December 23, 2007

Administrative Announcements: In Argentina

I am spending the holidays in my hometown of Buenos Aires. Expect new blog posts on January 1.

In the meantime, I am observing dietary trends, food marketing, and nutrition information in Argentina, noticing similarities and differences with those same concepts in the United States.

In fact, earlier today I ventured out to a large supermarket and snapped photos of several things that caught my eye.

Except plenty of new posts next week. In the meantime, enjoy your holidays!

December 22, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

According to a 2007 study by health policy research agency The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 72 percent of televised food ads aimed at teenagers are for "candy, snacks, sugary cereals, or fast food".

Alarming? Yes. Surprising? Not really. The Pear Board has 1% of the advertising budget of multinational junk food giants.

This is why nutrition and healthy eating are multi-layered problems. Many people are constantly bombared with advertisements for ultra-processed, sugar-laden foods.

Ever notice how food advertisements aimed at mothers, in particular, encourage them to pop open a box of Rice A Roni or heat up Pepperoni Hot Pockets for the kids?

Heating up a whole wheat tortilla with black beans, salsa, and some shredded cheese takes just as much time and is a lot more nutritious, but who would advertise that?

December 18, 2007

In The News: All Corned Out

The United States' mind-blowing surplus of corn -- largely encouraged by the government for ethanol production -- was recently touched upon in this year's superb documentary King Corn.

Now, The New York Times' Andrew Martin takes this issue one step further and reveals the latest crop battle: food vs. fuel.

In fact, this might very well explain the reason behind the recent rising prices of everyday staples like milk, carrots, and broccoli.

"[Food manufacturers and livestock farmers] seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops," writes Martin.

Certainly an eye-opening (and anger-inducing) read.

In The News: A Soda Tax?

Over in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is toying with the idea of imposing an anti-obesity tax on stores selling foods and beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup.

Although I understand what he is attempting to achieve, I believe Mayor Newson is going about this the wrong way.

Sweetened drinks undoubtedly add extra calories to anyone's day, but I have a problem with foods being automatically branded as "bad" or "evil," regardless of context.

I don't think the problem to tackle is soda itself as it is the ridiculous amounts of it people are used to drinking.

Between unlimited refills, 20 ounce to-go bottles, and 64 ounce containers at 7-11, it is perfectly feasible to accompany any given meal with as much as 1,000 liquid calories!

And while high fructose corn syrup is a dirt cheap man-made sweetener that is metabolized differently than real sugar (for one, it does not trigger our brain's satiety center when consumed), eliminating it will not decrease an obesity problem.

I have seen the graphs showing a correlation between high fructose corn syrup intake and rising obesity rates in the United States, but it is important to point out that increased high fructose corn syrup intake was also accompanied by exploding portion sizes and easier availability of sugar and fat-laden foods.

It makes much more sense to attribute weight gain to extra calories in the form of more food (larger portions).

Remember, high fructose corn syrup delivers just as many calories as any other sugar (fructose, honey, or table sugar) per teaspoon.

I would hate for people to think that products made with real sugar automatically get a free pass.

A Starbucks Venti vanilla latte accompanied by a banana chocolate-chip muffin adds up to over 1,000 calories and as much added sugar as a can of Coke.

High fructose syrup might be missing from the equation, but that does not make this "meal" healthier or waist-friendly.

A better initiative would be to help convenience stores (particularly those in low-income neighborhoods) offer healthier items (as attempted by New York City's Healthy Bodega initiative).

What do you think?

December 17, 2007

Numbers Game: I Want My Junk TV!

According to a 2007 study by health policy research agency The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, ______ percent of televised food ads aimed at teenagers are for "candy, snacks, sugary cereals, or fast food".

a) 64

b) 53
c) 89

d) 72

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Thursday for the answer!

Sharpen Your Vocabulary, Feed the Hungry

The fact that many of us can actively implement nutrition into our lives by purposefully choosing certain foods while avoiding others or seeking out particular higher-priced products is truly something to be thankful for.

In the United States alone, 35.5 million citizens live in food-insecure households. Globally, current estimates categorize 800 million people as suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

You can help people all over the world while improving your own vocabulary over at Free Rice.

Developed by the same people who brought you The Hunger Site, Free Rice -- through the United Nations -- donates twenty grains of rice for every right answer you provide to an SAT-like "find the correct synonym" question.

Happy Holidays!

December 16, 2007

Weekend Fun

Time for another cartoon!

I am not a big fan of scales. Although necessary in tracking weight loss goals, they are often misinterpreted and misused.

If your weight-loss plan includes exercise, you might lose fat and gain muscle, ultimately resulting in a higher weight than before, since muscle weighs more than fat.

Better barometers of weight loss? The clothes you wear -- especially if you are looking to shed just two or three pounds. If your 36-inch jeans are feeling looser and your weight hasn't budged, screw the scale, I say.

If you like keeping track of your weight, weigh yourself no more than twice a week. Be sure to weigh in at the same time of day each time, and be mindful of what your last meal was.

Meals high in sodium will retain water and result in slightly higher numbers.

