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    Archive for the ‘USDA’ Category

    My Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems

    Since last week, the arrival of the United States Department of Agriculture’s new “food icon” (aka “My Plate” or “the new food pyramid”) has been the hot topic in nutrition and public health circles.  Alas, at 10:45 AM EST today, the much-speculated-about illustration was finally revealed.

    There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and “relatable” interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid.  There is no notion of confusing “servings” (leave it to the USDA to make a serving of grains equivalent to one third of a regular-sized bagel), and — finally! — grains no longer have the honor of “most encouraged food group” (they are now second to “vegetables”).  While many of my colleagues have expressed enthusiasm with, and acceptance of, this new plate illustration, my point of view is nowhere near as enthusiastic, for several reasons.

    Continue Reading »


    You Ask, I Answer: “Grass-Fed” Labeling

    naturalorganicmeatsDo the words “grass fed” on a package of beef mean anything, truly?

    Are there strict guidelines, or is it a very loose term?

    — Annie Balzer
    Sacramento, CA
    (Via Twitter, @anniebalzer)

    Twitter’s 140-character limit was definitely not enough space to cover this topic, so I told Annie I would have to answer her question on the blog.  Not surprisingly, this is not as cut-and-dry (does that classify as a bad grass-related pun?) as you may think.

    The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) legally defined the term “grass-fed” in October of 2007, as follows.  I have bolded certain parts for further discussion:

    “Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.

    Whew.  Let’s break this down.

    “Grass and forage… consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal.  The diet shall be derived solely from forage.”

    This definition means that beef labeled “grass-fed” must be from cows that consume grass throughout their entire life.  This is to prevent grass-finished or grain-finished beef from being labeled “grass-fed”.  “Grass-finished” means that a cow eats grain for most of its life, but is then fed grass the last few months.  Prior to this 2007 ruling, some unscrupulous individuals would do this and label their products “grass-fed”.

    “Grain-finished” is a more common practice, in which cows consume grass until the last few months of life, during which time they are fed grain.  The grain diet bulks up cows (which means more weight, and therefore, more money when sold), but ultimately negates the health-effects of a grass-exclusive diet (mainly lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of heart-healthy conjugated linoleic acid).

    “Animals must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season…”

    This is one of the more vague and controversial parts of the definition.

    “Access to pasture” is not the same as “pasture-raised”.  Per USDA laws, “access to pasture” can mean that cows are confined indoors, but a gate that leads to pasture is open.  Sure, the confined cows are eating grass or hay — as opposed to grains — from a trough, but their mobility is severely restricted.  This usually comes as a surprise to people who equate “grass-fed” with “pasture-raised”.

    If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer must fully document (e.g., receipts, ingredients, and tear tags) the supplementation that occurs including the amount, the frequency, and the supplements provided.

    This is also rather unsettling, for it appears to indicate that all the farmer has to do is document instances where cows may have eaten grains.  There is no mention of a farmer being forbidden from selling that meat as “grass-fed”.

    Then, of course, there is the issue of what is not said in the definition.  “Grass-fed” does not indicate an absence of antibiotics or growth hormones.  That falls under the definition of “organic”.  So, organic grass-fed beef is certainly different from grass-fed beef.

    The American Grassfed Association is very unhappy about that tidbit, and has therefore implemented its own third-party verification system.  You can read their standards here (specifically, read pages 3 to 9 to become familiar with their criteria). You can view a rather lengthy list of producers who meet their criteria here.

    In essence, the American Grassfed Association label means that beef is from cows that:

    • Solely subsist on grass their entire lives
    • Do not consume antibiotics
    • Are not injected with hormones
    • Are pasture-raised

    FYI 1: Let me once again remind you that “vegetarian-fed” is not the same as “grass-fed”!

    FYI 2: Keep in mind, too, that this is all about certification.  It is very plausible that a local farm which labels its beef as “grass-fed” and does not carry an AGA label still meets all of their requirements.  If they don’t take the initiative to apply for certification, they won’t display the AGA seal of approval.

    The problem isn’t that all beef labeled “grass-fed” is subjected to hormones and antibiotics, but rather that, due to loose standards, beef labeled in such a manner doesn’t necessarily have to abide by standards that some people erroneously assume come with that term.


    In The News: Nacho Ideal Lunch

    school lunchMore news on the deplorable state of national school lunch, this time courtesy of The Chicago Tribune.

    At one North Side school cafeteria, “one line leads to fish nuggets, iceberg lettuce and canned peaches, Another [to] burgers and breaded chicken patty sandwiches, [and] the longest line to lunch workers [serving nachos].”

