Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Dr. Barbara Corkey doesn’t eat processed foods. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the biochemist’s findings in research she’s been doing on food additives.

The theory developed by the American Diabetes Association’s 2011 Banting Medal award-winner is that food additives could be contributing to the worldwide epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

“The idea came to me four or five years ago and began gradually building as I realized the things we were doing [to combat obesity and Type 2 diabetes] were not making any difference,” she said during a recent telephone interview.

“When professionals don’t know the answers, they blame the patient, [but] I don’t believe these things happened because we started behaving badly.”

Recalling her childhood, Corkey said there were very few overweight children. Not only are more children obese today, but they’re getting Type 2 diabetes, once pretty much reserved for adults. Also back in the day, obesity developed slowly, generally not showing up until middle age.

And the epidemic is worldwide, which pretty much rules out a commonality in lifestyle factors.

“The things that have changed are antibiotics in animals, the mineral content in fruits and vegetables, plastics, the way we fertilize,” and substances that have been added to our foods that have resulted in higher yields, faster growth, a longer shelf life, greater portability — and, perhaps, harm to our bodies.

“Nobody looked at the long-term effects” of the additives and changes in content, Corkey said. “There was no testing in the beginning.”

A slide in the Banting lecture she gave at the 71st ADA Scientific Sessions in San Diego in 2011, referencing a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, listed some of the changes in the mineral content of foods over the past 40 years:

Fruits: 27% less zinc
Meats: 41% less calcium
Apples and oranges: 67% less iron
Broccoli: 74% less calcium
Spinach: 96% less copper

(Sorry, but the benefits of those minerals are too extensive to give short answers. Enter them into your search engine and go for it.)

Now Corkey, along with some others, is looking. Corkey herself has screened about 500 of the 4,000 food additives.

Along the way, she’s found some additives that cause the pancreas to make more than enough basal, or background, insulin. All of us here know that insulin is the hormone that converts food into energy and stores extra energy as glycogen. What some may not know is that it also is involved in fat storage. And, while people with Type 2 diabetes have traditionally been thought of as being insulin resistant, research suggests that hyperinsulinemia — too much insulin — is the first step and is followed by insulin resistance. You have the genetics, you have beta cell dysfunction, then you have way too much insulin which damages the receptors in the cells, leading to insulin resistance.

How much more insulin? “People with Type 2 diabetes have been found to have 900% of normal levels,” Corkey said during our telephone interview.

Back to those additives: Two especially caught her eye — monoglycerides (found in bakery products, beverages, ice cream, chewing gum, shortening, whipped toppings, margarine, and confections, they basically make oil and water mix and contribute to a fine crumb in baked products)…and saccharin, which is marketed as Sweet’N Low. To a lesser extent, aspartame (NutraSweet), and sucralose (found in Splenda) also appear to contribute to hyperinsulinemia.

“Saccharin was most potent” of the artificial sweeteners, Corkey said in her Banting lecture. “Interestingly, only saccharin stimulated basal secretion at concentrations that might be achieved by high levels of consumption, for example, in diet beverages.”

So what can we do about all of this? Along the lines of the saying “my body, my science experiment,” Corkey suggests that we do just that: experiment on yourselves. Cut out specific foods for a while, one at a time, and see what happens. She also advocates — and follows — a diet that is low in carbohydrates and low on the glycemic index. Try not to eat processed foods.

And, on another subject, try not to eat foods that are packaged in plastic.

In a very small study — only five families in one region — researchers checked urine concentrations of both bisphenol A (BPA) and a commonly used phthalate (bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP. Both BPA and DEHP are found in plastics and are considered to be endocrine disrupters.

Families ate either their normal meals, or a “fresh food intervention” consisting of meals prepared by a caterer who had been advised on how to avoid foods exposed to BPA and DEHP.

During the fresh-food phase, BPA levels fell 66% and DEHP metabolites by 53% to 56%. (One DEHP metabolite called MEHP fell 53%, another called MEOHP fell 55%, and one dubbed MEHHP fell 56%.)

The study was published in Environmental Health Perspective in July 2011, but I just ran across it.

Eat fresh foods not packaged in plastic. Which I’m going to tell my grocer about. He sells lettuce packaged in plastic, even. Leaf lettuce, yet. And it’s limp when you take it out. It’s a good excuse for him to go back to putting the fresh stuff out and misting it so it’s nice and crisp.

Maybe we should also make nice, cloth bags to carry our fresh foods home in, instead of putting it in the plastic bags meant for that purpose.

Or find out who that caterer is.

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