What’s P-Cresol and why is it in my food? “Don’t Eat That” iPhone app will tell you

donteatthat_demoA 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.

gtt_ingredientsWell, 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.

16 Responsesto “What’s P-Cresol and why is it in my food? “Don’t Eat That” iPhone app will tell you”

  1. "genetically modified"

    I trust these people realize of course that without being "genetically modified", corn wouldn't exist at all?  Nor would most modern fruits and vegetables?

    Plants have been subject to more genetic experimentation through cross-breeding and clippings than anything else on earth, and has resulted in plants that can grow in more places and feed more people than any other time in history. 

    You want to talk about additives and HFCS, we can talk, but this knee-jerk believe that "genetically engineered = evil" is just infuriating.

    Based on the broad descritions of this app as provided, it seems almost useless.  Inserting so many caveats that this or that MIGHT affect you renders the advice exceedingly unhelpful.  I'm amazed it doesn't include ads for organic food stores, since it seems that's action line, to send you running screaming for one. 

    Here's the deal - unless you have a serious allergy or specific sensitivity to a particular food (and they're not nearly as common as the news would have you believe) , very few things you can buy to eat will kill you, _if eaten in moderation_.  High Fructose Corn Syrup itself won't send you to the hospital, but two gallons of HFCS-laden soda a day sure can.  For all the danger people claim that coconut oil-cooked popcorn will do, the amount of it a single person eats will affect them less than the amount of chemicals they absorb through their fingers from the pulp in the daily paper.

    Calm. The hell. Down.

  2. Actually Vinnie, I feel quite calm, thanks. On this blog we do make quite a distinction between "genetically modified" as it pertains to plants that have been transgenically modified with genes from other species, as with Bt corn and soy, and those that have been conventionally crossbred with plants from similar species. The widespread use of transgenic plants in processed food have been implicated in the rise of severe food allergies, among any other things. Also, of course none of this stuff will kill you right away. But as we are finding with endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A and other things, they can have many serious side effects that accumulate over time.

    Here's the deal. You're welcome to eat whatever you like. But if you think someone's looking out for you as far as what's been put in that soda you're drinking in moderation, well, you're living in denial. So save your knee-jerk affirmations to "chill out, everything's fine" for subjects on which you actually know what you're talking about.

  3. Expat Chef says:

    Amen. Transgenic foods have only been around a short period of time, what would be referred to as GM. Somehow we managed pretty well all those tens of thousands of years. Look how freaking many of us are around now.

    Always loved the CSPI database. Really interesting read.

    Cool, app. Thanks! CONGRATS ARE IN ORDER! And I have to emphasize with you on the glucola. I barely kept down the solution first time, failed by a small margin and got the double-dose test which caused me to throw up and black out. Fantastic. As an old mom, I got put on a special diet. Really a great diet. But you can get a hold of me another time on that.

  4. Cassie says:

    This is just an additional FYI for pregnant women considering the oral glucose tolerance test in the future.  In addition to the questionableness of  the ingredients of the glucose beverage, the evidence supporting both the diagnosis, i.e. the oral glucose tolerance test, and treatment of gestational diabetes is actually very weak.

    In chapter 11 of A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth, an evidence-based guide to maternity care, they conclude that: "The available data provide no evidence to support the wide recommendation that all pregnant women should be screened for 'gestational diabetes', let alone that they should be treated with insulin.  Until the risk of minor elevations of glucose during pregnancy have been established in appropriately conducted trials, therapy based on this diagnosis must be critically reviewed.  The use of injectable therapy on the basis of the available data is highly contentious and in many other fields of medical practice, such aggressive therapy without proven benefit would be considered unethical."

    I highly recommend the work of Henci Goer on this issue (and most maternity care issues for that matter.  Here's two links specifically about GD:
    Gestational Diabetes: The Emperor Has No Clothes
    Gestational diabetes a practical approach

  5. Egads, Vinnie. Don't be a Monsanto apologist. Genetically Modified (GMO) does not refer to selective breeding. Corn was not produced with GMO tech. GMO refers to the lab techniques which lack the time testing of selective breeding and can transfer genes across distance species. Then there is the little detail that Monstersanto is patenting life, something they should have no right to do. I do selective breeding with plants and animals - It is not the same as Monsanto's evil GMO work. You are, of course, welcome to eat GMOed foods and suffer the consequences of being a guinea pig.

