[Section Editor’s Note: The following contains an excerpt from the 2019 report “Waging War By Zip Code” by Student Minister Dr. Wesley Muhammad on How Food in Black Neighborhoods is Weaponized, Chapter 16. Full citations and footnotes are available in his original full report available online. Zinc plays an important role in boosting the immune system.]
Zinc (Zn) is an essential nutrient necessary in small amounts for health. As one of the most abundant biological trace metals, zinc is easy to get in developed countries in foods like beef, poultry, and beans. Zinc deficiency in humans can cause an assortment of pathological conditions such as growth retardation, cell-mediated immune dysfunction, among others. Zinc deficiency is rare in the U.S. because, due to the easy access to zinc-containing foods, most diets provide more than the recommended dietary intake. So an important 2010 study seems then to reveal to us more than the circumstances of an exceptional case of zinc deficiency in an American population, but also hints of a scientific conspiracy.
Scientists from Emory University, Grady Hospital and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied a group of low-income Black and Hispanic pre-school children (1-5 years of age) in urban Atlanta, Georgia who were on government insurance and were enrolled in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program 2006-2007. WIC is a federal assistance program that provides (among other things) free food packages to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children under age 5 in order to supplement diets and provide nutrition. It is administrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Annual Race/Ethnicity Data indicates that, in general, around 60% of WIC recipients are White and 20% are Black. WIC participation is historically associated with good zinc levels. A 2003 study of a national sample of 7474 mostly non-urban (67%) Whites (61%) found “Less than 1% of (preschool) children had usual zinc intakes below the adequate intake or estimated average requirement” and that “WIC participation was positively associated with zinc intake”. In other words, the food provided through the WIC program provided at least some of the zinc needed to achieve healthy levels. Fifteen years later a 2018 national random sample of 3,235 children found that WIC participants who received the food packages tested better for zinc intake than low-income as well as high-income non-WIC participants. This suggests that the WIC package was a source of zinc for these participants.
Zinc deficiency is uncharacteristic in America, for both Whites and African Americans. Thus, what was discovered in Atlanta in 2006-2007 is indeed an anomaly that demands explanation. Conrad R. Cole et al.’s 2010 report is an analysis of the zinc status of 280 Black and Hispanic children of urban Atlanta. This is a study of a defined, single metropolitan area group of Black and Hispanic preschoolers dependent (to one degree or another) upon WIC food supplies. The authors found evidence of a zinc deficiency in from 19.4% to upwards of 44% of the Black children: “Mean serum zinc concentrations were significantly lower among African American preschool children than among Hispanic preschool children, and they were significantly lower among those covered by government-sponsored insurance programs than among those with private health insurance”. The risk of zinc deficiency among these Black children was 4-fold that of the Hispanic children. This zinc-deficiency was so prevalent among Black children on WIC that “African American” ethnicity as well as “government sponsored insurance status” were deemed risk factors for zinc-deficiency. This unexpectedly high prevalence of zinc deficiency among Black preschool WIC recipients in Atlanta is remarkably contrary not only to the reported good zinc status of White WIC recipients nationwide but is contrary also to the zinc status of nationwide samples of African Americans as well. Our 2006-2007 Atlanta population of Black preschoolers with a high prevalence of zinc deficiency thus stands out radically as a national outlier.
The consequences of zinc deficiency are significant. Zinc deficiency can cause growth retardation, mental lethargy and endocrine disruption, specifically male hypogonadism (=low testosterone), testicular atrophy (shrinkage of testicles), and male and female infertility.
Not only does zinc deficiency cause male reproductive disruption, it causes male feminization. Zinc inhibits the process called aromatization i.e., the conversion of the male hormone testosterone into the feminizing hormone estrogen by the enzyme aromatase. Zinc deficiency therefore results in excessive aromatization, which leads to an excessive amount of testosterone converting into estrogen, thus an increased estrogen/testosterone ratio. Zinc deficiency also decreases the available number of androgen receptors necessary to potentiate the testosterone and increases the number of estrogen receptors that potentiate the extra estrogen: “Such (zinc) deficiency plays a pathogenic role in feminization and reproductive dysfunction,” reports Om and Chung. So a condition—zinc deficiency—that causes male feminization as well as reproductive dysfunction leading to infertility in males and females is a rare occurrence in America among African Americans and Whites, yet it “unexpectedly” occurs in a population of Black preschoolers in the CDC’s Atlanta, as “discovered” by a CDC funded study?! What is the cause of this “unexpected” find? Our authors don’t give us an answer, but they do offer us a hint:
Food intake was not a problem in either group (Black or Hispanic), as documented in the food diaries, especially those of the African American children who consumed very high mean daily energy. However, the bioavailability of zinc in the foods consumed and the interactions between zinc and other components of the diet might be responsible for the zinc status among these children.
