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Archive for July, 2009

In The News: The Antibiotic Discussion That Makes ME Sick

SuperStock_1538R-57462Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that “a New York congresswoman is trying to rally support for a federal bill that… bans feeding antibiotics to cattle, hogs and poultry to increase their growth.”

It specifically demands that “in the absence of any clinical sign of disease, farmers be forbidden from using any of seven classes of antibiotics, including penicillin, tetracycline and macrolide for routine infection prevention.”

The US Food and Drug Administration concedes that “giving anti-microbials to animals when they are not sick is inappropriate – and even worse, contributes to more drug-resistant infections in people.”

The American Medical Association and Food & Drug Administration have also expressed their support for this bill.

Sweet awesomeness, right?  Not quite.

Many farms and ranchers — part of the ever-powerful agricultural and beef lobbies that appear to have Congress on puppet strings — have their own set of arguments against this bill, most of which are quite infuriating to read: increased prices of meat, higher rates of illness among cattle, animals who will be smaller in size and offer less meat if they become sick and eat less, etc.

Talk about not addressing the real issue!

Cattle and other animals get sick and need massive amounts of antibiotics because of their deplorable living conditions.

Remember, most cows in this country spend their entire lives standing in one spot eating an unnatural diet of corn and grains until the day they are slaughtered.  Ironically, this is often sold as “all-natural” beef.

This corn and grain diet is extremely unhealthy and makes cows very ill, hence the need for antibiotics in the feed.

Why do farmers retort to such diets?  Two reasons, both of which come down to the almighty dollar:

  1. Since corn and wheat are subsidized by the government, they are extremely cheap.
  2. This feed bulks up cows, thereby allowing farmers to sell more pounds of meat

As far as I’m concerned, this is even more of a reason to dispose of agricultural subsidies that do nothing towards health promotion (they are mostly used to feed cattle an unhealthy diet or to make lots of cheap high fructose corn syrup and oils used in nutritionally empty junk food).

Anyone who believes the elimination of agricultural subsidies will result in millions of people going hungry MUST read this brief article that details what happened when New Zealand got rid of their crop subsidies in the mid 1980s.

As for beef prices potentially increasing, I don’t see what the problem is.  There are endless sources of protein — just as afforable, if not more — other than red meat available in the food supply.

It’s time to think about the real cost of food.  Is saving a dollar on meat worth the inhumane conditions these animals live in and the possible health complications for humans from having antibiotics in the food supply?

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You Ask, I Answer: Am I Making Trans Fats In My Kitchen?

20496371Someone recently told me that when vegetable oils are exposed to high temperatures, most of their molecules transform into trans fats.

The temperatures that cause this are ones you often see in recipes (350 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit).

Does this mean that if I make a stir-fry with a vegetable oil I am eating a lot of trans fat?

– Tom (last name withheld)
Queens, NY

I hope whoever told you this tale is not offering nutrition advice to the masses.

He or she is making an inaccurate mountain out of a molehill and causing unnecessary panic.

The conversion of fats (either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated) to trans fats requires the use of hydrogen atoms (this is why you can spot trans fats on a food label by looking for partially hydrogenated oils).

Partial hydrogenation is achieved by mixing hydrogen atoms with plant oils, applying tremendous amounts of pressure (under specific conditions that can create a vacuum), inserting a metal catalyst (usually nickel) to cause a reaction, and cranking up the heat.

That is worlds away from roasting minced garlic in olive oil in your kitchen for five minutes.

Research on trans-fat formation from plant oils that are simply heated has concluded that this only happens when an oil is heated continuously for roughly 14 hours.  Again, not even close to what happens in anyone’s kitchen.

Myth debunked.

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Numbers Game: Bowled Over

Ice-Cream-ENTERT0605-deA study led by Brian Wansink and published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that subjects served themselves _____ percent more ice cream in a 34 ounce bowl than in a 17 ounce bowl.

a) 17
b) 22
c) 31
d) 40

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

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In The News: Organic Food Isn’t Healthy??!! OMG!!

organic_production1Ugh.  I dread news articles that ultimately do nothing but confuse the public.

A few moments ago I received a tweet from @intellijenntsia, who wanted to know what I thought of this article, which reports that according to research from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, “organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over ordinary food.”

While vitamin and mineral content in organic and conventional crops may be the same (that, by the way, is what the researchers based their conclusion on), I find the “organic food is no healthier” headline absolutely misleading.

It could very well be argued that the lack of pesticides in organic crops inherently makes them a healthier alternative to conventional varieties, especially when it comes to berries, peaches, and apples (which have some of the highest pesticide loads).

