Fast Food Study and Asthma Update

Headaches, Asthma, Fries and a Cola was written over ten years ago and you might wonder what has happened lately. The CDC ( Centers for Disease Control ) offers a report titled "Asthma in the United States" which covers the period 2001 through 2009. In summary, not much has changed although things have gotten a little worse. Asthma treatment currently costs America $56 billion per year. About a week of work/school is lost each year for every asthma patient. The percentage of the population affected has increased from 7% in 2001 to 8% in 2009. And the greatest increase was noted for black children representing almost a 50% rise. The graph below plots these percentages averaged over all states in the US.

Asthma RatesThe asthma problem is not limited to the United States. The ISAAC organization is located in New Zealand and it tracks asthma throughout the world. Its website is quite impressive and presents maps showing rates for asthma in different countries. For teens, 13-14 years old, the rate is over 20% in many parts of the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It is above 10% for much of Europe and South America. All told, 235 million people suffer from the disease worldwide. The problem does not seem to be going away. One of the latest papers published by ISAAC examines a survey relating diet to asthma symptoms. The data tracks 319,000 teens in 107 locations from 51 countries. The most notable result was that three fast food meals per week resulted in a 39% increase in asthma symptoms for teenagers. Also, three servings of fruit reduced symptoms by 11%. The authors of the study suggest that high levels of saturated fat in fast food aggravate asthma while antioxidants in fruit are beneficial. That's a good general statement but I think we can get a bit more specific.

From my vantage point, the link to fast food is a direct connection to sulfites. Sulfites are a known and accepted cause of asthma. What is not well known is the abundance of sulfites and sulfur dioxide in fast food. So, let's take a closer look. McDonalds has 33,000 stores in 119 countries. YUM Brands ( KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell ) has 37,000 stores in 120 countries. Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and Domino's aren't far behind. These giants sell all kinds of food: some good, some bad and some ugly. The most popular meal at McDonalds is a classic burger, large fries and a giant cola. A big seller at KFC is fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and a cola. What about the the sulfur dioxide? Burgers and chicken aren't so bad coming in at around 200 ug of SO2. But fries and reconstituted potatoes are typically preserved with over 2,000 ug. And large colas contribute another 400 ug. So, these signature fast food meals contain at least 2,600 micrograms of sulfur dioxide each. If you ate this food three times every week, wouldn't you be surprised if your asthma didn't worsen by 39%?

Should we picket McDonalds and KFC? Absolutely not. All fast food restaraunts sell good, clean food along with the bad. You just have to make informed choices. So, here are rules for picking food that is clean enough to reduce asthma.

RULES to reduce ASTHMA from FAST FOOD:

1. Never order fast food potatoes. No french fries or mashed potatoes.
2. Never order a soft drink or shake. Drink apple juice, water or coffee.
3. Never add dried fruit, pickled peppers, guacamole or syrup. Sorry.

These simple rules will protect you from the major sulfur demons and lower your risk of asthma. Rule #1 (no fast food potatoes) is easy to understand and protects against fries and dehydrated spuds. Rule #2 (no colas) applies to both regular and even diet drinks to avoid caramel and artificial coloring. It is a very painful rule since it applies universally, no matter where you eat. Rule #3 (concerning condiments) is a bit more tricky but offers protection in pizza and sandwich shops. For instance, it is very common to see pickled peppers like jalapenos, pepperocini and banana peppers for sale with pizza and sandwiches. Unfortunately, to maintain a bright color, these pickled peppers are usually sulfited and add 1,000 ug of sulfur dioxide to your meal. The same applies to dried fruit and guacamole avocado dip. Syrups aren't heavily preserved but they are loaded with corn syrup and caramel color. Following these rules will not eliminate sulfur dioxide, just help to keep it manageable. Hopefully, this will be enough to make a difference if you have asthma.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that fast food is bad food. It's just that some selections are loaded with sulfur. Learn what to avoid and make your life easier. Since I am very sensitive, I have to try much harder and my list of rules goes well beyond the three detailed above. So, instead of lecturing about what you CAN NOT eat, I will tell you what even I CAN eat with my low tolerance. The fast food suggestions in the table below are about as safe as you can get in a restaraunt. The SOx numbers are the combined natural and artificial sulfur dioxide estimates in micrograms. Most of the suggestions contain 100 ug or less of sulfur preservatives. Note there aren't very many choices ... food this clean is rare in fast food land. Most menu selections are not on my list because they would be in the 200 to 500 ug range. Thankfully, only potato products rise above 2000 ug . Please notice that I have cheated to save a few micrograms by substituting ranch dipping sauce for the normal McDonalds burger sauce. I also specify ranch dipping sauce as salad dressing instead of Newman's Own Ranch Dressing. Sorry Paul, your dressing is loaded with unnecessary sulfur dioxide. I must use the same trick at Burger King by asking for ranch dressing instead of the normal burger sauce. Of course, you could bring your own organic ketchup if you don't like ranch. Watch out, some pizza restaraunts use sulfites as dough conditioners. Fortunately, Domino's does not currently use sulfites in their dough and provides a complete breakdown of menu ingredients, allowing for intelligent choices instead of rash guesses. Here's how to order at Domino's. Start with a normal Hand Tossed Crust with extra Robust Tomato Sauce and then specify NO CHEESE. Order safe toppings per the chart below and finally add Provolone Cheese Topping. This unusual procedure avoids modified corn starch in the standard cheese mixture. Also, avoid the BBQ sauce option, as it contains sulfured molasses and caramel color that you do not need.

