Category Archives: Healthy or Hype?

4 Goop Doctors: A Look at Their Pseudoscience

An excellent account of celebrity culture’s influence on health

Gwyneth Paltrow runs goop, a lifestyle brand, website, and online store that offers unsound and unfounded health and nutrition advice to women, much of it to help goop sell its health products.  This nutrition and health misinformation reaches far and wide, thanks to the growing popularity of goop.

The bogus health advice includes things like vaginal steaming, goat milk cleanses (to cleanse your body of parasites and heavy metals), and colon cleanses. Goop publishes many articles with health claims that are not backed by good science. Here are some of the many dubious (and expensive) products in goop’s store:

Goop Doctors

A number of doctors are associated with goop. Unfortunately for many the title “Dr” gives credibility to their advice that often stokes unfounded fears.

Common themes to goop doctors’ advice includes

  • TOXINS – you are sick and tired because of various toxins and need to “detox” with their product/diet plan;
  • MISINFORMATION  with just enough science to sound plausible and masquerade as truth (usually by citing select research to support their narrative, but that doesn’t consider the body of scientific evidence);
  • SUPPLEMENTS – all goop doctors sell supplements – that typically will “cure” a long list of ailments (which usually includes some form of “fatigue”)
  • STORIES  to create a distrust of science-based medicine.

Goop Critics

Good has many critics who argue that goop doctors spread health misinformation with their marketing and pseudoscience. Two of the most vocal critics are Jen Gunter, a California-based OB-GYN, and Timothy Caulfield, professor of law and health policy at the University of Alberta.  Responsible health journalists regularly write about goop’s bogus articles and products, and even Late Night Show host Stephen Colbert is showcasing goop’s pseudoscience.

Goop critics promote evidence-based information about women’s health issues and correct goop’s bad advice.  Goop and “goop doctors” are making money off women who are concerned about their health by deceiving them with pseudoscience to convince them that they need to buy their products.

Goop doctors argue that their advice empowers women to make informed health choices. How does fearmongering, sowing distrust in science-based medicine, and spreading health misinformation empower women? Is goop really concerned about women’s health?

Last week goop tried to increase its credibility by having two goop doctors verbally attack vocal goop critic Jen Gunter. I decided to have a closer look at some of the goop doctors, and will certainly add them to my list of Nutrition and Health “Experts” You Should Not Trust.

More Reading:

Aviva Romm

Aviva Romm is an integrative physician, midwife, and herbalist. She strongly defends goop doctors and their practices, contributes to the misinformation on the goop website, and like other goop doctors, her advice is not evidence-based.  Her website and Facebook page targets pregnant women, busy (and tired) women, and parents.

She sells her line of herbal supplements, books, and online courses (e.g. Heathiest Kids University – Natural Medicine for Children).  Much of her information uses the appeal to nature logical fallacy, that something “natural” (like herbal remedies) are good for you because they come “from nature.”

Just because a product is “natural” does not mean it is healthful, effective, or safe.

appeal to nature logical fallacy

How much do you need to worry about “Toxins”?

Toxins are prominent in Aviva Romm’s fearmongering.

Romm makes this sweeping statement

many health conditions that are adversely affecting children today can be traced back to environmental toxin exposure.

Environmental exposures are important. The field of environmental health trains many public health scientists in a variety of areas to study how environmental exposures influence health.  These experts and their research play an important role in setting guidelines and standards that consider the body of scientific evidence (and not just isolated studies).  Should we be listening to these scientists – environmental epidemiologists, toxicologists, and others – and trust them to protect public health, or rely on individuals like Romm, who often only present one side of the issue, instill fear, and sell products and supplements to help you get rid of “toxins”?

For example, Romm advises women to refuse glucola (a standard sugar drink to screen for diabetes), calling it a “toxic cocktail.” She credits the chemical-fearing Food Babe for alerting her to these toxins. . .

Should pregnant women be worried about glucola? No. Gynecologists Jen Gunter and Amy Tuteur explain that you would be better off fearing toxic advice of people like the Food Babe or Aviva Romm.

Aviva Romm’s Supplements and Products

Dr.  Romm’s website sells books, online courses (e.g., herbal medicine for women, adrenal thyroid pro training), and her online “dispensary” (via Fullscript) offers hundreds of high-priced supplements by category such as “Natural Detox Support” or “Adrenal and Thyroid Support” that include bogus health claims like “replenish adrenals,” “detox” “rejuvenate liver function” and “boost immunity.”

