Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Random Thoughts: Shelf Life

At the request of a commenter, this week's topic is something that if often asked of me & I can't believe I haven't written about it before now. I think a lot of the confusion happens because there are different terms on packages: best by, use by, sell by. Hopefully I can shed a little light on the topic.

The shelf life a product can best be described as a food quality issue. The manufacturer runs tests and determines how long a product remains in good, sellable condition (still maintains taste, color, appearance, nutrients, viscosity, etc). Expiration dates are about food safety; after this date the product may have a microbial count or species that renders the product unsafe for consumption.

The kinds of dates you will see on packages are:
  • Best before/best if used by - these are food quality dates, not food safety
  • Sell by - this is a food quality date & is for the retailer to manage stock rotation
  • Use by - this is a food safety date, it is the last recommended date for consumption while the food is at peak quality
  • Closed/coded date - these are lot codes used by the manufacturer for recall purposes

To further complicate matters, not all food that has hit its use by date is unsafe or of poor quality and not all food still within its use by date is ok or safe. How a product is handled has a lot to do with both its quality and safety. For example, a refrigerated product that has not been opened and has been held under 37*F may still be perfectly fine to eat after its use by date, while the same product opened and left on the counter every morning may be bad well before its printed use by date.

I can share some guidelines for the more common items often in question:

Milk - the packaging has a sell by date. If held under the recommended storage conditions (less than 37*F) it should be fine to consume for 5 days after its sell by date.

Eggs - if the carton has a USDA shield then there will be a mandatory pack date on the packaging (there may also be a voluntary sell by date) which is a 3 digit Julian code (Jan 1 = 001, Dec 31 =365). If there is a sell by date, it can be for no more than 45 days from the pack date. But eggs have a remarkable shelf life and are good for 5 weeks in the refrigerator; probably longer. The whites will thin out making sunny side up & hard boiled eggs not as desirable, but they are not a safety concern.

Canned Foods - typically don't have a date (other than closed/coded) on their packaging, but the rule of thumb is they are probably good for 2 years as long as they are not leaking, are not rusting and not bulging. It is best to use them within 1 year and hold them in a cool (less than 75*F) area.

Meats - best to eat or freeze within 2 days of purchasing, especially ground or processed meats. Meat has a pretty short refrigerated shelf life, but much longer frozen. Ground meat keeps in the freezer for 3 months, pork for 6 months, and whole meat & chicken for 12 months.

A good place to find additional shelf life information can be found here and here. I always recommend erring on the side of caution. Your nose knows - use it. If something smells funny or funky - don't eat it. Same goes with what you see; if liquid that was clear is now cloudy, or your lunch meats take on a iridescent green sheen, or something just doesn't look right - throw it out. I hope this helps give you some measure of confidence and helps you save some money by not throwing out good food just because of some date on a package.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Exercise & Eating

As we are often reminded, our country is fighting the battle of the bulge. It should be no surprise that researchers are conducting studies on the effects of how, when & what we eat. There is a related series of studies that really caught my attention - they involved post-exercise eating. These three related studies measured insulin responses to varying carbohydrate-containing meals consumed after a workout and the results were interesting. If you are an athlete in training, none of this applies to you, but for the rest of us I think it is good to know. So what exactly did they study?

In the first study, participants exercised to burn 500 calories per day for 6 days and were given either a high carb drink or nothing immediately after exercise. The group that drank nothing had a 40% increase in insulin efficiency, while those who had the high carb drink showed no benefit. Wow! 40% you say - uh, what does that mean?

Science Lesson: Low intensity/endurance exercise creates ATP (adenosine triphosphate) via oxidation of triglycerides, while moderate to high intensity exercise creates ATP via metabolism of glycogen. Insulin efficiency is more likely to increase during metabolism of glycogen. The muscle contractions act like insulin during exercise, promoting the transport of glucose from the blood to the muscle cells. Exercise training increases glucose tolerance by increasing sensitivity to insulin, which can be measured by looking at lowered blood sugar levels. Which means even though your muscles need more glucose during exercise, your body needs less insulin to supply it.

The study results intrigued the scientists so the next study had two groups exercise for 75 minutes and then fed one group a meal of balanced carbs (intake = expenditure) and the other a 100 gram deficit of carbs; both meals were equal in calories. The group fed the low-carb meal had a better insulin response than the balanced-carb group. In the final study, the researchers wanted to know if the timing of the calorie intake mattered. The participants were given identical meals either before, immediately after or three hours after exercising for 75 minutes. There was no difference among any of the groups in their insulin responses.

So, at least from these early results, it appears that it is best not to eat, or at least eat something low in carbs, after exercising to get the most benefit from your workout. Darn, I guess no more doughnuts on Saturday mornings after my Pilates class! :)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Feeling Full

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and the temptation to over-eat is tremendous! (For those who are new to my blog and want to know more about turkey you can read last year's post here.) So I thought that the topic of satiety signals would be apropos. But first, how many of us are aware of the difference between hunger and appetite? Hunger is physiological, appetite is psychological. Many of us, probably me included, will continue to eat because of appetite, not hunger tomorrow. We will completely ignore our bodies and keep right on eating well past being full.

Satiety is the condition of being full, or at least of feeling full so that your know when to stop eating. In your body satiety is a set of physiological signals that come from your gastrointestinal tract to your brain; specifically the brain stem and hypothalamus by way of the vagus nerve. The hypothalamus is our body's regulator of food behavior - it tells us to keep eating or to stop eating. (We know that this occurs here because people who have injured their hypothalamus have difficulty regulating their eating behaviors.) But other things are occurring when we eat; hormones are produced (somewhere around 20-30, including insulin) which may also be telling the brain when you are full.

New research is suggesting that a naturally occurring family of fats derived from lecithin, called oleoylethanoamide or OEA, play a role in signaling satiety; OEA appears to "talk" to the vagus nerve inducing satiety and reducing food intake. OEA is a combination of oleic acid (omega-9 like is found in olive oil) and ethanolamine. Although studies are currently ongoing, and are being done on rats not people, some interesting findings are being reported. In addition to appetite suppression, OEA appears to encourage fatty acid catabolism and lower blood lipid levels.

Because many of the foods we eat at Thanksgiving are high in fat and sugar, and low in protein (well, excluding the turkey) and fiber we don't feel satiated for very long. Keep this in mind as you munch your way through the meal tomorrow and listen for your satiety signals!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is That Natural?

Natural seems a simple enough word; the dictionary definition is simple: existing in or formed by nature. If only it were that simple when it comes to the food you buy. You see each governmental agency has its own definition, or lack of one and that can (and does) lead to quite a bit of confusion.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1988 defined natural as: nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to or included in a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food. Since then the industry has asked numerous times for clarification and/or redefinition of the term "natural", but alas to date the FDA has refused.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a decision tree to determine the natural status of a food (well really just meat, poultry & eggs since those are under their jurisdiction). They ask the following questions:

  1. Does the product contain an artificial flavor, coloring agent, chemical preservative, or any other synthetic or artificial ingredient? If the answer is yes, then the product cannot be labeled as natural.
  2. Are the product and its ingredients minimally processed? If the answer is yes, then the product can be labeled as natural.

Seems like this is pretty straight forward - right? Well, no. Some of the problems here are with defining minimally processed. Does drying, roasting/cooking, lowering pH (adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar), or pressure cooking cause a product to lose it ability to call itself natural? What about microbially fermented products like yogurt, cheese, beer or wine - are these natural? You get the point.

And if those weren't enough to cause confusion, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau had decided they want a voice in this discussion too. They define natural as depending on:

  1. The origin of the ingredients
  2. How the term "natural" is presented in the context of a challenged advertisement
  3. And the reasonable customer expectation as to the meaning of the term "natural"

Ouch! No wonder there is so much confusion about such a simple little word. There is a growing amount of pressure by consumers to have terms such as "natural" standardized and believe me, the industry is on board with that. Sometimes the simple things in life just aren't that simple.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sweet Is as Sweet Does

Sugar, that ubiquitous sweet substance we all love, is comprised of fructose & glucose (50%/50%) as you learned here. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is also comprised of fructose & glucose in a very similar ratio (55%/45% or 42%/58%). So why is HFCS vilified, sugar not and honey, agave syrup and evaporated cane juice all but ignored?

