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Nutrition and Food Safety Myths and Facts

It comes as no surprise that Americans are suffering from "information overload." Most are also aware that the current information environment is a breeding ground for the propagation of myths. This situation certainly applies to nutrition and food safety issues. The following seeks to shed some light and provide the scientific facts to address some common myths about the food you eat.

MYTH: Lactose intolerant children should not drink milk.

FACT: New guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommend that lactose intolerant children not only consume milk, but other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. While tolerance varies among individuals, it is recommended to introduce small amounts of dairy to determine how much can be tolerated without triggering symptoms. This is especially important as many lactose intolerant children may not be getting enough calcium. The guidelines are explained in detail in the September 2006 issues of Pediatrics. Pediatrics 2006;118;1279-1286.

MYTH: Fats in food are bad.

FACT: Fats got a bad rap many years ago and that reputation seems to have stuck. Over the years, scientific knowledge has evolved yielding interesting new developments. The focus now is also on consuming a moderate intake (20 to 30 percent of calories or 44 to 77 grams per 2,000 calorie diet) with more of some types of fats (fatty acids) and less of others (i.e., higher intake from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from sources such as vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Keeping intake of trans fat and saturated fat as low as possible, while consuming a nutritionally balanced diet, which can be determined by looking at the Nutrition Facts panel on the food label.

MYTH: It is better to look at the ingredients list to see if there is trans fat in a product than the Nutrition Facts box.

FACT: Consumers were told to look for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" in the ingredient statement before trans fat was listed on the label. Now that grams per serving are listed consumers have the necessary tool to determine if trans fat is in the product and also how much. Sometimes it can be confusing to mesh old and new advice. For instance, a product may have 0 grams of trans fat on the label and still contain some partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason for this is that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, depending on a variety of factors including how much it is hydrogenated, can contain varying amounts of trans fat and sometimes only a small amount will be used. The FDA says that if a product contains less than .5 grams per serving, it is considered nutritionally insignificant and therefore is rounded to zero. Another point: many people confuse the terms "hydrogenated" and "partially hydrogenated." If a product contains "partially hydrogenated" oils then it will contain some amount of trans fat, but if a product contains "hydrogenated" oil it will contain no trans, only saturated fat.

MYTH: Filling your sink with water and putting your produce in the standing water is the best way to clean it.

FACT: According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE), soaking your produce is risky business. Sinks with standing water can harbor bacteria which can transfer to foods and make you sick. They advise: to properly clean fresh fruits and vegetables including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten, rinse them under running tap water. Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Never use detergent or bleach to wash fresh fruits or vegetables. Bleach and other cleansers are not intended for consumption. The PFSE is a not-for-profit organization that unites industry associations, professional societies in food science, nutrition and health, consumer groups, and the U.S. government to educate the public about safe food handling. The website of the PFSE, is a resource for food safety and safe food handling information.

MYTH: "If it tastes okay, it's safe to eat."

FACT: If you trust your taste buds to detect unsafe food, you will eventually be in trouble. Taking even a tiny bite to test the safety of a questionable food can be dangerous. For some foodborne illnesses, such as botulism, eating just a small amount of a contaminated food can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. For more information visit the IFIC Foundation's A Consumer's Guide to Microbial Risks to Food Safety.

MYTH: Sugar causes diabetes.

FACT: There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce the hormone, insulin, which is required by the body for energy utilization by muscles and other cells. Type 2 diabetes results when the body is unable to respond properly to the insulin produced by the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes is the most common. Individuals who are overweight or obese may be more at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Consumption of sugars and carbohydrates does not cause either type of diabetes. People with diabetes need to be especially careful about the carbohydrates that they consume, usually by counting grams of carbohydrate, but sugars are not "off limits" even for people with diabetes. Regular exercise improves insulin sensitivity for people with diabetes and everyone else, too.

MYTH: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) causes obesity.

FACT: No single food or ingredient is the sole cause of obesity. Too many calories combined with too little exercise is the primary cause. Like dietary fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, HFCS, if consumed in excess, can contribute to weight gain. However, there is no scientific proof of cause and effect with respect to the consumption of HFCS rather than other sugars, such as sucrose, regarding obesity rates. Speculation of a cause-and-effect relationship between HFCS and weight gain is based on preliminary research that tested fructose levels at least three to four times higher than the average amount consumed by Americans. The research did not test HFCS, which, like sucrose, is made up of almost equal amounts of fructose and glucose.

MYTH: Low-calorie sweeteners increase the risk of cancer in humans.

FACT: There is no scientific evidence of a link between low-calorie sweeteners and cancer in humans. Questions arose when early studies indicated a possible (bladder) cancer link between cyclamate in combination with saccharin in laboratory animals. However, according to the National Cancer Institute, recent research results from subsequent studies on these and other approved low-calorie sweeteners have not provided any evidence of a link. Recent research by the National Cancer Institute confers no association between aspartame consumption with an increase of cancer risk. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2006;15(9);1654-1659. Additional resource materials about the safety and use of low-calorie sweeteners are available at: IFIC

MYTH: Low-calorie sweeteners have an effect on appetite and promote weight gain.

FACT: Research on the effect of consuming foods and beverages containing aspartame, for example, has not been shown to increase food intake or hunger in children, nor does it indicate an increase in food intake in normal weight or overweight adults. (Blackburn GL World Rev Nutr Diet 1999;85:77-87). Additional studies in overweight individuals showed improved body weight when they consumed a diet that included foods sweetened with low-calorie sweeteners instead of foods sweetened with sugar. (Raben A, Vasilaras TH, Moller AC, Astrup A Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:721-9). In fact, low-calorie sweeteners can be an essential tool in weight management when used as part of the caloric equation for the general population and help to achieve the calorie goals/limits of people with diabetes.

Sources: Reprinted from the International Food Information Council Foundation, 2006.

Adapted by Editorial Department, January 2008
Last update, August 2008


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