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    Archive for October, 2009

    You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates, Nitrites… and then Some!

    Cold cutslargeA recent post on cured meats, cancer risk, and nitrates sparked a significant number of comments and personal e-mails.

    Alas, here is a compilation of all the questions I received on the subject — and the appropriate answers.

    What are nitrates?

    Although they can be manufactured in laboratories (mainly to cure meats), nitrates are a type of inorganic (jargon for “carbon-free”) chemical found in nature.

    Fertilizers and sewerage contain significant amounts of nitrates (they contain high amounts of nitrogen, which bacteria feast on and, among other things, convert into nitrates).

    Is there a difference between nitrates and nitrites?

    Not really.  Most food manufacturers prefer nitrites because they present fewer complications from a processing standpoint.

    It’s akin to asking if there is a significant difference, nutritionally speaking, between the artificial sweeteners Splenda and aspartame.  Although their makeup is different, they are used in similar ways.

    Are nitrates only found in cold cuts?

    No.  Certain vegetables — including spinach, celery, lettuce, and eggplant — contain nitrates.

    So, then, why do we only hear about nitrates and cold cuts?

    For two reasons.  One: cold cuts contain higher amounts of nitrates/nitrites than vegetables.

    Number two: the average American consumes more cold cuts than celery, spinach, or eggplant.

    What are the health risks of consuming too many nitrates?

    This is where it all gets interesting — and slightly complicated.

    A large portion of nitrates are converted into nitrites by our bodies.

    Obviously, if you consume ham that contains nitrites, this first step is a moot point.

    Nitrites can then combine with particular compounds known as amines in the stomach.

    This combination forms a new hybrid compound: nitrosamines.

    Due to the cellular damage they cause, nitrosamines have been linked with higher risks of a wide array of cancers — particularly that of the prostate, colon, and pancreas.

    Earlier this summer, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that frequent consumption of nitrates and nitrites relates to higher risks of developing the neural disorder.

    Some research also suggests that when nitrites in food are exposed to high heat — as they are, say, when you fry bacon — their chemical structure morphs into that of nitrosamines.

    PS: Another reason why you don’t hear much about nitrites in vegetables?  All nitrate-containing vegetables also provide vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the formation of nitrosamines in the body.

    Are there any guidelines for what amount of nitrates is safe to consume?

    The Environmental Protection Agency has come up with a “parts per million” guideline in reference to the water supply, but there is no exact amount in regards to food.

    The general idea with cold cuts is: the less, the better.  Conservative guidelines recommend no more than two ounces per week, while more liberal recommendations place the limit at six ounces per week.

    Since vitamins C and E appear to reduce nitrite-to-nitrosamine conversion, one “safety measure” you can always take is to include a food high in either of those nutrients in a meal that contains processed meats.

    For example, add plenty of sliced tomatoes to a ham sandwich, or make bacon the accompaniment to a broccoli and red pepper frittata.

    Do organic cold cuts contain nitrites?

    Some of them don’t.  As with everything else, it’s always good to check the ingredient list.

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    Surprise! Another Half-Truthful Health Claim

    unclebens_jpgMany thanks to Small Bites’ Twitter follower @koshtoo, who shared this photograph with me, as she believed I “would find interesting.”  I certainly did!

    In case you are unable to see the photograph, it shows a box of Uncle Ben’s Original converted white rice.  The lower right-hand corner of the box features a “Supports a Healthy Heart” statement and logo.

    Underneath the logo, we see:

    Enriched with Vitamins and Minerals

    Naturally Fat-Free

    Oh, dear.

    Sure.  A refined grain like white rice does not add a single gram of fat to our diets, but that does not make it heart-healthy.

    In fact, refined, fiberless carbohydrates like white rice raise triglyceride levels.

    High triglycerides — they are a type of fat in the blood, in case you weren’t sure — are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.  NOT heart-healthy!

    Vitamin and mineral enrichment, meanwhile, is kind of a nutritional red flag.  After all, enrichment means that most of the nutrients originally found in that food were added back in after the food underwent significant processing.

    Brown rice has those exact same nutrients.  Since brown rice is not processed to the same degree as white rice, they all stay in their place, without the need to enrich.

    What upsets me most about this health claim is that it reinforces the myth that “low fat = heart healthy.”

    Remember: some of the best foods we can eat for heart-health — such as salmon, sardines, avocados, nuts, and seeds — are rich in healthy fats.

