Obesity has become a major national epidemic, increasing dramatically over the last twenty years. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 1985 there existed not a single American state where the obesity rate surpassed 15% whereas last year, Colorado was given the lowest obesity rate, one of 21%. This dramatic trend can be attributed to our increased consumption of foods containing processed grains, oils, and sugars as well as our overall lack of physical activity.
Running alongside these new found habits, we have started to turn to “quick-fix” health promoters. “Techno-Foods”, a term coined by Marion Nestle in her book Food Politics, are heavily processed food and drink products fortified and supplemented with vitamins, minerals and any other macro or micronutrient experiencing popularity. By concentrating their efforts on these “techno-foods”, manufacturers are able to take full advantage of the ever changing landscape of nutritional science and its strong effects on our nation’s populace. With the conception of health, specifically body image, being of paramount concern for American people, the food industry finds itself in a very lofty position of control.
Aside from renegade health experts and marginalized naturopathic advocates, the majority of the information that reaches the public regarding health comes from people closely connected to, if not the, manufacturers of the foods themselves. In the present context, this information has led people to assume two important beliefs concerning nutrition. The the first of these can be seen in, among other products, 5-hour ENERGY shots. One 1.93 fl oz. shot contains 2000% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin B6 and 8333% of ones recommended B12. I make no claim that this formulation does not work. On the contrary, to obtain maximum energy in extreme situations, this is sure to work for almost everyone. However, it is through such marketing techniques with a relentless focus on the individual nutrient, a paradigm called nutritionism and made popular in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food , that have the industry playing off everyone’s misconception that additional use of something good is more beneficial.
Due to the freedom of information act, it has been proven time and time again that there exists in our day an inappropriate intimacy between government and industry. Leaders in authoritative bodies including the FDA, EPA and USDA have held previous positions, of equal authority, in major industry leaders like the chemical juggernaut Monsanto as well as pharmaceutical and food companies. It is through this highly questionable relationship, commonly symbolized as a revolving door, that loaded statements regarding specific vitamins and their effects on health are able to reach the public without much question. Nutrtionism dominates our view on health making trustworthy and otherwise naive consumers assume that the more the richly fortified the product is, the better it is. As its name implies vitaminwater is a wonderful example of this.
The aim of this article is to show how advertising from the the U.S government as its industrial counterparts effect the consumptive practice of eating, namely foods altered, manipulated or otherwise “enhanced” by man, our focus being on Coca Cola’s vitaminwater.
Therefore, in order to find any sort of definitive relation between the two, or rather three (consumers, after all are where these results manifest) components in play, we must look to the ingredients themselves to understand what is taking place.
Vitamin B3 is included in all vitaminwater products. It has many names, the most often of which seen in consumer products being niacin, nicotinic acid, nicotinamide and niacinamide, this last one used specifically in the Coca Cola products’ ingredients list. Niacinamide is a water soluble vitamin belonging to the B family. Niacin, used interchangeably with nicotinic acid, is converted to naicinamide. Although niacin and niacinamide are identical in their physiological effects, there are slight differences in their molecular structure and consequently have differing pharmacological effects. To clarify, when a large dose of a vitamin is administered, as through supplements, it can overwhelm some body systems and acts like more like a drug, and not a vitamin.
Niacin is part of the coenzymes NAD and NADP used in energy metabolism. It is a well known cholesterol reducer and assists in preventing heart disease but can sometimes cause an itchy, tingling feeling on the surface of the skin known as a “niacin flush” if taken in high doses. The skin becomes red and very often painful due to capillary dilation for a short period of time. The version present in vitaminwater must not be confused with niacin and associated with any of these results. Naicinamide, on the other hand, has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties which explains its presence in many acne vulgaris (inflammatory) medications. Recent studies have also shown that niacinamide helps with the suppression of cancer when used in combination with intravenous vitamin C and has anti-anxiety characteristics, acting in a similar way to sedatives and muscular relaxers containing benzodiazepines.
Despite the fact that both versions of this vitamin, along with all other B vitamins, are water soluble, meaning that they do not become stored in ones body fat, they can still both lead to toxicity causing digestive tract ulcers, loss of vision and high blood sugar, among other problems, when 3 grams or more are ingested in one day. Diabetics especially must be aware of their intake of this vitamin.
