FDA Approves Enrichment of Corn Masa Flour with Folic Acid

At the urging of groups like the March of Dimes, who seek to reduce the incidence of birth defects in the United States, the FDA last month issued approval for manufacturers to enrich corn masa flour with folic acid. (After much discussion and contention, the FDA mandated in the 1990’s that wheat flour be enriched with folic acid.[i])

The specific goal of those advocating folic acid enrichment is to reduce a specific class of birth defects known as “neural tube birth defects,” those defects arising from malformation of the brain, spine, or spinal cord. Neural tube birth defects include spina bifida, anencephaly, and cleft palates, and are a class of birth defects that are most strongly linked to a deficiency in dietary folate (not folic acid; I’ll explain that in a moment).

The logic here is that corn mesa flour is an increasingly prevalent staple of the American diet and enriching it will further reduce birth defects, especially among the Hispanic population.

There are times when public medical policy is based upon what is expedient, not what is ideal. I think this is one such example and I’m troubled and conflicted by it.

On one hand, who doesn’t want to reduce birth defects? Birth defects, especially neural tube defects are heartbreaking, crippling, and even fatal. Only a heartless ogre would say, “Nah, I’m not interested in reducing birth defects!”

What troubles me is not the goal, it’s the use of folic acid to get there. Folic acid, you see, is a synthetic folate that is unusable by the human body. Folic acid must be converted by the body into folate before it is biologically useable.

Folic acid that is not converted is unusable and, research is showing, is harmful:

One animal study showed that rats given excess folic acid during pregnancy gave birth to offspring that exhibited metabolic dysfunctions, including insulin resistance and obesity.[ii] Additionally, human studies show that excess folic acid increases the incidence of asthma in offspring.[iii] Other studies show that folic acid taken at just two times the recommended amount during pregnancy promotes the growth of existing pre-cancerous or cancerous cells in the mammary glands of rats. Clearly, animal and human studies are giving reason to believe that synthetic folic acid can be harmful if taken even to slight excess during pregnancy.

In the words of one of the folic acid researchers, Professor Elisa Keating, “our study shows that it is possible to have too much of a good thing…the search for a safe upper dose of folic acid is urgently needed.”

Note that the researchers are talking about folic acid, not about folates. It’s impossible to “overdose” on green vegetables and ingest too much folate. Folates are naturally occurring, easily metabolized, and safe at any realistically possible intake. Folic acid, on the other hand, is artificial, must be converted in the body, and is not safe when taken to excess.

Complicating the discussion of safe folic acid intake is the genetic variability between individuals when metabolizing folic acid into folate. This conversion is dependent upon an enzyme that our body produces and, depending upon one’s genetic variability, one can convert folic acid to folates rather easily or rather poorly.[iv] As many as 50% of people in the world today have a variation that makes folic acid conversion less efficient, making harmful buildup of folic acid more likely. Those most likely to have the variation that most impedes folic acid conversion are those of Italian and of Hispanic descent.

As I’ve advocated many times before, from inflammatory response to blood glucose elevation to the presence of agents like glyphosate, there are plenty of reasons to avoid grains altogether, especially wheat and corn. With the enrichment of corn masa flour with folic acid, however, there’s now one more reason to avoid corn. The better way to get one’s folates is to avoid folic acid altogether and eat naturally occurring, green leafy vegetables that contain natural folates.

Therein lies the expediency of the folic acid enrichment policy. Is it reasonable to say to the public, “Just get all your folates from green vegetables? Don’t eat corn or wheat at all.” How many will follow such advice? I can promise you that very few will. Our nation’s rates of obesity, inflammatory disease, heart disease, and diabetes are a testament to that. And without the dietary enrichment of folic acid, the birth defect penalty will be exacted upon those without a voice in the matter: the child in the womb.

So, I guess my opinion boils down to this: if you’re pregnant and insist upon eating grains, it’s probably better that your grains have some folic acid in them than not. Do not, however, tell yourself that you’re doing anything optimal. You’re just doing something marginally less harmful. Much the same as if you tried to convince yourself that smoking filtered cigarettes is good for your baby because it’s much better than smoking unfiltered ones.

 

[i] http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/ProductRegulation/SelectionsFromFDLIUpdateSeriesonFDAHistory/ucm091883.htm

[ii] http://joe.endocrinology-journals.org/content/224/3/245

[iii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24930442

[iv] The variability in folic acid metabolism is centered on the MTHFR gene. Those with the most serious conversion impairment are advised to avoid folic acid altogether. The MTHFR variability, or mutation as some call it, is a topic worthy of a much larger discussion. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you start at mthfr.net.