Fast Food that has Very Low levels of Sulfur Dioxide

Chain Menu Item Serving Size SOx (ug)
McDonalds Regular Hamburger (no french fries) 1 burger 51 ug
  Big Mac (ranch sauce instead of mayo)     1 burger 106
  Chicken McNuggets (with honey) 6 pieces 82
  Bacon Ranch Salad (ranch sauce dressing) 1 salad 48
  Egg McMuffin (Egg, Bacon and Cheese) 1 muffin 109
  Egg, Cheese & Bacon on Breakfast Biscuit 1 biscuit 98
  Apple Juice, Milk or Coffee (milk or sugar)   1 glass 0
Burger King     Double Hamburger (with ranch dressing) 1 burger 76 ug
  Whopper (with ranch dressing) 1 burger 116
  Egg, Cheese & Bacon on Breakfast Biscuit 1 biscuit 107
  Garden Salad (ranch dressing, no croutons) 1 salad 12
  Apple Juice, Milk or Coffee (milk or sugar) 1 glass 0
  ( No french fries or regular/diet soda. )    
KFC Original Recipe Thighs (no potatoes) 2 pieces 70 ug
  Spicy or Crispy Thighs (no potatoes) 2 pieces 104
  Side of Livers with Biscuit 1 side 40
  Chicken Littles Sandwich 1 sandwich 118
  Sierra Mist Soda (diet or regular) 1 glass 40
  Roaring Waters Tropical Fruit Drink 1 glass 10
Domino's Olive, Onion, Mushroom, Tomato Pizza
1/4 lg pizza
92 ug
  Pepperoni, Diced Tomato and Provolone
1/4 lg pizza 109
  Pineapple, Ham and Provolone Cheese
1/4 lg pizza 116
  Garden Salad with Ranch Dressing 1/2 order 48
  ( No pickled peppers or BBQ sauce. )    
Dunkin Donuts   Old Fashioned Cake Donut (with sugar) 1 donut 30 ug
  Sugar Raised Donut 1 donut 38
  Wake-Up Wrap Tortilla (egg and cheese) 1 wrap 95
  Egg on Biscuit, Bagel or Croissant 1 biscuit 127
  Texas Toast Grilled Cheese Sandwich 1 sandwich 74

Sulfites are known to trigger an attack in 5-10% of asthma patients. Studies in Japan and Australia show that 65% of those with asthma are very sensitive to sulfites. Fast food adversely impacts asthma and some of the more popular fast food dishes are loaded with sulfites. There are over 100,000 fast food restaraunts worldwide and we are in the middle of an asthma epidemic affecting up to 20% of our youngsters all over the planet. Sulfites and sulfur dioxide must play a big part. This seems obvious to me. So why hasn't the problem been solved? Apparently, it's not obvious to most other people. As I ponder this dilemma, a mild headache pounds behind my eyes and saps my patience. Yes, I have a gosh darn sulfite headache. It's not a mysterious coincidence. Yesterday morning I ate a few McDonalds french fries to reconfirm my original tests done more than 10 years ago. Yes, those delicious fries are still contaminated with sulfur dioxide at 13 ppm. All to often, I am reminded of our culture's sulfite problem, sometimes by design and sometimes by chance. But most asthma researchers don't get these regular sulfite reminders, so they look for answers elsewhere and progress is uncertain. I hope the numbers on this page illuminate sulfites and sulfur dioxide as the villains in our drama. We don't need a scientific break through to solve the asthma epidemic. All we need are informed choices about what to eat and what not to eat.