Niacin stands out among the B vitamins for two reasons, one being that the body can make it from the amino acid tryptophan. For 1 milligram of niacin to be produced, 60 milligrams of dietary tryptophan are required. It is for this reason that recommended intakes are very often stated in niacin equivalents. The second reason for niacin’s notability comes from the pellagra outbreak of the early 1900s. This disease is known for its symptoms, commonly called “the four Ds” of dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and eventually death. People living in the southern states of America at that time subsisted primarily on a diet centered around corn, providing low amounts protein. They were not only receiving too little niacin and too little tryptophan, but because corn contains high amounts of the amino acid leucine, it actively interfered with the trytophan to niacin conversion necessary for adequate health. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that what little niacin was being consumed was connected to the complex carbohydrates and small peptides present in corn, making it unavailable for absorption. As a result, pellagra caused somewhere close to 87,000 deaths in the U.S. South.
In the early twentieth century, the knowledge of biological systems and the mechanism of health was just beginning to be delved into. The predominating belief among medical researchers at the time was that diseases were a result of infection. For years, experts were feverishly searching for the infectious microbe to blame until the investigations proved that it was not a question of what was present in the food, but what was absent from it. That a disease like pellagra could be caused by diet and not germs was groundbreaking. The only thing missing was niacin, abundant in protein-rich foods like nuts as well as asparagus and whole wheat. This discovery contradicted the commonly held medical opinion that diseases were only caused by infectious agents and advanced the science of nutrition dramatically.
Also included in every vitaminwater product is vitamin B12. Until only recently has the ingredients label included the specific form of this vitamin, cyanocobalamin, the most commonly supplemented form of vitamin B12. It currently only lists “B12” although the products’ B6, B5 and B3 vitamins all include specifically what version of the molecule is present. Speculation has led me to believe that since I myself have long known about the inherent meaning behind the different B12s out there, from numerous articles and health conscious friends, the producers of vitaminwater have also learned of its notoriety, hence leaving out the cyanide-reminiscent name. I have no reason to believe they have changed its form, for if they did they would absolutely include it. Wishing to keep hindered an ingredient’s service as a tell-tale sign of higher quality, surely to recruit more customers, is historically speaking, not conducive to Coca Cola values. One only has to look at their annual profits to accept their appreciation for money, an appreciation solidifying my notion of its remaining cyano- and not methylcobalamin.
This particular form of B12, the assumed present cyanocobalamin, does not actually occur in plants or animal tissues. Outside of the chemically synthesized cyanocobalamin encountered as B12 in most vitamin supplements, one will never find this compound in nature. As the name implies cyanocobalamin contains a cyanide molecule. Almost all people are familiar with cyanide as a poison and although the amount of cyanide in a normal B12 supplement is small, and from a toxicology point, viewed as insignificant, your body still needs to eliminate it. When cyanocobalamin is ingested, it does not become biologically active until converted to methylcobalamin, the version abundantly found in nature and the one more expensive to put into foods or supplements. The cyanide molecule must be released for this to happen and this causes unnecessary strain on the protective systems of the body. It should be noted that the use of “unnecessary strain” refers to the fact that this synthetic form does not, and arguably should not, have to be within us. The natural form of this vitamin is present in cobalt rich soils and is also produced in healthy human colons. That animals raised for food in this country were once given access to our once healthy soil, but in recent decades have been fed grain, a cheaper, faster fattening source of calories, explains the common deficiency of this vitamin today and begs the question of what the true reason behind our poor state of health is.
Considering what has been covered thus far, compared with cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin is better absorbed and retained in higher amounts within your tissues. Methylcobalamin is the specific form of B12 needed for nervous system health and should be the first form thought of when questions of nervous system health, depression, anemia or sleep patterns are concerned.
Listed after its primary elements of water, crystalline fructose and cane sugar, resting somewhere amide the vitamins are two words reading “natural flavor”. The exact definition of natural flavorings & flavors from Title 21, Section 101, part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations is as follows: “The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” In other words, natural flavors can essentially be anything approved for use in food. It is literally impossible to tell from a label what is in natural flavors unless the company has specified it on the label. A few vegetarian and vegan-oriented companies are doing this now, but the overwhelming majority of food manufacturers do not. They claim that their ambiguity is considered a way of preserving the product’s identity & uniqueness. It’s like a secret recipe to them and they worry that if people knew what the flavorings were, then someone would be able to duplicate their product.
