Going nuts for coconut oil

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Image by Hafiz Issadeen, CC BY 2.0
Image by Hafiz Issadeen, CC BY 2.0

Apparently there is nothing coconut oil cannot do. According to innumerable health and lifestyle sites, it’s good for the body inside and out; you’ll never need another fat again. There’s so much hype and beautiful, flowery language around this food that it is really difficult to know what is true, and what is a bit (or an extreme amount) of exaggeration about the virtues of this wonder fat. This article makes some pretty bold assertions, and always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But first, a primer on coconut oil. Despite its name, it is a fat that is solid at room temperature. This is due to the fact that it contains 90% saturated fatty acids, which is more than butter. What sets it apart from most other solid fats is the types of saturated fats in coconut oil. Fatty acids – the components of “fat” – are strings of carbon atoms with a certain number of hydrogen atoms attached, with or without double bonds. Saturated fatty acids have no double bonds; this is what allows them to fit together compactly, making a solid fat. Fatty acids come in many lengths, from 4-carbon chains all the way up to 22 carbons, occasionally more. Most of the saturated fats in butter or animal fats are long-chain, 16 to 20 carbons atoms. Of coconut oil’s 90% saturated fat content, 58% of those fatty acids are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), 6-12 carbons per chain. These fats are metabolized differently than long fatty acids, and this is a key point to remember when examining the health claims. Interestingly, coconut oil contains no omega-3 fats, the polyunsaturated fats most associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk. Even butter contains 1% omega-3 fats.

So on to the health claims (paraphrased):

1. Coconut oil has a unique fatty acid composition with medicinal properties.

Yes, it has a unique composition, just like every other fat out there. We wouldn’t expect coconut oil to be exactly like butter, because then it would be butter. The medicinal properties claim comes from the high proportion of MCTs. MCT oil is regularly used in medical nutrition therapy for many conditions including malnutrition, malabsorptive disorders, the ketogenic diet for seizures and other brain disorders, and more. It is a manufactured product, meant to ensure purity, potency, and almost exclusive MCT content. Any health benefits from coconut oil cannot be fairly equated to those of MCT oil because they are very different substances. MCTs do have a beneficial effect on the conditions listed above, however, we cannot extrapolate that people without these conditions would see the same benefits.

2. The people who eat the most coconut oil are the healthiest.

This is another epidemiological finding that cannot imply causation. Both the groups pointed out, the Tokelauans and the Kitavans are small, isolated populations, living largely subsistence lifestyles, with almost no intake of western refined foods. There are so many differences between their genetics predispositions, activity levels, lifestyles, and diet compared to ours in North America that to conclude their apparent reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease is due to coconut oil is unfair at best, deceptive at worst.

3. Coconut oil will help you burn fat, lose weight.

Right now there is not enough evidence to make this assertion. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, or that coconut oil does not have a favourable effcect compared to other fats, it’s just that the research hasn’t been done. A lot of the articles cited in support of this claim, like this one, this one, and this one are very small (12 or fewer subjects each) and completed 20-30 years ago. Small sample size reduces the strength of the evidence, so no big conclusions can be made. And again, some of these studies used MCT oil, not coconut oil; strike two against this claim.

4. Coconut oil has antimicrobial effects.

Most of the studies cited to support this claim are in vitro studies, a.k.a. put-things-in-a-petri-dish-and-see-what-happens study. We learn a lot from this kind of research, it’s what gives us a better understanding and generates many more research hypotheses. But this type of research absolutely cannot be used to make recommendations about human health and interventions. The reason is simple: the human body is not a petri dish. Our bodies are not tightly controlled environments where only one variable is manipulated at a time. Using in vitro studies to make a health claim is like saying that we are made of atoms, atoms are mostly space, thus we are invisible. An interesting idea, but clearly false. Luckily, a better in vivo (in a living being in semi-normal conditions) study was done to test the antimicrobial claims of coconut oil but sadly, the beloved tropical fat didn’t do any better than controls. Please, please, please, if you suspect you have any type of infection, skip the coconut oil and talk to your doctor.

5. Coconut oil can reduce hunger (…thus helping you lose weight).

Just like the previous weight loss claim, the studies cited are old and small, the test diets are very different from typical diet patterns, and once again, they are using MCT oil, not coconut oil. I’m not saying there’s no benefit to coconut oil here, there just isn’t enough good evidence to support that.

6. MCTs in coconut oil are helpful for seizure control, as part of the ketogenic diet.

I feel like we’ve covered this already…but here it goes again. Yes, the high fat ketogenic diet, with or without MCTs, is a very useful treatment for some people with significant neurological disorders. If you do not have a  condition like that, this “benefit” does not apply to you. As always, the claimant is conflating concentrated MCT oil with coconut oil. If you or a loved one do love with a condition for which the ketogenic diet may be prescribed, listen to the advice of your health care team and ignore this claim all together. Ultimately, this claim helps no one and may cause harm to someone who thinks they will get a health “boost” from switching to coconut oil. This is a dangerous path to take.

7. Coconut oil improves blood cholesterol levels, especially the “good” cholesterol HDL.

This is probably one of the best researched topics in the usefulness of coconut oil at present. Coconut oil does seem to show some favourable effects on cholesterol levels and types. What this tells us is that coconut oil is likely safe and can be part of healthy diet. This does not tell us that we should eschew all other oils and use coconut oil exclusively for all of our fat-based needs.

