Archive for February, 2010

You Ask, I Answer: Natto

Natto_in_other_words_rotten_soya_bean_but_a_delicacy_in_JapanWhat you said about edamame and tempeh reminded me of natto –what do you think of it? I’m curious about its nutritional value.

– Christine Ho
Berkeley, CA

I did indeed overlook the five-star nutrition in natto, Christine.

I initially considered mentioning it in the post you refer to, but, in my experience, natto is even harder to track down than edamame and tempeh.  Regardless, I should have mentioned it because it is indeed another wonderful unprocessed way to consume soy.

I mention “unprocessed” soy because in their feverish rage to bash soy, anti-soy advocates don’t take the time to differentiate between different varieties of the bean.

It is true that the amount of processed soy in the Standard American Diet (SAD — how appropriate!) is alarming.  To label all soy as equally unhealthy, though, is absurdly reductionist and plain wrong.

Some of the world’s healthiest cultures have eaten — and continue to eat — large amounts of unprocessed soy on a daily basis.  A diet high in tempeh and natto is very different from one high in soy ice cream, soy chips, and soy burgers.

In any case: like tempeh, natto is fermented soy.  This means more nutrients (natto is a great source of vitamin K and folate) as well as higher absorption of minerals.  Natto is also a wonderful source of fiber and protein.

There are two key differences between the two, though.

  1. Tempeh is usually (though not always) mixed with other foods, like barley, millet, and flax seeds.  Natto is 100 percent soy.
  2. Tempeh is fermented through the addition of the Rhizopus mold.  Natto is fermented through the B.subtilis bacteria strand.

From a flavor and texture standpoint, tempeh is meaty/”mushroomy” while natto is sticky and emits a very unique odor that some appreciate and others find repulsive.

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In The News: Beer for Bones?

2111The hot topic of the moment buzzed about by nutritionists and late-night comedians alike comes courtesy of a study conducted by the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of California, Davis published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

The study’s conclusion? “Beer is a significant source of dietary silicon, a key ingredient for increasing bone mineral density.”

As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I have no strong feelings about the research.

For the record — my lack of interest in alcoholic beverages is solely a matter of disliking alcohol’s flavor.  For whatever reason, when some people hear me say I don’t drink alcohol, they almost expect me to go on a 30-minute monologue about why everyone should avoid it if they are about their health or why my moral compass disagrees with such a substance.

Back to the study.  The mainstream media — of course — had more fun with this than a housecat in a room full of mice.  Awkward puns graced headlines, practically anointing beer as a recommended beverage (“by scientists!”, no less) against osteoporosis.

It is true that adequate intakes of silicon are necessary for bone growth and maintenance.  And, yes, beer is indeed a good source of silicon.

However, everyone who eats a varied diet — especially one high in whole, unprocessed foods — is getting more than sufficient amounts of silicon.  Remember, too, that bone health involves many nutrients — mainly calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and phosphorus.

It is precisely those four nutrients that many people do not get enough of!  Having an extra beer every day isn’t going to do much good for your bones if your vitamin D and magnesium intake doesn’t meet the recommended amounts.

The study is certainly interesting — and accurate — but “beer is good for osteoporosis” claims blindly jump from point A to point Z — and fall flat on their face halfway through.

Remember: no one food is “good for” a condition.  It is general dietary patterns that provide you with a good amounts of various nutrients that are helpful.  I know, that line of thinking is not going to sell millions of books, but at least I’m being completely truthful.

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Numbers Game: Sobering Sodium Stats

800px-Swanson_TV_dinnerIn the past 40 years, average sodium intake in the United States increased ____ percent among among adult males and ____ percent among adult females.

a) 21/15
b) 62/29
c) 45/51
d) 38/57

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

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Quick & Healthy Recipe: Sweet Potato, Kale, and Coconut Soup

kaleI modified this recipe from an original — and wonderful — one whipped up by Registered Dietitian Jane Harrison of My Optum Health.  If you are on Twitter, you can follow Jane there.

My version retains 95 percent of Jane’s original (I mainly changed a few ingredient proportions and tacked on a few more spices).

Jane is absolutely right when she explains that “this hearty soup has it all, including fiber, protein, antioxidants, and a host of vitamins and minerals.”  I was very happy when I tallied information for the recipe and came up with the terrific values posted towards the end of this post.

