Food companies fear Jonny Bowden.

He is to many of their "Frankenfood" products what Batman is to the Joker. In other words, he metes out justice, not so much my whomping holy Bat-hell out of them, but by exposing their products for what they are, which in many cases is high-tech slop.

But like any valiant crusader, he needs his forum. Welcome to Dirty Nutrition.

This is where Jonny Bowden will expose labeling shenanigans, bad foods masquerading as good foods; diet protocols that make as much sense as burlap underwear; and supplements that do little except supplement their manufacturer's bank accounts.

Deceptive food manufacturers, shady supplement companies, government dieticians: You have been warned.

NO2 and Voodoo

Q: What do you think of those popular NO2 type supplements for muscle building?

A: What do I think of them? Let's see... can we spell B U L L S H I T?

NO stands for Nitric Oxide, a very important molecule that signals the body to do all sorts of important things, one of which is dilate the blood vessels.

Most of these supplements are built around the amino acid L-arginine, which does tend to increase nitric oxide. That's one reason many nutritionally minded MDs will recommend L-arginine for both the heart and for erectile problems (the connection is that both are affected by circulation).

The thinking behind these NO2 supplements is that by increasing nitric oxide you'll improve circulation (probably true), which can help nutrients get to their destination in the body (probably true also).

But the idea that doing so is going to translate to bigger muscles is voodoo science.

Sorry. Save your money.

Curcumin for Fat Loss?

Q: Curcumin looks like some very cool stuff due to it being anti-inflammatory, having pain relief benefits, and anti-oxidant properties. But what's this I hear about it possibly helping with fat loss? Any info on that?

A: Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric — the very same spice which makes Indian food yellow — is indeed terrific stuff, which is why I touted turmeric as a superfood in my book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Not only is it highly anti-inflammatory, but it might also be good for fat loss.

The info on curcumin and body fat comes from a study in the Journal of Nutrition that investigated the effect of adding curcumin to the diet of a specific strain of mice. The researchers were looking at the possible effect of curcumin on angiogenesis, which is the technical name for growing new blood vessels.

The researchers found that the curcumin did actually interfere with angiogenesis in the fat cells leading them to conclude that it might contribute to lower body fat and less gain in body weight. "Our findings suggest that curcumin may have a potential benefit in preventing obesity," they wrote.

What does that mean in real life? Hard to say.

This study does suggest that curcumin might — repeat, might — slow down the creation of new fat on the body, but how much — and under what circumstances — it would do that in humans no one knows.

There are an awful lot of good reasons to use turmeric/curcumin even without fat loss on its resume. If, on top of all the other good things, it also helps reduce the accumulation of body fat, then that's terrific. If not, it's still worth using.

Here's the Beef!

Grass-fed meat

Q: I was in the organic store the other day and they were trumpeting how ground beef in the grocery store usually has the DNA of 1,000 different cows in it, while farm-raised organic stuff is often from one cow. Should I care?

A: You should care very much, but probably for slightly different reasons.

Ground beef in the grocery store inevitably comes from what we call "feedlot farms." These places are basically factories, and they bear as much resemblance to the old country farms of our childhood as a cheap Casio keyboard does to a handmade Steinway grand piano.

Cows on these "farms" are production machines for meat and milk. They're fed grain, which isn't their natural diet, and which causes great acidity in their systems. This produces "meat product" that's very high in inflammatory omega-6's and woefully lacking in omega-3's.

They're kept in confined pens and fed antibiotics to prevent the sickness that inevitably arises from the close quarters. They're fed steroids and "bovine growth hormone" to help fatten them up. Then they're "processed." Whether the end product — the meat that winds up on your plate — has the DNA of 1,000 cows in it or not, it's not something you should be eating.

Grass-fed meat is a whole different ballgame. Cows were meant to graze on pasture —their natural diet is grass, and when they roam on pasture and graze on grass their meat is higher in omega-3's and CLA (conjugated linolenic acid), an important fat that has anti-cancer activity and may also help reduce abdominal fat. Since the cattle aren't in confined quarters and they're not eating primarily grains, they don't get sick as much and aren't fed massive quantities of antibiotics.

Now, "organic" meat is somewhere in between the two extremes. It usually means the cows were fed organic grain, which is only a minor improvement since cows shouldn't be eating a diet of grain in the first place.

While the perception is that organically raised meat is better than non-organic meat, it's still not nearly as good as grass-fed (pasture raised). Sometimes grass-fed meat is also organic, but some very conscientious farmers who raise real, healthy, pasture-grazing cows don't meet some obscure government standard for organic so they're not able to say their meat is "organic."

I wouldn't worry about it. Given a choice, I'd go with grass-fed over organic every time, though in the best of all worlds, you'd get both.

