazard levels of 400 ppm for lead in soil (which is already significantly higher than California’s standard for lead in soil, 80 ppm.

hm_multspflds1Consider that artificial turf is used in thousands of sports fields across the country, from professional football stadiums to high school arenas as well as elementary and preschool playgrounds. There are particular concerns for athletes who spend significant time in close contact with artificial turf. There are some indications of allergic responses. How is the turf sanitized of bodily fluids (saliva, blood, sweat, vomit or urine), as well as animal droppings from birds or dogs? Some manufacturers use antimicrobial chemicals bound to the plastic polymer, but these silver-based compounds break down as well. Artificial turf can cause abrasive wounds and scrapes for athletes impacting the surface. In addition, the black beads (turf bugs) get in the clothes, hair, skin, nose and mouth of athletes playing on the surfaces. They are tracked home after becoming embedded in clothes, shoes and socks.

artiticial-turf-hazardsThere are individual cases of athletes, particularly goalkeepers, with cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid issues, but no systematic statistical correlation between artificial turf and cancer. In her Science News article, Science may get sidelined in artificial turf debate, Beth Mole notes that, “a closer look at the data may ease many fears; they show that artificial turf is generally safe.” And yet there are well documented health risks to tire fabrication workers exposed to chemicals and dust from rubber. The Penn State Center for Sports Surface Research has collected links to a number of scientific studies on the human health issues of synthetic turf “A natural experiment is being conduced in which thousands of children are being exposed on playing fields to rubber, said David Brown, former chief of Environmental Epidemiology and Occupational Health at Connecticut’s Department of Health.

New Jersey’s fact sheet, Be Aware of Artificial Turf Hazards, summarizes health concerns and states that, “Issues of toxicity, movement, heat, cost, friction, sanitation, lifespan, maintenance, warranty, disposal costs, odor, loss of habitat, combustibility, should be thoroughly addressed before any decision to purchase is made.” New York City and the Los Angeles Unified School District stopped installing crumb rubber fields in parks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that comprehensive conclusions on health could not be reached without additional data.

Artificial turf is marketed as safe for pets. If there are concerns for humans, what about pets, who may spend much of their life walking and lying on a synthetic back yard? When they lick their paws, they certainly consume traces of rubber and plastic. And they track particles into the house as well. On a sizzling summer day, the turf may become uncomfortably hot for dogs to walk on as well.

What to do when the data is unclear? The New Jersey Environmental Council data sheet concludes, “When it comes to synthetic turf, the most sensible approach may be to follow the precautionary principle of assuming something involving chemicals is hazardous until scientific evidence proves that it is not.” That may be an over-reach, however, in cases that involve the well-being of children, it is better to err on the side of safety. Nevertheless, it is clear that more data and scientific testing are needed to fully understand potential health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf. However, basic precautions involve limiting play time on hot days, removing rubber pellets from clothing, and washing hands thoroughly after contact with synthetic turf surfaces.

Further reading:

The Use of Recycled Tire Materials on Playgrounds and Artificial Turf Fields, EPA report.

A Scoping Level Field Monitoring Study of Synthetic Turf Fields and Playgrounds, 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Be Aware of Artificial Turf Hazards, New Jersey Work Environmental Council Fact Sheet.

Synthetic Turf: Health and Environmental Impacts, Penn State Center for Sports Surface Research.

Synthetic Turf: Health Debate Takes Root, by Luz Claudio, Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2008.

Benzothiazole Toxicity Assessment in Support of Synthetic Turf Field Human Health Risk Assessment, Journal of Toxicity and Environmental Health, Gary Ginsberg, Brian Toal and Tara Kurland, July, 28, 2011.

Frequently asked questions, answered by the Synthetic Turf Council.

Science may get sidelined in artificial turf debate, by Beth Mole, Science News, April 21, 2015.

How safe is the Artificial Turf your child plays on? NBC News Oct. 8, 2014

Feds promote artificial turf as safe despite health concerns, USA Today, March 16, 2015.

Examining Artificial Turf’s Environmental Issues, by Carol Van Dam Falk, The Connection, January 2013

Artificial Turf: Exposures to Ground Up Rubber Tires – Athletic Fields, Playgrounds, Garden Mulch, Environment and Human Health

Toxic Turf: Movement grows against synthetic turf by Jennifer McKim and Christina Jedra. Huffington Post, May 9, 2015

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Triclosan in your personal care products?