8. Coconut oil can be used as sunscreen and moisturizer.

Sunscreen can also be used as sunscreen. Coconut oil’s impressive-sounding ability to block out 20% of UV rays is no match for your run-of-the-mill SPF 15 sunscreen which blocks 93% of those rays. As for moisturizer, plant-based oils and fats have been used – and continue to be – for centuries as moisturizers. Cocoa butter, shea butter, and coconut oil tend to be favourites because of the nice smells and smooth, not oily textures. This likely has to do with the MCTs and their low melting point, but I can’t be sure and I’m too tired to keep talking about this. Moving on.

9. Coconut oil can improve Alzheimer’s.

False. Hear-say and case-studies do not equal evidence. Next claim.

10. Coconut oil can help you lose dangerous belly fat.

See the items above for weight loss. There is some research showing that coconut oil may in fact have this positive effect, but as usual, no conclusions should be drawn yet.

If you like coconut oil, great. If you don’t, great. Whether you choose to include it or not is up to you. Either way, your best bet is to include a variety of plant-based fats in your diet, and don’t look for any magic effects in a jar.

Milk wars

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Image by Carsten Schertzer, CC BY 2.0
Image by Carsten Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY 2.0

After gluten, dairy, particularly liquid milk, is the new food boogey-man. It’s not hard to find volumes of pages, posts, and rants encouraging the public give up cereal’s companion, either in favour of a plant milk or nothing at all. One such article caught my attention and between the snarky tone and the bold assertions of no counter point to the author’s opinions, I felt a blog post coming on: challenge accepted, my friend. I would like the record to show that I’m not here to cheer on dairy consumption, or even really defend it; I think consumers should not be bullied into changing their consumption habits, particularly by half-truths and statements lacking evidence. So let’s have a look at the reasons adults should not drink milk, shall we?

Point: No other species can digest milk past babyhood.

This is true. Humans are the only animal that continues to drink milk past infancy, and we are the only animals that drink milk from another species (I thought I would cover all the bases of this argument, for simplicity’s sake). However, no other species can raise prize-winning petunias, cook a steak to medium rare, or build a rocket and fly to the moon. There are so many things that no other species can do, that’s part of what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. So please, can we retire this meaningless assertion? Thanks.

That said, it is true that not all, or even most humans can properly digest milk sugar (lactose). However, it does not at all follow that this food should be off limits for those who can. A better argument that the article could have made is that milk should not be pushed as a necessary food for human health when only a minority can digest it. To figure out whether dairy milk works for you or not, watch your own symptoms. If you think it is causing you some stomach upset, cut back and see what happens. If you’re like me, 30 years old and able to drink as much milk as I want, you’re probably fine, so enjoy your milk. Lactose intolerance can increase as we age, so check your symptoms once in a while, but no need for preemptive elimination.

Point: Babies drink milk because they can’t digest anything else and they need to fatten up and get nutrition somehow.

Yes, milk is meant for helping calves grow into cows, yes it provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. The important points this article is missing are portion and frequency of consumption. Drinking one cup of milk a day (at around 130 kcal) is not likely to cause weight gain, particularly in the context of an energy balanced diet. Drinking several cups a day, or drinking milk in an excessive energy diet may result in unintended weight gain. To put this into perspective, chocolate also provides a lot of calories and saturated fats. Small amounts of chocolate occasionally will have very little effect on your health and clothing size while eating the entire gift box of Ferrero Rochers is quite a different story.

The article also mentions that Asian countries, typically the lowest dairy consumers, tend to have the longest lifespans. While this may be true, these findings are based on population studies and let’s all remember, with population-based research, correlation does not equal causation. There are many, many, many other factors that differ between North America and Asia that would impact life expectancy, including overall diet, lifestyle, physical activity, stress level, emotional health, and more.

Point: You can get calcium from plenty of other foods

Yes, we can. See my point above about not pushing dairy on the public. Next point, please.

Point: It’s gross

When it comes to food, gross is relative. It depends on our tastes, our heritage, our positive and negative experiences and emotional surrounding food. I’ve never tried hakarl, balut, or kiviak, but, my vegetarianism aside, there is really nothing that makes we want to try them. But I know for many others, these foods are a delightful, warming taste of home, and my personal opinion about what is “gross” should have no bearing on whether these foods should be consumed or not. Get over yourself and your own icky feelings, and let someone else enjoy their foods.

Apparently there are a lot of counterpoints to this ostensibly irrefutable points against milk consumption. We probably don’t need milk to live, but humans being the adaptable creatures we are, we can probably live healthy lives while consuming milk as adults.

Worth its weight in (pink) salt

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Pink Salt
Image by Inquisitive Eye, via Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0

Salt is bad, right? Refined foods are bad, right? So it must follow that the refined, ubiquitous condiment table salt must pose a health risk to humans greater than mercury, werewolves, and bears combined. At least so says this article. It’s another iteration of a health claim that has been around for several years: table salt=bad, sea salt/Himalayan salt/exotic, expensive salt of your choice=good. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so let’s see how the claims for salt stack up against the evidence.

