ome foods that are typically part of the American diet are labeled "bad," and consumers are sometimes urged to avoid them religiously. One prominent example is eggs. Because egg yolks are high in cholesterol, their consumption has sometimes been depicted as leading directly to high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. But that depiction of eggs glosses over the very positive nutritional roles that eggs can play in the diet.
First, eggs are sources of high-quality protein and several vitamins, such as vitamin A, B6, and B12. Eggs can easily be prepared in a variety of ways and are easy to consume and digest. For people (like some of the elderly) who have trouble chewing tougher protein sources, eggs can fill an important dietary gap. Further, recent research indicates that for most people, blood levels of cholesterol are not directly dependent on dietary cholesterol consumption. For more on this topic, see ACSH's booklet The Role of Eggs in the Diet.
In a similar fashion, milk is sometimes criticized as being high in saturated fat and, after pasteurization, devoid of a variety of nutrients. The first issue can be dealt with by choosing a reduced fat or nonfat version of dairy products, and the second issue can be completely ignored. While heating milk (which is what pasteurization does) might slightly diminish the content of some nutrients, on the whole milk is a highly nutritious food and the major source of calcium in the American diet.
As if routine worries about milk fat and nutrient content weren't misguided enough, numerous fear-inducing websites have arisen that attribute terrible illnesses to milk consumption, with no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up their claims. Finally, the widespread paranoia about milk produced with biotech methods such as recombinant bovine growth hormone doesn't help matters though some groups (including ACSH, Citizens for the Integrity of Science, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Consumer Alert, and the National Center for Public Policy Research) have urged government regulators to treat such milk by the same rules as any other milk, since there is no evidence that milk from biotech-enhanced cows is different from other milk, let alone harmful.
Despite the scares, the American food supply ranks among the safest, most abundant in the world. It has been many years since any widespread nutrient deficiency has been documented in the U.S. On the contrary, widespread overweight and obesity are much more prevalent American problems. Heart disease and related chronic ills such as type 2 diabetes are linked to over-consumption of calories relative to energy expenditure.
But reading the popular media reports on our foods over the last few years would not lead one to think this is the case. Instead, our foods are denounced as unhealthy and "unnatural" and are being accused of thereby causing virtually every health problem to which humans are subject.
As a result, items touted as "natural," including dietary supplements, have the trust of the nation and face minimal regulations despite having far more potential to do harm than foods such as eggs and milk. These items are probably wreaking more havoc with Americans' health than any omelet ever could. Just recently, for example, a report in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association stuck a pin in the overinflated marketing claims that ginkgo biloba can enhance memory and attention over the short term (in as little as four weeks). The study reported that a six-week trial of ginkgo didn't improve performance on standard tests of learning, memory, attention, and concentration for over two hundred older men and women in good health.
It's bad enough that some "natural" products really don't deliver on their marketing promises, but some may actually harm health-seeking consumers. Case in point: St. John's wort. Only a couple of years ago, it was reported that St. John's wort speeds up the metabolism of the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporin, which in a couple of patients led to possible rejection of transplanted organs. In addtition, it also affects the body's handling of anti-HIV drugs, decreasing blood levels of these products. More recently, a study confirmed that this herbal product also interferes with the action of a chemotherapy agent. Yet promotional material still exhorts consumers to turn to St. John's wort to alleviate depression a condition likely to be experienced by cancer or transplant patients.
But in spite all the sound, science-based information to the contrary, many consumers think foods like eggs and milk harm one's health, while herbal supplements are considered health-promoting, "natural" products and accepted at face value. Seems like there are some contradictions in our national thinking about how best to take care of our health.
Ruth Kava is Director of Nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health.
September 9, 2002
I enjoyed the article on milk and eggs but was wondering: Another thing I've heard about milk is that it breeds bacteria. This is something commonly mentioned in health food stores by advocates of herbal, "natural" remedies. For instance, if you eat too much dairy you'll get a cold or get pimples. Is there any scientific basis for this?
Well, milk contains a lot of nutrients, so if it is contaminated it will certainly support bacterial growth. But a person who drinks normal clean milk is in no way more prone to pimples, etc. than anyone else unless she has a specific allergy or senstivity to some milk component.
Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D.
September 17, 2002
The use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) on cows unnaturally increases the production of milk, which in turn causes mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands, which is generally treated with an antibiotic. Yum milk from an infected teat, induced by fake hormones, treated with antibiotics. Sounds healthy to me.
August 8, 2003
I'm a milk lover! However, It gives me pimples.
I am living proof. I had pimples until I was thirty. I realized at one point that I had a lot of pimples when I drank a lot of milk or ate a lot of cheese. I stopped taking all milk products and guess what? No more pimples! After a few pimple-free months, I decided to try milk again...a few days later, my skin became oily again and full of pimples.
That was the end of milk products for me. Beware, though: If you choose to do as I did, make sure you get your calcium elsewhere!
P.S. Too many nuts will do the same thing to me.