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  • Archive for July, 2008

    Survey Results: Economical Eating

    The most recent Small Bites survey asked visitors to classify eating healthy on a budget as:

    “Possible and easy” (27%)
    “Challenging, but doable” (58%)

    “Very hard” (13%)

    “Impossible” (1%)

    I am very happy to see that a solid 85% of voters consider it to at least be “doable.”

    The truth is, healthy eating (which I defined as “balanced, nutritious, and meeting most nutrient daily values”) does not need to be a wallet-buster.

    Let’s clarify a few issues.

    1. Healthy eating does not need to be organic.

    If you can afford organic, go for it. If your budget doesn’t allow for it, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a perfectly healthy and balanced diet.

    Whole wheat pasta will always contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, organic or not, and both organic and conventional peanuts are a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

    Besides, as far as our bodies are concerned, there is no difference between an organic and conventional 400-calorie chocolate chip cookie.

    2. Healthy eating does not need to be exotic.

    Every few months some new “miracle” fruit comes along.

    I am sure you are familiar with the process by now.

    It is usually from another continent and, after being profiled in the mass media, is quickly turned into a juice drink packed in a beautifully shaped glass bottle (displaying a brand name with an accented vowel) that retails for a ridiculous price.

    Here’s the thing: ALL fruits are healthy.

    Yes, some offer more nutrients than others, but there is no such thing as a fruit that is unhealthy or should be avoided.

    Similarly, I don’t like to label any food as a “miracle” or “superior” one.

    Besides, acai berries are exotic in the United States, but as run of the mill as apples are to us in their native Brazil.

    3. Nature is cheaper than major food companies.

    Instead of tortilla chips with flaxseeds (which aren’t even grounded up, meaning you aren’t absorbing any lignans,) buy ground flaxseed and sprinkle it onto different foods.

    A standard bag of ground flaxseed retails for $5 (almost as much as gourmet tortilla chips) and lasts for months if you only use up a tablespoon each day — which is plenty.

    Remember, what drives up food costs isn’t so much nutrition as it is convenience.

    A six-pack of single-serving applesauce containers may be convenient, but for that same amount of money you can buy enough apples to make five times that much applesauce.

    I specifically mention apples because they can sit in a fruit bowl for days before they start to rot.

    They are portable, delicious, and you don’t need any utensils to eat them. Talk about convenient!

    A Luna bar may be convenient, but so is packing a small Ziploc bag of peanuts and raisins to snack on later in the day (the latter is also significantly cheaper.)

    4. Sometimes a big name isn’t a good deal.

    Many foods (canned beans, plain oatmeal, raisins, and frozen vegetables) are equally nutritious whether they are made by a generic or well-known brand.

    5. Speaking of beans…

    … they are a wonderful and inexpensive way to get protein and fiber.

    Use them for vegetarian chilis, bean salads, or even to make your own hummus at home (it’s simple – just blend together chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt!).

    In conclusion…

    Junk food is very financially accessible, but so are many nutritious foods.

    PS: I’m interested in reading YOUR tips for eating healthy when money is tight. Post away!

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    Quick & Healthy Recipes: Avocado Smoothie

    I’m fairly certain I could have an avocado once a day for the rest of my life and never tire of the delicious nutty-flavored fruit.

    Some people enjoy the taste of an avocado but not the texture, so this smoothie is a great way to get a no-mush fix packed with nutrients and healthy fats!

    YIELD: 1 smoothie

    INGREDIENTS:

    1/2 cup milk of choice (dairy, unsweetened soy, unsweetened almond, unsweetened rice, etc.)
    1/4 cup frozen bananas
    1/2 cup frozen strawberries
    1/4 cup frozen blueberries
    1/2 Hass avocado
    1 Tablespoon wheat germ
    1 Tablespoon oat bran
    1 Tablespoon ground flaxseed
    1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract

    NOTE: For a less thick smoothie, add extra milk or water, depending on your specific caloric preference.

    DIRECTIONS:

    Combine all ingredients in blender. Blend for 20 – 30 seconds.

