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Nutrition Perfected has partnered with Prevention Magazine to host a live streaming web event!  They will be presenting their picks for Best Packaged Food Awards for 2011.  There will also be a live Q&A session during which you will be able to pick up great tips for making healthy eating choices and how to fit productive nutrition into your busy schedule.  Check back on March 1st for the live show and chat session!  The event will be hosted on the Live Web Event page here on NutritionPerfected.com!

Check out a promo video for the event on Prevention.com!

 
 
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The concept of a school feeding program has existed for over 100 years in America.  It began in Philadelphia with a single school in 1894.  By the late 1930s, 15 states had instituted legislation authorizing school lunch programs.  Most of them provided the meals at cost, while a few provided low or no cost food to needy children.  National support for a permanent school feeding program came in 1946 when President Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act.  The act created the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which still regulates and oversees the familiar school lunch program in effect today.  Significant changes to the program have occurred throughout the years, with the last major round of revisions taking place from 1994 through 1996.

Despite the efforts of legislators and school officials, the NSLP has been accused of short‐changing the children of this country nutritionally in order to save money and support federally subsidized cash crops like corn.  The NSLP is required to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which is published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA issued the latest DGA on January 31st, 2011.  It contained a number of statements reflecting what, for a government agency at least, constitutes progressive thinking.  “Groundbreaking” firsts for this year’s release included a focus on whole grain products and a general recommendation to eat less and use smaller portion sizes.  Amazing, I know.

The guidelines from the DGA that apply to school lunch programs are pretty limited.  NSLP is required to provide no more than 30% of calories by way of fat and no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat.  In addition, the school lunch must contain 1/3 of the daily value (DV) for protein, calories, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron.  While those requirements generally sound positive, there is a lot of room to maneuver in bad directions in the name of short term cost‐savings and convenience.

For example, the government’s recommended level of protein consumption comprises only 10% of the overall diet’s calories.  It is apparent, therefore, that the majority of school lunch food will be high in carbohydrates.

The DGA also suggests that half of all grain foods be “whole grain.”  As you may know, the nutritional difference between whole and refined grains is enormous.  While half is good, therefore, more would be better.  In addition, the whole‐grain suggestion says nothing about the relatively low nutrient density, non‐grain vegetables that are the stalwarts of school lunches.  The most popular of these offenders is the potato.  With some schools literally celebrating “Tater Tot Day,” it doesn’t look good for student nutrition any time soon.

School lunches are operated at the top by the NSLP.  The NSLP’s nutritional guidelines are set by the USDA’s DGA (enough acronyms yet?).  So, in the end the sad state of school lunches can’t be blamed entirely on the NSLP.
The root of the problem is that the USDA is using 20 year‐old dietary recommendations.  The agency needs to get with the times and to promote lower glycemic index foods, with more protein and fiber.

Funding for school lunches needs to be a higher priority, too.  If we are to feed our kids properly, we’re going to have to pay for the effort.  I don’t care whether the money comes from taxes or from a reallocation of funds now spent wastefully (and there’s plenty of that around).

If we want to compete globally then our kids must learn efficiently, and that requires proper fueling every day.  Let’s not short‐change our future.

With the current school lunch program as unfit as the average American, the best option is to feed your child from your own cupboard.  Yet, a parent faces many of the same concerns as the government when deciding what to pack.  How do you strike the best balance between convenience, acceptance, nutrition and cost?

The answer is: carefully.  On one hand, your child’s tastes and preferences must be taken into account, or they’ll just trade your carrot sticks for honey buns.  On the other hand, the kids can’t make all of the decisions:  school lunches will consist of fruit rollups and Twinkies!  Find a reasoned middle ground.

As with any meal planning exercise, a school lunch should focus on the fundamentals: a base of protein and fiber with some fruits and vegetables to round it out.  So what does that look like in practice?  A sliced chicken or turkey sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread is always a good start.  You can also send some more “entrée‐like” dishes in Tupperware containers, like chicken with rice and beans or lean beef with whole wheat pasta and low fat sauce.  Tofu also can work well as a protein source for school lunches, but remember that tofu often has a very high moisture content and can waterlog anything around it between the hours your child leaves the house and their lunch period.  If you’re including tofu in a child’s lunch, therefore, make sure to prepare and package it in a way where it remains appetizing and doesn’t interfere with other lunch ingredients.

After you’ve sorted out a significant portion of protein, add in a fruit and some colorful, crunchy vegetables.  Stick with high nutrient‐density fruits, like berries, bananas, and tropical fruits.  For vegetables, it is often best to pack them raw.  They retain some nice texture and have a fresher flavor than processed veggies.  Remember, the goal is for the food to end up in your kid’s stomach, not the lunchroom trash can.  If they really don’t like something, then work with them.  This issue can’t be forced because kids are essentially on their own at school.

The school lunch program is a valuable part of our education system.  But it still has a long way to go before it will maximize the potential of students in this country.  Budget shortfalls and the demands of “convenience” have engendered some truly unhealthy school lunch products.  Until the NSLP comes around, the best option is to feed your child with a home‐packed lunch.

As with any other meal, a school lunch should be based on proper nutritional fundamentals and must also take into account your child’s particular preferences.  After all, it’s not going to do them any good if they don’t eat it.  Excellent nutrition is imperative to the education process.  Give your child the best chance at success with the right meals and snacks before, during and after school.

