A simple little iPhone app launched a few days ago that demystifies the ingredient lists of processed food. Called "Don't Eat That" (link to App Store), it's a database of information on more than 1,500 food additives and ingredients, broken out into red-lettered lists for those that are believed to be carcinogenic or unhealthy for children; are known allergens; and/or are likely to be derived from genetically modified organisms. The database is self-contained: you don't need to have an Internet connection to look up an ingredient.
I was intrigued enough to pay the $1.99 to download it. Like most of you guys, I eat very little processed food, figuring that "if it comes from a plant, eat it; if it is made in a plant, don't" was a good rule of thumb long before Michael Pollan blessed it in his latest book, "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual." However there are times when I have to ingest something with unrecognizable chemical compounds in it — more about one such situation later — and I would love to have information on them at my fingertips like this.
The website for Don't Eat That did not reveal who was behind the app or where the data came from, so I emailed the press contact. Interestingly, the creator is a San Francisco guy named Dwayne Ratleff who runs a small housecleaning business in San Francisco. According to Jennifer Kutz of Vantage Communications, he has no "food or nutrition educational background — he was inspired to create the app after deciding to get healthy on his 50th birthday last year and realizing he had some big changes to make. Since then he's spent upwards of 1,000 hours compiling the Don't Eat That database and working with a developer to build the app."
Fair enough. So what raw information did Ratleff plug into this massive database, which from a few days' use does look quite comprehensive and robust? Apparently he sucked in data from the Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, American Cancer Society, International Agency For Research On Cancer, World Health Organization, Center For Science In The Public Interest, and several websites such as Foodallergy.org and Celiac.com.
In the app, the information on each ingredient is presented simply, which I appreciate, but alas it isn't footnoted or sourced in any way. I'd like to know which organizations consider something a likely carcinogen, for example, not just that some do. "Dwayne simply compiled all the info and edited it for length — not editorializing at all; really leaving it up to the consumer to make the decision about whether or not a particular ingredient was good for them or not," wrote Kutz in an email to me.
Sometimes you just have to eat crap, or at least you think you do. Last week was one of those times for me. I had to go to Kaiser to take a "glucose challenge test" for gestational diabetes. (I am 7 months pregnant.) All I knew was that I would be drinking a sugar solution and an hour later my blood sugar level would be measured.
Well, I really wasn't prepared for the nasty soda-like drink I had to down. In the past few years I can count the number of sodas I have had on one hand: an occasional Mexican sugar-sweetened Coke or nostalgic Dr. Pepper. The ingredient list on this Fisherbrand Glucose Tolerance Test Beverage made me shudder, and I took a picture of it out of amazement that a toxic cocktail such as this could be prescribed in a hospital. I wondered whether my body would even be able to process it. And in fact, I felt severely nauseated during my hour of waiting, and for long afterward — I went to bed when I got home, and slept for most of the afternoon.
For fun, I just plugged in those ingredients into the Don't Eat That app. Those in red indicate various concerns. Here's what Don't Eat That told me I ingested:
Dextrose is glucose or a simple sugar usually made from corn. This substance is most likely made from genetically modified corn. In the US over 80% of the corn crop has been genetically modified. Only products labeled 100% organic contain no genetically modified substances.
Natural Flavors are derived from natural sources and are the essence of the original natural flavors. Their main function is to flavor food, not to add nutrition. The FDA does not require Natural Flavors to be listed on food labels as they are considered trade secrets. Individuals with asthma and food allergies should avoid Natural Flavors because it is difficult to identify the original ingredients.
Citric Acid is an organic acid found in all living organism and is gives [sic] many foods their sour taste. It is used as an acidity regulator which keeps acid levels in food consistent.
Sodium Benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoic acid and is used in food as a preservative. Some individuals have reported allergies. May be problematic for asthmatics.
FD&C Yellow No. 6 is a yellow azo dye (synthetic compound) derived from coal tar. It is used as a color additive in foods. This additive may cause hyperactivity and other behavior problems in some children. Some individuals are allergic to this. It is prohibited in some countries such as those of the European Union. Coal tar is a known carcinogen.
FD&C Red is synthetic red colorant. It is used as a color additive in foods. This additive may cause hyperactivity and other behavior problems in some children. It is a debated carcinogen. It is prohibited in some countries such as those of the European Union.
Lovely. Thanks, Kaiser!
The Don't Eat That app is $1.99 from the iPhone store. Another app I rely on, which provides a more holistic assessment of not only personal health risks but also the product maker's environmental and social records, is the free iPhone app GoodGuide from the awesomely great organization of the same name.