Month: January 2016

Popcorn Panic or a Kernel of Truth?

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Americans love their popcorn-the average person eats about 54 quarts a year…that’s equivalent to 39 bags of microwave popcorn every year! You may have heard that microwave popcorn can be hazardous to your health…and according to some internet sources… it’s an absolute health disaster! Today I will set out the facts and clear up some common misconceptions. You can decide for yourself if you would like to continue eating microwave popcorn.

I thought researching this topic would be pretty quick and easy. Not true. I dug for quite a few days, reading dozens of studies and making multiple phone calls to microwave popcorn manufacturers to get the real facts.

Remember? I read the science so you don’t have to!

Here are the health concerns most commonly unearthed in your typical internet search about the safety of microwave popcorn:

  1. The fake butter flavoring is nasty and dangerous.
  2. The bag is lined with Teflon.
  3. Vapors escaping from the bag are toxic.
  4. The preservatives are dangerous or toxic.
  5. Contains trans-fats.

Fake Butter Flavoring

Well, it turns out the chemical compound in “fake butter,” diacetyl, is really the same naturally occurring chemical in real butter! Organic chemists have identified dactyl as the naturally occurring compound that gives sour cream, cheese, wine and cultured butter their deep characteristic buttery aroma.12 Once isolated, food companies started using it in foods as a flavor enhancer.

The problem with diacetyl does not come with eating it. The problem comes with inhaling it. Diacetyl made the headline news when employees in popcorn manufacturing plants developed a debilitating lung disease (Popcorn Lung) from chronically inhaling the aerosolized diacetyl.34 Indeed, one study concludes that diacetyl can also pose a threat to consumers if they chronically breathe the vapors emanating from the freshly popped bag.5 Due to the bad press, some manufacturers started to use other butter flavorings, but if inhaled, they pose the same risk as diacetyl.6

Currently, the American Lung Association, Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control have concluded that the butter flavoring in microwave popcorn does not pose a risk to the consumer. The Environmental Working Group rates diacetyl as the safest of food additives with a score of 1 out of 10.

To avoid inhaling diacetyl, open freshly popped bags away from your face, and if you have an exhaust fan attached to your stove, turn it on and open the bag by the fan. Wait until the popcorn has cooled to enjoy your crunchy buttery snack.

The Bag Is Lined With Teflon

Maybe. Along with microwave popcorn bags, many of the papery containers we use to store food, like takeout food, fast food wrappers, candy wrappers, pizza boxes, and “doggie bags” are lined with a chemical to keep the grease and moisture from seeping through the paper.7 This chemical can break down into a very harmful byproduct known as perfluorooctinoic acid (PFOA), the harmful chemical associated with Teflon.

It is possible to find healthy microwave popcorn.  Quinn brand microwave popcorn uses no coating on the popping bag.  There are only four ingredients; popcorn, sunflower oil, maple sugar and salt.

PFOA is produced as the popcorn bag liner is heated and the PFOA leaches into the popcorn.8 It is also present in the vapors escaping a freshly popped bag. 9,10 One study measured the amount of PFOA that migrated into the popcorn-it was hundreds of times more than would migrate into food from non-stick pans.10 Wow!

PFOA has many deleterious health effects including bioaccumulation, endocrine disruption, birth defects in animals, cancer, neurotoxicity, and immune problems to name a few.

Because it’s so harmful, many microwave popcorn manufacturers have phased out PFOA generating liners and replaced them with other chemicals. The new chemicals (C6) are still in the same chemical family as PFOA, and appear to be less toxic because they break down easily and do not bioaccumulate. As of this writing in 2016, the available database for these compounds is fairly limited.11

Here’s the problem, the consumer can’t tell which microwave popcorn brands use these new “safe” liners. I called ConAgra, the maker of Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II microwave popcorns to find out what they used to line the bag. They phased out the use of PFOA generating liners in 2009 and now use a “perfluorinated polymer coating.” These new liners could prove to be safer, but the jury is definitely still out.

Toxic Vapors

Yes, it is true that vapors escaping a freshly popped bag of microwave popcorn can contain harmful compounds like PFOAs, volatile organic compounds and p-xylene.912

The greatest chemical quantity is emitted when the bag is opened post-popping; more than 80% of the total chemical emissions occur at this time.12 So once again, if you really can’t resist microwave popcorn, open the bag in a well-ventilated area or by an exhaust fan.