Her website includes many posts and tips (often herbal medications) for preventing and dealing with “adrenal fatigue” – a made-up medical condition that is not recognized by endocrinologists. She has created her own line of women’s herbal products to help “replenish and restore the adrenals and counteract the effects of an overwhelmed stress response system.” The products are adrenal nourish, adrenal soothe, and adrenal uplift, and cost $27.50 for 2 oz. ). There is no rigorous scientific evidence showing that these products will do anything beyond give you false hope and drain your pocketbook.

One of her top recommended herbal supplements for women is curcumin (found in turmeric) – she recommends it for  “leaky gut” (no quality research supports leaky gut syndrome) and “detoxification from environmental chemicals” – a nonsense statement.  Curcumin supplements are a waste of money: a recent comprehensive research review shows that they lack sufficient evidence of efficacy.

READ  Healthy or Hype? Turmeric

Should children use unregulated dietary supplements? Dr. Romm’s website guides you to a “Natural Children’s remedies” section, which has 20 supplements, including “Calm Child” designed to “support calm, focuses attention in children.” Her online course “Super-Charge Your Children’s Health and Immunity with Natural Remedies” lesson material includes “toxins in vaccinations” and a section on herbal medicines.

Aviva Romm claims to be offering the “evidence-based alternatives” that women are desperately seeking.  She masquerades as a trusted source of health information, yet sells dubious herbal treatments for which there is no good evidence.

WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT HERBAL AND DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS
Many people believe that herbal supplements are safer than prescription drugs because they are “natural” and they don’t consider them “drugs.” But, as Steven Novella, academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, explains,

herbs and plants that are used for medicinal purposes are drugs – they are as much drugs as any manufactured pharmaceutical. A drug is any chemical or combination of chemicals that has biological activity within the body above and beyond their purely nutritional value. Herbs have little to no nutritional value, but they do contain various chemicals, some with biological activity. Herbs are drugs. The distinction between herbs and pharmaceuticals is therefore a false dichotomy.”

Before a prescription and nonprescription drug is on the market, it undergoes years of research and rigorous testing for safety and efficacy and needs FDA approval to be sold. In contrast, herbal medicines and dietary supplements are not well tested for efficacy or safety (if they are tested at all); also, they are poorly regulated and often make outlandish and unfounded claims. There are many good reasons to be skeptical of the multi billion dollar herbal and dietary supplement industry and individuals selling herbal products.

John Oliver offers an entertaining account of the poor regulation of the dietary supplement industry . . .

Steven Gundry

Steven Gundry is a goop contributor,  author of several books overloaded with misinformation on diet and disease, and runs the website gundrymd.com.  If you sign up for his newsletter, you will immediately be presented with an offer for one of his many supplements – Gundry MD Vital Reds, for a discounted $254.70 (for 6 jars, which is what Gundry recommends): and it’s also recommended you buy Dr. Gundry’s book Diet Evolution (to supercharge the benefits of Vital Reds).

According to the website, MD Vital Reds will

help reduce the fatigue and energy dysfunction which act as warning signs for much more serious health problems. I’ve combined the power of 25 polyphenol-rich superfruits with dozens of natural fat-burning ingredients to help your body maintain higher energy levels and fast metabolism.”

Save your money – there is no good evidence to back up any of these claims.

And Vital Reds is just the beginning!

You can spend a lot more money on unproven supplements at Gundrymd.com.  These include “Lectin Shield” ($75)  – to protect yourself from the “toxic” lectins (proteins in some plant foods), which Lundry states are the #1 biggest danger in the American diet.  Gundry has even written a book about lectins (to convince you that you really do need Lectin Shield).  In The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in Healthy foods that Cause Disease and Weight Gain, he claims that lectins are the cause of almost all diseases.  The fact that Dr Oz has endorsed the book is a good clue to the pseudoscience within.

The book promo has the familiar popular line that introduces much pseudoscience . . .

Is it possible that everything you’ve heard about diet, weight, and nutrition is wrong?

There is no good evidence showing that lectins cause disease

Avoiding lectins means missing out on many nutritious foods, including whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, dairy, eggs, and fruit.  The Atlantic’s James Hamblin has an excellent commentary on the Gundry’s book, including this observation:

“In fact, the book seems to be a sort of culmination of a long-percolating hypothesis about the imminent dangers of lectins. It’s especially common among purveyors of dietary supplements. The story goes: We need nutrients to survive, but many plants makes us sick, so synthetic supplement pills and powders are the prudent approach.  The idea is based in just enough evidence to be seriously convincing in the right hands.”

