Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Fda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


HAVE YOU EVER READ THE WHOLE INGREDIENT LIST ON A FOOD PRODUCT? Not a fun thing to do, is it? What are all these ingredients and what do they do for us? Why are they used?


  • Many are used to impart or maintain a desired consistency, for example, alginates, carrageenen, mono-and diglycerides, methyl cellulose, pectin
  • Some improve/maintain nutritive value such as vitamin C, calcium carbonate, folic acid, B vitamins, iron, vitamins A and D, and zinc oxide.
  • Others maintain palatability and wholesomeness. Examples include BHA, BHT, citric acid, propionic acid, sodium nitrite and vitamin E to help
    prevent rancidity.
  • Some produce light textures and control acidity/alkalinity such as citric acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, phosphoric acid, sodium bicarbonate, tartrates and yeast.
  • Others enhance flavor or provide desired color such as aspartame, caramel, cloves, FD&C red No 40, FD&C blue No. 1, fructose, ginger, limonene, MSG, tumeric.


The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 gave the FDA authority to regulate food and food ingredients. The 1958 Food Additives Amendment further mandated that manufacturers provide documentation that the food additive is safe and to obtain prior approval for its use in a food.


In 1958, all food additives used in the U.S. and considered safe at that time were put on a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list. These additives either had a long history of being safe to consume or had documented research verifying its safety, These additives included salt, sugar, spices, vitamins among others. Since that time, some substances have been reviewed and removed from the list such as cyclamate and red dye #3 due to their link to cancer. Many of the GRAS chemicals have not yet been rigorously tested primarily due to cost.


Most nutrition sources proclaim the use of food additives is strictly regulated by the FDA. This does not seem to be the case.   Safety requires testing on at least two animal species and scientists determine the highest dose of the additive that produces no observable effects in the animals. Many of the GRAS chemicals have not yet been rigorously tested primarily due to cost. Recently a new paper discussed how lax this regulation is and that some companies are using additive quietly on a “self-determined” GRAS list with any testing or approval from the FDA




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Where is the Sugar?


This is a bowl of white sugar.

This is a bowl of white sugar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following article is a very comprehensive and informative review of the sugar content of our diets.   Bottom line:  It is recommended that we consume no more than 13 teaspoons of sugar a day.  It would help a lot if the much needed revised nutrition fact labels would  include added sugars.  For now, the labels have grams of sugar  as total sugars in one serving.  Divide that number by four to determine how many teaspoons of sugar that product contains.

Most of the studies on sugars and health  has concentrated on diabetes and obesity.   Check out this previous post on the seldom mentioned effects of carbohydrates  on cancer risk.  These studies for obvious reasons are cell or animal studies, but it is nevertheless interesting.


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Food Supermarket 4

Food Supermarket 4 (Photo credit: eltpics)

OH MY!!!  If the USA could only have these guidelines instead of the current ones.  They make so much sense, don’t they?  I have my doubts that will happen here due to the food industry lobbies and the emphasis on profit and often misleading advertising about the foods we eat.  If consumers would be more involved in decisions about the food supply, maybe things could change in a couple of years.  Consumers have made differences before and the food industry listens (sometimes).   You can file comments on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines here.

For  the Brazilian guidelines:


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The Meat Market – Shame on Tyson

Meat market

Meat market (Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections)

This is an interesting site – check it out if you’re interested in our food supply (in this case meat)  and how it operates.  I am ordering the book, The Meat Market by Christopher Leonard.  The events are live on the dates presented.  They are lengthy but you can choose your time and watch as long or as little as you want to.


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US Nutritional Fact Label

US Nutritional Fact Label (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OH YES!!!   This article is a good summary of the suggested changes for the new Nutrition Facts Labels.  Some of my favorite changes are:

  • Elimination of out-of-date serving sizes to more realistic serving sizes
  • Elimination of calories from fat and % Daily Values.
  • Addition of “added sugars”
  • Addition of vitamin D and potassium content

Another proposal suggested by many to improve food labels is to use front-of-pack labeling system.