First, the claim that table salt is not real salt. For most of us, salt refers to sodium chloride, an edible crystalline product that provides most of our sodium intake. Table salt contains 97% or more sodium chloride; I find it hard to see how table salt does not then qualify as “real” salt (other salts contain 90-97% sodium chloride). I will note, now, that the term salt has very broad usage in chemistry; many things can be considered a salt. But I digress. True, the salt in our shakers does not emerge from the earth in such pure white and uniform crystals, but that does not make it less salt. This claim is an appeal to the naturalistic fallacy, of which I am no fan. Avoiding refined foods is a good rule of thumb when planning your diet, but salt (whatever type you like) is not a food. It is a mineral compound, an ingredient. It affects our health and nutrition but is not, nor was it ever, a significant source of nutrition. Hence, it is not fair to liken salt that has been refined into table salt to corn kernels that have been refined into cheese puffs.

Next, the article claims that the negative health effects of salt intake, most notably high blood pressure (though there is the evidence is unclear regarding the link between salt/sodium intake and cardiac event risk) are due to the high sodium content of table salt without adequate magnesium to balance it (the magnesium having been stripped away during refining). Inadequate magnesium intake does appear to play a role in high blood pressure, among other health conditions. Adult humans require 320-400 mg magnesium daily; typical intake from the western diet appears to be declining. Table salt is almost completely devoid of magnesium, while sea salt and Himalayan salt do contain some. These salts also contain some amount of various other minerals, the exact compositions varying based on where the salt originated. However, it is the dose that makes the cure or the poison. Per teaspoon, sea salt contains approximately 20 mg magnesium and Himalayan salt provides approximately 0.00092 mg magnesium. Even if you did consume 1 teaspoon of sea salt a day, you would only get 5% of the RDA; that one teaspoon also provides almost the entire day’s allotment of sodium. Compare that to 1 oz dry roasted almonds that provide 20% of the RDA with minimal added sodium. Increasing magnesium in the diet is probably a good idea for most of us; the type of salt we choose will have a negligible effect on our overall intake. The same goes for all the other trace minerals found in unrefined salts.

Third, the author starts discussing the dangers of inadequate sodium intake. It’s not clear what this has to do with the type of salt we choose; if we are concerned about not getting enough, then it seems that table salt would be the most reasonable choice as it typically has the most sodium (as noted above). But of course, outside of severely sodium-restricted diets, water intoxication, and a few rarely disorders, low sodium intake is of no concern: we typically consume about 3400 mg sodium daily while our needs are only 1500 mg. The author correctly points out that sodium is vital for proper nerve conduction and hydration, but what is not made clear is that, because of the importance of this nutrient, sodium regulation is a tightly controlled process . Our sodium levels are largely independent of intake; you could eat 10,000 mg sodium a day without raising your blood sodium levels.

The article goes on to fear-monger about the bleaching process and additives in table salt like anti-caking agents which contain aluminum or ferrocyanide (both of which a regulated and found to be safe for human consumption). The important point here is that these additives are in minute amounts and are unlikely to cause harm. We have far better things to worry about than this.

There are lots of salts on the market, but the biggest differences are the look, taste, and cost. Choose the one you like best, use the least amount you need for flavour, and don’t for a minute think that you are getting a hefty dose of any minerals other than sodium and chloride.

Toxic waste (of money): detoxes and cleanses

Cross-posted from Dietitian at Home.

Apparently we are all chock-full of toxins that need to be flushed out of our bodies; who knew? If we are to judge this claim based on the number of detox kits and programs available, I’d say this problem has hit epidemic proportions. Removing bad stuff from our bodies to feel better and prevent disease, and lose some weight to boot, what’s not to love with this diet trend.

Before we move on, we will need to get these horses to catch up with the cart. Our zealous, hyper health-conscious society simultaneously encourages fear over threats to our well being and aggressive, excessive measures to purge the ills and return to purity. The idea of a detox in the sense intended above is full of assumptions that are often glossed over by the marketers and not actively sought by the consumers. This fantastic article outlines the common myths around detox claims, I highly suggest you read it. To summarize briefly, despite the many claims promoted by these regimens, all fail to explicitly show key evidence for the need for the product. It is not demonstrated that our bodies are truly under attack and unable to cope with environmental exposures. There is no evidence or consensus of which, if any toxins are causing disease. There is no good or compelling evidence to show that these programs are effective in removing any toxins or treating any other illnesses we may have.

As is often said, the dose makes the poison. We encounter thousands of highly toxic substances every day, some naturally occurring, some a product of the human-made environment. Given this hellscape, we still manage to survive to see another day because most of these toxins are in such minute quantities that they pose no health risk, and our bodies are able to effectively eliminate them. The human body has excellent, built-in detoxification systems in the form of the liver and kidneys. These organs are not merely fleshy filters; they are able to convert toxins and waste products into safer forms and safely eliminate them from the body. The best part is that they are self-cleaning, no vitamin-and-cayenne-pepper-laced organ drain-o needed.

Similarly, the intestines (often claimed to harbor toxin-laden sludge) are, by their very nature, self-cleaning. Specific foods/herb mixes/protein shakes/etc. will not make these organs work better or clear more wastes from your system. As for the weight loss accompanied by, or at least touted by these cleanses, this is usually a result of:

  • a) following a very low-calorie diet for a week. Some provide as little as 500-600 calories a day, while 1200 kcal is often considered a bare minimum intake for adults.
  • b) water and muscle loss, particularly with programs involving laxative use.
  • c) removing most processed and restaurant foods from the diet.

When finishing the detox and returning to normal dietary patterns, the weight lost will more than likely return. No, this is not toxins reaccumulating, it is simply the body responding to weight loss and a return to higher calorie intake.