    NUTRITION FACTS:

    381 calories
    18 g fat (2 grams saturated fat)
    15 grams fiber
    3 grams added sugar (if made with plain soy milk)
    11 grams protein

    Excellent Source of: Monounsaturated fats, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid.

    Good Source of: Copper, folate, potassium

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    You Ask, I Answer: Monoglycerides & Diglycerides

    What are monoglycerides and diglycerides?

    I’ve seen them on food labels but don’t know what they are or why they are in some foods.

    – Lisa (last name withheld)
    Brooklyn, NY

    Ah, yes. Nothing makes you want to reach for a dictionary more than reading a food label.

    Monoglycerides and diglycerides are related to triglycerides (three fatty acid molecules bound to a glycerol molecule) — the basic unit of all dietary fats.

    They consist of either one or two fatty acid molecules bound to a glycerol molecule and are mainly used as emulsifiers, thickeners, and binders in a variety of different foods.

    Although they can be obtained from triglycerides, they are very easy to create synthetically.

    “Non-natural” peanut butters, for instance, contain mono and/or diglycerides in order to prevent the oil from separating from the more paste-like crushed peanuts.

    You will also often see them present in margarines and low-fat butter replacements.

    While they pose no health risks (or benefits), individuals with soy allergies should exercise caution, since a large percentage of mono and diglycerides are derived from soybean oil.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    According to recent estimates, 30.6 percent of adults in the United States are classified as obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or higher,) while only 3.2 percent of the adult population in Japan falls into that category.

    With that in mind, here’s an interesting fact:

    Average caloric consumption in the US clocks in at 3,770 calories a day, whereas the average Japanese citizen takes in 2,770 calories a day.

    Quite a striking difference, wouldn’t you say?

    By the way, I have seen lots of sloppy reporting in regards to Japan’s obesity rate.

    Many articles point out that Japan’s reputation as a healthy nation is undeserved, since one third of their adults are obese.

    Not quite.

    It just so happens that Japan and The United States use different parameters to define obesity.

    In the USA, one is categorized as obese if their Body Mass Index totals 30 or more.

    “Overweight,” meanwhile, is used to describe BMIs ranging from 25.0 to 29.9

    Japan, however, considers a BMI of 25 to mark the onset of obesity.

    To fall into the “overweight” category in the land of the rising sun, one’s BMI needs to be between 23.0 and 24.9.

    Theories of the Japanese having a distinct genetic makeup that makes them less likely to be obese are flimsy, since adopting the typical US diet — with its excessive caloric load — leads to weight gain in this population as well.

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    In The News: Obesity & Genetics

    I’m slightly weary of how the mainstream media will present the latest findings in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinoloy & Metabolism.

    To summarize, researchers at University College in London and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, discovered that children with the FTO gene – a gene associated with obesity — “are less likely to have their appetite ‘switched off’ by eating.”

    Furthermore, “previous studies have shown that adults with two copies of the FTO gene are on average 3kg [6.6 lbs] heavier, and individuals with a single copy are on average 1.5kg [3.3 lbs] heavier, than those without the gene.”

    What is important to keep in mind with this study and others similar to it is that the presence of this gene simply indicates “susceptability to overeating.”

    In other words, making smart food choices is crucial, no matter what your genetic makeup. A predisposition should not be turned into a self-fulfilling life sentence.

    I hope you are starting to see how a lot of the topics discussed on this blog feed into each other (pardon the pun.)

    Think about the following.

    It’s a known fact that when supersize portions are placed in front of us, we are likely to eat until the last bite simply because the food is there, inches away from our hands, eyes, and mouth.

    Restaurant entrées containing upwards of 2,000 calories are not unheard of these days.

    Place that factor within the framework of someone with an altered hunger mechanism and I’m sure you see the problem: they are even more likely to finish their plate, whether it packs in 800 or 3,000 calories.

    Individual choices do play an important role, though. Regardless of their genetic predisposition, anyone can choose to accompany their meal with a 150 calorie side dish of brown rice or a 400 calorie side dish of onion rings.

    Genes in and of themselves do not make anyone obese. It is the combination of dietary patterns and behaviors along with these genetic conditions that ultimately determine the outcome.