Both fructose and glucose have the chemical formula of C6H12O6, but have different configurations (where the atoms are located) and so have different sweetness levels and are metabolized differently. Fructose is absorbed through the wall of the small intestine directly into the bloodstream and taken up into the liver cells where it is converted into components indistinguishable from glucose and sometimes into glucose. A downside of each: glucose needs insulin to get into your cells, fructose doesn't, so it has a high glycemic response while fructose is more likely to elevate your triglyceride levels.

In sugar the monosaccharides fructose & glucose are linked, unlike in HFCS where they are not. Enzymes in your digestive system break down the links into the individual monosaccharides fructose and glucose which are processed identically to monosaccharides consumed separately. Since all of these products will end up as monosaccharides, it is impossible to say one is inherently better or worse for you.

In addition, the University of Washington Nutritional Science Program performed a study which showed that there was no direct link between the type of sweetener consumed and obesity. While the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study results showed that cane sugar and HFCS have similar effects on hunger, fullness and food consumption.

Whether you consume sugar (50% fructose), HFCS (42 or 55% fructose), honey (53% fructose), agave nectar (56 -92% fructose) or evaporated cane juice (45% fructose), your body is going to treat them all the same. That is not to say that there is not a difference between eating a piece of fruit (a pear for instance) or a candy bar. While your body may not distinguish one fructose molecule from another, the pear has water (a diluent), fiber, vitamins and minerals which the candy bar most certainly does not.

So, enjoy your sweets in moderation and don't get caught up in all the hype; we could all do better at consuming less sugar in any of its forms!
UPDATE! American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Supplements:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Are you a Flexitarian?

You know what a vegetarian is, and if you watch Wendy's commercials you've heard the term they coined - meatitarian, but what is a flexitarian? The American Dialect Society defines flexitarian as: a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat. My industry takes a bit broader view of the term.

To the food industry a flexitarian is a part-time vegetarian; someone who may eat vegetarian meals from 1-4 times per week. Since so many of us are trying to eat more healthfully, a large portion of the population probably meets this definition. In fact, given that humans are omnivores, it really is no surprise that we don't eat meat at every meal. Flexitarian meals may fall into multiple vegetarian categories too, like lacto-vegetarian (contains dairy products), ovo-vegetarian (contains eggs), ovo-lacto-vegetarian (contains both dairy and egg) and total vegetarian (or vegan).

Since health is often the primary driver for this type of eating, substanitive, hearty proteins that are filling are usually preferred. A flexitarian often chooses substitute protein sources like tofu, whole grains, and legumes to replace the traditional center of the plate chicken, beef, pork or fish. We can all use more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in our diet regardless of how we categorize ourselves - so eat well and be well!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Something Sweet

This is a good time for the candy makers and not just because it is coming into the holiday season. A depressed economy almost always translates into increased consumption of candy. And, if that weren't enough, the population of Americans 12 and under is expanding for the next 7 years.

Generation Y, especially the 18-24 year olds, are the heaviest consumers of sweets; they are the #1 purchaser of gourmet chocolates, the #1 purchaser of non-chocolate candies, and the most likely age group to chew gum.

Healthy treats are hitting the marketplace now that include organic, fat-free, sugar-free, high antioxidant, and fortified with B-vitamins, taurine and/or guarana for energy. In fact some gums on the shelves right now contain magnolia bark extract (kills bacteria), aloe vera, co-enzyme Q10 (used by the body to generate energy), and ceramide (protects from cellular death). Exotic ingredients are also a big trend, we are already seeing rose, violet, green-tea, lychee and chile peppers being integrated to our sweet treats.

With my motto of everything in moderation, there is always a place for a treat. Look around and experiment with some of the new flavors and forms - it may just make your life a little sweeter!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Pumpkin

Red & yellow leaves, harvest moons, chilly days - must mean fall has arrived. And the coming of fall means arrival of the pumpkins! They're not just for Halloween anymore.

Pumpkins are part of the cucurbita family which include cucumbers, muskmellons (what we call canteloupe), squashes, and watermelons. Their name is derived from the greek word for large melon: pepon. And they've been a part of the human diet so long that archeologists have discovered pumpkin rinds and seeds in cliff dwellings dating back to 1500 BC in Central & South America. Given their long history as part of our meals on this continent, it is no surprise that the first colonists adopted pumpkin into their diets.

The top pumpkin growing states in the US are currently Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. And despite what it looks like around the farm stands and grocery stores this time of year, only a very small percentage of the pumpkins grown are sold for ornamenation. The majority are harvested and sold for processing into cans, pies, breads, etc. Want another couple of fun pumpkin facts? They are 90% water and 80% of the entire pumpkin supply is available in October.

Pumpkin is remarkably versitile for use in both savory applications like soups and stews and in sweet applications like pies, cakes & cookies. In addition, both its flesh and seeds are quite edible and nutritious. One cup of cooked (boiled) pumpkin flesh has about 49 calories, 2.5 grams of protein. 12 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of fiber, 564 mg of potassium, 37 mg of calcium and 12230 IU of Vitamin A. A half cup of pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, has 592 calories, 37 grams of protein, 15 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, 606 mg of magnesium, 915 mg of potassium and 16 mg of iron.

So now that you have all of this new pumpkin knowledge, let me give you my pumpkin muffin recipe.
1 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/3 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)
1 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup milk (I use 1%)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 to 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice (this is really to taste)
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips
1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 350*F; oil muffin pan or use paper sleeves. In a bowl, mix together pumpkin, oil, sugar, milk, and vanilla. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt. Pour the wet ingredients on top of the dry ingredients and stir for no more than 30 seconds. The mix will be lumpy, but overmixing really ruins the texture of muffins due to overproduction of gluten. Fold in the chocolate chips and pumpkin seeds. Distribute into the muffin pan and bake until done. Time will depend on your oven and the size of your muffin tins, but check after 12-15 minutes. You can use the toothpick method to determine when they are finished cooking. Remove from pans, cool on a rack and Enjoy!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dairy - Do or Don't?

Much has been said about consumption of dairy products, especially the fat content of dairy products (saturated & trans-fats) these last couple of years, which has led to much confusion about its place in our diet. Personally, I'm pro-dairy, but no one should make a decision based on my feelings so let me share some information with you.

It is true that milk contains saturated fats, in fact, 62% of the fat in milk is saturated. What isn't as widely known is that the saturated fat in milk is different than other saturated fats. The sat fats in milk have very short chain lengths and they follow a distinctive metabolic pathway (how they are used by the body) that differs from other saturated (or even unsaturated) fats. So while it still shows up in the sat fat line on the nutritional panel, its physiological effect is different.

It is also true that milk contains naturally occurring trans fats. For those who haven't read my post: Oh My Omega, I will quickly review a trans fat. All fats with a C=C bond (mono & poly fats) have a configuration, meaning the hydrogen atoms are either attached to the same side or to opposite sides of the double bond. When the hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond, it is called a cis isomer. When the hydrogen atoms are on the opposite sides of the double bond, it is called a trans isomer. Because the carbons on cis isomers are on the same side their chains usually have a "V" shape, but because the hydrogens are on opposite sides of the trans isomers, their chains are straight like saturated fats. Naturally occurring trans fats are produced by biohydrogenation, of the unsaturated fats consumed by the cow, in the rumen aided by bacterial enzymes. (In English - the bacteria living in the cow's stomach convert the polyunsat fat to trans fat by adding a hydrogen atom to the fatty acid chain)

Now, these trans fats are not like the industrially produced trans fats. Where the trans configuration occurs naturally does not look at all like where the trans configuration happens industrially. Where the double bond exists on the carbon chain matters quite a bit to how we metabolize fats. Naturally occurring trans fats in milk are mostly found on the 11th carbon, while industrially produced trans fats are more evenly distributed across many of the carbon atoms. The most common fatty acid found in milk is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and of the CLA content in milk, the most common configuration (90% of total CLA) is the c-9, t-11 (cis isomer at the 9th carbon, trans isomer at the 11th carbon).