So how to respond to those who report feeling so much better after a cleanse. This is likely the placebo effect at play, often in combination with a more healthful diet. A person wanted to feel differently, so they made a change they believed would be beneficial, they expect positive results, and they are then more likely to report positive results regardless of the clinical outcome of the intervention.

The only times that person will truly experience a toxic overload of a particularly substance is a short period of high exposure, chemical dependency (as with opiates or alcohol), or if the liver or kidneys are failing. If this is the case, these detox kits remain useless and one should seek science-based medical advice immediately. This, though, is a rare occurrence and not one most healthy people should worry about.

Detoxes often make extraordinary and numerous claims, for which they provide little to no evidence. A cleanse product that may plausibly work would need to identify which toxins it removes (preferably explaining the process in a physiologically sound way) and provide good quality evidence to back up the claims. Seeing the dearth of such products at present, best to save your money and spend it on fruits, vegetables, and some stress relief strategies. Your liver and kidneys have got you covered.

Or you could just eat them…

Crossposted from Dietitian at Home.

Food fads are one of my pet peeves. I fully admit I get my back up when I hear about most new “health” food trends, probably sooner and more often than I should. Each one comes in like a saviour on a steed claiming to cure us of our unhealthy ways, then slowly fades away, only to be resurrected the following decade.

Public domain image of orange juice via Wikimedia Commons.
Public domain image of orange juice via Wikimedia Commons.
Juicing is the trend du jour, purporting to provide mega doses of vitamins and to enable said nutrients to be absorbed more effectively than through the traditional chew-and-swallow method. This article did some great investigation and discusses the truths and fallacies of these claims. In a nut shell, higher doses of vitamins, be it through juice or supplements, are only effective if you’re deficient. Once you’ve got enough, you pee out the rest. To put it another way, if your body’s stores of vitamin C are at 100%, it doesn’t matter whether your orange-cucumber-kale-beet-arugula juice has 100%, 200%, or 1000% of the DRI (daily recommended intake) of vitamin C, you will pee it all out. So, for the people privileged enough to have a huge supply of vegetables and a juicer, nutrient deficiency is incredibly unlikely and juicing couldn’t plausibly realize the claims made in its favour.

This actually brings up a few bigger issues I have with the juicing trend. The first is that for each serving of juice made, frequently 5 or more whole vegetables and/or fruits are used, with some recommendations as high as several pounds of juiced vegetables daily. By most standards, that is a LOT of vegetables. Look, I’m all for encouraging fruit and vegetable intake since fewer than half of Canadians meet the recommended minimum intake. We should fill our plates and fill up on vegetables, but we still don’t need to over consume. This also makes juicing a costly endeavour, making it effectively inaccessible to the large number of people who struggle to afford enough food on a regular basis.

The next issue I have with juicing is the claim that putting all the nutrients in liquid form is somehow needed due to poor digestion (N.B. not likely a real phenomenon for most healthy people) and that this liquid form allows for super-fast absorption for nutrients. Let’s be clear, unless you are seriously dehydrated or have literally swallowed a whole cucumber, standard vegetables WILL be liquid once they reach your small intestines as they have been chewed, mixed with saliva, churned, and mixed with stomach acid. This is basic ingestion and digestion. The real issue with turning solid food into juice is the assumption that we only need vegetables for the vitamins within (like a leafy, green vitamin pill), but this is simply not the case. Health benefits come from eating WHOLE vegetables, including the fibrous parts. The interactions or nutrients within our foods and within our bodies is incredibly complex, and there are undoubtedly many compounds within our veggies and fruits with beneficial effects we have yet to discover. Removing a large fraction of these foods may actually result in us losing nutrients.

My last issue with the juicing trend is that it turns fibre-rich plants into fibre-less juice. Given that most North Americans need more fibre, this seems like a poor nutritional strategy. Luckily (and hilariously) it seems that others have picked up on this and offer suggestions on how to deal with all that vegetable pulp. So this food trend is effectively take all the fibre out and then find ways to put it back in. Which is better than nothing, I suppose.

This whole scenario begs the question: given all the work and expense it takes to make juice, then the additional work to manipulate vegetable pulp into your regular recipes, wouldn’t it just be simpler (and cheaper, and faster) to just eat your vegetables?

Unsexy Nutrition Advice

Crossposted from Dieitian at Home.

Green Tea
Green tea image CC BY 3.0 by user USAGI-WRP from Wikimedia Commons.

In my professional practice I try hard to avoid hyped-up buzz words and phrases like “loaded”, “super-food”, “tonnes of”, “packed with”, “breakthough”, “incredible powers”, etc. These are attention-getters, they draw in the audience. They try to make healthy eating sexy and exciting. The thing is, I don’t feel they have much of a place in the world of nutrition.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the science of health and nutrition is fascinating, and I love teaching people about it. There is always something new and interesting being tested and everyday we learn new things about how our bodies interact with the foods we consume. The problem is that nutrition science is relatively new (we only discovered the first vitamin about 100 years ago) and it is notoriously hard to study accurately and in a way that is meaningful outside of a tightly controlled laboratory setting. These factors necessitate additional scrutiny when new or controversial findings arise and slow, cautious adoption of new guidelines for healthy eating.

Miracle Fruit
Public domain image of miracle fruit image by Hamale Lyman via Wikimedia Commons.