Make Time for Sunshine

If you read Don’t Die Early, you know I’m a firm believer on the benefits of adequate levels of vitamin D. I learned a great deal about vitamin D by reading the writings of Dr. John Cannell, who founded the Vitamin D Council as a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching the world about the importance of adequate vitamin D levels. As Dr. Cannell attests, and many researchers and practitioners are learning, vitamin D has far-reaching implications for an amazing array of conditions affecting us today, including heart disease, MS, and Alzheimers.

I’m very pleased to see more and more studies showing the benefits of maintaining vitamin D levels, even if it means (gasp!) spending time in the sun on a regular basis.

The first study that caught my eye was published last month in the Journal of Internal Medicine. In this study, researchers studied 30,000 Swedish women for 20 years, correlating sunlight exposure to overall mortality. In the words of the researchers, avoiding the sun “is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking.” Read that again: avoiding the sun causes as much harm as smoking. Specifically, the researchers showed the women who avoided the sun not only died earlier, but they also had a higher incidence of a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. The study was also able to show that the benefits of sunlight exposure increased in proportion to the amount of exposure—the more time in the sun, the less likely the participants were to suffer the diseases cited.

The next three studies all discuss vitamin D in the context of multiple sclerosis, both in treating and in preventing.

In the study Vitamin D Status During Pregnancy and Risk of Multiple Sclerosis in Offspring of Women in the Finnish Maternity Cohort, Finnish researchers identified individuals with MS and examined blood samples that had been taken from their mothers during the pregnancy and stored. The researchers found that, as compared to non-MS control group, mothers with those who developed MS were twice as likely to be vitamin D deficient. Past studies have shown little or no correlation between vitamin D levels during pregnancy and the risk of MS, but researchers observed that previous studies suffered from limitations of poor controls and small sample size.

Researchers have a number of theories to explain why low vitamin D levels increase the risk of developing MS, including vitamin D’s suppression of pro-inflammatory T-cell populations and the critical role that vitamin D plays in the formation of myelin.

As many will point out, however, correlation is not causation and to fully understand the role that vitamin D plays in prevent MS, it’s important to try and identify whether vitamin D deficiency is simply correlated with increased risk of MS or if it’s truly part of the cause.

To help show that the vitamin D connection with MS is causal (that is, actually is a cause and not just an unrelated correlation), another study examined those with genetic anomalies that produce low vitamin D levels to see how their low D levels correlate with increased risk of MS. The thinking here is: because the low vitamin D levels in these individuals are genetic, there are no lifestyle factors that might complicate the picture. In other words, if there’s an increased risk of MS among everyone with genetically low vitamin D, it gives strength to the argument that the vitamin D levels are playing a role because the various lifestyle factors among those studied will be randomized and will cancel out.

What did these researchers find? Much the same as other research: Those with genetically low vitamin D levels had twice the risk of developing MS.

And what about those with MS? Can vitamin D possibly bring some benefit? Researchers at Johns Hopkins say “yes,” it can. By supplementing MS sufferers who have low vitamin D levels for a period of six months researchers checked the patients’ blood and found “pleiotropic immunomodulatory effects” in the blood of those receiving therapeutic vitamin D dosages. (“Pleiotropic immunomodulatory effects” is a mouthful, but in this usage it means that the vitamin D supplementation brought multiple beneficial changes to the immune system that reduce the attacks on the MS patients’ nervous system.)

 

This is just a few articles released quite recently but there’s no shortage of research showing the benefits of vitamin D, best obtained by responsible sunlight exposure (“responsible” means don’t let your skin burn) and absent sunlight exposure, via vitamin D supplementation.

When I think of Dr. Terry Wahl’s completely reversing her MS with dietary changes and all of the research showing the benefits of sun exposure and vitamin D, it only reinforces what I already believe: good food that is devoid of grains, sugars, vegetable oils, and other toxins, coupled with time in the sun and fresh air, are some of our best preventive medicine tools.

Ok. I’ve spent enough time in front of my computer. It’s time for a walk in the sunshine.

 

Another Strike Against Monsanto’s Roundup

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’re undoubtedly aware of the controversy surrounding Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) weed killer. Roundup is a principal component of Monsanto’s GMO (genetically modified organisms) policy in which crops (primarily corn and soy) are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate toxicity, which is lethal to virtually every weed known. By planting glyphosate-resistant crops and then spraying liberal amounts of glyphosate, growers can (allegedly) grow crops more economically, burdened far less by weed growth. In addition to using glyphosate on GMO crops, some of these farmers are also using it as a “burndown” herbicide to eliminate weeds prior to planting. The use of glyphosate as a burndown agent is apparently quite prevalent when growing wheat.

