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Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
Continue reading

More Evidence For ‘Stinking Rose’ Garlic’s Cancer-Fighting Potential

By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

This may be the most delightful of all medical prescriptions: Chew a little raw garlic a couple of times a week and the risk of lung cancer drops by almost half. It drops by almost a third even if you’re a smoker.

richard_north

(richard_north/Flickr)

News this good, not to mention this tasty, is rare in medicine, but that’s the conclusion of a large Chinese study published recently in Cancer Prevention Medicine.

The researchers compared 1,424 lung cancer patients with 4,543 healthy adults and asked them about their lifestyle and dietary choices. Granted, just asking people to recall their own behavior is hardly the ideal form of research. (Far more informative are studies that randomly divide people into two groups, give one group a treatment and the other group a placebo without revealing who’s getting what, and then compare the results.)

That said, the results from Jiangsu Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Nanjing are noteworthy, said John Milner, who has studied garlic chemistry for decades. Continue reading

Study: Genetic Damage Linked To Arsenic In Rice

(Dano/flickr)

(Dano/flickr)

It was big news last year when both the FDA and Consumer Reports came out with studies showing alarming levels of arsenic in brown rice. (At least I thought it was alarming, as did scores of readers who commented here on the findings.)

A little background from Consumer Reports should remind you of the problem:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle…

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.

Now comes a study of heavy rice-eaters in West Bengal, India that links high levels of arsenic in the rice to elevated genetic damage in humans.

From the news release:

Over the last few years, researchers have reported high concentrations of arsenic in several rice-growing regions around the world.

Now, University of Manchester scientists, working in collaboration with scientists at CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata, have proven a link between rice containing high levels of arsenic and chromosomal damage, as measured by micronuclei in urothelial cells, in humans consuming rice as a staple.

The researchers discovered that people in rural West Bengal eating rice as a staple with greater than 0.2 mg/kg arsenic showed higher frequencies of micronuclei than those consuming rice with less than this concentration of arsenic.

The study, published in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, looked at the frequency of ‘micronuclei’ — a tell-tale sign of chromosomal damage (that has been shown by others previously to be linked to cancer) Continue reading

The Bagged Lettuce Backlash: Say It Isn’t So!

My heart sank when I saw this Mother Jones headline yesterday: “The Truth About Bagged Lettuce.”

The piece, unfortunately, is what I feared: a bunch of new concerns being raised about the kind of lettuce I’ve learned to love: pre-packaged and easy-to-use. It enables my family to eat far more, and more varied, greens than we would if I had to clean and tear them myself.

baby kale

In the post, Kiera Butler cites Jo Robinson, author of the new book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” who recently “trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air:”

“Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old,” said Robinson ruefully. “They’re not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them.” Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. “If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold.”

Ouch.

Personally, I favor the triple-washed boxed lettuce, which may or may not be any better from an antioxidant perspective.

Either way, Butler lays out the environmental argument against bagged lettuce (excessive water use in some cases), as well as the threat of all kinds of contaminants — remember that organic baby spinach recall earlier this year due to possible E. coli contamination?

Despite all of this, I think I’ll take my chances. But to reinforce my own inclinations, I spoke with Sean Cash, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

Cash raised all the same concerns: some possible slight breakdown in Vitamin C in bagged lettuce, a low level of E. coli risk, more plastic packaging in the environment, concerns over excessive water use in places like Salinas, Calif. where drought is an ongoing problem.

But overall, Cash said, these worries are pretty much trumped by the health benefits of just eating lots of lettuce, particularly if it means the difference between having it often or not at all. Continue reading

NYT: Surgeon General Is Missing In Action

Ouch!

Mark Bittman, the smart, pithy New York Times columnist and food activist comes down hard on the U.S. Surgeon General today in a piece called “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” It’s true, the nation’s doctor, Regina Benjamin can be frustratingly on-message when speaking to the press and is clearly not a risk-taker with her public health campaigns (more on our experience with this later). But Bittman is relentless here, calling her “virtually invisible” and questioning her courage. (It probably didn’t help that Benjamin declined Bittman’s request for an interview.) Here’s more from his column:

Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible. Whether that is a personality trait, a lack of courage (hard to believe — she’s a Catholic who supports abortion rights), a lack of qualification or a sign of the impotence of her office is something she won’t help us figure out: her representative declined my request for an interview.

But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”

Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it.

We’ve interviewed Benjamin several times and have always come away wishing she’d be a bit more out there and aggressive about her message, whether it’s on the importance of prevention or on exercise. Continue reading

Review: ‘Cooking Through Cancer,’ And Reclaiming The Joy Of Food

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 2.59.06 PM

By Pamela Post-Ferrante
Guest contributor

Pamela Post-Ferrante is the author of “Writing & Healing: A Mindful Guide for Cancer Survivors.”