The Preservatives Are Hazardous

Maybe, but you need to read the label. The most common preservatives used in microwave popcorn are citric acid (from citrus fruit), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), propyl gallate and TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone). They are added to keep the oil from going rancid during storage. Of course, citric acid and ascorbic acid are safe, but what about TBHQ and propyl gallate? Neither gets a perfectly safe score from the Environmental Working Group, but are allowed in food by the FDA and the European Union.13 A recent study has indicated that propyl gallate is a mild endocrine disruptor at very low concentrations.14 Only buy the brands that use natural preservatives like ascorbic acid and citric acid.

Contains Trans-fats

Maybe. We all know the dangers of trans-fats so I don’t need to list them here. Many brands of microwave popcorn use trans-fats as the cooking oil because they are more shelf-stable. Look on the label; if it says “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated,” it contains trans-fats. Don’t buy it.


Dr. Gonzo’s Retro Solution

My family pops our own corn on the stove or microwave. Sure, it’s not as convenient, and we have an extra pan to wash, but at least I know my family is exposed to fewer dangerous chemicals and preservatives, no toxic vapors, fewer artificial colors and flavors and more healthy fats. Here are links for a stove method and a microwave method for popping your favorite corn.

Bon appetit!

Fragrance Faux Pas

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Is there anything more luscious than sniffing a freshly bathed baby that has been slathered in great smelling baby products? Before I knew about the adverse health consequences of fragrance, I’m afraid I was very guilty of this mothering ritual.

To expand on the theme from my last post about the fragrance in scented candles, I’d like to explain further why fragrances in products could be harmful to your health and especially to the health of your kids. I’ll also suggest great smelling options to satisfy your olfactory cravings.

It’s everywhere!

Manufacturers know that we love our fragrances and that it sells, so they add it to virtually every product…cosmetics, air fresheners, plastic toys, garbage bags, diapers, tissues and toilet paper…even the smelly markers we buy our kids for school! The problem is that our bodies never get a break from fragrance. Even when we go to sleep, our sheets and jammies emit fragrance.

What’s wrong with good smelling stuff?

Here are Dr. Gonzo’s top reasons we should not buy products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient.

  1. Undisclosed chemicals1,2,3
  2. Leading cause of skin irritation1,4
  3. Causes allergic reactions4
  4. Exposure associated with asthma2
  5. Probably contains endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs5,6,7

Why is fragrance added to products?

Sometimes fragrance is added to create a signature scent (i.e. Johnson’s baby products), or a more “natural” aroma (i.e. “spring breeze” dryer sheets), or maybe to mask the odor of one of the other ingredients in the product (household cleaners) or even to create an “unscented” product.

Here’s the problem…

Many products list “fragrance” on the label, but few name the specific ingredients that make up the fragrance. Manufacturers are not required by law to do so. This lack of disclosure prevents consumers from knowing the full list of ingredients in their products.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.52.02 PMTests conducted on 70 commercial perfume samples in 2011 showed that the average number of allergy producing chemicals in perfumes and cologne is twelve.8 To top it off, 100% samples of perfumes contained phthalates, a proven family of EDCs. Other tests show that the products containing the most EDCs were colognes/perfumes, dryer sheets, car air fresheners and sunscreens.9

When government agencies determine chemical toxicity, they test it in isolation. What they do not account for, are the results of using more than one product at a time. Many fragranced products also contain other EDCs, like parabens10 (more on this in future post.) Using multiple products, which we ALL do, can result in exceeding the “safe limit” of the chemical tested and amplification of the effects of the chemicals when the products are used together.

Let’s look at the fragranced products an average person uses on a typical day:

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Hand or body lotion
  • Hair mousse or gel
  • Hairspray
  • Deodorant (the heavily scented kind teenage guys use is the worst)
  • Sunscreen
  • Cosmetics
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Nail polish!!! (More in a later post)

Yikes! And all this before you even put on your clothes, made fresh by your “country breeze” dryer sheets. Now go through the list of products that are used on babies and kids. It’s probably not as long, but similar. As I mentioned in Hormone Havoc, the effects of these chemicals are more serious in children, especially baby boys.7

You can still use great smelling products!

