Category Archives: misleading labels

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Syrup

Who knew agaves grew in so many different flavors?

In the first post on agave nectar, I focused primarily on why it’s no more “natural” than high-fructose corn syrup, which is a delicious irony given how both sweeteners tend to be portrayed. But that isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid agave nectar. “Natural” is at best an imperfect heuristic for healthiness or environmental friendliness, and has no inherent relationship with deliciousness. But, as I also suggested in the first post, agave nectar is certainly no better health-wise than other sources of sugar, and the fact that it’s much higher in fructose than most sweeteners (70-90% vs. ~50%) gives me reason to believe it may actually be worse for your health than sucrose or HFCS-55.

So Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Ketchup Either. Because That Would Be Gross.GRANOLA-WASHING

Perhaps the most baffling thing is how many people seem to think agave nectar doesn’t count as sugar. For example, the rave review of Wholemato Organic Agave Ketchup in Men’s Health, contrasts it with the “liquid candy” that is HFCS. And then implies that the even-higher-fructose agave-sweetened condiment is healthier than “fatty” butter (it’s like someone at Men’s Health was specifically trying to give me apoplectic fits): 

This ketchup forgoes the high-fructose corn syrup and uses agave nectar, preserving sweetness without clobbering your fries or hot dog with liquid candy…. Slather it on your sweet potatoes as an alternative to a fatty slab o’ butter.

Note: The review is only available on the Wholemato site because the “read more” link is broken, but I’m not inclined to think it’s a fabrication as the other links on their “buzz” page are legit and you can find nearly-identical, equally-apoplexy-inducing claims about Wholemato Ketchup at The Kitch’n, Girlawhirl, i like granola, and Well Fed Man, among others.

There are also people who claim to have given up sugar, but who still eat agave nectar. Some excerpts from the comment thread on Nicole MacDonald’s resolution to give up sugar in 2010:

Jennifer: I went sugar-free at 16 to help my psoriasis & still don’t have it, 8 years later .
I don’t miss it at all. If I want to make a cake or anything I will use agave nectar … you realise there are so many interesting & alive foods out there you can enjoy without compromising your health!! xx

Nicole: I have to admit that in the first few weeks I baked a lot using ingredients like honey, agave and brown rice syrup. Cookies are my favorite to make, and I have a long list of recipes on my blog to the right. I also drank a lot of flavored tea with honey added and that seemed to cure some of my cravings.

Beth: I stopped eating sugar last year and its worked out pretty well. As long as I can have natural sugars which are found in fruits, then I’m totally satisfied.

Not All Things That Occur Naturally In Fruit Should Be Consumed In Quantity. Like Cyanide.

Beth is certainly not alone in thinking that “sugars which are found in fruits” are healthier than other sugars. People are frequently resistant to the idea that fructose might be unhealthy because, as the name so conveniently reminds them, it’s found in fruit. Or, if they’ve been sold on the idea that HFCS is poison and fructose has something to do with that, they sometimes suggest that there must be different kinds of fructose. Take, for example, the comment by Dave on this post by ThursdaysGirl, which expressed some reservations about agave nectar:

[. . .] you say Agave is 70% fructose, ok, so that means that means a teaspoon of Agave (about 4 grams) has about 2.8 grams of fructose… Hmmm, a small tomato has about 2.6 grams of fructose in it, the same as a carrot!… so, by your ridiculous logic, you should run away from tomatoes and carrots as fast and as far as you can! OMG, never eat another tomato! And don’t even get me started on Apples!

Remember, HFCS, regardless of what the lying chemists say, is not a natural source of Fructose. It is a man made molecule. It is illegal to call High Fructose Corn Syrup “All Natural”. I wonder why… Agave can be found both All Natural and Organic!!! Small amounts of Fructose actually help metabolize Glucose better, plus its low glycemic, has natural inulin fiber which is amazingly beneficial [. . . .]

I would trust the Mayo Clinics recommendations as regards to High Fructose Corn Syrup… it is poison. But really, Apples, Carrots, Tomatoes etc all bad for you? Stop it.

