08/24/15

Lessons Learned from the Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil Scandal

fclo-300x300The news spread like wildfire over the weekend. Dr. Kaayla Daniel of the Weston A. Price Foundation published a scathing report about one of the natural food world’s most beloved products: Fermented Cod Liver Oil from Green Pasture.

As the story goes, fermented fish livers were the secret wonder food of Scandinavian Vikings and Roman Soldiers alike – at least according to Green Pasture’s marketing materials. It’s what gave them strong bones, a low instance of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. And now thanks to a proprietary process, Green Pasture claimed the ability to do something that no home fermenter has been able to do: to replicate and even improve upon the traditional process of fermenting cod livers in a way that doesn’t denature the fragile Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and even increases levels of the the important nutrients: vitamins A and D. At over $40 per bottle retail, this wonder food is recommended to nearly everyone, including pregnant women and children.

Well Dr. Kaayla’s report casts all of this into doubt. Lab tests that she contracted out to numerous reputable labs seem to indicate the following:

  1. The oil tests as being highly rancid. I discussed the topic of rancidity in this 2012 blog post, in which I mention that rancid foods not only lose their nutritional value, but also produce potentially toxic compounds that have been linked to advanced aging, neurological disorders, heart disease and cancer. So this alone is a very serious accusation.
  2. Total Vitamin D levels are strikingly low – even lower than what would be expected from a natural cod liver oil. This is very disappointing, since FCLO is often touted as the best dietary source of vitamin D.
  3. Quinone levels (e.g. vitamin K2) are low – as above, it measure even lower than from commercial non-fermented cod liver oils that were tested.
  4. The oil may not even be from cod. Several clues seem to indicate that the product is more likely made from the livers of cheaper, possibly farmed fish – or maybe Alaskan pollock or dogfish (in the shark family). Daniel seems convinced the tests indicate the product is not from true cod (I suppose it could be a matter of debate whether you call Alaskan pollock “cod.”)
  5. The product appears to contain trans-fats. Tests indicate the presence of, “a heat-damaged vegetable oil containing trans fats.
  6. There is much secrecy in Green Pasture’s production process. Apparently many fermentation professionals have asked Green Pasture’s founder, Dave Wetzel, how they are able to properly ferment a low carbohydrate product like cod liver and what starter they use, but the responses have been vague at best and sometimes even insulting. Interestingly, no patent application has ever been filed around their process. Daniel also claims that Wetzel has been similarly elusive about the source of his livers, “sometimes whispering that his source is a mysterious un- named Russian and other times declaring he obtains all his livers from unnamed suppliers supposedly accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council.
  7. Other labs haven’t been able to replicate the nutrient and safety test results generated by the small lab that Green Pasture uses. UBE Analytical Laboratories apparently uses a proprietary testing method called HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography), the details of which the lab manager refuses to disclose. The other more reputable labs that Dr. Daniel claims to have contracted with have not been able to replicate most of the results from UBE, though the names of those labs haven’t been disclosed.

I strongly recommend reading the entire report, as Dr. Daniel’s report is extremely thorough with a ton of endnotes after each section. I also am anxiously awaiting the response from Green Pasture, which will hopefully come out very soon (UPDATE: the initial response is available here). So while I think it’s unfair to jump to too many conclusions before hearing both sides out, I do think that a few lessons can already be gleaned from this episode. They are:

  1. Get to know your food producers and demand transparency. Call them. Visit them. Ask tough questions. The thicker the “wall” between you and your producer, the greater the chances of being fooled or misled. I believe humans have good intuition for honesty and integrity when they can look each other in the eye and have direct conversations and observe each other at work. Many of us in the natural foods community do this routinely when we buy, say, a steak at the farmer’s market. But for a product like Green Pasture’s Fermented Cod Liver Oil, it’s easy to be lazy and just go with the recommendation of someone we trust, like a representative of the Weston A. Price Foundation, since it’s not a product we can source from anywhere else. And I also don’t mean to imply that all of us can realistically get to know the producers of every product we consume. But just being cognizant to the risks of foods from people you don’t know is a good start and could hopefully prevent us from jumping too heavily into whatever the next nutritional bandwagon may be.
  2. Be suspicious of secrecy. Food production methods should never be proprietary. Especially when your life could be at stake. If a food production method is new, that’s also a red flag because it takes a long time for the effects on the human body to become apparent. The same holds true for drugs, btw, but unfortunately proprietary methods are the name of the game in that industry. Luckily in the food world, transparency is valued and offered by so many producers that we never have to be forced to just take what we can get. 
  3. Listen to your body. And trust your senses. If a food makes you want to throw up, as this product does for my husband and many others, then maybe it’s not a good idea to force it down. There’s a lot of conditioning in our society that leads us to believe, “No pain, no gain,” but I believe that when it comes to food, this is not good advice. One adage I think *is* worth heeding is, “trust but verify.” If you’re taking this product to treat vitamin D deficiency, then be sure to have your D levels re-tested after consuming the product. I believe our bodies are all different and the impact of a supplement on one person might be drastically different than on another person.
  4. Everything in moderation. I’ve come to accept that there is no wonder food. Every food I’ve ever held up on a pedestal eventually came crashing down. Fish often contains heavy metals. Extra virgin olive oil is often adulterated. Milk is often produced from cows injected full of hormones. Same with yogurt, which is often made with carcinogenic powdered milk.  Flax seeds are likely often rancid, especially in this country where we don’t refrigerate them in stores.  I think that the human body is incredibly adaptable and can figure out how to get what it needs if you expose it to a wide variety of foods, include a bit of the bad ones. If a food sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. But after the sting of this story wears off, I want to walk away having at least learned something.

