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    Archive for January, 2009

    You Ask, I Answer: Whole Grain Mustard

    I feel silly asking this question, but since I can remain anonymous, I’ll ask it anyway.

    Is whole grain mustard an actual whole grain?

    In other words, does one serving of it (two tablespoons) count as a whole grain?

    — (Name Withheld)
    New York, NY

    Whole grain mustard is not an actual whole grain.

    The term is used to differentiate between mustard varieties made from ground-up seeds of the mustard plant (which, by the way, is in the same family of plants as broccoli and cauliflower) and those that contain the seeds in their whole, unadulterated form.

    That said, mustard seeds can add a pinch of nutrition to a meal.

    Two teaspoons, for instance, pack in 12 percent of the Daily Value of selenium and 6 percent of the manganese and phosphorus you need each day.

    One easy way to enjoy mustard seeds in a dish is by crusting your protein of choice (tofu, tempeh, tuna steaks, etc.) with them.


    Keeping It Real With Your Cereal

    As someone who loves nutritious food, eye-catching websites, and freedom of choice, I must tell you about a new custom artisanal cereal company named [Me] & Goji.

    Created by three socially and environmentally conscious twenty-something businessmen unhappy with the vast selection of unhealthy — or healthy but tasteless — cereals on the market, [Me] & Goji allows you to create your own cereal from thirty different nutritious, 100% organic ingredients ranging from oat bran flakes and wheat germ to dried mango, goldenberries, and almonds.

    Your chosen ingredients are then hand-mixed and sent to you within a week in a sleek tube-shaped capsule (which, by the way, makes for a lovely and funky flower vase once empty!) that features your concoctions’ name (as christened by you), a nutrition facts label, and an ingredient list.

    Although the $11 price tag for an average capsule might seem hefty, it isn’t quite as astronomical when you consider that each capsule contains 21 ounces of cereal (many organic cereals available at supermarkets come in 14 ounce boxes and retail for $4.99.)

    Still, while more costly than buying a box of cereal at the supermarket, this is a wonderfully creative gift for a cherished healthy eater, cereal lover, or always-happy-to-get-some-free-food college student in your life.

    Which begs the Barbara Walters-inspired question. If you were a cereal, what type of cereal would you be?


    Numbers Game: Answer

    A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study published in the November 2007 issue of Obesity Research found that per capita total daily intake of liquid calories in the United States increased 94 percent from 1965 to 2002.

    This means the average American is now getting a hefty 21 percent of his or her total calories exclusively from beverages.

    Since we are talking about mostly caloric beverages (particularly sodas and fruit juices), this makes the 2002 figures 222 calories higher than those from 1965!

    Add to that the fact that these 222 calories are not balanced out by a reduction in food intake (if anything, they are accompanied by an increase in calories from food!) and it becomes rather clear why rates of overweight and obesity have increased.

    Let the accompanying photo also serve as a reminder that 7-11’s 44 ounce Super Big Gulp and 64 ounce Double Gulp cups did not exist in 1965!


    You Ask, I Answer: Sugar Addiction

    Is it true that sugar is addicting?

    For example, if I am at a party and there is a whole box of [Dunkin’ Donuts] munchkins it is very hard for me to only have one!

    — Laura Bulner
    Miami, FL

    That is one very popular myth.

    Sucrose (table sugar, and what most people refer to when they say “sugar”) is simply not an addictive substance.

    When singled out and studied as an individual component, it has not been shown to induce physical or psychological addiction.

    I do not believe any foods in and of themselves are addictive.

    I think too many people jump to that conclusion by not recognizing the strong emotions that are behind many people’s food choices.

    The fact that someone may binge on Oreo cookies when feeling intense loneliness, sadness, or anxiety does not mean those cookies are addictive.

    What it DOES point to is an addictive personality that, for whatever reason, uses food as an emotional release.

    I also find that foods that get blamed as being addictive are ones that many people often severely restrict. Not surprisingly, these extreme positions then lead to overconsumption of the “forbidden” food, be it chocolate or fries.

    What I always find semi-comical is that people are quick to attribute addictive qualities solely to high-calorie, sugar-laden foods, as if to make themselves appear helpless.

    You never hear, for example, someone who loves celery and eats ten stalks every single day claim that “celery is addictive.”