CLA is of particular interest because of some recent study results. The National Academy of Science in 1996 stated: "CLA was the only fatty acid shown unequivocally to inhibit carcinogenesis in experimental animals". Now, we aren't lab animals but this is a great finding and it started some clinical trials on humans to see if the connection carries to us. What the scientists do know is that the c-9, t-11 isomer is preferentially taken up and accumulated in mammary tissue. This connection is being studied to see if milkfat plays a role in the prevention of breast cancer. CLA is also being studied in regards to heart health. It appears that 3 grams per day has a favorable effect on blood lipid levels (those would be triglycerides, HDL and LDL cholesterol).

So, now you have some information about dairy, and specifically its fats, to form your own position on this nutrient and its place in your diet. I do hope you found this post moooving (couldn't resist) and that you check back to find out what I write about next!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Little Hand Holding

Always on the go? If you're like me, not many of your meals are consumed leisurely at a table at home, but often on the run or at your desk. In fact, Packaged Facts reported that only 60% of our meals are prepared and eaten at home, that is a lot of on-the-go eating. This means that we gravitate to the quick and portable for our sustenance.

Luckily, my industry is paying attention and has been creating new items from what seems like every corner of the world. You can find in your grocery store, the convenience store or local restaurant carry-out menu items such as:
  • Empanadas and tamales
  • Egg rolls, spring rolls and bao
  • Dosa
  • Burritos and sandwich wraps
  • Pasties
  • Cheese filled bagels
  • Pancake pods (these are pancake sandwiches filled with fruit)
  • Breakfast cookies and cereal bars

My industry is also aware that while you may be rushed, eating healthy (at least some of the time) is something that you consider when choosing a food item. We also want food that tastes good and is visually and texturally appealing as well. With this in mind, you'll find companies combining artisan breads (like ciabiatta, sourdough, whole grains) with gourmet fillings. You are also likely to see legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains used in fillings, as coatings, and included as ingredients in the bread.

So, while it would be nice to slow down and enjoy more of our meals (home cooked preferably) at home with our loved ones, we can at least take comfort that there are healthy, innovative, worldly and tasty hand held food available!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Awww Nuts

My how times change. Once upon a time, we used to greedily eat handfuls of nuts without so much as a thought. Then it happened - someone in the media decided that fat was bad and went on and on about how much fat our yummy nuts contained. So we stopped eating them. Thank goodness that we are headed for a turn-around, or at least I hope we are. Nuts, and their fats, are full of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, the benefits of which I've discussed in earlier posts. In addition, different nuts contain wonderful compounds like omega-3 fatty acids, melatonin, proanthocyanins (antioxidants), fiber and protein. Nuts offer a great, high-nutrient dense snack! Since nuts come in a varietyof forms: whole, sliced, chopped, candied, flour and butters, they can be used in a wide variety of applications both industrially and at home.

Nut oils are also gaining some popularity, although outside of peanut (which is a legume not a nut), most are used as flavoring in dressings and sauces rather than as cooking oils. The smoke points of many of the nut oils does allow for sauteing and use in baked goods as well. Here are some of the more common nut oil smoke points:

  • Walnut Oil = 400*F
  • Almond Oil = 420*F
  • Hazelnut Oil = 430*F
  • Peanut Oil (refined) = 450*F
  • Pecan Oil = 470*F

Nuts are also being studied in regards to their ability to regulate weight and manage insulin responses (a study can be found here) Research has shown that consumption of 48g (2 oz) of walnuts added to a diet for 6 weeks did not increase body weight, even though the caloric intake increased. Nuts are also being labeled as heart healthy due to their "good" fatty acid profile and their ties to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

So if you are looking for a great tasting, highly nutritious, perfectly portable and very handy addition to your daily food intake, look no further than the wonderful world of nuts.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Fiber Full

You probably know that the consumption of carbohydrates, especially fiber, helps protect against obesity (well maybe everyone but the Atkins followers), but do you know what fiber does for you?

Fiber can be a tricky word; there is a lot of marketing built around it and a few terms that can be confusing. When you see "dietary fiber" they are usually referring to non-digestible carbohydrates and lignin (found in plants). "Functional fiber" usually refers to isolated, non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects (like pre-biotics). And "total fiber" is most often referring to the combination of dietary and functional fibers.

The research has shown that you don't need a lot of fiber to have a really big impact, but the American diet is woefully poor in fiber. Most of the country falls well short of the daily recommended intake of 14 grams per 1000 calories consumed (28g for a 2000 calorie diet, 30g for a 2500 calorie diet). That is about one ounce of fiber per day and we as a nation aren't even close to consuming that amount!

So, what is the big deal about one ounce of fiber a day? Epidemiologic studies show that an increased intake of carbohydrates is linked to lower body weight (the abstract can be found here). But that doesn't mean just any ol' carbs, these effects are seen with fruits and vegetables and whole grains - the high fiber carbs. This study showed that normal weight adults consumed more fiber than their age/height matched obese counterparts, showing that there is a definite relationship between fiber consumption and body weight.

So what mechanism is at work? Well, a few different things are occurring. Fiber is often, but not always chewy, and this promotes secretion of saliva and gastric juices which expand the stomach and make you feel fuller. Fiber also slows down how fast your stomach empties and the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. And lastly, fiber takes the place of other calories in the diet. These all add up to this: if you are full longer, you'll eat less and less often. In fact a study was conducted that showed eating just 14 grams of fiber per day resulted in a 10% decrease in caloric intake for a loss of 4 pounds in just under 4 months (that is without any other changes in diet).

Obviously fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the best options to increase your fiber intake, but you may see newly available soluble fibers like resistant starches, oligofructose and polydextrose. While these are all really good fiber sources, and perform many of the pre-biotic and heart disease prevention functions as the non-soluble fibers, they are not as good as providing satiety as the non-soluble fibers.

So I hope you are now convinced to increase your daily fiber intake. It is healthier, you'll feel fuller, and you will have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Good Lesson Learned

I know I didn't get a post done last week - but I have a really good excuse. I was at the Culinary Institute of America attending a class on Healthy Flavors, which is pretty timely given I am on the topic of obesity.

What I appreciated most, apart from getting to cook with real chefs for a week, was that this premier cooking school realized that it needed to teach chefs how to make more healthful food. Although the U.S. is a veritable melting pot, of people and their foods, it is still overwhelmingly dominated by European cuisine. This is especially true of chefs coming out of culinary school where they are taught the french classical techniques. And while you'll never hear me dissing a well prepared veloute or demi-glace, and butter and cream have a special place in my heart, at some point the culinary traditions need to be modified.

It was also refreshing that in addition to teaching these professional chefs how to cook and use more healthful ingredients in their kitchens, the class was co-taught by a Registered Dietician. Talking about grains and legumes and even preparing tasty dishes with them is nice, but understanding why these ingredients are healthy (really, isn't it always easier when you understand the why's?), what the recommended serving quantities are and how to get customers to order these options is really what is going to make a difference long-term.

Now, you will never hear me blame the food industry for the growing waistline of America (no one is making purchases for us or shoving it down our throats) but if we can get more culinary schools to teach this type of coursework, we might just find our selection of healthy choices grow by leaps and bounds. The chefs who shared this class with me learned that a daily serving of whole grains is a tiny 47 grams per day, less than 2 ounces (who can't choke down 2 oz?) and that while not very popular, a portion of lean protein (read: meat/fish/chicken) is only 4 ounces. They also learned that nothing will kill a menu item faster than calling it healthy. People don't want to think about healthy - it needs to happen on the sly. If great tasting, interestingly prepared food is offered people will order it. If it is also healthy then so much the better!