The best nutrition advice you’ll hear is probably the same old things we’ve all be hearing for years: eat lots of plants, drink water, avoid eating out too often, limit or avoid processed foods, get lots of fibre, eat less sugar. There’s really nothing sexy about this, but these are the principles of healthy eating that have stood the test of time and research reproducibility. Stories and claims of “miracle” foods (not to be confused with miracle fruit) generally don’t hold up, and it’s unfair to promote these ideas without sufficient evidence or science-based rationale.

Similarly, labelling foods as being “loaded” with specific nutrients implies that they are automatically healthier than other foods. Foods with less of a specific nutrient are not always worse, and more is not always better; it all depends on the context and an individual’s specific needs. This type of information should be interpreted and dispensed by a qualified professional (aka someone with an accredited education who has done more than just read the wikipedia entry for vitamin X).

We fall in love with nutrition trends quickly. We want a fast, passionate, lust-filled romance with every new bit of nutrition advice and research: a spring fling that has us head over heels for each new way of eating. But, just as in love, the passion fades, the whirlwind of desire ends, and what we often need is a steady, stable companion that has proven it’s worth.

The Most Expensive Streusel Topping You’ll Ever Find

Cross-posted from Laura’s new blog, Dietitian at Home.

NOW for MothersI came across this product a few weeks ago in my grocery store’s pharmacy section. It was located right beside the prenatal vitamins I was about to pick out. It wasn’t until I saw the price that I really paid attention to it: $29.99 for a 276g bag. It also comes with a long list of purported benefits. I decided to scrutinize each claim made to see if it really is worth the small fortune they’re asking.

Based on the ingredients list, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, just some naturalist claims and the implication that organic is automatically healthier:

The ‘Healing Mix’ is USDA certified. It is completely Natural and Organic. There are no additives, preservatives, coloring or chemicals added. The ‘Healing Mix’ ingredients are : Organic Flax, Organic Oats, Organic Almonds, Organic Honey, Organic Cinnamon, Organic Wheat, Organic Butter, Organic Walnuts, Organic Pistachios, Organic Brown Sugar, Organic Raisins, Organic Pine Nuts, and Organic Melon Seeds.

Sounds like some sort of sweet, buttery streusel topping.

I looked at some online reviews and found one glaring red flag: every review I could find was fully funded by the company and the reviewers were basically reading the list of claims right off the package.

Sigh. Well, time for an ACTUAL, unbiased review of the products claims.

Emotional wellness: 300 mg DHA per mother’s needs, will improve cognitive wellness.

There is no specific RDA (recommended dietary allowance) DHA. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States recommends 200mg DHA daily. People can meet this recommendation through two servings of fatty fish each week (good examples are salmon, mackerel, trout, and arctic char). Futhermore, none of the ingredients listed contain any DHA (it is typically found in animal foods); at best the nuts and flax provide some alpha-linolenic acid, a precursor to DHA, which is poorly converted to DHA in the human body.

Cognitive wellness: adequate glycogen stores, 3:1 carb: protein ratio; helps to regain mental clarity.

Keeping up energy levels can be difficult as a parent. New and lactating mothers often need up to an additional 500 calories each day. Most women can easily get these calories from 3-4 additional servings from the basic food groups. Eating a balanced diet with good quality protein will help you feel satisfied and make your energy last longer. A low carbohydrate diet can cause fatigue, low mood, and poor focus. The overall proportions of protein and carbohydrates in the diet may be important for optimal replenishment of glycogen stores, however it is not necessary that a particular food have the 3:1 ratio described.

Physical wellness: nutrients for physical recovery, vitamin C for healing, 600 mg recommended dose for new mothers.

Adequate vitamin C is important for health, tissue healing and repair. The RDA for vitamin C during lactation is 120mg/day, there is no basis for the 600 mg/day claim. The biggest problem with this claim is that, after careful inspection of the product’s nutrition facts table shows that each tablespoon (about ½  a scoop) provides 0% daily value of vitamin C. If you’re looking to increase your vitamin C intake, NOW for Mothers is a poor choice.

Baby wellness: babies need adequate fat and calcium, each scoop has 1000mg Ca++ and 9 g fat.

There are two issues with this claim. First, the nutritional composition of breastmilk is very constant, almost regardless of maternal intake. This is to ensure that feast or famine, infants will get the nutrients they need to grow and develop. If the mother’s diet is deficient in a nutrient, her body will draw on its own stores to maintain breast milk consistency. Additional calcium or fat in the mother’s diet will not increase the fat or calcium content of her milk. Second, according to the nutrition facts table, each tablespoon provides 4% DV of calcium, which translates roughly to 40 mg. The manufacturer suggests taking 2-3 scoops daily, meaning at most you’ll receive 240 mg calcium from the product, not the 1000mg they claim.

Long-term claims:

Stimulates energy flow: Like Chi? There is no evidence or scientific rationale of an “energy flow” in the human body. This statement is essentially meaningless.

Stabilizes blood sugar levels for sustained energy: Plausible, depending on the person’s diet as a whole. See below.

Assists in reducing congestion and phlegm in the body: Wha?… Are they talking about phlegm, one of the four humours of medieval medicine? If that’s the case, enough of a reason to write off this product right there. As for congestion, the most common causes for this include allergies, viri (like the common cold), and in this target population, pregnancy.

Aids in flushing toxins from the system: Without listing any specific toxins, this claim becomes completely meaningless. It is implausible that one food mixture could “flush” ALL toxins, and highly unlikely that it could remove ANY. Remember, the human body has an incredibly powerful toxin removal system through the kidneys and liver; unless damaged, these organs do not need any supplements or special foods to help them do their work.

