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    Archive for February, 2009

    You Ask, I Answer: Soy Lecithin

    What exactly is soy lecithin and why is it added to foods?

    Should I be concerned about it?

    – Dennise O’Grady
    Bay Head, NJ

    Lecithin is a byproduct of refined soy or sunflower oils.  Some food companies are starting to use sunflower lecithin as a way to appeal to individuals with soy allergies.  That said, soy lecithin is still the more common of the two.

    It is mainly used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in foods as well as to provide better textures to powdered beverage mixes, salad dressings, and low-fat packaged foods.

    You’ll usually see soy lecithin at the end of ingredient lists because it is used in such miniscule amounts (usually no more than 1.3 percent of the food product’s total weight.)

    The Food & Drug Administration places soy lecithin in their list of Generally Recognized as Safe foods.

    Interestingly, allergy information is not consistent. Since soy lecithins contain negligible amounts of soy protein, most people with soy allergies can consume them without experiencing any side effects.

    There have been, however, scattered reports of allergic reactions.

    Some people — particularly vegans — like to sprinkle soy lecithin granules over soups, salads, and cereals as a way to add choline to their diet.

    Makes sense to me.  A single tablespoon provides half of the daily adequate intake figure of choline (other vegan sources, like peanut butter and cauliflower, contribute anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of adequate intake value per serving).

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    In The News: That’s More Like It

    The Los Angeles Times shares encouraging news today — “Coca-Cola Co. and joint-venture partner Nestle agreed to pay $650,000 in a settlement with 27 states over claims that Enviga green tea burns calories, resulting in weight loss.”

    If you are not familiar with Enviga, it is a flavored sparkling green tea in the Nestea line of products.

    The claim? Drinking three cans per day helps burn anywhere from 60 to 100 calories.

    Coca Cola based that claim on the presence of EGCG, an antioxidant in green tea which has been the focus of several metabolic and weight loss studies (here is my take on the research literature.)

    The man behind this lawsuit is Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who added that moving forward, “any marketing of Enviga or a similar beverage that uses the terms “the calorie burner,” “negative calories” or “drink negative” must clearly disclose that the product doesn’t lead to weight loss without diet and exercise.”

    Small Bites salutes — and thanks — you, Mr. Blumenthal.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Swimming & Digestion

    Since I know you like to tackle myths, I have one I’m curious about.

    Should you really wait an hour after eating a meal before you go swimming to prevent cramps?

    – Heidi Conprisi
    New York, NY

    Ah, one of those old wives’ tales that will not go away.

    Every Summer I still come across news articles warning beachgoers and pool enthusiasts to avoid the water for at least an hour after enjoying their lunch.

    Let’s lay this one to rest with some Human Physiology 101.

    After a meal, blood is mainly “dispatched” to the digestive area to aid in nutrient absorption.

    The “don’t swim within an hour after eating a meal” assumes that getting in the water while this is happening leads to cramping.

    Not quite. If you are simply immersing yourself in the ocean or engaging in some light swimming in the pool, your body can most certainly handle digestion all while providing blood to the muscles.

    Unless you are planning on starting a 10 mile swim as you swallow your last morsel of lunch, there is absolutely no need for concern.

    The only thing you may experience if you push yourself too hard — as with any vigorous physical activity performed minutes after eating — is an unpleasant queasy feeling.

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    In The News: Oh, Look… Calories!

    CNN is reporting the findings of a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine comparing the efficacy of four diets — high-carb, low-carb, high-fat, and high-protein.

    Although not based on popular diets (the high-protein diet, for instance, does not provide the same distribution of nutrients as Atkins), the four eating plans had their particular distinctions (i.e: one offered 35 percent of calories from protein, while another increased the amount to 65 percent of calories from protein).

    The conclusion? “All produced weight loss and improvements in lipids [as well as] reduction in insulin. The key really is that it’s calories, not the content of fat or carbohydrates — just calories,” summarizes study co-author Dr. Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health.

    Or, as the study itself beautifully encapsulates it: “reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.”