A recent study also found that using a front-of-package labeling system like the American Heart Association (AHA) Heart-Check Food Certification Program was positively associated with 2005 Healthy Eating Index ( HEI-2005) scores. The study used data from 11, 296 men and women using a 1-d dietary recall from NHANES 2007-2010.  Those consumers in the highest quintile of daily energy intake from the Heart Check Program foods was associated with lower risk of obesity, lower risk of elevated waist circumference and lower risk of metabolic syndrome than those consumers with the lowest intake of these foods.  They concluded that the choice of foods meeting a front – of pack labeling system positively influences food- group and nutrient intakes and is associated with a higher diet quality and lower risk of metabolic syndrome, i.e, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March, 2014.


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Diets, 2013?

Diet and Nutrition

Diet and Nutrition (Photo credit: fantasyhealthball)

What were the diets most searched for on Google last year?   Click on the article below to find out.  In my opinion of this list, beware of the Fruitarian Diet, The Ketogenic Diet, as well as the Master Cleanse and Juice Cleanse diets.

A diet should be flexible and balanced and not eliminate certain foods or food groups.  A balanced diet should include healthy foods from all food groups like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein sources, nuts and seeds.  The foods should also be available in local supermarkets or farmer’s markets.

A diet should be balanced to provide essential nutrients and not be restricted in eating just certain foods claimed to be “superfoods”.  Safe diets should not require buying excessive vitamins or supplements.

A diet should include foods you like and enjoy eating for the rest of your life.  If you don’t like the foods, you will not stick with it,  thus no weight loss for long term success.

A diet plan should include some form of exercise that you enjoy.  Exercise can also help your moods, help to strengthen your heart, and help you maintain your long term weight loss.

A healthy diet should not just concentrate on weight loss, but fit your lifestyle and should provide health benefits for life.

Check with your doctor before beginning any new  diet.


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Living Longer?


Centenarian (Photo credit: sea turtle)

People in long-lived populations often exhibit similar lifestyles in common that  may influence their relative longevity.  Diet is only one of these factors.  A long healthy life is no accident – it starts with a good genetic background but also depends on good heathy habits.  Adopting a healthy lifestyle can possibly bring you another decade of life, experts say.

A study funded in part by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, centered on several regions where people live significantly longer.
Residents of these places produce a high rate of centenarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world and enjoy more healthy years of life.


In a cluster of villages on the sloping fringes of the Gennargentu Mountains in central Sardinia, 91 of the 17,865 people born between 1880 and 1900 have lived to their hundredth birthday – a rate more than twice as high as the average for Italy.

What about their diet? They eat a lot of grass-fed goat and sheep milk and pecorino cheese and follow a Mediterranean-type diet.  They also walk a lot, have  time for leisure activities with a positive attitude and sense of humor. They drink a lot of red wine as well as eat a thin flatbread called “carta da musica” since it is as thin as a sheet of music. Most families’ diets consist of an abundance of fruits and vegetables (homegrown like eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes). They eat a lot of fish which provides heathy omega-3 fatty acids.

Times in Sardinia are changing, however.  Transportation is changing since cars and trucks now replace walking.  The young people want more processed foods like pizza and snack foods so now obesity nonexistent before 1940 affects about 10 percent of Sardinians.


In Okinawa you will find the highest prevalence of proven centenarians.  Since many countries have no records of births and deaths, studies had to rely on self-reported and often exaggerated ages of the population.  Okinawa, however, has a family registry dating back to 1879.

With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 for women, Okinawans are among the world’s longest living people. They also tend to enjoy years free from chronic illnesses or disabilities. They have a fifth of the heart disease, a fourth of breast and prostate cancers and a third less dementia  than Americans, according to authors of the Okinawan Centenarian Study.

They have a strong sense of purpose or reason to live; many belong to a mutual support network called moai that provides financial, emotional and social help all their lives.  Many women are respected spiritual leaders in many villages.  Studies suggest that seniors who stay social are less prone to heart disease and depression.  As so often happens, the young Okinawans have been exposed to fast food and now have one of Japan’s highest rates of obesity.

Portion control has been a corner stone of the Okinawan diet for decades – they still live by the Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu” which means eat until your stomach is 80 percent full.  They grow most of their own food including herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables.  Purples sweet potatoes are at the core of most meals. They eat very few sweets – grow sugar cane but export most of it. They enjoy dried tuna, white fish, pork, green tea, miso, soba noodles and consume dairy only in childhood.