    Besides, those who are somehow convinced that sugar is addictive only feel that way about the added sugar found in pastries, chocolate, and candies.

    If this supposed addiction is as powerful as they claim, it makes you wonder why naturally sweet foods like fruits somehow don’t “hit the spot.”

    Also, Laura, I am not sure why not being able to stop yourself at one individual piece of a particular food automatically makes it addictive, even more so in a situation where the food is in front of you for a long period of time.

    The same thing you say about munchkins could be said about cheese, tortilla chips, sushi rolls, or blueberries!


    In The News: Shakeup

    As I predicted in late 2007, sodium is quickly becoming the new trans fat in terms of public awareness, advertising focus (the amount of product touting “now with less sodium!” stickers continues to grow), and nutrition policy.

    Today’s New York Times profiles “a new campaign to lower the amount of sodium America eats” developed by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

    Over a recent lunch with food company executives, Dr. Frieden made his wishes very clear: “identify the foods that are contributing the most sodium to people’s diets and cut the level of salt by 25 percent. Do it in unison with out competitor [and a decade after that], cut it by another 25 percent.”

    As optional as that may sound, Dr. Frieden did not shy away from proposing stricter legislation on sodium content in foods if companies did not appear to make an effort.

    When this man talks, food companies tend to listen, particularly since he is one of the main brains behind trans fat bans and calorie labeling laws that are rapidly spreading throughout the United States.

    “Under Dr. Frieden’s plan, which is based on one in the United Kingdom, targets for sodium reduction will be set for certain food categories. The prime suspects include cheese, breakfast cereals, bread, macaroni and noodle products, cake mixes, condiments and soups. The final list of sodium targets will be based on a formula that takes into account the amount of sodium in a product as well as how much food in that category people eat.”

    It is not too surprising that sodium consumption is higher now than it was seventy years ago, considering the increasing amount of processed foods that make up the “typical American diet” (remember, the more processed a food, the higher its sodium content and the lower its potassium levels).

    While recommendations call for no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day, the average adult in the United States consumes anywhere from 3,300 to 3,700 milligrams on a daily basis.

    And while it is true that not everyone is equally sensitive to sodium, there is a large enough percentage of the population that is sensitive that justifies a concern surrounding the amounts of sodium in many products.

    The most interesting thing about sodium is that our palates adapt rather quickly to higher or lower amounts.

    After approximately 21 to 25 days on a lower sodium diet, foods that once seemed “moderately salty” tend to be perceived as “very salty.”

    Which brings me to another important point. Many people erroneously think that if a food doesn’t taste salty, it does not contain sodium.

    Not so. High amounts of sodium are often found in sweet foods.

    A Baskin Robbins Oreo sundae, for example, contains 950 milligrams of sodium. That’s 600 MORE milligrams than a large order of McDonald’s fries.


    In The News: Mercury In High Fructose Corn Syrup

    Here’s some unpleasant news.

    The Washington Post is reporting on two recent studies published in Environmental Health which found that “almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient.”

    Ranges varied from 0.005 to 0.57 micrograms of mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup.

    Keep in mind that Environmental Protection Agency figures, for instance, consider 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight to be the upper limit for safe intakes.

    This means, then that a 140 pound adult (63.6 kilograms) should consume no more than 6.36 micrograms a day.

    The problem here comes with the high amount of high fructose corn syrup consumed by the average child, teenager, and adult in the United States — 12 daily teaspoons on average.

    Let’s do some math.

    Twelve teaspoons of HFCS equal 48 grams.

    If those 48 grams came from the sample with the highest amount of mercury, that totals 27 micrograms of mercury in a single day!

    Two more things worth pointing out.

    First, sodas were found not to have any mercury in them despite consisting of mainly water and high fructose corn syrup. Perhaps this is due to some processing step?

    Second, controversy is arising due to rumblings that the lead author of one study allegedly alerted the Food & Drug Administration about her findings several years ago but, for reasons not known to anyone, these findings were reportedly not followed up on.

    The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy — which participated in both studies — is actively pushing for immediate changes in manufacturing that would not taint high fructose corn syrup with the infamous heavy metal.

    Yet another bullet point for the ever-expanding “important issues in food safety” list…

    And, more importantly, even more of a reason to limit the amount of processed, nutritionally inferior food (which is usually laden with added sugars, mainly in the form of high fructose corn syrup.)

