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    Nutrition Lies and the Lying Food Industries That Tell Them

    Four of the biggest food industries — dairy, beef, soda, and cereal — will stop at nothing to sell their products, whether by downplaying negative health effects, making misleading claims, or simply stating false facts.

    What follows is a cornucopia of misleading and untruthful statements I have encountered.

    DAIRY INDUSTRY

    The dairy industry loves to make exaggerated claims and bold statements that, when researched, don’t turn out to be quite as “undeniable” as they want you to think.  Some of my favorite examples:

    “All African-Americans should increase dairy consumption to three to four servings of dairy foods a day to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, including hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity.”

    This claim comes from a study which — surprise! — was funded by the dairy industry.  While industry funding does not necessarily invalidate science, it certainly sets up the perfect storm for spin, bias, and myopic statements.  This study, like many others funded by the dairy industry, conveniently forgets to mention that dairy is but one of many sources of calcium (and, as I explained in this post, dairy does not provide all the nutrients we know play a crucial role in bone health and development).

    The claim that an increase in dairy intake reduces obesity risk is questionable.  A substantial 2008 meta-analysis of studies concluded that the link between calcium intake and weight management is weak at best.  Furthermore, this is a prime example of the food industry’s hypocrisy; whenever rising obesity rates are addressed, they are quick to point out that genetics and physical activity can not be ignored.  Yet, when it comes to weight loss or muscle-building, suddenly it’s solely about food — their food.

    “Flavored milk is simply plain cow’s milk, with a little added flavoring and sweetener.”

    A little?  Eight ounces (1 cup) of flavored milk contain a little over 3 teaspoons of added sugar, equivalent to three Oreo cookies, or four Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon cake munchkins.

    Now, get this.  The American Heart Association’s guidelines on added sugar (released in 2009), children ages 4 to 8 should consume no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar per day.  In other words, that 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk delivers a day’s worth of added sugar.  PS: The average 4 to 8-year old child in the United States takes in 21 teaspoons of added sugar on a daily basis.  The last thing they need is chocolate milk.

    “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that consuming adequate amounts of calcium or foods naturally rich in calcium such as milk, cheese and yogurt throughout life may delay or minimize age-related bone loss and thereby decrease the risk for osteoporosis.”

    Once again, the dairy industry conveniently forgets to mention that many other vitamins and minerals — many of which are not found in dairy — are also crucial for healthy bones.  More deceitfully, though, the above statement contradicts research which shows that high dairy intake does not correlate with lower risks of bone fractures, as well as studies which show that high intakes of animal protein (i.e.: dairy products) hinder calcium metabolism (see this study and this study).

    “Studies have shown that consuming an adequate intake of milk and other dairy foods during childhood benefits adolescents’ bone health.” (Page 2)

    That statement is attributed to the United States Department of Agriculture, which certainly has a vested interest in promoting dairy consumption.  Alas, a 2005 meta-analysis of studies conducted by researchers without ties to the USDA or the dairy industry concluded that “scant evidence supports nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.”

    BEEF INDUSTRY

    The average American equates the word “protein” with meat (and, in many cases, only meat).  It has been my experience that many people are unaware that a cup of cooked oatmeal has 6 grams of protein, or that a serving of whole wheat pasta (which is very small) provides 8 grams of protein.  This is in large part due to the beef industry’s relentless multi-million dollar campaigning efforts, which like to take sole proprietorship of nutrients — especially protein.  Let’s take a look at some claims:

    “Studies suggest that the protein in beef may be help prevent many chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes and osteoporosis.”

    Beef and osteoporosis prevention?  What’s next — Starburst candies reduce cavity risk?  If anything, fruit and vegetable intake has been positively linked to bone health (which makes sense, given that fruits and vegetables provide many nutrients required for bone health that are missing from meat and dairy).  Additionally, there is research demonstrating that diets high in animal protein are associated with faster bone loss and higher risks of fractures.

    As for type 2 diabetes, the biggest risk factor is excess weight, which is a result of consuming excessive calories from any food source.  Which brings us to:

    “Lean meats, eggs and dairy products are considered complete high-quality sources of protein that provide the full package of essential amino acids needed to stimulate muscle growth and improve weight management.  Plant proteins such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are incomplete proteins in that they do not provide sufficient amounts of essential amino acids.”