I made this soup slightly more caloric than the original recipe, so depending on your calorie needs, it can be followed by a standard entree, a half-sandwich, or a salad.

YIELDS: 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

1.5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, diced
6 cups raw kale (pictured, right)
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 can low-sodium chickpeas
2/3 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon paprika

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes over medium-high flame, until lightly browned.
2. Add kale and stir continuously for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add broth and sweet potatoes. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, until sweet potatoes are tender.
4. Add garbanzo beans and coconut milk. Stir for 2 – 3 minutes.
5. Add spices, stir for 30 seconds, and serve.

OPTIONAL: Top with chopped scallions

NUTRITION FACTS (per serving)

354 calories
7.2 grams saturated fat (see NOTE)
300 milligrams sodium
10 grams fiber
6 grams protein

Excellent Source of: Manganese, monounsaturated fat, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K

Good Source of: Calcium, copper, iron

NOTE: The saturated fats in coconut — along with those in cacao — are the least harmful of the saturated fats.  Coconuts are high in lauric acid, a saturated fat which increases LDL cholesterol but also simultaneously raises HDL cholesterol.

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You Ask, I Answer: Farmed Seafood

shrimpThanks for all the information about farmed salmon.  I had no idea Atlantic salmon was grown in such nasty conditions.

The other day at a restaurant, I had the following grilled seafood choices to add to a salad: squid, shrimp, tuna, and lobsters.

Are any of these farmed, or can I order them knowing they are all wild?  I already know about mercury in tuna; in this instance I am only interested in the farming vs. wild issue.

– Steve Wilmott
(Location withheld)

Seafood opens up Pandora’s box.  Frankly, the more I read about the fishing and farming of many marine animals, the more turned off I am.

There’s the mercury issue with tuna, the salmon farming hot topic, concerns regarding overfishing and completely unsustainable catching methods that threaten to render certain species extinct and practically destroy ecosystems, and then… there’s the issue of Country of Origin Labeling.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In regards to your question: tuna and squid are not farmed.  Roughly half of all shrimp in the world are farmed.  The vast majority of lobsters, meanwhile, are wild-caught.

The shrimp issue is interesting.  Whereas shrimp farms in the United States are subject to certain regulations (mainly relating to waste treatment and antibiotic use), the overwhelming majority of the world’s farmed shrimp — mainly housed in China, India, and Thailand — are harvested in awful conditions.  Their water is laden with copious amounts of chemicals, antibiotics, and pesticides that are strictly illegal in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since more than three quarters of the shrimp sold in the United States is imported from those countries (and is very rarely inspected for those substances upon arriving to these shores), chances are the shrimp you eat has not been raised in the most pristine conditions.

Making matters more complicated?  Depending on the species, farmed shrimp (the US kind) is a more environmentally-friendly choice than some wild-caught species that are obtained through methods that pose very negative consequences on ecosystems.  This is where personal choice and priorities come into play.  Do you value health over environment?  Environment over health?  Both equally?

Of course, this would all be much easier to navigate if Country of Origin Labeling were implemented more effectively.

Currently, United States law mandates that unprocessed seafood served at supermarkets be labeled with the country of origin as well as a “farmed” or “wild-caught” status.  For whatever reason, restaurants and specialty stores are exempt from this requirement.

One of my absolute favorite resources is the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide, tailored to various different regions.

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You Ask, I Answer: Edamame vs. Canned Soybeans

edamame_1955[The other day you tweeted that the healthiest forms of soy are edamame and tempeh.]

How does edamame compare to canned or dried soybeans?

– Robert Portinga
(Location unknown)

Since edamame is an immature soybean, it — just like the fermented soybeans that make up tempeh — contains lower amounts of compounds in soy that interfere with mineral absorption.

Consequently, the iron, zinc, and calcium in edamame is more available than it is in matured soybeans, whether they are canned or dried.

That said, whole soybeans are still a much better way to consume soy than in its highly processed forms (i.e.: soy protein isolate or soybean oil).

In the soy podium, tempeh gets the gold medal, edamame gets silver, and mature soybeans get bronze.

While miso is also fermented soy, and healthy in its own right, it is consumed in such small quantities (i.e.: one teaspoon added to a recipe that serves four) that I didn’t consider it for the podium.

PS: Homemade edamame hummus is delicious!

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Numbers Game: Answer

nurse taking blood pressureCardiovascular disease risk doubles for every 10-point increase in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) and every 20-point increase in systolic blood pressure (the top number).