When I took “The Lahey Clinic Guide to Cooking Through Cancer” out of its gray plastic mailing wrapper, I was immediately struck by the book’s beauty.

Dominating the 8×10 cover, a large glossy photograph of a lightly browned chicken with rosemary potatoes glistened with warmth. Warmth straight from the oven, or perhaps simply the warmth of comfort. Comfort food.

What surprised me about this new book was that it included such a gamut of foods, when so many of us limit our foods in hope of better health. As a four- time cancer survivor, I remember the surgeries and treatments as times of culinary disinterest. And, in the years since, to try to stay cancer free, I have become strict and limited in my eating. Delight or comfort have not registered in my thinking about food.  I discovered I had food allergies and have been abstaining from sugar, dairy and wheat — as best I can — since cancer.  And I know of those who choose to go macrobiotic, raw or begin juicing.

‘The book is about reclaiming something that cancer frequently takes away from people – the enjoyment of food.’

But many are eating simply according to their type of cancer and treatments, and how they are affected by these. So, my first few days of thumbing through this sumptuous book — with its many full page and smaller photos for each recipe, shot with the eye of a master artist catching colors and textures and almost aromas — I kept thinking, “Thank you.” Thank you, Lahey Clinic Sophia Gordon Cancer Center, for knowing what the beauty of food means to someone’s experience of cancer. Past or present. And, I can use many of the recipes.  Some fit into my restrictions or can be used with slight substitutions, still giving me a sense of a beautiful meal.

Then I began to read. Continue reading

Extreme Eating And The 2600-Calorie Crispy Chicken Dish

The Cheesecake Factory’s Crispy Chicken Costoletta sounds like a reasonable dinner option: a lightly breaded and sauteed chicken breast served with mashed potatoes (no french fries) and asparagus. But according to the Center For Science in The Public Interest, this innocuous-sounding dish is anything but:

The Cheesecake Factory's calorie-rich Crispy Chicken Costoletta (Vanessa (EY)/flickr/

The Cheesecake Factory’s calorie-rich Crispy Chicken Costoletta (Vanessa (EY)/flickr/)

“The meal packs 2,610 calories (more than a day’s worth), 89 grams of saturated fat (enough for almost a full work week), and 2,720 milligrams of sodium (your limit for today and most of tomorrow). In fact, the dish has more calories than any steak, chop, or burger meal on The Cheesecake Factory’s menu.

How do they do it? It’s partly the lemon (read: butter) sauce, the chicken’s oil-soaked breading, and the butter and cream in the three-quarter-pound serving of mashed potatoes. And it’s partly the sheer quantity of chicken (each of the three pieces could serve as an entrée at most other restaurants).

Think of the Crispy Chicken Costoletta as an entire KFC 12-piece Original Recipe bucket (2,550 calories), except that the KFC has less than half the sat fat.”

Dr. Atul Gawande, one of the most respected and artful writers on health policy around, recently wrote a widely-cited article in The New Yorker suggesting that the U.S. health care system might be wise to model itself, in some aspects, after The Cheesecake Factory chain of restaurants.

Gawande might want to reconsider his proposition in light of the Crispy Chicken Costoletta.

But the Costoletta is only one over-the-top dish cited by CSPI as part of its Xtreme Eating Awards 2013. The top offenders include “a milkshake with a slice of apple pie blended right in. A 3,000-calorie plate of pasta. A breakfast that includes deep-fried steak and pancakes (and hash browns and eggs and gravy and syrup,” according to a news release. (Read the full list here.) Continue reading

Report: Widespread Fish Mislabeling Raises Public Health Concerns

More landmines on the path toward feeding your family healthy, nutritious food: a new report by the conservation group Oceana finds fish in New York City restaurants and grocery stores are widely mislabeled — with some fish being sold containing harmful toxins. From The New York Times:

Some of the findings present public health concerns. Thirteen types of fish, including tilapia and tilefish, were falsely identified as red snapper. Tilefish contains such high mercury levels that the federal Food and Drug Administration advises women who are pregnant or nursing and young children not to eat it.

Ninety-four percent of fish sold as white tuna was not tuna at all but in many cases a fish known as snake mackerel, or escolar, which contains a toxin that can cause severe diarrhea if more than a few ounces of meat are ingested.

“There are a lot of flummoxed people out there who are trying to buy fish carefully and trying to shop their conscience, but they can’t if this kind of fraud is happening,” said Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, who led the study.