    Sigh.  While it is true that protein promotes satiety, it is far from a magic bullet for weight management.  The average American consumes anywhere from 150 to 200 percent of their daily protein requirement.  If protein consumption was the key to obesity prevention, wouldn’t obesity rates be significantly lower?

    Yes, meats, eggs, and dairy products are complete sources of protein.  So, however, are soybeans, hemp seeds, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.  The concept of “complete” (all essential amino acids present in one food) and “incomplete” (i.e.: the essential amino acids absent in beans are present in grains, and vice versa) proteins is a moot point anyhow; we now know that as long as all essential amino acids are consumed in the same day (not just the same meal), there are no deficiency concerns.  A lack of essential amino acids is only a concern in situations where someone exclusively eats one food group (i.e.: only vegetables or only fruits).

    As far as muscle growth stimulation: despite the meat industry’s (and most male fitness magazines’) claims, protein is a small part of that equation.  The two biggest factors for muscle growth are: 1) weight-bearing exercises that slightly tear muscle fibers and 2) caloric surplus.  Yes, part of that caloric surplus will come from protein, but without those two key steps, muscle growth will not be stimulated, no matter how many rib-eye steaks you eat.

    “A 3-ounce serving of lean beef offers the most protein with the fewest calories when compared to plant proteins such as peanut butter, black beans and tofu.”

    Fair enough, but so what?  Americans already consume enough protein; they don’t need more.  The average American is, however, in need of more dietary fiber, which is not present in beef.

    “[You would need to eat] 6 1/2 cups of raw spinach [to get as much vitamin B6 as in] a 3 oz serving of beef.”

    While that particular one is true, here are some others the beef industry conveniently left out, using a 3-ounce, 162-calorie portion of lean beef (which provides 0.2 mg of vitamin B6) as the reference point:

    • 1 medium banana: 106 calories, 0.4 mg vitamin B6
    • 1/2 cup broccoli, cooked: 27 calories, 0.2 mg vitamin B6
    • 1 medium potato: 161 calories, 0.7 mg vitamin B6
    • 1 cup spinach, cooked: 42 calories, 0.4 mg vitamin B6

    SODA INDUSTRY

    The soft drink industry is largely represented by the American Beverage Association, which apparently does not keep up with health research.  Behold:

    “The beverage industry makes a wide variety of beverages that can help contribute to good health, such as bottled waters, 100 percent juice, sports drinks, ready-to-drink teas and no- and low-calorie soft drinks.”

    A 12-ounce bottle of Powerade that contain 5 teaspoons of added sugar contributes to good health?  And so do the many Snapple teas that pack in eight teaspoons of added sugar in a single 8-ounce serving?  I can’t even begin to comprehend how beverages made with gut flora-annihilating Splenda or carcinogenic aspartame or caramel color can possibly be linked to “good health”.

    “We know that HFCS affects the body in a manner similar to table sugar.”

    Sure, if HFCS is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose.  However, recent studies have found that may not be the case, which could very well mean that HFCS and table sugar are not metabolic twins.  Recently, Dr. Robert Lustig conducted a fascinating talk on how fructose adversely affects liver health in the absence of fiber (AKA: high-fructose syrup is bad news, eating an apple is not).  To hear the part on liver metabolism of fructose, go to minute 57 of the talk.

    Q: Do diet soft drinks and other foods containing sugar substitutes help people control their weight?
    A: The American Diabetes Association says choosing diet drinks is a useful way to make healthful food choices for your family. Low-calorie sweeteners can be found in a variety of food and beverage products including yogurt, gum, baked goods and breakfast bars. It comes down to balancing calories consumed with calories burned, and low-calorie sweeteners can be an aid to controlling calories consumed.

    This is controversial, to say the least.  Take a look at this study which concluded that “consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes.”.  Then there is this 2010 mini-review published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine which notes that “[the] consensus from interventional studies suggests that artificial sweeteners do not help reduce weight when used alone”, and that artificial sweeteners do not trigger “food reward pathways”.

    “Research with human subjects has proved that there is no difference in satiety between a liquid and a solid with the same calories.”

