Are health warnings scaring you off certain foods? Get the real facts on three dietary controversies currently making headlines.
Seems like every day there’s another frightening report proclaiming that a common food or ingredient once thought benign or even healthy is now bad for us. Sometimes the media gets it right (the alarm bells over trans fats, for example). But other times it’s not so clear, leaving us consumers wondering what’s safe to eat and what’s not, and even unnecessarily scaring us off certain foods or ingredients. To wit, a recent study from Cornell University found that alarmist headlines can make people shy away from food ingredients regardless of whether they have the facts to back up their fears. But when people were given more backstory about an ingredient and learned about how it’s made and used, the feared item suddenly received a higher health rating regardless of its actual health-enhancing powers.
In best-case scenarios, then, knowledge can keep you from banishing perfectly healthy foods. “It’s important not to get so caught up in avoiding one ingredient that you miss the big picture,” says Lisa Cimperman, RD, clinical dietitian at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But Cimperman stresses that seeking credible information is key. “The Internet has provided a pulpit to just about anyone wanting to push an agenda, but few are actually qualified to speak on science and health care topics,” she says. She recommends looking to sources that cite scientific literature (not anecdotal stories) and that acknowledge differing points of view.
To that end, we asked experts on three “problem” food ingredients to explain the accusations against them, decode the latest research, and help us reach a fair verdict.
Scary Food No. 1: Rice
Common potential rice sources
- Energy bars (brown-rice syrup)
- Rice (brown, white, basmati, sushi, jasmine)
- Rice cereal
- Rice crackers
- Rice pasta
Pesticides and fertilizers containing arsenic, a potential carcinogen, have contaminated our soil. Because rice grows in water-saturated soil, it absorbs 10 times more arsenic than other grains.
Over the past several years, more reports have emerged about unhealthy levels of arsenic—a potential carcinogen—in rice. In many places both in the United States and abroad, soil has been contaminated with arsenic as a result of arsenic-containing pesticides and fertilizers. And because rice grows in water-saturated soil, it absorbs about 10 times more arsenic than other grains. Even scarier for the health conscious: Brown rice can contain as much as 80 percent more arsenic than white rice because it retains its outer layers, and organic rice is just as susceptible to absorbing the chemical as nonorganic varieties.
While no one is denying that rice—in its myriad forms—is a source of arsenic, opinions differ as to how much you’re risking your health by eating it. The discussion is complicated by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to put limits on arsenic levels in rice, though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) as the threshold for arsenic in drinking water—about the equivalent of 10 drops of water in a swimming pool.
Meanwhile, after testing 1,300 samples of rice and rice products in 2012 and 2013, the FDA concluded that the arsenic amounts were too low to cause short-term or immediate health problems (though the agency is continuing to review the issue). Yet in 2012, researchers at Dartmouth tested products containing organic brown-rice syrup (including toddler formula and energy bars) and found that many contained surprisingly high levels: One formula had six times the EPA’s drinking-water limits, and the bars ranged from 28 to 128 ppb of total arsenic. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider how many bottles a baby drinks in a day or how many bars you eat in a week—or a year. “Just because arsenic concentrations in food are in the parts-per-billion range doesn’t mean they’re safe,” says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Frequent consumption of rice and rice-based processed foods can increase your risk of cancer and other diseases.”
Even if you rarely sit down to a bowlful of rice, you may be eating more of the grain than you realize. A variety of products, including some brands of cereal bars and granolas, is sweetened with brown-rice syrup. Also, thanks to the gluten-free movement, more people are reaching for rice-based alternatives to wheat (think: rice crackers, pasta, and cereal). And then there’s rice milk, which has become a popular replacement for dairy.
Going 1oo percent rice-free would be a Herculean and unnecessary effort. Instead, the EWG and the FDA recommend diversifying your grains (such as lower-arsenic options like cornmeal, millet, or oats) to limit arsenic consumption. Also, mix into your diet nonrice food alternatives, such as unsweetened almond milk instead of rice milk and coconut sugar instead of brown-rice syrup. When you do eat rice, reduce your arsenic exposure by choosing white basmati rice grown in California, India, or Pakistan—rice from these areas had significantly lower levels of arsenic than rice grown in other parts of the United States and the world, according to last year’s analysis in Consumer Reports (CR), which also suggested ways to limit arsenic intake based on food type. For example, each week, CR recommends adults eat no more than 4.5 servings of white basmati rice from California, India, or Pakistan (a serving is 1/4 cup uncooked), and 2 servings of brown rice. (Lundberg is one company that offers California-grown white basmati rice; it also tests its products for arsenic.) Another strategy: Rinse rice thoroughly, then cook it like pasta—boil a cup of the grain in six cups of water and then drain it through a colander. Boiling leaches out the arsenic to “reduce the amount in the rice by up to half,” says Lunder.