Under the “how it works” sections:


Sustained Energy: Potentially true, depending on a person’s current diet. Whole foods and foods containing healthy fats and protein can help prevent blood sugar spikes and drops which can lead to low energy. If a person’s diet is already balanced and based on whole foods, she is unlikely to see significant benefit.

Balanced Hormones: See below.

Help in Lactation: Oatmeal is often claimed to increase milk supply, but there is no evidence to show this is the case. Again, if a woman’s caloric intake is too low, her milk supply may suffer, so the additional calories from this supplement may help improve the situation. To be clear, it is the additional calories, not this supplement, that would cause the benefit.

Better Brain Development for Baby: See above. Only if the mother and her diet are highly deficient in key nutrients.

Increase in Metabolism: Plausible, if your caloric intake is really low and you’re slipping into starvation mode. The additional calories may help get you burning calories instead of storing them.

Boost in Immunity: Nope. This article explains how to improve your immune system. NOW for mothers can be part of a healthy diet, but it is not the key ingredient that will keep the colds away.

  • Sidenote: if you have a child between 0-6 years old, good luck keeping illnesses away.

Stronger Bones: 2-3 scoops of the product provide about 25% of a lactating woman’s calcium needs. For women with historically low intake of calcium, this may help them meet their needs.


Toxins: Which “toxins”? How? I’m not putting in any more effort into discussing this until they make some specific claims.

Inflammation: Maybe…if your diet is really low in omega-3 fatty acids and really high in refined foods.

Phlegm: So does a cough, sneeze, and a Kleenex. See above.

Acidity: Actually, the body’s incredibly complex and sensitive homeostatic systems take care of that without any help.

Excess Estrogen: This claim likely comes from the findings that lignans (fat-soluble compounds that are metabolized into estrogen-like compounds) may have anti-carcinogenic effects due to binding to estrogen receptors in place of estrogen. This process does not change the body’s production of estrogen, as implied by this claim. As time passes after birth, and eventually once lactation ends, hormone levels will return to normal. If you have reason to believe they are not stabilizing, this product is unlikely to help. In this case, seek qualified medical advice.

Final verdict: There is no evidence that this exorbitantly priced streusel topping will accomplish any of the claims it sets out. Stick to regular granola, muesli, or oatmeal, eat flax seeds and nuts in small portions regularly, and save your money (the child will take up that extra cash soon enough). If you really love the flavour of this topping, make your own.

There’s Nothing Sinister Lurking in That Baby Formula

This is a guest post by Laura Creek Newman, RD, critically examining health claims about infant formula made by Meghan Telpner, “Nutritionista”, in her recent article What’s Lurking In That Baby Formula?

I am going to preface this with my background. I am a registered dietitian practicing for four years, largely in all areas of adult health. I am not an infant feeding expert, though I have recently been working in pediatrics and did have significant and evidence-based training in the area through my schooling and internship. I am also a mom of a 17-month-old; a mom who breastfed exclusively for six month and continued past a year. I am also a mom who had trouble breastfeeding and could not pump enough to bottle feed once I went back to work. I’m a mom who used formula. From my training and my own experiences feeding my daughter I do not belong to any particular camp: I believe breast is great when you can, but ultimately a baby needs to eat and baby formulas are the next best thing.

Photo by Alicia Voorhies, CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo by Alicia Voorhies, CC BY-ND 2.0

First off, I want to clarify something: genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are everywhere. They are the bread we buy, the animals we eat, the vegetables I planted in my garden. All of them. No, I don’t work for Monsanto. Pretty much every food crop humans have cultivated since humans learned to cultivate crops is genetically modified. This is due to selective breeding at the hands of skilled farmers or gardeners who cross-bred different plants or animals to create new varieties. They breed together organisms that have the same desirable characteristics for many generations until they reliably get a new strain of that organism. For example, say you have red petunias and white petunias, but you want pink. One would breed the red and white together; if some flowers come out pink, you would take those and breed them together, but you wouldn’t breed them with the flowers that turned out white or red. Over time, one will get more and more pink flowers until they’re all pink. And voila! You’ve created a new strain of pink petunia. You can thank these millennia-old techniques for helping produce strawberries, bananas, and the dozens of varieties of peppers and heirloom tomatoes we happily devour today. Our rapid technological advances in the last half century, particularly decoding the genomes of many organisms, have allowed us to speed up this process by picking out and only planting seeds that carry the desired genetic traits while leaving the rest. We have also been able to modify some of the traits in the lab to improve disease resistance, remove toxic substances, and improve the nutritional profile of foods. It is this latter part that has some people scared of “frankenfoods”. Would these plants “naturally” have genes that make them super-resistant to drought, for example? Perhaps not. The important question to ask is: does this change in the genetic structure make the food unsafe? (The answer is no). This article gives a good overview of the subject. Whether you choose “organic” or not, your food definitely has been genetically modified somewhere through its history before arriving on your plate.

This brings me back to the article at hand. It is listed under the category “healthwashing” on the website. The author posits that most of the ingredients in conventional baby formulas, even many organic baby formulas, are unhealthy, thus making these products unfit for baby. While formula companies have used (and may still use) unethical marketing practices, this does not comment on the safety of their products. Infant formulas are some of the most heavily regulated and monitored food products (source, source) in the United States (similarly in Canada). There are several erroneous and potentially harmful comments made in this article and I would like to address them.