“…Book publishers are rarely held accountable for publishing invalid health information. Rather, there seems to be an incentive to publish the most outlandish claims that purport to upend everything the reader has ever heard. This is a problem much bigger than any plant protein. Cycles of fad dieting and insidious misinformation undermine both public health and understanding of how science works, giving way to a sense of chaos.”

Other ridiculous health claims by Gundry on the goop website include that eating out-of-season fruit is one of the biggest modern health hazards (because “fruit promotes fat storage”).

READ  Healthy or Hype? Gluten-Free Diets

Gundry also perpetuates myths like the existence of a so-called leaky gut syndrome (and of course recommends his products as a remedy).  According to experts at the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, no quality research supports the existence of leaky gut syndrome, which they say is “is all speculation, as scientific studies do not validate any of these claims. It is extremely dangerous that a TV doctor personality and some otherwise trusted practitioners are diagnosing and treating this baseless ‘syndrome’.”

These are but a few examples of the vast amount of misinformation that Steven Gundry shares. Your best bet is to ignore everything on his website, books, and writings on the goop website, and definitely don’t buy any of his products.

Emails from Gundrymd.com are pretty good evidence that this “Dr” is little more than a snake-oil salesman . . . too bad so many people fall for this marketing.

More Reading:

Alejandro Junger

Doctor to celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and author of Clean: A Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself, Alejandro Junger is a big fan of detox diets and a good snake oil salesman. His “Clean” 21-day program will cost you $475 in useless supplements and shakes. He preys on fear and convinces many that they are consuming and surrounded by harmful toxins.

Junger also advocates colon cleansing, a practice that has no proven health benefits and is potentially harmful.

As there is no good evidence for any of his treatments, he relies on cherry-picked studies, colorful stories, and convincing anecdotes.

Junger created Gwyneth Paltrow/goop’s Why Am I So Effing Tired pack: expensive supplements ($90 for a 1-month supply) designed to treat “adrenal fatigue” a condition not recognized by any endocrinology society and a syndrome that experts have confirmed does not exist. Other false claims and potential harms for Why Am I So Effing Tired pack are reviewed by OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunter here.

More Reading:

Habib Sadeghi

Dr. Sadeghi, who has been called Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Quack in Chief,” is another goop doctor who contributes a fair share of fearmongering pseudoscience to the goop website. His misinformation includes a lengthy article resurrecting a myth that underwire bras cause breast cancer. Trying to sound legitimate, he selectively cites what he deems as “research” to support his case.

A common tactic of goop doctors is to foster a distrust in mainstream medicine or research that doesn’t support their ideas.  In rebuking a rigorous trial showing no link between bra wearing and breast cancer by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center (a world leading institution in Cancer Research), Sadeghi brings up the ridiculous notion that these researchers may have falsified study results because they have a fundraising fun run called the Bra Dash. Unbelievable, but true.

He has many unfounded tips to reduce cancer risk, including such nonsense such as taking an epsom salt and baking soda bath soon after a flight to remove toxins from the body; and reducing intake of grain products (because of the proteins lectin and gluten)  – there are no studies linking intake of either of these proteins to cancer.

Sadeghi is founder of Be Hive of Healing,  which offers a host of bogus treatments, and a Wellness Store with an overabundance of products and supplements with no convincing evidence to support their use.

If is frightening that Sadeghi advises cancer patients about their treatment, and irresponsible of goop to publish his nonsense.

Lifestyle factors can play a role in some cancers, but goop or Habib Sadeghi are not good resources. You can find evidence-based information on lifestyle tips for cancer prevention at AICR.org.

More Reading:

And finally, here is a video by AJ+ that highlights some of  Gwyneth Paltrow’s health nonsense.

More Nutrition & Health Experts You Shouldn’t Trust

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Nutrition & Health Experts You Shouldn’t Trust – Updates

With the growing amount of misinformation on nutrition and health, it’s getting more difficult for people to figure out what is based in good science.  And if you’re wondering if a certain individual, program, or website is legitimate, it is not straightforward to find out . . .

The prefix “Dr” can’t be trusted (hello Dr Oz, Perlmutter, Davis, Lundel, Berg . . . ). Many of these health gurus cherry-pick studies – that is, they cite  the research that supports their opinion without considering the body of scientific evidence.  Also, they often promise their diet/supplement/program will cure whatever ails you and provide alluring anecdotes to sell their stories (and often dietary supplements . . .).  Another common narrative is a conspiracy focus, or telling readers that decades of nutrition/health research is wrong . . .

