A note to readers: The nutrition facts label to the left is from a Carl's Jr. Double Six Dollar Burger. I think this kind of information might be worth knowing, no? 1500 calories with 47 grams of saturated fat? Wow...
With all of the debate that occurred over the content and passage of the healthcare reform bill of 2010 (H.R. 3590), one argument still rages that makes no sense whatsoever. The bill, signed into law in March of last year, made it mandatory for all restaurants with over 20 locations to display the caloric content of all dishes on menus or serving stations (as in a buffet setting) and to have more in-depth nutrition stats available for the customer at all times. These requirements also apply to vending machines. Unfortunately, as much as the obesity epidemic in this country is costing us, both financially and socially, not everyone is on-board with the new plans. I’d like to highlight the opposition’s ridiculous argument against the new laws and also share some related thoughts on the detrimental mindset possessed by many Americans regarding the discussion of proper nutrition and its relationship to public health.
The major argument leading the backlash against menu labeling in restaurants is that some people simply don’t want to know what they’re eating. They prefer to be blissfully unaware of the content of their meals. They often overtly state that they don’t want to feel “guilty” about what they are having for lunch. Unfortunately, that is an argument based on cowardice and, at the same time, attempts to prevent those who do want the information from obtaining it easily. To me, it’s akin to what you often see on the TV show “Intervention” that profiles drug and alcohol addicts before, during, and after a family intervention to heal their addiction. When confronted by the damage they are doing to themselves and others, the addict often flatly denies the existence of a problem and becomes extremely defensive, even to the point of physical aggression. In the same vein, people who are eating blatantly harmful food generally know what they’re doing to themselves and, if they considered it for a minute, would see how their actions affect the well-being of the country at large. When shown the facts, however, they seem to cower from the truth and hide behind an argument that “eating this food once in a while isn’t so bad.” The truth is that the folks who actually consume unhealthy food only once in a while don’t mind the labels because they don’t feel guilty about what they’re eating. The people who feel guilty are the ones who regularly make poor choices and understandably don’t want to face themselves in the mirror. In the end, their argument makes no sense. It’s simply an attempt to continue along in their comfortable state of denial while simultaneously impinging upon the positive efforts of others.
Unfortunately, the mindset of “I don’t want to know” is pervasive in this country. I was reading an article recently that presented the results of an interesting recent study into child and adolescent exercise habits in relation to organized sports. The primary message of the article was that even kids who are on sports teams and practice regularly often don’t achieve the recommended minimum exercise time. According to the researchers, skill training and other relatively passive activities dominated many team practices.
Despite the intriguing results and the useful advice resulting from the study, a large proportion of public responses to the article were defensive and negative. There were complaints that the readers were being called “bad parents” and that “scientists should stop telling us how to raise our children.” These arguments might (though probably not) make sense in a society that had proven itself successful at raising healthy children. However, in a country where close to a quarter of children are either overweight or obese, we need all the help we can get. Again, the outcry against scientists over-advising parents and intruding into personal matters is, I’d have to assume, coming mainly from parents who simply don’t want to face that facts about their child’s health and their parenting missteps. Parents who actually look out for the best interests of their kids would most likely be receptive to potentially helpful research. Guilt resulting from poor parenting choices is not a good reason to give up efforts towards improvement. If you slack off and don’t change your car’s oil for 7,000 miles, ignoring the “change oil soon” light isn’t going to solve the problem. You simply have to step up and change the oil. Don’t hide behind excuses and dodge responsibility for yourself and your children. Take a positive attitude towards new scientifically-guided advice and put the recommendations into action to help your family become happier and healthier.
Denial is not the answer. It’s not a good reason to argue against menu labeling and it’s not a good reason to berate news outlets for communicating the results of the latest health-oriented research. Our success as a nation and as a species has come primarily from progressive acceptance of new technology and information. The world is not flat, my friends. And our country is not healthy. Take advantage of our robust research and communication systems and use them as tools to guide yourself and your family towards a healthier life. Accept your past mistakes and move on to better habits. You can make positive changes regardless of your current situation. But the first step, as they say, is to admit that you have a problem.