The heart of the Seventh-Day Adventists is in Loma Linda, California.  This church was born during the era of the heath reforms in the 19th century.  John Harvey Kellog was an Adventist when he began making wheat flakes and he had always preached and practiced health messages.  The religion bans smoking, alcohol consumption and eating pork.  It also discourages eating other meats and caffeinated drinks and encourages vegetarianism.

From 1976 to 1988, the National Institutes of Health began a study of 34,000 California Adventists to examine whether their lifestyles influenced their longevity and lower risk of heart disease and cancer.  They found that their diets contained beans, soy milk, tomatoes and other fruits that may lower their cancer risks.  Their practice of not eating red meat also was thought to be a factor.  They ate whole wheat bread, drank five glasses of water a day and had four servings of nuts a week. At the end of the study it was found that the average Adventist lived four to ten years longer than the average Californian.


It is not at all unusual for the residents of Nicoya to reach the ages of 90, 100, even 110.

Located on the northwestern part of Costa Rica, just south of the Nicaraguan border, the Nicoya Peninsula (about 80 miles long and 30 miles wide) is a pristine land of beaches, upscale resorts, woody hills, cattle ranches and cow pastures. Most of the 75,000 people who live here work at a leisurely pace as farmers, laborers or cowboys.
One secret to living long lives appears to be related to eating a plant-based diet, maintaining regular, low-intensity activity and keeping close to friends and family. It has been reported that a 60-year-old in Costa Rica has more than a four-fold better chance of making it to 90 than a 60-year-old in America.

Costa Ricans as a whole have the lowest rates of middle-age mortality in the world and the second-highest prevalence of males age 100 or above. Out of a total population of about 4.5 million as of June, 417 Costa Rican centenarians were reported, many of them in Nicoya.

So, what’s their secret?

Nicoya’s local waters are unusually rich in calcium and magnesium, which strengthen bones and muscles. The local folk also have a deep faith in God, sleep eight hours a night and maintain a healthy diet filled with rice, corn, plantain, beans and strange fruits like the vitamin-C-rich orange-like maroñon, the pear-like anona and chayote, a squash-like vegetable.  They also do not overeat nor do they consume too much red meat.


Ikaria is a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. Chronic diseases are a rarity in Ikaria.  People living in this area have less cancer, half the rate of heart disease and almost no dementia.  Residents walk, farm and a fish, eat a lot of wild greens as well as a Mediterranean-type diet, nap and socialize.

Crete in the 1950’s  is the birthplace for the well-researched Mediterranean diet which has been reported to have many health benefits leading to enhanced longevity.

There is no one way of eating that comprises the Mediterranean diet, however, there are three main similarities: they consume more olive oil, fish and wine.  Populations who follow these generalities are from the 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea with the most familiar to Western countries being Spain, Italy, France and Turkey. In the 1950’s the Cretan population ate significant amounts of olive oil, olives, fish, fruits, vegetables (especially wild greens) and nuts.  Other factors were at play at that time that produced a high selenium content of the soil, a low saturated fat but high in omega-3 fatty acid content of meats from pasture-fed animals, low intakes of trans fatty acids and a high amount of fish daily.

So when you put all these lifestyle habits together in some meaningful way – what stands out the most?

  • Omega-3 content of their diets was relatively high.
  • Red wine was consumed except for the Adventists.
  • Small portions dominated.
  • Small amounts of meat especially red meat was consumed.
  • Beans and nuts were part of their diets.
  • They were very active every day even in their later years.
  • They kept socially engaged and maintained lifelong friends.
  • They ate few processed foods (due to the fact that they were largely unavailable)
  • Found a purpose in life.
  • Primarily followed a plant-based diet.

So, living long appears to be a combination of many factors – genetics, emotions, spirituality and lifestyle choices that include physical activities and diet. We cannot truly emulate these healthy habits that cultures practiced so many decades ago, but we can learn from them and try to incorporate these qualities as much as reasonably possible into the American way of living.

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The Scoop on Potassium

A medical student checking blood pressure usin...

