No Purveyor of Unhealthy Products Wants the Public to Know the Truth

In 2011, Denmark introduced the world’s first tax on saturated fat. “After only 15 months, however, the fat tax was abolished,” due to massive pressure from farming and food company interests. “Public health advocates are weak in tackling the issues of corporate power…A well-used approach for alcohol, tobacco, and, more recently, food-related corporate interests is to shift the focus away from health. This involves reframing a fat or soft drinks tax as an issue of consumer rights and a debate over the role of the state in ‘nannying’ or restricting people’s choices.” I discuss this in my video The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

“The ‘Nanny State’ is a term that is usually used in a pejorative way to discourage governments from introducing legislation or regulation that might undermine the power or actions of industry or individuals…Public health advocacy work is regularly undermined by the ‘Nanny State’ phrase.” But those complaining about the governmental manipulation of people’s choices hypocritically tend to be fine with corporations doing the same thing. One could argue that “public health is being undermined by the ‘Nanny Industry’…[that] uses fear of government regulation to maintain its own dominance, to maintain its profits and to do so at a significant financial and social cost to the community and to public health.”

The tobacco industry offers the classic example, touting “personal responsibility,” which has a certain philosophical appeal. As long as people understand the risks, they should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. Now, some argue that risk-taking affects others, but if you have the right to put your own life at risk, shouldn’t you have the right to aggrieve your parents, widow your spouse, and orphan your children? Then, there’s the social cost argument. People’s bad decisions can cost the society as a whole, whose tax dollars may have to care for them. “The independent, individualist motorcyclist, helmetless and free on the open road, becomes the most dependent of individuals in the spinal injury ward.”

But, for the sake of argument, let’s forget these spillover effects, the so-called externalities. If someone understands the hazards, shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want? Well, “first, it assumes individuals can access accurate and balanced information relevant to their decisions…but deliberate industry interference has often created situations where consumers have access only to incomplete and inaccurate information…For decades, tobacco companies successfully suppressed or undermined scientific evidence of smoking’s dangers and down played the public health concerns to which this information gave rise.” Don’t worry your little head, said the nanny companies. “Analyses of documents…have revealed decades of deception and manipulation by the tobacco industry, and confirmed deliberate targeting of…children.” Indeed, it has “marketed and sold [its] lethal products with zeal…and without regard for the human tragedy….”

“The tobacco industry’s deliberate strategy of challenging scientific evidence undermines smokers’ ability to understand the harms smoking poses” and, as such, undermines the whole concept that smoking is a fully informed choice. “Tobacco companies have denied smokers truthful information…yet held smokers [accountable] for incurring diseases that will cause half of them to die prematurely. In contexts such as these, government intervention is vital to protect consumers from predatory industries….”

Is the food industry any different? “The public is bombarded with information and it is hard to tell which is true, which is false and which is merely exaggerated. Foods are sold without clarity about the nutritional content or harmful effects.” Remember how the food industry spent a billion dollars making sure the easy-to-understand traffic-light labeling system on food, which you can see at 4:26 in my video, never saw the light of day and was replaced by indecipherable labeling? That’s ten times more money than the drug industry spends on lobbying in the United States. It’s in the food industry’s interest to have the public confused about nutrition.

How confused are we about nutrition? “Head Start teachers are responsible for providing nutrition education to over 1 million low-income children annually…” When 181 Head Start teachers were put to the test, only about 4 out of the 181 answered at least four of the five nutrition knowledge questions correctly. Most, for example, could not correctly answer the question, “What has the most calories: protein, carbohydrate, or fat?” Not a single teacher could answer all five nutrition questions correctly. While they valued nutrition education, 54 percent “agreed that it was hard to know which nutrition information to believe,” and the food industry wants to keep it that way. A quarter of the teachers did not consume any fruits or vegetables the previous day, though half did have french fries and soda, and a quarter consumed fried meat the day before. Not surprisingly, 55 percent of the teachers were not just overweight but obese.