It’s actually not illegal to call HFCS “natural.” The FDA has been notoriously unwilling to define “natural” aside from the essentially meaningless distinction between “artificial” and “natural” colors and flavors—which Eric Schlosser talks about extensively in Fast Food Nation (pp. 121-131). As of July 2008, HFCS is “natural” for the purposes of food labeling. You can read all about the ongoing legal debates here. However, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to differentiate “natural” fructose, like the stuff in fruit, from “chemically-produced” fructose, like the stuff in HFCS. The problem is that they can’t seem to agree which side the fructose in agave nectar is on.

As you might expect, the agavevangelists are on the side of “natural.” According to Kalyn’s Kitchen Picks :

It’s been a long time since I discovered a new product that rocked my world in the way agave nectar has done…. The sweet taste in agave nectar comes from natural fructose, the same sweetener found in fruit (not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup which has chemically produced fructose.)

On the other side, there’s Rami Nagel, whose Natural News article been widelycirculated and cited by people on both sides of the agave nectar debate. According to Nagel, agave nectar is composed of bad, man-made “fructose,” which he claims actually has a completely different chemical formula from the sugar in fruit, which he calls “levulose”:

We all know that the chemical formula for water is H2O: two hydrogens and one oxygen. The opposite would be O2H, which is nothing close to water. Likewise, man-made fructose would have to have the chemical formula changed for it to be levulose, so it is not levulose. Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn’t recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. (Similar claims here and here)

However, levulose is just an alternate name for fructose. A search for “levulose” on Wikipedia automatically redirects to their fructose entry. ChemBlink claims they’re synonyms with the exact same molecular formula and structure:

levulose/fructose...not quite as catchy as tomayto/tomahto 

And even the earliest examples from the OED reveal that the terms are completely interchangeable: 

1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. III. 386 Cane sugar is partly left unchanged, partly converted into glucose and lævulose. 1902 Encycl. Brit. XXII. 721/1 Glucose and fructose (lævulose)the two isomeric hexases of the formula C6H12O6 which are formed on hydrolysing cane sugar.

With “levulose” eventually giving way to “fructose” by the the 1970s:

1974 Nature 10 May 194/3 Although it is true that some bacteriologists are extremely conservative in the names they use for carbohydrates, surely nobody now uses ‘levulose’…in preference to ‘fructose’ these days.

A PubMed search for “levulose” also turned up 30,398 articles about (surprise!) fructose. The twenty articles that actually had “levulose” in the title were almost all translations, mostly from German.

So no, there is no difference between “naturally occurring” and “chemically-produced” fructose (and if the fructose in HFCS is the latter, so is the fructose in agave). Nonetheless, Dave and Rami Nagel are both at least partially correct. Fructose/levulose may not contain enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin, but the fruits that contain levulose/fructose certainly do. And there’s no reason to believe that eating a small amount of agave nectar, say a teaspoon, with similar amounts of fiber, protein, and other nutrients as would be found in a tomato or carrot would have a different or worse effect on the body than the vegetables themselves.

Fructose and Your Liver

Just because fructose isn’t necessarily bad for you in the amounts present in most fruits and vegetables, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthier substitution for other sugars. The evidence from studies on humans is still pretty scant. However, in a 2008 study where 23 subjects got 25% of their caloric intake from either fructose-sweetened or glucose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks, the subjects who drank the fructose-sweetened drinks showed signs of decreased insulin sensitivity (a sign of diabetes) and increased fat in their abdominal regions, especially around their heart and liver, which is associated with cardiovascular disease (here’s the study itself or a translation from WebMD).

We’ve known for over 50 years that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose. Once it enters the body, it’s taken up by the liver, so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as glucose. It bypasses the step that insulin regulates, so diabetics can digest fructose about as well as non-diabetics. Which initially sounds good, especially for diabetics; however, more recently, fructose has been shown to have the same effects as alcohol on the liver:

I won't pretend to understand everything that's going on here, except that it illustrates the various processes and feedback mechanisms that cause fatty liver disease. From “Fructose Takes a Toll” in the August 2009 Hepatology (login required)

As a recent article in Physiological Review notes:

Fructose was initially thought to be advisable for patients with diabetes due to its low glycemic index. However, chronically high consumption of fructose in rodents leads to hepatic and extrahepatic insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. The evidence is less compelling in humans, but high fructose intake has indeed been shown to cause dyslipidemia and to impair hepatic insulin sensitivity.