    No matter which of the four diets the 811 overweight participants were on, they all “had a[n average] 750-calorie reduction per day.”

    Not surprisingly, they all lost weight.

    Note that even the higher-in-fat diets followed American Heart Association guidelines (mainly sufficient fiber intakes and limited saturated and trans fat intake).

    Let this be even further proof to the “saturated fat is the healthiest fat; everyone is lying to you!” camp that diets rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat do indeed lead to improved lipid profiles and weight loss.

    Adding to the uniqueness of this study is that it is one of the few that tracked participants on these diets for two entire years.

    How will “calories don’t matter, it’s all about limiting carbohydrates”enthusiasts explain yet another study showing weight loss can be accomplished while eating a substantial amount of carbohydrates?

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    You Ask, I Answer: Vegemite

    [What can you tell me about] the nutritional content of vegemite?

    Is it safe to eat some every day on top of toast, or should I be worried about preservatives/salt/etc?

    – Jade Miller
    (location withheld)

    Vegemite is a concentrated brewer’s yeast extract mixed with spices and malt extract that is quite popular in Australia and New Zealand.

    The Brits have their own version known as marmite, which replaces the sweeteners with salt and also adds vegetable extract.

    Among connoiseurs, the general consensus is that marmite has a strong flavor.

    Anyhow, vegemite offers a mere 9 calories per teaspoon (unless you are very fond of the substance, one teaspoon is all you need to spread on your toast) along with 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrates.

    It is a very good source of niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and folate.

    There is no need to be concerned with sodium, since that one-teaspoon serving only adds 152 milligrams to your day.

    As far as I’m concerned, feel free to spread the vegemite love on your toast each morning!

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    You Ask, I Answer: Calorie Discrepancies on Food Labels

    Why does the nutritional information on labels of the (seemingly) same product, but from different companies, have different data?

    The one that I noticed today was when I bought Hodgson Mill’s oatbran. It says 40 grams has 120 calories, but Mother’s oat bran says 40g is 150 calories. Shouldn’t these be the same?

    They both state that the only ingredient in the box is oat bran.

    Another example (that got me started on this) was canned black beans.

    Again, the serving side listed on the can is always approximately the same (I’ve even checked the weight, not just the half cup measurement) and the calories listed can range from 90 to 130, depending on the brand.

    Do you know why this is?

    I understand that companies have some fudge-room for their nutritionals, but these examples seem like there shouldn’t be that much of a difference.

    – Michelle Pope
    (location withheld)

    Ah, welcome to the twisted maze that is calorie labeling!

    This is an excellent question, as it gives significant insight into labeling laws and regulations.

    Come on in and sit a spell, though, because this can be initially confusing to the untrained eye.

    First of all, remember that calorie figures higher than 50 can be rounded off to the nearest 10-calorie increment.

    In other words, if a serving of cereal adds up to 134 calories, it can legally be displayed on the label as 130.

    Similarly, a serving containing 156 calories is often shown as 160 calories for simplicity’s sake.

    Now we get to the more complicated issues.

    Although you often see references to carbohydrates containing 4 calories per gram, they technically contain 3.6 calories per gram.

    The “4 calories per gram” figure is commonly used — and referred to everywhere, including this blog — in order to facilitate in-your-head multiplication and estimation.

    Additionally, since protein technically provides 4.2 calories per gram, the logic is that by portraying both those nutrients as containing 4 calories per gram, final estimates are very close to actual totals.

    That said, some companies arrive at their calorie totals by allocating 4 calories to each gram of carbohydrate in their food, while others — and this is completely legal, by the way — allocate 3.6 calories per gram.

    On top of that, all macronutrient figures are rounded off. In other words, a serving of food containing 29.5 grams of carbohydrates shows up as containing 30.

    So, company #1 may choose to keep it simple and multiply that rounded figure (30 grams) by the rounded-up “calories per gram” figure (4 calories per gram) and come up with 120 calories.

    Meanwhile, company #2 can instead opt to multiply the technical figures (29.5 grams of carbohydrate x 3.6 calories per gram) for a grand total of 106 calories!