Setting aside the emerging issues of glyphosate-resistant super weeds that are now appearing and doubling every two years, there has been much controversy in recent years over the toxicity of glyphosate in humans.

One glyphosate study, performed by Dr. Andreas Carrasco and a team of researchers in Argentina, analyzed birth defects in frogs and chickens exposed to glyphosate. His study revealed the same skeletal deformities in these animals as was witnessed in the children that were born to the mothers who lived in agricultural communities where large amounts of glyphosate were being aerially applied to glyphosate-resistant GMO soybeans.[1]

A team led by Dr. Gilles Eric Seralini documented severe damage from glyphosate to umbilical cord cells from human infants. Glyphosate residue kills both the sperm and the egg at a half part per million and causes endocrine disruption to the cells at 0.2 of a part per million.[2]

Monsanto has steadfastly held that glyphosate is harmless, even falsely claiming that glyphosate doesn’t cross the placental barrier to reach the fetus, a claim readily disproved by the journal Clinical Research in Toxicology.

Adding to the mounting pile of evidence that Monsanto’s glyphosate is harmful is MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff, who focuses primarily on the relation between nutrition and health.

In a June, 2014 slide show that is quickly becoming famous, Dr. Seneff shows disturbing correlations between the increasing use of glyphosate and a number of maladies, including autism, dementia, celiac disease, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and intestinal infection. More than just showing correlation, Dr. Seneff offers some possible mechanisms of action that explain glyphosate’s role in promoting these increasingly common diseases. For example, Monsanto argues that a principal mechanism of glyphosate’s action, the disruption of the Shikimate pathway (a biochemical process used by plants and bacteria to generate the amino acids: phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan), is harmless to humans because humans do not utilize the Shikimate pathway. What Monsanto is conveniently overlooking, however, is that human gut bacteria does use this biochemical process to produce amino acids, and other biochemical goodies, that are vital to human health, which produces a shortage of neurotransmitters and folate.

Dr. Seneff’s also points out that because glyphosate’s damaging effects increase over time, most studies are too short to show damage. (If you’ve read “The Truth About Drug Companies” by former New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief Dr. Marcia Angel, you’re quite familiar with the ways that drug safety trials are often carefully trimmed to avoid showing harm. If, for example, a medication being studied begins to show harm after 24 weeks of use, the drug company can publish the results of the trial, shortened to 22 weeks long, showing that the medication produced no ill effects. It’s not hard to imagine a pesticide or herbicide safety studies being manipulated in the same way.)

Perhaps most alarming is that glyphosate long-term safety studies do not include the additives (also known as adjuvants) that are mixed with commercially applied glyphosate. Why is this alarming? Because according to the journal BioMed Research International, in 100% of the cases where adjuvants are used in pesticides, they increase the toxicity of the principal ingredient, making the principal ingredient as much as 1,000 times more toxic.

To drive the point that there’s a correlation between glyphosate use and autism, Dr. Seneff shows this rather alarming graph:

Glyphsate and Autism

While any reputable researcher will tell you that correlation is not causation (a chant that’s becoming all to familiar in the blogosphere), correlation does accomplish one thing: it points to investigative avenues that are potentially worth exploring. Dr. Seneff points out that even a casual exploration reveals that the following biomarkers for autism can all be explained as proven effects of glyphosate on biological systems:

  • Disrupted gut bacteria; inflammatory bowel
  • Low serum sulfate
  • Methionine deficiency
  • Serotonin and melatonin deficiency
  • Defective aromatase
  • Zinc and iron deficiency
  • Urinary p-cresol
  • Mitochondrial disorder
  • Seizures; glutamate toxicity in the brain

Take a look at Dr. Seneff’s slide show and see if you agree that it’s time we spend some real, unbiased time looking at the effects of glyphsate on all of us and stop believing Monsanto’s propaganda.

And while you’re at it, consider making a donation to Food Democracy Now to aid in their fight for GMO labeling so that no matter your position on GMOs and glyphosate safety, you can make an informed purchasing decision when deciding what to feed yourself and your family.

 

 

[1] Paganeli, A, et al., Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by impairing retinoic acid signaling. Chemical Research in Toxicology 2010;23:1586–1595.

[2] Benachour, N, et al., Time- and dose-dependent effects of Roundup on human embryonic and placental cells. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology Journal. 2007;53:126–133.

Budget Today for Your Future Health

A few years ago my wife and I became frustrated by Quicken’s continued decline on the Macintosh platform and, enticed by a colleague’s endorsement, we decided to try the financial software YNAB (You Need a Budget).

