Magic Offerings

A TOJ is much more careful about what he puts in his mouth than what comes out of it. For that reason I was rummaging around the Internet for information about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements when I found this great article by Stephanie Mencimer written in 2001. Referring to the  Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) through which the supplement industry was ensured virtually no regulatory supervision, she wrote:

“Since DSHEA became law, substances as varied as paint stripper, bat shit, toad venom, and lamb placenta have all been imported from overseas, bottled up---often by people with no scientific or health backgrounds---and marketed as dietary supplements to unsuspecting American consumers. Many supplements have been tainted with salmonella, arsenic, lead, pesticides, unapproved foreign prescription drugs, as well as garden-variety carcinogens. And despite their New-Age health aura, a significant portion of these "natural supplements" are stimulants, depressants, and other mood-enhancers that some medical experts believe would be classified as drugs if they were synthetic. A surprising number of these products are addictive.”

Say what? Bat shit? Lead? A few more disturbing facts about dietary supplements:
  • Supplements are considered food, not drugs, even if they have pharmacological properties
  • Labels are not required to have warnings or contraindications
  • Any supplement is considered safe unless its proven otherwise by large numbers of adverse events, e.g., hospitalizations, death, and birth defects
  • Most ingredients are imported from countries with few regulations like China
Unfortunately, DSHEA is still the law of the land. Since 2001 when the Mencimer article appeared, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received a little more power over the supplement industry, but not much. In 2007 the FDA issued Current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations to help the supplement industry do a better job. In a gesture of good faith, the Natural Products Association created a voluntary GMP certification for manufacturers. To date, only 70 companies out of over 2,500 have acquired certification; you can find a list of those who have here.

In fairness to the FDA, it has not been given the authority or funding to ride herd on the supplement industry as much as it does the medical drug industry. Yet don’t think that supplements cannot be equally dangerous. Remember ephedra? It took 10 years and countless deaths for the FDA to ban it.  Vitamin E, garlic, ginseng, and ginko biloba are blood thinners that can cause life threatening complications in surgical and dental procedures. Comfrey may be a sweet smelling herb, but it can be toxic to your liver and kill you.

The FDA has written some useful advice that everyone (including you) should read.
Be wary of supplements that are marketed as a cure or treatment for a disease. For one, it’s illegal. But more importantly, recent studies have shown many vitamins and concoctions don’t do what they claim. These false claims have a long legacy. As Mencimer recounted:

“Back in 1905, reporter Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a famous series of stories in Colliers' magazine called "The Great American Fraud," which documented the deaths of hundreds of people from over-the-counter medicines that were peddled with promises to address "weak manhood," "lost vitality," or to give consumers "better blood." Patent medicines were widely available and promoted in the press with testimonials from people claiming to have achieved great results from these magic offerings.”

Does this sound familiar? Here we are in 2011. Today over half of American adults take a supplement, around $27 billions worth. The top sellers are multi-vitamins, sports nutrition powders, calcium, and weight loss formulas. If you’re one of the one half, then check out the quality and efficacy of what you  are putting in your body at Consumer Labs, an independent testing lab that assays whether the stuff has what is says and does what it claims.

Better yet, do it before you buy it and put it in your mouth. Are all supplements bad for you? No, but they're not necessarily good for you either.

Some of My Best Friends Are Organic

Even a TOJ who's been hit in the head too often and lost some IQ points is still smart enough to buy lots of organic fruits and vegetables. It's not just because organic tastes better than industrially-grown foods (they do), are not slathered with pesticides containing neurotoxins (they aren't), and are not brimming with high levels of poisonous nitrates from chemical fertilizers (whew!).

Yes, organic foods avoid the yuch factor of the anti-life chemicals in found in conventionally grown foods. However, an even better reason to eat them is that they offer a much better value because you get more NUTRIENTS for your hard-earned food dollar.

After more than 40 years as a food movement, organics have found their way into even the largest food stores, including WalMart. Although the demand for organic is growing fast, it still represents a small percentage of the rack space and selections in most stores.

To the naked eye, a conventionally-grown apple looks like a better deal than the organic one across the aisle. You pick it up and look at it. The conventionally-grown one is bigger (nitrate fertilizers are like steroids to plants) and it's flawless skin has been waxed to a shiny luster that covers the residues of 14 or so pesticides and fungicides.

You go across the aisle and pick up an organic apple and compare the two. The organic one doesn't have the same lustre, and here and there has dimples or small spots on the skin. And it's smaller. But you have to look more than skin deep -- the likelihood is the the organic apple will have a much higher nutrient density, despite superficial media stories to the contrary.

