Talking Natural Colors on NBC with Tom Costello

I was honored to give an interview as part of a story on artificial colors. There is mounting concern about the safety of artificial colors in U.S. food products (anything from sweetened drinks, colored candies, and even mac-n-cheese. The FDA is holding meetings over the next few days to discuss the latest evidence and possible link between artificial colors and ADHD.

The segment featured a mom who has claimed her child’s behavior has improved when the artificial colors were taken out.

[watch it]

We need to follow the science – absolutely. But let’s look at the big picture 70% of Americans don’t get the whole food fruits and veggies they need. The foods with artificial colors should not be part of our “typical day” of food intake anyway. Since we’re getting over 3 times the safe amount of added sugar and not enough nutritious foods, there’s a lot we can do to shift that balance — and whether artificial colors are “good” or “bad” — eating right is the right thing to do for our long-term health and wellness.

Here’s what you can do:

  • half plate fruit or vegetables
  • 80% of your food in the day minimal processing – nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, eggs, beans… you get the idea
  • don’t fear fat – olive oil, avocado, nuts/seeds, salmon, yogurt (full or low fat) and regular fat cheese are good for satisfaction and pleasure just be careful of portions because fat is high in calories
  • look for short ingredients lists on packages and make sure you don’t need a chemistry degree to pronounce the ingredients – companies are making chips and snacks with a few simple ingredients – reach for these in moderation

Kombucha Tea: Do the Negatives Outweigh the Positives?

By: Carlene Helble-Elite Nutrition Intern

The beverage industry provides a plethora of options for those seeking something fizzy, a drink with a kick, or beverages with advertised health benefits. Kombucha is a popular ‘health drink’ that uses a grouping of bacteria and yeast mixed in with tea. Ancient China is credited with the creation of this fermented tea, although many countries across the world have their own versions.

Kombucha is made by first obtaining a colony called the ‘mother’ which floats at the top of the batch of tea. The colony is saved for each brew (think of sourdough starter) and even passed along to friends so they can brew their own. After creating a large batch of tea (it can be green or black tea), sugar, and the colony are mixed together. The fermentation process then begins and for one to two weeks, the tea sits unrefridgerated.

Kombucha fans say the health benefits are numerous and include stimulation of the immune system, cancer prevention, improved liver function and digestion. The tea is also touted as a probiotic food. Up until the time of this post, there has not been a major medical journal that has done a report on kombucha. These claims are not scientifically proven and sometimes it may seem that personal stories are what keep this fermented tea popular. While it is possible that there are some benefits, there is no evidence at this point to prove it.

There have been, on the other hand, been major reports of ill effects including GI distress and allergic reactions. The FDA cautions, ‘the risk of contamination is high’ because it is often created within personal kitchens in non-sterile containers. Aspergillus, a fungus that produces a nasty toxin, is a particular concern in kombucha. Over a decade ago, the CDC filed two reports of metabolic acidosis one resulting in major illness and another in a death. The cases had possible, but not definite connections to daily intake of kombucha. To be on the safe side, the American Cancer Society advises those with compromised immune systems should avoid this beverage.

Serving Sizes, Packaged Food Nutrition Labels May Get a Makeover per the FDA

If you have ever read a nutrition facts label, you have probably seen the “serving size” listed right at the top. But do you know where that number comes from? (Hint, not an independent third party.) It’s actually the manufacturers themselves. Buy a big packaged muffin in the store and chances are the serving size is half a muffin. Check the cookies. The serving size is probably one or two. It’s not just junky foods either. I checked my package of alfalfa sprouts. One serving is supposedly 2/3 of the entire package. Now, I love my sprouts, but I’m lucky to get a small handful on a sandwich or salad.

So why is this an issue? Well, if you haven’t heard there’s an obesity epidemic going on in the United States. We don’t get enough exercise. We don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. We sit too much. We eat too much food we don’t bother to make ourselves. We eat a lot of stuff out of boxes and packages. Probably most important, many Americans don’t really know how to nourish ourselves and balance out our eating.

