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GMO Paranoia And The Hollow Health Claims Of Cheerios

Make no mistake about it. General Mills’ introduction of Cheerios sporting the label “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” is a mere marketing ploy and has nothing to do with health or nutrition. Let’s start the dissection of this blatant attempt to capitalize on the anti-GMO paranoia by looking at the main ingredient in Cheerios, namely oats. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer who compiled the first authoritative dictionary of the English language whimsically defined oats as the grain “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England.” A clever Scot supposedly retorted “that’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”

Modern science, as it turns out, supports the ancient Scotch penchant for oats. A form of soluble fiber in the grain known as beta glucan has been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood which in turn is expected to reduce the risk of heart disease. You couldn’t tell this by the Scottish experience, though. Scotland has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. It seems all that haggis, refined carbs and a lack of veggies is too great a challenge for Scotch oats to cope with. Actually you need at least 3 grams of beta glucan daily to have any effect on blood cholesterol and that translates to roughly a cup of cooked oat bran or a cup and a half of oatmeal. Or about three servings of Cheerios. And that makes the cholesterol lowering claims prominently featured on the Cheerios box ring pretty hollow. There are far better ways to reduce cholesterol than gorging on Cheerios.

At least, though, the cholesterol lowering claim has some scientific merit. The “no GMO” claim has none. To start with, there are no genetically modified oats grown anywhere, at least not in the current sense of the term which refers to the splicing of specific foreign genes into the DNA of a seed. Such “recombinant DNA technology: is generally used to confer resistance to herbicides or protection from insects, but resistance to drought and enhancement with nutrients hold great potential. Although it is this new-fangled technology that garners attention these days, the fact is that virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified in some fashion over the years, either by traditional crossbreeding or through the use of chemicals or radiation both of which can scramble the genetic material in crops. The latter processes are based on the hope that a useful mutation will occur by chance, but basically it comes down to a roll of the dice. Just do enough experiments and a valuable mutant may surface. Radiation breeding has produced many varieties of rice, wheat, peanuts and bananas that are now widely grown. If you are eating red grapefruit, or sipping premium Scotch whisky made from barley, you are enjoying the products of this technology.

So if “genetically modified” oats do not exist, what sort of monsters is General Mills protecting us from? As is the case with any commercial cereal, Cheerios contains a number of ingredients with nutritious whole grain oats at the top of the list. Next come modified corn starch and sugar. It is to these two ingredients that General Mills refers when it talks about “GMO-free.” Much of the corn and some of the sugar beets grown in North America are genetically modified to resist herbicides and ward off insects. But by the time the highly processed starch and sugar extracted from these plants reach the food supply, they retain no vestige of any genetic modification. There is no way to distinguish the starch or sugar derived from genetically modified plants from the conventional varieties. The GMO-free Cheerios will not differ in any way from the currently marketed version except that the price may eventually reflect the greater cost of sourcing ingredients from plants that do not benefit from recombinant DNA technology.

The reason for the addition of sugar to Cheerios, actually in small doses compared with other cereals, is obvious. But why is corn starch added, and why is it modified? Nobody likes soggy cereal, and a thin layer of modified starch sprayed onto the little “O”s helps keep the interior dry. The modification in this case has nothing to do with genetic modification. Starch is a mixture of essentially two “polymers,” or giant molecules, both composed of units of glucose joined together. In amylose, the glucose units form a straight chain, while in amylopectin, the main glucose strand features many branches of shorter glucose chains. The properties of any starch depend on the relative proportion of amylose and amylopectin as well as on the degree of branching.

Starch has many uses in the food industry. It can thicken sauces, prevent French dressing from separating, substitute for fat or keep cereals dry. But these uses require starches of specific composition, either in terms of the length of the glucose chains or the degree of branching. In other words, the native starch has to be “modified” by treatment with acids, enzymes or oxidizing agents. There is no safety issue here, modified starches are approved food additives. Of course that doesn’t prevent scientifically illiterate alarmists from scaring the public by blathering on about modified starch being used as wallpaper glue and insinuating that any food made with it will literally stick to our ribs. The modified starch used in glue, namely a “carboxymethylated” version, is not the same as used in food, but even if it were, so what? Just because water can be used to clean garage floors and is found in tumours doesn’t mean we can’t drink it. Talking about washing garage floors, Cheerios also contains tripotassium phosphate, a powerful cleaning agent. It is added in small amounts to adjust the acidity of the mix used to formulate the cereal. This too has raised the ire of some ill-informed activists who do not realize that we consume all sorts of naturally occurring phosphates regularly in our diet. Quacking about the dangers of tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios makes about as much sense as hyping Cheerios that are “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.”

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Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

Cartoon: Statin Overexposure?

With the new guidelines for prescribing cholesterol-lowering medications, I’ve been wondering if perhaps we’re becoming overexposed to these drugs? :-)

Improving Your Diet In The New Year

If healthier eating is on your list of resolutions for 2012, look no further. The January 2012 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch offers 12 ways to break old dietary habits and build new ones.

For many years, nutrition research focused on the benefits and risks of single nutrients, such as cholesterol, saturated fat, and antioxidants. Today, many researchers are exploring the health effects of foods and eating patterns, acknowledging that there are many important interactions within and among nutrients in the foods we eat.

The result is a better understanding of what makes up a healthy eating plan. Here are five food- or meal-based ways to improve your diet that we list in the article (you can see all 12 on the Harvard Health website):

Pile on the vegetables and fruits. Their high fiber, mineral, and vitamin content make fruits and vegetables a critical component of any healthy diet. They’re also the source of beneficial plant chemicals not found in other foods or supplements.

Go for the good fats. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

American Academy Of Pediatrics Endorses Guidelines For Checking LDL Cholesterol Levels In Kids

Why would a pediatrician draw blood from your 9-, 10-, or 11-year-old at his or her next annual wellness visit? Because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently endorsed updated guidelines that call for checking LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in all kids between the ages of 9 and 11.

The cholesterol-test recommendation created quite a stir. But wait, there’s more. The guidelines also call for annual blood pressure checks beginning at age 3, and periodic blood sugar measurements starting between ages 9 to 11. There’s also a strong recommendation for kids and adolescents to limit sedentary screen time to two hours or less per day, and to get at least an hour a day of moderate physical activity.

The biological basis for these guidelines is that atherosclerosis (the fatty gunk in arteries that causes heart attacks, strokes, and other serious problems) starts during youth. In many cases, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Why No One Knows What Generic Lipitor Costs

Several days ago, the world’s leading cholesterol-lowering “statin” drug, Lipitor, went generic. Doctors are bearing the brunt of the conversion with little information about what the new drug will cost for their patients.

This, of course, is the plan.

Even the Wall Street Journal which has an excellent “user’s guide” to making the switch from name-brand to generic Lipitor offers little help as it mentions “co-pays” rather than actual drug cost:

How much cheaper will generic Lipitor be?

Insurance copayments should drop considerably, if patients are getting Lipitor or atorvastatin on the generic tier of their health plans. Currently, Lipitor has been on a higher, branded tier for prescription drugs. Copays for branded drugs average either $29 or $49 depending on the tier, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. Copays for generics average $10.

In addition, Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd, one of the generic manufacturers of generic Lipitor, won concessions to maintain elevated prices for 180 days from the government (a la our own Food and Drug Administration while the Federal Trade Commission stands idly by complaining how consumers are gouged with this arrangement) to assure prices stay high a bit longer.

But if we forget the insurers and copays, how much will the generic drug actually cost consumers? Read more »

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