So, in reality, what we are looking at is that organic “may be no more nutritious“, which is different from “no healthier”.

I also greatly dislike the fact that organic food is only discussed within a framework of health and nutrition.  Many people prefer to buy organic for environmental reasons.

The findings are relevant, though, in the sense that the term “organic” carries with it a health halo.

People have told me they prefer to buy organic gummy bears for their children because they are “healthier.”  I beg to differ.  Empty calories are empty calories.

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You Ask, I Answer: What Is Up With Saturated Fats?

40709058coconutI know that unsaturated fats are very good for us. I know that trans fats should be avoided at all costs. I know that saturated fat isn’t so hot for us, but I’m not sure to what degree.

Although there is a certain percentage of daily intake allowance for saturated fat, should one try to limit that as close to zero as possible?

– Mackenzie (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Wonderful question!  The answer isn’t super straight-forward, so I recommend re-reading it once or twice.

The first thing you need to know is that “saturated fat” is an all-encompassing term for many different types of saturated fats.

Saturated fats differ from one another depending on the amount of carbons they contain.  In nutrition circles, this is referred to as their “chain length.”

When you examine saturated fats individually, varying properties pop up.

Lauric acid — found in high amounts in coconuts — is a saturated fat that, like all saturated fats, increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.  However, it also increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol!

Similarly, stearic acid — predominantly found in chocolate — is unique in that a good chunk of it is converted by our bodies into a monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid.

In fact, stearic acid has less of a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol levels than other types of saturated fat.

Then there’s palmitic acid.  This saturated fat — found in plentiful amounts in beef and butter — has been found to substantially increase the risk of atherosclerosis (that’s medical jargon for “clogged arteries”).

Myristic acid, found mainly in dairy fat, has also been shown to negatively impact HDL levels.

One of the issues with saturated fats, though, is that they are usually coupled together in food.

For example, coconuts contain a fair amount of lauric acid, but they also contain palmitic acid.

Similarly, foods high in heart-healthy fats (like olive oil and its monounsaturated fats or wild salmon and its omega-3 polyunsaturated fats) also contain some saturated fats.

A tablespoon of olive oil, for instance, provides 14 grams of total fat, of which 9.8 grams are monounsaturated and 1.98 are saturated.

This helps explain why the guidelines for saturated fat are not to completely shun them (as they are with trans fats), but rather to keep them below a certain amount.

Unless you go on an extremely low-fat diet (which I do NOT recommend), it would be impossible to keep saturated fat intake very low.

Since the standard US diet is so absurdly high in omega-6 fatty acids — a phenomenon that has been shown to cause its own share of problems — I would much rather someone consume saturated fat (without surpassing daily recommendations) than attempt to get it as low as possible and consume omega-6 fatty acids in its place.

Let’s conclude with my fat suggestions:

  • Prioritize monounsaturated and omega-3 fats in your diet.
  • When it comes to saturated fats, try to consume them mainly from unsweetened coconut (which also offers fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals), unsweetened cocoa/cacao (which also offers a good share of phytonutrients — here’s a great recipe that calls for it; here is another delicious one), and as part of healthier fats (i.e: olive oil, salmon, nuts, seeds).  Be sure to stay within designated limits.
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Numbers Game: Answer

olive-oil2A recent study conducted by the agricultural department at the University of Foggia in Puglia, Italy, discovered that antioxidant levels in olive oil decreased by 40 percent after six months of storage.

Interestingly, there was no decrease in those levels during the first three months of storage.

This information can be difficult to apply for the average consumer since most olive oil containers do not provide a production date.

If you are able to find a container of olive oil that specifies such a date, purchase whatever is most recent.

If you can’t, here are a few tips:

  • To ensure faster replacement times, buy olive oil in small containers
  • Time is just one factor that reduces antioxidants.  Light, heat, and air have the same effect.  Store your olive oil in cool-temperature locations (NOT directly above your stovetop!), away from light, and be sure to tightly cap the container immediately after use (i.e.: do not leave a bottle of olive oil unopened for long periods of time)

While this is certainly an interesting statistic, please don’t think that olive oil with reduced antioxidants is worthless.

Yes, the retention of these compounds is wonderful, but aside from that, olive oil is a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

PS: In the same way that eating grapes provides very similar health benefits to drinking red wine, the same goes with olives and olive oil.

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In The News: Trans-tastic!

I+C+B+I+N+BUnilever announced yesterday it “plans to remove all partially hydrogenated oils — artificial trans fats — from its soft-spread brands, including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Shedd’s Spread Country Crock,” USA Today reports.

The reformulation goes into effect this August and must be completed by March of 2010.