    This is no anomaly.

    Nachos are an almost daily entree at most Chicago public high schools and middle schools.  This means that “about 100,000 Chicago public high school students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, can choose nachos as an entree every day.”

    The school district is quick to point out they “recently switched to whole-grain fried chips for its nachos and added chicken to the ground meat.”

    Big whoop.  A deep fried chip is a deep fried chip, whether it’s made with whole grains or not.  The addition of chicken to ground meat is also rather meaningless, considering the atrocious amount of sodium added to it.

    Wait, they have an even better defense — at least the school lunch isn’t “as bad” as what they can get at a fast food chain.

    What’s next?  “Yeah, we know your child’s math teacher is pretty horrible, but at least he doesn’t beat them with a ruler if they get the answer wrong”?

    The article also touches upon the laundry list of problems with the National School Lunch Program:

    • It is heavily dependent on United States Department of Agriculture commodity foods (the main ones being meat, soy, corn and wheat)
    • Vendor reimbursements are tightly linked to food sales
    • School districts are given minimal funds to cover not only food costs, but also equipment and labor

    The most frustrating aspect of this “debate” is the argument that “kids just don’t live vegetables.”

    By this, officials mean that children don’t like steamed, unsalted carrots and peas.

    Who does?

    In the “glass is kinda sorta almost half full if you look at it from this angle” department, Congress will soon reevaluate the Child Nutrition Act, setting up the possibility of changes to the National School Lunch Program.

    Oh, who am I kidding?  That glass is almost as empty as Heidi Montag’s skull.


    You Ask, I Answer: Potato Consumption

    While a baked potato with the skin left on is a healthy choice, the question is: how do the majority of North Americans eat their potatoes?

    — Kate (last name unknown)
    Via the blog

    Great question.

    Here is what the most recent figures from the United States Department of Agriculture reveal.

    In 2002, the “average American” consumed 126 lbs. of potatoes.

    Of these 126 lbs., approximately 24 came exclusively from potato chips (the average American consumed 6 lbs. of potato chips in 2002; it takes 4 pounds of potatoes to make 1 pound of potato chips).

    Frozen potatoes (mainly french fries) totaled 61 pounds.

    Some simple addition reveals that french fries and potato chips make up two thirds of total average potato consumption!

    Not exactly the picture of health.

    We are still missing some vital information, though.

    Although baked potatoes offer a good deal of nutrition (Harvard’s School of Public Health Chair Walter Willett’s claim that potatoes and candy bars are basically nutritionally identical is ludicruous), this survey does not tell us how people are eating them.

    Mainly, how many calories they are being topped with. A pad of butter? Three tablespoons?

    What we certainly know is that such a high consumption of French fries doesn’t spell out good news for our waistlines.

    While a nutritious side dish consisting of medium baked potato topped with a tablespoon of olive oil (that’s quite a bit!) adds up to 280 calories, a large order of fries at McDonald’s contributes 570.


    In The News: Revising the Food Pyramid

    The folks over at the Harvard School of Public Health — led by Walter Willett — don’t think the traditional USDA food pyramid (officially known as MyPyramid) doles out the best advice.

    So, they proactively designed their own version — The Healthy Eating Pyramid.

    You can see a nicely drawn PDF version by clicking on the link above.

    I prefer this version over the USDA’s, but have a few critiques.

    Although I like the inclusion of “daily exercise and weight control” at the base, I would prefer that section be titled “daily exercise and portion control.”

    Additionally, the “healthy fats/oils” category should place more of an emphasis on fats higher in Omega-3 (i.e: olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed) and less on ones offering very high Omega-6 levels (ie: soy and corn).

    As I have discussed in the past, an improper Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio has its share of health implications.

    Lastly, I strongly disagree with the inclusion of potatoes in the “eat sparingly” pyramid tip (accompanied by red meat, refined grains, sugary snacks, and salt).

    It is one thing to eat potatoes in their nutritionally void skinless, deep fried version.

    However, a baked potato, eaten with its skin, is a great source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate, and magnesium.

    Clearly, current obesity and diabetes rates can not be blamed on the ingestion of healthily prepared potatoes.

    Your thoughts?


    In The News: Which (Antibiotic) Came First? The (One Fed To The) Chicken Or The (One Injected Into) The Egg?

    Ready for a real doozy from the world of chicken raising, antibiotic feeds, and USDA policies?

    Alright, buckle up!

    It was reported earlier this week that Judge Richard D. Bennett of the United States District Court in Baltimore ordered chicken giant Tyson to pull all advertisements from their “chickens raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans” campaign by no later than May 18.