Unlike most other financial software, which focuses more on past spending and pays lip service to budgeting, YNAB’s unique approach to financial freedom is to stridently emphasize budgeting above all else. YNAB’s philosophy so strongly embraces honest budgeting and accountability that the ideal implementation of a YNAB budget does not allow forecasted income at all, instead structuring one’s monthly budget to spend the previous month’s income, not the current month’s income.

This paradigm shift away from “can I make enough this month to pay my bills?” into “how shall I structure my spending this month so that I can live off of last month’s income?” may take some time and sacrifice to achieve, but doing so results in a level of financial comfort foreign to most of us. It’s truly refreshing to spend with an eye towards the future instead of spending impulsively and then running a report to see how bad the damage is.

“That’s nice,” you say, but why am I talking about budgeting on a blog devoted to preventive health?

Simple. It occurred to me this evening while working in YNAB that most of us treat our health the way we treat our budget: we eat whatever we want, typically sugar, vegetable oils, and grains, and when our health slips into the red, we then talk about making changes to improve things. In other words, we treat instead of prevent.

That’s living Quicken style when we should be living YNAB style.

Imagine living a life of minimal sacrifice today that repays significant health dividends in the future. Imagine turning off the television so you can make preventive health your new hobby. So you can give up reacting to sound bites and physical maladies and truly take control of your future health.

The analogy between acting today to achieve future financial freedom and acting today to achieve optimal health as you age is a strong one. Both require some study and some effort and both can pay handsomely.

Think about “budgeting” for a healthier future. Your future self will thank you.

The Return of Bread?!?!?

After giving up wheat more than three years ago, I had pretty much decided that bread was a bygone food in this household. Flaxseed crackers took the place of wheat-based crackers and cinnamon pancakes made from almond meal took the place of “real” pancakes. The pancakes even served as a bread substitute for the occasional sandwich.

The loss of “real” bread wasn’t a great loss, though. After three years, my bread cravings have subsided to nearly zero. I’ve so thoroughly reduced the role of bread in my diet that when a friend sent me a link to a recipe for “great wheat-free bread,” I left the link in my ToDo list for over a year before trying it.

And boy am I sorry I waited so long!

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Summer Camp: Eating for Dementia

By now, the entire blogosphere has picked up on the NEJM study showing that increased levels of blood glucose are linked to an increased risk for dementia.

This study isn’t surprising to those who know how damaging glucose can be to virtually every system in the body. Reading this study, I think back to my post on the absurdity of hosting pancake breakfasts to combat Alzheimer’s disease.

With our nation’s elevated glucose levels in mind, I asked my eight year old daughter to randomly pick one of her peers from summer camp last week and mentally note what this friend ate during the day.

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Hats Off to Sedgwick, Maine’s “Food Sovereignty” Law

Unnoticed by many, the tiny town of Sedgwick, Maine in 2011 passed a “Food Sovereignty Law” that is simultaneously cause for sadness and celebration.

First, the celebration: This law, passed unanimously, states “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.

Furthermore, the ordinance states “It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.

In other words, consenting adults may purchase whatever food items they want from any local provider, free from government restriction or bureaucracy.

What a concept. Grownups buying food from other grownups without government control. That’s heresy!

But what about risk? After all, only the government can ensure that the foods we eat are perfectly safe, right? (Like they’ve done such a good job so far, after all, with stories of food contamination from major producers making headlines on a near daily basis.)

Here’s what the Sedgwick, Maine ordinance says about risk:

Patrons purchasing food for home consumption may enter into private agreements with those producers or processors of local foods to waive any liability for the consumption of that food. Producers or processors of local foods shall be exempt from licensure and inspection requirements for that food as long as those agreements are in effect.

In a country where armed SWAT teams routinely descend upon independent farms and private buying clubs, it’s joyous to see to see the citizens of Sedgwick formally recognize that consenting adults have the right to consume whatever foods they want to consume, freely accepting the risk and consequences of doing so.

Oh, and the sadness part? What could possibly make me sad about such an ordinance?

Simple: It truly saddens me that in the “land of the free,” it takes an ordinance like Sedgwick’s to remind us that the citizens of this country have the right to consume the foods of our choosing.

“Obesity Across the Globe” Experts Still Not Getting It Right

Today’s issue of the Dallas Morning News features the headline “Wide world: Obesity is spreading.” According to the article, hunger no longer holds much of the world in its grip, as the obese now outnumber the malnourished worldwide 2 to 1.

While I don’t doubt for a moment that this is true, what I find more alarming is that the so-called “experts” are still singing the same, fatally flawed tune about the cause of the world’s obesity being lack of exercise and the consumption of too much fat.

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