In other words, it is not the case that the Black children are not consuming the right foods in order to have a better zinc status. Rather, it is possible that the zinc in these foods is not rendered bioavailable when consumed by these Black children. Or: the food does not contain the zinc that it is expected to contain. Both can be accomplished scientifically.
Zinc deficiencies have been experimentally induced by diet in animals by scientists since 1967 and by 1983 it was “considered desirable to develop a human model which would allow a study of the effects of a mild zinc deficient state in man.” In other words, after mastering the induction of a zinc deficiency in animals through manipulation of food sources, scientists were ready to try their skills with human guinea pigs. The first human models were groups of volunteers enrolled in scientific experiments. But in vitro (in the lab) results need in vivo (in real life) confirmation. Did the in vivo phase of the project to develop and study a human model of zinc deficiency involve those 146 Black children of metro Atlanta who participated in the 2006-2007 zinc study supported by the CDC and the National Institutes of Health? Were they unwitting human guinea pigs? There are a variety of techniques capable of experimentally inducing a zinc deficiency in a human model through dietary means. Foods can be scientifically modified to deplete zinc in a human consumer and to cause a zinc deficiency without the consumer having a clue. This can be achieved via two primary methods of food manipulation: 1. Stripping a food item of its natural zinc content or 2. Introducing into the food a chemical inhibitor that reduces the zinc’s bioavailability once the food is consumed. In the case of Black WIC recipients in Atlanta, both of these methods could be performed by the food manufacturer before the food is packaged and shipped to the zip codes where the destination stores are located.
In terms of the first method, food can be stripped or “purified” of its zinc by being “washed” with the disodium salt of the chemical ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). Because EDTA binds to zinc, its disodium salt (Na2EDTA) acts as a chelator or extractant that “pulls out” all or most of the zinc in the food, which is then washed off of the food with deionized water. Once dried, the food can be packaged and shipped, and the store personnel and the consumer of the food is none the wiser. EDTA-washed foods have been extensively used by scientists to induce zinc-deficiency. Thus, theoretically if the “purified-then-packaged” food is sent to stores in selected areas (zip codes) and purchased with a WIC voucher, only those WIC costumers in that area would show any signs of a zinc deficiency. This hypothetical is very consistent with what we actually find in our Atlanta cohort of 2006-2007.
The second method of modifying food to covertly induce a zinc deficiency is by inserting an additive into the food that, once consumed, inhibits the bioavailability of the zinc. Incidentally, it is public knowledge that WIC products – on a state-by-state basis – contain such chemical inhibitors which fall under the title “Functional Ingredients.” A “Functional Food” is a food that is modified by a functional ingredient, which is a substance added to a food through the manufacturing process and that is purported to improve bodily function or is intended to produce a desired physiological effect. WIC offers such “Functional Foods” that have been modified by chemical additives, such as baby formula, infant cereal, eggs, juice, and bread. One of the recognized “functional ingredients” used to modify food is soy protein isolate. Soy products have been a staple of the WIC package since 2009. But as a recognized functional ingredient, soy protein isolate can be added to any WIC-offered food by the manufacturer. Even though WIC is a fully federally-funded program, the decision to offer modified or “enhanced” foods is not a national decision but is made on a state-by-state basis, and not by the state WIC office but by the manufacturers! Because soy protein isolate is a highly refined product processed to remove “off flavors,” be any tastes and flatulence producers and increase digestibility, it is much easier to conceal its presence in a food item.
Zinc deficiency can cause infertility in males and females and feminization of males. This is a rare condition in America, yet it made an “unexpected” appearance among Black children in Atlanta dependent upon government-issued food sources. Using secretly manipulated food to covertly induce a condition of infertility and male feminization would not have been a new idea in 2006-2007, as we saw. The spatial isolation of Black communities through segregation makes it easy to target this specific group.
Student Minister Dr. Wesley Muhammad is a member of the Nation of Islam Shura Executive Council, the N.O.I. Research Group and is an author with a PhD. in Islamic Studies.