So, the next time you go to your favorite restaurant, look to see if someone in their kitchen is adopting this new thinking. The trend of the future is more legumes (beans), vegetables, nuts, and grains (especially the whole grains like: quinoa, barley, bulgur, amaranth, kamut). If they are on the menu - try them, you just might like being healthy.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Weight Management

I previously discussed how obesity is something most of us can control and told you that the food industry is working to help us all combat the battle of the bulge. The food industry is researching everything from thermogenesis, appetite suppression, satiety boosting, and fat absorption blocking.

Approximately 70% of your daily total energy expenditure is from your basal metabolic rate, another 30% or so from physical activity and the last 10% from thermogenesis. Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy you expend to simply stay alive (breathe, pump blood, etc.) and is really hard to measure outside of a lab, so most people use resting metabolic rate (RMR). Your BMR can be influenced (read: increased) by anaerobic activities like weightlifting as higher muscle mass means a higher metabolism. Physical activity, like aerobic exercise, results in direct calorie burning. This means every time you walk, climb stairs or anything else that increases your heart rate helps shed calories. Which leaves us thermogenesis; the heat generated by your body from the burning of fat calories.

Some of the ingredients that appear to have the best thermogeneic properties include bitter orange, tyrosine, capsaicin, ginger, caffeine and green tea. Of these, the one with the most "buzz" is green tea, or more specifically EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). EGCG is the most common catechin polyphenol found in green tea, ~50% in fact, and the most pharmacologically active one. Researchers are looking at the relationship between caffeine and EGCG and how they work to stimulate thermogenesis. So far it appears that they modulate fatty acid oxidation by interaction with the sympathetic nervous system.

Now, thermogenesis isn't a magic pill (or drink), but if you can burn just 50 calories per day (on a 2500 calorie per day diet) you will lose 10 pounds in a year. So this is definitely something to keep on your radar as more information and products become available. I'll be talking about satiety boosting and appetite suppression next post, so be sure to check back!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Good News About Obesity

The 2003 US Surgeon General Vice Admiral Richard Carmona said "The good news is that obesity as we understand it today is completely preventable through healthy eating - nutritious food in appropriate amounts - and physical activity." Most people do not like the idea of personal responsibility. It is so much easier to blame fast food, processed food, genetics, carbs, lack of time, etc for our growing waistlines. I include myself occasionally in this mindset; time is preciously short and there are a number of thing I need to, or would rather, do than exercise. And while I'm not obese, I could stand to lose a few pounds to benefit my health and I should exercise regularly to be healthier in general.

Current US obesity rates have been all over the news for the last couple of years, but with apparent little impact. And it is not just the US that is getting fatter, other industrialized countries are right there with us. In fact the WHO states that 400 million adults are obese worldwide. So why is our country's waistline an issue at all? Well, obesity is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, osteoarthritis and some cancers. The medical costs to treat these ailments and the lost productivity of the sufferers has been estimated by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) at $117 billion.

Given that so many people do not make wise food choices, don't practice healthy eating, do not watch portion sizes and do not exercise, we have the perfect combination for an obesity epidemic. My industry takes a lot of heat for causing this dilema (although I respectfully disagree), so many companies are working on ingredients and products to help consumers with weight managment. We can't necessarily change a consumers buying decision (McD does sell salads not just Big Macs), so we are trying to make what you buy healthier. Portion controlled packaging, sugar alternatives, whole grains, healthier fats and oils, and nutraceuticals are just some of the measures the industry is taking to help fight obesity. For the next few posts, I'll be looking at some of these individually to help you better understand the whys & hows of these and to make you a smarter consumer, and hopefully healthier eater.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bug Food

Welcome back and sorry for the long delay between posts. I just got back from a great vacation and am ready to continue our discussion about probiotics and prebiotics. If you remember from the last post, probiotics are ingestible microflora that provide benefits to your health. Those bugs need to be fed, which is obviously accomplished by the foods that you eat, but can be enhanced by feeding them their favorite foods - prebiotics.

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates like fiber. You see these carbs aren't digestible by us, but the probiotics have no problem breaking down these molecules. Some of the products considered to be prebiotics include inulin, fructooligosaccharides, polydextrose, lactitol, resistant starches, corn fiber, and arabinogalactose. In addition to eating foods enhanced with prebiotics, some of these foods are also full of prebiotics: chicory, jicama, bananas, oats, whole grains, onion, garlic, leeks, honey, and artichokes. Fermentable carbs seem to work best, but not all prebiotics work equally with each probiotic.

There is quite a bit of research currently being conducted to determine which prebiotic works best with which probiotic; synergy is important here. Lactobacillus seems to prefer galactooligosaccharides while Bifidobacteria seems to prefer fructooligosaccharides. Scientists really want to find the optimum combinations because early research suggests that these "symbiotics" show great promise in prevention of colon cancers and increase our resistance to infections. In addition, they help increase calcium and magnesium absorption and help with intestinal regularity.

So, I hope you are not completely confused by all the prebiotic/probiotic/symbiotic talk and that you have a better understanding of beneficial bugs and what the food industry is doing to try to make food healthier for you. Keep an eye open for these enriched/enhanced products coming to a grocery shelf near you soon (if you want additional info -go here). And as always, please email me and tell me what topics you'd like to know more about - I'm here to help you become food literate!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It's What Bugs You

Bugs - I'm not talking about the creepy crawly kind of bugs, I'm talking about good bugs, the kind that live in your gut. Bacteria & yeast bugs - probiotics to be exact. Yes we are full of bugs, most of which are beneficial; as many as 1,000,000,000,000 per gram of intestinal content. These bugs (intestinal microflora) help us guard against infections, digest fiber and oligosaccharides, take out potential carcinogens and toxins, and produce vitamins we can't make ourselves.

Probiotic means "for life" and they are defined by the WHO/FAO as "live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health benefit on the host". (You would be the host.) Probiotics, also by definition, have to show documented benefits at the specific strain level (genus4species4strain), be recognized by the international culture bank, have undergone appropriate in vitro (lab) trials, be able to survive (viable) at sufficient levels in a product over the product's shelf life, and perhaps most important - be safe.

Most probiotics are lactic acid producers like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, but there are others. It appears from the research that has been performed that each strain has its own benefits and that those benefits are strain-specific. So depending on what you are trying to treat or prevent you will need to consume a different probiotic strain or multiple strains to achieve the function desired. Not especially handy if you were suffering from a laundry list of ailments!

While it is thought that probiotics protect you from pathogens (bad bugs), research is still ongoing to make those direct connections. Currently, research is being done to see what mechanism probiotics use to confer benefits. Some of the theories under investigation say probiotics out compete pathogens (competitive inhibition), others think they work by increasing IG-A plasma and/or T-lymphocytes (white blood cells). Preliminary studies are showing some good results using probiotics to treat Helicobacter pylori (causes stomach ulcers), dental carries (cavities) and diarrhea (including that caused by antibiotic treatments).

You will primarily find probiotics added to dairy products (yogurts, milk, cheese) right now, although some supplements are also available in health stores, since these are great habitats for the live cultures. Just like us, these critters need water & food to be happy and reproduce. And since we are moving to the topic of probiotic food, the topic of the next post will be their favorite - prebiotics!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Superfruits - The Exotics

Welcome back superfriends to part two of superfruits. When I said superfruits in the last post, the first thing that came to mind was probably exotic, strangely named and odd looking fruits, not cherries and blueberries. So in an effort not to disappoint, this week I'm going to tell you about some of the exotic superfruits that are getting a lot of buzz these days.

Açai - goodness, you can't turn around in the grocery store or watch a TV commercial these days with out hearing about this superfruit. Açai fruit comes from the açai palm, the same palm that hearts of palm (a gourmet salad ingredient) comes from, and is native to Central and South America. The berries (really drupes) are about the size of a large grape and is rarely the form in which it is seen or used (food processors use the dried powder usually). 100 grams of the açai powder has 534 calories (yikes!), 44 grams of fiber, 8 grams of protein, and 32 grams of fat - this is some really nutrient dense stuff.