When even the teachers are confused, something must be done. No purveyor of unhealthy products wants the public to know the truth. “An interesting example comes from the US ‘Fairness Doctrine’ and the tobacco advertising experience of the 1960s. Before tobacco advertising was banned from television in the US, a court ruling in 1967 required that tobacco companies funded one health ad about smoking for every four tobacco TV advertisements they placed. Rather than face this corrective advertising, the tobacco industry took their own advertising off television.” They knew they couldn’t compete with the truth. Just “the threat of corrective advertising even on a one-to-four basis was sufficient to make the tobacco companies withdraw their own advertising.” They needed to keep the public in the dark.

The trans fat story is an excellent example of this. For more on that, see my videos Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban and Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Isn’t the Fairness Doctrine example amazing? Just goes to show how powerful the truth can be. If you want to support my efforts to spread evidence-based nutrition, you can donate to our 501c3 nonprofit here. You may also want to support Balanced, an ally organization helped launch to put this evidence into practice.

More tobacco industry parallels can be found in Big Food Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook, American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco, and How Smoking in 1959 Is Like Eating in 2016.

Want to know more about that saturated fat tax idea? See Would Taxing Unhealthy Foods Improve Public Health?.

Also check:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Vitamin C for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?

What is the clinical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men? Compared to controls, lead battery industry workers given 1,000 mg of vitamin C every workday for three months experienced “a significant increase in sperm motility and sperm count, as well as decrease in abnormal sperm,” and “a significant reduction in the incidence of sperm DNA fragmentation,” that is, damaged sperm DNA. Okay, but the ideal endpoint would be bouncing baby boys and girls. Enter this extraordinary little study from the University of Texas from more than 30 years ago.

Twenty-seven men with fertile wives had been trying to have kids for years to no avail. Twenty of them were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day for two months, and 7 acted as controls and didn’t get any vitamin C. The researchers followed up at the end of the 60 days. By then, every single one of the wives of each of the 20 men who had gotten the vitamin C had became pregnant—20 out of 20! After years of frustration, boom: 100-percent pregnant. What’s more, not a single one of the wives of men in the control group got pregnant. Rarely does one see these kinds of black-and-white results in the medical literature for any intervention.

Is the vitamin C lowering the oxidative stress from the lead, or is it actually lowering the level of lead? Sure, antioxidant supplementation can have antioxidant effects, but it may fail to actually lower lead levels in the blood. Now, this was in a group of workers who were breathing lead day in and day out, and the way vitamin C may work is by simply blocking the “intestinal absorption of lead.” An earlier study showed vitamin C supplementation apparently cut lead levels by a third within six months, but that was with a whopping dose of 2 g with added zinc. Another small study found the same 30 percent drop with just 500 mg a day, no zinc, and in only one month. But neither of those studies had a control group of subjects who didn’t take anything, so we don’t know if their levels would have fallen anyway.

Similarly, there is an almost too-good-to-be-true study on the role of vitamin C in scavenging lead toxicity from “biosystems,” by which they meant children. They got 250 to 500 mg a day of vitamin C for a few months, and shaved hair samples every month saw up to a 69 percent decline in lead levels. Researchers repeated it in two other small groups of kids and saw the same amazing kind of drops in every single child. But maybe lead levels were just dropping throughout the whole community during that time? Without measuring lead levels in a control group of kids not taking vitamin C, we can’t be sure.

As I illustrate from 3:17 in my video Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?, with eight weeks of vitamin C, lead levels dropped in the blood and rose in the urine. One could conclude that the vitamin C was pulling lead out of the body, but the same thing happened in the placebo group: Blood levels dropped, and urine levels rose. So, it had nothing to do with the vitamin C at all. That’s why it’s always important to have a control group.

The same applies with studies that appeared to show no benefit. For example, 36 battery manufacturing workers were studied. Each was given vitamin C, yet there was no change in their lead levels. But, maybe their co-workers suffered a big increase in lead levels during that same time period, and the vitamin C was actually successful in keeping the subjects’ levels from rising. You don’t know without a control group.