Increased public fear of harmful germs has led to widespread use of consumer products advertised as “antibacterial.” One of  the most common antibacterial compounds is Triclosan — added to soaps, hand washes, and even toys and toothpaste, to slow the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew.

Unknown Triclosan is a synthetic organic chemical, specifically a chlorinated aromatic compound, 5-Chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorphenoxy)phenol. Triclosan was originally developed for hospital use, as a bactericidal surgical scrub for medical professionals. It was registered as a pesticide back in 1969. A similar compound, Triclocarban, is also used as an antimicrobial agent, particularly in bar soaps.

For the last thirty years, triclosan has been widely added to personal care products such as deodorant, antibacterial soap, hand soap, body wash, facial cleanser, toothpaste, mouthwash, acne cream, shaving gel, skin lotion, and some cosmetics, including foundation, bronzer and lipstick.  Triclosan is also added to home care products as diverse as cutting boards, mops, air filters, carpets and blankets. It is embedded in fabric, used in items of clothing such as socks and shoes. It is also added to plastic, where it can be found in toothbrushes, computer mouse pads, and even toys.

Dial_HandSoap_gold_lgFor example, Dial Gold Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap, shown to the left, lists Triclosan as the active ingredient — in order to achieve “the gold standard for antibacterial protection.” Note that other hand sanitizers do not contain triclosan, rather listing alcohol as the active ingredient.

For a more extensive list of individual products, see Products that Contain Triclosan. Read the labels of the products you purchase; triclosan should be listed as an active ingredient.

Controversy over Health Effects

Is Triclosan harmful? The health effects of triclosan are in dispute, but there’s little doubt that you have been exposed to triclosan in everyday products. In a 2004 study, CDC scientists detected triclosan in the urine of 75 % of of the 2,500 individuals tested. Other tests have found triclosan in blood and breast milk. 

triclosan-fact-sheetThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that, “Triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans.” But there are concerns that triclsan may be a endocrine disruptor — affecting hormonal levels of testosterone and estrogen, and it is suspected that it may affect thyroid function. Human studies are difficult; most of these studies have been undertaken on laboratory animals. For rats, long-term exposure to triclosan resulted in a decrease in thyroid hormones.

Researchers found that exposure to triclosan resulted in tadpoles with lower body weight and deformed limbs. In addition, triclosan may contribute to the antibody-resistant bacteria. It may also be associated with a weakening of the immune system, and may be linked to cancer cell growth, and decreased fertility. See the EPA Risk Assessment data sheet and Triclosan: What the Research Shows.

Residues of triclosan have been found in indoor dust samples. The compound is also washed down household drains to enter our sewage systems and waterways — where it can be spread throughout the environment, and enter the food chain. Triclosan has been shown to be toxic to phytoplankton and shrimp. Sediment samples from freshwater lakes across Minnesota tested positive for triclosan, as well as toxic chlorinated triclosan compounds — formed when triclosan undergoes a chemical reaction in wastewater treatment plants. Canada has declared triclosan toxic to the environment.

Due to increasing public pressure, some manufacturers are voluntarily eliminating triclosan from their products.  Companies such as Johnson and Johnson  and Proctor and Gamble have committed to reformulating their products to phase out triclosan. Minnesota recently issued a ban on personal care products containing triclosan — due to go into effect in 2017.

triclosan-regulationThe Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has long been involved in efforts to remove triclosan from the marketplace; in 2010 the NRDC sued the FDA to force it to take action. In fact the FDA originally proposed removing triclosan from certain consumer products back in 1978. Note that the chemical’s use in food and cosmetics is regulated by the FDA, while the EPA oversees its use in fabrics and sealants. The European Union banned the chemical from food and all products that come into contact with food.

Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is revisiting the issue of triclosan’s safety, and under a new rule released in December 2013 the FDA will require manufacturers to provide evidence that the compounds triclosan and triclocarban are effective and not harmful to consumers.

A look at one product

colagate-total-triclosanLet’s zero in on one particular product: Colgate Total toothpaste contains 0.3% triclosan, which the company claims is helpful in fighting germs that can lead to plaque and gingivitis. Colgate’s international website advertises that its unique formula uses a copolymer to bind triclosan to the dental surface: “The Gantez copolymer enables Triclosan to continue working in the mouth for up to 12 hours. Without the copolymer, Triclosan would be rapidly lost form teeth and gums, reducing its clinical effect.” The Colgate-Palmolive Co stands by its product: “The safety of Colgate Total has been reviewed by the U.S. FDA and regulatory agencies in Europe, Canada and Australia, all of which have approved triclosan as a safe ingredient in Colgate Total.”