Check here for my growing list of Nutrition & Health Experts You Shouldn’t Trust.  Here are some of the latest additions . . .

David “Avocado” Wolfe

David Avocado Wolfe VaccineThis pseudoscience peddler has a thing for names – beyond using “avocado” as his middle name (which places him above David Perlmutter on my list), he calls himself “the rock star and Indiana Jones of the superfoods and longevity universe.” If that is not enough to get your pseudoscience spidey senses tingling,  there is plenty more.  His stories and scams  prey on science illiteracy and he makes plenty of money from his followers. For example, he claims that high frequency radio waves are “unnatural” and dangerous (but you can buy expensive pillow cases and sheets at his online store to protect you); and invents food scare tactics so that you can buy his “superfood” supplements; and discourages vaccines and effective cancer treatments in favor of his woo.  He is very good at marketing and draws people in with cute memes – he has a popular facebook page (723K fans)  and at least seven different websites.

Dave Aspey – Bulletproof Executive

BulletproofDave Aspey, the bulletproof executive, is an entrepreneur, blogger, and paleo proponent who is good at selling things but doesn’t know much about health or nutrition (but tries to sound sciency by citing cherry picked studies to back up his dubious claims).  His main claim to fame is Bulletproof® coffee, which I wrote about here.  Claims for bulletproof coffee include that it helps burn fat, provides lasting energy, improves focus, helps gain muscle, increases mental acuity, helps digestion, and improves heart health.

But  . . . you need to buy his special  Upgraded™ coffee  that is low in mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are a form of mold found on coffee beans and in greater amounts on many other foods (e.g., raisins, peanuts, beer, wine, pork, corn, sweet potatoes): most mycotoxins on coffee beans are destroyed by roasting, and there is no evidence that low levels are harmful to health.

Bulletproof coffee is not a healthy breakfast: it provides about 460 calories and about 47 g fat (mostly saturated), taking the place of protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health. There is no good evidence that a breakfast of coffee with large quantities of saturated fat (butter and oil) delivers any of the laundry list of benefits beyond potential short-term cognitive or long-term health benefits of coffee.

 
READ  Healthy or Hype? Buttered/Bulletproof Coffee

Why stop at coffee when you can make so much money? Beyond his bulletproof coffee Aspey sells books and a variety of products (supplements, foods, technologies, coaching) claiming to improve health.  And of course, there is the bulletproof diet (a “revolutionary” weight loss plan. . . but works best with his products), described so well by health and science writer Julia Beluz as follows:

“The Bulletproof Diet is like a caricature of a bad fad-diet book. If you took everything that’s wrong with eating in America, put it in a Vitamix, and shaped the result into a book, you’d get the Bulletproof Diet.

The book is filled with dubious claims based on little evidence or cherry picked studies that are taken out of context. The author, Dave Asprey, vilifies healthy foods and suggests part of the way to achieve a “pound a day” weight loss is to buy his expensive, “science-based” Bulletproof products.”

Dwight Lundel

Dwight LundellYou may have seen a viral post “World Renowned Heart Surgeon Speaks Out On What Really Causes Heart Disease.”  In the post Lundell proclaims that decades of research and guidelines for heart disease prevention are wrong (the “we’ve been lied to” narrative that is so popular . . .) , and the he has the answer in his books “The Cure for Heart Disease” or “The Great Cholesterol Lie.”

Heart disease is complex, as is the science of how different kinds of foods affect our bodies and the role that different kinds of fats play in disease.  The evidence-based to date does not support Lundel’s oversimplified ideas.

Eric Berg

Eric Berg is a popular health and wellness “expert” (actually a chiropractor who has ventured beyond his realm of expertise). He has a website and many videos promoting unscientific health advice, and books including  The 7 Principles of Fat Burning: Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Keep it Off! and Dr. Berg’s Body Shapes Diets.  Some of  his bogus health and wellness treatments have included Body Response Technique, Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique, Contact Reflex Analysis, and testing with an Acoustic Cardiograph. His unsubstantiated claims for his therapeutic treatments have been the subject of disciplinary action by the Virginia Board of Medicine.   Some of his treatments relate to “adrenal fatigue” – a term not recognized by any endocrinology society and a syndrome that experts have confirmed does not exist.