    Then we have the issue of fiber, which comes into play with both of your food examples.

    If food companies choose to, they may leave out grams of carbohydrates from insoluble fibers in their final calculations.

    Taking all that into consideration, you can see why the same amount of the same food does not always yield the same food label.

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    Oh, Dear…

    It is findings such as these that can lead to substantial discouragement when thinking of school nutrition.

    Take a look at this week’s lunch menus for a handful of Pennsylvania schools.

    Although some are better than others (offering carrot sticks and slices of real fruit), the vast majority of these meals are nutritionally pitiful.

    Shouldn’t parents send their children off to school with the guarantee that they are being fed relatively well?

    Part of the issue here is how the National School Lunch Program defines a “balanced” meal.

    The basic criteria is to offer a balanced meal by including all food groups.

    However, a meal consisting of chicken nuggets, french fries, peaches in canned syrup, and chocolate milk is considered “balanced” — the breading in the chicken nuggets counts as a serving of grains, the french fries meet the vegetable requirement, and the sugary peaches are accepted as fruit.

    UPDATE: Thank you to Small Bites reader Jasmine for forwarding this February 20 New York Times op-ed piece by Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters that touches on this very topic!

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    Numbers Game: Critical Point

    ____ percent of peak bone mass (the period by which all bone formation occurs) is achieved by age 20.

    a) 73 – 79
    b) 92 – 98

    c) 81 – 87

    d) 100

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Saturday for the answer (and to find out how this ties into osteoporosis and fracture risk).

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    Bursting The Bubble

    Here’s a twist on labeling issues — sparkling wines masquerading as champagne.

    “In December 2006, Congress passed legislation banning the future misuse of 16 wine place names, including Champagne. While that was a step in the right direction, the legislation did not address the grandfathering of labels currently misusing Champagne’s name and that of 15 other international wine regions,” the Office of Champagne explains in their official press release.

    As a supporter of stricter regulations on food labeling, I empathize.

    My most pressing food labeling issue? Trans fats.

    Rather than allowing foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be advertised as “0 grams of trans fat,” I propose they be labeled as “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving” and, below that, include the following statement: “NOT a trans fat-free food.”

    Gets the message across more clearly, don’t you think?

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    You Ask, I Answer: Soaking Grains & Phytate Levels

    I just ran across a website that advocates soaking or sprouting whole grains prior to using them to neutralize the phytic acid and make the nutrients in the grain more bioavailable.

    Since the person blogging about this stuff is NOT a doctor, scientist, or nutritionist of any kind, I wanted to get a second opinion on the value of the methods described/benefits obtained, etc.

    The article quotes someone by the name of Sally Fallon, who writes:

    Grains require careful preparation because they contain a number of antinutrients that can cause serious health problems. Phytic acid acid can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption. This is why a diet high in improperly prepared whole grains may lead to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss.

    Other antinutrients in whole grains include enzyme inhibitors which can inhibit digestion and put stress on the pancreas; irritating tannins; complex sugars which the body cannot break down; and gluten and related hard-to-digest proteins which may cause allergies, digestive disorders and even mental illness.

    Is this true or mumbo-jumbo?

    – Kristina Hartman
    Concord, NC

    It is true that soaking and sprouting grains greatly reduces their phytate content.

    However, I don’t see any reason to soak grains prior to eating them, and here is why.

    Number 1: simply cooking grains reduces their phytate content to some degree.

    Keep in mind, too, that when you are cooking whole grains (whether it’s brown rice, whole wheat cous cous, or quinoa), they are already immersed in water.

    Number 2: phytates cause mineral deficiencies only when the diet is largely made up of grains (as is the case in many third world nations.)

    Eating whole grains as part of a diet that also includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, meat/meat alternatives and dairy/daily alternatives is not a health concern.

    Lastly, studies have shown that phytates offer some health benefits, including decreasing the risk of certain cancers (mainly colon, cervical, liver, and prostate) by slowing down and inhibiting maturation of cancer cells.

