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    Archive for the ‘simply said’ Category

    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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    Simply Said: Expeller-Pressed Oil

    Pick up a random box of whole grain crackers at a health food store and you’re bound to see “expeller pressed oil” as one of the ingredients.

    What is it, exactly ? Is it lower in calories? Is it a healthier fat?

    An oil is considered expeller-pressed when it is extracted from its source – a seed or nut – solely through a crushing mechanism (using a device similar to what is pictured on the right).

    Consider it a less-processed end product.

    Standard oils (i.e: the oil used for Doritos) are extracted chemically with the aid of hexane, a petrochemical also used as a paint diluent and solvent.

    Hexane, a neurotoxin, was actually classified as a Hazardous Air Pollutant in 1993 by the Environmental Protection Agency, and can lead to serious health complications if inhaled.

    There are currently studies being done on hexane consumption in the diet, mainly to determine if any links can be made between its consumption and higher risks of cancer.

    What is known is that the release of hexane into the atmosphere by conventional oil processing methods ultimately creates greenhouse gases.

    From a nutrition standpoint, though, expeller pressed oil is still a fat clocking in at nine calories per gram.

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    Simply Said: Lactose Intolerance

    Lactose intolerance occurs when our bodies are unable to digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in dairy.

    The digestion of lactose falls under the responsibility of an enzyme called lactase, which breaks up lactose into two simple sugars – glucose and galactose.

    These two sugars then travel through our digestive systems without problems.

    However, if someone’s body does not produce enough lactase, lactose charges full-steam ahead… until it reaches the gut. Then, it just sits there, patiently waiting for lactase to come break it down so it can continue its travels.

    Except lactase never arrives, so lactose is instead feverishly eaten up by bacteria in our gut, thereby causing gas, bloating, stomach cramps, and in some cases even diarrhea.

    Lactose intolerance is mainly seen in Asian, Native American, Latin American, and African American populations.

    Interestingly enough, regardless of your racial makeup, lactose intolerance becomes a more likely complication with each passing decade.

    Turns out that as we age, our bodies produce less lactase.

    The best way to know what you have for sure is simply by getting tested. While you can do this by undergoing an endoscopy, there is a much less invasive way – a breath test!

    If your body is successfully breaking down lactose, you wouldn’t have much hydrogen present in your breath. However, if lactose is fermenting in your gut, its levels will certainly be detectable.

    So what to do if you’re lacking lactase?

    For starters, never eat dairy products on an empty stomach or by themselves.

    You might also want to try lactose-free milk or take a lactase enzyme supplement before having dairy products.

    Eat your bacteria. That’s right! If you’re having yogurt, aim for those with live cultures, which will aid digestion.

    Play hard to get. Hard cheeses contain less lactose than soft varieties, so a Swiss cheese sandwich would go over better than a caprese salad with mozarella.

    Don’t gloss over food labels. Just because a food doesn’t fall under the “dairy” umbrella does not mean it is 100% safe.

    The biggest trap? An ingredient known as whey, which is derived from milk and contains lactose.

    Food shouldn’t be your only concern, either.

    About a quarter of prescription drugs contain lactose, as do the majority of birth control pills.

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    Simply Said: “wheat-free”/celiac disease

    The past five years have produced an increase in wheat-free products such as breads, pastas, crackers, and cookies.

    Although the claim “wheat-free” also accompanies other health-related ones such as “Low in saturated fat!” or “No added sugar!”, you should only be concerned with avoiding wheat if you have been diagnosed with an allergy to it or a genetic disease known as celiac disease.

    Celiacs can not tolerate gluten, a protein mainly found in wheat as well as barley and rye.

    When gluten is consumed — even if it’s as little as 1/8 of a teaspoon — the small intestine is damaged, and symptoms vary from extremely uncomfortable bloating and diarrhea to fatigue, mouth sores, and muscle cramps.

    Although approximately ten percent of celiacs don’t appear to show any symptoms, they are not immune from the nutrient malabsorption that occurs as a result of damage in the small intestine.

    Avoiding wheat, rye, and barley is not as easy as it sounds.

    Many medicines have traces of gluten, and cross-contamination can often happen in factories (which is why you will often see food labels for products that don’t contain either of those three ingredients warning consumers that the respective food was made in a factory that processes wheat).

    Once diagnosed (after a simple blood test), the lifestyle change can be hard, especially when dining out.

    A fish and vegetable stew might sound harmless, but that tomato sauce on top might have a little flour in it to thicken it. Frozen yogurts often use gluten as a stabilizing agent!

    Remember, even the slightest trace of gluten is enough to set off some very uncomfortable symptoms.

    Luckily, celiacs have more options than ever. Although all sorts of wheat flour (all-purpose, whole wheat, durum, farina, etc.) should be avoided, experimenting with other types (ie: chickpea, tapioca, rice) is recommended.

    Celiacs often end up introducing their palate to a variety of flavors — quinoa, amaranth, and flax often become a regular addition to their diet, rather than the “funky grain” they have once a month.

    Unfortunately, the only “cure” to celiac disease is complete avoidance of foods that damage the small intestine.

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    Simply Said: "Cholesterol Free"

    Ah, this sneaky tactic unfortunately works on many consumers every year.

    A “cholesterol” free label with bright capital letters will jump out from some food packaging, and some people put that item in their shopping carts virtuously, believing they are choosing a healthier product.