 
 
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Of all food ingredients, monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, has one of the worst reputations around.  On some of the more inflammatory anti-MSG websites, it is implicated in an astoundingly wide array of health problems, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, seizures, fertility problems, memory loss, stuttering, and others.  Fortunately, as vehemently as the anti-MSG crowd will deride the common Asian flavoring compound, the truth is that their claims are almost completely unsupported by well-planned and well-executed clinical research.  It’s time to learn the truth about MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”

Many traditional East Asian cooking styles have for centuries utilized seaweed as a flavoring ingredient in broths and other dishes.  However, it wasn’t until 1908 that a Japanese chemist and professor named Kikunae Ikeda isolated and identified MSG as the source of seaweed’s savory flavor.  Since then, MSG has become a favorite additive in foods from all over the globe, valued for its somewhat unique ability to impart a strong umami (or savory) flavor.  Around two million tons of MSG are sold every year worldwide.  China produces almost 75% of the world’s MSG and consumes almost 70%.

Now, let’s get a bit of background knowledge before we proceed.  Glutamic acid is one of many naturally occurring non-essential amino acids prevalent in a huge variety of foods, especially those high in protein.  The ionic form of glutamic acid is known as glutamate.  Glutamate is a human neurotransmitter that plays an important role in learning and memory processes.  Monosodium glutamate, the popular food ingredient, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid.  In solid form it is a white crystalline powder that dissolves easily in water.  When consumed or dissolved, MSG dissociates into two parts, an atom of sodium and a molecule of glutamate.  While glutamic acid is an important component of a huge number of foods, free glutamate is processed differently by the body.

Problems began for MSG in 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a biomedical researcher in Maryland, wrote a letter that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine detailing a collection of symptoms he had experienced upon eating at Chinese restaurants, including numbness in the neck and upper torso, weakness, and heart palpitations.  Following Dr. Kwok’s letter, decades of research ensued trying to determine what, if any, risks were involved with MSG consumption.

The first large-scale review and opinion of MSG’s safety in food was released by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in 1980.  The researchers concluded that MSG was safe for humans at the levels commonly used in food, but that further research was warranted.  In the early 1990s, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association each released reports affirming the safety of MSG as a food ingredient.  A 1995 report published again by the FASEB at the request of the FDA agreed with its last MSG review in that the compound is safe for humans.  However, it also reported that a very small percentage of the population may have a sensitivity to MSG that could manifest through a number of transient and generally benign symptoms.  As well, the FAESB brought up the possibility that MSG may temporarily worsen asthma symptoms in some severe and uncontrolled asthmatics.

One of the best studies on alleged MSG hypersensitivity in humans was published in 1998 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.  It was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, multiple challenge investigation that tested 130 subjects who had self-reported as having had adverse reactions to MSG consumption.  The study found that while consuming large amounts of MSG (five grams [that’s a lot!]) alone caused a higher number of negative reactions than a placebo, the sensitivity was not reproducible when the MSG was given with food.  In addition, the frequency with which the test subjects reacted to the MSG was low, the symptoms were inconsistent between tests, and the effects were not serious.  And remember, these test subjects were individuals who already believed that they were sensitive to MSG!

The results of this extremely well-designed study indicate that a large majority of adverse reactions attributed to MSG are very likely caused by something else, including the psychosomatic induction of unpleasant symptoms.  While there does seem to be a relationship between significant MSG consumption and hypersensitivity reactions in a very small percentage of the population, the research indicates that MSG is generally quite benign.  Beyond the 1998 MSG study, numerous other trials have looked into the same safety issue with similar results.  In several studies, MSG was given to human subjects in relatively gigantic amounts (over 100 grams per day!) in the presence of other food and found no pathologic effects at all.  However, in studies where MSG was consumed alone, varying levels of sensitivity were observed.  Unfortunately, many of those studies were poorly designed or uncontrolled.  In addition, the appearance of symptoms couldn’t be correlated with blood concentration of glutamate and the negative reactions to MSG didn’t fit very well to the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome profile.

The truth is that we don’t know everything about MSG.  According to decades of research, it appears that MSG is not the boogeyman that it’s often made out to be.  A small percentage of the population may have some level of sensitivity to the compound, but the effects seem to be short-lived and relatively harmless.  Severe or uncontrolled asthmatics may want to limit their consumption of MSG to be on the safe side.  The upshot here is that for the overwhelming majority of the population, MSG is safe.  There is no good reason to ban it from your diet.  Marketing executives will try to use the bad press on MSG as a tool to advertise their products, but in the end the data just doesn’t support their negative claims.  As with all things, moderation is almost surely the best answer.  Have some (healthy) Chinese food, but don’t eat it every day or even every week.  MSG used in moderation can add great flavor to dishes with zero caloric impact.  Don’t go crazy with it and you will be just fine.  And for those who believe that you’re sensitive to MSG, consider designing a little double-blind study of your own and really see what happens.  You may be surprised!

 

    Author

    Rob Bent is the founder and lead nutrition counselor at Nutrition Perfected.  He is a multi-sport athlete and works constantly to maximize sports performance through scientifically-guided nutritional optimization.

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