Most other toothpastes, such as Crest and Aqufresh are free of triclosan.

Colgate cited 80 clinical studies involving thousands of people, and at one time called Total “the most significant advancement in home dental care since the introduction of fluoride.” Triclosan was approved for use in Colgate Total back in 1997. Its 35 page application listed toxicology reports, only recently released by the FDA.  And yet, the FDA’s approval relied largely on company-funded research to demonstrate that the compound was safe for human use. Even so, the application showed images of fetal bone malformations in laboratory animals.

triclosanSee a timeline of this regulatory process and the article — Colgate Total Ingredient Linked to Hormones, Cancer Spotlights FDA Process — from Bloomberg News.

What can you do? 

Read ingredient lists, and try to purchase products that don’t contain triclosan or triclocarban. Avoid antimicrobial and antibacterial products, wherever possible.  Note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds no evidence that antibacterial washes help stop the spread of germs, as compared to washing with soap and warm water. But note that you need to wash and scrub your hands for 24 seconds to reliably remove microbes from the surface.


EPA Triclosan Facts

Triclosan: What the Research Shows

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From Apples to Skittles: Wax on your food

What about food waxes?

apple-waxSome fruit such as apples and plums produce their own natural waxy coating, called the cuticle, to help retain moisture and to form a barrier to prevent microorganisms from entering the fruit. About half of this natural wax is removed when produce is washed and scrubbed to remove dirt and chemical residues. Prior to packaging, food processors often apply wax to the surface of produce.

These commercial waxes are routinely applied to many fruits and vegetables to help preserve and protect them during shipping and storage. These waxes help prevent moisture loss, limit bruising and spoilage, improve appearance, inhibit mold growth, and extend shelf life. Aesthetics matter in the marketplace; consumers are drawn to shinier, glossier produce. Dyes may also be added to improve appearance.

Foods commonly waxed include: apples, oranges, tangerines, lemons, peaches, bananas, melons, avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, turnips, cassava and potatoes. Waxes are typically applied by dipping, brushing or spraying the produce. The amount of wax applied is small, perhaps a drop or two per item.

cuties 1These waxes are edible; they must meet U.S. Food and Drug (FDA) regulations for food additives, and have been declared safe for human consumption. Produce that has been so treated must be labeled. Signs may read: “Coated with food-grade vegetable, beeswax, or lac-based wax or resin to maintain freshness.”

These waxes are typically esters of fatty acids combined with long-chain alcohols. Some of these coatings are synthetic (petroleum-based), while others are natural. These include: vegetable (from sugar cane or soy), as well as carnauba (from carnauba palm leaves), or bayberry wax (from bayberry fruit). Others originate from insects: beeswax and shellac (from the female lac beetle). Organic produce will not be coated with synthetic waxes, but may include shellac or carnauba wax.  These are the waxes most commonly applied to apples. The waxy coating is typically not visible, but may turn white if the produce has been subjected to excessive heat and/or moisture. 

Note that these waxes are not digestible by humans. We lack the ability to break down or absorb these waxy compounds.

The FDA does not recommend using detergent to remove wax. “FDA recommends washing fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking. FDA does not recommend the use of soap, detergent, or commercial produce washes” — according to the FDA’s website. However, you can use a 50-50 mixture of vinegar and water to remove the wax. Of course, the surest way to remove wax is to peel the fruit.

SkittlesSome snack foods and candies, such as M&Ms, Skittles, Gobstoppers, Fruit Chews, Tic Tacs and Good ‘n Plenty are also coated with carnauba wax — which gives them a glossy finish.

Carnauba Wax

Called the “Queen of Waxes,” as well as Brazil wax and palm wax, carnauba wax comes from the leaves of the tropical palm, Copernicia prunifera (copernica cerifera), native to Brazil. It is a complex mixture of aliphatic (waxy) esters, hydroxyl esters and cinnamic aliphatic diesters, along with free acids, free alcohols, hydrocarbons and resins.

It is also used in shoe polishes, furniture polish, automobile wax, and a coating for dental floss. Carnauba wax is widely used in the pharmaceutical industry to coats pills, and make tablets easier for patients to swallow. The coating adheres because the wax is insoluble in water. It is also the hardest of the commercial vegetable waxes.