This serves as a perfect reminder of the domino effect of poor health.

It also illustrates why maintaining a healthy weight is important.  It deeply frustrates me when people argue that weight gain should not be demonized, and that all body shapes should be accepted.

I certainly back up that argument from a social and body-image standpoint.  No one should be made to feel inferior — by others as well as themselves — because of their waist size.  The fact that you’re ten or fifteen pounds overweight doesn’t negate the fact that you can be — and feel — sexy.

From a health standpoint, however, getting rid of excess weight is crucial.

Not only does excess weight increase cellular inflammation (THE most important factor behind the development of a number of degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease), it also sets off a chain of symptoms and conditions.

Excess weight increases blood pressure, lowers HDL cholesterol levels, and increase LDL cholesterol levels, thereby increasing cardiovascular disease risk.

It also increases arthritis risk and puts excessive force on joints, often making exercise painful and difficult (thereby creating a powerful barrier against regular exercise).

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You Ask, I Answer: Canned Tomatoes

canned-tomatos-fbI read somewhere that consumers should stay away from canned tomatoes (in any form), and instead buy them in glass containers because the acid in the tomatoes leaches toxins from the tin.

Is there any validity to this concern?

– Katherine Baldwin
(Location unknown)

When Bisphenol A (BPA) concerns spread like wildfire slightly over a year ago following reports of negative consequences on endocrine, reproductive, and neurological health, one added detail was that when acidic foods are stored in cans that contain BPA, they absorb the chemical.

That is most certainly a true statement.  As with anything else (i.e.: soda consumption), you need to consider context.

For example, I use canned tomatoes no more than once a month, if that.  In that case, I don’t consider the “can versus glass” question of utmost importance.

I know some people who cook with canned tomatoes at least three times a week.  In their case, I strongly recommend opting for glass jars whenever possible.

I also recommend treading with more caution when it comes to foods consumed by toddlers, children, and pregnant women.

FYI: Eden Foods canned tomato products are lined with enamel, rather than plastic, thereby significantly reducing the amount of BPA that leaches into their foods.  This is the company’s official statement:

“Eden Organic Tomatoes are packed in lead free tin covered steel cans coated with a baked on r-enamel lining. Due to the acidity of tomatoes, the lining is epoxy based and may contain a minute amount of bisphenol-A, it is in the ‘non detectable’ range in extraction test. The test was based on a detection level at 5 ppb (parts per billion).”

I suppose one then has to ask — “how safe is it to consume from cans with epoxy-based linings?”

Once again, it comes down to context.

Canned foods shouldn’t make up the bulk of the diet anyway, since most of these foods contain considerable amounts of sodium.

PS: In some states, environmental committees have drafted bills to phase out — and eventually ban — the production (or at the very least, the sale) of cans that contain BPA.  I certainly support them!

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In The News: Camel Meat — The Latest Health Fad?

07._Camel_Profile,_near_Silverton,_NSW,_07.07.2007Reuters recently featured the newest healthy option on Dubai restaurant menus — camel meat.

“For 20 UAE dirhams ($5.45), the Local House restaurant offers a quarter pound camel burger”, which assistant manager Ali Ahmad Esmail claims are fat-free and cholesterol-free.

Hmmmm… really?

A 1993 study conducted at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University by the College of Agriculture (and published in Meat Science in 1995) concluded that “in proximate composition, camel meat is generally similar to beef.”

Specifically, camel meat samples were found to contain anywhere from 4.1 to 10.6 percent fat.

Cholesterol, by definition, is present in foods of animal origin and absent in plant-derived foods.  It is impossible for any animal flesh to be cholesterol-free.

More strangely, these fat-free and “health conscious” claims are silly when you consider that these camel burgers are “loaded with cheese”, “smothered in burger sauce”, and served with fries!

Conclusion: mere hype.

Thank you to Robert Jackson for forwarding the Reuters article.

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You Ask, I Answer: Mesquite Powder

mesquite-powderMy local health food store now carries mesquite powder.

Is that the same as mesquite barbeque stuff, like the flavoring in potato chips?

What about it makes it healthy enough to be at a health food store?

– John Amers
New York, NY

Many people are unaware that mesquite trees contain an array of edible components.

The mesquite you refer to (the one used for barbecuing as well as for barbeque-flavored snacks) comes from mesquite tree wood that is processed into chips and then smoked.