    PS: Thank you to reader Dennise O’Grady for providing me with the second link in this post.


    Numbers Game: Drink Up

    A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health study published in the November 2007 issue of Obesity Research found that per capita total daily intake of liquid calories in the United States increased _____ percent from 1965 to 2002.

    a) 53
    b) 71

    c) 86

    d) 94

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Friday for the answer!


    In The News: Up Next… Indiana!

    More positive news from the Midwest — The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that “chain restaurants [with 10 or more locations] in Indiana would be required to make nutritional information available to customers at each location [either on a posted menu or printed documents] under legislation that has advanced in the Indiana House.”


    I am still looking forward to the day these policies become federal, though.

    In the meantime, New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health is set to determine what effect, if any, calorie labeling has had on New York City’s fast food customers.

    Prior to the law going into effect, customers exiting various fast food restaurants were asked to submit their itemized receipts in exchange for a free subway pass.

    At some point next year — well over a year after calorie labeling went into effect — the same survey method will be employed.

    This should provide some insight as to whether or not this type of legislative strategy ultimately has a positive impact on consumer behavior (i.e.: are Starbucks customers now favoring 150-calorie biscotti over 390 calorie banana bread slices?).


    You Ask, I Answer: Carbohydrate Needs

    In Eat This, Not That For Kids, there is a table titled “What Our Kids Need Each Day” that shows what amount of different nutrients children should be getting on a daily basis.

    For carbohydrate, every age group (from 1 to 18 years) has the same carbohydrate requirement: 130 grams.

    That seem fishy to me?

    — Taryn (last name withheld)
    Houston, TX

    Uh oh. That figure is ripe for misinterpretation.

    It would be much more accurate to express it as “at least 130 grams.”

    Without those two important words, I can imagine many people thinking they are not supposed to feed their child more than that amount of carbohydrates each day.

    The 130 gram figure is important because it is the minimum amount of carbohydrate needed each day to spare body proteins.

    This means that by consuming 130 grams of carbohydrates (520 calories’ worth), you are ensuring that protein is used for building and maintaining muscle tissue, rather than for energy.

    That figure is also calculated to be the amount necessary to support the production of red blood cells as well as keep the central nervous system working as efficiently as possible.

    A much better recommendation is to get anywhere from 45 to 60 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates.

    Readers, here is an example to help you figure out how many grams of carbohydrate you should be aiming for each day:

    Let’s assume you need 2,200 calories a day.

    Some simple multiplication lets us know that a range of 45 to 60 percent of that figure is equal to 990 – 1,320 calories.

    To figure out how many grams of carbohydrates those calorie values equal, divide them by 4 (remember, there are 4 calories in each gram of carbohydrate.)

    Therefore, someone consuming 2,200 calories a day should take in anywhere from 247 to 330 grams of carbohydrates a day.

    PS: Taryn just completed her Dietetic Internship at the University of Houston. If you are interested in learning what future dietitians learn in their DIs, please visit her blog!


    You Ask, I Answer: Pasta

    I’ve heard so many different things about pasta from a nutritional standpoint.

    Is pasta from Italy enriched with vitamins and minerals [like it is in the United States]?

    Is pasta cooked al dente better for you because it digests slower?

    Some say [pasta] is no better than white refined bread, but others say differently?

    What’s the deal?

    — Carrie Watson
    (via the blog)

    What a great trilogy of questions! Let’s taken them one by one.

    White flour products in the United States are enriched with nutrients lost in the milling process (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and iron) as a result of The Federal Enrichment Act of 1942.

    In the United States, all white flour products are also fortified with folate.

    Some countries have similar laws (in Argentina, the same nutrients are added back to flour, whereas in England white flour must be enriched with these nutrients AND fortified with calcium), but Italy is not one of them.

    From a nutritional standpoint, cooking pasta al dente is recommended over mushy consistencies since the “al dente” texture has a lower glycemic index (meaning it does not spike blood glucose levels quite as much.)

    However, remember that the glycemic load of a pasta meal is ultimately determined by what else you are eating with your pasta.