Weight management is multifaceted. But when it comes to the purpose of nutrition facts labels, it’s all about educating the consumer about how much food, calories, and nutrients are in a realistic serving. So recently, the FDA has said they need to look at what they can do to help people manage how much they eat and make sure they aren’t confused by the information provided.

Recently, Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the F.D.A. office that oversees nutrition labels was quoted in the New York Times on this topic as saying:

“We are actively looking at serving size and evaluating what steps we need to take. Ultimately, the purpose of nutrition labeling is to help consumers make healthier choices, make improvements in their diet, and we want to make sure we achieve that goal.”

Right now they are considering doing two things: bringing the serving size more in line with what people actually eat and then moving key information to the front of the package. The front-of-package initiative is part of the bigger issue of all the “spots, checks, marks” and other labels that food manufacturers use to give packaged foods a “health halo.” I think this is an important step for the FDA to get involved. The manufacturers’ front-of-package labeling is nothing more than snazzy marketing designed to make people put the package in the cart. If the FDA can oversee a single system for front of package labels that brings some key information to the front (like 120 calories per serving, 2.5 servings per container) this may help bring awareness to how much they are actually taking in if they consume half or the entire container.

The FDA says the front of package label would be voluntary for companies, but what they are considering is regulations that would prevent companies from promoting “benefits” on the front, while downplaying any “downsides” to the foods. I think this step is crucial. The more messages you have, the more potential for confusion. There’s only so much space on the package.

It’s not like this is the first time the FDA has tried to step in and tell companies that they should accurately portray the amount in the package on the nutrition label. Here’s a warning letter they issued back in 2004 (yep, about six years ago):

FDA also recognizes that there is a growing trend in the marketplace for jumbo or super-sized servings. When such products are intended to be consumed by one individual in one eating occasion, the nutrition information should be based on the entire contents of food in the container. We recognize that the current serving size regulations allow for such products to be sold as either one, or more than one, serving even if they are usually consumed at one time. FDA intends to re-evaluate this aspect of the serving size regulations. In the meantime, we encourage manufacturers to provide the most accurate and useful nutrition information to consumers by taking advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes and label food packages as containing a single-serving if the entire contents of the package can reasonably be consumed at a single-eating occasion.

If FDA has addressed this in 2004 and warning letters to companies have not inspired any positive change in nutrition labels, then maybe it is high time they set tougher regulations. It does not appear that self-regulation is working.

I’m not so sure how changing the serving size standards to reflect what people actually eat would work because we eat too much now. How do you determine the “real” size people eat? It’s better to show the real size people should eat, but the problem with that is it depends on age, gender, weight, and amount of exercise. It’s hard to give a “one size” serving to fit all Americans.

Let’s take cereal. Toasted oats serving size is usually one cup. Other sugary cereals usually have a serving size of 3/4 cup. I don’t think it should be permissible for companies to choose 3/4 cup to make their products look nutritionally comparable to other cereals (calories and sugar look lower because the serving size is smaller). But what do you choose as the new standard? Even if “two cups” is more like what people actually eat, is it more than they should eat? Maybe for a 50-year-old overweight female, but maybe not for a 17-year-old high school track star. I would love to hear your comments below with good suggestions for how this would pan out in a realistic way.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides food and nutrition advice for anyone over age two, gives custom recommendations for servings of foods. Anyone can get a custom recommendation and track their intake for free online. So that’s a place to start. Educate yourself on what you should eat. Buy fewer packaged foods in general. Eat smaller portions. Only eat when you are hungry. All these things will help you in your “healthy weight” journey.

What do you think the FDA should do to educate consumers on food packages?

Read more: Serving Sizes, Packaged Food Nutrition Labels May Get a Makeover per the FDA

Do You Know What’s In Your Dietary Supplements?

Are you one of the 14 million Americans who takes dietary supplements? If you are taking supplements to help you lose weight, please do your homework first. According to this story in the New England Journal of Medicine, you may be getting way more than you paid for.