Carnauba wax is used in the cosmetic industry in mascara and eye liner. It imparts the gloss to lip gloss and lipstick. Making Cosmetics labels it a “Non-gelling thickener, viscosity and consistency enhancer (provides good texture and stability due to high melting point), emollient and moisturizer, good skin protectant properties.” Its high melting point allows lipstick to resist melting, particularly if left in your purse in a hot car.

carnauba-wax-cosmeticsFor those who make their own cosmetics, carnauba wax is even available on Amazon, where it is advertised: “Natural thickener with softening effect.”

Safety Issues

The European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) reaffirmed the safety of carnauba wax at current usage levels, with its toxicity within the margins generally classified as No Observed Adverse Effect Levels (NOAELs). Their Scientific Opinion states: “The panel considered that carnauba wax would be predicted to not be significantly absorbed from the diet and that if hydrolyzed its main constituents could be absorbed and incorporated into normal cellular metabolic pathways. Based on the available data nd the lack of structural alerts on carnauba wax it was concluded that there is no concern for genotoxicity for carnauba wax. Subchronic and reproductive and developmental toxicity studies did not show adverse effects related to carnauba wax intake. No chronic toxicity or carcinogenicity studies were available on carnauba wax.” No data was obtained with respect to allergenicity, hypersensitivity, or intolerance. The ESFA concluded, “Overall the Panel concluded that long-term toxicity data on carnauba wax were lacking and therefore did not establish and ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake).”

carnauba-wax-safetyAnd yet, the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for carnauba wax lists the product as “Very hazardous in case of ingestion”. No doubt this was determined for lab rats who ingested substantial quantities of carnauba wax. But note that data for carcinogenic effects, mutagenic effects, teratogenic effects and developmental toxicity are listed in Section 3 as “Not available.”

What exactly is an Acceptable Daily Intake? How much carnauba wax might a person ingest in a year? There seems to be little data on long-term toxicity for carnauba wax.

 Best ways to wash produce

Wax can be removed from fruits and vegetables by washing in warm water and scrubbing with a brush. A study by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station indicated that friction was more important than water temperature in removing residues.  Produce with nooks and crannies such as broccoli or cauliflower or lettuce should be soaked in clean cold water for several minutes. For more about washing produce, see Food Safety Facts.

There are commercial washes such as Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash — which claims to be 100% Natural and able to “remove 98% more pesticides, waxes, people-handling residues and other contaminants vs. washing with water alone.” The ingredients include Purified Water, Oleic Acid, Glycerol, Ethyl Alcohol, Potassium Hydroxide, Baking Soda, Citric Acid, and Distilled Grapefruit Oil. Fit is available as a spray bottle and soaking solution. Instructions call for the consumer to spray the solution to completely cover the produce, rub for one minute (or let sit for 2 to 3 minutes), then rinse under running water. For produce with irregular surfaces — such as broccoli or cauliflower — it is recommended to soak the items in diluted Fit for 2 to 3 minutes, then rinse.

FDA-wash-produceAre these products necessary? The FDA’s website states: “Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting or cooking. this includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or purchased from a grocery store or farmer’s market. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.”

Personally, I keep a spray bottle of 50-50 water and vinegar handy for washing fruits such as apples.



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Added Fiber…..it’s often Wood Pulp

With our busy, bustling lives, it’s always tempting to choose convenience. My kids love to make quesadillas and burritos, so sure, I often keep a package of shredded Mexican cheese in the refrigerator.

cheese-cutIf I grate my own cheese, it does tend to clump. What keeps those packaged strands of shredded cheese from sticking together? Powdered wood pulp. You’ll find it listed in the list of ingredients as “powdered cellulose.” Kraft claims that cellulose makes up less than 1% of its shredded cheese. Its purpose: to replace fat and prevent clumping by keeping cheese moist. A more natural product that is sometimes used in shredded cheese is potato starch. Even organic brands come with cellulose. For example, see the ingredients listed for Organic Valley Shredded Mozarella Cheese.

In fact, Cellulose is one of the most commonly used food additives — used to thicken or stabilize foods. It adds creaminess to low fat ice cream, non-dairy creamer or sour cream. It imparts the “mouth feel” of fat, the stickiness of salad dressing. ( See an article in the Wall Street Journal: Why Wood Pulp Makes Ice Cream Creamier.) Cellulose adds structure and firmness to baked goods, and contributes fiber to processed white bread. It is used to prevent clumping of powdered drink mixes and spice mixtures. Cellulose helps retain moisture, keeping foods from seeming dry. It is bland, tasteless and inexpensive — seemingly the perfect ingredient for the food processing industry. If you see the words “Lower fat” or “Added fiber” it’s probably got cellulose. Not just on your grocery shelves….cellulose is found in many foods at fast food restaurants.