Human breast milk is our best way to understand an infant’s nutritional needs. Breast milk contains about 42% carbohydrate as lactose (milk sugar), 50% fat (as a mixture of fatty acids, mainly palmitic acid), and about 7% protein with 67 kcal/100 mL (source: Krause’s Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy 11th Edition, Mahan, L.K. & Escott-Stump, S., 2004, 8:221). From this, we assume that this is what infants require to grow properly, so infant formulas are designed to mimic as closely as possible this nutrient profile. In contrast, cow’s milk contains 30% carbohydrate, 50% fat, and 20% protein, and also has 67 kcal/100 mL (ibid.); soy milk contains 21% carbohydrates, 44% fat, and 35% protein with 33 kcal/100 mL (source). Cow’s milk is chosen as the primary base for infant formulas due to its similar nutrient and caloric profile to human milk. However, it requires processing and additional ingredients (particularly carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals) to make it safe and appropriate for human babies.

The author first highlights an ingredient list for a soy-based formula from Similac: the author notes the first ingredient is corn syrup solids, the second is “genetically modified protein”.

This infant formula contains 42.6% corn syrup solids, followed by genetically modified protein. You wouldn’t eat that. If you can choose another option, choose another option!

It is unclear if the protein is in fact genetically modified, but as demonstrated above, this is likely not a safety issue. Soy protein isolate is protein extracted from soy meal that is 90% pure: this means that it is at least 90% soy protein with very little fat and carbohydrate. Infants do not require as much protein as adults and too much can be detrimental, so formula manufacturers use this product to most accurately control the proportion of protein in the final product. As for corn syrup solids, they “are defined by the FDA as dried glucose syrup (in which the reducing sugar content is 20 DE or higher. Corn syrup solids are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as direct human food ingredients at levels consistent with current good manufacturing practices (21 CFR 184.1865).” (Source.) In essence, it is dehydrated corn syrup where the sugars are glucose and short glucose chains. It has a relatively low sweetness level compared to sucrose (corn syrup solids: 23–28, sucrose: 100). By comparison, lactose (milk sugar) has a sweetness level of about 16 (source), so corn syrup solids are slightly sweeter but comparable. Some type of sugar (short molecules) is needed for the carbohydrate source as it is harder for babies to digest starches (large molecules) and they get the energy too slowly, which can slow down their growth. As this example is of a soy-based formula, the manufacturer has to use a plant-based carbohydrate instead of lactose to make it appropriate for babies with lactose intolerance, galactosemia, and vegan/vegetarian babies*. As for the author’s comment “you wouldn’t eat that”, well, the reader probably wouldn’t eat/drink many things that an infant would, including any infant formula or breast milk. What one adult may or may not eat or find appealing is entirely subjective and not a useful commentary on infant nutritional products.

The second formula discussed by the author is Nestle Good Start, a standard infant formula and industry leader. The comments are as follows:

Partially hydrolized whey protein: Whey protein comes from cow’s milk, which is one of the most common food allergies in children. Allergic reactions can include diarrhea, hives and swelling of the lips.

See above for why cow’s milk is used as the base for most infant formula. It is true that it is the most common allergen among children, however, it is also one of the most likely allergies to be outgrown by the child’s fifth birthday, unlike peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish, which also make the list.

Corn maltodextrin: Corn maltodextrin is a food additive often found in snack foods like chips and crackers. Given that 80% of corn grown in Canada is genetically modified, it’s safe to assume that this cheap food additive comes from GMO corn and not the organic kind. It’s also a sweetener.

See above for the issues around GMO foods; there is no evidence to show that GMO-derived ingredients are hazardous to health. Organic maltodextrins are also available. Maltodextrins are short-to-medium starch molecules (up to 20 glucose molecules per chain) made by a similar process to corn syrup solids (source, source). The sweetness varies from no sweetness to mildly sweet; the relative sweetness factor ranges from 6–21 (recall that the sweetness of lactose is 16). For this reason, maltodextrins are not primarily sweeteners and may not impart any sweet taste to a food at all. The primary characteristics of maltodextrins are: high solubility, easy and rapid digestibility (high glycemic index), low sweetness, provision of smooth and full texture to foods (source, source). The author is correct that this ingredient is heavily used in many processed foods, particularly in the “snack foods and beverages” category. She is also correct that this is a “cheap” (inexpensive) ingredient. However, as the skeptics’ mantra states: correlation does not equal causation; the presence of this ingredient in a snack food does not demonize that single ingredient. In the same vein, if water, bananas, or organic rolled oats appear as ingredients in a “junk” food, it does not mean that any of those things are inherently bad or unhealthy. Maltodextrins have found their way into baby formula for several reasons. First, they are inexpensive, and it would be naïve to deny that food manufacturing companies are not continuously looking for lower cost ingredients. Second, and most importantly, the aforementioned characteristics of these starches are very desirable for a baby formula. Their high solubility means that powdered formula will dissolve easily and fully without lumps; this makes it easier and tastier for a baby to drink. The fast and easy digestion is easier on a baby’s developing intestines than regular starches and gives baby the quick energy he or she needs. The low sweetness factor makes the formula taste more like breast milk and helps avoid getting babies hooked on the really sweet flavour that comes from other sweeteners like honey, maltose, and sugar.