“A police offer who had been encouraged by his doctor decided to try a weight-loss supplement to help him shed his extra pounds. But instead of losing weight, he lost his job. His diet pills, which were imported from Brazil and sold in the United States, contained vitamin E, centella, senna, and cascara, among other “natural” ingredients. Not included on the label was the amphetamine detected in his urine drug screen. The now-unemployed sergeant is not alone. Such contaminated supplements represent an emerging risk to public health.”

The bottom line is you really have to be careful with what you trust as “safe.” In August 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found more than 140 supplements that contained undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients. DRUGS! These represent only a fraction of the contaminated supplements on the market.

The culprit is lack of regulation in a market where “empty promises” and “quick fixes” sell. Today, dietary supplements are presumed to be safe and can be marketed with very little oversight. Supplements manufacturers are required to report serious supplement-related adverse events to the FDA, but by and large they don’t. The FDA estimates 50,000 adverse events each year go unreported.

As a nutrition expert, I make it my a priority to look at the medications and supplements my new client is taking and ask them what they take each for. It is shocking to see what they are taking and how little they can explain about what the supplement is supposed to do. While I can’t go into detail and review every supplement in this post, here is what I would recommend.

  1. Think before you buy. What is in it? Do you need it? Are all the ingredients safe? Do any of the ingredients compromise a pre-existing health condition or interact with medications? What is the cost? Is it effective?
  2. Research the company. Has the company been around for a long time? Does it appear reputable? What is its Better Business Bureau rating?
  3. Consider the messenger. I’ve heard it all from my clients, anything from “my co-worker sells them to me and they cured her brother’s skin cancer” to “my chiropractor said this cleanse would help me lose five pounds” to “the person at the supplement store said this was the best.”

There is no assurance that hazardous dietary supplements will be identified or removed from the market in a timely fashion. You have to be the cop.

Via New England Journal of Medicine

Are Food Companies Saying Bye-Bye to HFCS?

Have you seen the new Pizza Hut commercial for “the natural”?

With a multigrain crust, all-natural pepperoni or Rustica sausage, all-natural mozzarella cheese and all-natural sauce made from vine-ripened tomatoes, you’ll fall in love with pizza all over again.

Natural.You would think it would be as simple as natural = nature = fresh fruits and veggies… but nope it is not that simple. In fact, it is so complex that the FDA refuses to define natural. So, apples, snake venom, and some pizzaa are ALL NATURAL.

What caught my eye in the new commercial was not so much the “natural” angle, but the language “no high fructose corn syrup” in the graphics.

From where I stand it looks like companies might be throwing in the towel. Obviously HFCS has a PR problem… Corn Refiners Association would not have spent precious marketing dollars on a media blitz to try to adjust consumer perceptions of HFCS if there was no problem.

So when food companies put out a product and call it “natural” and market “no HFCS” aren’t they implying that HFCS is not natural? Doesn’t that go against what Corn Refiners is trying to do?

Maybe some companies would rather offer products sans HFCS than try to adjust consumer perceptions. But let’s be serious… if you replaced your usual Pizza Hut Pizza with “the natural” would you be healthier if nothing else changed? Discuss…

Since this is my blog and I get to share my opinion, I’m going to do it – how liberating! To HFCS or to not… well, that depends on your issue. Breaking it down into science and your health, HFCS is very close to table sugar. HFCS is about 45% glucose 55% fructose and table sugar is 50% each fructose and glucose. Bottom line: like all sugars, HFCS should only be consumed in small amounts or on special occasions. On the frequent/sometimes/rarely scale, it’s a rarely. But let me be clear… HFCS is not poison like some people believe.

If people were more active, sugars here and there would be no biggie. But most people aren’t that active. They drive to work, sit, eat, drive home, eat, watch tv, work, eat, and go to bed. Some people who exercise may only get 1-3 hours a week when 6 hours is recommended. Even active people want to watch their refined sugars. After fruits and milk with natural sugars, you probably get enough sugar in some of the procesed foods like breads, bagels, crackers, dressings, and condiments.