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    Numbers Game: A Clear Link

    cataractRecent research from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals’ Follow-Up Study indicates that, diabetes aside, obese individuals (BMI > 30) have a ______ percent higher risk of developing cataracts than individuals with BMIs between 18 and 23.

    a) 17
    b) 25
    c) 36
    d) 42

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

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    Manwich’s Fuzzy Math

    IMG00014-20091028-1927Many thanks to eagle-eyed Small Bites reader Nilsa Duran who sent me the accompanying screen capture of the latest Manwich commercials.

    In case you can’t read clearly, the image contains the following statement:

    Each 1/4 cup serving of Manwich contains a 1/2 [sic] cup of vegetables.

    Huh?  How, exactly, does a quarter-cup serving of Manwich deliver a half cup of vegetables, you wonder?

    I was perplexed at first, too.

    However, a look at the Manwich ingredient list revealed what I believe to be the answer.

    Apart from the tomato puree — which makes up the large majority of this half-cup serving of vegetables — all other vegetables (mainly peppers and onions) are dehydrated.

    My guess is that the half-cup measurement refers to pre-dehydrated vegetables.

    While that’s fine and dandy, let’s not forget that each quarter-cup serving also offers 380 milligrams of sodium — slightly more than a large order of McDonald’s fries.

    Additionally, Manwich contains more added sugar (in the form of corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) than peppers or onions.

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    In The News: Water Is In Your Corner

    glass-of-waterThe Montreal Gazzette is sharing the findings of a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — “people who get much of their daily liquids from plain water rather than other drinks tend to have healthier diets overall.”

    More specifically, “people who drank more ‘plain water’ tended to eat more fiber, less sugar and fewer calorie-dense foods.”

    Participants in the health survey — which interviewed 12,283 people over the course of 7 years — who drank high amounts of other beverages, meanwhile, consumed less fiber, more sugar, and more calorie-dense foods.

    Clearly, “other beverages” refers to sugar-laden drinks.

    Makes sense to me.  Apart from the additional calories that sodas, sweetened teas, and other caloric beverages tack on, they pose another problem — cravings.

    A can of soda — diet or otherwise — often makes one crave chips, pizza, and other less-nutritious items.

    Similarly, a bottled coffee or tea beverage — spiked with as much sugar as soda — is more likely to be accompanied by a donut or 500-calorie muffin than yogurt or nuts.

    Keep in mind that while artificial sweeteners are calorie-free, our tastebuds register them as several-hundred-times sweeter than sugar.  They, too, often make us crave high-calorie foods.

    This is why I always recommend that meals be accompanied by water or unsweetened tea to which you can add freshly squeezed lemon juice for a flavor boost.

    For individuals who drink large amounts of soda every day, I recommend “soda pairings”.  In other words — make a list of “soda-friendly” foods and stick to them.

    You may, for instance, declare that you will drink one glass (or can) of soda only when eating pizza, Thai food, and that delicious grilled shrimp salad from the favorite restaurant you visit twice a month.

    If each of these foods is eaten sparingly (no more than twice a month), it will help keep your soda consumption down without making you feel deprived.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Oat and Spelt Flour

    gfd_creamhillestates_oatfloAre oat and spelt flours whole grain?

    I have celiac disease, so I am looking for ways to make whole grain baked goods without using whole wheat flour.

    – Christine Adler
    (City withheld), DE

    As with wheat flour, these flours are only whole grain if the word “whole” or “whole grain” appears on their packaging (or the ingredient list of a food product).  Never assume!

    I am slightly confused by your question, though, since spelt is a form of wheat and certainly NOT gluten-free!

    As far as whole oat flour goes — you can make it at home by grinding unflavored and unsweetened quick-cooking rolled oats (which are, by virtue, 100% whole grain) in a food processor.

    One word of caution: although oats are gluten-free, many of them are processed in facilities that also handle wheat.  Consequently, cross-contamination is very common.

    Fortunately, companies like Gluten Free Oats provide oat products that are certified as gluten-free.

    Keep in mind that oat flour by itself will not result in appealing baked goods.

    Gluten-free baking is all about combinations of flours — especially quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, and almond meal — as well as the addition of thickeners like xantham gum and guar gum (both of which can be purchased at health food stores).

    It is encouraging to see the rise in production and availability of gluten-free all-purpose flours, too.