    Mind you, this campaign was originally billed as “chickens raised without antibiotics.” The United States Department of Agriculture happily gave it the green light.

    Until, that is, they went back and realized they had made a boo boo.

    Turns out Tyson includes antibiotic compounds known as ionophores in their chicken feed.

    Ionophores are commonly fed to chickens mainly as protection from a parasitic intestinal condition known as coccidiosis, as well as to help them gain weight.

    The USDA quickly drafted a letter to Tyson, notifying them that their “no antibiotics added” claim wasn’t entirely true. Consequently, they were asked to remove it from all packaging.

    Tyson rebutted by arguing that ionophores are classified by the Food & Drug Administration as antimicrobials, not antibiotics.

    Well, not quite. Although the FDA recognizes that ionophores have antimicrobial properties, they are technically antibiotics when used as part of chicken feeds.

    Tyson additionally claimed that ionophores are not a concern since they do not impact antibiotic resistance in humans, nor are they used in human drugs.

    After this back and forth, the claim was changed to “chickens raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”

    If you’re wondering why the use for such convoluted language, it’s simple.

    Tyson, like many other chicken companies, injects chicken eggs with antibiotics approximately 2 days before they hatch.

    Ergo, by using the word “raised,” they only advertise what happens with the chicken after it is born.

    Largely due to pressure from Tyson’s competitors (which claim Tyson is misleading consumers), this updated claim is now being axed.

    This specific case doesn’t so much revolve around the “rights” and “wrongs” of including ionophores in chickenfeed, but the idea of misleading advertising and technicalities.

    It is worth pointing out that as a result of increasing consumer need for antibiotic-free food, chicken farmers are considering viable alternatives, including vaccination against a variety of illnesses.

    What do you think? Was Tyson misleading? Do you specifically seek out antibiotic-free poultry?


    More Numbers, More Problems

    Behold the latest curveball thrown at supermarket shoppers — “grams of whole grains”.

    When this trend first started in early 2007, I inwardly cringed and hoped for its quick disappearance.  Far from it — I keep seeing it on more and more products!

    It is my suspicion that with whole grains and fiber being the latest hot topics, food manufacturers hope to confuse shoppers looking to increase fiber intake by boasting about the grams of whole grains in their foods — two very different concepts.

    Consider this your “advertising-proof” tutorial on whole grains.

    Let’s start at the beginning.

    According to MyPyramid (also known as 2005’s “food pyramid 2.0”), adults who ate 2,000 calories per day should consume 6 servings of grains.  The USDA defines a serving of grains as one ounce (28 grams). Remember that figure, it will come in handy very shortly.

    MyPyramid distinctly called for half of those 6 grain servings to be whole (i.e: oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat cous cous, barley, etc.), rather than enriched (i.e.: white bread, white rice, etc.).  Strangely, the recommendation wasn’t “at least three whole grain servings,” but simply “three.”

    This is where it all starts to get confusing.

    If one ounce equals 28 grams, and we are asked to make three grain servings (AKA three ounces) whole, then the recommended daily intake of whole grains adds up to 84 grams (28 grams x 3 servings).

    Alas, if you look up whole grain serving recommendations, you’ll see a daily suggestion of 48 grams per day.  Some simple math (48 grams divided by 3 servings) tells us, then, that one serving of whole grains equals 16 grams.

    “But I thought one serving of grain equaled 28 grams.  Why isn’t a serving of whole grains also 28 grams?” you may wonder.

    Well, most whole grain products contain a variety of ingredients; not just flour.  It turns out, in fact, that a one-ounce serving of whole grains contains, on average, approximately 16 grams of flour (the other 12 grams are other ingredients, including yeast, salt, oils, etc).

    Although food labels do not list grams of whole grains, you have two ways of finding this information out.

    One is by claims on the packaging (such as the “Now with 5 grams of whole grains per serving!” stated on boxes of Teddy Grahams).

    Usually, though, these claims are made by products that sprinkle a little whole wheat flour on top of a product that is virtually refined grains.

    Considering that you need at least 48 grams a day, 5 grams is a pretty pathetic figure to bother writing about in such large font.

    The other is via the Whole Grains Council stamp (pictured at top left), which specifically lists the grams of whole grains per serving in a product.

    Some companies are still using old versions of the stamp, which classified foods as “good” (8 – 15 grams of whole grains per serving) or “excellent” (16 or more grams of whole grains per serving).

    What about fiber? How does it tie into all this?  An item high in whole grains is high in fiber, but products high in fiber are not necessarily high in whole grains.