    Really?  Because this 2009 human study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, titled “Reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight loss” references four human studies which support the idea that”calories consumed in liquid form (ie, liquid calories) have weak satiety properties and elicit poor energy compensation compared with calories from solid foods (ie, solid calories).”

    “Phosphorous in soft drinks does not cause weak or brittle bones. In fact, there is more phosphorous in milk, cheddar cheese and chicken than in soft drinks.”

    Yes, but those foods balance out their phosphorus content with calcium.  The problem occurs when phosphorus is consumed without calcium.  Calcium and phosphorus like to be together.  When we take in phosphorus without calcium (i.e.: drinking a soda in the afternoon), our body starts looking for calcium wherever it can find it (i.e.: leaching it from our bones).

    CEREAL INDUSTRY

    And so we come to the last stop of the “food industry dishonesty” tour.  Let’s see what the cereal industry folks are trying to convince us of:

    [Cereal] is nutrient-dense, with most cereals delivering at least 10 key nutrients and 100 to 130 calories per serving. In fact, cereal is the number one source of whole grain in American diets.” [Click on "A letter from General Mills about Cereal Nutrition"]

    Some cereals can certainly be nutrient dense, but they are the exception, not the norm.  The majority of cereals — especially those heavily marketed to children — are the nutritional equivalent of a piece of candy, a multivitamin, and some corn dust.  It is always better to get nutrients from foods that inherently offer them, as they also usually come along with antioxidants, flavonoids, and phytonutrients that confer their own share of health benefits.

    Additionally, those 100 to 130 calories are not very satiating due to the minimal amounts of fat, fiber, and protein.  As for cereal being the number one source of whole grain in American diets — that is simply a reflection of how much cereal is consumed.  Note that the statistic is not that cereal offers the most whole grain, but rather that it is the number one source (in other words, we eat more sugar-laden whole grain cereal than we do brown rice or whole wheat pasta — hardly something to brag about!).

    “Studies show whole grains may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

    Yes, this is absolutely true.  However, studies also show that added sugar increases the risk of coronary heart disease.  This is it’s not good news that (mostly sweetened) cereals are the number one source of whole grains in the United States.  For maximum health benefits, whole grains should be consumed without added sweeteners.  This is why the cereal industry is dead wrong with its claim that a 150-calorie bowl of cereal with skim milk is nutritionally superior to a 170-calorie bowl oatmeal made with skim milk.  Plain oatmeal delivers fiber, antioxidants, and a variety of nutrients without added sugars.

    The cereal industry also loves to make unfair comparisons, as with this infamous Frosted Mini Wheats “study” conducted by Kellogg’s, which concluded that children who started their day with the sugary cereal had better attentiveness than — wait for it — children who skipped breakfast.

    IN CONCLUSION

    It should not come as a surprise that four of the most aggressively-marketed industries are also the same ones that rely on agricultural subsidies to thrive.  The vast majority of cows subsist on corn and wheat, sodas are basically bubbly high fructose corn syrup, and many cereals are a variety of crop subsidies in a box (corn, wheat, soy, and even cottonseed sometimes).

    I have always been a fan of quiet confidence when it comes to people, and the same applies to food.  Usually, if a food needs a dozen fact sheets and a long “myth-busting” document regarding its possible negative health effects, well… let’s just say “the Frankenfood doth protest too much.”

    At the very least, many of these “truths” are heavily questioned in reputable scientific journals.  Contrary to what these industries want us to believe, their foods are not essential.  This is not to say that a cup of Greek yogurt for breakfast each morning or the occasional beef kebab are health hazards.  However, these industries are notorious for taking credit for nutrients that are not exclusive, and usually better sourced from other foods.

    One thing that is impossible to refute?  Prioritize whole, plant-based foods is a recipe for good health.

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    20 Comments

    1. Ed Bruske said on June 10th, 2011

      What the American Heart Association ctually advises about children’s sugar consumption is that they should get no more than half of their “discretionary calories” from sugar. That calculation varies dramatically by age, size (or sex) and activity level. The USDA provides tables on discretionary calories for children at its “My Pyramid” site.