    After all, our genes are the same now as 50 years ago, when obesity rates in the United States were approximately 65% lower than they are today.

    Here’s hoping an overeager newscaster won’t soon be stating, “Why some people just can’t help being obese! All that and more tonight at eleven.”

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    Does Sugar Make Children Hyper?

    It’s certainly a question on many parents’ minds.

    Can little Adam’s or tiny Claudia’s hyper behavior at the next birthday party be subdued by only letting him or her have a half — rather than whole — slice of cake?

    In the latest video on the Small Bites YouTube channel, I tackle this question head on.

    Curious to know the answer? Watch and find out!

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    You Ask, I Answer: Guar Gum

    What is guar gum?

    I see it listed as an ingredient in a lot of foods and something about it sounds really artificial and unhealthy.

    – Vanessa (name withheld)
    Kansas City, MO

    There is actually nothing “sketchy” about guar gum.

    It is the end result of grinding up the endosperm of the guar plant (pictured at left,) which grows exclusively in certain regions of India and Pakistan between July and December.

    Guar gum serves a variety of food processing purposes, including thickening, emulsifying, and binding.

    Some of its “greatest hits” include preventing ice crystals from forming in ice cream and mimicking the consistency and texture of gluten (wheat protein) in gluten-free products.

    The reason why you see it pop up so often is because it is easy to manipulate and very low in cost — a food manufacturer’s dream!

    There is absolutely nothing about it to fear, and no reason to seek “guar gum free” foods.

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    Numbers Game: A World of Difference

    According to recent estimates, 30.6 percent of adults in the United States are classified as obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or higher,) while only 3.2 percent of the adult population in Japan falls into that category.

    With that in mind, here’s an interesting fact:

    Average caloric consumption in the US clocks in at __________ calories a day, whereas the average Japanese citizen takes in ___________ calories a day.

    (Sources: World Health Organization, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Health Data)

    a) 3,040/2,600
    b) 3,770/2,770
    c) 4,500/2,100
    d) 3,520/2,900

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Tuesday for the answer.

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    You Ask, I Answer: "Negative Calorie" Foods

    What do you think of negative calorie foods?

    Can someone lose weight if they eat well over their recommended calories of just negative calorie food?

    – Anonymous
    Via the blog

    I don’t believe “negative calorie foods” (foods that, some folks like to think/desperately wish, contain less calories than our bodies use to digest them) exist.

    Have you ever seen a list of supposed “negative calorie foods?”

    You’ll find a handful of vegetables (i.e.: asparagus, cucumbers) and fruits (i.e.: strawberries, blueberries.)

    Forget “negative calories,” these simply happen to be foods so low in calories that they can be eaten in fairly large quantities without much of an effect on your weight.

    It’s not that cucumbers result in a caloric deficit, it’s more that it takes TEN cups of sliced cucumbers to reach the 160 calorie mark (it takes just HALF a cup of Haagen Dazs to consume that same amount.)

    Bottom line — every food contains calories. Yes, even iceberg lettuce (a basically non-existent 8 calories per cup, but they are there.)

    These diet gimmicks are the creation of slick business people looking to tap into what I call the “desperate” demographic. These are people willing to believe ANYTHING that doesn’t call for a slow and steady change in their eating patterns or more structured/careful thinking about what they are eating.

    Also, my dear “anonymous,” there is no “recommended caloric amount” of negative calorie foods.

    The key to losing weight is to cut down on caloric intake (and if you can increase physical activity simultaneously, particularly with weight-resistant exercises, you’re down an excellent path.)

    Doing so in a healthy, tasty, permanent way that leaves you feeling satisfied while meeting your nutritional requirements isn’t always quite so easy, which is one reason why this blog was created.

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    Say What?: You Say "Wholesome," I Say "Really?"

    The Slim-Fast Foods Company describes itself as being “committed to the development of wholesome and balanced nutritional products to aid in weight management and improved health.”