Some of his diet advice is extremely and unnecessarily restrictive (anti-wheat; anti-carbohydrate); he advocates weight loss based on a bogus hormone body type (adrenal, ovary, liver, thyroid); talks about “fat burning” hormones (they don’t exist); and includes a “detox phase” in his diet plan (a term that should raise your quack alarm).

As typical with many of these so-called health experts, his website includes a shop with unproven supplements (e.g. adrenal body type package, estrogen balance kit) that beyond being a complete waste of money, could quite possibly do you more harm than good.

Kris Carr

Kris CarrKris Carr is a self-proclaimed cancer-lifestyle guru with a very large following. She is not an oncologist, an expert in nutrition, or a scientist who knows how to interpret research.  All cancers are different and respond to different treatments.  Her advice about diets is not accurate, and she recommends detoxes and cleanses.

For example, she advocates juicing because ” alkaline juices help to detoxify your body.  They raise your pH and help pull out old waste from your colon and tissues.”   First of all, detoxing is a myth,  as is the influence of acid or alkaline foods on health.  The environment in which foods are digested is complex, and many scientists question the accuracy of methods used to calculate the acidity of foods (more about alkaline diets here).  She recommends fasting because it “removes stored toxins and excess waste” a statement that makes no sense.

Lifestyle habits and nutrition can certainly play a role in the incidence and survival of some cancers, but Kris Carr is not a good source for this information.  For terrific free science-based information on this topic, visit the American Institute for Cancer Research.

For more Nutrition & Health experts you shouldn’t trust, see this page or the list below.

I will keep adding, but am limited because . . .

The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” – Alberto Brandolini

 

 

 

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Healthy or Hype? Turmeric

Turmeric seems to be everywhere these days. This signature spice that lends curries and mustards their distinct colour is now popping up in unlikely foods and beverages like golden spice lattes, hot chocolate, and even sodas.

And you can count on more foods adopting turmeric’s characteristic yellow-orange hue, as the turmeric food trend is a strong one. A recent Google food trend analysis ranks turmeric as the number 1 rising star, as interest in turmeric has grown significantly in a short period.

Source: Google internal data, August 2015-February 2016, United States
Source: Google internal data, August 2015-February 2016, United States

The Internet is a go-to source for information about food and health. But teasing out the evidence-based information from the hype is becoming increasingly more difficult.  Is the turmeric trend supported by the body of scientific evidence?

What Is Turmeric?

Turmeric and Turmeric powder on white background

Turmeric comes from the thick root of the turmeric plant: it looks a bit like a small ginger root, and cooks prepare it in a similar way to add a subtle earthy flavour and bright colour to dishes.  If you are new to cooking with turmeric, be aware that turmeric can stain hands, clothes, and even cooking utensils bright yellow orange (historically turmeric was a popular dye, and some use it as a dye today).   Most people are more familiar with turmeric ground to a golden powder, which is available in the spice isle of most grocery stores.

Health Claims

Recognized as an ancient home remedy in Asia, and commonplace in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, many believe that turmeric has medicinal properties.  A quick search reveals turmeric as a “cure-all.” The claims for turmeric’s healing properties are wide ranging — from improving cognitive function, cardiovascular function, and weight loss to fighting cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, arthritis, headaches, depression, digestive diseases, the common cold, and many more health conditions.  No wonder people are sprinkling turmeric on everything. . . (whether it tastes good or not).  Does this sound too good to be true?

Evidence

A large body of research has looked into turmeric and health, focusing on curcumin, a polyphenol compound thought to be responsible for turmeric’s potential therapeutic effects. Curcumin makes up only about 3-5% of turmeric.

Curcumin, the potential health-promoting compound, makes up only about 3-5% of turmeric
Curcumin is the potential health-promoting compound in turmeric

Preclinical studies suggested that curcumin’s anti-inflammatory action might help prevent or treat various chronic diseases.  Though promising, it is important to categorize this research as preliminary or hypothesis generating, as much of it is “in vitro” (conducted in test tubes) or in animals. Researchers have studied curcumin in humans, but results have been inconclusive. Also, best to interpret this research with caution as most studies had a small number of participants, short durations, and many did not compare curcumin to a placebo. Though we shouldn’t generalize conclusions from these small-scale studies, their findings can inform larger scale trials.

Another issue with research in humans is that the body doesn’t absorb regular curcumin very well:  you can consume a lot of it, but very little reaches the blood or tissues where it can have a clinical effect.  Research shows that rodents absorb little (<1%) of the curcumin they consume. However, one line of research is investigating ways to improve absorption: for example, some studies suggest that black pepper boosts the bioavailability of curcumin.