    2. Kelsey L. said on June 10th, 2011

      OMG I’m so happy you posted this…. I am in the proccess of writing my speech for my communications class titled “Abuse of Nutrition Labeling and Effects of False Advertisement on America’s Waistline” You are awesome!! I’m so excited!

      It’s just so crazy that a year ago I was drinking vitamin water and seriously thought it was good for me…

    3. Andy Bellatti said on June 10th, 2011

      Ed,

      In 2009, the American Heart Association put out guidelines and recommendations in their journal (Circulation) with teaspoon amounts per calorie level. I linked to the guidelines in the post (here is the URL again, please take a look: http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/120/11/1011). In those guidelines, the recommendation for 1,600 calories (recommended for children ages 4 to 8 is no more than 3 teaspoons (48 calories) of added sugar per day. Age, size, sex, and activity level are not factors that come into play in those recommendations.

    4. Brandon said on June 10th, 2011

      Aren’t peanut butter and canned beans also cheaper sources of protein than meat?

      I’ve never heard meat being promoted because of its B6 content. B12 yes, but not B6.

    5. Rachel said on June 10th, 2011

      I learned so much! Thanks so much for writing this.

    6. Jessica Y said on June 10th, 2011

      This is all interesting and good information. The only quibble I have is the comment about oatmeal not having sugar. Obviously, it doesn’t come with sugar, but I would say that few people can choke down a serving of oatmeal without some sugar. I know that I can’t!

    7. Ed Bruske said on June 10th, 2011

      Andy, I’ve interviewed the AHA extensively on this. Take a look: http://www.theslowcook.com/2011/05/24/heart-association-says-go-slow-with-chocolate-milk/

    8. Andy Bellatti said on June 10th, 2011

      Jessica, I know many who do (including myself). Plain oatmeal does not mean “oatmeal and water”. For example, I cook it with unsweetened vanilla-flavored soy or almond milk. I then add fruits (ie: sliced bananas), nuts or nut butters, and spices. Delicious!

    9. Andy Bellatti said on June 10th, 2011

      Ed,

      The point I’m simply making is that in 2009, the AHA came out with those guidelines in their journal (which are clearly outlined in that article). I have blogged about how the AHA looks the other way when it comes to sugar; I am aware that they put their AHA “checkmark” on foods high in sugar, and have voiced my concerns about that practice.

      For the purposes of this article, though, I was simply showing that one 8 oz serving of chocolate milk contains what the AHA, in *those* specific guidelines in *that* specific article, deemed as “a day’s worth” for children 4 to 8.

    10. Roman Korol said on June 11th, 2011

      Just to clear up a possible misunderstanding:

      You write “Eight ounces (1 cup) of flavored milk contain a little over 3 teaspoons of added sugar, equivalent to three Oreo cookies. . .”

      Here in Canada, 1 cup of ORDINARY milk – unflavored – contains 12 gm (nearly 3 tsp) of sugar. The obligatory label does not say whether that sugar is added, or comes as part of the original milk, or is a combination of both. In any case, that is nearly half the sugar content of a typical 8-oz milkshake, a horrendous fact which completely floors me. Time to give up milk for the sake of one’s health!

      As for Oreo cookies: Nabisco shows that one Oreo sandwich cookie has 14 gm of sugar (Gag!) This is nearly 4 tsp by volume because 1 tsp of sugar is 4 gm of sugar. So your comparison of Oreos with flavored milk would be more accurarate to say that the milk’s sugar content (3 tsp or 12 gm) is equivalent to one (not three) Oreo cookies. It’s a nitpicky quibble, I know; the sugar content of milk is still terrible; but just for the sake of precision . . . Or did I make a mistake somewhere?

    11. Andy Bellatti said on June 11th, 2011

      Roman,

      I specifically use the term “added sugar” to help minimize confusion. Yes, 8 ounces of unflavored cow’s milk contains 12 grams of sugar (3 teaspoons), no matter what country you are talking about.

      8 ounces of chocolate milk contain 24 grams of sugar, which is why I mention “3 teaspoons of added sugar” (as opposed to “6 grams of total sugar”). I am not concerned with naturally occurring sugars since they come packed with nutrients (ie: the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk comes protein, while the sugar in a banana comes along with fiber) that help balance out spikes in blood sugar. I am concerned with *added* sugar since it is 100% empty calories and changes the ratio of “blood sugar balancing nutrient: sugar”).