    As for “complex sugars the body can not break down” and gluten causing mental illness, I have no clue how the author came to such conclusions.

    Some people are allergic to gluten, but that does not make it a dangerous or unhealthy component in food for those who can eat it without experiencing symptoms.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Tea & Coffee

    I’ve read a lot about the supposed health benefits of tea (especially green) and coffee [in regards to] cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease [risk].

    Any hard data on this?

    [If so, do the health benefits] apply to all kinds of teas and coffees?

    What about decaf varieties?

    – Corey Clark
    (location withheld)

    There is plenty of data in the scientific literature showing the health benefits of coffee.

    Coffee beans contain a wide array of antioxidants, polyphenols, and health-promoting compounds.

    Consistent consumption of 16 to 24 ounces of coffee a day has been linked with decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

    Additionally, the antioxidants in coffee have been shown to reduce inflammation and inhibit cellular tumor growth.

    What these studies basically show is that healthy individuals (although not pregnant women) who drink coffee regularly do not need to be concerned with cutting it out of their diet for health reasons.

    That said,the percentage of the population that is sensitive to caffeine should certainly avoid it.

    Luckily, both caffeinated AND decaffeinated coffees and teas share the same amount of flavonoids and antioxidants.

    Speaking of teas, all varieties (green, white, and black) offer plenty of flavonoids and antioxidants. Herbal teas, however, offer significantly lower amounts.

    The biggest issue with these beverages is what people are putting into them (syrups, tablespoon upon tablespoon of sugar, mounds of whipped cream, etc.) that often turns them into calorie, sugar, and fat-laden drinks that do more harm than good.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Himalayan Salt

    Is Himalayan crystal salt worth the extra money?

    Some of the literature claims it is the most nutritious salt in the world since it is all natural and free of preservatives.

    – Lorena Ibarra
    (city withheld), FL

    The literature you are referring to is written by companies that sell Himalayan salt — not the most objective source.

    I have read some of these pamphlets and the claims make absolutely no sense to me.

    Makers of Himalayan salt, for instance, boast that their product contains all 84 chemical elements, lending it a “special harmonic vibration.”

    This is quite an odd statement, since that figure includes heavy metals like mercury and uranium. I certainly don’t want them in my food!

    And, what constitutes a “special” hamonic vibration? Who measures that? With what? How? And, above all, “so what?”

    The most outlandish claim is that Himalayan salt is preservative-free. No salt has added preservatives because salt in itself is a preservative!

    That’s as absurd as saying that honey has no added sugar (sweeteners don’t have added sugar because they already are a form of sugar.)

    Himalayan salt is indeed “all natural.” So are poisonous mushrooms.

    In short — salt is salt is salt.

    In the case of Himalayan salt, you are looking at sodium chloride (aka table salt) and a small amount of naturally-occurring minerals that lend it a pinkish hue and subtly different flavor.

    If you were thinking of purchasing Himalayan salt for health reasons, save your money and buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    Apple skins contain approximately 65 percent of the fruit’s fiber content.

    They also contain 100 percent of an apple’s quercetin content.

    Quercetin is a phytochemical that has been linked with tumor cell inhibition, lower rates of cell proliferation in some cancers, and decreased levels of platelet aggregation (one of the factors behind heart disease.)

    This is why I shed a silent tear whenever I see someone peel an apple and only eat the flesh.

    FYI: When buying fruits with edible skins, my personal preference is to purchase organic varieties if possible.

    Although quercetin can be purchased as a supplement by itself, remember that isolated phytonutrients are nowhere near as effective as when they work in tandem with other phytonutrients and antioxidants.

    A medium-sized apple, for example, contains approximately 2,000 phytonutrients!

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    In The News: Opening Up A Can Of… Worms

    Did any of you watch 20/20′s investigative report on the children of Appalachia two weeks ago?

    If not, you can watch it here. Truly eye-opening — and heartbreaking.

    I finally caught up with it last night (thank you, DVR!).

    One segment focused on the dental health of children and adolescents in that area; more specifically, the problem of “Mountain Dew mouth.”