What is also interesting is the breakdown of the fat in the açai berry; it is full of fatty acids. 56% is the monounsaturated oleic acid, 24% is the saturate palmitic acid and 12% is the polyunsaturated linoleic acid (also known as omega-6). It also contains a plant phytosterol called beta-sitosterol which is being studied to see how well it competes in the body with cholesterol thereby having the potential to reduce cholesterol levels.

Goji - the goji berry is also known as the wolfberry, but that doesn't sound nearly as exiting or exotic does it? It is a bright red-orange berry with tiny yellow seeds and is part of the Solanaceae family which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and chili peppers. While it can grow in lots of places, the commerical production of this fruit is happening in China where it has been used in their traditional medicine for around 2000 years. They believe that it is good for the yin, improving eyesight, and improving circulation.

Again, you are unlikely to see these as fresh fruits - they are usually found dried or in powder form. 100 grams of the powder has 370 calories, 68 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber and 10 grams of fat. It also has some essential fatty acids like linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), which are great for cardiovascular health. In addition, goji berries are high in carotenoids like beta-carotene & cryptoxanthin (pro-vitamin A) and lutein & zeaxanthin (found in the retina of your eyes).

Noni - One of the newer fruits being studied, it is also known as the "vomit fruit" due to its pungent odor when ripening - ick! It is a yellow-green fruit with many little brown seeds and a cream colored pulp. It has a strong smell and bitter taste and is again usually found as a powder. It is native to southeast Asia, but also grown in Hawaii. 100 grams of noni powder has 100% of the RDI for fiber (25 grams), 12 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fat. It is also high in vitamins C & A, niacin, potassium, calcium and sodium. It has oligo and polysaccharides which are prebiotic dietary fibers and are great for digestive health. And interesting (and potentially disturbing), it contains anthraquinone which has laxative properties.

So, now you've got the scoop on some of the newest superfruits being used and researched in food products today. There will be much more information coming out about their properties in the prevention, and potentially treatment, of health issues as they are proven out by testing. In the meantime, remember that no single food, fruit, or ingredient is a magic pill, and as variety is the spice of life these superfruits certainly will help you add variety to your diet!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


It seems everywhere I turn these days, I'm confronted by the superfruits; even the fruits I grew up with are getting the superfruit makeover. There is no actual definition for a superfruit, but it is generally accepted that they possess some perceived health benefit like antioxidants, phytochemicals, nutrient density or have disease prevention benefits. So far, none have enough research behind them for regulatory approval of a health claim statement - but that is likely to change soon.

Believe me, my intent is not to smear the superfruits, but I'll be honest, that word is really a marketing term. There is a growing list of fruits starting to bear the designation of superfruit including many you are very familiar with so lets start with these.

Blueberries: Yep these perennial favorites are now a superfruit. Blueberries are great sources of antioxidants (which help protect you against free radicals), fiber, vitamins C & E, anthocyanins (the pigment that gives blueberries their color also has properties being researched in connection with their prevention of cancer, aging, and inflammation), and phenolics (another free radical scavenger). Some of the other benefits associated with blueberries are increased mental capacity, memory, and coordination.

Cherries: These sweet treats are great sources of anthocyanins, beta carotene (pro-vitamin A), vitamins C & E, potassium, magnesium, folate (especially important for pregnant women), iron, fiber and melatonin (important for maintaining circadian rhythms and antioxidant protection of DNA). Cherries are full of phytonutrients with really big names like quercetin (anti-inflammatory properties), chlorogenic acid (anti-viral, anti-bacterial & anti-fungal properties), and kaempferol (reduces risk of heart disease). Even the American Heart Association has thrown their name behind the cherry and its benefits for heart health. There has been some recent research with cherries and their ability to block COX1 and COX2 enzymes thereby providing relief for arthritis suffers.

Cranberries: Our thanksgiving favorites, cranberries are also superfruits. Cranberries possess anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, actually it's kind of a virus & bacteria blocking property. The combination of tannins, proanthocyanidins, and hippuric acid work to prevent the adherence of viruses and bacteria to cells allowing them to be flushed away. This is great for prevention of gum disease, ulcers, and urinary tract infections. Cranberries are also high in fiber, manganese, vitamin K (blood clotting), and vitamin C.

Watermelon: No, I'm not kidding, watermelon has a unique distinction in that it is one of the few fruits to contain a significant amount of lycopene. Lycopene is a carotenoid and has been shown in studies to prevent a number of cancers, especially prostate cancer. Watermelon is also high in vitamins A (eyesight), B6 (helps your neurotransmitters), and C (antioxidant), potassium, calcium, iron and fiber.

So, now you can feel especially brilliant for eating all of these great superfruits. I am going to guess that you were thinking I'd talk more about some of the newer, more exotic superfruits and I will - but that will be the next post. Until then - stay super!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Random Thoughts: Umami

Everyone learned in grade school about the four basic tastes: sweet, salt, bitter and sour - but did you know there is a fifth taste? Yep, there really are 5 and its name is umami. Umami was originally discovered in Japan in 1908 and the word umami means savory. Umami wasn't officially recognized as a fifth flavor in the west until the 1980's when the taste receptors were discovered. For those of you who are very detail oriented - the taste receptor for umami is called "taste-mGluR4". And unlike the other four tastes which send signals via synapses, umami receptors use neurotransmitters like serotonin.

Monosodium glutamate is most commonly associated with this taste, but it is in fact the glutamate (aka glutamic acid - an amino acid) that is responsible. Glutamic acid is found in lots of different foods: dairy (especially cheeses), meats (chicken, beef & pork), fish & shellfish, soybeans (including soy sauce & miso), seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, broth & stock. And while MSG is better known, there are two other ribotides, inosinate and guanylate, that also possess the taste of umami.

The taste of umami is best described as heaviness or meatiness. It is almost more of a feeling of fullness or richness that is hard to define, but you can immediately tell when its missing! It is especially common in fermented products since the fermentation process breaks down proteins releasing the glutamic acid and making it available to your taste bud's receptors.

I hope you found this random thought of interest and begin to taste your food with a new appreiciation of our fifth taste!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

GI? GL? Gee Whiz!

Every now and then, the terms GI and GL are thrown around in the press, but I wonder how many people out there understand what on earth they are talking about. The consumption of all foods causes a glycemic response in the body; that is a change in the level of glucose in the blood. GI and GL are related to this response.

GI stands for glycemic index and is a numerical ranking system rating carbohydrates on their glycemic response. It is based on a scale from 0 to 100 where straight glucose equals 100. Generally a number of 70 or greater is considered high and a number of 55 or lower is considered low.

GL stands for glycemic load and is calculated as GI /100 X net carbohydrates (net carbs = total carbs minus fiber). Glycemic load is calculated because the body's glycemic response is dependent on both the type and quantity of carbohydrate consumed. A GL of 20 or greater is considered high and a GL of 10 or lower is considered low.

Information on GI (and GL) is still really limited in availability because each and every food must be tested. The glycemic index of a food is still determined by studies on human test subjects who fast overnight and are then given a fixed portion of food and are then subjected to blood glucose testing at set intervals to measure their body's response. The average of the test subjects is then calculated and determined as the GI for that food. Obviously this is an expensive and time intensive process!

And even if you possess the GI value for a food, there are a number of factors that affect the actual glycemic response in your body. The ripeness of a fruit or vegetable causes a dramatic change in the glycemic response, as does preparation of a food. The more easily and quickly a food can be digested, the faster and greater the glycemic response (for example: pasta cooked 15 minutes versus 10 minutes has a higher GI value). In addition, GIs are determined on single foods at a given quantity but that's not how we eat. We eat varying amounts of food in combination with other foods; protein, fat and fiber all have an effect on glycemic response. And lastly, each and every one of us converts carbohydrates to glucose at different rates; no one has the exact same insulin response.

So, what to make of GI and GL? Well, they are useful to a point, especially if you have blood sugar issues. They can certainly help you to make food decisions to help you control your insulin response, but they aren't foolproof or written in stone. Don't rely on them solely for making food choices, but being food literate is always smart!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

To Drink or Not to Drink

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend. This week's topic is a request, and is about diabetes and alcohol - can you, can't you, should you, etc. Well, like most things in life, there is no clear cut answer.