You Ask, I Answer: Resveratrol

What is your view on resveratrol? Are you opposed or open to the idea of taking resveratrol daily for its alleged significant benefits?

-- Guy Betterbid
New York, NY

Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in significant quantities in the skins of red grapes and, subsequently, in red wine.

The popular "French paradox" claims that one reason why French adults have lower rates of cardiovascular disease despite consuming a high-fat diet is due to their consistent consumption of red wine.

Touted by some as an anti-cancer agent, resveratrol (which is actually produced by plants' immune systems when attacked by certain bacteria or fungi) soon became a hot supplement.

I personally wouldn't recommend you rush out to GNC and start buying it, though.

I am always skeptical when one component of a food (in this case, resveratrol -- found in grapes, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) is isolated and expected to function the same way as when it is accompanied in its original packaging (in this case, an actual grape).

Remember that supplements are not regulated by any agency. Studies have shown that the amount of concentrated resveratrol is supplements widely ranges from one company to another.

There truly isn't enough research of this supplement on humans to recommend it. In fact, there are no long-term studies, and the short-term ones performed on rats appear to show that high concentrations of resveratrol might overwork the liver.

You're better off having a handful of grapes or berries every day (or, if you already drink, having a glass of red wine every day) to get your share of resveratrol.

In The News: Corrupted Virginity

Extra virgin olive oil is considered the champion of all oils thanks to its high amounts of polyphenols, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fats.

This powerful combination has been shown to decrease risks of heart disease (by lowering 'bad cholesterol'), high blood pressure, and even breast cancer, according to some promising research from the Canary Islands.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, here's a reality check you might not be too keen on cashing -- that "extra virgin" olive oil you have been buying might be anything but!

Reader Chris Davis notified me of a lengthy article published by The New Yorker earlier this year which spotlights worldwide olive oil fraud, a market laden with corruption and political scandals that can produce as much money as cocaine trafficking.

Since reading the article, I have done a bit more research and want to share the not too uplifting news with you.

A lot of supposed extra-virgin olive oil is really soy or hazelnut oil that has been adulterated.

Unfortunately, the words "imported from Italy" do not necessarily mean what you think.

If low-quality oils from North Africa are shipped to Italy, where they are then tampered with and bottled, the packaging can legally claim that oil is an Italian import.

You might take that to mean that Tuscan olives from a small farm are made into extra virgin olive oil. Wrong!

The Food and Drug Administration does not test oils coming into the United States for adulteration.

Although a group known as the North American Olive Oil Association takes care of that -- and they have discovered several distributors selling inferior quality oils as extra virgin -- their testing is nowhere near as rigorous as that f the International Olive Oil Council.

There are currently several proactive anti-fraud ideas being floated around.

One would require all bottles of extra virgin olive oil to list the acidity of their contents (to be considered extra virgin, olive oil must contain an acidity of no more than 0.8%).

Of course, who is to say that these figures can't be doctored with the exchange of cold hard cash?

One interesting solution to this problem comes from the region of Andalucia in Spain (one of the world's largest manufacturers of olive oil). There are talks of using molecular cell technology to determine if olive oil labeled as extra virgin matches the structure of the authetic product.

In the meantime, what can you do as a consumer? From a label standpoint, look for any bottles bearing the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) stamp of approval.

If this is absent, see if the label lists the acidity figures for the supposed extra virgin olive oil. Look for an acidity level of 0.8% or less.

No luck? Look at the price tag. A liter of olive oil at $7.99 is highly unlikely to be extra virgin.

For more information, check out the International Olive Oil Council's website.

December 14, 2007

Say What?: This Report Card is Brought To You By Mickey D's

Thank you to reader Chris Davis for sending me a link to the latest McDonald's marketing campaign -- report cards!

That's right -- Ronald's burger joint and The School Board of Seminole Country, Florida, have teamed up to offer free Happy Meals to students achieving good academic, conduct, and attendance scores.

Some of you might expect me to be flabbergasted and start punching my computer screen. Well, color yourselves surprised.

For starters -- the Happy Meal offers the choice of apple dippers instead of fries and milk in place of soda. I have to give McDonald's some credit for allowing customers to venture outside of the usual "soda and fries" mentality.

I also think that frequency, and not a Happy Meal itself, should be the examined issue.

If this free Happy Meal is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, I don't interpret that as a public health menace.

If anything, restricting unhealthy meals to certain events is better than placing them in the "grab whenever we're in a rush" category or normalizing them as an authentic substitute for a home cooked meal.

Yes, I know we are dealing with the issue of using food as reward, which brings its share of problems. And, no, I'm not comfortable with the idea of McDonald's advertising on a report card.

It is one thing if a parent chooses to grab a Happy Meal with their kids as a way of rewarding them for good grades, it's another when children come home and say, "Mom, I got all A's, can we go to McDonald's? Look, we can go for free!"

However, when I was an elementary school student in Connecticut, a local deli offered the exact same report card deal.

Granted, it was not promoted by my school, but (surprisingly?), this is not a case of McDonald's setting a new low standard.

Celebrity Diet Secrets: Hillary Swank

Oy. Here we go again with ridiculous nutrition statements by celebrities. This time, it's Hillary Swank's turn to talk nonsense.