Note to the Medical Community: I realize that I have little credibility with doctors and medical researchers. Sure, I have degrees from a big name school, but they are in engineering, not medicine or biochemistry. And for goodness sake, I use my own body as a test probe for sulfur dioxide, so the results are not readily reproduced by an independent laboratory. How can you trust me? Simple, don't trust me. Buy a bag of McDonalds French Fries and hand it to a grad student in chemistry. Ask that the sulfur dioxide content be evaluated by the industry standard Monier-Williams procedure. The fries will be boiled in sulfuric acid and the released sulfur dioxide collected in a glass column. I'm betting you will find the level of SO2 to be greater than the 13 ppm level my body detects. This is in spite of the fact that sulfites are never listed as an ingredient for fries. McDonalds just lists "potatoes, oil, dextrose, pyrophosphate and salt." That sounds pretty innocuous since the dextrose sugar content is low, but I suspect the potatoes are processed to add extra sulfur dioxide to the surface coating. Burger King and Jack-in-the-Box break down the potatoes for a little more detail.

Expanded Ingredient List for Large French Fries

Serving Size: 190 g
Fat: 22 g     Protein: 5 g     Carbs: 72 g     Sugar: 0 g     Sodium: 710 mg

Ingredients: potato, oil, starch, rice flour, dextrin, salt, dextrose, pyrophosphate.

 pot(129), oil(22), starch(20), rice(10), dextrin(5), salt(1.8), dextrose, pyrophosphate

To give the fries a crisp feel, they are coated with potato starch. Note that potato dextrin is just another form of modified starch. The numbers on the last line are estimates for the grams of each ingredient. The keys to this puzzle are the values specified for fat and sodium. As such, 22 grams of fat means 22 grams of oil. And sodium is really a clue to the added salt which is sodium chloride. Multiplying sodium by 2.5 accounts for the weight of chloride to yield salt at 1.8 grams. Now juggle all the numbers until they add up to the serving size. For this estimate, there are 25 grams of modified potato starch, which starts life in a bath of hot water laced with sulfur dioxide gas. If the residual value of SO2 in this modified potato starch is 100 ppm, the overall sulfur dioxide for the bag of fries would be 13 ppm. Of course, many of these numbers are just guesses. But believe me, I'm not guessing when I tell you that McDonalds fries give me a headache. To take things a step further, round up a group of teenagers that eat fast food and suffer asthma symptoms. Ask them to follow the 3 rules listed above while continuing to eat fast food. See if their symptoms decrease by 39%.

Two US government agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and the Office of Minority Health have some interesting statistics that relate to fast food and asthma. In a Data Brief, the CDC reports on the percentage of calories consumed by young adults eating at fast food restaraunts during 2007-2010. And the numbers are broken down for whites, Hispanics and blacks. In the age group of 20-39 years, whites and Hispanics got 14.6% and 14.5% of their calories from fast food, virtually the same amounts. Blacks got considerably more, a whopping 21.1% intake from fast food. In other words, blacks ate about 44% more fast food than whites and Hispanics. The Department of Health and Human Services "Office of Minority Health" breaks down the asthma rates for children under the age of 18 into similar ethnic groups. The rates for whites and Hispanics are 8.2% and 8.3% of the population, again virtually the same. But the asthma rate for blacks is double at 16.1% of all black children. Asthma is double and blacks eat lots more fast food. I am not aware that blacks have a genetic predisposition towards contracting asthma, are you?

Comparison of US Fast Food Habits and Asthma Rates During 2007-2010




14.6% Fast Food Calories

14.5% Fast Food Calories

21.1% Fast Food Calories

8.2% Childhood Asthma

8.3 % Childhood Asthma

16.1% Childhood Asthma

Data was not given for the fast food habits of those under 20 years of age, so I am assuming that the percentages for children would follow a similar ethnic pattern. Of course, such statistics cannot prove that the sulfur dioxide content of fast food doubles the asthma rate in black children. But these numbers certainly are consistent with that argument. If I were a black leader or anyone concerned with the health of minorities, I would encourage the investigation of links between fast food, asthma and sulfur dioxide. If I were involved with ObamaCare, I'd spend a million on a trial and save billions in asthma costs. If I were a member of the World Health Organization, I'd study sulfur dioxide in fast food with the goal of helping 235 million asthmatics worldwide.

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