So while probably harmless in small amounts, it’s certainly not a “healthy” sugar or a free pass to eat sweet things without potential/likely health consequences.

I’ll do a follow-up eventually about the claim that you can use less of it because it’s sweeter. There are lots of conflicting claims about how much sweeter it is and how much less of it you use that I’m still trying to sort out. So far, I’m not at all convinced that the small caloric benefit is a reasonable trade-off for the risks of increased fructose consumption. I’ll also address one final defense: at least in some applications and to some palates, agave nectar may taste better. I admit to being a little skeptical, but a friend has promised to arrange a blind taste-test of mint juleps made with agave nectar, simple syrup, and a 50-50 agave nectar/brown rice syrup blend. That won’t happen until the national day of mint julep drinking, which falls on May 1, 2010 this year. So, until then, I’m going to take a little break from reading and writing about agave nectar.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part I: “Natural” my foot

UGH the subtitle. I really want Ms. Catalano to show me exactly where in "nature" she gets her agave nectar. Also, I find the use of "ultimate" to mean "exemplary" or "best" instead of "final" or "last" grating, but that's a petty battle against usage change that "Ultimate Frisbee" has clearly already won. Still, I like to think of it as "Frisbee for the End Days" Just as "wholesome" as any other hydrolyzed, refined sweetener. If you've been snarky about the Corn Refiners' Assn's recent "Sweet Surprise" marketing campaign, but have a bottle that looks like this in your cupboard, I have some delicious all-natural snake oil to sell you, good sir or madam.

This entry was nearly titled “Things That Might Not Kill You In Moderation But Certainly Won’t Make You Any Healthier Vol. I,” or “Hydrolyzed, Refined Sweeteners Masquerading as ‘Natural,’ Whole Foods,” but those seemed a little unwieldy. They do, however, capture the essence of the argument: agave is nutritionally no better than most other refined sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). If anything, it’s probably worse because it contains more fructose than table sugar or HFCS. It’s also no more or less “natural” than HFCS—it’s actually produced in a remarkably similar process that was first used on the fibrous pulp of the agave in the 1990s. While, as its proponents claim, the higher proportion of fructose has enabled people to call it a “low glycemic index sweetener,” sometimes alleged to be safer for diabetics and recommended by weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, recent research suggests that large amounts of fructose aren’t healthy for anyone, diabetic or otherwise.

I mentioned agave nectar in passing in the HFCS post, but there’s enough conflicting information about it to merit its own post(s). A lot of the misinformation comes from agavevangelists, who can sometimes get a little sanctimonious about their avoidance of the demon HFCS and preference for “natural” sweeteners. Even this Vegfamily article that concludes “the physiological effects of all [caloric] sweeteners are similar” nonetheless claims:

Given the choice between sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar, I’ll stick with organically-grown, unbleached cane sugar (evaporated cane juice) and organic raw agave nectar that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical bleaching agents; not genetically engineered; and still retains some nutrients, as well as being vegan. Since HFCS is not available in organic form and is highly processed, I would never use it.

But agave nectar is just as processed as HFCS.

HFCS and Agave Nectar: One of These Things is Not Almost Exactly Like The Other

1910 magazine advertisement from http://goldcountrygirls.blogspot.com/2009/10/then-and-now-49-karo-syrup.html Like most starches, corn starch consists of large glucose polymers—70-80% the branched, non-water soluble amylopectin and 20-30% linear, soluble amylose. Normal or non-HFCS corn syrup, like Karo, is produced by breaking those polymers down into their constituent glucose molecules using acids, enzymes, and/or heat. For the history buffs: the acid hydrolysis of starch was first discovered because of the 1806 British blockade of the French West Indies. Napoleon I offered a cash reward for anyone who could come up with a replacement for cane sugar, and a Russian chemist named Konstantin Kirchhof found he could produce a sweet syrup from potato starch by adding sulfuric acid. The same process was first applied to corn in the mid-1860s, and gained popularity in the U.S. during the sugar shortages of WWI (source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America).