    An interesting description, to say the least, given the ingredient list for their 120-calorie chocolate peanut nougat snack bar:

    Maltitol Syrup, Milk Chocolate Flavored Coating (Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel And Palm Oil, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Sugar, Roasted Peanuts (Peanuts, Peanut Oil), Sweetened Condensed Skim Milk (Skim Milk, Sugar), Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Palm Kernel And Soybean), Whey Protein Isolate, Gum Arabic, Malted Milk (Extracts Of Wheat Flour And Malt Barley, Milk, Salt, Sodium Bicarbonate), Nonfat Milk, Salt, Egg Whites, Artificial Flavor, Caramel Color, Soy Lecithin, Maltodextrin, Tbhq And Citric Acid, Vitamins And Minerals (Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Ferric Orthophosphate, Vitamin E Acetate, Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin E Acetate, Niacinamide, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrocholoride, Riboflavin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Folic Acid, Biotin, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12).

    How a product with partially hydrogenated oils and maltitol syrup (the syrup of a sugar alcohol!) as its first ingredient can be described as ‘wholesome’ beats me.

    You might as well eat a small chocolate bar and pop a multivitamin.

    Why not have a handful (160 calories’ worth) of peanuts instead?

    It’s just as convenient and portable a snack as one of these bars, and doesn’t contribute added sugars or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) to your day.

    Added bonus if you choose peanuts? Heart-healthy monounsaturated fats!

    By the way, the “40% less sugar” banner on the box of these bars is the result of replacing half the sugar with maltitol (the sugar alcohol most likely to cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Yum!)

    Craving chocolate but looking to control calories? Have a 100-calorie chocolate bar, sans sugar alcohols. Savor it, enjoy it, and go about your day.

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    You Ask, I Answer: B Vitamins & Mental Health

    What do you think about those TrueHope EMPower vitamins that make all kinds of claims about aiding mental health?

    I know B-complexes aid mental functioning, but is all of that really even bioavailable?

    – Anonymous
    Via the blog

    What do I think? I think it is an extremely disturbing — and dangerous — product.

    TrueHope advertises itself as “bringing hope, healing, and health through the research, development, and promotion of high effective nutritional supplements designed to correct mood disorders and other nutrient-depleted conditions.”

    In essence, they claim that mental conditions caused by chemical imbalances (such as bipolar disorder and depression) can be cured by popping what is, in essence, a daily multivitamin.

    This claim is based on “evidence” from very shoddy trials.

    In fact, there are a grand total of three, none of which are randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials (check out this Wikipedia link for “clinical trial 101″ reading.)

    Anyhow, their “mood-corrective” formula contains very high (sometimes above the upper tolerable intake) doses of a multitude of vitamins and minerals, plus a handful of other ingredients like grape seed extract and methionine.

    One particularly disturbing included ingredient is vanadium, a trace mineral that people with bipolar disorder have been shown to actually have high levels of.

    I am at a complete loss as to why this is present in EMPower.

    Although it is true that the B vitamins play a role in mental function, that is very different from mood disorders.

    The idea that B vitamins help with bipolar disorder is equivalent to someone claiming that since Vitamin C supports immune system function, megadoses could be effective in curing someone of AIDS.

    If anyone ever attempts to tell you they can correct a mental disorder caused by a chemical imbalance through vitamins and minerals, be sure to run in the opposite direction and stay far, far away.

    By the way, this product has been extremely controversial in its native Canada, where psychiatry and mental health organizations have warned patients of the dangers of relying on a combination of vitamins and minerals to control their mood disorders.

    It has also been alleged that these pills “were supposedly designed to stop pigs from chewing each other’s tails.”

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    In The News: LA Lays Down The Law

    Controversy is cooking in California, where a new law was passed that “prevents fast-food chains from opening new restaurants in a 32-square-mile area [of South Los Angeles] for one year, with the possibility of two six-month extensions.”

    This particular area of Los Angeles — formerly, and commonly, known as South-Central Los Angeles — has the highest obese rates in its county.

    In fact, the latest figures place 30% of adults in South Los Angeles as obese, whereas 20.9% of adults in that respective county fall into that same category.