For what it's worth, every study you've ever seen that talks about the bad health consequences of meat eating is looking at people who eat highly processed meat from factory farms. It would be very interesting to see if there are the same negative consequences to eating a diet of grass-fed (organic) beef with plenty of vegetables to balance it out.

No study like that has ever been done, but my hunch is that if people ate that way, the so-called "negative" health effects ascribed to eating meat would disappear.

Ban Trans-fats? Not So Fast...

Q: As a nutrition expert, are you excited about the trend in banning trans-fats?

A: That issue may be more complex than you think.

Late in 2006, Michael Bloomberg, the enormously popular mayor of New York City, announced that New York City would become the first city in the nation to ban trans-fats from the menu offerings of the city's 24,000 restaurants. "If we can do without trans-fats, you'll save a couple of hundred lives a year in New York City," said the mayor.

Other cities, notably Philadelphia and Seattle, followed suit. And then in 2008, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that officially banned restaurants and other food establishments from using any margarine, oil, or shortening that contained trans-fats, making California the first state to adopt such a law covering restaurants. California, along with Oregon, already had laws banning trans-fats in meals served in schools.

Health experts were jumping for joy. Should they be? I'm not so sure.

It's not that I'm a fan of trans-fats. No one has railed more loudly against these manmade spawn of Satan, which have absolutely no place in the human diet.

Don't believe for a second those reactionary apologists at the American Dietetic Association who hedge their bets with their usual vanilla claptrap about "lowering your intake" and consistently link saturated fat and trans-fats as if they're virtually the same thing. They're not. In fact, as far back as 2002, the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine issued a report that concluded that "the only safe intake of trans-fats is zero."

So why am I not overjoyed about a trans-fat ban?

Because it's a slippery slope. And understanding the pitfalls of such a ban — and the possible repercussions — can help us to think more deeply about the role of government in our diet.

Trans-fats are an easy target for government intervention. There's basically no disagreement about what they do and how bad they are for you. They make the arteries more rigid, cause major clogging of arteries, cause insulin resistance, cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes, and cause or contribute to other serious health problems. Top nutritionists at Harvard have concluded that trans-fat could be responsible for an many as 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year.

But here's the thing: Once the government starts deciding what you should and shouldn't eat, you open up a really ugly can of worms. What about all the "experts" who think saturated fat should be kept as low as humanely possible? There's very far from perfect agreement on that one, and if the "experts" get to dictate policy, the next thing you know I'll be forced to order that idiotic egg white omelet, or pay a "sin tax" on full-fat yogurt.

And that's where things get dicey.

Who's going to decide what's okay to eat and what's not? The American Dietetic Assocation? The American Heart Association? The Corn Refiners Association? Are we going to ban high-glycemic foods (which leaves fructose untouched since it has a low-glycemic index)? And what's next, vitamins?

And — not to get all political on you— but those who say all this regulation intrudes on the individual's right to eat any crap he wants to, unfortunately, have a point. I may think your eating (or smoking, or drinking) habits are pretty stupid and destructive, but as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, do I really have the right to tell you not to do it?

It's a thorny issue, and the answer may reside in a fascinating book written not by nutritionists, but by a professor of economics and a professor of law.

The book is called Nudge and it's all about how organizations and government can help "nudge" people in a positive direction without taking away any of their freedoms — including the freedom to smoke or eat crappy trans-fats.

Consider, for example, these interesting factoids, all supported by copious research:

  • People tend to choose the foods they see first on line at a cafeteria.
  • People tend to go with the "default" options on forms and licenses.
  • People tend not to contribute to 401Ks when they have to "opt-in" but will contribute to them when they have to "opt-out."

So what authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler propose is a system of "nudges." Put the fruits and vegetables first on the cafeteria line. Leave the crap there, but take advantage of the tendency to choose the first thing you see.

Make people opt-out of the organ-donor box on their drivers license, rather than having to opt-in. Make contribution to 401Ks automatic unless the employee chooses to check the "do not contribute" box.

You stack the deck for better decisions, but leave everyone's freedom intact.

Here's my solution to the trans-fat ban problem and the other much more thorny issues of food regulation and "sin taxes" on fast food that are sure to follow: Make every single restaurant post the nutritional data on everything they serve. And not buried behind the counter in some place that no one can find, but prominently on the menu.

Post the sugar content, the trans-fat content, even the stupid cholesterol content (which matters not a whit). Put it all out there for everyone to see.

Then educate people like crazy. Let them know what that 1,548 calorie super-burger is doing to their waistline; let them know what 3 grams of trans-fat per serving is doing to their heart; let them know what 27 grams of sugar per serving is doing to their chances of living past 60.

Then let them know that the cholesterol they "eat" doesn't hurt them a bit. Let them know that the trans-fats they eat will kill them.

If we do our job as educators, more people will think twice about eating crap, but their freedom to do so will remain intact.

That just might be the best compromise we can hope for.