So, turmeric contains <5% of curcumin, and most of this tiny amount isn’t bioavailable . . . why are so many stretching the culinary uses of this standard curry spice to desserts and convincing themselves that turmeric flavoured smoothies “taste good,” or are even “good for you?”Turmeric Smoothie Healthy

It’s too easy to be persuaded of turmeric’s potential healing powers. Those championing turmeric’s benefits are citing individual studies without proper scientific context.  Critically evaluating the available research is a challenge and requires substantial expertise. Luckily, a new comprehensive review published in January 2017 has done just that. Investigators at the University of Minnesota reviewed the evidence for curcumin, which included thousands of studies and over 120 clinical trials.  The authors raise important questions about the research and comment that curcumin’s health benefits are “much ado about nothing.”

There is no rigorous human study (double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial) showing benefit to turmeric.  Another serious problem overlooked by many is that curcumin’s chemical structure is unstable and can produce “false hits” in studies – i.e., showing that it is acting on a disease-causing protein, when it really isn’t.

What about Curcumin Supplements?

Are concentrated supplements of turmeric’s potential beneficial compound (curcumin) a good choice?  It seems many North Americans think so, as the market for curcumin is large (US$20 million in 2014) and growing.  And marketing by the likes of Dr Oz, Dr Hyman, Dr Mercola, or the Food Babe always persuades many. Curcumin supplements are likely a waste of money, as the recent comprehensive research review shows that they lack sufficient evidence of efficacy.Curumin Supplements Scientific Evidence

In general, you should be wary of all dietary supplements and their claims. The supplement industry is unregulated (which means questionable dosage, efficacy, and safety), but clever marketing manages to persuade many.

Bottom Line

Although many studies have investigated turmeric/curcumin, and some have shown promise, at this point these findings aren’t good enough evidence to suggest that consuming turmeric improves any health condition.  It’s important to consider the preliminary nature of the research and recent review questioning of curcumin’s biological activity. Turmeric is certainly not a cure-all panacea as some have touted.  More research may help uncover specific benefits to curcumin or other compounds in turmeric.

Typical North Indian spicy dish or cuisine called Chana Masala
Using turmeric in healthful dishes is a great idea!

But cooking with spices like turmeric is a great idea.  These plant-based seasonings can flavour food deliciously without the need for excess salt or fat.  And looking for recipes featuring turmeric may help you cook more and inspire you to prepare healthful dishes.  But even if effective, turmeric is a small-player for promoting health and preventing disease: better to focus efforts on eating a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough physical activity, measures that have proven benefits for health and well-being.

Healthy or Hype Series

More Healthy or Hype Resources at this link.

Healthy Or Hype General

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Are “Natural” Sweeteners Healthier than Sugar?

The health impact of consuming too much sugar is big news, and many people are looking for alternatives. What about so-called “natural” sweeteners? Food marketers want you to think they are healthier, and labels boasting terms like “naturally sweetened” or “honey-sweetened” are a common fixture.

This line of thinking has made its way into cookbooks, recipe blogs, and many home kitchens. One of my cake recipes wasn’t “healthy,” a reader commented, because it used sugar instead of a more “natural” sweetener like honey.

Are these “naturally” sweetened options really better for you than foods sweetened with sugar?

Honey Sweetener2What Are “Natural” Sweeteners?

When it comes to foods, the term “natural” is ill defined.  When people use the term “natural” sweeteners, they typically mean sweeteners that aren’t refined granulated sugar (pure sucrose from sugar cane) or high fructose corn syrup.

Popular “natural” sweeteners include agave nectar, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, honey, maple syrup; molasses, organic cane sugar, sucanat, turbanido sugar (raw sugar).

The Claims

Some of the claims attributed to natural sweeteners include that
“natural” sweeteners are . . .

  • less processed
  • full of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants
  • lower on the glycemic index scale (may not raise blood sugar as much as other sweeteners)
  • lower in fructose/glucose
  • much healthier for you than sugar

The Evidence

Less processed

A popular argument for “natural” sweeteners is that they are less processed than sugar.

sugarsFor example, some people consider Turbinado (raw) sugar and Organic Cane Sugar healthier and less processed than sugar.  Similar to refined sugar, turbinado sugar is refined cane juice, but a little darker with hints of molasses since it contains more impurities. Organic cane sugar is from organically grown sugar cane.  Both of these sugars are highly refined and very similar to table sugar in terms of nutrition and how your body metabolizes them, so you’re out of luck if you’re choosing these sugars for superior nutrition.  However, choose turbinado sugar if you like its depth of flavor, or organic cane sugar if you value that it is free of pesticide residues and potentially better for the environment (soil, health of workers exposed to pesticides).