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    Quick & Healthy Recipes: Bananacado Shake

    Most of us avocado-banana-420-420x0are accustomed to eating avocado in its savory form, usually as guacamole or part of a salad.

    In some parts of the world — especially Indonesia and the Philippines — avocado is commonly included in sweet concoctions.

    Fret not: although this delicious breakfast smoothie utilizes avocado to achieve a creamy texture, its taste goes unnoticed.  The key is to use very ripe fruit in order to provide a good amount of sweetness.

    This is one of my favorite breakfast foods whenever I’m in a rush.  The combination of healthy fats, fiber, and protein keeps me full through most of the morning!

    YIELDS: 1 serving

    INGREDIENTS:

    1 small avocado, sliced (or one half of a large avocado)
    1 medium frozen banana (previously sliced and stored in Ziploc bag)
    1/3 cup frozen strawberries OR frozen peaches OR frozen pineapple
    1 cup milk of choice (choose unsweetened varieties if using non-dairy milk)
    1 scoop (or 1/2 scoop) unflavored protein powder (ONLY if using low-protein milk, like almond milk)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 Tablespoon oat bran or psyllium husks

    INSTRUCTIONS:

    Place all ingredients in blender and process until evenly combined.

    For optimal texture, blend for at least 20 seconds.

    NUTRITION INFORMATION:

    441 calories (460 if using 2% dairy milk, 485 if made with low-protein milk + protein powder)
    2 grams saturated fat (3 grams if using 2% dairy milk)
    15 grams fiber
    180 milligrams sodium
    0 grams added sugar
    12 grams protein (24 if made with low-protein milk + 1 scoop protein powder)

    Excellent Source of: Folate, manganese, monounsaturated fatty acids, pantothenic acid, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K

    Good Source of: Magnesium, vitamin E

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    knee_painFive pounds of excess weight increase your risk of arthritis by 25 percent.

    This helps explain why overweight and obese individuals have higher rates of knee replacement surgery than their healthy-weight counterparts.

    An study published in the August 2009 issue of the journal Radiology concluded that “for every one-unit increase in BMI (body mass index) there was an 11% increase of cartilage loss” in the knees.

    I bolded and italicized “cartilage loss” because, once cartilage deteriorates, it does not grow back.

    Arthritis is now even seen among children as young as seven due to skyrocketing pediatric overweight and obese rate.

    Remember — excess weight produces high amounts of inflammation.  Chronic inflammation, in turn, is linked to higher risks of developing degenerative diseases like arthritis along with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

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    Just ‘Cause It’s Made With Pumpkin Doesn’t Mean It’s Healthy

    pumpkins-main_FullAs autumn proceeds to pepper foliage with orange and red hues, drop temperatures, and add a unique crisp to the air, food chains roll out their traditional seasonal offerings.

    As you can see below, the Fall season brings plenty of nutritional frights!

    • Au Bon Pain pumpkin muffin: 530 calories
    • Au Bon Pain large pumpkin latte: 40 grams of added sugar (as much as a can of Coca-Cola; 160 additional calories)
    • Dairy Queen small pumpkin pie Blizzard: 570 calories, 12 grams saturated fat (60% of a day’s worth)
    • Dunkin’ Donuts pumpkin muffin: 630 calories (130 more than a large order of McDonald’s french fries)
    • Dunkin’ Donuts large pumpkin latte: 44 grams of added sugar (11 teaspoons, or 176 additional calories)
    • Starbucks pumpkin scone: 480 calories, 9 grams (almost half a day’s worth) of saturated fat, 38 grams of added sugar (9.5 teaspoons; 152 additional calories)
    • Panera Bread Company pumpkin-shaped shortbread cookie: 12 grams saturated fat (as much as a tablespoon and a half of butter)

    Enjoy responsibly.

    Any time you purchase a flavored coffee, make it a small, and skip — or ask for half — the whipped cream.

    Similarly, these gigantic baked goods are better off in the “no more than once a week” category.

    The key is to plan accordingly.  If sharing isn’t an option, then make that baked good your only sweet of the day, and be sure that your lunch and dinner that day mainly consist of a protein and plenty of vegetables (ie: grilled fish and sauteed broccoli, three-bean chili, seitan or chicken with a baked sweet potato, canned tuna or grilled chicken over a colorful salad, etc.)