With fish, what you buy isn’t always what you get, a new report finds. (Source: Oceana)

Here are the report’s key findings, from the Oceana news release:

–58 percent of the 81 retail outlets sampled sold mislabeled fish (three in five).
–Small markets had significantly higher fraud (40 percent) than national chain grocery stores
–100 percent of the 16 sushi bars tested sold mislabeled fish.
–Tilefish, on the FDA’s do-not-eat list because of its high mercury content was substituted for red
snapper and halibut in a small market.
–94 percent of the “white tuna” was not tuna at all, but escolar, a snake mackerel that has a toxin
with purgative effects for people who eat more than a small amount of the fish.
–Thirteen different types of fish were sold as “red snapper,” including tilapia, white bass, goldbanded jobfish, tilefish, porgy/seabream, ocean perch and other less valuable snappers.

The report follows earlier studies that found fish mislableling in cities across the U.S. An Oceana news release says: “Everywhere seafood is tested, fraud has been found. In fact, Oceana and others recently found shocking levels of mislabeling in the Boston (48 percent), Los Angeles (55 percent) and Miami (31 percent) areas.” Continue reading

Reporter’s Notebook: Marijuana Cuisine Goes Gourmet With ‘Medibles’

 

By Rachel Gotbaum
Guest Contributor

For medical marijuana cuisine, it’s been a long, strange trip.

I remember walking down the stairs of a non-descript building in San Francisco’s Castro district where I was told a new underground (literally) club for medical marijuana was located. I was a young reporter in the mid-1990s and California was engaging in a battle to legalize marijuana for medical use. The state would eventually become the first in the country to do so.

At the time, local San Francisco law enforcement looked the other way to allow these underground pot bars to thrive, but often there would be raids by federal drug agents. What I found downstairs, I could not believe. It was as if I had been transported to some club in Amsterdam, where “space cakes” and joints were sold openly. The room was filled with pot smoke.

(Torben Bjørn Hansen/flickr)

People were lounging around couches smoking joints and others were crowded by the “bar” where they were surveying bright green buds to purchase for medical use. These “patients” brought notes from their doctors — though none of this had been legally formalized yet. Some of the people selling behind the bar were nurses and other medical professionals.

The man who brought me to this underground pot club was Dennis Peron, one of the most vocal and colorful advocates for legalizing marijuana for medical use in California.

As we left the club, my clothes and hair now saturated with pot smoke, Peron handed me a book. “Brownie Mary’s Marijuana
Cookbook — Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change.”

But the recipes went beyond typical pot brownie fare. The cookbook (part foodie, part pro-pot manifesto) included a fairly elaborate shrimp casserole recipe, where ground marijuana is mixed into the skillet along with white wine and seasoned croutons. There’s also spaghetti sauce (tomato based) and an ambitious chestnut stuffing calling for 2-4 grams of “seedless flower” sautéed with butter.

Inscribed in my book it says “Rachel, The Dream Lives On — Dennis Peron, San Francisco.”

What may have been a little California dreaming back then seems these days to be an expanding reality. So-called “Medibles” have gone gourmet, with food businesses starting to sprout up in states where medical marijuana has been legalized.

Indeed, since California legalized pot for medical use in 1996, seventeen other states have followed.

Massachusetts and Connecticut voters approved medical marijuana earlier this month. Colorado (where marijuana for recreational use was just approved by voters) has allowed dispensaries to sell pot and “edibles” for medical use since 2009.

The Ganja Gourmet in downtown Denver claims to be the biggest edibles marketplace in the state. Continue reading

Sure, McDonald’s Has Salads, But Fast Food Still Averages High Calories


Here’s a good news/bad news item.

Good news: Fast food restaurants are offering broader menus whose offerings include healthy options like salads and fruit.

Bad news: They’re also offering more higher-calorie items. Upshot: The average fast-food calorie count has changed little since 1997.

From the press release:

In the study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers analyzed menu offerings and nutrient composition information from leading fast food restaurant chains in the U.S. using archival versions of the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center’s Food and Nutrient Database. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen were chosen because they had been in the database since 1997, each has defined set of offerings on the menu and all standard menu items are included in the database.

One striking finding was a 53 percent increase in the total number of offerings — 679 to 1036 items — over 14 years across the restaurants. Specific fast-growing additions to the menus include the number of entree salads, which increased from 11 to 51, and sweetened teas, which went from zero to 35.

The study authors did not find any large changes in the median calorie content of entrees and drinks. A gradual increase in calories was found in condiments and desserts. Meanwhile, a decrease in the median calories of side items was observed — from 264 to 219 — which may be due to the addition of lower-calorie side salads and some restaurants limiting the portion sizes of side items like French fries.

Moral of the story: Fast food’s well-established role in the obesity epidemic is far from over. But perhaps the mandated calorie counts that will soon be posted on chain restaurants’ menus will help.