The word “superfruit” has no technical definition. It is not a scientific term and has no particular attributes or qualifying threshold values of any compound. In fact, it’s simply a marketing idea that entered the public sphere around 2005 and has continued to saturate the minds of consumers (and the pockets of food and beverage producers) ever since. As a concept that has no real denotation (definition) but does have many connotations, it’s worth a look into the idea of the “superfruit” in order to understand how it might actually be of use to you as a health-oriented consumer.
In many cases, a regular old fruit is upgraded to superfruit status due to its antioxidant properties. By now, most people have come to understand that antioxidants are generally good for you. However, there are more to antioxidants and the analysis of their presence in a food product than meets the eye. Antioxidant compounds are defined as those capable of preventing the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical process in which one molecule donates or loses and electron from one of its atoms and transfers it to another molecule. While oxidation is a normal part of everyday life at the cellular level, it can go awry. When oxidation happens at the wrong place or time, it can cause problems in DNA structure, protein folding, and other intricate processes within cells, leading to cancer, decreased cellular function, development of cataracts, and other issues. The agent of poorly-timed oxidation is often the free radical. A free radical is a molecule that has lost an electron and is therefore extremely reactive. In fact, it will react with almost anything it happens to run into that can donate an electron. As it steals an electron, it completes its electronic structure and goes on about its normal business. However, its molecular victim is not so lucky. Because it is now down one electron, it becomes a free radical and begins searching for an electron to re-stabilize itself. This process of cyclic attack is known as the free radical cascade.
Fortunately, there is a solution to the cascade problem: antioxidants. While there is a myriad of different types of molecules that can function as antioxidants, they all are similar in that they are able to donate an electron without becoming a free radical themselves. Usually, this ability to effectively absorb free radical oxidation is due to particular structures built into the atomic organization of the antioxidant compound. One such structure is the phenol ring. A popular group of antioxidants is known as the “polyphenols” because each member contains more than one phenol ring. In the case of polyphenolic antioxidants, their phenol rings are able to donate an electron to a roaming free radical but, because of the way electrons are shared between carbon atoms in a phenol ring (electron delocalization), the polyphenolic compound remains stable and does not become a free radical. There are atomic structures other than the phenol ring that confer similar antioxidant ability, but their detailed description goes beyond the scope of this article.
The important thing to remember is that not all antioxidants are the same and that they may not behave similarly in the body. In addition, a single food may contain a number of different types of antioxidants. However, despite these significant complexities to the antioxidant picture, marketing professionals often boil down the antioxidant capacity of a product to a single number: its oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value. A food’s ORAC value indicates its ability to neutralize a particular type of free radical known as a superoxide. The ORAC value is a poor choice to represent the potential health benefits of a food for a number of reasons. First off, the ORAC rating is determined using trials performed in a test tube, not a human body. Not all of the antioxidants in a product are absorbed or are bioavailable within the body following ingestion. Therefore, the data resulting from ORAC testing do not accurately represent a food’s antioxidant impact on a human subject.
Secondly, the ORAC test examines a sample’s effect on only one kind of radical. Besides superoxide, there are a number of other types of free radicals within the body that may be affected differently by a particular antioxidant. Generalizing the antioxidant capacity of a compound based on its interaction with only one type of radical limits the utility of ORAC data in assessing the potential healthfulness of a food product.
Essentially, marketing professionals in the food industry assume that the public is dumb, lazy, and easily convinced of almost anything. Unfortunately, they are too often proven correct. They like the ORAC value because it’s simple, involves catchy, “scientific” terminology, and makes nice little bar graphs that fit perfectly on packaging display panels. If you’re reading this blog, however, you’re on the right track to getting away from the norm and learning how to investigate facts for yourself. As a small side note, I hope that you continue your research into topics like this one even beyond reading the NP Blog. Search for other information on the subject, take a look at some recent journal articles, and stretch your brain a bit. Not only will you learn something new, but you can actually apply this stuff to improve your everyday life! The search for knowledge is essential for a productive mind, so keep at it.
Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. As with all foods, the producer is trying to minimize costs and maximize profits. The superfruit concept is a perfect vehicle for these goals. First of all, the “superfruit” name is an unregulated buzzword that means nothing but which the public loosely associates with health. Secondly, because superfruits are often incorporated into products as juices, it’s easy to hide the actual amount of the advertised fruit present. A great example of this deceptive practice occurs all the time in the case of juice blends. Food companies are required by law only to state the total percentage of juice in the product and not the percentage of each individual juice used. So, a product may contain less than even 1% of each superfruit juice and still include all of the graphs, pictures, and shady “health claims” on their labels that pertain to the superfruits. Remember, these exotic juices are expensive! For example, I can advertise a juice blend product that is plastered with pictures of pomegranates, acai berries, and goji berries. I can put a “100% fruit juice” statement on the front of the bottle. I can include all the ORAC information on the side panel on the packaging and talk about how acai is imported from the amazon and has an incredibly high concentration on antioxidants. However, when I formulate the product, I can use 98.5% white grape juice (cheap and nutritionally anemic), 0.5% goji berry juice, 0.5% acai juice, and 0.5% pomegranate juice. I can then flavor the product with “natural flavors” that add only around another 0.01% of actual “superfruit” juice to the final beverage in order to disguise the fact that I’ve essentially made colorful grape juice. Finally, I can sell the juice blend at a premium price in a fancy bottle with awesome graphics and bright colors.
As you can see, the superfruit game has a lot of holes through which food manufacturers can slide. It’s up to you to pay attention to the labels and search out the important information. If a company isn’t overtly up front and honest about the complete formulation of its “superfruit” product, then it’s most likely a waste of your money.
So what’s the best answer if the ORAC value, while popular, is unreliable and food manufacturers are clearly in the business of deceiving the consumer? Well, stick to the fundamentals and you will very likely be just fine. Regularly consume relatively large amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables, especially berries and cruciferous products. Search out the largest variety of plant foods (including the so-called “superfruits”) that you can in order to ensure that a wide range of antioxidants and other useful phytochemicals make it into your body. Consistency and variety are more important than potency, in most cases. In addition, some research has shown that too much of a good thing can have ironically negative consequences. Compounds that normally act as antioxidants can actually become pro-oxidative! So eat your fruits and vegetables and don’t believe the hype. Many fruits with high antioxidant concentrations can be quite good for you in moderate amounts, but there’s much more to fruits and vegetables than their antioxidant capacity. Forget the marketing misinformation and do some research of your own. Remember, if the package is bright, colorful, and fancy, then someone is most likely trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
A note to readers: I REALLY wanted to call this article, "Genetically Modified Foods - Does GMO = OMG?!" But I decided that, since this blog contains only the classiest, professional work (see picture to left), it would be wise to go with the more traditional title. Anyway...
The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been a contentious one for almost two decades. In many parts of the world, fears abound over potential health problems and the prospect of environmental catastrophe, all stemming from the production and consumption of GM foods. While the paranoia is gradually decreasing, lots of misinformation is still thrown about regarding genetic engineering and GM foods. What exactly are GM foods and what are the risks and benefits they confer to both the individual consumer and to the ecosystems in which they are grown?
The first major intersection of genetic engineering and foodstuffs occurred in 1987 with the first tests of a modified version of the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae on strawberry fields in California. The bacteria, which commonly lives on the surface of crops, normally produces a protein that allows ice to more easily begin crystallizing, causing damage to the host plant. However, the strain of P. syringae used in the experiment had been engineered without the gene needed to produce the protein in hopes of reducing frost-induced crop loss. Though the data looked positive following the trial, they couldn’t be fully trusted due to environmental activists destroying some of the test crops in protest of the experiment.
The first genetically engineered food product hit the shelves in the early 1990s in the form of the “Flavr Savr” tomato. Calgene, a Californian company later acquired by biotech giant Monsanto, had engineered the plant to have a slower softening process, though its other ripening attributes like sweetness would develop normally. Tomatoes are often harvested while still green and hard in order to better survive the rigors of transport. Soft, ripe fruit often get smashed or otherwise degraded as trucks bump along rough roads. The Flavr Savr was designed to be both tasty and durable. Unfortunately, due to competition from conventionally bred cultivars (plant varieties), problems with production rates, and troublesome harvesting technology, the Flavr Savr never made a big move on the tomato market. However, it did pave the way for future growth in the GM food market.
