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Q & A Roundup

I thought it would be fun and informative to feature some of the more interesting questions I have received via email and social media over the past few weeks. Here they are — with my answers, of course — for your perusal.

I love coconut and eat it a few times a week. Where would it go on “My Plate”? My guess is the protein category because it’s a tree nut, but I’m not sure, so I thought I’d ask you.
— Samantha Tolmick

Coconuts actually belong to a class of fruit known as “drupes” (apricots, cherries, mangos, and peaches are also included in this category).

Oddly, in 2006, the FDA added coconuts to the list of foods that must be labeled as “tree nuts” under Section 201 (qq) of the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, a classification the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology does not agree with.

While coconuts are unique drupes in that the majority of their calories are derived from fat (rather than carbohydrates), they do have one thing in common with their fruit counterparts — they are not a high-protein food.

As for where it fits on My Plate: I suppose the “best match” is the fruit section, but it’s a trivial issue. Rather than worry about My Plate categories, focus on eating a wide array of whole, minimally processed, plant-based foods (either exclusively or  mostly) each day and you’re good to go. And, yes, that does include coconuts.

I’ve been seeing a lot of recipes that call for gluten-free oats. Aren’t all oats gluten fee?
— Tim Vogel

Oats are intrinsically gluten-free.

However, the notion that oats are perfectly safe for people on gluten-free diets was called into question on a massive scale in late 2008 after an investigation conducted by The Chicago Tribune (scroll all the way to bottom of article to read section on oats) revealed that many oat products — from popular brands like Quaker, Whole Foods 365, and McCann’s — contained well over the 20-parts-per-million-of-gluten limit that must not be surpassed in order to truthfully label a food as “gluten-free”.

Cross-contamination with gluten can occur “in the field, in the transport of the grain, in the storage of the grain, and in the milling and packaging facilities”.

Since cross-contamination can happen if oat crops are grown close to barley and wheat — and most companies do not have standalone facilities for oat products — you can now find oats that have been tested and certified as gluten-free, and are additionally processed in dedicated facilities.

If you only had to choose one, are you more concerned by sodium or sugar?
— David Cotter

Oh, that’s an easy one — sugar. Hands down.

The problem from a health standpoint isn’t “diets high sodium”, it’s “diets that are high sodium and also low in minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium.” From a blood pressure standpoint, those three minerals play a vital role in helping maintain healthful levels.

Not surprisingly, fast food and processed food tends to be very high in sodium and low in most other minerals.

As long as you consume a 1:2 ratio of sodium to potassium (and meet daily requirements for other minerals), diet high in sodium should not be problematic. To put this in perspective, the average American consumes roughly double the recommended daily sodium limit and takes in approximately half of the recommended daily value of potassium. That’s the sign of a heavily processed diet.

A kale-onion-sunflower seed-avocado-tomato salad that clocks in at, say, 800 milligrams of sodium is very different from taking in that same amount of sodium from a Dunkin’ Donuts corn muffin. The muffin delivers the sodium with little calcium, magnesium, or potassium. The perfect storm for hypertension.

Added sugar, meanwhile, can not be “balanced out”. It is highly inflammatory, bad news from a cardiovascular standpoint, and a source of empty calories. And, considering that the average American adults eats and drinks 21 teaspoons of it a day, it’s time for a drastic cutback.

What are “pseudograins”? How are they different from whole grains?
— Carla Barett

Pseudograins are cooked and consumed like whole grains, but are actually seeds (and, in one case, grass). Amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa are seeds, while wild rice is technically a grass.

Like whole grains, pseudograins are a good source of fiber, protein, and minerals. Unlike some whole grains (whole wheat, barley, rye), they are gluten-free.

I’ve been told that eating more than 3 bananas a day can be dangerous because it is potassium overload for the body. True or false?
— Erika Esparza

Complete rubbish. The daily potassium recommendation is set at 4700 milligrams. Your average medium banana contains anywhere from 400 to 450 milligrams. So, three bananas provides roughly a quarter of a day’s worth of potassium.

Although bananas get the most potassium press, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and avocados all offer more potassium per ounce.

So now I’m reading that even a lot of nutritionists are saying high fructose corn syrup isn’t as bad as we once thought. What’s your take?
– Jeff Rigney

The Corn Refiners Association has been at this for years with their “Sweet Surprise” campaign, and many industry-friendly Registered Dietitians like to constantly remind the public that the human body processes HFCS the same way it does sugar. I have two responses to that.

1. The bigger issue (the view from 30,000 feet, if you will) is that we are consuming too many sweeteners. I don’t care if it’s high fructose corn syrup, cane juice crystals, agave, brown sugar, or white sugar — they are all added sugars. Our intake is undoubtedly at problematic levels and behind a lot of our chronic health issues. So, the fact that HFCS and sugar are “identical” doesn’t make me breathe a sigh of relief in any way.

2. The HFCS debate is so focused on health issues that we miss out on another vital issue — the environment. HFCS is derived from genetically modified corn, which is an environmental burden and disaster.

According to this webpage, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that vegetarians are more likely to have enamel erosion. I would like your thoughts. It sort of ticked me off.
— Barry Good

That webpage doesn’t seem very trustworthy. It not only uses the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” interchangedly, but also fails to note that that the review study it mentions (you can read it here) is from the late ’80s. The study discussed vegetarianism and various aspects of health, many of which have been much further studied over the past 30 years.

Also, the website’s alarmist message that “those who consumed a vegetarian diet were, much more likely than age- and sex-matched controls to have dental erosions on some tooth surfaces, lower salivary pH levels, and lower stimulated saliva flow” is incorect.

The main conclusion of the review study was that:

“Vegetarian diets do not provide any distinct dental advantage over non-vegetarian diets.”

It also points to one study where lacto-vegetarians were “more likely to have dental erosion”. Other than that, the author warns that “diets excessively high in fruit juices” and “some vegetarian diets high in acid fruits and juices” erode dental enamel. So, really, the concern is more with frequent and high consumption of highly-acidic foods.

PS: More recently (2007), a study in the Journal of the Academy of General Dentistry found that colas’ — both regular and diet — enamel erosion potential is 10 times higher than that of fruit juice.

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4 Comments

  1. Vincci said on January 14th, 2012

    Your readers ask great questions, Andy! And of course, great responses! Very interesting point about high sodium vs other minerals being the problem as opposed to high sodium itself. I agree added sugars are more of a problem but no one pays attention to it because there aren’t clear guidelines, and nutrition labels don’t differentiate between added vs natural sugar.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on January 14th, 2012

    Thanks, Vincci.

    The sodium discussion is especially frustrating because it leads to lower-sodium processed foods that completely miss the point because they don’t offer much in terms of other minerals.

    Good point on added sugars. There aren’t clear guidelines because of some intense food politicking (the sugar lobby is very powerful), although I was pleased when the American Heart Association released their guidelines in 2009 (suggesting no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for adult women, 7 for adult men, and 3 for children). It’s quite odd that they released those guidelines, given how there are no limits on sugar grams per serving in order for products to receive the American Heart Association logo “stamp of approval”.

  3. Andrea Lurie said on January 15th, 2012

    Next time you do a Q & A round-up, would you talk a little (or a lot!) about whether there’s any truth to the current dietary fad of blaming everything wrong with us on wheat. Inquiring minds want to know….

  4. Dennise O'Grady said on January 15th, 2012

    These were just great. I really loved your pointing out that the HFCS issue is that it is derived from GM corn…

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