    Not necessarily! All “cholesterol-free” means is that that particular product is not an animal product or by-product, as those are the foods that naturally contain cholesterol.

    For instance, a package of Oreo cookies will advertise itself as “cholesterol free”. Fair enough, but 3 of those cookies contain 160 calories, 7 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 3 1/2 tablespoons of added sugar, and practically no vitamins and minerals.

    Meanwhile, a can of salmon, while not cholesterol free, offers a mountain of nutrients (including heart-healthy fats) that an Oreo cookie could never dream of offering.

    And, remember, our blood cholesterol is not affected by the cholesterol found in foods. Shunning shrimp, salmon, or lean meats in favor of cholesterol-free processed food will not do you any favors.

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    Simply Said: "All Natural"

    Food products, much like books, are judged by their covers. Would it surprise you to know that many companies literally spend millions of dollars on teams that scrutinize precisely what images and words to display on a box of crackers?

    Certain health claims up a product’s chance of ending up in a consumer’s shopping cart. One of the most aggravating claims is “all-natural!” (what would the world of marketing be without exclamation marks?)

    Many people still attempt to justify junk food as being okay because, hey, the box says it’s “all-natural” (yeah, and the ad for a 20 square foot studio apartment in New York City describes it as “cozy and charming”).

    Truthfully, that means nothing. Sure, baby carrots and orange slices are “all natural” foods, but so are french fries, cheeseburgers, and brownies.

    Even the Cheetos shown in the photo accompanying this post are “naturally baked”. Huh? In an oven at high temperatures as opposed to what kind of baking that would be considered “artificial”?

    To demonstrate how nutritionally irrelevant this health claim is, all I can say is that poisonous mushrooms also natural. Sure, some render us dead, but they grow in nature.

    Please, do not fall into the hands of a slick advertiser trying to pry a few dollar bills from your wallet with vague health claims. A product can be all-natural and still be high in fat and sugars but low in fiber and nutrients.

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    Simply Said: Cholesterol (Part 2)

    Part One introduced the main concept; now let’s talk figures. If you have your last bloodwork results handy, pull them out before continuing.

    When it comes to total cholesterol, you ideally want a number below 200. If you are between the 200 and 240 mark, you are in the “caution” zone. Anything above 240 is cause for concern.

    When it comes to HDL (the “good cholesterol” that takes extra cholesterol lingering around in places where it shouldn’t be back to the liver for processing), you want as high a number as possible. Anything below 40 is low (and indicates a higher risk of developing heart disease), whereas a number between 40 and 60 is OK. For maximum heart-healthy benefits, though, you want a number above 60.

    Onto the “bad cholesterol” (LDL). You definitely want this low, since high numbers up the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

    Less than 100? Perfection! Between 100 and 130? You’re still in safe territory. If you are between 130 and 160, consider yourself warned. If between 160 and 190, you are just a few numbers away from real trouble. If your LDL is above 190, this is a threat to your cardiovascular health that needs to be addressed.

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    Simply Said: Cholesterol (Part 1)

    Welcome to yet another new section of the Small Bites blog. “Simply Said” will help you understand confusing or overwhelming nutrition topics.

    We begin with cholesterol. Our livers and cells produce about 80% of our body’s cholesterol, a precursor to hormones like estrogen and testosterone and necessary for producing vitamin D out of the sunlight that hits our skin. That being said, cholesterol is not essential (meaning it is not necessary to get additional amounts from our diet).

    There are four types of cholesterol, but the two you want to think about are low density (LDL) and high density (HDL). The four variations combined make up what is known as your total cholesterol.

    LDL is the bad (or “lame”) cholesterol. What’s so bad about it? Well, the higher your LDL cholesterol, the higher your risk of strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots.

    Why is this? LDL cholesterol ends up being deposited on the walls of our arteries, where it turns into hard plaque and restricts bloodflow.

    HDL is the good (or “healthy”) cholesterol that helps prevent plaque deposits by taking them to the liver for processing and removal when it spots them.

    If your body were a town, LDL would be the litterbugs and HDL would be the sanitation workers.

    Now, it is true that genes play a somewhat significant role in this. Some people — no matter how healthy they eat — have high levels of LDL, while others can go through life eating junk and still boast high HDL numbers.

    Although the drug companies would love for all us to be on statins (cholesterol-lowering medication), the majority of us are in that middle area where our cholesterol profiles can be modified by diet.

    Let’s get this straight once and for all. It is not cholesterol in foods that raises our bad cholesterol, but saturated fat, found only in animal products (except those that are non-fat). So, when a package of bread boasts a “cholesterol-free” label on it, you can reply back, “well, duh!” and dismiss it as semi-dishonest marketing rather than groundbreaking nutritional information.

    So how do you lower cholesterol? Physical activity is a must, but when it comes to food, your best weapon is soluble fiber (found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and oatmeal), which bundles up and flushes out excess cholesterol.

    (Note: physical activity does not have to mean a busy gym or loud spinning class. Simply increasing the distance you walk every day is enough to have an effect on your cholesterol levels).

    Back to the nutrition factor. Going low-fat is NOT the answer to lowering your cholesterol. Rather, you want to go smart-fat. Monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, avocados, and flaxseed) are helpful at maintaining our good cholesterol levels (a low-fat diet can actually lower it). Remember, the goal isn’t just to lower bad cholesterol, but to increase the good one, too.

    Tomorrow we’ll finish up this segment with some numbers to help you make sense of your next blood lab results.

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