By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Did you see the recent news story about glyphosate (an herbicide) in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? I did, and I couldn’t believe it.
Ben & Jerry’s has always been well known for offering premium ingredients, and in 2014 they announced that they were shifting away from using GMO ingredients – this was great news to me! Since some of their ice creams are even organic, I’ve always thought of Ben and Jerry’s as one of the healthier ice creams out there. So when I read that glyphosate—which happens to be the main ingredient in Roundup and many other weed killers—was found in 10 of the 11 flavors tested, I actually became a little sad after the shock wore off.
The article did go on to say that the chemical levels were well below EPA limits and that the company was investigating where the contamination may have come from. Since Ben & Jerry’s admitted that they get milk from dairy farms that use GMO-feed, which is engineered to withstand heavy herbicide application, I strongly suspect that the feed is the culprit. At the end of the day, this Ben & Jerry’s expose highlighted an important lesson for me: Even “safe” brands can be vulnerable to the hazards of industrial farming.
We Know It’s Not the Healthiest Food, But…
The article also got me thinking more generally about just how healthy—or not—ice cream truly is.
First the good news. Small servings of organic ice cream are healthier than other frozen treats, like sherbet, because of the amount of fat they contain. This helps slow down (a little bit, at least) the body’s blood sugar and insulin response when you eat it.
On the other hand, ice cream is still extremely high in sugar—and when you add toppings like chocolate syrup, you’re just doubling down on the big insulin and inflammatory response you may get from eating it. This is why, as a general rule, I try to stay away from ice cream and usually opt for fresh fruit.
But the really bad news is not that most commercial ice cream brands may contain glyphosate (though clearly it’s on the short list of things to watch out for). It’s the fact that they use huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or corn sugar as it’s sometimes called, as a sweetener.
The Dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup are Real
I could write an entire separate article on why HFCS is on my list of toxins to avoid. Here, I’ll just say that I consider it one of the most dangerous things in our food supply—and the fact that it’s in so many products marketed to kids, like ice cream, really galls me.
One of the reasons why is the long-term health problems that eating too much of this sweetener can lead to. Here are four that I find most worrisome:
Unbalanced Blood Lipids
HFCS is often called out for its tendency to raise LDL cholesterol levels, but frankly I’m most concerned that it will also raise your triglycerides. The higher your triglyceride levels are relative to your HDL cholesterol—which HFCS is most definitely not going to raise—the higher your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
As far as LDL cholesterol goes, I’m not too worried. That’s not because high fructose corn syrup is “okay” in this instance, but because I just don’t think LDL cholesterol is as risky as it’s made out to be. The only exceptions to that would be if your LDL is already unusually high (greater than 250 mg/dL) or your LDL particles are predominantly the small, inflammatory kind. In those cases, HFCS is a double-whammy.
Greater Likelihood of Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
Because of its engineered chemical structure, HFCS is more rapidly absorbed by the body than cane sugar, which causes insulin to spike higher and faster. When the body is repeatedly put through this cycle, some undesirable things start to happen. Our cells become less responsive to insulin; the excess glucose that can’t get into the cells gets stored as fat, which makes us gain weight; and our risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes skyrockets. In fact, drinking 1–2 servings per day of a sugar-sweetened beverage—the type of drink where you usually find HFCS—increases risk of diabetes by 26 percent.
Increased Risk for Cardiovascular Diseases
With the changes it causes to your blood lipids and metabolism, HFCS sets the table for widespread inflammation in the body. And that leads to only one thing—heart disease.
Inflammation causes atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. As the arteries narrow and stiffen, blood pressure rises and the heart has to work harder and harder to pump oxygen and nutrients through the body. Most importantly, your risk for a blood clot or plaque rupture goes way up, which means your heart attack and stroke risk go way up, too.
Increased Risk for Autoimmune Diseases and Disorders
Finally, high fructose corn syrup may also be linked to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions like arthritis and “leaky gut.” The connection here comes from how the fructose in HFCS is digested and absorbed. It’s been suggested that this process requires more energy than normal, which compromises the gut’s ability to maintain a “gap-free” intestinal wall. As a result, particles can escape and set off immune and inflammatory responses throughout the body.
The Healthiest Alternative to Store-Bought Ice Cream – Make Your Own!
So what’s an ice cream lover to do?!?
Fortunately, you won’t have to give it up altogether. But you will need to be smarter about the kind of ice cream you eat. (Eating smaller portions would be a good step, too.)
The most obvious solution is to make your own homemade ice cream. Making ice cream is easier than you think, and you can precisely control which ingredients it’s made with. (You can even find vegan recipes, if that’s what you prefer.) You will need to invest in an ice cream maker, but the extra cost and effort is worth it for the peace mind. Models are available in a pretty wide price range; if you have one that you swear by, please let everyone know in the comments. I’d love to hear some recommendations!
As for ingredients, always choose organic and read labels closely. Obviously the goal is to avoid HFCS, but you’ll also want to make sure the dairy and eggs going into your dessert are non-GMO and free of added hormones.
Finally, remember that white sugar isn’t much better than corn sugar, and that it has a lot of the same health effects. Besides cutting the amount of sugar you put in, you may want to instead try sweetening your ice cream with a natural sweetener like maple syrup or raw honey.
Now for the most important element of all, flavor. That’s entirely up to you, so follow your taste buds. A quick online search will surely turn up something for everyone.
Finally—and I wouldn’t be a doctor if I didn’t say this—always eat ice cream with moderation. I’m all for indulging in things that give us joy, ice cream included. But don’t get carried away, because you’ll pay the price with your health further down the road.
References and Resources:
- DeChristopher LR, Uribarri J and Tucker KL. Intake of high-fructose corn syrup sweetened soft drinks, fruit drinks and apple juice is associated with prevalent arthritis in US adults, aged 20-30 years. Nutr Diabetes. 2016 Mar 7;6:e199.
- DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH and Lucan SC. Added fructose: a principal driver of type 2 diabetes mellitus and its consequences. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015 Mar;90(3):372–81.
- Goran MI, Ulijaszek SJ and Ventura EE. High fructose corn syrup and diabetes prevalence: a global perspective. Glob Public Health. 2013;8(1):55–64.
- Hyman M. 5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You. Accessed September 15, 2017.
- Malik VS, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2010 Nov;33(11):2477–83.
- Stanhope KL. Consumption of fructose and high fructose corn syrup increase postprandial triglycerides, LDL-cholesterol, and apolipoprotein-B in young men and women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Oct; 96(10):E1596–E1605.
- Stanhope KL, et al. A dose-response study of consuming high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages on lipid/lipoprotein risk factors for cardiovascular disease in young adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;101(6):1144–54.
- Strom S. Traces of controversial herbicide are found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. New York Times. 25 Jul 2017. Accessed September 14, 2017.
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