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    Quick & Healthy Recipes: Cinnamon-Walnut Whole Grain Muffins

    cinnamonThis past weekend I craved muffins to go along with my recently-purchased hazelnut-roasted coffee.

    Instead of treking down to a local bakery for a gigantic 500-calorie bomb, I decided to make my own.

    Apart from pairing up perfectly with a hot cup of coffee on a brisk autumn day, these muffins are 100% whole grain, vegan, and chock full of omega-3 fatty acids.

    See how you like them!

    YIELDS: 18 mini muffins

    INGREDIENTS:
    2 cups whole wheat flour (or whole wheat pastry flour or whole wheat white flour)
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    2 Tablespoons ground flaxseed
    1/3 cup chopped walnuts
    1.5 teaspoons cinnamon
    4 Tablespoons unsweetened applesauce
    1 Tablespoon coconut oil
    1/2 Tablespoon canola oil
    (NOTE: You could omit the coconut oil and instead add an additional tablespoon of canola oil)
    1/4 cup agave nectar, brown rice syrup, or maple syrup
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1 cup water

    INSTRUCTIONS:

    Place all dry ingredients (from whole wheat flour to cinnamon) in one bowl.

    In another bowl, mix together all wet ingredients (from applesauce to water).

    Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients bowl.

    Mix together lightly, making sure not to overmix.

    Scoop mixed batter into muffin tin and bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit

    OPTIONAL (but recommended): Once out of the oven, sprinkle additional cinnamon on top of muffins.

    NUTRITION INFORMATION (for 2 mini muffins, with coconut oil):

    184 calories
    2.5 grams saturated fat (if using only canola oil: 0.5 grams saturated fat)
    320 milligrams sodium
    4.4 grams fiber
    7.2 grams added sugar
    4.5 grams protein

    Excellent Source of: Manganese, selenium

    Good Source of: Alpha Linolenic Omega-3 Fatty Acids, copper, magnesium, phosphorus

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    You Ask, I Answer: Turkey Bacon

    g25825828a52574bb2a79cf8342ce45836cd560d6733ce5Is turkey bacon/ham really better for you than regular bacon and ham?

    – @Beth_Pettit
    Via Twitter

    No.

    Both are high in sodium (approximately 325 milligrams of sodium per measly ounce!) and highly processed.

    Turkey bacon and ham are lower in total and saturated fat, but not in amounts significant enough to classify it as healthier.

    An ounce of turkey ham contains 0.4 grams of saturated fat; an ounce of conventional ham provides 0.8 grams.

    Classifying turkey bacon and ham as healthier than conventional varieties is like saying that Coca-Cola is healthier than orange soda because it has 12 fewer grams of sugar.

    I recommend taking it easy with all processed meat products — including soy-based faux cold cuts.  They are low on nutrients, high in sodium, and most contain troublesome preservatives (mainly nitrites and nitrates).

    My advice?  Keep the bacon to two strips with brunch every Sunday.

    As far as cold cuts go — if you love them in a sandwich, treat yourself to two slices a week — no more.

    The evidence linking frequent consumption of processed meats with increased risk of stomach, colon, and prostate cancer is too strong to ignore.

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    Numbers Game: The Invisible Effects of Excess Weight

    arthritis-3Five pounds of excess weight increase your risk of arthritis by ____ percent.

    a) 8
    b) 15
    c) 25
    d) 32

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

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    Vocab Bite: Thintritionist

    42-19835818thin⋅tri⋅tion⋅ist [thin-trish-uh-nist]

    - noun

    1. A nutrition expert or professional who is more focused on weight loss than overall health, showing more concern over total calories than the quality of fats, protein, and carbohydrates
    2. A nutrition expert or professional who liberally recommends low-calorie or claorie-free sugar substitutes and fat replacers (ie: offers recipes for baked goods made with Splenda and savory dishes with fat-free cheese) over real food

    Example: “That health expert who talked at the corporate retreat was such a thintritionist – she kept talking about good nutrition as a way to shed pounds and look great, but never mentioned the way diet can help lower your risk of developing heart disease or Type 2 diabetes.”

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    You Ask, I Answer: Vitamin Supplements (Redux)

    Natural-Vitamin-E-SoftgelIs a vitamin in [soft] gel form more easily absorbed in the body than in tablet form?