In a recent interview with W Magazine, Swank proudly boasts that she takes 45 supplements a day! That's right, in 24 hours.

"This is my Aloe C, which I dissolve in water. Here's my flax. This one's for my immune system, and this one is my BrainWave -- it's great, like if I have a lot of lines to memorize," she explains to the reporter.

All this advice comes from Dr. Oz Garcia, nutritionist to the stars, who Hillary credits with changing her life.

Before I go on to talk about Hillary's pill regimen, allow me to shed some light on Dr. Garcia.

Specializing in "progressive nutrition, life extension, and anti-aging", Dr. Garcia caters to Hollywood's A-list and has had his number of television appearances. He also oversees nutritional services for Equinox Fitness Clubs.

Between that bio and his splashy website, you might think this guy knows his stuff.

Well, as we all witnessed with the Dr. Jan Adams debacle (who, despite being a media darling and even having his own show on The Discovery Health network, turned out to lack board accreditation and had a long history of malpractice claims by several patients), not everything is as it appears.

For starters, a 1987 Time magazine article describes Dr. Garcia as a "self-taught" nutritionist. That same article states that Dr. Garcia claims he can tell someone what to eat after analyzing a strand of their hair.

As far as I know, a strand of hair does not give you the same information as a blood test. Would Dr. Garcia advocate a high-protein diet to someone simply based on a hair sample, not knowing one of their kidneys is malfunctioning (and, therefore, need to be on a low-protein diet)?

Dr. Garcia predictably hawks his own water, described as "99.9%" pure and containing "three times the electrolytes found in sports drinks".

The electrolytes in drinks like Gatorade are two minerals you all have heard of -- sodium and potassium. Since Gatorade provides approximately one percent of a day's potassium requirement, then this special water contains, at most, 3 percent of the daily requirement.

A much smarter idea would be to get this mineral in much higher quantities from food. A cup of cantaloupes provides 10 percent, as does half a cup of Swiss chard or butternut squash. Throwing in half a cup of black beans into a salad provides 9 percent.

Dr. Garcia also sells colon cleansing, fat-burning, and even anti-aging products, all in pill form.

If this is the man Hillary Swank looks up to, it's no wonder she thinks nothing of swallowing 45 pills a day.

The excess of vitamins and minerals she is consuming is simply being excreted.

Just for the record, let me note that there are no mentally-sharpening magic pills that help anyone with memory.

Lastly, why is Hillary Swank taking flax in pill form? How about just sprinkling some milled flaxseed into a smoothie, salad, soup, or cereal bowl?

The wonderfully healthy properties of flaxseed (i.e.: phytochemicals known as lignans, which have been linked to a decrease in bad cholesterol) are not replicated in a flax pill.

And then we wonder why Kevin Trudeau's books become bestsellers....

Making the Nutrition Grade

A group known as The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have published a 2007 school lunch report card, grading 22 elementary schools from the 100 largest educational districts in the United States.

Final scores were tallied by evaluating offerings via the following categories -- obesity & chronic disease prevention, health prmotion, and nutrition initiatives.

You can see the results here.

You may remember that back in mid August I reviewed several schools' lunch menus on this blog -- and was absolutely horrified.

In The News: Poor, Innocent McDonald's

The January 2008 issue of Reason magazine includes a controversial article on the "unfair" double standards suffered by fast food restaurants.

According to author Greg Beato, McDonald's and other greasy food meccas bear the brunt of unhealthy offerings and public health policies despite even worse fare available at some local mom 'n pop stores or delis.

"Before America fell in love with cheap, convenient, standardized junk food, it loved cheap, convenient, independently deep-fried junk food," writes Beato.

While it is true that so-called traditional "American" fare consists of hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie, fast food restaurants take traditional comfort food and turn it into an artery-clogging equation.

Think about the following. McDonald's originally only offered one size of fries -- the 250-calorie version currently find inside a Happy Meal!

These companies have chosen to inflate their portions to such a degree that we now have four beef patties, eight strips of bacon, and six slices of cheese in between two buns.

You can get 2 liters of soda in a cup or, in the case of Hardee's new breakfast burrito, a day's worth of fat first thing in the morning.

A large order of McDonald's fries will set you back 800 calories (and provide 400% of the recommended maximum intake of trans fats for one day!)

Additionally, fast food chains are basically accessible any place at any time. More locations are increasingly keeping their doors open 24 hours a day, and a road trip down any major (or not so major) highway in the United States reveals a landscape littered with Domino's, KFC, Wendy, Burger King, and more.

And while delis offer their share of fat-laden bombs, truly healthy choices are available. In the case of fast food establishments, it is always about choosing the "lesser of the evils."

What do you think?

December 13, 2007

Say What?: The 4,886 Calorie Challenge

The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, TX is home of the "Free" 72 Oz. Steak Challenge.

To become a winner, simply eat a 72 ounce (that's four and a half pounds!) top sirloin steak, shrimp cocktail appetizer, baked potato, salad, and dinner roll in 60 minutes or less.

