In the hyped-up world of nutritional aids, how do you tell the (whole) wheat from the chaff? Harald Jay Taub explains the differences between health food facts and fiction.
HEALTH FOOD: FACTS AND FICTION
Like most folks, MOTHER's staffers are often confused by the bewildering array of nutritional supplements . . . each with its own salutary claims expressed in technical-sounding terms. So we were delighted when we recently examined a preview copy of Harald Jay Taub's The Health Food Shopper's Guide . . . and found the book to be a no-nonsense, consumer-oriented assessment of practically every vitamin, mineral and special food supplement marketed today. Mr. Taub—who's served as chief editor at both Prevention and Let's Live magazines and is currently editing the newsletter of the Institute of Nutritional Research in Woodland Hills, California—has spent decades studying and writing about the health products field. When contacted, he told us that his new book contains "my own best considered honest opinions" (and quickly added, "and I have nothing to sell'') . . . but also readily admitted, "I'm probably wrong in some respects. After all, nobody has perfect knowledge of nutrition." The honesty and balance evidenced by those remarks seem to run consistently through Harald Taub's candidly worded book too, and this leads us to believe that The Health Food Shopper's Guide could be a valuable resource for almost anyone who's interested in assessing those scores of self-proclaimed nutritional aids available today. So to let you see some of this health foods handbook for yourself, we've decided to share the following ten short excerpts.
Honey is certainly a completely natural food. Does that mean it is good for you? Certainly not. Gathered from flowers as nectar and processed by bees into the thick and viscous liquid that we know, honey is even sweeter and higher in calories than table sugar, spoonful for spoonful. That is possible because [much of] the sugar in honey is fructose. To a limited extent, it does not require insulin to be metabolized and therefore may be of interest to a diabetic. But some people feel that fructose causes atherosclerosis, and it certainly causes tooth decay even faster than table sugar.
People who avoid sugar for the sake of their health are only kidding themselves if they think that honey is any better for them. Honey does contain some minerals, but since it is cloyingly sweet and you cannot eat much of it, the mineral content is of no nutritional importance. Contrary to the belief of many, the minerals do not in any way improve your ability to metabolize the sugar content. Much has also been made of the antiseptic properties of honey, but this is simply a property of its sugar content. All sugar kills germs, which is why sugar is a good preservative.
If you like its flavor, you can certainly eat some honey without its doing you any appreciable harm, and you can enjoy it. But it offers you no health advantage whatsoever.
For thousands of years garlic has occupied a special place in folk medicine and in witchcraft. It has been used as a sovereign remedy for dozens of diseases, on most of which it has no effect. However, in some respects it has strong health value. It contains a chemical element named allicin that has valuable antibiotic properties, of particular use in the digestive tract. Long known as a prime treatment for dysentery, it was used by the German armies during World War I for this purpose, with conspicuous success. (During later wars it was no longer possible to get soldiers to eat garlic every day.) Many people who travel to foreign countries and want to protect themselves against dysentery have succeeded in doing so by eating a clove or two of garlic every day. Garlic is also known to have a benign effect on the blood pressure, and in countries where it is a regular part of the diet, such as Spain and Italy, there is very little high blood pressure, compared to northern Europe and the United States.
While not many people will chew a whole clove of garlic, it is a fine flavor additive to a wide variety of foods and has definite health benefits if used in this way.
For those who want the benefits of garlic but do not want the strong odor on their breath, there are available tiny capsules of garlic oil. This oil contains all the health virtues of the garlic bulb, but the capsule can simply be swallowed, leaving neither taste nor odor in the mouth.
This product, like several others, had its origin in its use as an agricultural fertilizer. It is simply limestone that comes from areas that once lay beneath the oceans and which therefore absorbed a high content of magnesium from the ocean water. In very rough terms, its mineral content is something like 40 percent magnesium and 60 percent calcium. It is offered and used as a magnesium supplement, the chief virtue of which is that it is "natural" One simply has to quarry the stone and pulverize it. It makes a good fertilizer for crops, like tomatoes, that thrive on a lot of magnesium. With human users it is not so successful.