Beyond shredded cheese, cellulose is found in crackers and cakes, pizza sauce and barbecue sauce, biscuits and cookies, maple syrup and frozen waffles. See: Fifteen Food Companies that Serve You Wood. Here’s a sampling of food products that commonly contain cellulose:

cheese 2Mission Whole Wheat Torillas (ingredient list  in photo to the right)

Aunt Jemima Original Syrup

Eggo Blueberry Waffles

Weight Watchers Ice Cream Sandwich

Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix

Fiber One Chewy Bars

McDonald’s McFlurry

Fiber One Cereal

Mararoni-cheeseKraft Macaroni and Cheese

Nestle Hot Cocoa Mix

 A Versatile Additive

Cellulose is nearly a miracle food for the food processing industry. Did I mention that it was cheap? Among the many functions cellulose serves:

  • Fiber Supplement: Food processing removes the fiber from foods, so cellulose is used to add fiber back in to foods such as white bread or muffins.
  • Calorie Reducer: Cellulose adds bulk and volume to diet foods without adding calories or fat.
  • Thickener:  Since cellulose is water soluble, it is used to thicken drinks and soups.
  • Emulsifier: Cellulose is added to emulsify sauces, preventing water or oil from separating from the other ingredients.
  • Shredded-cheeseAnti-caking Agent: Cellulose prevents spices, powdered drinks and shredded cheese from sticking together.
  • Filler: Cellulose serves as a replacement for more expensive ingredients, including oil, sugar, or flour.
  • Foaming agent: Cellulose supports the formation of foam or air bubbles in food.
  • Stabilizer: Cellulose helps maintain a uniform consistency of a food product.
  • Glazing agent: Helps give food a shiny appearance or a protective coating.
  • Shelf-life extender: Cellulose adds to the shelf life of many food products.
  • Coating: Cellulose helps prevent oil absorption during frying.
  • Control ice crystal growth: Cellulose helps maintain “a homogeneous state during freeze/thaw cycles.
  • Filler: Cellulose is used as a filler or fiber additive to meat products such as burgers or meatballs.

Not just for foods, cellulose is also used as a coating or binding agent for pharmaceuticals, as well as a thickening agent in personal care products, and a packaging film. For instance, microcrystalline cellulose is found as an inert ingredient in acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

 Chemistry of Cellulose

celluloseChemically, cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, specifically a long chain of linked sugar molecules or polysaccharide. Cellulose is the building block that gives plant cells their structure, and it is considered the most abundant organic compound on the planet. It typically comes form wood pulp, but may also come from cotton, bamboo or other plant materials. The plant matter is crushed and treated with hot water and chemical enzymes to break it down.

Cellulose is modified to obtain different functional properties. Microcrystalline cellulose is made by the hydrolysis of cellulose, while carboxymetheylcellulose is obtained by reacting cellulose with chloroacetic acid. Cellulose comes in several forms with slightly different textures and moisture contents:

1) Powdered Cellulose, used for anti-caking applications,

2) Microcrystalline cellulose (listed as MCC or cellulose gel),

3) Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum.  These last two forms, the cellulose gum and gel are hydrated forms, commonly used in yogurt, ice cream or sauces.

Cellulose may be sold under the trade names Abicel, Avicel, Cellex MX, Arbocel, Jelucel, or Hypromellose.

Is it Healthy?

The FDA sets no limits on the amount of cellulose that can be added to food, categorizing it as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). There are no known health problems with consuming cellulose. The only legal limitation is 3.5% for cellulose fillers added to meat.

Feta-cheeseIn the diet, cellulose is indigestible, because we lack the enzymes to break it down. Therefore it contributes neither energy nor nutrients. Cellulose is considered dietary fiber — it adds bulk and fiber without adding fat or calories. Adults males are advised to consume at least 38 grams of fiber daily; women should intake at least 25 grams.

Of course fiber is good for you. So what’s wrong with getting fiber from cellulose? There are better sources of fiber: beans, broccoli, raspberries, blackberries, avocado, as well as whole wheat grains or flaxseed. Tastier, healthier, digestible….and they don’t come from wood pulp.

In addition, the processing of cellulose “is either highly polluting or energy consuming.

Cellulose fiber may not be toxic…but it’s definitely not food.

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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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