Pizza won’t be the last thing to go au natural – with the approval of stevia as a food additive, Coke and Pepsi are working on their all natural product launches, namely diet sodas and orange juice.

Truvia was created by Coca-Cola and Cargill. Coca-Cola’s first Truvia-sweetened drink is Sprite Green, a reduced-calorie soft drink that will debut in two U.S. cities this month and become more widely available in 2009, according to a Coca-Cola news release that doesn’t name the two cities where Sprite Green will debut.

In the news release, Coca-Cola says it plans “many” other Truvia-sweetened beverages in the future, including low-calorie and zero-calorie drinks.

PureVia comes from PepsiCo and Whole Earth Sweetener Company. PepsiCo’s first products containing PureVia will be zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater in three flavors (Black and Blue Berry, Fuji Apple Pear, and Yumberry Pomegranate), and a new orange juice drink called Trop50, which will contain 50% less sugar and calories than regular orange juice.

The SoBe drinks are coming “soon” and Trop50 will launch in March, PepsiCo and Whole Earth Sweetener Company state in a joint news release.

Is Stevia Safe?

The FDA has had a ban on stevia as a food additive for decades over studies that suggest a concern over steviol, a breakdown product of stevia, which might cause genetic mutations.

Coca Cola and Cargill would like to change that so stevia can become the sweetener du jour in processed foods and beverages. Cargill’s truvia is currently on shelves in New York as a test run and will soon be available at stores nationwide as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners (aka splenda and others).

The LA Times has an interesting piece on the safety concerns. It seems the earlier studies are “outdated” and the latest evidence shows little concern for harm. Many countries allow stevia in their products already. I am sure many Americans would prefer something like stevia in processed foods because of aversions to artificial sweeteners or the preference for “natural”.

From the LA Times:

The eight studies published in Food and Chemical Toxicology last month went even further. One report showed no reproductive toxicity in rats exposed to the sweetener for two generations, and two human studies showed that 1,000 mg of rebaudioside A per day was safe for healthy adults as well as those with Type 2 diabetes. Rebaudioside A (dubbed Rebiana by Coca-Cola and Cargill) is “safe for human consumption,” three of the study authors wrote. They did not report on stevioside.

full text here

So it seems there is scientific support for safety of rebiana, but hold the stevioside for now. If you would like to see the studies yourself, follow this link. Of course, the deal with research is that study results contradict each other for years and that’s how real evidence builds. And pesky bias (as unintentional as it may be) exists – especially when researchers want to keep funding coming in. Researchers! Back me up on this…

Please post other links if you can download the studies for free from another website.

The bottom line: it is a personal decision if you want to use splenda or truvia or plain old sugar or honey or agave nectar… or… yada yada. But the bigger picture is always more important. If you are eating mostly healthy, whole foods (fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, lean protein foods, and whole grains) then there is little room left for the other stuff that might have rebiana added. Not a real reason to worry. However, if your cereal, bread, yogurt, oatmeal, diet sodas and other beverages, etc. etc. have it and these foods are overpowering the whole, natural foods… shift the focus on changing your overall diet and don’t worry about the kind of sweetener. You’ll consume less of it because you changed your diet. You’ll be better off.

FDA Actually Taking a Stand on “Natural” Labeling?

Well… they are, sort of… First, some background. Many food products are labeled with the claim “natural”, but it has been problematic. There have been petitions from the Sugar Association and CSPI urging the FDA to define “natural” so that food companies would have some framework in which they could (or could not) label a product as natural.

Although the FDA has managed to avoid defining natural, leaving consumers to their own to figure out if they believe the product is natural, they have taken a small stand on a little known sweetener called HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), which is prevalent in sugared sodas and other sweetened “juices” and beverages. It is found in smaller amounts in all kinds of food products. Want to know how much HFCS is in your processed food? Check out the ingredients list. The ingredients, by law, have to be listed in order so the first ingredient is the most abundant. If you see HCFS in the first couple of ingredients, you know there is a decent amount.