That’s why studies like “The effects of vitamin C supplementation on blood and hair levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury” are so important. Vitamin C versus an identical-looking sugar pill placebo. The result? The vitamin C failed to help, which really put a damper on enthusiasm for using vitamin C for lead poisoning until a now-famous study was published in 1999 that showed that vitamin C supplementation could lead to a decrease in blood levels. As you can see at 4:32 in my video, after four weeks of taking a placebo, not much change occurred in blood lead levels in the control group, which is what we’d expect. In contrast, the vitamin C group started out at about the same blood lead level as the control group, but within one week of taking 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day, lead levels dropped 81 percent. So, supplementation of vitamin C “may provide an economical and convenient method of reducing blood-lead levels, possibly by reducing the intestinal absorption of lead.”

The urine lead levels didn’t change, so it’s not as if the subjects were excreting more lead in their urine to bring down their blood levels. However, most of the lead in our blood is in the red blood cells, which are recycled in the liver and discharged through the bile into the gut where the lead could just get reabsorbed—unless, perhaps, you’ve got a lot of vitamin C in there to block the re-absorption. But 1,000 mg is a lot of vitamin C. Would something like 200 mg, which is just about how much vitamin C you’d get in an orange and a cup of broccoli or strawberries, work? The researchers tested that, too. The 200 mg group started out the same as the control and the 1,000 mg group, but blood lead levels didn’t really budge. Bummer! So, 1,000 mg seemed to work, but 200 mg didn’t. Isn’t 1,000 mg of vitamin C a bit unnatural, though? The RDA is only 60 mg. Well, actually, we may have evolved for millions of years getting closer to 600 mg a day—ten times the current RDA—because we were eating so many fruits and greens. Okay, but could you reach 1,000 mg of vitamin C without having to take pills? Yes! That’s the amount of vitamin C, for example, that can be found in three yellow bell peppers.

Other videos in my series on lead include:

Note that there is nothing special about yellow bell peppers—other than their extraordinary vitamin C content, that is. I just used them as a practical way to get 1,000 mg of vitamin C in whole-food form. They’re certainly easier than eating ten oranges!

Though, remember my video Peppers and Parkinson’s: The Benefits of Smoking Without the Risks? So, one would expect to get all the benefits of the 1,000 mg of vitamin C with benefits. Why not just take vitamin C supplements? See Do Vitamin C Supplements Prevent Colds but Cause Kidney Stones?.

If hundreds of milligrams a day of vitamin C sounds like a lot, check out What Is the Optimal Vitamin C intake?.

You may be interested in my vitamin C and cancer series:

Finally, for more on male fertility, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Can Vitamin C Supplements Help with Lead Poisoning?

“Even if a nutritional manipulation is proven effective in reducing blood lead levels, reliance on such an intervention places most of the burden for prevention on those most affected and least responsible for the underlying environmental causes of lead toxicity. Nutritional interventions, therefore, must never substitute for efforts to reduce lead exposure to safe levels. On the other hand, when used as an adjunct to environmental measures, some nutritional changes may prove to have benefits beyond any impact on lead toxicity.” For example, consumption of vitamin C-rich foods may help with “blood pressure, blood lipid profiles, and respiratory symptoms,” in addition to perhaps influencing “lead toxicity through an influence on absorption of lead, elimination of lead, transport within the body, tissue binding, or secondary mechanisms of toxicity,” that is, even just helping ameliorate some of the damage. But what is this based on?

In 1939, a remarkable study was published, entitled “Vitamin C treatment in lead poisoning,” in which 17 lead industry workers were given 100 mg of vitamin C a day, the amount found in one or two oranges, and “with practically all of them there was a marked gain in vigor, color of skin, cheerfulness, blood picture, appetite and ability to sleep well.” The 17 workers were chosen because they seemed to be in pretty bad shape and possibly even had scurvy, so it’s no wonder a little vitamin C helped. But vitamin C is an antioxidant, and oxidation is “an important mechanism underlying lead toxicity,” so it’s conceivable that it may have mediated some of the harm. But, the vitamin C didn’t appear to just reduce the damage from the lead—it also reduced the lead itself. As you can see from 1:43 in my video Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?, the amount of lead in a painter’s urine over a period of a month after starting 200 mg of vitamin C a day exhibited a five-fold drop, suggesting he was absorbing less of the lead into his body. He was one of three painters researchers tried this on, and evidently all three painters’ levels dropped. The researchers concluded that those “exposed to lead…should be advised to include in their diet plenty of such rich sources of vitamin C as tomatoes (fresh or canned), raw cabbage, oranges or grapefruit, raw spinach (or even cooked, in very little water), raw turnips, green bell peppers, cantaloupe, etc.”