The trouble would seem to be that while plants will absorb essential, inorganic minerals without trouble, the human being will reject such essential minerals and will absorb them only when they are coupled or chelated with other organic materials that the body normally accepts easily. Thus, if you eat a Brazil nut, which has a high magnesium content, you will absorb and utilize the magnesium, which will enter your bloodstream attached to some of the protein of the nut. But if you swallow a dolomite tablet, it is very unlikely that you will actually absorb any of the appreciable magnesium content of that tablet. In fact, in all too many cases, it has been found that the tablets pass through the entire digestive system without even breaking down in shape and are excreted as tablets. That is unfortunate. Magnesium is one of the most important of mineral nutrients, being necessary for so many enzyme systems that it has been said to enter into the functioning of every single cell of the body. It is estimated that the average diet falls short of a per. son's magnesium needs by about 200 milligrams a day, so some form of supplementation is desirable. And there are forms that are readily absorbed and used by the body [such as methionine-chelated magnesium].
When it is possible to manufacture a magnesium supplement that will be readily absorbed and will fulfill all the roles of magnesium in the body, why would anybody choose to manufacture and sell dolomite tablets? That is a hard question to answer. In any case, if it is magnesium you want, there is no doubt that you can do better than taking dolomite.
This by-product of the manufacture of paper is derived from wood pulp and therefore is accepted as a natural product, even though a hundred other drugs derived from natural plants are shunned as unnatural. What gives DMSO its special status is probably just the fact that its medical use has been banned by the FDA, pending further investigation. In the health food movement it is frequently assumed that the government authorities are always wrong and conspire against the public health and that whatever the government opposes must be good.
DMSO may not be sold for medical purposes, but there is no restriction on its commercial use as a solvent. If your health food store sells it, it will be as a solvent preparation, or perhaps it will be sold under the counter for medical purposes. If you buy it at all, it is probably better to buy it illicitly, buying the product that is manufactured by pharmaceutical companies in Mexico. This assures you that it has been made to pharmaceutical standards of purity and is not contaminated by any of the toxins that can easily creep into a commercial solvent that is not regulated as to impurities.
Such caution is particularly important in the case of DMSO, because it has the very special property of penetrating the skin and entering the blood in a few seconds. Thus, even though you only rub it on your skin, its impurities will immediately enter your body. The drug itself has been found to alleviate the pain of arthritis and back pains, both of which are very hard for people to bear. It has also been found to reduce swelling and, in fact, promises to be a very useful and very important drug, if and when it is determined to be safe enough for human use.
But use of a commercial grade is far too risky for any sensible person, and for all we can be sure of now, even use of the pharmaceutical preparation may carry dangers as yet unknown. If you suffer agonies of lower back pain or arthritis, the temptation is great. But you'd better resist for now.
Just about any fruit or vegetable that you can obtain in your normal market is also available in the produce bin of your health food store . . . In all cases, the true advantage offered by the fruits and vegetables you can get in a health food store is that they are supposed to be free of pesticides. In the case of those that have thick or tough coverings that are not eaten, this makes no difference at all. Examples are all melons, avocados, and oranges. No pesticide spray is going to penetrate the shells or skins of these. foods, and so you are not going to swallow any pesticides in eating them, even if they come from the big commercial growers.
With a wide variety of produce, however, there will be residues on the food ifit has been sprayed. There are very good reasons why we all should keep these poisons out of our stomachs if it is possible to do so. Thus, if you trust the store where you shop to make a determined and conscientious effort to secure produce that is truly organic, it is probably worth your while to pay a premium for your lettuce and tomatoes and apples and strawberries and such. The best indication of a trustworthy operation is that the store will at times have very little produce to sell. If the bins are always full and there is always a wide variety of goods offered for sale, you can be pretty sure that the store is getting its produce from the same wholesale markets as any other store and that it has been raised by the same growing methods, which include the liberal use of pesticide sprays.
If you take seawater and evaporate it completely, the solid residue that is left is sea salt. It will contain some of the minerals that are also in the seawater, though others, like magnesium, are lost in the evaporation process. Although the trace minerals have nutritive value, the salt is still salt and is just as bad for you as table salt. In actuality, there is enough salt naturally present in the foods we eat so that no nutritional purpose is served by adding more. It contributes only flavor at the risk of raising the blood pressure and retaining too much water in your tissues. It should also be noted that all salt is sea salt, for the salt that comes from mines or cliffs ides was deposited by the sea thousands or millions of years ago. There are many sources of mineral nutrition other than sea salt, and it seems just plain foolish to pay a premium for this product.