Now, I’m not one to villify HFCS as an individual product for use in the food industry simply because the research that is available doesn’t show the HFCS is harmful or acts any differently in your body than does sugar. Here’s an thoughtful, balanced summary and viewpoint of the “sweetener science”.

I personally believe the real issue is not with HFCS, but it is with the overall pattern of food consumption. The more processed foods we eat in general, the fewer whole foods we are eating. I’m talking meals made from fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grain rice, pastas and breads, and a little bit of lean protein. This is exactly what the dietary guidelines recommend and it is based on years of scientific evidence. My friend has a philosophy: “if it didn’t run, swim, fly or grow from the ground then it’s not a whole food”. So rather than looking at one ingredient and calling it bad, look at what’s happening overall. The good news is that if you prefer to avoid HFCS or artificial sweeteners there are plenty of companies willing to offer you products without it.

Ah. I digress… One thing we can say about HFCS according to the FDA is “High Fructose Corn Syrup is not natural”.

Here’s how the industry reaction went down: the corn people opposed it, the sugar people and CSPI supported it. Gotta love politics. If you want more scientific details, visit the original report. I put the cliff’s notes version below.


The US corn trade body – Corn Refiners Association (CRA) – has said that June’s comments “actually (reflect) only the personal view of that one (FDA) employee who was responding to a reporter’s question”, and do not constitute the official position of the agency.
“In fact, the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as ‘natural’ under current regulations. The Food & Drug Administration Regulations clearly state that a comment by an employee does not constitute an advisory opinion and does not obligate or commit the agency to the views expressed,” said CRA in a statement yesterday.


On the other end of the spectrum, the sugar industry has expressed its support for FDA’s comments, and calls for these to be formalized. The nation’s sugar trade body – the Sugar Association – has already petitioned FDA to define the term natural.

“While the FDA representative has provided a statement clarifying what processes would not be considered ‘natural’ under current policy, the Sugar Association believes FDA should provide this as official guidance and further urges FDA to provide an official definition for ‘natural’ in response to our existing petition,” it said.

The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which was responsible for the threatened lawsuit against Cadbury Schweppes and which had also backed the lawsuit against Kraft, yesterday said “it is good to see that FDA can confirm reality.”

It added that “we’d prefer the agency to issue a more comprehensive definition to assist companies to know what’s right and wrong.”

“HFCS has never been natural, and consumers do not consider it to be so. In terms of consumer deception, it doesn’t really matter what CSPI, FDA or anyone says – people don’t want HFCS and by calling a product ‘natural’ they are led to believe that it does not contain HFCS,” said CSPI director of litigation Steve Gardener.

Kraft and Cadbury Schweppes did not respond to calls for comment in time for publication.

FDA comments

Although FDA provides no formal definition for ‘natural’, it does have a longstanding policy regarding the use of the term. This states that a ‘natural’ product is one that has not had any artificial or synthetic substances added to the product that would not normally be expected to be in the food – including artificial flavors or color additives, regardless of source.

FDA also does not currently restrict the use of the term ‘natural’ except on products that contain added color, synthetic substances and flavors as provided for in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 101.22.

The agency said it has a system in place for manufacturers to inquire about the use of particular ingredients.

In response to FoodNavigator-USA’s inquiry – made under this system – FDA said:

“HFCS (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 184.1866) is prepared from a high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation listed at 21 CFR 184.1372.”

“Per 184.1372, the glucose isomerase enzyme preparation is fixed (rendered insoluble) using safe and suitable immobilization/fixing agents, including those listed in 21 CFR 173.357.”

“The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our above-stated policy regarding the use of the term ‘natural’. Consequently, we would object to the use of the term “natural” on a product containing HFCS.”

“Moreover, the corn starch hydrolysate, which is the substrate used in the production of HFCS, may be obtained through the use of safe and suitable acids or enzymes. Depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of “natural” and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a “natural” labeling term.”


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