HFCS is produced by converting the glucose into fructose using an enzyme technology developed in Japan in the 1960s (detailed here). The resulting syrup, which contains up to 90% fructose, is then typically mixed with corn-based glucose syrup to produce HFCS-55 (the kind used in soft drinks, which has 55% fructose/45% glucose) or HFCS-45 (the kind used in baked goods, which has 45% fructose/55% glucose). Some people, like Cynthia commenting on Daily Candor, have suggested that the fructose and glucose in HFCS are absorbed into the bloodstream faster because they’re “free" instead of bound the way they are in the disacccharide sucrose, which is broken into glucose and fructose by the enzyme sucrase. Theoretically plausible, but apparently not true:

Sucrose is hydrolysed by brush-border sucrase into glucose and fructose.
The rate of absorption is identical, regardless of whether the sugar is presented to the mucosa as the disaccharide or the component monosaccharides (Gray & Ingelfinger, I 966, cited by H. B. McMichael in “Intestinal absorption of carbohydrates in man”).

I'm going to start refering to packaging like this as granola-washingJust like HFCS, agave nectar is produced by breaking down a plant-based polymer into its constituent sugars. In the case of agave, the relevant molecule is inulin, a fiber composed mostly of fructose units with a terminal glucose. Just like with corn and potato starch, there are different methods of hydrolyzing the sugars in inulin.  Blue Agave Nectar uses a thermic process. Madhava uses an enzyme process, just like HFCS.

Agavevangelists like to claim that agave nectar is a traditional sweetener used by native peoples, which appeals to the popular notion that the foodways of the past were generally healthier (e.g. Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food). Some, like Lynn Stephens of Shake Off the Sugar, merely note that the agave plant itself “has long been cultivated in hilly, semi-arid soils of Mexico.” That’s true, although it’s about as relevant as the long history of corn cultivation. Others claim that agave nectar itself has an ancient history. Flickr user Health Guy says of agave nectar: “It is 1-1/4 times sweeter than sugar, so you need less, and it has been consumed by ancient civilizations for over 5,000 years.”

Wrong. According to the website for Madhava Honey:

Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s. Originally, the blue agave variety was used. This is the same plant used in the manufacture of tequila. During the late 90’s, a shortage of blue agave resulted in huge increases in cost and a sweetener based on this plant became uneconomical. Further research was done and a method using wild agave was developed. Overcoming the language barrier between the Indians able to supply the nectar from the wild agave on their land and the Spanish speaking local manufacturer was the key that finally unlocked a supply of raw material and has led to our bringing this wonderful new product to market.

Still doing some native-washing (wild agave harvested by Indians who don’t speak Spanish—can’t you just feel the virtue?), but here’s what happens to the agave sap after harvesting, as described in the abstract of the 1998 patent issued for the production of fructose syrup from the agave plant:

A pulp of milled agave plant heads are liquified during centrifugation and a polyfructose solution is removed and then concentrated to produce a polyfructose concentrate. Small particulates are removed by centrifugation and/or filtration and colloids are removed using termic coagulation techniques to produce a partially purified polyfructose extract substantially free of suspended solids. The polyfructose extract is treated with activated charcoal and cationic and anionic resins to produce a demineralized, partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract. This partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract is then hydrolyzed with inulin enzymes to produce a hydrolyzed fructose extract. Concentration of the fructose extract yields a fructose syrup. (via Patentstorm)

Probably the healthiest sweetener pictured here and the one most shoppers in the market for a "natural sweetener" would be least likely to purchaseIt’s true that the corn used in HFCS is less likely than agave to be organically-grown, but you can get organic-certified corn syrup from the same manufacturer as the blue agave nectar pictured above and nutritionally, the main difference between that, the HFCS used in most processed foods, and agave nectar is the ratio of glucose: fructose. The regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, HFCS is usually 55/45 glucose/fructose, and agave nectar 56-90% fructose, depending on the plant and the process.