Soybean oil: Soybean oil is cheap, which means it’s found in virtually all processed foods. Like corn, unless otherwise noted, it most likely comes from GMO sources. It’s a highly unstable oil, so food manufacturers partially hydrogenate it to raise the melting point and stabilize it so it won’t turn rancid. The result? An altered chemical structure and, in many cases, trans fats.

Again, see above for safety concerns around GMO foods. The author is correct again in noting that, like corn and corn-based ingredients, soy is an inexpensive ingredient, and likely the cheapest source of fat available (partially due to high subsidies to producers). Historically, soybean oil was hydrogenated to make it more stable, and this had the negative side effect of increasing trans-fats (which are known to increase LDL cholesterol, decrease HDL cholesterol, and increase risk for cardiovascular disease). Since label reporting of trans-fats in foods and ingredients became mandatory in 2006, food producers have generally moved to breeding low linolenic acid varieties of soy that produce a more stable oil without hydrogenation (source, source). Further to this, hydrogenated oils are not allowed to be used in infant formulas 14. Similarly to breast milk, infant formula does contain a small amount of trans-fat (around 2–3%; source, source) but a large portion of this is naturally occurring from cow’s milk (gut microbes in cows produce a small amount of trans-fat during digestion that is passed on to cow’s milk). Thus, it is unlikely that infant formulas contain much, if any, commercially hydrogenated trans-fats.

Palm olein: Research has shown that babies can’t properly digest palm oil — in fact, it reacts with calcium, causing the formation of “soaps” in the baby’s intestines, leading to hard stools and lowered bone mass.

Palm olein is a fat that is high in palmitic acid as well as a source of oleic acid (source). It is often used to mimic the fat profile of human milk, of which the primary fat is also palmitic acid. Here the author’s concerns regarding the addition of palm-based fats to infant formulas are not entirely unfounded. There is some controversy over the use of this ingredient as several published studies (source, source, source) have demonstrated lower fat absorption and lower bone mineral density in infants up to 6 months of age who are fed palm olein-containing formula compared to peers not fed this formula. On the flip side, several other studies note that these differences are still within normal range for normal term infants (source, source) and that these differences likely do not persist once infants start solids and/or become toddlers (source), source). In a nutshell, some differences may exist, but they do not appear to affect a child’s long-term bone mass.

High oleic safflower oil or high oleic sunflower oil: Safflower/sunflower oils are extremely common in packaged foods (read: cheap) are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. If these oils are harmful for adults, why would we feed them to babies just after birth?

Similarly to palm olein, high oleic sunflower/safflower oils are added to formula to provide oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fatty acid present in human milk. Standard versions of these oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids which can be pro-inflammatory and may have an impact on health (though this is generally in context of inadequate omega-3 fatty acid intake, combined with excessive calorie consumption, etc). The high oleic versions are actually quite low in omega-6 fatty acids; 100 mL of standard oil contains 65.7 g poly-unsaturated fat (mostly omega-6), while the high oleic version contains 3.8 g poly-unsaturates per 100 mL (source). The author’s argument here is void. Finally, I would like to return to my much earlier statement that there are many things that adults would not care to ingest, but that does not necessarily make them unsafe for infants.

Choosing the right milk/formula for one’s infant can be stressful and challenging as all parents, including myself, want to do right by our kids and give them the best possible start to life. I do believe that breast milk is fantastic and should be treated as the first choice; I applaud people who go to great lengths to try to give their infants breast milk (through lactation consultants, medications, or milk donors) but these options can be stressful, terribly time consuming, and often expensive, and milk donors are frequently unavailable in most parts of the country. Given this, there are so many reasons why parents may need and/or want to use formula. When it comes to making decisions about infant nutrition, make sure you are consulting qualified sources, including registered dietitians practicing in the area of pediatrics, pediatricians, and infant feeding experts (hint: look for an MD, RD, RN and/or PhD behind the person’s name; if it’s not there, be wary). Infant nutrition is a totally different ball-game from adult nutrition so you want to make sure your sources are truly informed in this area; please exercise caution when taking advice from articles like the one I have referenced.

The infant formulas available today in Canada are safe and proven to produce healthy babies. There is no “healthwashing” about it, and do not let an unqualified person convince you otherwise.

* It should be noted that in cases of cow’s milk protein allergy, soy formulas are not recommended as a standard formula replacement due to the high rate of soy allergy among cow’s milk allergic children. Instead, extensively hydrolyzed cow’s milk formulas (where the protein is highly broken down to the point where it no longer produces allergy symptoms) are recommended.


  1. http://www.popsci.com/article/science/core-truths-10-common-gmo-claims-debunked
  2. http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm336546.htm
  3. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048694.htm
  4. Krause’s Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy 11th Edition, Mahan, L.K. & Escott-Stump, S., 2004, 8:221
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soy_milk#Health_and_nutrition
  6. http://www.grainprocessing.com/food/maltodextrins-corn-syrup-solids.html
  7. http://owlsoft.com/pdf_docs/WhitePaper/Rel_Sweet.pdf
  8. http://www.althealth.co.uk/help-and-advice/nutrition/maltodextrin/
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltodextrin
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#United_States
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat#Health_risks
  12. http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soybean/uses_lowlinsoy.htm
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soybean_oil
  14. http://www.codexalimentarius.org/input/download/standards/288/CXS_072e.pdf
  15. http://www.issfal.org/statements/pufa-recommendations/statement-2
  16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16582027
  17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12728082
  18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9710840
  19. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15342879
  20. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/106/6/1355.abstract
  21. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15990636
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunflower_oil