    Also, does that list of 10 USP-approved companies you shared with us by definition invalidate all other companies such as Solgar, which also produces vitamins?  In fact, there are a whole lot of very big companies not on the list.  Is there a reason?

    Lastly, my doctor says all vitamins are regulated by the DEA; it that correct?

    – Barlow (Last name withheld)
    Westchester, NY

    Vitamins consumed in softgel form are absorbed more quickly than those in tablet form.

    That said — “so what?”.

    Supplements are not medication.  When you have the flu, you want to take something that will alleviate symptoms as soon as possible.  If you’re looking to boost your omega-3 intake, quick absorption is not a priority.

    Keep in mind that even vitamins in tablet form have undergone a significant amount of testing to ensure they dissolve as quickly as possible.

    As for the list of supplements tested and verified by third-party public heath organization U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) I shared recently — a company’s absence does not mean their supplements are not high quality.

    USP testing is completely voluntary.  Some companies — especially well-known ones — are confident of their popularity, and may therefore not see any added benefit to being USP approved.  It is quite a shame that the average consumer is not aware of what USP testing is or what a USP logo on a supplement bottle means.

    Remember, too, that there is a fee to be USP-tested.

    Lastly, I think your doctor is confused.  The Drug Enforment Agency (DEA) has nothing to do with vitamin supplements.

    Perhaps he is thinking of DSHEA — the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.  That is the infamous ruling that allows supplements to bypass testing by — and regulation from — the Food & Drug Administration, since they are not considered “conventional food products.”

    The only way in which supplements are regulated (and I use that term very loosely) is that, as of June 2010, manufacturers will be “required” to formulate products that abide by “good manufacturing practices”, are accurately labeled (good luck enforcing that!), and free of contaminants.

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    Fruit! And Yogurt! Well, More Like Sugar and Partially Hydrogenated Oils…

    231363Regular readers of this blog know how much I love to call out healthy-sounding food products that are anything but.

    On the hot seat today?  Kellogg’s Yogos Bits.

    The front of the packaging describes them as “yogurty covered fruit flavored bits.”

    Did you catch those two red flag terms?

    First there’s “yogurty covered”.  Not quite the same as “yogurt covered” (we’ll get to that in a minute).

    Then there’s my personal favorite: “fruit flavored“.  That’s basically marketing speak for “sugar that tastes like [insert name of fruit here]“.

    Let’s have a look at the not-surprisingly-lengthy ingredient list:

    Sugar, coating (sugar, partially hydrogenated palm kernel and palm oil, calcium carbonate, nonfat yogurt powder [cultured whey protein concentrate, cultured skim milk, yogurt cultures [heat-treated after culturing], nonfat milk, reduced mineral whey, color added, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, salt), corn syrup, modified corn starch, apple puree concentrate, contains two percent or less of: water, pectin, citric acid, cornstarch, malic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial cherry flavor, sodium citrate, color added: carnauba wax, carmine color, Yellow #5 Lake, Red #40, Red #40, Blue #1 Lake

    Wow.  Time for some analysis:

    1. The first ingredient (meaning, the most prominent one) in this product is sugar.

    2. The “yogurty coating” contains more sugar and partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) than actual yogurt!

    3. Even worse, the yogurt cultures have been heat-treated after culturing, rendering their probiotic qualities ineffective.  Remember, you always want to look for live and active cultures!

    4. Carmine color is made by crushing the shells of cochineal beetles.  While there is nothing inherently unhealthy about this, I always like to inform vegetarians and vegans about that factoid.

    5. There isn’t a shred of fruit in this product.  Simply fruit sugars and fruit flavors.

    6. Each pouch of these “bits” weighs 20 grams.  Thirteen of those grams (that’s 65% of the product) come from sugar.

    This product can legally advertise itself as a good source of calcium because it delivers ten percent of the mineral’s daily adequate intake value.  Note, though, that some of it is fortified (sprinkled on during processing) in the yogurt coating!

    For what it’s worth, that same amount of calcium can be intrinsically found in these healthier and less processed foods:

    • A third of a cup of milk (dairy or fortified non-dairy varieties)
    • Half an ounce of Swiss cheese
    • Three quarters of a mozzarella stick
    • A quarter cup of tofu
    • A third of a cup of coked collard greens
    • A third of a cup of almonds

    I would be a lot less displeased if these were described more realistically.  Perhaps something along the lines of “sugar & yogurt covered sugar puffs”?

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