I’ve already talked a little about fructose vs. glucose here and here, but more coming soon in Agave-rant Part II concerning:

1) whether the fructose in agave is somehow better than, or indeed, different in any way from the fructose in HFCS

2) whether the fact that it’s sweeter than sugar makes it a lower-calorie alternative to sugar

3) whether its “low glycemic index” rating makes less likely to produce insulin resistance than table sugar and

4) whether it’s safer for diabetics

All of which people have claimed. I won’t keep you in suspense, especially given how long it may take me to put all of that together. The short answers are:

1) not in any nutritionally meaningful way

2) perhaps very slightly, but a <10 calorie/serving difference likely doesn’t make up for the increased risk of fatty liver syndrome and insulin resistance

3) no, it’s actually more likely to produce insulin resistance and

4) in miniscule amounts, perhaps, but recent trials involving diabetics and agave nectar were halted because of severe side effects.

Things That Might Kill You Volume 1: Trans-fats

Trans-fats have been in the news sporadically in recent years, thanks largely to the bans passed by the New York City Health Department and the Indiana State Fair. Even consumers who don’t read the news have undoubtedly become familiar with the term because of food manufacturers labeling their products “0 Trans Fats!” (often with a small-print “per serving” which usually means there are trans fats in the product, just less than .5 g per serving) or “Trans-fat free!” whether or not they ever contained trans-fats in the first place.

from Ritz 100 calorie packs: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_QEJr8TD2el0/Sgh4AvvhknI/AAAAAAAAACw/6Ljvrf8r5hU/s1600-h/transfat4.jpg from http://fastfood.freedomblogging.com/2008/07/30/is-fast-food-complying-to-the-new-california-trans-fat-ban/just don't ask them about their msg content

But there still seems to be considerable confusion about what trans-fats are and why they might be bad for your health, which has likely been complicated by the long, stupid demonization of fats qua fats and saturated fats as a supposed cause of high cholesterol and heart disease.

Trans-fats are trans isomers of fatty acids, and although they occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products from ruminants like cows and goats (in the form of vaccenic acid), the primary source of trans-fats in most Americans’ diets is hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most vegetable oils are composed primarily of unsaturated fats, which tend to be liquid at room temperature. criscoIn the early 20th Century, when the U.S. started importing soybeans as a source of cheap protein, soybean oil became readily available as a byproduct and was far cheaper than butter or lard. However, liquid and unsaturated fats get rancid much more quickly than solid fats, have a lower smoke point, and were unsuited to many American culinary traditions—biscuits and pastry crusts or all “short breads”* absolutely depend on solid fats to create their flaky texture, as explained in the note at the end.

Hydrogenation, a process first developed by French and German chemists around the turn of the century,  provided the solution: heating the liquid, unsaturated fats in the presence of hydrogen turned them into solids at room-temperature. Apparently, cottonseed oil was also far cheaper than the beef tallow used in candles, so that one of the first uses of hydrogenated oils. It took a little marketing work to convince people it was also good eating–the major campaign for years was “Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (okay, actually that probably just reflected the central nutritional concerns of the early 20th C: indigestion and dispepsia, see Hillel Schwartz’s Never Statisfied.

from a 1915 Saturday Evening Post advertisement, see the whole thing at http://freetheanimal.com/2009/05/know-your-fats.html

However, the process of hydrogenation also creates trans fats, and a different kind from the ones present in beef and dairy products. Unlike saturated fats, trans-fats produced through hydrogenation have been repeatedly correlated with coronary heart disease, including fatal heart attacks, in large, long-term epidemiological studies, including the Framingham Study. A review article on the available research on the relationship between dietary fat and coronary heart disease (CHD) published this past September concluded:

According to the classic ‘diet-heart’ hypothesis, high intake of SFAs [saturated fatty acids] and cholesterol and low intake of PUFAs [poly-unsaturated fatty acids] increase serum cholesterol levels and risk of CHD. However, few within-population studies have been able to demonstrate consistent associations with any specific dietary lipids, with the exception of trans fats and n–3 fatty acids.