I'll start with what alcohol's effect on the body. The thing about alcohol is (as many of you no doubt experienced over the holiday weekend) that it goes directly into the bloodstream without being metabolized in the stomach. In fact you can measure blood alcohol levels as quickly as 5 minutes after your first drink. Your liver now gets into the act of removing the alcohol from your blood (via the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase) because it views alcohol as a poison. Because it looks at alcohol as a poison, it considers its removal its top priority, at the expense of other functions like sending out glucose. This means a potentially bad case of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and the effect can occur as long as 8-12 hours after you finish drinking. In addition, exercise and diabetes medications also work to lower blood sugar levels so all of this in combination can add up to a really bad time.

So, does that mean no alcohol for diabetics? Like I said initially, there isn't an easy answer to this one. First, make sure you talk to your doctor about your diabetes and its management; alcohol can also exacerbate high blood pressure and elevated triglycerides, which are common in diabetics. If your doctor doesn't object, you are otherwise healthy, your blood glucose levels are in check and you don't intend to get blitzed, you should be able to have a drink.

To avoid hypoglycemia, make sure you aren't drinking on an empty stomach, that your blood sugar levels are normal and eat something as you have your drink. Many of the symptoms of hypoglycemia are the same as drunkenness: sleepiness, dizziness, and disorientation. You don't want those around you to be confused about what is causing those symptoms because they need to be addressed differently!

Alcohol does contain "empty" calories at 7/g, so those need to be taken into consideration. Some alcohols are better choices than others due to the carbohydrate/sugar content. Low sugar options include: dry red or white wine, dry sherry, dry light beers (lagers or ales), and spirits (vodka, gin, whisky, etc) with diet mixers. High sugar options should be avoided as much as possible: sweet red or white wines (including dessert, port, sherries), heavy or dark beers (stout, porter), wine coolers/malt beverages, spirits with regular mixers, cocktails, liqueurs, and undiluted spirits.

I hope this helps those of you who are dealing with diabetes to feel more comfortable about alcohol and your diet. Enjoy your week and I'll be back!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Organically Speaking - Part 4

Last week I explained what rBST is, how it is made and why it is used. I promised this week to discuss some of the purported issues surrounding its use. I'm sure there will be something I've not covered, but here is what I know is being said about rBST.

rBST causes endocrine issues like the premature onset of puberty. The reality - BST was tested on humans in the 1950's as a treatment for dwarfism; it was shot directly into test subjects pituitary gland and showed absolutely no effects. Later the scientists determined that somatotropins are species specific and the human body doesn't recognize BST. Since rBST is identical to BST, there is pretty little doubt that it won't cause your endocrine system to go haywire.

rBST causes cancer, especially prostate cancer. A test performed on rats appeared to show a dose-related increase in mild inflammation of the prostate. Besides the fact that inflammation of the prostate is not related to cancer formation, there was also no difference in results between the positive and negative control groups. If any prostate changes were due to the rBST, there should have been significant differences in the two groups.

rBST causes thyroid cysts. Again with the rats - poor guys. Both the positive and negative control groups got thyroid cysts, no neither the frequency or severity of the cysts were attributable to the rBST.

rBST causes an increase in IGF-I (insulin-like growth factor I) levels. For starters, IGF-I is naturally found in humans as well as cows and isn't intrinsically harmful. Secondly, the amount consumed in milk (even that from cows treated with rBST) is less that is produced daily by our own bodies. In fact, what we swallow in our own saliva daily equals to the IGF-I found in 23.75 gallons of milk and what we produce naturally daily equals the amount found in 750 gallons of milk. None the less, early studies showed an increase in the IGF-I concentration in milk from cows treated with rBST. Those levels were determined to be less than the IGF levels that can be observed during a normal lactation cycle and also less than the observable variation in milk from both rBST and non-rBST treated cows.

rSBT is banned from use in Canada and the EU. True, but neither of those entities has said it was because of health concerns. Both Canada and the EU tightly regulate/subsidize their milk markets and don't want the extra production.

BST and rBST are just proteins, digested like any other that enter our digestive system. All milk contains BST and over 120 studies have been run & evaluated by the FDA, AMA, NIH, DHHS, etc. As always, if you prefer to buy milk that is collected from non-rBST treated cows - no problem. If you've just been scared by the news media and weren't sure what you should do - hopefully I've helped you out.

Well, I'm on vacation next week and celebrating my birthday, so that means no post next week. I promise to be back the beginning of June, so come back to see what I'm talking about!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Organically Speaking - Part 3

Recombinant bovine somatotropin -wow what a mouth full; must be why we abbreviate it to rBST or rBGH! While technically not an organic issue, because you can get non-organic milk without the use of rBST, it often comes up in organic conversations so it seems reasonable to talk about it here.

Let's start at the beginning with what it is. Somatotropin is a protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals, us included, that is essential for growth and development. Bovine is in regards to the fact that we are discussing cows and recombinant means that it is being produced in a lab using recombinant DNA technology.

SCIENCE ALERT! I won't be offended if you skip this part because you aren't interested, but for those of you who are, recombinant DNA is really interesting. (I spent a semester in college doing this & loved it!) You take a section of DNA that codes for the protein you are interested in replicating and insert it into a plasmid which is then inserted into a bacteria. As the bacteria multiplies copies of the protein are produced which can then be extracted and purified. Here is a video link for anyone who wants the visual.

Recombinant does not mean artificial or synthetic. The DNA that codes for the protein in the cow is extracted and produced by bacteria instead. The copies are identical and at the molecular level scientists cannot distinguish the original from the copied version. In fact we use recombinant DNA technology to produce human insulin and human growth hormone for treatment of human deficiencies.
So why do we give rBST to cows? Well, it increases their milk production about 10-15%.; but it may help to understand a little about a cow's lactation cycle. Cows produce the most milk just after giving birth to a calf and milk production falls off afterwards until it goes dry around 307 days later. If rBST is given when the lactation starts to decline, the cow will produce higher yields further into the lactation cycle. Since not every cow is in the same stage of lactation at the same time, not every cow is given rBST. At any given time maybe only 40% of the herd may be treated.

The amount of BST (recombinant or not) in the milk of a cow, yes, there is always BST in milk regardless of if the cow has been treated or not, is essentially the same. Tests indicate that cows given rBST have levels no higher than what can be found within the normal variation from cows that are untreated. The amount of BST present seems to have more to do with where the cow is in its lactation cycle than whether its been treated with rBST - makes sense that a cow just staring her lactation cycle is producing more BST to kick-off the process. It also appears that cows treated with rBST "burn up" the excess BST in the process of producing the milk.

So why the uproar? Well, partly because biotechnology always causes panic among some, partly because Canada & the EU do not allow its use, and partly because some claims about cancer have been made. But I will save those for next week's post...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Organically Speaking - Part 2

Organic myths - now I'm fine with anyone who chooses to grow, process and/or consume organic foods; I do every now and then, but I don't like bad science or bogus claims. One of the biggest claims that I hear over & over is that organic foods are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. There have been numerous studies conducted and very few have shown organic foods to be of higher nutritional quality and of those studies that have leaned towards organic " were not designed, conducted, or published according to accepted scientific standards..." - Dr. Joseph Rosen (Rutgers University Food Science Professor). Even Katherine Di Matteo of the Organic Trade Association has stated "Organic foods are as nutritious as any other foods."

Want to really know what make a difference in nutrition? Freshness - it has more to do with the retention or loss of nutrients than whether or not it was grown using inorganic fertilizers. The fresher the product you are buying, the more nutritious it will be; vitamins and phytochemicals breakdown over time. The exact same plants grown under two different growing conditions (organic vs. conventional) still have the exact same genetic makeup meaning they are biochemically identical. Organic methodology does not alter the biology or the genes.