    If, for example, your pasta dinner contains some protein, fat, and fiber (i.e.: whole wheat pasta with meatballs and parmesan cheese), those additional components will help slow down digestion and lessen the sharp spike in blood sugar levels.

    As far as white bread and pasta made with refined flour are concerned — yes, they are basically identical from a nutritional standpoint (the main exception being that one ounce of bread has roughly 150 to 200 milligrams of sodium, while most dry pasta is sodium-free.)

    It’s not that white bread and pasta are inherently unhealthy, but rather that, compared to whole wheat varieties, they are nutritionally inferior.


    Numbers Game: Answer

    Del Taco’s “Macho” bacon-and-egg breakfast burrito starts the morning off with 1,030 calories, 100 percent of a day’s worth of saturated fat, and 73 percent of a day’s worth of sodium.

    From a caloric standpoint, that’s equivalent to almost three and a half Egg McMuffins!

    Interestingly, consumer behavior reports are showing large increases in breakfast-to-go purchases.

    According to the 2008 New American Diner Study twenty percent of consumers “always or often” eat breakfast away from home on weekdays.

    On another note, isn’t it rather pathetic that manliness is somehow equated to hyper-caloric, unhealthy eating?


    You Ask, I Answer: Vitamin B17

    Yesterday I attended a talk by wellness coach who talked about vitamin B17 and its cancer curing properties.

    This person was saying the government knows about B17’s ability to cure cancer

    I had never heard of it before and thought it was all sounded a little weird.

    Are you familiar with it?

    — Deborah Yee
    (Location withheld)

    Oh dear.

    “Vitamin B17” does not exist.

    This all goes back to a gentleman named Ernest Krebs Jr., who in the early 1950s claimed that a chemical compound found mainly in apricot pits (known as laetrile) could cure cancer.

    Seeing a potential profitable market, Krebs later contended that laetrile was actually vitamin B17 (despite the fact that laetrile does not have the necessary qualities from a chemical or molecular standpoint to be called a vitamin).

    Despite federal lawsuits contending that these claims were false, laetrile continued to be sold in some health food stores (sometimes as “Vitamin B17.”)

    Fast forward to the early 1970s and you have G. Edward Griffin publishing a book titled World Without Cancer in which he claimed the terminal disease is caused by a vitamin B17 deficiency.

    According to Griffin, this knowledge had been kept hidden from the general public due to massive conspiracies.

    Quite a silly statement, considering that the first laetrile nonsense was first made public in the 1950s.

    Scientific studies on laetrile make it absolutely clear that there is not one single reason to believe it has anything to do with cancer prevention.

    However, some believers of this science fiction affirm that seven apricot seeds a day “guarantee a cancer free life.” An absolutely shameful and false claim.

    So-called “experts” on B17 claim that Alaskan Eskimos and Pakistani Hunza communities have high intakes of this “vitamin,” thereby “explaining” why there are no recorded cases of cancer among their people.

    That is another blatantly false statement, as scientific literature has recorded instances of cancer cases among those groups of people.

    What raises my quackery red flag even more is that a look at the supposed list of foods “high in B17” (which consists only of plant foods and includes blueberries, peaches, and pears) does not in any way resemble your standard Eskimo diet.

    Your question demonstrates precisely why people should be ware of credentials like “wellness coach.” That is often a self-appointed title that does not guarantee expertise on — or even basic knowledge of — nutrition or human health.


    In The News: Your Move, Minnesota

    I’m crossing my fingers that parallel proposals — to ban trans fats and provide nutritional information on menus — currently making the rounds in Minneapolis and St. Paul become a reality in the near future.

    Although there are no plans for for state-wide implementation of these public health nutrition policies, it’s still quite exciting to see them pop up in more cities across the United States with each passing month.

    For the record, “sixty-three percent of Minnesotans are either overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health.”

    The Minneapolis and St. Paul proposals, like most other cities’, “affect only restaurant chains with 15 or more establishments.”

    I take issue with such distinctions.

    Why should a fast food chain with 11 establishments not be held accountable?

    And why should an order of fries containing 4 grams of trans fat be granted immunity if it is served at a “mom and pop” restaurant?


    You Ask, I Answer: Sugar/Fruit

    You often say that “sugar is sugar” when talking about calories from white sugar, brown sugar, or evaporated cane juice.

    But then you point out that a Lara bar is a healthy snack choice because it has no added sugar.