The "incentives" include getting your name on a list of champions, having your $72.00 bill refunded, and receiving a T-shirt, mug, and certificate.

Amazingly, 8,000 people have successfully consumed 4,886 calories, 140.4 grams of fat (216% of a day 's worth), 51.1 grams of saturated fat (255% of the daily maximum limit), and 4,882 milligrams of sodium (203% of the daily limit) in under one hour.

The accompanying photo illustrates all components of the challenge!

December 10, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Acai

What do you know about the acai palm/fruit?

My light research suggests it is very healthy (i.e.: a lot of mono-unsaturated fats).

Is it just as healthy as something like walnuts or an avacodo or would you regard the acai as being uniquely healthy?

-- Guy Betterbid

New York, NY

The acaĆ­ (pronounced ah-SIGH-ee) fruit -- native to Brazil, hailed by many as a "superfood", and known within trendy circles as "the new pomegranate" -- is rich in vitamins and minerals and a great source of fiber.

It also offers a fair amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (mainly in the form of oleic acid) -- the healthy fats found predominantly in olive oil, walnuts, and avocados.

As great as the nutritional profile of acai berries is, remember that all fruits are healthy. There is no fruit equivalent to a bag of Oreos.

While the acai beats out many of its counterparts in terms of antioxidants levels (which should not be the end-all, be-all criteria for selecting any food), other fruits offer more of certain vitamins and minerals.

For instance, an orange contains more Vitamin C than an acai berry.

Is acai nutritious? Absolutely.

Is it a miracle food, as so many acai suppliers want you to believe? No.

It is important to keep supposed "miracle foods" like acai berries in the appropriate context. After all, drinking acai juice while snacking on chips defeats the purpose.

I find that it is better to focus on general eating patterns rather than getting hung up on one specific food.

In The News: Small Bites

A big thank you to Vincci Tsui, Editor of Cornucopia, the Dietitians of Canada Student Network Newsletter.

In a piece titled "Nutrition in the Blogosphere", Vincci mentions Small Bites along with a handful of other high-profile nutrition blogs, including Marion Nestle's.

Take a look at the article here.

December 9, 2007

Weekend Fun/Say What?: Please Tell Me No One Bought This

No, not a Photoshop joke courtesy of The Onion.

Japan's Sapporo beverage company released this beverage in 2004!

You Ask, I Answer: Omega-3 Fats

Why is fish always credited as a good source of Omega 3 fats when walnuts and flaxseed have plenty also?

-- Diane Grant
Tucson, AZ

Although we often refer to "Omega 3 fats" as one general category, there are three different types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), EicosoPentaenoic Acid (EPA), and DocosaHexaenoic Acid (DHA).

ALA is found exclusively in vegetable sources, including walnuts and flaxseeds.

You might have heard some people talk about the Omega-3's in dark, leafy green vegetables.

However, they are so low in fat to begin with that, although nutritious in many ways, I don't consider them to be a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

EPA and DHA are found in large quantities in cold water fish. Grass-fed beef will contain a little, as well.

One concern with getting Omega-3's solely from vegetable sources is that some people are unable to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.

Even if you are able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, 10 grams of ALA are needed to make 600 milligrams of EPA and 400 of DHA.

Considering that current recommendations call for 1 gram of EPA and another of DHA, that's a lot of ALA to consume -- and convert!

And while ALA is indeed good for us, there is, as always, too much of a good thing. Several recent studies have linked very high intakes of ALA among men with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

It's also important to realize that as good for us as Omega 3 fats are, they do not work alone. Vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium are involved in the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.

If you are not consuming enough of those nutrients, your conversion will happen at an even slower rate.

Walnuts and flaxseed are nutritious and have their share of health benefits. However, for optimal Omega-3 fat consumption, it is highly recommended to include sources of EPA and DHA in your diet.

December 7, 2007

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.

December 6, 2007

In The News: Small Bites (!)

Many thanks to Terri Coles of for featuring this blog in a great article on the USDA findings regarding whole grain consumption.

To any new readers who found this blog through the article -- welcome to Small Bites!

Whole Grains Even An Amateur Will Love

Current statistics show that consumers in the United States eat 40 percent of their whole grains at the breakfast table.

A large majority of this figure can be attributed to popular cereals like regular Cheerios, Total, and Fiber One.

Although they offer their share of fiber (and millions of people like to start their day off with them), these cereals are often characterized as too bland by fiber-free eaters persuaded to switch to healthier breakfast foods.

Consequently, these people often revert to sugary, "made with whole grain" varieties that are basically sugar flakes with a pinch of whole wheat flour thrown in to justify a "Whole Grains!" boast on the front of the box.

I always think it's good to let you know of smaller companies who are putting out delicious and nutritious products, so while we are in the cereal realm, I thought I would let you know about Barbara's Bakery.

Their Shredded Line of cereals is composed of tasty -- and ultra crunchy, even after several minutes in milk -- whole grain cereals.

A 1 1/4 cup of Shredded Oats, for example, contains five grams of fiber, 230 milligrams of potassium, six grams of protein, and 2.5 grams of fat.

Thank the nutrition deities for a realistic serving size! Too many cereal brands try to pass off half a cup as a serving.