    Diabetes figure are also higher in Southern LA (11.7%) than the rest of the county (8.1%).

    It’s worth nothing that this particular piece of policy defines a fast-food restaurant as “any establishment which dispenses food for consumption on or off the premises, and which has the following characteristics: a limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or heated quickly, no table orders and food served in disposable wrapping or containers.”

    A few points of interest:

    Some lawmakers have called into question the “limited menu” aspect of the definition, explaining that many fast food restaurants expand their menus as time goes on.

    Additionally, “fast-food casual” restaurants, such as Subway or Pastagina, that do not have heat lamps or drive-through windows and prepare fresh food to order” are exempt.

    While I think this is a step in the right direction, I am interested in seeing how effective this will be towards improving the health of residents.

    There are still literally hundreds of fast food chains in the area, and, perhaps more disturbingly, “the area has far fewer grocery stores than other parts of town.”

    This is always a dilemma in the public health and nutrition fields — how do you encourage people to improve their eating habits when they are so used to — and dependent on — a quick fix?

    My proposal?

    First, strike a deal with these fast-food restaurants that would entail them offering their healthier items at a reduced cost for a week, so as to encourage consumers to try them out.

    Then, offer free nutrition workshops at local community centers with an emphasis on healthy, low-cost, quick recipes.

    A lot of this dependence on fast food stems from convenience, a lack of nutrition education, affordability, and lack of alternative options.

    That is not some armchair theory, it is what I can recall from my own experience.

    Upon completing my undergraduate degree a few years ago, I lived in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood that has a high percent of low-income residents.

    The local supermarkets had terrible produce, and healthier convenience foods were nowhere to be found (i.e.: low-sodium varieties of canned foods, whole wheat crackers, baby carrots, etc.)

    The restaurants within a half mile radius of my building? All fast food.

    If I was ever not in the mood to cook, my only options were fried chicken, Chinese takeout, or McDonald’s.

    The situation in South Los Angeles is the same.

    Hopefully this community will be given resources — specifically nutrition education, healthier restaurants, and supermarkets with decent offerings.

    Thank you to Sandy R. for bringing this article to my attention.

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    Numbers Game: Answers

    Over at PF Chang’s China Bistro, an appetizer portion of spare ribs contains 1,386 calories, while the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert (“six layers of rich chocolate cake frosted with semi-sweet chocolate chips and raspberry sauce,”) adds up to 2,237 calories.

    This is precisely why calories should be posted on chain restaurant menus across the country.

    If someone were to put that slice of cake in front of me (I consider myself to be pretty good at eyeballing calories in a dish) and ask me to wager a guess, I wouldn’t go past the 1600 calorie mark.

    As for the spare ribs appetizer — that caloric value would already be hefty for an entree, let alone an appetizer.

    It absolutely blows my mind to think that in the oh-so-rare event that two people went to PF Chang’s and shared this appetizer and dessert combination they would be taking in slightly over 1,800 calories a piece!

    It would at least help if the PF Chang Menu would “suggest” sharing the Great Wall of Chocolate with three….. four… SIX other people!

    I don’t have a problem with someone wanting a slice of chocolate cake for dessert when they’re out at a restaurant, but whatever happened to offering a standard 300 or 400 calorie slice?

    If anything, such outrageous portions and values only reinforce the idea that “dessert is bad.”

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    You Ask, I Answer: Dairy Controversies

    What are your thoughts on milk?

    Specifically about the fact that the dairy industry has convinced millions of people, thanks to a very expensive campaign, that milk is the best source of calcium and vitamin D?

    There are other ways to get calcium, including broccoli and other greens, so why does milk always show up as the best source?

    Humans are also the only species to drink milk as adults. Don’t you find that odd? Doesn’t the fact that millions of people are allergic to milk mean that it’s unhealthy?

    Also, I read that there is an addictive component in milk (I think casein?) that keeps people coming back for more, including babies.

    Am I healthy if I don’t drink milk? What if I do?

    – (Name withheld)
    Brooklyn, NY

    Quite a lot of questions. Let’s take them piece by piece.