This is the real thing, by the way.  Deception-free!

The same can’t be said about their current product lineup, which advertise “0 grams of trans fat” simply because each serving contains less than 0.5 grams.

That sneakiness in itself is infuriating, but it is a double blow since the Food & Drug Administration considers it legitimate and legal!

Alas, change has come.  “[Unilever] will no longer mix in even tiny amounts [of trans fat], which added texture and shelf life. The new label, for the first time, will boast: No hydrogenated oils.”

As a result of the new ingredient list, “all four of [Unilever's] spread brands will have only 0.05 grams per serving of trans fat, the minute amount that occurs naturally in vegetable oils.”

Paying attention to servings is still important, since these “new” spreads will have higher levels of saturated fat.

I can already hear it.  “It’s always something, isn’t it?”

Not exactly.  Remember — a 2,000 calorie diet allows for 20 grams of saturated fat a day (a 2,400 calorie diet, meanwhile, allows for 24 grams).

That is very different from trans fats — the recommendation was to have absolutely none (not counting the minuscule amounts that naturally occur).

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You Ask, I Answer: Omega-3 Content of Seafood

shrimp[Your post on fish oils had me wondering] if anchovies, shrimp, crab, and clams were good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids.

– Corey Clark
(Location withheld)

Anchovies are a great source.  A 3-ounce serving delivers an impressive 1.2 grams of DHA and EPA (that’s total, not respectively).

(Reminder: DHA and EPA are two essential fatty acids predominantly found in fish; vegetarian sources like walnuts and flaxseed offer ALA, another type of omega-3 fatty acid).

Crustaceans and mollusks offer lower levels.

A 3-ounce serving of shrimp, for instance, averages 0.37 grams (that number could be slightly higher or lower depending on the specific variety of shrimp).  That same amount of crab averages 0.29 grams, while 3 ounces of clams average 0.1 grams.

Apart from the well-known salmon and tuna, here are other very good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Bluefish
  • Dogfish
  • Herring
  • Lake trout
  • Mackerel (caution: very high in mercury!)
  • Sablefish

FYI: Catfish and tilapia not only offer very low amounts of Omega-3s, they are also quite high in Omega-6 fatty acids.

Although both Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential (meaning we must get them from the diet), the typical US diet is very high in Omega 6s.  This imbalance promotes inflammation, which consequently raises one’s risk for a variety of diseases and conditions.

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You Ask, I Answer: Fish Oil Supplements & Mercury

fish-oil-tabletsIs there anything in particular I should look for when buying fish oil supplements?

Also, should I be worried about mercury levels?

– Dennise O’Grady
Bay Head, NJ

The main thing you want to look for is the presence of DHA and EPA (you want anywhere from 500 to 1,000 milligrams of each of those essential fatty acids).

Oil from krill (small, cold-water crustaceans that live in the ocean floor) is apparently starting to be considered the golden standard in some circles since it appears to be the most easily absorbable, and also contains antioxidants not found in oil from fish.

That said, oil from actual fish is just as good a source of those two fatty acids.

Since fish oils are extracted from fish that are very low on the food chain (e.g.: mackerel, herring, sardines, cod), mercury contamination is not a concern.

My rule of thumb is: food first, then supplements.  If you can get your omega-3 fatty acids from eating fish, that is best.

However, I realize there are some barriers.  Some people do not like the taste of fish, others are vegetarian, and, as is the case with salmon, there is always the doubt of whether the fish you are eating is wild or farmed (farmed fish tend to have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids).

For those interested in eating their DHA and EPA, I highly recommend sardines.  They are never farmed, so you can always expect a good dose of those two omega-3 fatty acids!

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Simply Said: Natural Flavors

gm_fiberoneRead the ingredient list on the back of most food products  and you are bound to see the words “natural flavors” towards the end.

What are they, and just how “natural” are we talking?

Flavorings are actually odorous gases that are released from food when we chew.

Remember, taste isn’t simply relegated to the mouth (if that were the case, we would still be able to taste food when we had a cold and our nose was stuffed up).

Let’s examine the legal definition of “natural flavorings”.  Make sure to take a deep breath, it’s a looooong sentence:

“The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

Let’s dissect that.

First of all, notice that natural flavors can be plant or animal-based.

This is particularly important to vegetarians or vegans.  A bag of seemingly-vegan corn chips may contain natural flavoring derived from animals if the term “vegan” is nowhere to be found on the packaging.

Individuals with allergies to particular foods must also pay attention, as natural flavorings can be made from “popular” allergens like wheat, shellfish, or soy.  Usually, though, products using such flavorings will contain a statement about the inclusion of these allergens.