Tomorrow morning, measure out half a cup of cereal. Then laugh, as you realize that the average person eats at least an entire cup or breakfast.

Since the first two ingredients are whole grains -- whole oat flour and whole wheat flour -- one serving of Shredded Oats covers a whooping ninety percent of the daily recommended intake of whole grains.

I'm actually not big on packaged cereals, but, for the past several months, boxes of Shredded Oats have taken permanent residence in my cupboards.

Baked, Not Faked

I have never been a fan of baked potato chips.

Baked Lay's make my palate think I am munching on salty cardboard, and other varieties (Baked Doritos, Baked Cheetos) taste just as artificial as the conventional versions.

If you are a "sandwich and chip" luncher, or someone who enjoys a crunchy, salty treat once in a while, I am happy to report that the folks at Kettle have come up with a Small Bites approved solution -- Kettle Bakes Potato Chips.

Unlike synthetic low-fat/low-calorie potato chips made from dehydrated potato flakes and break apart (rather than crunch) in your mouth, these chips are made from real potatoes.

No flakes, no dehydrated shenanigans -- actual potatoes (you can even see the skins)!

Each 0.8 ounce bag clocks in at a mere 100 calories and contains 65% less fat than the same amount of regular Kettle chips.

The best part? The texture is like that of a real kettle potato chip!

While I don't advocate tracking down a bag of potato chips every time you are in the mood for a salty snack, there is one advantage to having them over other kinds of chips. One 0.8 ounce bag of Kettle baked chips contains 390 milligrams of potassium -- 12% of the recommended daily intake!

Let me be clear. I am not recommending potato chips as a good source of potassium.

However, if you have a hankering for chips, be smart and reach for an individual sized bag of Kettle Bakes!

Tasty, calorie controlled, made solely with real potatoes, low-fat and, as an added bonus, throw some much-needed potassium your way.

December 5, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Western Alternative Bagel

[What do you think of] the Western Alternative Bagel?

-- Anonymous (via the blog)

To those of you who have never heard of it, the Western alternative bagel is developed by California-based chain Western Bagel.

Each two-ounce bagel clocks in at 110 calories and contais 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of sugar, 7 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of protein.

Here's the mystery, though. Look at the ingredient list: Enriched unbleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, wheat gluten, corn starch, inulin, oat fiber. May contain 2% or less of: calcium sulfate, enzymes, l-cysteine, salt, yeast, calcium propionate and sorbic acid (preservatives), artificial flavor, sucralose.

Whole wheat flour is nowhere to be found.

Sure, oat fiber is present, but towards the end. Certainly not in a sufficient quantity to result in seven grams of fiber. do they do it?

Allow me to introduce you to inulin.

Also known as chicory root, it is a natural fiber (and prebiotic!) found in asparagus, onions, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

Some of you may have heard the term 'prebiotic' before but are not sure what it means.

In essence, when we consume inulin, the bacteria in our digestive system digests it and forms fructooligosaccharides, which in turn increase the number of beneficial bacteria in our colon.

The higher our beneficial bacteria count, the healthier our intestinal tract.

Food manufacturers love inulin, since it can replaces fat, whole wheat flour, and sugar while still giving baked goods a soft texture and and pleasant mouthfeel.

From a health standpoint, it contains the same benefits as other fibers -- longer-lasting satiety, regularity, and increased stool bulk.

Additionally, it does not raise blood-glucose levels, so it is deemed safe for diabetics.

In The Netherlands, inulin has been given an official stamp of approval. Products containing this fiber can legally be advertised as "promoting well-balanced intestinal [intestinal] flora composition."

It gets better! A 2006 Brazilian study published in renowned journal Nutrition Research found that inulin helps increase calcium and magnesium absorption.

Any drawbacks? Two I can think of.

First, consuming large amounts of inulin (especially if you are not accustomed to it) can result in flatulence and mild stomach pains.

Additionally, although inulin has its nutritional advantages, it is missing most of the goodness found in whole grains.

A bagel made with refined grains and inulin is definitely a better option than a fiberless one made solely with white flour.

However, whole grains are more than just fiber. They are an exclusive mix of phytonutrients, plant sterols, and antioxidants with their own health-boosting properties.

I don't think of inulin (while helpful and beneficial in its own right) as a true substitute for a 100% whole grain product.

Review: Super Skinny Me

Super Skinny Me, BBC America's dieting documentary, follows Kate and Louise, two female British journalists looking to get down from a Size 10 to a Size 00 in 5 weeks.

WHAT I LIKED: Super Skinny Me goes beyond the standard "I'm eating so little that even routine chores wear me out and I feel lethargic all day" narrative to spotlight the emotional repercussions of extreme dieting.

Kate, for example, starts off the experiment highly motivated and initially even has fun with it.

After three weeks of deprivation, she "falls off the wagon" and eats more calories than her ultra strict regimen permits (800 calories, approximately 40% of her needs).

Afraid of putting weight back on, Kate becomes anxious, depressed, and even reverts to bingeing and purging. The doctor supervising the experiment mandates that she stop the extreme dieting halfway through week four.