Agave syrup is another popular “natural” sweetener that some consider less processed. Initially, natural health enthusiasts recommended agave nectar because it was “natural,” and low on the glycemic index scale.  Also, because agave is sweeter than sugar, the thinking was that people would use less of it. The high fructose content responsible for the lower glycemic index of agave might be a concern. Most fad health gurus who recommended agave enthusiastically (e.g., Dr Oz or Dr. Weil) changed their tune when they found out that agave has a very high fructose content compared to other sweeteners (much higher than high fructose corn syrup,  the much vilified sweetener in soft drinks).

Although agave syrup is from the agave plant, it is actually highly processed to deliver a refined and clear syrup, so it’s hard to argue that it is less processed.  Sugar is processed out of “natural” sugar cane, but no one calls sugar natural.  In both cases, the processing removes fiber and concentrates sugars.  Use agave nectar in small quantities if you like the taste of it, or if it truly benefits your recipe, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s healthier than other sweeteners.

READ  Is agave nectar a healthy sweetener?

What About the Minerals in Many Natural Sweeteners?

Some “natural” sweeteners are less processed than sugar and do retain some minerals and other substances. Does this make them a better choice than refined sugar?  Here are a some sweeteners touted for their mineral content that you may be wondering about . . .

Honey

Honey IsolatedHoney is another sweetener many choose over sugar for health reasons, and claimed benefits range from preventing cancer and heart disease to regulating blood sugar. Honey does contain trace amounts of minerals and antioxidants. Darker honey has a stronger flavour and contains more antioxidants, but the amount is negligible compared to other foods like fruits and vegetables that offer many health benefits.  As one of the oldest sweeteners on earth, and the product of honeybees foraging nectar from flowers, honey is truly amazing and offers wonderful flavors.  But despite terrific tastes that vary with the seasons and flowers, and diverse culinary uses, your body treats honey pretty much like refined sugar, and you shouldn’t consume honey for health reasons.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is promoted as a good source of magnesium . . . but has only 1 mg of magnesium per teaspoon. Compare that to ½ cup of cooked spinach (80 mg magnesium); ½ cup black beans (60 mg magnesium), or one medium banana (30 mg magnesium).  So, you shouldn’t be eating coconut sugar for the magnesium. . . If coconut sugar makes your recipe taste great, go for it. But keep in mind that coconut sugar has the same calorie and carbohydrate content as regular sugar and is mostly sucrose.

Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup In Snow CroppedMaple syrup, a product of the boiled sap of maple trees, is my all-time favourite sweetener (owing to being Canadian, or maybe the fact that my grandmother used to drink it out of a shot glass during maple syrup season . . . ). Maple syrup contains small amounts antioxidants and minerals (calcium, potassium, and iron), and a moderate amount of potassium and zinc. It is a good source of manganese, but, you would be better off getting your manganese from nuts and seeds, leafy greens, unrefined whole grains, or legumes.

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have isolated potentially beneficial compounds in maple syrup, and the media picked up with “superfood” type headlines. And a recent laboratory study found that a concentrated extract of maple syrup positively influenced a protein common in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s: though intriguing, these preliminary findings involve isolated compounds that don’t necessarily translate to human consumption and health, and shouldn’t be interpreted as health advice to consume more maple syrup! You can read more about Sweet Hype for Maple Syrup by McGill’s Joe Schwartz here.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup sounds healthy and is a popular ingredient on “health guru” food blogs that lack scientific evidence. You’ll see it in many commercial granola, cereal, and fruit-and-nut type bars. Many well-intentioned vegan food bloggers use brown rice syrup as a “glue” to bind ingredients in unbaked cookies and bars: I liked the dried fruit and nut combinations, but rice syrup makes the bars too sticky and crumbly to be practical. Using eggs to bind ingredients and baking bars/cookies offers much better nutrition than adding more brown rice syrup to help ingredients bind! And similar to all sweeteners, your body breaks down brown rice syrup and treats it like other sweeteners, whether it is organic or not, part of a “healthy” cookie, or poured on pancakes.