Now that you’re completely freaked out, let’s look at what you can buy that is safe AND smells great.

You are in luck! There are thousands of products on the market that do not contain troublesome “fragrances” and still smell great. Below is what I do to determine if a product is worthy of purchase.

Dr. Gonzo’s Safe Fragrance Checklist:

  1. I look at the front label. If a company makes a product that is phthalate-free or paraben-free, you bet they will put it on the label!
  2. I look at the list of ingredients. If it says ‘fragrance,” I don’t buy it….even though I love the smell.
  3. I don’t buy “unscented” products. Unscented does not mean no added fragrance. In fact unscented products may contain chemicals to mask the odor of the ingredients. I buy “fragrance free” which means no added fragrance.
  4. Are essential oils used for fragrance? Essential oils (not really oils but plant concentrates) are safe for most people, but some may be sensitive to specific ones. Note: fragrance oils and essential oils are not the same thing.
  5. Finally, and probably the best tip…I almost always use the little gem of an app called “Skin Deep” by the Environmental Working Group. When I’m standing in the store with a GAZILLION choices in front of me, I simply open the app, scan the barcode, and look up the safety score. If it’s a 1 or 2 (out of 10) and it contains no fragrance, I buy it with confidence.

Below are examples of product labels advertising they are free of parabens and phthalates. Some I have in my home, others I found at my local grocery store. I use the Mrs. Meyers lavender laundry scent booster, which uses only essential oils, the air freshener uses essential oils from orange and cinnamon and anise, and the Honestly Free label is from the Honest Company’s Shampoo and body wash.   The shampoo absolutely luscious and smells like an orange Dreamsicle and my kids love it!

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I know you really want me to just tell you which brands are safe to buy. But formulations change from year to year and sometimes a couple times in a year. You really need to learn to read the label and use the app.

IMG_2170Here is a great example. I bought “Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion” because it had no fragrance and a Skin Deep score of 2. I noticed that the manufacturer was Johnson & Johnson, and I know that they also make baby products. I went to the website to check out the ingredients in their baby products….no luck. Next I called the customer hot line to inquire about the ingredients. Yes indeed, the lady informed me that “fragrance” was an ingredient in all the baby products. The Skin Deep app lists the score of this particular baby product as a 4 (moderate hazard). But with a little more digging, I noticed that the fragrances in the products scored an 8!! Notice also, this product contains even more EDCs… parabens. The propylparaben listed is rated a 7 (high hazard) by the Environmental Working Group.  I sincerely doubt new moms would want to put these wonderful smelling products on their newborn babes if they knew they contained ingredients rated as a “high hazard.”

My best advice is to skip the fragrance on everyday products to limit chemical exposure as much as possible.  Then, choose a few choice products scented with essential oils or phthalate-free scents, and save the perfume for special occasions.

Following these easy tips, you can feel confident about buying safe and good smelling personal care products. Be proactive and tell others. The more consumers vote with their dollars, the more companies will listen, and the more safe choices you’ll have.

See you next time!




Scented Candle Scintillations

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Soy_tealight_candlesWinter is here and the air is filled with the scent of cinnamon, hot chocolate and freshly cut pine trees. We love to create cozy warm retreats for ourselves complete with glowing fires and scented candles.

At the risk of being a party pooper, I’m suggesting you might want to rethink lighting those yummy smelling scented candles. In this post, I’ll explain why some scented candles should be avoided and provide you with some healthy and money-saving alternatives.

Here are my top three reasons you should avoid traditional scented candles:

  • Harmful chemicals in the fragrances
  • Most are made from paraffin
  • Heavy metal poisoning

Lets’ look at these concerns one at a time.


I love my scented candles and burn them in my house, but there are certain types I avoid.

In particular, I try to steer clear of the inexpensive mass-produced ones with intensely strong fragrance. As I outlined in my previous post Hormone Havoc, many everyday products contain endocrine disrupting chemicals or  EDCs. Fragrance is one of them. The class of EDCs  most commonly found in products with fragrance are called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates, yep, I know it’s weird.)