Now, this drop in lead in the subjects’ urine was seen with only three painters, and the study didn’t have a control group of painters who didn’t take vitamin C, so perhaps everyone’s lead levels would have dropped for some other reason or perhaps it was just a coincidence. You don’t know…until you put it to the test.

Those original data were so compelling that others were inspired to try to replicate them. I mean, if it actually worked, if vitamin C could help with lead poisoning, grapefruits could be handed out at the factory door! The earlier study didn’t have a good control group, but the researchers weren’t going to make that same mistake this time. In this study, half of the group got 100 mg of vitamin C a day—not just for a month but for a year—and the other group got nothing. The result? “Careful study of a large group of lead workers failed to reveal any effect of ascorbic acid vitamin C…on the lead concentration in the blood…or urine” (emphasis added). There was no difference in their physical condition and no changes in their blood work, so “no reason has been found for recommending the use of ascorbic acid vitamin C to minimize effects of lead absorption.” What a disappointment. It looked so promising!

Whenever I study a topic, I try to read the research chronologically so I can experience the discoveries as they happened throughout history. At this point, though, I was so tempted to jump to a recent review to see what had happened in the intervening 74 years since that first study was published, but I didn’t want to spoiler alert! myself, so I kept reading the papers sequentially. There were in vitro studies where researchers dripped antioxidants on lead exposed cells and it seemed to help, so they jumped on the cantaloupe bandwagon, too, but these were test tube studies.

The first population study was published in 1999, and, as you can see at 4:02 in my video, researchers did find that those with high vitamin C levels in their blood tended to have lower lead levels. Youths with the highest vitamin C levels had a nearly 90 percent lower prevalence of elevated blood lead levels compared to those with the lowest vitamin C levels. Now, this was a cross-sectional study, just a snapshot in time, so we don’t know if the vitamin C caused a drop in lead or if perhaps the lead caused a drop in vitamin C. Lead is a pro-oxidant, so maybe it ate up the vitamin C. And who has higher vitamin C levels? Those who can afford to have higher vitamin C levels and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. “It is also possible that higher ascorbic acid levels may represent healthier lifestyles or greater socio-economic status.” Indeed, maybe lower vitamin C levels are just a proxy for being poor, and that’s the real reason for higher lead levels.

There are lots of good reasons to be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we should be eating more spinach regardless, but it would be nice to know if vitamin C actually helps with lead poisoning. And, to know that, we need to put it to the test.

Unfortunately, most of the published interventions are not very helpful, with such titles as “Effects of dietary vitamin C supplementation on lead-treated sea cucumbers,….”  And, there is a surprising number of articles on the effects of vitamin C supplementation on mouse testicles. Why? Because lead may impair male fertility. Indeed, lead workers appear to have a reduced likelihood of fathering children, but this may in part be due to oxidative stress. In that case, how about giving an antioxidant, like vitamin C, and putting it to the test(es)? No, I’m not talking about rat testes or suggesting frog testes. Neither am I proposing crab testes. (I didn’t even know crabs had testicles!) Finally, here’s one to discuss: “Clinical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men.” A study of human men, which I will cover in Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?.

I’m always conflicted about writing these kinds of blogs and producing videos like Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?. I can imagine some just want “the answer,” but those with vested and commercial interests often exploit that natural impulse. This is problem with science in general, but perhaps particularly in nutrition. When it comes to something as life-or-death important as what to feed ourselves and our families we shouldn’t just follow someone’s opinions or beliefs on the matter. We should demand to see the science. That’s what I try to do: Present the available data as fairly and even-handedly as possible, and let you make up your own mind. You can imagine how easily someone could cherry-pick just one or two studies and present a distorted but compelling case for or against, in this case, vitamin C supplements. That’s why I feel it’s important to present each study in their historical context. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility & Lead Poisoning?.

 For those of you who are thinking, Why should I care about lead? I don’t eat paint chips or use leaded gasoline. Anyway, what’s the big deal?, check out my full series of lead videos for information on how we got into this mess and some of the ways we can dig ourselves out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: