nutrition

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Suit Over ‘100% Natural’ Label On Nature Valley Granola Bars Settled

(AP Photo: Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo: Matt Rourke)

The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest has made me a hopeless cynic about the glowing verbiage on food packaging. Among the center’s other work, it acts as a sort of truth squad for food claims, outing many “good for you” labels and ads for the shameless distortions that they are.

“I guess I knew that was too good to be true,” is my usual reaction when I find out that yet another hyper-palatable “healthy” snack or entree is actually packed with sugar or fat or salt.

Now, the center reports the settlement of a suit it brought against General Mills for calling Nature Valley granola bars and other products “100% Natural” even though they contained highly processed sweeteners. (Wait, you mean “high-fructose corn syrup” doesn’t just count as corn?) From it’s press release:

WASHINGTON—A settlement agreement announced today prevents General Mills from claiming that its Nature Valley granola bars, crispy squares, and trail mix bars are “100% Natural” if those products contain high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, dextrose monohydrate, maltodextrin, soy protein isolate, or several other artificially produced ingredients. The agreement, which is effective immediately and applies to labeling and marketing for 30 Nature Valley products, settles a 2012 lawsuit brought on behalf of consumers by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and two law firms.

CSPI privately raised its concern with General Mills over its “100% Natural” claims as early as 2005. The company began phasing out its use of high-fructose corn syrup in some products, but at the time of CSPI’s lawsuit was still using high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin. While those ingredients are derived from corn, they are produced by treating corn starch with acids, enzymes, or both before being refined into a substance that does not occur in nature.

The center notes that a bill introduced in Congress in 2013 “would prohibit the use of the word ‘natural’ on a food that includes any synthesized ingredient, or any ingredient that has undergone chemical changes such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin, chemically modified food starch, or alkalized cocoa.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that some Nature Valley packaging had apparently already been changed. Continue reading

The Politics Of Gluten

LaShawn Wiltz/flickr

LaShawn Wiltz/flickr

A close kid relative of mine can die if he eats gluten. Actually, this child is so allergic to gluten that you can’t even cook pasta if he’s in the room or he’ll break out in a rash, or worse. He’s been to emergency rooms, both in the U.S. and abroad, due to his allergies, and it usually happens when someone hands him a so-called “gluten-free” cookie or snack that actually wasn’t.

So gluten is a hot topic in our family. Recently, though, skepticism has been rising about the very notion of gluten allergies, or sensitivities. Exhibit A in this arena is Michael Specter’s latest New Yorker story on the current gluten-free craze, which has enraged more than a few parents whose kids have real and scary reactions to gluten. Specter writes:

While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data.

Speaking on Here & Now yesterday, Specter reiterated the article’s takeaway that the national gluten-free obsession is mostly just the latest fad diet.

Maybe. But here’s some reaction from a parent who thinks Specter should have taken a broader view:

“My son has gone into anaphylaxis from accidentally ingesting gluten four different times over the course of his life.  Each time we had to administer an emergency Epipen injection and rush him to the ER.  I don’t think he was reacting to a fad…

It is fine to debate the merits of going gluten free as a diet or lifestyle choice for some. But for others it is a clear medical issue, with the most serious consequences. The number of Americans suffering from celiac or severe gluten allergy seems to be growing fast, and that merits substantial funding and research to figure out why and find cures. It would be a mistake if that fact were to be lost amid the current efforts at “de-bunking” the risks of eating gluten for some.”

Confessions Of A Physician Sugar Addict

(Mel B via Compfight)

(Mel B via Compfight)

By Terry L. Schraeder, M.D.
Guest contributor

In medical research, the “n” value is the number of people in a study. If n = 1, it is not generally considered a very powerful study. But when you are the “1” in “n = 1,” it somehow becomes more significant.

It all started with a can of soda disguised as sparkling orange juice. It had become my “go to” treat. My pick-me-up when I was low. In fact, it gave me a rush of energy every time I drank it. One day, I looked at the label to see if it contained caffeine. No caffeine, just added sugar. In fact, it contained 32 grams of sugar — eight teaspoons per can — with sugar second only to water as the largest ingredient. The World Health Organization recommends women not consume more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day — or about 5 percent of total calories as added sugar. Men can have up to nine teaspoons.

How much sugar was I consuming a day? I was also adding honey to my coffee, maple syrup to my oatmeal, consuming corn syrup in my “healthy” flavored yogurt (some brands add as much as 30 grams per serving) and enjoying muffins as a snack and dessert many evenings. Along with my routine stop for a drive-through flavored coffee drink, and occasional cookies or candy, I had officially joined our nation of fellow sugar addicts.

In the US, we are consuming on average 88 grams or 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day. (There are four grams of sugar per teaspoon.) My guess is that I was eating even more. Like many, I needed my fix of high fructose corn syrup or other sugar source every few hours.

For the last several years, there has been an increasing drumbeat of warnings linking sugar to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease from experts such as endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig at the University of California at San Francisco and media doctor Dr. Sanjay Gupta at CNN. But somehow the message had missed me. I did not think of myself, especially as a physician, as a high sugar consumer.

I have tried to stop the hourly IV drip of added sugar I was consuming throughout the day.

I have passed my 50th birthday and have a normal body weight and exercise regularly. I am not on any medication. My blood pressure and fasting blood glucose are normal. But last year, my triglyceride level was high. One reason might be that the high fructose corn syrup I was consuming is converted to triglycerides in the liver – hence the high level.

There were other concerns. I noticed that I felt shaky and had food cravings two hours after eating. I also noticed an afternoon slump of low energy, a growing bulge of belly fat, and plaque that needed to be vigorously scraped from my teeth every six months. How long had my sugar intake been so high?

Sugar consumption in the US has climbed into the stratosphere in the past three decades. Our added sugar consumption increased by 30 percent from 1977 to 2010, according to a study presented last week at ObesityWeek, a major obesity conference, in Boston. It seems we are slurping, sucking and chewing 300 calories of added sugar daily (up from 228) and far more than the recommended limit of 100 calories of added sugar per day. Continue reading

Studies: It May Be Better For Kids Who Are Overweight Not To Know It

feetonscale

According to the scale, the 18-year-old girl is severely obese. But she doesn’t think so.

“I know I’m big, but I’m not obese,” she says. “I don’t take up three seats. My weight is high, but no higher than lots of people’s. It’s no problem.”

If you’re her doctor or school nurse or parent, what do you do? Do you bombard her with Body Mass Index charts and warnings of the health risks she faces? Knowledge is power, right? Certainly, that’s the principle behind the “BMI report cards” — colloquially known as “fat letters” — that schools send home in some states.

But research just presented at ObesityWeek, a major conference on obesity, suggests that it may not be wise to persuade that young woman that she has a problem.

One study found that overweight teens who “misperceive” their weight as normal end up gaining less weight over the next decade or so than teens who are overweight and know it. Another study found that those “misperceivers” blind to their extra pounds were also less likely to become depressed in later years.

The findings are at odds with the basic assumption behind BMI report cards, that it is helpful to inform kids and their families of their weight status, says researcher Kendrin Sonneville, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who is also affiliated with Harvard and the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Kendrin and IdiaXXX

Dr. Kendrin Sonneville and Dr. Idia Thurston at the Obesity Week conference, where they presented studies that found that weight “report cards” may backfire. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

“I think we can say the jury is still out,” she says. “Weight misperception is not something we should assume is harmful, and in the spirit of doing no harm, I think we need to proceed with caution on any type of programming that involves correcting weight misperception.”

The study she led, which followed more than 2700 young people beginning in high school, found that after about a decade, the overweight teens who had perceived their weight accurately gained more than one BMI unit — very roughly about 10 pounds — more than those overweight teens who had falsely believed their weight to be normal.

Why might this be? That’s one of the next avenues of research that need to be explored, but clinical psychologist Idia Thurston, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, says the key could be the emotional baggage that comes with being told you’re overweight or obese.

More accurate weight perception may translate into more feelings of stigma and lower satisfaction with your own body, she says, “and that could affect your ability to cope — hence, depressive symptoms or hence, engaging in harmful eating behaviors.”

“So when we think about weight report cards and telling kids, ‘This is what your weight status is,’ you really need to think about how that information is being disseminated, and what kinds of protections are put into place, rather than just sending report cards home to kids and not knowing how kids will act on that information.”

Dr. Thurston’s study, also presented at ObesityWeek, found that overweight high-school-aged boys who accurately perceived their own weight as high were significantly more likely to develop depressive symptoms over the next decade or so. (The findings in girls were not statistically significant.) Once again, a false sense of being a normal weight appeared to be protective for overweight young people.

The idea of having schools screen kids for obesity began in 2003 in Arkansas during then-Gov. Mike Huckabee’s anti-obesity efforts, Dr. Sonneville says, and spread around the country without ever having a solid research base on what its effects might actually be.

About one-fourth of states track schoolchildren’s height and weight, and last year U.S. News reported that nine sent weight “report cards” home, including Massachusetts. But last October, facing pushback from nurses, parents and others, the state’s Public Health Council voted to stop sending the letters home, though the schools still gather the information. U.S. News reported that decision under the headline “Massachusetts Schools To Stop Sending ‘Fat Letters:'” Continue reading

Chia Seed Alert: Superfood, Yes, But They Landed One Man In The ER

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

Confession: I eat chia seeds everyday. I feed them to my children. They make me feel full and satisfied and, yes, I’m a sucker for foods touted as “super” even though I know deep down it’s just marketing.

I may be crazy, but I’m also trendy: chia seeds are everywhere, in energy bars and smoothies, atop yogurt parfaits and at the core of crunchy kid snacks. Good Morning America called chia seeds the “it” food of 2013.

And they really are good for you: “a rich source of fiber, protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids,” according to an NIH publication.

But this week, my chia euphoria took a hit. “Despite potential health benefits, chia seeds may pose a risk if they are not consumed properly, according to new research,” said the Medline headline.

A case report presented by a North Carolina GI doctor describes a scary case of chia seeds gone bad: a 39-year-old man spent several hours in the emergency room under anesthesia after eating no more than a tablespoon of dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water.

The seeds, which can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, apparently expanded post-ingestion and completely blocked the man’s esophagus, according to the doctor who handled the case, Rebecca Rawl, MD, MPH, a gastroenterology fellow at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I spoke to Rawl, and she told me the story of the chia seed blockage — believed to be the first report of its kind. She presented her poster, titled “Watch It Grow: Esophageal Impaction With Chia Seeds,” earlier this week at the American College of Gastroenterology’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. It began innocently enough, she said:

The man arrived at the hospital and said he had this feeling of pain at the top of his stomach and couldn’t swallow anything — “not even his own saliva.” Hospital staff took him in for an upper endoscopy and the imaging clearly showed the culprit: puffed up chia seeds.

What did it look like?

Rawl said:

It was a gel of these seeds, the consistency was similar to Playdoh — not solid, but not a liquid. Continue reading

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

When Good Parents Pack Bad Lunches: Study Finds Kids’ Food Falls Short

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Busted. So busted.

I’ve been meaning to write about this new Tufts study on the nutritional sins of the lunches kids bring to school. (No, it’s not just the cafeterias with their “vegetable” ketchup.)

But the spurts of guilt kept deterring me — the guilt of a mother who has been known to fill a lunchbox with Sun chips, alphabet cookies, challah and nothing else. Not even a pretense of a vitamin.

So I’m thrilled that the Boston Globe’s Beth Teitell has taken it on: At Lunch, Home-Packed May Not Mean Healthy.

Over 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren bring their lunches to school on a given day.

Bottom line: It looks like the lunches that most kids bring to school are nutritionally pathetic. When researchers examined — and documented in photos — the lunches of more than 600 Massachusetts third- and fourth-graders in six public school districts, the meals almost all flunked. From the press release:

[Lead author Jeanne] Goldberg and colleagues compared students’ lunch and snack items to federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards, respectively. They found that only 27% of the lunches met at least three of the five NSLP standards, and only 4% of snacks met at least two of the four CAFCP standards, both of which emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low- or non-fat dairy.

The findings highlight the challenges associated with packing healthful items to send to school. “When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” Goldberg said.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else,” Goldberg said. “Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.” Continue reading

Project Louise: New Habit? It’s In The Bag

(BeWellPhilly)

(BeWellPhilly)

The Salad Club is dead. Long live the Salad Club!

Way back in January, in the early days of Project Louise, my fabulous colleague Jessica Coughlin made an offer I couldn’t refuse: She would bring in salad ingredients every day, and I would eat them.

We’re lucky at WBUR to have a well-equipped staff kitchen, so it was easy to take whatever showed up in the bag and make a delicious, huge salad. Other folks in the office soon noticed this development and wanted a piece of it, and so the Salad Club was born.

For a small – I mean really, really small – monthly fee, Jess would bring in all kinds of wonderful greens from her garden, along with produce from Allandale Farm, great dressings and other assorted treats. The other four Salad Club members, including me, could also bring in whatever garnishes and accompaniments we wanted to add.

Nirvana ensued.

But, like so many good things, it couldn’t last forever. Two weeks ago, Jess announced with regret that because of vacation, moving, and the increasing work demands of her despotic boss (that would be me), she just didn’t have the bandwidth anymore to keep doing this.

Despair ensued.

But then a funny thing happened. Continue reading

Mindset Can Boost Metabolism? Not So Fast…

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

Would that it were so. That just thinking that what you eat is an indulgent treat could diminish your hunger later and ramp up your calorie-burning.

The possibility arose from a 2011 study that was just recently described in an NPR report headlined “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach.” It describes what happened when clinical psychologist Alia Crum mixed up a giant batch of vanilla milkshake, then labeled cups of it differently for two groups of subjects: Some were told it was a virtuous low-calorie drink while others were told it was a decadent indulgence.

Crum reported that when people thought they’d just indulged, their bodies — specifically their levels of ghrelin, a hunger-related hormone — responded as if they’d taken in more calories than people who believed they’d had a low-cal shake. Possible moral of story: Your beliefs about the food you eat — based on, say, reading labels — could affect how your body responds.

It’s a provocative thought and a fun yarn — and a super-fun video, at the bottom of this post — but perhaps a bit too fun. The reality checkers at Nutrition Action – which is put out by the nonprofit Center For Science in the Public Interest — have just responded to the story with a big “Really?” And a headline: “Can Your Mindset Boost Metabolism? It’s not as straight-forward as one recent study suggests.”

An excerpt:

First of all, the study never measured ghrelin’s effect on metabolism (or even how much food the participants ate at their next meal). Nor have others.

“If you give animals ghrelin injections either subcutaneously or directly into the brain, they increase their food intake, increase their body weight, and burn less fat,” says Jenny Tong, an associate professor of endocrinology and a ghrelin expert at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved in the milkshake study. But giving ghrelin to cancer patients who are losing weight doesn’t help much, she says. Continue reading

Tracking The Rising Backlash Against Sugar

Years ago, on my daughter’s first birthday, my mother-law, an avid cook, baked her a cake. I don’t remember if it was chocolate or layered. What I do remember is forbidding my baby from eating it — not even a nibble. Why, I thought, would I introduce processed sugar into a one-year-old’s diet when she’d been perfectly content with avocados and bananas? “Don’t you want to see pure joy on her face?” asked one friend. Yeah, sure, but not from frosting.

Needless to say, the birthday cake prohibition triggered a bit of a backlash among some family members, and earned me labels like “rigid” and “crazy.”

But these days, with the huge national backlash against sugar — from the new film “Fed Up” and Eve Schaub’s popular family memoir, “Year Of No Sugar,” to Mark Bittman’s regular columns hammering on the message of sugar’s toxicity — I feel somewhat vindicated.

Here’s a snippet from Bittman’s latest, “An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food” on why “Fed Up” is such an important film:

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we must choose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

Just to be clear, this isn’t simply rationalizing my own personal food obsessions (though there’s some of that) or about our cultural sickness around achieving “thigh gap” thinness. It’s about overall health — for instance, heart disease. Continue reading