Without being too repetitive, phthalates are a family of chemicals that are known to cause disrupted hormone activity, reduced sperm counts, reproductive malformations, neurological disorders and have also been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity…to name a few. The effects of phthalates are particularly harmful to young children (especially baby boys), girls and women 1,2,3,4.

Are your eyebrows raised?

Manufacturers of those amazing smelling candles freely use a phthalate known as DEP 5,6. Although earlier studies gave this phthalate the green light, in 2010, the US Products Safety Commission issued the “Final Toxicity Review for DEP” and concluded that DEP should considered harmful, and in some cases, toxic for both long and short-term exposure. This is especially true for females of reproductive age 13-49 4. In the European Union, DEP has been placed on the list of priority chemicals that are potentially endocrine disrupting 7.

Don’t panic; it’s easy to avoid this deceptively alluring, but worrisome chemical. Choose candles made with essential oils or labeled phthalate-free. Lots of companies manufacture candles made with essential oils or use phthalate-free fragrances. They are really easy to find in just about any local health food store or on the Internet.

What’s wrong with paraffin?

Paraffin is used in multitudes of personal care products and in food. According to the Environmental Working Group, the paraffin used in food, body products and cosmetics has a safety score of 1, the safest of chemicals 8. However, the paraffin used in candles is not food or pharmaceutical grade. It is refined from petroleum and contains byproducts considered irritating, toxic and even carcinogenic.

Beeswax candles with cotton wicks.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina burned many brands of paraffin wax used in candles, to analyze the gasses produced 9. The results revealed undesirable and carcinogenic products such as alkenes, alkanes, and the nastiest of all, toluene. All are known to cause health problems in humans. Interestingly, soy-based and other vegetable-based wax candles produced no toxic gasses 9.

I prefer to use candles that are soy-based wax or beeswax. They are more expensive, but are always given a clean bill of health in scientific tests.

Heavy metal poisoning

Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. Many candlewicks have metal cores, which add rigidity to keep the braided cotton wick straight in melted wax. The most common metals used in candlewicks are zinc, tin and lead. The good news is that in 1974, the US banned use of lead in candlewicks manufactured in the US. In addition, US Federal regulators banned the import of all candles with lead-core wicks in 2003 10.

Some unscrupulous importers continue to supply lead-wicked candles to the US. Burning one of these candles can release enough lead into the atmosphere to exceed safe limits for children within 45 minutes. There is no visual way to discern if the metal in a candlewick is lead or another metal.

The candle industry considers zinc and tin-cored wicks to be safe6. I was unable to find any studies on the safety of inhaled zinc and tin fumes. Like lead, the metals zinc and tin are also are heavy metals but not nearly as toxic11. As trace elements, zinc and tin are essential to maintain the human metabolism. However, at higher concentrations they can lead to tin or zinc toxicity12. What especially worries me is the possibility of bioaccumulation. Once taken into the body, heavy metals are excreted very slowly and become concentrated in the liver or kidneys over time. I don’t want my family breathing heavy metals fumes of any kind!

Candles that are most likely to have metal-core wicks are votives, pillars and tea lights or candles that produce puddles of wax. Your safest bet is to buy candles with braided cotton, paper or hemp wicks.

To buy safe and healthy candles, choose only candles that:

  • Are manufactured in the US or EU
  • Are sold by reputable vendors
  • Are made of soy or other plant-based wax or beeswax
  • Have wicks made of braided cotton, hemp, paper or wood
  • Use essential oils or phthalate-free fragrances
Pacifica soy-wax scented candles have cotton wicks and are phthalate free. This photo was taken at my local health food store.

A quick Google search will yield bunches of candles that fit the bill. Once you start looking, you’ll be shocked at how many choices there are! Have fun perusing the aisle of your local health food store, or look online for thousands of choices. Steer clear of the mass produced candles so popular in the grocery stores and malls of America. At least read the label to see if it mentions phthalate-free or essential oils used as scents.

Dr. Gonzo’s Blended Solution

Battery operated candles on Dr. Gonzo’s coffee table.

I REALLY love the ambiance that candles create and I have discovered another solution to avoid nasty air borne chemicals and risk of fire from unattended (forgotten in my case) candles. I use the battery-operated candles purchased from Costco. I haul them out every year, change the AAA batteries, and they are good to go from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day.