    As a result of extreme soda consumption (Mountain Dew is given to children in sippy cups and considered an ailment for depression), children as young as two years of age are developing cavities.

    Some elementary school students have such damaged teeth that the simple act of brushing is painful — so painful, in fact, that many of these children stop brushing their teeth.

    In an attempt to help, dentist Edwin Smith spent $150,000 of his savings to turn an 18 wheel truck into a mobile dental clinic.

    This segment has set off a firestorm among the nutrition community. All sorts of questions are being asked — and hotly debated.

    Is it accurate to blame soda — and a specific brand at that — for cavities?

    Or does the lack of dental hygiene awareness and access to dental care set the stage for problems regardless of the types of food eaten?

    After all, starchy foods like bread, rice, and crackers are just as likely to increase cavity risk.  Also, a case can certainly be made that many people drink soda and don’t get cavities because they take adequare care of their oral health.

    What is most interesting is Pepsi’s response to this. Make that responses — three of them!

    Here is the first one.

    Notice the drastic change in tone in their second statement.

    And, finally, here is the short third statement that followed.

    As if that wasn’t enough, Diane Sawyer gave further updates on Good Morning America last week. The big announcement? PepsiCo. decided to pay for a second mobile clinic.

    What role — if any — should Pepsi play in this? Is their donation of a second mobile clinic a form of aid or just a publicity stunt for good PR?

    What about local and federal government? Should they be involved?

    Then we get to the hottest button issue of all. How does this problem begin to get addressed? Education? Policy? Some sort of hybrid?

    I’m even more disturbed by the fact that, as a result of mountaintop mining for coal, tap water in much of the Appalachian region is contaminated and undrinkable.

    Please weigh in with any opinion(s) you may have.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Cocoa

    I always buy Hershey’s Cocoa (natural unsweetened) in the 8 oz. container.

    When I asked my husband to get some more, he came home with a package that was more expensive looking and said on the front: Hershey’s Cocoa (100% cacao) and in a pretty section, red background, gold letters: “SPECIAL DARK [trademark symbol] A BLEND OF NATURAL AND DUTCHED COCOAS.”

    The ingredients list for the former product reads: cocoa (there is a U in a circle, no idea what that means).

    The new product list reads: cocoa, cocoa processed with alkali.

    They do include in the fine print on the side of the package the statement that “…HERSHEY’S SPECIAL DARK Cocoa provides fewer antioxidants than HERSHEY’S Natural Unsweetened Cocoa.)

    What is going on?

    – Maria (last name withheld)
    (city withheld), AZ

    The first distinction that needs to be made here is between cocoa powder and chocolate; too many people get them confused!

    In order to make cocoa powder, cocoa beans are first fermented, roasted, and shelled.

    Inside that shell are cacao nibs, which undergo a heated grinding process to be converted into a liquid known as chocolate liquor (a misnomer, since it contains no alcohol.)

    Chocolate liquor is then divided into cocoa butter and cocoa solids via compression.

    The grinding of cocoa solids results in cocoa powder, which is naturally fat-free (as a result of being separated from cocoa butter) and sugar-free.

    This is all very different from chocolate — which, at its most basic, is a combination of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, milk, and sugar.

    Let’s now talk about the difference in the two products you mention.

    The standard 8-ounce container of cocoa you buy is pure cocoa powder.

    The special variety your husband bought is a mixture of the cocoa powder sold in the 8-ounce container and some Dutched cocoa (cocoa powder that is mixed with an alkali in order to remove some of its acidity and bitterness.)

    Since the processing of Dutch cocoa results in a loss of antioxidants and flavonoids, the fine print on the “Special Dark” product makes perfect sense.

    In order to get the most benefit from the antioxidants and flavonoids in cocoa powder, have it in its natural form.

    One suggestion? Make a smoothie with your milk of choice (dairy, soy, nut, etc.), one ripe medium banana, and a tablespoon of cocoa powder.

    Or plug in your food processor and try my no-bake “brownie” recipe!

    As for that U symbol — it simply means the product is certified kosher.

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