      I don’t follow what you are saying about Oreo cookies. One serving — 3 cookies — contains a little over 12 grams of sugar. One Oreo cookie does not contain 14 grams of sugar, unless you are talking about one that is the size of three standard ones.

    12. Amy B. said on June 11th, 2011

      Hi Andy, Have you heard of reports that cereal, aside from the fact that we know it’s not that healthy because of the sugar added, etc, is REALLY not healthy because of the extrusion process that the grains are put through to create the flakes, puffs, etc… That is, the high heat extrusion process denatures the proteins. My understanding is that all the vitamins and minerals are isolated (added back in), they aren’t really from the original whole grains used to make the cereal. Do you know if there is any truth to this? And if so, a good resource to better understand this.

    13. Tita Barbosa said on June 12th, 2011

      Realmente un trabajo de investigaciòn excepcional. Muy claro y sobre todo muy didàctico, se aprende un montòn. Gracias por compartirlo.

    14. Justin said on June 14th, 2011

      I hate to nitpick, but Aspartame has been proven time and again to be safe for human consumption. It might cause cancer in rats, but it poses no harm to humans.

      http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners

    15. Andy Bellatti said on June 15th, 2011

      Justin,

      Read this, about the politics of aspartame. Very, very sketchy, to say the least: https://www.grist.org/scary-food/2011-02-14-just-how-bad-is-aspartame-the-leading-u.s.-fake-sweetener

    16. Justin said on June 21st, 2011

      Andy,

      I read the article, I was unimpressed. Tom adds nothing to the debate on Aspartame. he says about three times in the article, “Was the Ramazini study flawed? Maybe” The answer is yes, it was flawed. It’s not just the FDA, the European Committee on Carcinogenicity and Health Canada Scientists also dismissed the Ramazinni study. http://www.advisorybodies.doh.gov.uk/pdfs/aspart.pdf
      http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/addit/sweeten-edulcor/aspartame_statement-eng.php

      Are you really going to promote the view that Aspartame causes cancer in humans based on one study that independent committees have soundly rejected?

    17. Andy Bellatti said on June 25th, 2011

      There is more than one Ramazini study, and the links you point me to have nothing to say on the 2010 study.

      Where is the independent, non-industry-tied research showing that aspartame poses no health risks when consumed on a long-term basis? Alas, as Melanie Warner pointed out in her article: “Putting restrictions on aspartame would come at a significant cost. Food companies and consumers around the world bought about $570 million worth of it last year. New regulatory action on aspartame would also jeopardize the billions of dollars worth of products sold with it.”

      Let’s remember that at one point, artificial dyes that were later banned for carcinogenic properties, were declared “safe” by regulatory agencies at one point.

    18. Justin said on June 26th, 2011

      Here is the EFSA’s response to the 2010 study; It has some of the same flaws as the 2006 study.
      http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/ans110228.htm

      You trust the NTP when they suggest banning artificial dyes, but you don’t trust them when they say Aspartame is safe?

      http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/files/GMM1_Web.pdf

    19. Andy Bellatti said on June 27th, 2011

      EFSA is far from an independent and objective organization, and there are many documented instances of industry ties affecting their oversight: http://www.corporateeurope.org/system/files/files/resource/EFSA_ANS_panel.pdf

      As far as the National Toxicology Program, they are finally catching on to what other organizations (including CSPI) have been saying about artificial dyes for a while. They are certainly not the ones spearheading the movement to reconsider the safety of artificial dyes. They are essentially realizing they need to address the issue. Furthermore, why must I be either 100% in support or 100% against NTP? Why can’t there be a gray area, in the same way that I agree with Harvard’s Walter Willett on many nutrition issues, except his demonizing of potatoes?

    20. Justin said on June 27th, 2011

      I’m going to throw my hands up and walk away now. You seem to be replacing an objective analysis of the literature on Aspartame with conspiracy theories and hearsay.

      More importantly, I’m defending Aspartame when I don’t even consume it; I always go for water, tea, and coffee.

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