Which brings me conveniently to my next point - bioengineering. Wow do people, especially those in the media, get upset over biotech aka GMO (genetically modified organisms). Dr. Adrienne Massey has a great quote "Genetic modification of food by humans is nothing new. We have genetically modified virtually all of the food we have ever consumed." She's so right; genetic modifications have been made on purpose for thousands of years, now granted it was done (and still is sometimes) via cross-pollination and selective breeding versus the lab.

And we have over 20 years of growing and eating biotech foods here in the US with no evidence of food safety risks. The FDA's Dr. Jane Henney has been quoted in regards to the history of safe use of bioengineered foods that there are no confirmed issues, "Not one rash; not one cough; not one sore throat; not one headache." Just to get a GMO to market requires 10-15 years of research, examinations, field tests, review by the FDA, USDA and EPA. Then most of them are also reviewed by the WHO (World Health Organization), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Natural Research Council.

The harsh reality is this -you can choose to eat only organic because of the abundance of food available in the US, but a lot of the rest of the planet cannot. We can't convert the world food supply to solely organic methodologies, nor eliminate GMO crops, or we will leave around 2 billion people without food. Organic, non-modified crops, consume more resources and produce smaller yields. I for one am glad that we have choices between organic and conventional rather than between food or no food. Make sure all of your choices are well informed!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Organically Speaking - Part 1

There has been a dramatic increase in the last few years in both the quantity of organic foods purchased and press about organic foods. The word 'organic' has many definitions:
  • of or relating to living organisms
  • constitutional in the structure of something
  • belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis

But most people, upon being presented with this word, would define it as food grown or raised without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones. There are other more specific definitions used by the agencies that regulate the use of the word 'organic' on labels. In the US that agency is the USDA - so how do they define 'organic'? Well, "100% Organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients, "Organic" must contain 95% organically produced ingredients, and "Made with Organic Ingredients" must contain 70% organically produced ingredients. The salt & water used in these products is excluded from the quantities and only the first two designations may use the USDA Organic seal.

But what does the USDA mean by organically produced? Organically grown means a product was not grown or processed using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. That does not mean that naturally derived fertilizer and/or pesticides are not used - they are. The kicker is that neither the USDA nor FDA (or most of the farmers for that matter) test for organic pesticides. Some of the commonly used ones are:

  • Rotenone - insecticide extracted from the root of a tropical plant; it is a nerve toxin that is also used to kill mites on chickens and kill fish
  • Deguelin - a derivative of rotenone & naturally occurring insecticide; high doses are suspected of having negative effects on the heart, lungs, and nerves of humans
  • Pyrethrum/Pyrethrin - fungicide and likely human carcinogen derived from chrysanthemums
  • Azadirachtin - insecticide extracted from the seeds of the Neem tree that acts as an anti-feedant and growth inhibitor
  • Myristicin - a naturally occurring insecticide present in nutmeg oil; has possible neurotoxic effects on dopaminergic neurons

The Consumer's Union reported that 25% of organic fruits and veggies carried detectable levels of pesticides and 1/3 of that 25% had levels higher than conventional products. And organic products make up about 8% of the confirmed E.coli cases in the US, but are only 1% of the diet. Lesson here? Just because something is labeled organic doesn't mean it doesn't contain things you may not want to ingest. So whether you buy conventional or organic, give that food a good washing!

I've only scratched the surface of this topic, there's so much more to the organic world. So I will be "organically speaking" for a little while!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Random Thoughts: Grocery Store Layouts

Do you ever think about how your grocery store is laid out? I'm guessing you only notice when they move aisles on you. Did you ever wonder what the method to their madness was - or even if they had one?

Most stores have similar plans with produce, meat, bread, and dairy along the edges of the store (aka - the racetrack) or up against the walls. They also put the most commonly purchased items in the back corners so that you have to walk past the other items on your way to get what you want.

Unless pressed for time, most shoppers will follow the store's orientation; most new or newly remodeled stores are set up to the left, while older stores tend to be oriented to the right. The majority of the US population prefers to travel clock-wise, which is why the newer stores orient to the left with the produce section with its bright colors, fresh appearance, and appetizing odors.

There is an extremely low occurrence of people traveling up and down each aisle of the store. Most people will travel to select aisles or make a short excursion in to and out of an aisle. This is why end-caps are so important to stores. They serve as a 'welcome mat' to invite you to come in to the aisle and see what else is there. Often familiar brands or sale items are placed on the end-caps to increase traffic to particular parts of the store, even if those items are found in a different part of the store.

Believe it or not, quite a bit of research is conducted concerning shoppers behavior and how stores can redirect it to their benefit. If you have some spare time and this topic catches your fancy - here is a research paper on this very topic. So what are the keys to successfully navigating your store? Always go to the store with a list of items you are there to buy and never on an empty stomach - the stores are banking on impulse buys. They put the commissary (cooked, ready-to-eat items) and Starbucks there to entice you with appetizing sights and smells - its been proven to make you stay longer and spend more. And shop the edges of the store, you will save on your food bill and find some of the healthiest items in the store.

Happy shopping!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

GMPs and SSOPs

The government monitors the food supply and tells the food manufacturers what can be added (both intentional & unintentional) safely to food, but it is the responsibility of individual food manufacturers to produce safe food. The purpose of both government and self regulation is to reduce risk. I'm defining risk here to mean uncertainty, possible danger or loss; it is a way to judge the degree of hazard. What is important when looking at food safety is the magnitude of loss due to an event and how probable is its occurrence. We can't eliminate all risk but we can reduce and/or control it; risk-benefit decisions are made all the time. HACCP, the topic of last week's post, is one way to reduce risk, but there are other processes as well.

Two of the other programs food manufacturers have in place to assure food safety are current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOPs). They are considered pre-requisite programs for HACCP but are independent systems. If you are under mandatory HACCP then you are also under mandatory SSOP regulations. GMPs apply to all FDA regulated foods (since all USDA items are subject to HACCP, their GMPs are kind of intertwined in 9 CFR 416 - Sanitation Regulations). These three programs are all closely aligned and interrelated in most production facilities.

GMPs are outlined in 21 CFR 110 (the 21st title of the Code of Federal Regulations part 110). And it outlines what food companies 'shall' (must) and should have in place concerning a broad range of items including personnel, the facility, sanitation, equipment, processes and warehousing. GMPs originated in 1969 as part of the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act and were modified in 1977 where they became section 110 of CFR title 21. They were revised in 1986 and were recently (2002) reviewed for another round of changes due to the availability of new tests and discovery of new issues. The review is specifically targeting risk-based preventative controls like those for allergens and pathogens. Although the report's findings were published in the Federal Register in 2005, none of the recommended changes have yet taken effect. This doesn't mean no one is doing anything about preventing new issues like allergens or pathogens, quite the contrary; the government is always behind the industry in these matters. They reviewed the statutes because they saw what changes the industry was making and wanted the CFR to reflect what was happening.

SSOPs are spelled out for USDA regulated companies, but not for FDA ones. They are essentially written procedures specific to a process that addresses things such as cleanliness, record-keeping, safety of the water & chemicals used, prevention of cross-contamination, etc. And like HACCP, the actual process of designing a SSOP program is very detailed and not especially exciting reading. For those so inclined, I offer you this link where you can find all the details of designing your own SSOP program. And like HACCP, the program must be tested & verified and if some part of the system fails, corrective action must be conducted to prevent the re-occurrence of the issue. Even companies for whom SSOPs are not mandatory, have programs in place - primarily because they also have non-mandatory HACCP programs in place and those programs need each other to be successful.

I hope this gives you either a new respect for the lengths companies go to provide you with safe food products or at least a new comfort level with the industry. I always tell my friends and family that we eat the same products as they, so food safety is in everyone's best interest! As I've stated before, this blog is for you to find out more about the foods you eat, the processes involved in their manufacture, or any other topic you've been wondering about. Send me an email with your topic and I shall respond.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Has What?

Last week I talked about food recalls and promised I'd explain some of the things food manufacturers do to protect the food supply. One of those things is call HACCP (pronounced hās•sip). HACCP is an acronym for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and it is a food safety management system used by almost every part of the food industry.