Molasses

molassesMolasses is the dark liquid that remains after sugar is extracted from sugar cane. It comes in several varieties depending on the level of processing. Blackstrap molasses is the least refined and a notable exception for getting nutrition beyond calories from sweeteners, because it has a high enough iron content (7 mg in 2 tbsp.) to be considered beneficial. But because of its bitter flavor people don’t typically substitute it for sugar. Light molasses is more palatable, but it does not contain as much iron as blackstrap molasses or other minerals (1.8 mg of iron in 2 tbsp.).

Even though many “natural” sweeteners provide more minerals than white sugar, it does not make them “healthy.” And even if these sweeteners contained significant amounts of minerals, you’re better off getting these minerals from foods that don’t provide empty calories and influence your hormones or metabolism.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index is a way of measuring the effect of a food on blood sugar. Although some “natural” sweeteners may have a lower glycemic index than others, many question the influence of this measure on health.  This study suggests that a low glycemic index diet didn’t improve insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, or other heart disease risk factors for people who are already following a healthful diet. Another recent study calls into question the reliability of this measure. In general, judging whether a food is nutritious or not based on one measure, like the glycemic index, is not a good idea!

Is Fructose poison?

Beyond taste and texture, sweeteners do vary in the number of calories, sweetness, chemical composition, and how your body breaks them down. Much of the confusion and championing of certain sweeteners comes from exaggerating the influence of how your body breaks down sugars on health. For example, some call fructose poison and blame it for the obesity epidemic, but the evidence doesn’t support this sweeping statement.  Your body metabolizes fructose differently than other sugars, and studies suggest that high intakes could raise triglycerides, predisposing individuals to fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and heart disease.  But researchers conducted these studies mostly in animals, and looked at very high doses of 100% fructose: this is not how fructose is consumed in a typical diet. Most sweeteners are a combination of glucose and fructose. More recent studies in humans show no evidence that fructose influences metabolic syndrome or cardiovascular disease risk factors compared to glucose.   Blaming fructose for health problems overshadows more important factors like body weight, overall calorie intake, and inactivity. Choosing a sweetener based on fructose content isn’t the best strategy for health.

Health Halo Donut SmallBeware the health halo . . . sugar is sugar!

Considering “natural sugars” as healthy can have a health halo effect, meaning that if you think something is good for you, you feel better about eating it, and may end up consuming more of it. Researchers have documented the health halo effect in several studies, like this one.

In fact, simply adding the word “fruit” to the word sugar makes people think it is healthier. In this recent study published in the journal Appetite, consumers looking at cereal ingredients perceived the cereal with “fruit sugar” as healthier than the cereal with “sugar,” although the nutrient profiles of both cereals were the same.  Fruit juice concentrate is a common sweetener in many foods, but it is no healthier than sugar, and organic fruit juice gummy bears with no artificial flavours are not better for you than jujubes.

Bottom Line

Despite marketing claims and labels that suggest otherwise, “natural” sweeteners are not better for you than refined sugar. Most people would be better off consuming less sugar from all sources, “natural” and refined.

Use “natural” sweeteners because you like their flavour or they work well in your cooking/baking.  But they are not better for you  nor will they improve your health.  Treat them as you would sugar and consume judiciously.

Sugar has made its way into many foods, and even commonly consumed foods and beverages contain surprisingly high amounts of sugar. For example, 1 cup of flavoured yogurt contains about 11 teaspoons (42 g) of sugar. It’s not just “added” sugars that is an issue:  most fruit juice contains almost as much sugar as the same amount of soft drink (1.5 cups = 8-10 teaspoons of sugar; and 15 teaspoons for grape juice). Yes, the sugar is from fruit, but your body will metabolize it in a similar way.

Mediterranean Diet FoodsSugar is not toxic

This post is not intended to vilify sugar, but to clarify the confusion around the term “natural” sweeteners. Plenty of misinformation demonizes sugar. Excess sugar intake is not healthy, but sugars are not toxic, sugars do not feed cancer,  and sugars are not the cause of the obesity epidemic or other chronic diseases.

Some of the world’s healthiest individuals (high performance endurance athletes) actually use sugar to fuel their racing and training. In fact, research shows that the timing of your physical activity in relation to ingesting sugar has a large influence on how your blood glucose responds.  Also, being physically active in general can influence how your body deals with sugar.

You do not need to “quit sugar.” Trying to eat “sugar free” or obsessing too much about specific foods or food components isn’t necessary for health. In fact, it is a strategy that could backfire.  You are better off focusing on a dietary pattern that helps you maintain a healthy weight and includes plenty of whole, minimally processed foods.

You’ll find more “Healthy or Hype?” articles and resources here.

Healthy Or Hype General

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