Sad to say, in all the world the only thing that tastes like salt is salt. Food chemists have labored over the decades to produce some other chemical combination that would have the same flavor and the same ability to enhance the flavor of food. There are many such products available everywhere, and none of them is really satisfactory. They tend to contain potassium chloride, which serves to replace some of the potassium that is lost if you are on diuretic therapy. Its flavor is bitter rather than salty, and if you use a lot of it, it may irritate your stomach and might even start an ulcer.
More successful salt substitutes are preparations that make no effort to taste like salt but in their own way improve the flavor of the food you eat. In effect they are dehydrated herbal seasonings with their own strong and pleasant flavors. There are a number of them, and each one tastes different. The only way to find the one that is most to your taste is to try them.
This is one of the essential amino acids, obtainable only from the food that we eat and not synthesized in our own bodies. There has never been any particular reason to feel that people were deficient in their lysine intake, and little attention has been paid to it. Recently, however, there has been some experimental work that is not conclusive, but that does indicate that the body well supplied with lysine is able to heal its infections of herpes simplex. Herpes is the scientific name for what we usually know as cold sores, and it has recently gained a great deal of attention because it has been found that the same virus infection is becoming widespread as a venereal disease. If you suffer from such an infection, there is no assurance that lysine is going to cure it. The sad fact, though, is that medical science knows of no other cure, and so you might as well try the lysine. It is available in tablets and at its worst is probably harmless.
Many people do not like taking tablets and want as few as possible. Many others do not want to bother figuring out what potency of each of the vitamins they should take, and still more simply feel incompetent to do so. For all these people, the supplement that comes to them as the only one they need because it gives them all their requirements in a single preparation—often a single tablet—is indeed welcome.
Indeed, the idea does make sense in many ways, including the fact that in order to get the full range of vitamins into a single tablet, or even three tablets a day, the potencies must be kept relatively low. Since most supplements these days are being packaged in far higher potencies than anyone realistically requires, it is both more economical and safer to stick to the supplement that is lower in its potency level. It is also comforting to assume that somebody with professional education and knowledge has worked out the proper proportions between the various vitamins and that if you take this complete multivitamin, all will be in balance.
There are pitfalls, however.
Check the ingredients table. It will be long and bewildering. Look, however, for the lesser B vitamins: biotin, choline, inositol, and pantothenic acid. If these are not among the ingredients, then you will know that the maker of this particular supplement has been skimping and is not actually providing you with a complete multivitamin. Since what you are buying is nutritional insurance, you do want it to be complete in every detail and should be careful to see that the product you get is complete.
Do not buy a multivitamin to which iron has been added. Vitamin E and iron are antagonists. If both occur in the same tablet, as soon as they are released in your digestive system, each will neutralize the other, and you will derive no benefit from them.
As a general rule, it is better to get a multivitamin preparation to which no minerals have been added. Some of the essential minerals like calcium and magnesium are required in so much bulk that it would be impossible to add your actual daily requirements. Adding small quantities of these minerals to a vitamin tablet may give you psychological reassurance, but it will not fill your nutritional needs. There is always something a little phony about a multivitamin plus minerals.
Avoid the type of multivitamin that offers you megavitamins. Exaggeratedly large doses of a couple of the B vitamins and vitamin C can throw the entire tablet out of balance as well as making it so big it is better suited to horses than people. The high potency (up to a gram) of vitamin C will be mostly excreted in your urine within five hours. Some of the B vitamins will suffer the same fate, while the remainder will be stored in the liver and can build up to a dangerous excess.
Multivitamin combinations can be bought as tablets, liquids, or powders. The powders are essentially the same as the tablets except that they have not been pressed into tablet form. This does permit some separation, and the distribution of the various ingredients may become irregular. On the whole, tablets are to be preferred. The liquids are perfectly okay if you have some reason for preferring them. You will not enjoy the taste, and if you are able to swallow the tablet so that you don't taste it at all, that might well be better.
To sum up: Your best choice in multivitamin preparations will be a low-potency tablet that gives you the complete range of all vitamins but has no minerals added.
Ambiguously named in order to stay out of trouble, these are actually supposed to increase sexual energy. They contain pumpkin seed oil, the pumpkin seed having been vigorously publicized as an improver of the health of the prostate gland on the basis of no evidence at all. Don't be a sucker.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Health Food Shpper's Guide is available at most bookstores or, for $7.95 plus 75 cents shipping and handling from Dell Publishing, Inc., Dept. TMEN, New York, New York.
Copyright @ 1982 by Harald Jay Taub. Reprinted by permission of Harald Jay Taub, Institute of Nutritional Research, and agents Raines & Raines, New York.