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“Should You be Eating That?” Could Have a New Meaning

Jan Chait

April 3, 2012

I’ll be danged. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected a petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from food packaging. BPA, an agent used to harden plastics and found in nearly all canned food and beverage liners (plus baby bottles, water bottles, and more) is an endocrine disrupter, or more specifically, an estrogen mimic. It could be linked to cardiovascular diseases, liver abnormalities…and diabetes.

And then, of course, there are questions about its effect on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, babies, and young children.

The FDA says, however, that the “scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.”

My eyebrows first shot up when I read a study published in the November 23/30, 2011, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association that detailed the results of a blinded crossover trial in which 75 subjects ate either canned soup or homemade soup for five days. Half ate canned soup, followed by a two-day washout period and then homemade soup. The other half ate homemade soup first, followed by a washout period, then canned soup. Aside from the soup, they could eat whatever they liked.

When subjects ate the nationally distributed canned soup, their urinary levels of BPA were 20 times higher than when they ate a similar homemade soup, averaging 1.1 mcg/L when they ate homemade soup for five days and soaring to 20.8 mcg/L when they ate the canned soup for the same amount of time. This wasn’t all soup all the time, people: It was one serving of soup per day at lunch. Just think of all the food and drink we consume out of cans. All day long. (Not to mention the water we drink that comes to us through plastic water pipes.)

I was discussing the BPA situation with my friend Karen and she suggested I look up the American Diabetes Association’s 2011 Banting Lecture by that year’s Banting Medal for Scientific Achievement Award winner, Barbara E. Corkey, PhD, of Boston University’s School of Medicine, where she is the vice chair for research at the school’s Obesity Research Center.

In the lecture, she talks about food additives and suggests they could be contributing to the worldwide upswing in obesity and diabetes. By the way, it isn’t just Type 2 diabetes that’s increasing: Type 1 is, too. Both are believed to have environmental components.

Corkey noted that much has changed to explain the diabetes epidemic. “Our foods have changed; living conditions, activity levels, the air we breathe have all changed: So where,” she asks, “can we start looking for culprits?”

“The worldwide expansion of metabolic diseases across all age-groups decreases the likelihood that our air or unique living conditions are the main culprits,” she says.

Neither will laying the blame on too little activity.

“The difference in activity levels among boys and girls, old and young, a farmer and an office worker make it unlikely that decreased activity, though detrimental, can be the only main explanation,” she says.

“However,” she added, “food is now universally shared across the globe, particularly processed food.”

I noted with interest a slide that listed the ingredients in a container of Neopolitan ice cream. The vanilla ice cream alone had 18 ingredients, only two of which (milk and egg yolks) were real food — and even the milk was lactose reduced. I don’t know about you, but I make my vanilla ice cream with milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar, and a vanilla bean. Actually, vanilla wasn’t even listed as an ingredient in Corkey’s example, although it could have fallen under “natural flavor.” (But why didn’t the manufacturer just say “vanilla?” It’s a puzzlement to me.)

What’s been happening with our foods? Carkey said in her lecture that more than 4,000 new agents have been added to our foods, either intentionally or inadvertently. How many of those have been evaluated for contributing to diabetes or obesity? Practically none.

Back in the day, it took 112 days for poultry to reach market weight. Today, it’s down to 42 days. What effect are animal feed additives having on the humans who eat the meat? Who knows? Do the growth hormone injections given to the animals we eat have an effect on our bodies, too? Your guess is as good as mine. And Corkey’s.

“I am testing a number of ingredients in food including some of the antibiotics and hormones given to food animals as well as unintentionally ingested plastics,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but there are not many others researching these areas and it’s a long, slow slog.”

She calls for more investment of government and private funds “to solve these problems and stop blaming patients when we are ignorant of the true causes of the problem.”

“Amen,” say those of us who are tired of the “blame game.”

I’ve barely skimmed the surface today, so I will continue this discussion next week. Have a healthy one. Oh, by the way: You DO know how to cook from scratch, don’t you?



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