In other words, everything you’ve heard in the last decade about trans fats (bad) and omega-3s (good) actually seems to be supported by the available research, unlike everything you’ve been told for the last five decades about saturated fats.

However, many of the claims about the threat posed by trans-fats allege that trans-fats raise LDL levels. And it’s not at all clear to me that anyone should be concerned about the fact that trans fats might be associated with increased cholesterol, even "bad" cholesterol, for reasons I discuss in the second entry on saturated fat. The only thing makes me think trans fats might actually be bad for people’s health is the consistent, strong association between trans fat consumption and increased risk of CVD and myocardial infarction. I know correlation =/= causation, and I haven’t found any good evidence about a proposed mechanism. On the basis of the current evidence, it seems like there’s a difference between the naturally-occurring trans-fats and the ones produced by hydrogenation:

The association was only seen for for trans fatty isomers from hydrogenated vegetable oils. The mainly different trans isomers from ruminant fats did not show such an association. A case-control study in 239 people suffering an acute myocardial infarction found that after adjustment for age, sex and energy intake, intake of trans fatty acids was directly related to risk of myocardial infarction [241]. Those with the highest intake of trans fatty acids had twice the risk of myocardial infarction as those with the lowest intakes after adjusting for other cardiovascular risk factors. As with the Nurses Health Study, the association was only seen for trans isomers from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. (from a 1995 lit review in the British Food Journal)

Is that because the hydrogenated oils contain linoleic acid, and meat and milk with naturally-occurring trans-fats don’t? I don’t know. I think the most interesting finding from Harvard’s Nurse’s Health Study, which is one of the studies that did show a weak but significant correlation between saturated fat consumption and CVD, is that the consumption of trans fats was associated with a much higher incidence of CVD than saturated fats. That finding, which is nearly two decades old, should probably be pretty infuriating to anyone who’s eaten hydrogenated-vegetable-oil margarine or shortening in the last two decades because it was supposedly a “healthier” alternative to butter or lard. Similar findings in several other studies prompted the more recent review article to conclude:

The observational evidence that TFA are independently associated with increased risk of CHD events is convincing, though based on a more limited body of evidence.

However:

There is probably no direct relation between total fat intake and risk of CHD.

So the persistent recommendation from public health and nutrition authorities to reduce total fat consumption? Not supported by the available evidence. But the reason this isn’t a  "things that won’t kill you" entry is because, well, trans-fats might.

What it means for how I eat

The short version: lard before margarine or shortening, except when the lard is shelf-stable or the margarine/shortening is produced using fractionation and palm oil.

This whole series of entries was inspired by the casual research I was doing to figure out what kind of fat I should use in the Christmas cookies I wanted to send to distant relatives. Before that, I generally used butter when baking, primarily for its flavor but also because of a vague belief I had that butter is more "natural" and thus potentially "healthier" than margarine or shortening—at least partially-inspired by the explosion of negative publicity about trans-fats in the last decade.

However, the goal of the Christmas cookies was to replicate recipes used by my grandmother, and those generally call for shortening. "Shortening" can refer to either animal or vegetable-based semi-solid fat, named for the "short breads" or "shortcake" they produce,* but in my family, it’s only ever meant one thing: big blue cans of Crisco, which even with the new formula, still includes trans-fat.

There's that crafty "per serving" again!The new Crisco formula does contain substantially less trans-fat than previous formulas, and it’s worth noting that the studies showing that margarine-eating is associated with increased heart disease and death generally involved stick or hydrogenated margarine—which is where some people have gotten the idea that stick margarines are worse for you than tub margarines. To the extent that the former usually require greater hydrogenation in order to be firmer and replicate butter for baking, and thus contain more trans fats, that’s probably true. Margarines produced through fractionation, which contain no trans-fats, could be just as healthy as butter, perhaps healthier if they contain omega-3s, perhaps less if the saturated fat in butter is a protective against cholesterol oxidation. At that point it’s definitely in the realm of “it’s complicated and there’s no clear evidence either way.”