    My thoughts on a milk? It is a beverage that, depending on the variety, can be a healthy or not-so-healthy choice.

    A glass of skim or low fat milk with your breakfast? Great source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin, and protein.

    An extra large latte with half and half? All you’re really getting is a boatload of calories and saturated fat (half and half contains very little protein and calcium.)

    Is the milk lobby a powerful presence in Washington? You betcha. Why else do you think the “dairy” group in the food pyramid is now called the “milk” group.

    That is one change I am very unhappy about, as it takes away attention from other healthy options like yogurt, and cottage cheese.

    That said, dairy products truly are a good source of calcium. Not only is the quantity of said mineral rather high, it is also among the most absorbable.

    As for vitamin D — it is not naturally present in milk, but is rather there as a result of fortification. Cereals, orange juice, and soy drinks are also fortified with just as much Vitamin D, so I do not consider dairy to be the “go to” food for the sunshine vitamin.

    Besides, a glass of milk provides approximately one tenth of the daily Vitamin D requirement, so the best way to get the sunshine vitamin is to soak up about 20 minutes of sunlight a day and, in my opinion, pop a supplement.

    Can you get sufficient calcium without dairy? Absolutely. Nowadays, with calcium-fortified juices and soy products, there is no reason for the word “vegan” to mean “calcium deprived.”

    There are also a variety of non-dairy foods that naturally contain calcium: tofu, tempeh, and soybeans among them.

    Keep in mind that some leafy green vegetables (spinach, beet greens, and rhubarb) contain oxalates, which bind to calcium and greatly reduce its absorption.

    If you’re looking to get some calcium from vegetables, opt for collard greens, bok choy, and kale.

    Seaweed also happens to be a great non-dairy source of calcium.

    As for the argument that humans are the only species to drink milk as adults (and therefore some sort of natural aberration), it’s one of those leaps of logic that makes absolutely no sense to me.

    Other animals don’t have the choice to drink milk as adults.

    After a certain time, their mother’s milk supply is gone, and they certainly don’t have supermarkets to shop at, or other species to cuddle up to and start suckling from.

    The “humans are the only animals to drink milk as adults” argument isn’t even true.

    I can tell you from personal experience that if I pour cow’s milk into a bowl, my cat will happily drink it without any prodding on my part.

    Human allergies with milk have nothing to do with its status as “healthy” or “unhealthy” food. Many people are allergic to peanuts and shrimp, two very healthy foods.

    As for there being an addictive substance in milk, I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere in the literature. The reason why babies “keep coming back for more” is because their mothers are feeding it to them.

    I firmly stand in the middle of this issue. I believe a perfectly healthy diet can be milk-free just as I believe that milk can be a nutritious beverage.

    Personally, I am partial to organic milk from grass-fed cows.

    For the record, I have no issues with pasteurized milk. I don’t see any reason to start seeking out raw milk (remember, we don’t need digestive enzymes from food, so the fact that these enzymes are killed when milk is pasteurized means nothing.)

    What I find horribly messed up is that the milk from a cow that eats nothing but grass and is not pumped up with any Franken-hormones (the ONLY milk available at one point in time) is now a “luxury” high-cost product. Ugh.

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    Speak Up, New Yorkers

    Friday marked the deadline for all fast-food chains in New York City to post calorie information on their menus.

    Here are the few I’ve seen so far:

    At Au Bon Pain, prepared sandwiches have calorie information posted next to each selection. If you’re creating your own, though, you’re slightly left in the dark.

    For instance, all toppings (ranging from cucumber rounds to blue cheese crumbles) are listed as “0 – 210 calorie.” A more effective idea would be to break down toppings into 3 categories (say, 0 – 50 calories, 60 – 150, and then 150+)

    Chipotle is also a victim of its own “let the customer make their own meal.” The menu lists beverages as ranging from 0 to 250 calories. Additionally, calorie counts for a burrito appear as a 300-calorie range.

    Starbucks, meanwhile, has done a great job of labeling its baked goods and coffee drinks with the appropriate calories.

    New York City readers — what are your thoughts on the calorie postings? Have any of them surprised you and/or affected your purchases?

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