06/11/15

Why Low Food Prices Hurt the Economy and the Poor

dollar menuFood in America is ridiculously cheap. According to this 2014 article in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, entitled Obesity and Economic Environments, “Americans are spending a smaller share of their income (or corresponding amount of effort) on food than any other society in history or anywhere else in the world, yet get more for it.

American politicians would argue that low food prices help the poor and the economy; the poor now rarely go hungry and the economy is boosted through higher sales and exports. At least that’s the theory, but it is an extremely short-sighted one. Continue reading

02/20/15

Media Bias and Censorship of Vaccine Reporting

censorshipShortly before my 3 year old son was born, I began researching vaccines. I quickly realized I had opened a Pandora’s box. There was a lot of controversy surrounding vaccines. Confused and wanting to get my thoughts organized, I blogged about what I learned in this post, which is now one of the most popular on my blog.

Since then, the debate has only intensified – especially in the wake of the California measles outbreak, which has triggered a slew of stories on the subject. Articles and editorials in outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, BBC News, Time MagazineThe Economist and many others vilify the unvaccinated and pro-choicers, portraying them as being ignorant and irresponsible. A few even suggest that the unvaccinated be sued and that doctors who support vaccine choice have their licenses revoked. But why haven’t I seen any stories that mention any of the concerns I raised in my post about the Vaccine Controversy, I wondered?  I decided to look into it and now I’m now horrified by what I have discovered. Continue reading

01/5/15

Why is water coming out of my meat? How can I brown wet meat?

IMG_0199-2Have you ever tried to brown patties, stew meat or a roast in a pan, only to find that it releases so much water that it ends up being braised or boiled instead? This happened to me recently after trying to brown some stew cuts, as you can see in the photo. I’ll explain why this happens and how to overcome it.

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12/16/14

My Favorite Cookbooks

Cookbooks are for me like women’s shoes: they’re very tempting, but it’s hard to know how much you’ll actually use them until you buy them. Five years later, you’ll look back and see that a quarter were practically never used, another quarter were used, but if they got lost, you wouldn’t even notice, a third were probably worth the price you paid and the remaining 15% are AMAZING and should probably be replaced, given how dirty and run-down they’ve become.  Here’s my top 15%. Continue reading

10/4/14

My Visit to a Working Amish Dairy & Cattle Farm

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the columns of grey smoke I saw in the distance, beyond acres of corn and soy fields, was the first clue we had arrived in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. The next clue was a man riding an adult-sized scooter on the side of the quiet country road. He was dressed in the tell-tale suspendered pants over a loose-fitting shirt that I’ve seen before. Then we finally spotted our first horse-drawn buggy, holding up a line of cars. Continue reading

07/29/14

The Best Nonstick Pan Ever

I’m a serious cook and I expect my kitchen equipment to work well and hold up. Unfortunately I’ve struggled for many years with frying pans and skillets. They either stick too much, are hard to clean and maintain, or they are coated with materials like Teflon, which quickly wear down and eventually lose their non-stick properties. Plus, these coated pans are of questionable safety because small particulates of the chemical coating inevitably get into the food.

I am grateful to my friend Monica for turning me on to an amazing pan that solves all of these problems and produces delicious, perfectly cooked food.  I will now share this amazing find with you and also describe my experience with various other types and brands of pans I’ve used over the years.  Continue reading

05/29/14

Freezing Strawberries & How to Use Them

Photo Credit: Homestead Farm

Photo Credit: Homestead Farm

Strawberry season has just started here in the Washington, DC metro area. (It’s very late thanks to our long, hard winter!) That means it’s time for our annual journey to my local pick-your-own farm to stock up on strawberries for MUCH cheaper than in supermarkets.  Since they only last in my refrigerator for a few days, I freeze mine so that I can enjoy them throughout the year.  Here are my tips on how to freeze them properly and ideas for using them afterward.

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04/15/14

Alternative Food Sources You May Not Know About

There was a time when I thought that all alternative or healthy foods could be purchased from retail stores, like Whole Foods.  Now I know better.  The more I learn about natural, traditional and alternative foods, the more I’m amazed by how little is available in most, if any retail stores. Continue reading