    An Atkins chocolate peanut butter bar, for instance, contains a whopping 10 grams of fiber.  Since this is a low-carb bar, you certainly won’t find whole grains flour anywhere on the ingredient list.

    So how is this value achieved? Thanks to a polysaccharide known as cellulose.  Keep in mind that while this kind of fiber helps keep things moving, there are specific substances in whole grains that have been targeted in nutrition research as helpful in reducing the risk of several diseases.

    So, how do you put all this together without going insane?  Simple. Try to consume 25 – 30 grams of fiber from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds every day.  Generally, the foods that boast “x grams of whole grains per serving!” claims are wolves in sheep’s clothing.


    You "Ask", I Answer: Sugar and Satiety

    [In regards to your Reuters.com interview about added sugar in the diet, some of your comments are inaccurate.]

    There is no daily maximum recommendation for added sugars.

    Based on insufficient evidence of links to dental caries, behaviour problems, cancer, risk of obesity and risk of hyperlipidemia, no upper limit (UL) was set within the Dietary Reference Intakes for added sugars.

    However, although a UL was not set, a maximum intake level of 25% or less of energy was suggested based on the decreased intake of some micronutrients of American subpopulations exceeding this level.

    25% or less of a 2,000 calorie diet is 125g of sugar.

    [Also,] I am not sure how you can say that a muffin is not satiating.

    A muffin contains more than sugar. It contains fat and some protein (more if it contains nuts) and, depending on the type of muffin, possibly fiber.

    All of these components are strongly linked to satiety.

    – Kristy [last name unknown]
    Via the blog

    There most certainly are maximum recommendations for added sugars.

    The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that people consuming 2,000 calories consume no more than 40 grams per day.

    If you take in 1,600 calories, that figures drops to 24 grams. Those of you on a 2,800 calorie plan can consume up to 72 grams.

    I am not sure where the “25% of calories” figure you mention comes from.  I have never seen or heard of it.

    Onto your muffin comment.

    While these baked goods are certainly not pure sugar, the percentage of calories from the sweet stuff is quite high.

    In the case of a Starbucks 360-calorie low-fat blueberry and apricot muffin, 12.5 percent of calories come from fat, 7 percent from protein, and a stunning 50 percent from sugar (not general carbohydrates, just sugar!)

    Even the full-fat muffins get a full quarter of their calories from sugar!

    In both cases, fiber barely registers at just 2 grams.

    I never said that muffins “do not satiate”.

    Instead, I pointed out that the high amounts of sugar are troubling because absolutely none of those calories contribute to a feeling of fullness.

    Satiety can be achieved with less calories by replacing sugar grams with ones of fiber.

    Why achieve satiety with 500 calories when you can achieve it with 275 of oatmeal, milk, and fruit?


    Numbers Game: E-Lusive

    According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee, ________ percent of the United States population does not meet the daily requirement for Vitamin E.

    a) 64
    b) 77

    c) 82
    d) 93

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Friday for the answer!

    (The accompanying image is for illustration purposes only. When I reveal the answer, I will let you know how to meet your needs with food).


    In The "News": USDA Food Pyramid

    Thank you to reader Antonella Montagna for sending me this wonderful piece from The Onion.

    The message couldn’t be clearer…


    You Ask, I Answer: Serving Sizes (Part 2)

    I have some follow-up questions.

    Does one piece of low moisture mozzarella string cheese count towards a protein? Two tablespoons of peanut butter: is that one serving?

    I am using My Calorie Counter to help me track all this but they max me out at 50 grams of protein per day. I’m always hungry and have NO problem meeting my protein intake in grams, but I’m not sure about the servings.

    My big thing is I don’t like most veggies or fish. I do like celery, carrots, corn, cucumbers, spinach lettuce, romaine lettuce and trying to make sure I get all my “servings per day in” has been difficult.

    — Jessica Hubbs
    Louisville, KY

    The concept that appears to be getting lost here is that most foods are a combination of various nutrients.

    Whole grains, for example, offer carbohydrates and protein. Low-fat milk offers fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Cheese offers fat and protein.

    If we are talking USDA (MyPyramid) standards, string cheese counts as dairy.

    If you were using the exchange system — mostly used for meal planning with diabetes patients — cheese would count as a meat.

    Remember, there is no “protein” group in the USDA pyramid.

    In any case, one piece of string cheese clocks in at about 7 grams of protein… so it can be equated to one ounce of meat.

    That is not the same as a serving, since it takes three ounces of meat to constitute one serving.