The BEST part of using battery operated candles, is that I save a ton of money. My Costco candles still look terrific after 5 years. To save even more, stock up on these “candles” in after-Christmas sales at department stores!

I still light my favorite soy-wax, phthalate-free (cedar or spruce), cotton-wicked, scented candle for a lovely winter aroma. So relax and enjoy the winter by creating a healthy and cozy nest for your loved ones!


Hormone Havoc

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This is a first post in a series, which explains how and why it is essential for you try and steer clear of a class of chemicals known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs. Over the next few posts, I will discuss typical household products that contain EDCs and suggest safe alternatives.

What are EDCs?

As you probably know, the endocrine system governs all the hormones in our bodies. Hormones regulate nearly every aspect of our daily lives including metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, just to name a few.

EDCs are natural or manmade substances, external to the body, that directly alter the function of the endocrine system, and cause negative health effects1. EDCs are a genuine health concern because they can really mess with chemical signaling within cells and wreak havoc with our hormones.

How do EDCs work?

EDCs can disrupt normal hormone activity by:

  • Mimicking our natural hormones like estrogens (the female sex hormone), androgens (the male sex hormone), and thyroid hormones.
  • Binding to cells preventing hormones from doing their job.
  • Interfere or block the way our hormones are made.

Consequences of hormone disruption

Over the past few decades, the consequences of EDCs in our environment have been studied extensively. Scientists now have a really good idea of how powerful and damaging these chemicals can be. Some EDCs are so damaging, that the FDA, EPA and CDC have mandated bans on their use…remember DDT and Agent Orange?

There are so many adverse effects to EDC exposure that the list is too long to print here. However, scientists and doctors belonging to the Endocrine Society recently issued a statement linking everything listed below to EDC exposure2.

  • Hormone-sensitive cancers (testicular, breast, endometrial, thyroid and prostate)3
  • Obesity and cardiovascular disease4, 5
  • Onset of Type 2 Diabetes6
  • Onset of asthma7
  • Female reproduction toxicity8
  • Decline in quality and quantity of male sperm3
  • Deleterious effects on fetal neural development 9
  • Early puberty in girls10

 Have you been exposed to EDCs?

Unfortunately, if you live in any industrialized country, the answer is a resounding “yes.” EDCs are ubiquitous in our surroundings because they are found in the soil, air, and drinking water and in loads of everyday products– including plastic bottles, carpet, electronics, furniture, metal food cans, fragrances, detergents, fabric softeners, flame-retardant clothing, pharmaceuticals, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides. Wow!

The effects on children are compounded. Why? Because children are not just tiny adults. As a percentage of their body weight, they breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. This is because their organs are undergoing rapid change and development. To top it off, we unwittingly expose them to personal care products, toys, and clothing that contain EDCs. Research shows that EDCs may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming.11

Don’t these products have to be safe to be on the market?

No. The majority of the more than 2,000 chemicals that come onto the market every year do not go through even the simplest tests to determine toxicity. Even when some tests are carried out, most do not assess whether a chemical has endocrine disrupting properties.12

Further, manufacturers don’t have to list all the ingredients on their labels because they are considered proprietary, or “trade secrets.” It is practically impossible for a consumer to actually know what is in a product.

You’re freakin’ me out…what should I do?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing easy ways for you to limit exposure to EDCs. Fortunately, there are a bunch of things you can do to get started right away13.

  • Buy organic foods when possible. Refer to my post Biggest Bang for your Organic Produce Buck.
  • Avoid drinking water from disposable plastic water bottles.
  • Get a water filter that will remove pesticides, lead and heavy metals. Click here for recommendations.
  • Eat fewer animal products. EDCs can accumulate in milk and animal tissues.
  • Don’t store food in plastic containers. Use glass instead.
  • Avoid personal care products that list “fragrance” in the ingredients. More about this biggie in a later post.
  • Get a HEPA filter and HEPA bag for your vacuum cleaner to cut down on toxic EDC laden dust generated by furniture, carpet and electronics.
  • Minimize use of canned foods and don’t buy infant formula in cans. The can liner contains EDCs.
  • Skip the non-stick pans unless they are “green” non-stick pans.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more detailed descriptions about which products to avoid and which products and brands are safe.

See you next time!