Both artificial and natural flavors are made by “flavorists” in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create flavorings. Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota says “The distinction in flavorings, natural versus artificial, comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural.” What’s more interesting is that artificial flavorings are very often simpler in composition and therefore are potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized. Artificial are cheaper to produce as well. The ongoing search for “natural” sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go above and beyond what one thinks of about food, and this is expensive. “Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”
Now it is time to discuss the most important ingredient in question, sugar. Vitaminwater is first and foremost sugar water, an airtight statement due to the fact that the ingredients listed in a food, and to cover all bases, in edible foodstuffs, are labeled in order of their decreasing composition, in this particular case, numbers two and three (crystalline fructose and cane sugar) preceded only by reverse osmosis water. Crystalline fructose is a sweetener derived mainly from cornstarch, but sometimes from wheat and rice as well. It is almost entirely, at least 98%, pure fructose, the remainder is water and trace minerals. It is used as a sweetener in drinks and yogurts primarily as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar, that is, sucrose. It is about 20% sweeter than table sugar and 5% sweeter than high fructose corn syrup. Because crystalline fructose is sweeter than the sugars it replaces, less sugar has to be used to produce the desired level of sweetness. This all results in a roughly 5-percent reduction in the amount of calories put into a product. However, fructose is processed by the body differently. “The fructose component…is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form…the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them in an apple. The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.”
The history of sugar is nothing short of monumental. In 1651, in a process forcing colonial development in ways beneficial to them, the British Parliament began passed a series of acts called the Navigation Acts. One of these, known as the Molasses Act of 1733, was opposed with notable derision. It taxed sugar, molasses and rum from every other nation except those within the islands of the British West Indies to create a perfect market for their goods. Molasses is the primary ingredient in rum.
In William Dufty’s book Sugar Blues, he explains how the discovery of insulin was a medical miracle, providing the industry with a million diabetic customers in the early 1900s, customers who were literally dying for it. As the years went on millions more became dependent on the injections, derived from the pancreatic glands of animals from slaughterhouses. With its creation came also new varieties and classifications of diabetes. What was once diabetes mellitus, a “honey inflammation causing copious passage of urine was super ceded by symptomatic terminology: hypoinsulinism (underproduction of insulin)”. We had officially stopped being the culprits. No longer the causes of our fate, we had magically transformed to helpless victims. To make sugar’s notoriety even more convincing, the year after a Nobel prize was awarded to insulin’s discoverer, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama named Dr. Seale Harris, discovered the fascinating and extremely simple solution to the bizarre cases of insulin shock (an overdose of insulin) symptoms in people neither diabetic nor taking insulin. He explained how a low level of glucose in a person’s blood was a symptom of hyperinsulinism, that is, excess insulin. Prior to this time hyperinsulinism was treated as anything from coronary thrombosis to epilepsy and hysteria. Needless to say, Dr. Harris was not awarded a Nobel prize. His discovery was not a medical miracle, but a medical embarrassment. The only true cure for this horrible affliction was to simply transform one’s life and adopt better eating habits. It was a do-it-yourself proposition that benefited neither the food nor the medical industry, only the individual.
Not much has changed since Dr. Harris’s time. Today there is an absolutely gargantuan amount of knowledge about the dangers of the over consumption of sugars. One look at clinical nutritionist Dr. Nancy Appleton’s 143 reasons on “how sugar is ruining your health” in her book Lick the Sugar Habit should be enough to convince anyone. Despite all of this however everything yet we still manage to indulge in the stuff relentlessly.
**Note from Gary Taubes (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation investigator in health policy and author of “Why We Get Fat”) taken from his article on Robert Lustig’s (expert on pediatric hormone disorders and the leading expert in childhood obesity at Univ. of California, San Fransisco School of Medicine) lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” lecture.)
So long story short, the stuff mentioned in this ^ paragraph, and a lot of the article, is that there isn’t really a difference between HFCS and regular white sugar (sucrose) The main issue, is that sugar, all sugar whether it be from beet or cane is uniquely bad, and affects us in a toxic way.
Nestle, Marion. Food politics: how the food industry influences nutrition and health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.