Excessive Vitamins and Minerals in Breakfast Foods Put Millions of Kids at Risk
Nearly half of American kids age eight and younger consume potentially harmful amounts of vitamin A, zinc and niacin because of excessive food fortification, outdated nutritional labeling rules and misleading marketing tactics used by food manufacturers, according to a new report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The detailed report focuses on two food categories that are frequently fortified—breakfast cereals and snack bars, identifying 141 over-fortified products.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Analyzing more than 1,550 cereals and 1,000 snack bars, EWG researchers found 114 cereals fortified with 30 percent or more of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc and/or niacin. They include General Mills Total Raisin Bran, General Mills Wheaties Fuel, Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies and Kellogg’s Krave, among others. EWG also found that 27 common brands of snack bars, such as Balance Bars, Kind bars and Marathon bars, were fortified with 50 percent or more of the adult Daily Value of at least one of these nutrients.
“Heavily fortified foods may sound like a good thing, but it when it comes to children and pregnant women, excessive exposure to high nutrient levels could actually cause short or long-term health problems,” said Renee Sharp, EWG’s research director and co-author of the report. “Manufacturers use vitamin and mineral fortification to sell their products, adding amounts in excess of what people need and more than might be prudent for young children to consume.”
High doses of vitamin A can cause toxic symptoms and lead to liver damage, skeletal abnormalities and hair loss. Excessive levels of zinc can impair copper absorption, negatively affect red and white blood cells and impair immune function. During pregnancy, taking too much vitamin A can result in developmental abnormalities in the fetus. Older adults with high vitamin A intake have been known to suffer from osteoporosis and hip fractures.
EWG researchers based the analysis on data from the Nutrition Facts labels gathered by FoodEssentials, a company that compiles information on supermarket foods.
The report concludes that the federal nutrition labeling system, used on the vast majority of food products, relies on obsolete dietary Daily Values. The Daily Values for most vitamins and minerals date back to 1968 and were calculated for adults, not children. As a result, some breakfast cereals contain added nutrients in amounts higher than have been deemed safe for children by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.
Compounding the problem, marketing claims on food packages, such as “added vitamins,” can induce parents to buy products because they seem healthier, even though they may not be.
“In other words, when a parent picks up a box of cereal and sees that one serving provides 50 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin A, he or she may think that it provides 50 percent of a child’s recommended intake,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D, an EWG research consultant and co-author of the report. “But he or she would most likely be wrong, since the Daily Values are based on an adult’s dietary needs.”
How Much Is Too Much?
“The marketing of nutrient fortification suggests that getting ‘more’ nutrients equals a ‘more nutritious’ food option, yet from a health standpoint we know that to be false,” said Ashley Koff, R.D., a registered dietitian and former advertising executive for kid’s cereals and snack bars. “Research consistently shows that the nutrient amounts and types found in whole foods provide optimal nutrition as well as least risk. We owe it to parents and kids to make it easiest to choose better quality foods, which in this case means adopting the action steps outlined by EWG.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently accepting comments on proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts labels. EWG believes some of the changes would be a step in the right direction, but are still insufficient to protect children from consuming excessive amounts of fortified nutrients. EWG calls on the FDA to require that the nutrition labels on products marketed to children display percent Daily Values specific to each age group, such as one-to-three-year-olds and four-to-eight-year-olds.
In addition, EWG urges the FDA to:
- Set percent Daily Values levels that reflect current science.
- Update the serving sizes cited on Nutrition Fact labels to reflect the larger amounts that Americans actually eat.
- Modernize the 1980 guidelines on voluntary food fortification, particularly for products that younger children may eat.
- Base food fortification policy on specific risk assessments for each nutrient and population group.
- Address food manufacturers’ misuse of food fortification guidelines and nutrient content claims to sell more products.
Until the FDA takes these steps, EWG recommends that parents give their children products with no more than 20-to-25 percent of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc and niacin in a single serving. In addition, parents should monitor their children’s intake of fortified foods, especially if they give their children a daily multivitamin pill. EWG also recommends that pregnant women and older adults watch their intake of products fortified with vitamin A, especially if they take a daily vitamin pill.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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