Believe it or not, there is very little difference between natural and artificial flavors.

Both are made by chemists in laboratories (and involve the use of solvents and chemicals), and both often result in the same compound.  The only real difference is whether the original source is a plant/animal product or a chemical.

These flavorings are used in extremely low amounts, so while I would never refer to them as nutritious or health-promoting, I also don’t think they are worth worrying about (“natural flavoring” on an ingredient list should not be perceived the same way as “partially hydrogenated oils”).

That said, these flavorings are mainly found in highly processed foods, so they are a good barometer in that sense.

Don’t expect food companies to ever reveal the details of natural flavorings; most of them are considered top secret.

A few years ago I had the chance to visit the offices of a company that is hired by several well-known food conglomerates to conduct research and development of natural and artificial flavors.

It was your typical suburban corporate office, albeit with massive laboratory space and several conference rooms with one-way mirrors (perfect for focus groups).

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Say What?: Wait, I Thought This Magazine Had The Word “Health” In the Title…

scoopsMany thanks to Small Bites reader Corey Clark who saw this article on the Men’s Health website and notified me of a few bits of information that didn’t quite add up.

In his e-mail Corey asked me to read the article and claimed that “it seems okay until tip number 8, but then it gets ridiculous.”

Does it ever!

The article — titled “10 Surprising Hydrators” — is based on the recommendations of a Registered Dietitian and promises to unveil ten “alternative ways to hydrate… with fluid-filled foods.”

In fact, the article goes on to claim that if you consume these foods, “you could, theoretically, never drink a drop of plain ol’ water again.”

Ooookay.

The piece starts out with the standards: skim milk, watermelon, salad greens.

Then it goes downhill drives off a cliff before exploding into a fireball of nonsense.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the last three suggestions:

“#8 (Soda): Yep, you read that right.  [Registered Dietitian Nancy] Clark says that caffeine, sugar, and water combo can make [for] a great post-exercise slug if it’s your beverage of choice.  It doesn’t make a difference if you crack open a diet or a regular.  But add some salty pretzels or a brat to help your body  hold on to the fluid.”

If I were a cartoon character, you would see my eyes bulge out, my entire face turn red, and then steam come out of both my ears.

Soda and a bratwurst following a workout?  Did the writers from The Onion hack the Men’s Health website?

If the intent is to get readers to consume caffeine, sugar, and water after a workout, how about suggesting something that doesn’t leach calcium from bones.  Perhaps an iced unsweetened latte?

“#9 (Ice Cream): Stop and get yourself a post-workout cup of Phish Food on your way home from the gym.  Ideally, you’ll choose the light version, but in a moment of weakness, you’ll still be hydrating with that frozen fluid.  We’ll take Ben & Jerry’s over a bottle of Dasani any day.”

You know that feeling you get when you see Kate and Jon (of “Plus 8″ fame) on every magazine cover and television show?  That feeling of  “what sort of messed up parallel universe do I live in?”  That’s pretty much the feeling I got after I read that paragraph.

By the way, that cup of Phish Food adds up to:

  • 560 calories
  • 90% of a day’s worth of saturated fat
  • 9 teaspoons of added sugar

“# 10 (Beer): Ok, sort of.  The general consensus among trusted nutritionists is that beer is a dehydrator, not a hydrator.  However, Clark says that a Beer Shandy — one part lager to one part lemonade or Sprite — is OK.”

Let me get this straight.  Beer is a dehydrator, so therefore it is okay to drink after a workout as long as it is mixed with another fluid?

I am still in shock that a health magazine would encourage readers to consume soda and ice cream after engaging in physical activity.

That’s akin to me suggesting chocolate ice cream with almonds as a way to get calcium and vitamin E, or a double cheeseburger as a good source of protein.

I would like to think this is an example of a sloppy reporter completely taking a professional’s advice out of context.

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You Ask, I Answer: Bulgur

I134314What can you tell me about bulgur wheat in terms of taste, nutrition and uses?

Can I, for instance, eat it like an oatmeal?

– Dennise O’Grady
Bay Head, NJ

Whole grain bulgur is a great source of nutrients.

When cooked, a cup of it provides:

  • 151 calories
  • 8 grams fiber
  • 6 grams protein
  • “Good” to “excellent” amounts of iron, magnesium, manganese, and the B-vitamin complex (all except B12, of course)

The subtle nutty flavor of bulgur makes for an interesting alternative to traditional grain-based side dishes (i.e.: brown rice, whole wheat cous cous).

Some people eat it in place of oatmeal, but I personally like to use it as a base for salads.