HACCP was developed in the 1960s by the Pillsbury Company while they were working with NASA to make sure the food for space flights would be safe. It was later adopted in 1973 by the USDA for low-acid canned foods and the FDA jumped on the bandwagon in 1995 for seafood products. Over the years mandatory compliance of HACCP has spread to meat and poultry products, eggs, and juices. Although not mandatory for the rest of the industry (yet), most food companies voluntarily comply and have instituted HACCP programs for their businesses.

How does HACCP make food safer? Well, it is a preventative food safety system which companies use to identify where problems are most likely to occur and use that information to control and monitor those places to prevent issues. It is not a zero-risk system but it does try to reduce the possibility of a problem occurring. The process for creating a HACCP plan is time consuming and complicated, so I'll just give you an overview.

A manufacturer reviews their processes from receipt of the raw materials all the way to shipping the finished products. By going through a series of decision trees, process control points (PCPs), quality control points (QCPs) and critical control points (CCPs) are identified. The CCPs are clearly the most important of the three and are analyzed (hence the name) to determine how to control them, monitor them & verify that the process is working. How is control defined? Regulations state control means that companies "take all necessary actions to ensure and maintain compliance with the criteria established in the HACCP plan." Which essentially means that you test, evaluate, modify (if necessary) and validate your plan in a continuous process. If something fails, a corrective action plan is in place and gets implemented so that the issue does not re-occur.

What hazards are we trying to control? Those that cause foodbourne illness, disease or injury which are separated into 3 categories: biological, chemical and physical hazards. Biological hazards are those like bacteria, viruses, pathogens & their toxins, chemical hazards include pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, aflotoxins, or cleaning chemicals and physical hazards are those like glass, wood, metal, bone, or pits. Considering there are only three categories of hazards, they are pretty all-inclusive.

This isn't the most glamorous of topics I realize, but the safety of our food supply is important and I feel it is important that the consumers of those products have some awareness of what the industry does to protect them. For those who want to know more about the details of HACCP, follow this link. There are other aspects of food safety that are done concurrent with HACCP plans and I'll be talking about those next week.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

As I Recall

There has been quite a lot of news concerning food recalls in the past few years topped off by last week's cantaloupe (it's really a muskmelon) recall for Salmonella contamination. Those of us in the food industry tend to keep up-to-date on recalls, but I wondered how much anyone else knows or understands about them.

A recall is a voluntary removal of product from the market; it could be due to contamination, adulteration, or misbranding. You noticed I said voluntary? Yep, these are voluntary actions taken by the manufacturer; the law doesn't authorize the FDA or USDA to order a recall, but I'll explain that in more detail in a bit. Depending on the food in question, it will fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA or FDA. Meat, poultry and most egg products belong to the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) division of the USDA, all other food products belong to the FDA (along with animal feed, vet supplies, medical devices, human drugs & cosmetics). The process for recalls and the recall levels are essentially the same for both agencies. They rank from least severe to most severe as follows:
  • Market Withdrawal - minor violation not subject to legal action
  • Class III - exposure to violative product is not likely to cause adverse health consequences (Examples: mold, yeast, off-flavor, leaking container)
  • Class II - exposure to violative product may cause temporary or medically reversible health consequence or where serious health consequence is remote (Examples: hard or sharp object 7m - 25mm in size, Staphlococcus, unapproved color added)
  • Class I - exposure to violative product has reasonable probability of causing adverse health consequence or death (Examples: botulinum toxin, Salmonella, Listeria, undeclared allergens present)

The Class I recalls are the ones you see, hear, and read about in the news, but all recalls are posted; the FDA recalls can be found here and FSIS recalls can be found here. Although the press often reports that the FDA 'ordered' a recall, as I stated before, the truth is recalls are almost always initiated by the company who calls the FDA and explains the issue.

Recalls can be requested by the FDA (or USDA) who may find a problem during an inspection or after receiving a report of a problem from a consumer or the CDC (Center for Disease Control). If a company does not recall a product on their own the FDA can ask a judge for the right to have a U.S. Marshall seize the product and/or issue an injunction against the company to stop the production or distribution of the product. Believe me, it is very rare for a company to refuse to recall a product after notification of a problem from the FDA. No company wants to have defective material out in the marketplace. Even voluntary recalls have put companies out of business - just imagine what the press would be like for a company who refused a recall!

There are strict guidelines for companies to follow concerning recall procedures outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, which those so inclined can find here. What is important to know & understand is that there are rules in place for how a company handles a recall and what information is shared with both the FDA and the public at large. It is also important to know that the FDA (and yes USDA) follows-up on all recalls to make sure that the recalled product is accounted for and properly disposed. The FDA also makes sure a corrective-action has taken place so they and the company know how & why the problem occurred. I'll talk a bit more about what programs companies have in place to avoid a recall next week, but for those who are interested in food safety, this is a cool blog from the International Food Safety Network to tide you over!

Friday, March 21, 2008

This is Eggcelent

Wow this Sunday is Easter; its hard to believe how early it is this year. So, let me get right to this week's topic - Eggs. Christians are not the only ones who have ties to the egg during this season; Jews and Persians also use eggs as symbols during the spring. The egg symbolizes new life, a new beginning. It is why it is used to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, new life and the Passover sacrifice at the Passover Seder, and the new year which begins at the spring equinox during Persian Nowrooz. Given that the egg holds such a place of honor, I thought it deserving of a little blog time.

The egg is a marvel of engineering, not to mention a pretty amazing piece of nutrition. Let's start from the inside out. The yolk, as the source of nutrition in a fertilized egg for the developing chick, is a rich source of calories from fat, iron, phosphorous, calcium, vitamin A, some of the vitamin Bs, and vitamin D. It also contains lecithin, a natural emulsifier. The yolk is suspended inside the egg by the chalazae - the opaque white "ropes" you see in the egg whites. The egg whites are more correctly termed the albumin (from the latin albus meaning white) and are not homogeneous. There are four alternating layers of thick and thin albumin and there are multiple proteins that comprise the egg albumin. These different albumin proteins all have different coagulation temperatures, which we will get back to in a bit. Between the albumin and the shell are two membranes and between those two membranes is an air cell. Last but not least is the shell, a mix of calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate and calcium phosphate. While it looks solid, it actually has around 17,000 pores which make it semi-permeable and allow air and moisture to migrate in and out of the shell.

But before you can decorate all of those eggs for Easter, you'll have to hard-cook them. You'll notice I didn't say hard-boil them, that is because boiling eggs is a really bad idea. The different albumin proteins start to coagulate (cook) at 145°F with the last proteins coagulating at 183°F and the yolk coagulates around 160-165 °F, so the boiling temperature of 212°F is way too high. Boiling will over cook both the albumin, causing the whites to be tough and rubbery, and the yolk causing it to be dry and mealy. The temperature of the water should never be above a bubble-less simmer of 180-185°F and the eggs, depending on their size, should not need to be cooked for more than 10-15 minutes.

I also recommend starting your cooking with room temperature eggs placed into cold water and adding salt and a teaspoon to tablespoon (depends on how many eggs you are cooking) of vinegar. The salt & vinegar help to coagulate any albumin that may leak out of hairline cracks in the shell and help to prevent the green-gray ring that sometimes is seen around the yolk. That ring happens when the hydrogen sulfide gas (produced from the sulfur in the amino acids) from the albumin reacts with the iron in the yolk to create ferrous sulfide. Adjusting the pH of the solution of the water via the vinegar reduces the production of the hydrogen sulfide gas, and thus the potential for the green ring. The last thing is getting them immediately into a bowl of ice water once they are done cooking; keep them immersed in the ice water, adding more ice if necessary, for 15-20 minutes. This will both help prevent the green ring, and shrink the cooked egg away from the shell so they are easier to peel. Once you have your hard-cooked eggs, they should be refrigerated, where they will last easily for one week.

I hope you enjoyed this piece on the egg, and that whatever holiday you celebrate in the spring, that it is wonderful and an expression of the bounties of life that make this time of year so special!