The mesquite powder sold in health food stores, however, is the end result of grinding up mesquite tree pods and seeds.

I find that mesquite powder has a delicious caramel-like flavor.  As with maca, I love to add a heaping tablespoon (or two!) to any shake I make with cacao (the flavors complement each other wonderfully).

I know some people also like to add it to pancake batter (it has some thickening properties and can replace a small quantity of flour) and yogurt.

Mesquite powder is a very good source of soluble fiber, manganese, potassium, and zinc.

While it is certainly not inexpensive, a small bag lasts me two to three months.

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You Ask, I Answer: Cucumbers

cucumber_marketmore76_organicI always hear that cucumbers help with weight-loss because they are mostly water and low in calories, but I never see them referred to as being very nutritious.

Are they high in any nutrients?

– Diana Wegfield
(Location withheld)

Cucumbers provide a generous amount of manganese, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin K.  To get the highest amount of manganese and potassium, be sure to leave the skin on.

Compared to other vegetables, their phytochemical and antioxidant content is low.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy cucumbers.  I don’t believe that every single morsel you put in your mouth has to be chock-full of nutrients.

If, for example, adding sliced cucumbers to a salad helps you eat more dark leafy green vegetables, you’re reaping benefits!

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You Ask, I Answer: Ginger

ginger-root1I love, love, love ginger.

I make my own juices at home three or four times a week and always add one or two hefty chunks of ginger.

I feel fine, but should I be concerned about so much ginger doing something to my intestinal tract?  One of my friends says I should be careful because since ginger is spicy, so much of it could cause ulcers.

– Jordan Yeats
(City withheld), FL

Ah, the “spicy foods cause ulcers” myth.

The vast majority of ulcers are actually caused by h. pylori bacteria.  Stress and spicy foods don’t play any role in ulcer formation.  They can, however, make existing ulcers more painful.

FYI: The h. pylori connection was first made by Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in the early 1980s — and garnered them the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine!

Ulcers aside, there is no need for you to be concerned about the amount of ginger you are eating (provided you don’t have certain health conditions such as gallbladder disease or taking cardiac or diabetes medication).

Healthy individuals can reap plenty of health benefits from fresh ginger!

Ginger is not only a powerful anti-inflammatory food (remember, cellular inflammation is the principal factor behind the development of most degenerative diseases), it has also been shown to significantly slow down the reproduction of tumor cells and be a powerful weapon against free radicals.

Ginger is so good at reducing inflammation that it is a wonderful natural remedy to help alleviate arthritis symptoms (as long as it is consumed consistently, of course).

Ginger is also an excellent source of curcumin, the antioxidant in turmeric that helps significantly reduce the risk for a variety of cancers.

Another bonus?  Ginger has been shown to help reduce blood platelet aggregation (thereby helping lower atherosclerosis risk).

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Numbers Game: The Pressured Heart

high-diastolic-blood-pressure-and-high-systolic-blood-pressureCardiovascular disease risk doubles for every ____-point increase in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) and every _____-point increase in systolic blood pressure (the top number).

Source: World Health Organization

a) 10/20
b) 15/5
c) 5/10
d) 20/15

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

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Grading the Gurus: Michael Pollan

Michael_PollanOne of the most frequent questions I receive via e-mail goes something like this: “What do you think of [enter name of nutrition guru here]?”

For whatever reason, these types of e-mails have significantly increased over the past few months.

Rather than answer these e-mails individually, I figured it would be more helpful to create a new section on the blog where I give my thoughts on many of these gurus — and grade them.

First up — Michael Pollan.

WHO IS HE?

Despite his status as a nutrition guru, Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Although he has penned a handful of books throughout his career, he shot to fame in 2006 thanks to the release of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan provides an eye-opening and in-depth look at issues of sustainability, food system chains, agriculture and agribusiness, and, most famously, how crop subsidies (mainly that of corn) have affected food policy, the nutrition landscape, and health in the United States.

That iconic tome was followed by In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in 2007, and Food Rules in 2009, both of which mostly expand on issues presented in Omnivore.

WHAT IS HIS MAIN MESSAGE?

Pollan advocates a return to minimally processed food.  His signature advice (and quote) is: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

Pollan is a staunch critic of what he calls “nutritionism”, a term that refers to an obsession with one nutrient, rather than actual food (for example, seeking out a sugary cereal that is fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, as opposed to getting that nutrient from a food that naturally contains it).