Kate later reveals that the four weeks of extreme dieting -- in which she dropped 17 lbs. -- triggered painful memories of weight struggles as an adolescent.

It was also interesting to learn some of the various extreme diets -- the watercress soup diet (800 calories a day, three bowls of watercress soup a day and nothing else), the protein shake diet (1,000 calories, 2 protein shakes + one protein-heavy meal a day), and the popular "cleanse" lemonade diet (drinking nothing but a heinous concoction of pure lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and water three times a day).

I am also glad Super Skinny Me showed the sheer stupidity of many "diet tricks".
At one point, Louise tries an exercise routine loved by "a certain pop star".

It involves wrapping yourself in Seran Wrap and running on a treadmill (in a sauna!) for 30 minutes.

She only lasts 15 minutes -- and manages to lose half an inch off her waist and hips! Of course, one glass of water brings that half inch right back because the only thing you lose by doing that (apart from your time and self-respect) is water weight.

WHAT I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE: Although we see a few effects of the extreme diets on Kate and Louise's social lives (Louise goes out to dinner with friends and brings her watercress soup in a plastic bowl, which she asks the waiter to heat up for her), I was left wondering how this assignment affected Kate and Louise's work performance.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN LEFT OUT: Louise's interview with an anorexic teenager seemed choppy and slightly out of place. The subject of the interview wasn't very likeable -- she mainly complained about the fact that people only wanted her to gain weight because she wasn't famous (alluding to the fact that if she was an A-list actress, her weight would be complimented, rather than criticized).

In fact, there was no mention of her struggling with body image issues, engaging in dangerous eating patterns, or even some background on how and why she developed her condition.

IN CONCLUSION: While Super Skinny Me did not delve into the socio-political, business, or cultural aspects of dieting, it did a wonderful job of showing the toll these insane regimens have on people's bodies and psyche.

I especially liked the last segment, in which Kate and Louise weigh in two weeks after ending their extremely restrictive eating plans.

Not surprisigly, they gained the weight back.
This is precisely why crash diets are a waste of time; not only do they involve unnecessary deprivation, they also set you up for failure.

Losing weight is much more manageable -- and pleasurable -- when done with a balanced, nutritious meal plan and realistic timelines.

December 4, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

It's snack time! Which of the following offers the most fiber?

a) One 1.5 ounce individual box of raisins (120 calories)

One ounce (6 individual)Triscuit-like whole-grain crackers (120 calories)
c) Four cups air-popped popcorn (124 calories)
d) 17 raw almonds (118 calories)
e) One 1 oz. bag of soy crisps (110 calories)

Air-popped popcorn leads the pack with 4.6 grams of fiber.

Here is how the other nevertheless healthy snacks rank:

6 Triscuits: 3 grams
17 raw almonds: 2.4 grams

1 oz. soy crisps: 2 grams

1.5 oz box of raisins: 1.5 grams

Many people looking to add fiber to their diets often forget one of the most popular whole grains -- popcorn!

Yes, 20 cups doused in butter (what you get at a movie theater) are equal to two Big Macs, but, when air popped, it is a great low-calorie, high-fiber crunchy treat.

You Ask, I Answer: Olestra

This situation is a little awkward but: I ate the Lay's light chips (the ones cooked with olestra) and [they] produced some rather unfortunate side effects the next morning, as you can imagine.

I checked but there was no warning on the packaging. How come they don't warn about the side effects of Olestra?

-- Bubbles (via the blog)

Welcome to nutrition politics! I'm getting ahead of myself, though.

Let's begin with some general information.

Olestra -- a calorie-free fat-substitute made by linking fatty acid chains to sucrose molecules -- was developed in 1996 by multinational consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble.

I am sure many of you remember the popularity of "WOW!" chips in the late 90s. Those were fat-free thanks to the inclusion of Olestra.

At the time, two things stood out to people who read the nutrition label and ingredient list.
First, vitamins A, D, E, and K were added into the product.

A "healthier" potato chip? No.
Since Olestra inhibits the absorption of these vitamins, it was decided to fortify such fat-free products with them.

However, the statement following the ingredient list caught most people's attention: "
Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." Yum!

Why is this? Olestra travels through our bodies completely undigested. In turn, even not-so-large quantities result in less than pleasurable side effects.

Alas, time went on and the Food & Drug Administration received over 20,000 formal complaints from consumers. The overwhelming majority revolved around the consumption of Wow! chips and painful -- sometimes painfully embarrassing -- side effects.

This made Olestra the food additive with the most complaints in the history of the FDA.

Interestingly enough, Wow! chips were soon replaced by "light" varieties of popular snacks. The perfect marketing trick, if you ask me -- offer a product with a tarnished reputation under a different name.

Remember, this is Proctor & Gamble we are talking about here. A lot of money -- and corporate interest -- is at stake.

I should also mention that Proctor & Gamble is known for its overly generous contributions to the Republican Party.
This nugget of information will come in handy in a about two seconds.

Fast-forward to October of 2003 when, magically, during a Republican presidency, the FDA announced that products containing Olestra no longer need to list warnings on their packages.

