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Why is there sunflower oil on my cherries?

Added Sunflower Oil to Products

I grew up in Michigan, a state well known for the auto industry, but also famous for its delicious cherries. Michigan goes to great lengths to preserve their dominance as the best cherry producer in the states. On a recent trip home, I stopped in the market near my parent’s house and saw “fresh dried Michigan cherries” for sale.

What I found on the ingredient list when I got home was alarming. I hadn’t bought cherries, I purchased cherries marinated in sugar and sunflower oil.

Check out this label:

Why do I find these added ingredients alarming?

Because additives like sunflower oil and sugar, while they may seem harmless, can damage people’s health. They turn relatively harmless food into junk food.

Here’s how.

The problem with fructose

There is a growing chorus of health experts and doctors who believe diets high in sugar, especially added sugar, are dangerous. This study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine found a significant increase in cardiovascular disease and mortality in people who consumed high sugar diets.

Over the course of the 15-year study, participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar.

Refined sugar, or  sucrose, is a combination of glucose and fructose. Elevated blood glucose levels can cause problems, in fact it’s a hallmark of type 2 diabetes, but every part of our body uses it for energy. This is not the case with fructose, which can only be metabolized by the liver. Consumed in large quantities, fructose can wreak havoc on our bodies, yet it’s become a common additive in a number of foods where you wouldn’t expect to find it.  F1

Added sugar means added fructose.

We’ve created cheap, synthetic, corn based fructose for use…everywhere. It’s called high fructose corn syrup, features more fructose than does natural sugar, and it is bad news.

According to nutritionist Kimberly Snyder:

Because fructose is very sweet, fruit contains relatively small amounts, providing your body with just a little bit of the sugar, which is very easily handled. If people continued to eat fructose only in fruit and occasionally honey as our ancestors did, the body would easily process it without any problems.

But that’s not what we do. We add sugar to everything. We add sugar to already naturally sweet foods like cherries.

From the Harvard Health blog:

Virtually every cell in the body can use glucose for energy. In contrast, only liver cells break down fructose. What happens to fructose inside liver cells is complicated. One of the end products is triglyceride, a form of fat. Uric acid and free radicals are also formed.

None of this is good. Triglycerides can build up in liver cells and damage liver function. Triglycerides released into the bloodstream can contribute to the growth of fat-filled plaque inside artery walls. Free radicals (also called reactive oxygen species) can damage cell structures, enzymes, and even genes. Uric acid can turn off production of nitric oxide, a substance that helps protect artery walls from damage. Another effect of high fructose intake is insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

No wonder fructose has been called “alcohol without the buzz.”

I’ll leave more technical explanations to my MD colleagues who publish on this site, but for the purposes of this article, the bottom line is this: we have a sugar problem in this country. Adding sugar to already high sugar foods (like dried fruit) puts added strain on the liver, and as the Harvard article discusses, produces reactions in the body that are “not good.” Sneaking in added sugar to foods everywhere does the public a disservice.

The more people that bring awareness to this issue, the better.

But sugar was only half of my concern, the other was the Omega 6 count of the sunflower oil that was added to my cherries.

Now, the sunflower oil

Traditionally, vegetable oil has been added to processed food to make it hold up better, to make it more solid or “spreadable,” but for the life of me, I can’t see why someone would add sunflower oil to a dried fruit. It’s been preserved through the process of drying, does it need oil as well?

I especially don’t get it in light of what the science has to say about what vegetable oil can do to our bodies.

Vegetable oils, like sunflower oil, are high in Omega 6 fatty acids, and elevated levels of Omega 6 fatty acids, relative to Omega 3 fatty acids, are associated with cardiovascular and chronic disease. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio), exert suppressive effects.

I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise that a western diet is throwing off our Omega 6/Omega 3 ratios when we’re adding sunflower oil to dried cherries folks!

The bottom line

For me, the bottom line is this: I want food sellers and producers to be accountable for the decisions they make. I want their products to live up to their marketing. The market I bought these cherries from is supposedly focused on delivering their customers the best quality meat and fish, and yet they are selling stuff like this. It goes to show, most people aren’t paying attention. They consume these types of foods, and their health suffers as a result.

The practice of gratuitously adding sugar and oil to everything needs to stop.

It’s on us as educated consumers to demand better.

Ok, stepping down of my soap box…

Thanks for reading.

See also: Is Bulletproof Coffee to Blame for your high LDL?

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, a nutrigenomic startup helping people all over the world personalize nutrition. John is the host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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