A medical student checking blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer and stethoscope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone talks so much about the sodium content of our diets and for good reason, we consume way  too much of the stuff.  Here are some numbers:

  • 3500 mg = American adult daily consumption.
  • 2300 mg = Adult upper level
  • 1500 mg = Adult recommended daily intake
  • 180 mg = Adult needed daily intake

About 12% of Americans’ consumption of sodium is from foods in which it occurs naturally such as fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, fish, poultry and legumes.  Another 5% gets added during cooking and another 6% is used to season food at the table.

Processed foods contribute a hefty 77% of the sodium in the American diet.  Comparing the amount of sodium in a fresh tomato (11 mg) to the amount found in a cup of canned tomatoes (355 milligrams) dramatically illustrates just how much more sodium is found in processed foods.

Sometimes adding more potassium to the diet will offset the “upside-down) sodium/potassium ratio that is recommended.  In other words, we consume way too much sodium and way too little potassium.  Potassium is needed in the body for:

  • Muscle contraction and nerve impulse conduction including your heart.  Too much can cause irregular heartbeats and too little can cause paralysis.  For this reason, potassium is tightly controlled in the body with the help of the kidneys.
  • Potassium can help lower blood pressure, especially in salt-sensitive people who respond more to sodium’s blood pressure raising capabilities. Potassium causes the kidneys to excrete excess sodium thus keeping sodium levels low.
  • Potassium can help bone health by keeping bone-strengthening minerals calcium and phosphorus from being lost from the bones.  Potassium also helps reduce the risk of kidney stones by helping the body excrete citrate, a compound that combines with calcium to form kidney stones.

How much do we need?  Adults should consume 4700 mg of potassium a day.  Since Americans fall far short of eating fruits and vegetables,  adult females consume only 2200 to 2500 mg of potassium and adult males consume only 3300 to 3400 mg daily, on average.

Several researchers reviewed published studies on the topic and concluded that if Americans were to boost their potassium intake, adult cases of high blood pressure could fall by more than 10%.  The findings were published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, July 2008.  High blood pressure is the chief reason for visits  to physicians and for prescriptions written in the U.S.  In societies that consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, hypertension affects a mere 1% of the population. In contrast, in societies consuming larger amounts of processed foods, one out of every three adults has hypertension.

There are no known dangers from consuming too much potassium from foods; it will be excreted in the urine.  However, taking supplements or salt substitutes can cause hyperkalemia (too much potassium) in the blood which can cause irregular heartbeats, heart damage and be life-threatening.

How to add potassium to your diet:

  •  Pour a glass of a citrus juice (orange or grapefruit) for breakfast to get a potassium boost. Have a banana as a breakfast fruit or for a snack.
  • Add leafy greens to all of your sandwiches; spinach is an especially good source.
  • Add a spoonful of walnuts to yogurt for potassium, both from the nuts and the dairy.
  • Have bean soup with a sandwich for lunch.
  • Baked regular or sweet potatoes are great sources as a side dish for dinner.
  • Other great sources are squash, tomatoes, carrots, apricots, prunes, melons, peaches, fish such as halibut, tuna cod,  trout and  lean pork.
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Good News for Animal Welfare

Gestation crates

Gestation crates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From comes some news about  discontinuing the use of gestation crates for pigs – or  I should say,  at least improving the housing for them.   This comes from Tyson and Smithfield,  two of the largest pork producers in the U.S.   However, it did take undercover work and investigation from Mercy for Animals to get the change accomplished.  And it’s also so gratifying to learn Tyson will discontinue the practice of “slamming piglets headfirst against the ground to kill them”.   At least this is a start but consumers should demand these  changes and check to see if Tyson and Smithfield follow through on these promises.  Next, Walmart needs some prodding .


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Latest on GM Food Labeling


GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD (Photo credit: The Rocketeer)

Here is a reasonable approach to labeling of GM foods and ingredients in foods courtesy of Marion Nestle.  Hopefully more states will be successful in establishing  some labeling laws in 2014.  So far, the initiatives have failed in California and Washington state.  Check out the great infograph in my previous post about this issue.  Apparently, there is a need for more education and awareness.


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