    If your head is spinning, you are not alone. The USDA has received plenty of flack for developing a system that can be intimidating and ultimately frustrates people.

    As far as peanut butter, that technically DOES belong in the “meat/meat alternatives” group. Two tablespoons account for one serving.

    If you are given a gram goal (ie: 50 grams of protein), focus on that, rather than the servings. Unless you are familiar with USDA’s figures, you will find yourself completely confused.

    In terms of your vegetable “quota”, keep in mind that one serving of cooked vegetables is a mere half cup.

    Meanwhile, one medium-sized piece of fruit accounts for one serving of that group. If you are talking berries, just half a cup equals one serving.

    It really isn’t that much food if you spread it throughout the day.

    A banana in the morning and an apple as a late-night snack knocks off the fruit servings.

    Then, dip half a cup of cucumbers (1 serving) in hummus for an afternoon snack, and throw in half a cup of carrots and half a cup of steamed spinach into a stirfry and you’ve got three vegetable servings in a flash.


    You Ask, I Answer: Serving Sizes/Protein

    If I need, say, “3 servings of protein” per day, what the best way to calculate this is?

    For example, a serving = 8 oz, but a lot of protein items aren’t equal to a cup or 8 oz.

    Instead of going by serving size, if you are to have 3 servings a protein a day does that equal a certain amount of grams that I can calculate daily? That would be easier than me trying to find out if I have had 3-2-1 servings of each layer.

    I’m guessing it can’t be done that way since all different 8 oz or 1 cup of food have different grams of protein in it. Anyway to make this easy will be helpful.

    — Jessica Hubbs
    Louisville, KY

    The United States Department of Agriculture defines a serving of meat as three, not eight, ounces.

    So, a recommendation to consume three servings a day comes out to nine ounces.

    If you wish to convert this to grams, you are talking about roughly 250 grams a day.

    Visual cues often help.

    One serving of meat (3 ounces) is very close in size to a deck of cards/the palm of your hand.

    If you’re an 80’s lover, you can also equate that to a cassette tape. If your technological trends are more current, picture an Ipod.

    This is not to say you should be eating no more than three ounces of meat at a time, but, if the chicken breast you are eating is roughly the size of two decks of cards/palms, you can estimate that to be two servings of meat.

    One ounce of meat — whether beef, chicken, or fish — contains 7 grams of protein.

    What changes the caloric content of different meats is the amount of fat (i.e.: sausage and bacon vs. a grilled chicken breast), but the protein level is always the same.

    When it comes to food items considered meat “alternatives” (i.e.: peanut butter, tofu, beans) one serving is considered whatever amount contains roughly 7 grams of protein.

    In the case of peanut butter, that comes out to two tablespoons (or one ounce).

    If this is all making you dizzy, I don’t blame you. This jumble of figures and terms is one reason why the USDA’s MyPyramid has been heavily criticized.

    This is also partially why food labels require so much multiplying to figure out what you are eating.

    Since a serving of ice cream is considered half a cup by USDA standards, that is the amount listed on any ice cream pint’s label. As we all know, though, that isn’t the most realistic of serving sizes.

    Many times, people forget that if they eat a cup of ice cream, they have to multiply every value on that label by two.

    One last thing I want to mention in regards to your question is this concept of “a serving of protein.” People often erroneously interchange the words “protein” and “meat.”

    Although meat — and its alternatives and derivatives — contains significant amounts of protein, it is not the exclusive owner of this nutrient.

    Whole grains offer their share of protein: a cup of brown rice contains 5 grams, a cup of oatmeal delivers 6, and a cup of whole wheat pasta will add 8 grams to your day.

    Vegetables also have protein. A cup of broccoli offers 5 grams, a medium baked potato has 3 grams, and eight asparagus spears (1 cup) add up to 4 grams.


    You Ask, I Answer: Raw Chicken Food Labels

    When you buy a package of uncooked chicken breasts, it has the calorie amount for four ounces of chicken. Is this cooked or uncooked chicken?

    — Suzanna (via the blog)

    The nutrition information listed on raw chicken breasts is for the uncooked product.

    This is where consumers have to do some extra math.

    Even though you are buying a four ounce chicken breast, you are eating less — approximately two and a half or three ounces — due to water lost during the cooking process.

    This isn’t so much the United States Department of Agriculture being misleading as much as it is them being unable to guess how people will be cooking their raw chicken.

    Not only does the final weight of a chicken breast vary on cooking times and methods, so does the caloric content.

    Grilling does not add extra calories, but sauteeing chicken breast in a tablespoon of olive oil adds an additional 120.


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