Their reasoning? The reported gastrointestinal side effects were "mild and rare."

In fact, one of their main arguments was that abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common, and Olestra was just getting a bad reputation.

I don't think Olestra is worth all the trouble. If you are looking for a lower fat conventional potato chip, try Baked chips (I personally think Baked Lay's taste like salted cardboard, but the new Kettle Baked Chips are tasty), which contain 85% less fat than their regular relatives and absolutely no Olestra.

You "Ask", I Answer: Overall Nutritional Quality Index

As a consumer I can see immediate applications for this [new scoring system].

It would help me tremendously to see an easy to read label that ranks foods faster than I can read the labels.

See a "1" and you can avoid those foods, especially the sneaky ones (such as cereal, which can be billed entirely as healthy even though some have so much sugar).

It won't make me skip label reading entirely, but they would help to make faster decisions.

The most important application, however, is to have a VISUAL reminder of what you are about to purchase- something that not everyone thinks of when buying.

If you find yourself always snacking on trailmix, for example, because it's "healthy" and all of a sudden it gets slapped with a "2" or a "3"- well, it might just make you think twice about getting that again, won't it?

-- AMR
(via the blog)

I concur with you that the ONQI has the potential to make healthy shopping easier -- and faster -- for some people.

Let's, however, take your trail mix example further, as it is a pefect example of a controversial item.

Yes, trail mix is calorically dense due to the presence of nuts. And, on a food label, its sugar content would rival that of a chocolate bar.

However, we are talking about an item that offers heart-healthy fats, naturally-occurring sugars, protein, fiber, vitamin E, and magnesium.

Hence, those calories values differ greatly from similar ones found in a
Crunch bar (which contains a generous share of saturated fat and added sugars).

Although one of my favorite mantras is "sugar is sugar is sugar" (meaning that whether in a piece of fruit or made in a lab, heavily processed, or made from organic cane juice crystals, it adds up to 4 calories per gram), the difference with naturally-occurring sugars (found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy) is that they are present in foods that offer nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and in many cases, fiber).

It would be helpful if foods had brief explanations as to why they received their respective scores (i.e.: "50% of the daily saturated fat limit" or "8 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.")

I would hate for people to be dissuaded from learning the skill of reading a food label or an ingredient list simply because this ranking would do that for them.

The other issue with these rankings is that they can sometimes split hairs unnecessarily. For instance, do we really need to start debating whether an orange is "healthier" than an apple?

We'll see how the public reacts once it is implemented.

In The News: New Nutrition Labels

Get ready for the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, coming to some supermarkets near you in 2008!

This new labeling system, developed by a panel of leading nutritionists (including Yale's Dr. David Katz, who I interviewed for this blog) scores foods from 1 to 100 (1 being absolute junk, 100 being perfection) based on several different factors.

I applaud the motives behind this initiative (helping consumers quickly identify healthy foods), but a few questions come to mind.

First -- does this address the issue at hand?

Most people know the basics -- that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are healthy.

Similarly, I don't think anyone considers Doritos, Coke, Haagen Dazs, and Oreos to be staples of a nutritious diet. Whether they choose to ignore that and snack on Ruffles and Pepsi every day because "they taste good" is a separate topic.

I don't think too many people will be surprised to learn that raisins score higher than M&M's, or that Trix and Grapenuts are several numbers apart.

Are consumers not buying healthy foods due to a lack of knowledge on their behalf, or the vastly different marketing budgets of food companies? After all, Nabisco certainly has more money to throw around for a cookie advertising campaign than the Avocado Board.

Additionally, many healthy snack options are developed by smaller companies who are more concerned with getting their products on store shelves than on an American Idol commercial break.

Many people who would love the taste of a nutritious product like Lara bars have no idea they exist. No wonder -- when was the last time you saw a magazine or television ad for one?

My main hope is that this system stays far away from the glycemic index. After all, if you swear by that ranking, ice cream is a better choice than a potato!

I'm also curious to know how the issue of vitamins and minerals will be dealt with. Will a processed food like a Luna Bar injected with synthetic vitamins and minerals score just as high as an orange or apple (which, despite lacking added sugar or sodium, offer a lower variety of nutrients?)

I'm looking forward to seeing how ONQI resonates with the public. If anything, I love the discourse it will bring up, and I sincerely appreciate the desire to make shopping for healthy foods that much easier.

December 3, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: White Whole Wheat Breads

I personally am kind of sketched out by ["white with the same goodness of whole wheat" products] because if they're not actually whole wheat they've got to be missing something somewhere, right?

-- Vincci (via the blog)

I assume you are referring to whole wheat breads that are white in color.

If so, I'm happy to report that they are just as healthy and nutritious as regular whole wheat breads.

The only difference between them is that while standard whole-wheat bread is composed of red wheat, white whole wheat breads are made using albino wheat.

Remember -- determining a bread's whole grain content by its color is often inaccurate.

Many brown breads are made of refined white flour and have molasses thrown in for color. And, in the case of white whole wheat products, their color does not represent a fiberless bread.

You'll always be sure of what you are getting by reading the label.

If "whole wheat flour" is not the first ingredient, you are not getting a whole grain bread.