If I had been making the cookies for myself, I might have just substituted butter and never bothered to look into it further. But aside from the flavor difference, butter also produces a thinner, crisper, and more delicate cookie because it’s only about 80% fat compared to shortening’s 100% (the other 20% is mostly milk solids and water). That’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but in this case was a problem both for verisimilitude and stability—I need them to get to their destinations at least mostly intact.

Lard seemed like the next best choice, being, after all, the other traditional solid fat that hydrogenated vegetable shortening was developed to mimic. But I felt hesitant about that because even though the family members I’m sending them to aren’t vegetarians, lots of people react with horror to the idea of eating lard. I would basically never dare to make something with lard and take it to a potluck lest people ask for the ingredients and then react the way people did when this guy took lard-containing liver pate to a Christmas dinner last year: making horrid faces and saying lard "will kill you." It’s not like they could have expected it to be vegetarian or low-fat—it was liver pate. People are just scared and disgusted by the idea of eating lard. Even I had this lingering sense that lard was supposedly "artery-clogging" or somehow terrible for you, and assumed that was because it was high in saturated fat.

As any readers who’ve been swept up in the minor lard revival probably already know, lard is primarily composed of unsaturated fatty acids (56-62% depending on where on the pig it comes from and how it’s processed). So even if the reason you think lard is scary and bad is that you think saturated fat is scary and bad, lard is  considerably better than butter (~36% unsaturated and 64% saturated), which people seem generally way less freaked out by.

BUT…the lard I bought, a green and white Armour container just like the one below, stocked in many supermarket’s meat coolers even though it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, contains not just rendered pork fat, but also hydrogenated lard. Or, as succinctly visually annotated by District Plates:

it's so cheap, too! and it seems like other kinds of lard are so expensive. boo. 

I’m still working through the lard, and deeply impressed by the pie crust and biscuits it produces, but I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to eat it. So ultimately, for the cookies, I decided to use a 50-50 combination of butter and the vegan shortening produced by Spectrum Organics, which is composed primarily of palm oil—naturally a solid at room temperature. 

I can’t be entirely confident that butter made from corn-fed, antibiotic and hormone-treated cows is necessarily "healthier" than almost entirely non-hydrogenated margarines, like Smart Balance. After a lot of mostly-fruitless efforts to find more information about what trans-fats might actually do to human health, I finally concluded that, as with most issues of diet and health, it’s complicated. Which is to say, there’s not a lot of information out there, likely because it would be extremely difficult and expensive to study with enough control and for a long enough duration to make very good conclusions. But I also can’t find any evidence that butter, even from industrial-agriculture cows, is unhealthy.

The cookies tasted buttery, but weren’t too fragile, and apparently got to their destinations mostly intact.

In sum, the list of fats I’m happy eating and feeding to my loved ones:

  • Butter
  • Non-hydrogenated lard 
  • Palm and Coconut Oils
  • Margarine produced through fractionation rather than hydrogenation
  • Liquid vegetable oils, though generally not in combination with saturated fats

And the fats I try to avoid:

  • Hydrogenated margarine, lard, or shortening

Beyond that, I think you might as well choose on the basis of taste and texture preferences or moral considerations (animal welfare, environmental sustainability, labor issues, etc., not that those are any clearer or less complicated).

*Short breads are distinguished from yeasted breads by their lack of long gluten strands, which can’t form when the protein in the flour is coated in fat, although that’s not, apparently, the origin of the name, which instead refers to the crumbly, flaky texture. The use of the verb "shorten" to mean "to make something friable or crumbly" was first used in reference to the effect of sand in soil and applied to breads long before the existence and function of gluten was understood. So that seemed like a neat coincidence, at first, but then I realized if it was really just about coating the flour in fat, there’s no reason only solid fats would be referred to a "shortening" because oil could do that just as well, if not better. But you can’t just substitute oil for shortening and still get flaky, crumbly biscuits or pie crust. What actually produces the flaky texture is the combined lack of gluten strands and the chunks of solid fat that melt as the bread bakes, creating thin layers between the layers of flour. So what initially seemed like a really neat faux-etymology turns out to not be as cool after all. Le sigh.