His latest book — Food Rules — is a compilation of 64 rules to keep in mind when it comes to nutrition, including:

  • “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
  • “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.”
  • “Do all your eating at a table”

WHAT I LIKE:

Unlike other gurus, Pollan approaches nutrition from a holistic standpoint and considers how political, environmental, and economic factors affect the food chain.

He does not focus on a “magic nutrient” or a handful of “superfoods” that allegedly cure diseases or make one invincible.

Pollan’s core advice makes absolute sense — everyone can benefit from cutting down on highly processed foods and eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Even better, Pollan’s work has brought a formely “niche” issue to the mainstream, and has sparked a significant amount of conversation and debate from classrooms to the White House.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

In Pollan’s — or, more likely, his publishers’ — attempt to remain witty and instantly quotable with one-sentence tips, some of his advice is beginning to get watered down and slightly repetitive.

For example, one of Pollan’s “food rules” is to “eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”  Granted, he explains it a little differently:

“If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you’re willing to prepare them — chances are good it won’t be every day.”

So, in reality, the advice is to “only eat junk food you make yourself.”

Similarly, some of Pollan’s famous “isms” — such as not eating foods your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and only shopping the perimeter of the supermarket — miss the point.

Plenty of healthy and minimally processed foods — like beans, brown rice, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, spices, and whole grain pasta — are found in the internal aisles of the supermarket.

Additionally, the advice of only eating foods our great-grandmothers would recognize doesn’t take into account globalization.  My great-grandmother in Portugal never ate healthy, whole foods like tempeh, seitan, nori seaweed, or almond milk because they were not part of her cultural culinary makeup.  If she were still alive today, she certainly wouldn’t recognize those foods out of a lineup.

Again, I “get” what Pollan is trying to say — a slice of real cheese is better than Cheetos.  However, this perfectly exemplifies how his attempt to come up with cutesy “-isms” can deliver inaccurate messages.

Another gripe I have with Pollan is his strongly anti-vegetarian viewpoint.

He goes as far as describing vegetarianism as an anti-social practice and one that is “in denial of reality” and a “sacrifice of the human identity”.  In interviews, he has also hinted that vegan diets are not pleasurable, which is quite a presumptous statement.  While vegan diets are not for everyone, vegans get as much pleasure from the food they eat as omnivores do.

BOTTOM LINE:

Despite some unusually strong views on veganism and vegetarianism, as well as a recent reliance on “soundbite advice”, Pollan delivers a powerful, well thought-out, and thorough message that everyone can apply and benefit from.

PS: For a “Cliffs Notes” version of Pollan’s arguments, I highly recommend you read this piece he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2007, titled “Unhappy Meals”.

GRADE: A- (B+ if I take into account his “vegetarianism goes against human identity” argument which, really, is peripheral to his core philosophy)

Have your say!  Agree?  Disagree?  Leave a comment.

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You Ask, I Answer: Nutrient Losses in Beans

Kidney-BeansHTMy boyfriend recently bought some dry beans.

After watching him soak and cook the beans, I couldn’t believe that beans are considered good sources of anything – copper, manganese, iron, and whatever else, because they get soaked for so long, and then they’re boiled for soooo long!

I would expect for a lot of the “good stuff” to have leeched out through all of the preparation.

Can you explain why this is not the case?

– Christine Ho
(Location unknown)

Great question, Christine!

I find it a little odd that your boyfriend boiled the beans for a very long time after soaking them, since part of the reason for soaking beans is to significantly cut down on cooking time.

Another benefit to soaking (and this also applies to grains and nuts) — making nutrients more bioavailable!

Whole grains and beans contain phytates, which interfere with absorption of certain nutrients, like zinc.  Soaking significantly reduces phytate content.

FYI — that is why why sprouted whole grain breads offer more nutrition than regular whole grain breads.

While phytates are only a concern in mono-diets (diets that mainly consist of one food, as is the case in some under-developed third world communities), there certainly is no harm in soaking these foods if one has the time and desire to do so.

Soaking does not, however, reduce beans’ mineral content.

While cooking beans in boiling water does leach out some minerals, the amount is insignificant — roughly two to four percent.  Even after boiling, beans are an excellent source of many minerals.

Remember — the nutrients most affected by boiling are vitamin C as well as all B vitamins.

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