    As to the application, I wish it had more screen shots and info on the App store. I was not impressed with what I saw. I want a lot more details about the things I'm looking up.

  6. brite says:

    Thanks- great info and interesting dialog in the comments. I second the info from Henci Goer, although I prefer other authors when it comes to convincing people that less intervention is more. She isn't as winsome in her writing. I refused the glucose tests and my midwife and I watched for other signs of diabetes, which never turned out to be an issue for me.

  7. Michael says:

    I think that the entry for 'natural flavors' is deceptive. When it indicates: "essence of the original natural flavors." it should actually read "essence of original natural flavors." since those essences may have been re-combined by flavor scientists to create the 'taste-alike' flavor. For instance, a pancake syrup can be made with "natural flavors," and none of those "flavors" are produced from actual "maple syrup" - if they were it would have been labeled 'natural maple flavor.' I seem to recall reading that a number or 'natural flavors' are made from compounds extracted from corn, a "natural" food.

  8. Lynda says:

    Also Vinnie...Even if you aren't concerened about GMO food harming your health...There is that big problem of patenting life forms (as Walter mentions above)...Monsanto and other Corps. would love to OWN everything if they could...You want to live in a world like that?...I sure don't...They've already sued farmers, and could care less if you or I croaked tomorrow on some GMO cr*p they concocted as long as they make a buck...GMO contaminates other crops that aren't GMO...people's choices about that are getting taken away more and more every day...So much for 'liberty'...

  9. Expat Chef says:

    Well said, Michael. This is the same nuance of language that makes food labels and marketing claims on them so deceptive to the average consumer.

  10. Sophie says:

    Interesting App. Does anyone know if there is such an application for the old fashioned PC? I may have to break down and get an iPhone yet.

    By the way, belief that hunger is due to food scarcity is a knee-jerk unsubstantiated opinion. The world food supply is abundant. Hunger is due to poverty, politics, and policy, not production.

  11. I have this app and love it. It helps identify problematic foods pertaining to our allergies since industry labeling is so pitiful. But I especially love the "genetically modified" category. It is also very educational for the kids who have used it to examine their toothpaste, shampoo and the like.

  12. "The widespread use of transgenic plants in processed food have been implicated in the rise of severe food allergies, among any other things. Also, of course none of this stuff will kill you right away. But as we are finding with endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A and other things, they can have many serious side effects that accumulate over time."

    And what would those side-effects be and the evidence that backs that up? Sorry to be a local pedant again but I don't seem to recall any peer-reviewed studies that implicate GE crops in a rise of severe food allergies, either. I'd be happy to discuss it on Biofortified, if the evidence exists.

    What is good about this application is that it may help people to understand more about the ingredients in their food - particularly those who may be more sensitive to ingredients that the rest of us are not. However what it does not do is help educate people about how to synthesize all this information together - how are you to weigh the various pieces of information given by the application? What does it leave out of the equation?

    Moreover, it seems to include as a given, that GE foods should be avoided, and draws an undue amount of emphasis on that topic. When given the choice between a genetically engineered crop sprayed with no pesticides, and a conventional crop sprayed with pesticides, people on the average choose the genetically engineered crop. (This has been backed up by several studies) Where is the information about pesticides used on those crops, when GE or not? How about a list of pesticides sprayed on organic crops, too? (Copper sulfate and neem oil, anyone?) By only mentioning that one aspect, the app is introducing a bias into the information presented.
    It is good that Bonnie points out the fact that it was not designed by anyone with a background in food or nutrition. So in the absence of expertise, I wonder what their justification is for including certain things and excluding others?

  13. Cindy says:

    I hope the app tells you if the food is grown by a large agro corporation that uses harmful pesticides. That's why I prefer to eat from my organic garden as much as possible and I only use an organic insect control sprays like <a href="http://www.saferbrand.com/store/garden-care/5102">End All</a>.

  14. idlehouse says:

    hi, about that glucose test, i asked my dr  for alternative last year and didn't have to drink that crap.  i ended up with 1 jelly sandwich (white bread ) and 8 oz of juice - my own supply.  please let others know there is such option

  15. Claudia says:

    hi also in regards to the glucose test I was fortunate to have 2 wonderful midwives through both my pregnancies who told me organic white grape juice is the same. Important that other readers are aware of alternatives. thanks

  16. annmarie breda says:

    does anyone have a home made natural syrup for GTT and OGTT tests in pregnant women?