    They are made with dates, though, which have sugar.

    So if “sugar is sugar,” why don’t you say that a Lara bar is essentially the same thing as a Snickers?

    — Raymond (last name withheld)
    Brooklyn, NY

    The three sweeteners you mention in your first sentence are commonly referred to as “empty calories.”

    This means they contribute nothing but calories to our diets. There are no “redeeming qualities” to them. Not only do they not offer a single vitamin or mineral, they also don’t do anything in the way of satiety.

    That is precisely why 600-calories of soda don’t fill you up anywhere near as much as 600 calories of a meal containing some fat, protein, and fiber.

    (Slight tangent: a semi-exception can be made for pure maple syrup in the ‘mineral’ category, since a single tablespoon provides a third of the daily value of manganese.)

    In any case, snack bars made with dates — such as Lara — are different from bars that tack on extra calories via a sweetener.

    The dates in these bars contribute naturally-occurring sugars which co-exist with potassium, fiber, and many phytochemicals and antioxidants in that fruit.

    While brown sugar and white sugar are identical from a nutritional standpoint, those two sugars are nutritionally inferior to fresh or dry fruit.

    Hence, a Lara bar and a Snickers bar are worlds apart.

    The Snickers bar gets a large portion of its calories from sugar and certainly does not provide the same amount of potassium, fiber, or phytochemicals as its date-based counterpart.

    This is why I would love food labels to differentiate between naturally occurring versus added sugars.

    A Lara bar might seem to have almost as much sugar as a Snickers bar, but we are talking about two very different sources of sweetness.


    You Ask, I Answer: "50 Worst Foods" List

    What do you think about this list of 50 foods with almost zero nutritional value linked to on Serious Eats’ Twitter page?

    — Kristin (last name withheld)
    (Location withheld)

    I have many, many problems with it.

    Not only does it not present particularly new information, it is also poorly written and makes a significant number of inaccurate statements and sweeping generalizations.

    For example:

    Potato Chips are fried and packed with tons of preservatives to keep them fresh for months.

    Not quite. Many potato chips are made up of simply potatoes, oil, and salt (salt being the preservative!).

    Therefore, it is absolutely inaccurate to say they are packed with “tons” of preservatives.

    Additionally, while potato chips do not offer as much nutrition as a baked potato with its skin on, your typical serving does contain as much potassium as a medium banana.

    This list also claims that pasta has “zero nutritional value”.

    Not so! Non-whole grain pasta may not be very high in fiber, but it still contains protein as well as some B vitamins and iron (as a result of enrichment.)

    It is ridiculous to claim that a food with that sort of nutritional profile has “almost zero” nutritional value.

    Then there’s this odd inclusion:

    Fried seafood like shrimp, clams, and lobster contain high trans fat. They also contain mercury and possibly parasites.”

    Awkward phrasing aside, this is plain wrong.

    Trans fat is only an issue if those foods are fried in an oil high in trans fats. As far as mercury is concerned, it is the large predatory fish that are a concern, not bottom-of-the-sea dwellers.

    And as far as parasites are concerned — that may be an issue from a food safety perspective depending on how these foods are eaten (although who eats raw lobster??), but that has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of a food.

    How about this vague tidbit:

    Breakfast or cereal bars are low in fat but high in sugar. They offer very little in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”

    This greatly varies on the brand. Many cereal bars offer 4 or 5 grams of fiber, little added sugar, and a handful of vitamins and minerals.

    Another example that left me scratching my head:

    Oreo Cookies contain about 60% of fat and extremely high in Tran’s [sic] fat. The filling packs on an additional 160 calories per cookie.

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

    First of all, a single Oreo cookie contains 53 calories. The “Double Stuf” variety adds up to 70 calories per cookie. Hence, this notion that the filling alone contains 160 calories is absolutely off-base.

    It is also inaccurate to claim that Oreos are “extremely high in trans fats.”

    Although partially hydrogenated oil is included on the ingredient list, the food label lists 0 grams per serving. This means that, at most, Oreos contain 0.4 grams of trans fat per serving (for all we know, it could be 0.09 grams).

    I do not consider that to be “extremely high.”

    I could go on and on. Alas, I can’t fathom why a website like Serious Eats would find that list worthy of linking to.

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