Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why I Don't Eat Muffins OR Why I Read Food Labels

Such a common purchase; a quick, easy and relatively cheap snack or "breakfast."  A food that somehow has earned the reputation of healthy, or at least neutral.

Do healthy muffins exist?  Yes, and I will elaborate below.  However, the healthy muffin is almost as elusive as the Easter bunny.  The vast majority of muffins, including the ones packaged to look like health food, are not.  Let's explore why.

SUGAR.  It's the main ingredient besides flour in the average muffin.  Even the ones with healthy ingredients like oats, carrots, fruit, and nuts often contain loads of sugar.  Worse, the fruit is often dried, which is not only high in sugar; it's also sticky.  It sticks to the teeth, giving them a sugar soak that bacteria adore (read this from the American Dental Association for more).  Sugar has zero health benefits, and causes or contributes to a host of health problems including, but certainly not limited to: weight gain, diabetes, cavities, and behavior problems.  Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped its recommended sugar limits from 10% of total caloric intake to only 5%, which means about 6 teaspoons for an average weight adult woman.  I am not opposed to occasional sugary treats, but I do not believe sugar should be in our healthy everyday foods.
Photo by Moyan Brenn; Flickr; no alterations

FAT.  Fat is not something I worry a lot about, especially for normal weight children.  There has been a lot of debate over the years about how much fat and what kinds of fat are acceptable or optimal.  All humans, and particularly children, need fat.  I won't get into the great fat debate here; I just want to mention that muffins often have a lot more fat than people realize.  A word of warning though: low fat and especially no fat muffins often have even more sugar than regular fat versions.  As I mentioned above, sugar does cause weight gain.

OILS.  Oils are not all created equal.  Some commonly used oils in muffins that are less than ideal are: soybean, cottonseed, and partially hydrogenated oils. 

Soybean oil is a problem because it is almost always genetically engineered.  Not everyone takes issue with genetically engineered foods (GMOs), and there is no science proving that they cause health problems in humans (other than allergic reactions).  However, the approval of GMOs was based on short term health studies.  We do not yet have solid long term data on how GMOs affect human health.  We do have data showing that they affect environmental health negatively, and that they have not solved world hunger, as they were supposedly intended.  There is a lot more to the story behind GMOs, but those are details for another blog.  Just be aware that if you want to avoid GMOs, you probably need to avoid soy oil.

Cottonseed oil is a problem not only because it too is almost always genetically engineered, but also because it is regulated as an agricultural product, not a food product.  Therefore chemicals (pesticides) not normally allowed in food production may be present in the oil.

Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats that can increase "bad" LDL cholesterol and decrease "good" HDL cholesterol.  Read more about these oils at the Mayo Clinic.

NATURAL FLAVORS.  Sounds fine right?  It may be, but it's ambivalent.  Here's how the FDA defines natural flavor:  "the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional." Perfectly clear?  Basically, it's the byproduct of some type of processing of a flavor that is derived from a food or spice.  GMOs may be included here.  There is no clear data on the effects of natural flavors on human health, nor is there much regulation of these flavors.

ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS.  Sounds less fine, probably.  These are chemicals that are made in the lab, rather than extracted from a food source.  Any particular flavor's chemical composition may be exactly the same as that of a natural flavor.  They are used primarily because they are generally cheaper than natural flavors.  As with natural flavors, there is no clear data on their effects on human health, nor is there much regulation of them.
Photo by Susanne Nilsson; Flickr; no alterations

PRESERVATIVES and OTHER INGREDIENTS.  If you are a label reader, you know that packaged foods may contain a long list of ingredients you may struggle to pronounce.  The good news is that generally, food additives must be classified as "generally regarded as safe," or GRAS. While this determination is usually made by the FDA, the designation is sometimes made "independently from the FDA".  No, I'm not sure what they mean by that.  Does that mean that sometimes it's the industry itself that gets to label the additive GRAS?  I don't know.  Eater beware.

I would like to mention a few common and commonly debated additives:  propylene glycol, parabens, and sodium benzoate.   
  • Propylene glycol is manufactured from petroleum, and yes, it can be used as antifreeze.  It is known to be toxic when consumed in amounts larger than what would be consumed from diet (e.g. medications in a vulnerable patient such as an infant).  It is not known to be toxic or unsafe otherwise.
  • Parabens are commonly used in foods and cosmetics.  One study found parabens in all breast tumors examined.  However, that study does not prove that parabens caused the breast tumors.
  • Sodium Benzoate has been linked to hyperactivity in children.  Furthermore, it has been shown to react with added vitamin C to form the cancer causing compound benzene.

HEALTHY MUFFINS?  So, I lied.  I do actually eat muffins.  Healthy ones do exist, but they are usually homemade.  The bottom line is, read the labels.  Know what you are eating!  Don't assume because you buy it fresh at a bakery that it's healthy.   Here are some links to explore; please note, I do not get kickbacks from any of the links!
  • These are commercially available and healthy, but be aware; they have a dense and somewhat spongy texture.  
  • These homemade muffins are a big hit both at our house and our preschool (note: they are very soupy when they are raw, but cook up just like muffins).  
  • I have not made these, but they look great, and while they have some sugar, it's comparatively very little. 
If you prefer to know exactly what you are eating, and to be assured that your food was not made or altered in a lab, or genetically engineered, I suggest you stick with ingredients you can pronounce. 

WHO on sugar
Dietary Recommendations for Infants, Children, and Adolescents
American Hearth Association on Sugar
EWG on flavors 
EWG natural flavor safety rating 
FDA on food additives