One of my favorite concoctions is a salad (served at room temperature) composed of (cooked) whole grain bulgur, chickpeas, chopped onion, parsley, lemon juice, and toasted sesame oil.

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You Ask, I Answer: Aluminum & Plastic Wrap

aluminum-foil-00A lot has been written and said about the negative effects of aluminum – especially in regard to Alzheimer’s disease.

Is there any evidence that aluminum in cooking foil and and deodorant is present in levels high enough to cause concern?

While we are on the subject of foils and wraps – is cling-film plastic something we should be wrapping our food in?

Lastly, is it true that micro-waving food wrapped in cling-film is yet another way to slowly kill yourself?

– Jake Shields
Valley Stream, NY

Great questions — let’s cover them one at a time.

The connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease is still being determined.

What we do know is that the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease contain much higher concentrations of aluminum than those of individuals who do not have the neurodegenerative disease.

What we don’t know is whether those high concentrations of aluminum cause Alzheimer’s disease or if they are a manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease.

If you look at the scientific literature, there is no clear consensus either way.

As far as aluminum intake from the diet is concerned, we know that acidic foods cooked in aluminum pots absorb higher amounts of the metal than non-acidic foods.

We also know that a very small percentage of the aluminum in aluminum foil can be leached into foods when exposed to high heat (e.g.: a baked potato wrapped in foil).

As with anything else relating to nutrition, it is important to keep context in mind.

I, for instance, use aluminum foil in my cooking approximately once a month (there’s a particular dish I make that requires me to cover it in foil during the first 15 minutes of cooking).

I don’t worry about it, in the same way that I would not be concerned if someone with consistently nutritious habits eats a large Big Mac value meal once a month.

If lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s disease is a concern, there are more established things you can do:

  • Follow a heart-healthy diet (rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Engage in strenuous physical activity three or more times a week
  • Continually challenge your brain (whether it’s by doing crossword puzzles or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand)

These three things all help to lower risk either by keeping certain parts of the brain active or by keeping arteries healthy.  Remember, the health of your arteries has a significant effect on your neurological health — the brain needs adequate blood circulation to remain in tip-top shape.

Remember, too, that many over-the-counter antacids contain very high amounts of aluminum (about twenty or thirty times as much as you would from cooking with aluminum pans).

As far as clingwrap goes, studies have found that foods high in fat can absorb plasticides in traditional clingwrap (which is made from polyvinylidene chloride, also known as PVC).

While pretty much all clingwrap was once made from PVC, alternative varieties made from low density polyethylene are becoming more common.

These newer varieties do not leach plasticides and are considered microwave-safe.  Of course, you can always  err on the side of caution and heat food in other containers (glass, ceramic, etc.)

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You Ask, I Answer: Antioxidants in Wine

red wine glassDo the antioxidants in wine decrease with time like they do with olive oil?

For example, if I drink a wine from 1996 tonight, am I not getting any of the health benefits I would from one that was bottled earlier this month?

– Cassandra (last name withheld)
San Francisco, CA

The issue of health benefits from red wine can get rather dizzying.  Let’s recap the latest batch of information:

  • Do older wines have lower antioxidant levels than newer ones?  No.  A study published in 2006 in the Journal of Food Science and Agriculture compared wines ranging from 1 to 28 years old and concluded that, on average,  “antioxidant activity of red wines does not correlate with wine age.”
  • The “on average” is particularly important, since some antioxidants increase with age, while others decrease.  For example, a 2003 study in the Journal of Food Science and Agriculture found that the anthocyanin content of red wine decreased by an average of 88 percent over a 7-month period.
  • It is difficult to generalize antioxidant levels of wines since these are affected by several factors, including the particular variety of grape used, aging methods, pH levels, and even the specific strain of yeast used in the fermentation process.
  • Resveratrol (the famous antioxidant found in high amounts in the skins of red grapes) levels are higher in grapes that grow in cooler climates.
  • Pinot Noir has the highest level of resveratrol

I wouldn’t get too concerned with these details, though.

Remember, red wine is not the only source of these antioxidants.  Red grapes — with the skin on! — basically deliver the same health benefits.

Anthocyanins, for example, are found in abundance in red grapes, cherries, raspberries, and blueberries.  Instead of shunning vintage wines because of their low anthocyanin content, just eat any of those fruits on a regular basis.

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Numbers Game: Tick Tock

heart_healthy_secrets_olive_oil_V-708152A recent study conducted by the agricultural department at the University of Foggia in Puglia, Italy, discovered that antioxidant levels in olive oil decreased by _______ percent after six months of storage.

a) 18
b) 29
c) 40
d) 65

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

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