For several decades, experts in the USDA have been aware that the vitamin, mineral and protein content in foods grown in America have been in decline. This decline has coincided with the increase in corporate, industrial, large scale chemical farming. The experts attribute the decline to "the dilution effect," that is, as seeds have been genetically manipulated to maximize yield per acre an an unfortunate and unintended consequence is that they have also also reduced or eliminated many nutrients.

To gain more insight into how nutritious foods are grown (or not) read this detailed and informative 2008 study entitled "New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods." Until recently, studies comparing conventionally-grown foods to organic have focused on differences in minerals and trace elements like copper, phosphorus, and zinc.

However, overlooked in these studies was the impact on the phytochemicals in plants, the compounds that promote heart health, reduce inflammation, and prevent cancer. The phytochemical content in organically-grown fruits and vegetables has been found to be 25% or more higher. For good reason, organic food is more expensive.

These are tough economic times. You want your food dollar to go as far as possible. Some conventionally grown foods are so contaminated with pesticides that they should be avoided, especially by children, at all costs. You can find a reliable list at Many conventionally-grown foods pose little or no toxic threat. A few won't kill you.

The real difference between organics and industrial/conventional foods is nutrient density. When you shop for food, factor your health and well-being into your calculations. Then, when it comes to organics, the price is right.

Rainbow Warriors

The other day a story in the NY Times reported that despite 20 years of effort by public institutions and media, only a small percentage of Americans are eating the recommended daily dietary allowance of fruits and vegetables. That's too bad for all of us - for ourselves, family, friends, and the U.S. economy.

I used to be one of the majority, preferring pizza over kale or apples. Now I prefer kale or apples. My conversion wasn't an easy one at first. It took study to get this TOJ's brain to grasp how important these foods are, and experimentation to discover how good they can taste.

Our bodies are things of wonder, but, like all biological systems, vulnerable and imperfect. Case in point, the process of oxidation which can cause free radicals (aka reactive oxygen species). Oxidation results from several internal and external causes. The primary one is when the billions of cells in your body convert oxygen and calories into energy. A waste product of this process is damaged molecules lacking electrons which then go on the hunt throughout your body to steal electrons from other molecules. The molecules being robbed might be DNA or a fat membrane that protects every cell in your body.

Medical researchers suspect that free radicals are the root cause of several serious illnesses such as diabetes, heart and vascular disease, and Alzheimer's. They also think they are behind a range of vague complaints like fatigue and sore joints.

Your body constantly produces antioxidants, like glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, and catalase, to neutralize free radicals. However, the body-produced antioxidants can be overwhelmed by free radicals, especially when oxidation is too prevalent in your body.

Free radicals are not produced just by energy conversion, but also result from environmental toxins (air and water pollution), too much sun exposure, and -- note this -- over-eating, especially poor foods with sugar and hydrogenated fats, and drinking too much alcohol. And double note this: you can also cause a rapid rise in free radicals by over-exercising. Much oxidation is self-inflicted.

Years ago, researchers noticed that primitive societies where people eat more fruits and vegetables have fewer diseases of civilization, i.e., diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This discovery, coupled with the profit motive, soon lead to the rise of the supplement industry. Vitamins A, C, E and beta carotene are anti-oxidants, as are minerals like copper, zinc, and selenium. All of us aware of the problems caused by free radicals have gobbled them up.

However, when it comes to manufactured supplements recent studies have show disappointing results. Supplements have not been proven to lower morbidity, prevent heart disease, or reverse many other disease states as claimed on labels. Increasingly, medical professionals and nutritionists suspect that the reason the supplements are not as effective as real food is because real food has thousands of compounds, not just single vitamins or minerals, and it is the compounds that provide the variety to neutralize the equally wide variety of free radicals. These compounds are known as phytonutrients, including flavonoids, phenols, lignans, carotenoids, phytates, isoflavones, sulfides, terpenes, and phytoestrogens. They are found in veggies and fruits of all colors and shapes.

The best defense against free radical damage isn't to buy tons of supplements, but to eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables of different colors. Try these Rainbow Warriors against free radicals:
  • Blueberries
  • Cranberries
  • Green tea
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Cantaloupe
  • Yams
  • Tomatoes
  • Dark Chocolate (70% or more cocoa, not sugary milk chocolate)
To see a more complete listing of antioxidant foods, go here.

A recent study showed that almost all the wage increases in the past decade have gone directly to health care. As the costs of health care have gone up, so have rates of diabetes and heart disease. These diseases are caused by oxidation and inflammation, both of which would decline if people would eat the Rainbow Warriors. The cost of our health care would go down, leaving a few bucks to buy iPads, go to college, or take a vacation.

This ain't rocket science. Even a TOJ can get it. Pass the spinach.