In fact, if the second ingredient is "unbleached wheat flour," you are not getting as many whole grains as you could. The ideal whole wheat bread should have one kind of flour -- whole wheat.

If your question is in reference to breads "made with whole grains" (or those labeled "multigrain"), then you have every reason to be suspicious, since they are not whole grain breads.

In The News: Grain of Truth

I was just browsing through Marion Nestle's wonderful blog and came across some disheartening news.

It appears whole grain consumption is far below what it should be.

This surprises me. With so many more convenient whole grain options out there (i.e.: whole wheat pastas, whole grain English muffins, whole grain waffles, etc.) , I was under the impression more people had integrated them into their diets.

I personally love whole grains for their taste alone. I wonder if people are shunning them out of dislike, unfamiliarity ("quinoa? no clue what that is. I'll just buy white rice."), or another reason I'm failing to see.

Eat Your Tea

Convenience is a huge factor behind our food choices.

Whether you're pressed for time or away from a kitchen for a few days, snacking on-the-go is part of many people's daily routine.

It certainly doesn't help that most convenience foods comes in the shape of chips, cookies, candy, sugary sodas, and protein bars that are often loaded with sugar and saturated fat.

Alas, I am happy to add Tzu (The Tea Bar) to my Hall of Fame - which currently includes Lara Bars, Clif Nectar Bars, and Pure Bars.

I knew Tzu was worth looking into when I stumbled across it at my local deli and read the ingredient list: sprouted whole grain brown rice, whole grains (oats, buckwheat), whole grain rye, sesame seeds, green tea leaf, green tea powder, konnyaku fructose, flax seeds, sapporo brewer's yeast, and bamboo salt.

Do you see all the pluses? No artificial ingredients, no syrups, no sugary soy and rice crisps, no hydrogenated oils, and fructose is not one of the first five ingredients.

I do wish the flax seeds were included in their ground state (since, in their entirety, they are completely undigested by our bodies), but I consider that to be a very promising ingredient list.

The nutrition profile is very nifty, too. Each bar contains a mere 110 calories, 1 gram of fat, 35 milligrams of sodium, and 2 grams of sugar.

It also offers 4 grams of fiber, 60% of our vitamin C needs, 15% a day's worth of calcium, 20% of the daily magnesium recommendation, and 20% of the recommended daily intake of selenium.

The best thing about it is -- this is all done with real food (not by injecting synthetic vitamins and minerals into the bar, as so many other products do)!

As you all know, I do not recommend a product on my blog until I taste it. Tzu passed that exam with flying colors. If you like the taste of green tea, you will absolutely love this bar.

So what about the inclusion of green tea?

At 3 grams per bar, that's equal to 2 cups' worth. Most studies showing health benefits (mainly on cardiovascular health) from green tea involved participants drinking 4 to 6 cups a day.

While Tzu bars contain a fair amount (which, if anything, helps rather than hurts), their virtues go well beyond that, as they are low-fat, low-calorie, tasty, and a good source fiber, vitamins and minerals.

December 2, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Whole Grains

Are soba noodles whole grain? What about wheat berries?

-- Rachael Hoffman
Elizabeth, NJ

Great trick question, Rachael!

Traditionally, soba noodles are whole grain.

Composed entirely of buckwheat (which, despite its name, contains no wheat and is actually an herb, rather than a grain), they offer an unmistakably nutty taste and significant amounts of fiber, magnesium, and zinc.

They also contain rutin, a flavonoid that has been found to help decrease heart disease risk (mainly by protecting against platelet aggregation in our arteries).

Mainstream soba noodles, though, are made mostly with refined wheat flour and some whole buckwheat flour.

The result? A celiac-unfriendly noodle with an inferior nutritional profile.

Luckily, a few companies -- like Eden Organics -- offer 100% buckwheat noodles. Best bet is to order online or try specialty/health food stores.

As far as wheat berries (pictured above) are concerned, they most certainly are a whole grain!

To those of you unfamiliar with them, wheat berries are unprocessed and unrefined wheat kernels.

It's not surprising, then, that a mere half cup serving contributes 4 grams of fiber.

They make for a great salad base. Mix them with your favorite vegetables and some finely chopped cilantro for a delicious side dish.

December 1, 2007

Numbers Game: Filling Snack

It's snack time! You know the options shown here at left aren't smart choices, but do you know which of the following offers the most fiber?

a) One 1.5 ounce individual box of raisins (120 calories)

One ounce Triscuit-like whole-grain crackers/6 individual crackers (120 calories)
c) Four cups air-popped popcorn (124 calories)
d) 17 raw almonds (118 calories)
e) One 1 oz. bag of soy crisps (110 calories)

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Tuesday for the answer!

Weekend Fun

Cartoons often serve as scathing and witty social commentary.

Here is one I find particularly accurate, illustrating two common marketing techniques.

First, state the obvious as a "new" development (during the Atkins craze, many bottles of olive oil, which is 100% fat, boasted about their absence of carbs -- duh!).

Then, charge four times as much to make the product appear healthier or special.

Most recently, I expressed my disgust at Borba Skinwater.