READ MORE Should You Go Grain-Free?
Scary Food No. 2: GMOs
Common potential GMO sources
- Canola oil
- Peanut butter
- Summer squash
- Tortilla chips
Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) allege that the safety of GM foods isn’t sufficiently proven and that the herbicide Roundup, which is widely used on GM crops, is a probable carcinogen.
Genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are ones that scientists have manipulated or added genes to in order to create a specific effect (such as a more virus-resistant plant). Currently, the only GE crops being commercially sold in the United States are soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and limited amounts of summer squash. But because so many processed foods contain some version of soy or corn (such as soy protein isolate in energy bars, and corn syrup in, well, many, many foods), it’s estimated that 6o to 7o percent of processed foods in America contain genetically engineered material. And recently, a genetically modified apple that resists browning and a potato that produces less of a potentially carcinogenic compound when cooked at high temperatures both got the green light from the FDA, so expect our GMO consumption to increase.
Detractors allege that the safety of engineered crops isn’t sufficiently proven because no long-term studies have been done on humans. (Testing is often done with animal models or using human digestive enzymes.) And there’s the recent news that the herbicide Roundup—widely used on crops that were genetically modified to withstand it—has been classified as a probable carcinogen and health risk for humans. Plus, some GMO critics point out that the use of Roundup and Roundup Ready GMO crops has given rise to pesticide-resistant superweeds, which could subsequently require even more pesticides that in turn threaten the environment and its inhabitants.
Others say the potential for GMOs to cause human health hazards is overblown. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the current GE foods are safe to eat,” says Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC. The GE foods now available all incorporate simple, single-gene additions of things we’ve already been exposed to in the food supply, Jaffe says, which makes testing them for harmful reactions relatively straightforward.
Jaffe does believe, however, that the regulatory system is “less than ideal.” The current protocol: Companies that create GE foods do the tests that the FDA suggests, and then analyze the results. That can be all well and good. But to prevent a conflict of interest, says Jaffe, “the FDA should do an independent risk assessment of that data.” The checks and balances proposed by Jaffe could become even more essential as new, more complex GE foods are developed—leading to more crops with ingredients that are new to the food supply and that have unknown health and environmental consequences.
Experts like Jaffe maintain that there are no inherent health risks to eating current GMO foods. However, research is ongoing. You can limit exposure to potentially cancer-causing chemicals (e.g., Roundup) and help prevent possible environmental issues (e.g., superweeds) by avoiding GE foods. That’s easier said than done, though, given that no federal law currently mandates that the many products derived from GE crops be labeled as such. Right now, the best way to reduce exposure to GMOs is to shop for foods with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal and labeled “1oo% Organic.” The use of GMO ingredients is prohibited in USDA Organic products.
Scary Food (Additive) No. 3: Carrageenan
Common potential carrageenan sources
- Canned whipped cream
- Cottage cheese
- Ice cream
- Nut milk
- Salad dressing
New evidence shows that carrageenan may cause gastrointestinal and systematic inflammation that could contribute to diseases including cancer, arthritis, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
A substance extracted from seaweed, carrageenan is used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in favorite foods like ice cream, soy and nut milks, salad dressings, cottage cheese, and canned whipped cream. It has been used in processed foods for decades, and it makes the FDA’s list of food additives “generally recognized as safe.” But there is mounting evidence that the additive may not be benign. The ingredient has been shown to cause gastrointestinal inflammation and systematic inflammation that could contribute to the development of diseases including cancer, arthritis, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. “Our data show that exposure to even small amounts of carrageenan contributes to intestinal inflammation and may affect preexisting diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease,” says Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, who has been researching the ingredient for years.
Avoid carrageenan, says Tobacman, who has petitioned the FDA to revise its policy on the additive. Trouble is, the ingredient is so pervasive in processed foods that you’ll need to take time at the grocery store to carefully read each label—start with dairy products, where carrageenan is often added. Still, on a more positive note, some companies are taking steps to nix carrageenan: For instance, WhiteWave Foods Company will be phasing the ingredient out of its popular Horizon and Silk products.
Now that we’ve sorted through the hype about rice, GMOs, and carrageenan, you can eat a little easier. And keep in mind the broad view of your health: “What’s really important is making sure your overall diet is healthy—not obsessively micromanaging a single food or additive,” says Cimperman.