Brave New World of Probiotics

Digestive Health Tortilla

I found this little packet of tortillas at the grocery store recently. The words “Digestive Health” will always catch my eye, but what exactly do these words have to do with a white flour tortilla? Well, these tortillas have probiotic cultures in them, specifically, a patented strain called GanedonBC30.

In spite of dearly loving all things probiotic and fermented, I have some reservations about this product! Let’s look into it.

First of all, these tortillas call to mind one of Michael Pollan’s central guidelines to healthy eating: “Avoid food products that make health claims”. As he explains in his book In Defense of Food, a product that has a health claim must first have packaging to put the claim on, and that fact alone means it is more likely to be a highly processed food product than a whole food. In addition, marketing claims typically originate from the strength and influence of the marketing departments of big food companies, rather than being based on reality… thus explaining how the FDA and organizations such as The American Heart Association have allowed their stamp of approval on foods such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs.

Sure enough, this product is highly processed, truly a “food product” rather than an actual food. Let’s take a look at the ingredients:

Enriched Bleached Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Vegetable Shortening (Interesterified and Hydrogenated Soybean Oils), contains 2% or less of: Salt, Sugar, Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Distilled Monoglycerides, Enzymes, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Fumaric Acid, Maltodextrin, Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086, Calcium Propionate and Sorbic Acid (to maintain freshness)

Bleached white flour, preservatives, thickeners, distilled monoglycerides? I think our guts would be better off without the probiotic, if this is its vehicle. Ironically, wheat flour, preservatives, and thickeners such as guar gum have been shown to negatively interfere with our gut health and gut microbes. (This will be subject of a future blog post.)

In addition, although these tortillas proudly advertise that they have “0 grams of TRANS FAT PER SERVING”, one of the very first ingredients is “interesterified and hydrogenated soybean oils”, which is the new replacement for partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), and is likely just as bad as, if not worse, than its precursor. (Check out my previous post about this topic.)

Now back to Pollan’s point about the heft of the marketing power of large food companies. Let’s take a look at the website of Ganeden, the company that makes the probiotic found in these tortillas. In their FAQs, they explain that their GanedonBC30 is the “only spore-forming probiotic to receive FDA GRAS” – which means FDA approval that it is safe. Does this mean that this is the only safe probiotic? No… it just means that “only the big food companies have the wherewithal to secure FDA-approved health claims for their products and trumpet them to the world” (Pollan 154).

GanedenBC30 is made from bacillus coagulans, which is a spore-forming bacteria. Ganeden has used this spore-forming trait to create a product that can withstand the “harsh processing” that our modern food goes through. Ganeden has a “Probiotics 101” lesson on their website that has some questions to consider when “choosing a probiotic”:

  • Does it survive the extremes of manufacturing?
  • Does it survive the shelf life of the product?

This illustrates that the intent of GanedenBC30 is to be a probiotic product that can withstand the extreme processing that much of our food undergoes, as well as the lengthy shelf life that often results from said processing. This is great for food companies, but not necessarily so great for consumers. Why?

  • If the probiotic spores withstand such “harsh processing”, will it truly effectively leave the spore state and benefit our guts, rather than just passing through?
  • Assuming that it does, to what extent does eating the highly processed food in which GanedenBC30 is found obviate any health benefit of the probiotic?
  • There are countless beneficial effects of probiotics that cannot be encapsulated in one single hardy strain of bacteria. “Probiotics” have traditionally been consumed as fermented food (think yogurt and sauerkraut), not as pills or manufactured additives. With fermentation we get enzymes, increased nutrients, and improved nutrient absorption from the foods that have been fermented. We also get multiple strains of bacteria, not just a single one.

These tortillas serve as a reminder that marketing claims must be taken with a grain of salt. Ultimately, food companies are shamelessly taking advantage of people who want to take positive steps for their health. Yet in the end there is no substitute for whole, unprocessed foods, no matter what it may say on the packaging. Continue reading

Top Foods to Avoid Until 2018 (And Maybe Forever)

Pop Secret Trans Fat

Partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats, have been declared unsafe for human consumption by the FDA, and will be phased out of our food supply by 2018. This is both good news, and sobering news.

First the good news: trans fat has been shown to be very hazardous to our health, so this ban is estimated to save thousands of lives each year. The sobering news is twofold: First of all, the history behind this ban reinforces the fact that we cannot trust the FDA or USDA to make scientifically-sound nutrition recommendations that will protect our health. Second of all, the replacements that the food industry has developed to replace partially hydrogenated oil have their own set of problems. These problems include human rights and environmental issues, as well as health issues– that may actually turn out to be just as serious as those from trans fats. There is a lot going on with this ban, so let’s dig a little deeper so that we can be better prepared to make informed decisions at the grocery store.

Let’s start with a quick overview of what partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) and trans fats are. PHO begins its life as a liquid oil (eg. soybean oil) that is then transformed into a solid fat through an industrial chemical reaction. In this reaction, hydrogen atoms are forcibly attached to the fat molecules with the help of high pressure, high temperatures, and chemical catalysts. Some of the resulting fat molecules in the partially hydrogenated oil have a structure that is called trans— these are the trans fats.* PHO is a desirable ingredient in processed foods because it is shelf-stable, it is cheap, and the hydrogenation level can be controlled to yield the perfect texture in the final product. Continue reading