Today, there are many genetically modified food crops available, including soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, sugar cane and beets, rice, squash, and others. Their engineering bestows benefits including herbicide, pest, and virus resistance, as well as higher nutritional content by way of increased endogenous production of vitamins and essential fatty acids. In fact, a large majority of soybeans, cotton, and corn grown in the US is now genetically modified organisms, most engineered for herbicide and/or pest resistance. Believe it or not, if you live in the US and many other parts of the world, you almost certainly consume GM foods on a regular basis.
Despite the widespread and longstanding consumption of GM foods by millions if not billions of people, controversy persists over the safety of GM foods in regards to both human health and environmental integrity. While most concerns over GM crops are generally unfounded, it is worth taking the time to understand how GM foods are assessed and approved.
To assess any potential dangers a GM food may present to human health, the product is first analyzed by the manufacturer to determine if it is “substantially equivalent” to its corresponding natural version, if one exists. Substantial equivalence is evaluated by comparing the biochemical profiles of the two foods, including their various carbohydrates, fatty acids, metabolite compounds, and proteins. If the values of the GM food’s components fall within the range of variation of the natural products, then they are deemed to be substantially equivalent. While the standard of substantial equivalence has proven robust enough to prevent any major adverse reactions in the public to GM foods, critics argue that the standard of equivalence is not defined clearly enough nor has a specific procedure for testing been established. In addition, processed or purified products (e.g. oils, sugars, etc.) can be assessed for substantial equivalence independent of their source plants. GMO opponents have claimed that this “loophole” may allow harmful compounds into the human food supply due to the laxity (in their eyes) of the substantial equivalence standard.
If a novel GM product has no natural counterpart, it is evaluated using a seven-part standard safety test. The test begins with an analysis of any new DNA in the product and the proteins or metabolites it may eventually produce. It also includes analysis of the chemical composition of the product, including nutrients, allergens, and toxins. Then, the risk of gene transfer to microorganisms present in the human gut is evaluated. Any new compounds in the product are assessed for possible human allergenicity. Finally, an estimate is calculated to determine how much of the product might be consumed in a normal diet, whether the data indicate any possible nutritional or toxicological risks and, if so, further animal testing is performed to investigate any potentially harmful characteristics of the product.
While opposition groups to GM foods have long claimed that these novel products aren’t tested sufficiently before public release, there has yet to be a documented adverse reaction to any GM food. In addition, these pre-market testing procedures have proven their effectiveness by actually finding allergens in GMO products before release and have allowed the safe removal of the offending foods from the development pathway.
The evidence amassed to date tells us that GM foods pose little to no risk to human health. While there can always be more stringent testing, a balance must be struck between corporate and public interests. If testing is too lengthy or expensive, companies will simply stop developing new products, much like what has happened to the pharmaceutical industry. The current safety testing procedures for GM foods do a fantastic job at both protecting the public and encouraging continued development of needed agricultural technologies.
One of the most commonly cited, real-world instances of “potentially harmful” compounds entering the food supply by way of GM crops was the contamination of corn used to produce Taco Bell hard taco shells with a small amount of a GM variety known as StarLink, which was approved only for use in animal feed. Twenty-eight individuals reported symptoms of allergic reaction resulting from the consumption of the taco shells. It was postulated that “Cry9C,” a protein in the StarLink corn, was the culprit.
Then as now, however, those claims of allergenicity are beset with credibility issues.
First, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention performed analyses of the blood of those reporting allergic reactions and found no evidence that the corn had caused their symptoms. Second, allergens are proteins, like the suspected Cry9C protein. The production of a hard taco shell requires frying the corn tortilla in oil at around 365 degrees F. At that temperature, essentially all proteins in the tortilla are denatured, which means that their shape is altered fundamentally, even fragmented. That the tiny amount of Cry9C present in the StarLink material also was denatured at the time of consumption further reduced whatever risk of allergenicity the protein posed in the taco shell. Accordingly, although the recall of the contaminated corn arguably was warranted on regulatory grounds, the fear-mongering and paranoia that followed were unfounded and irrational.
There’s also the argument against GM crops based on potential hazards they might pose to their surrounding ecosystems and the global environment. On the positive side, pest-resistant cultivars have significantly lowered the need for pesticides in many areas. In addition, GM crops also allow for a reduction in farming-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to more limited use of pesticide spraying equipment and a shift from conventional tillage to reduced/no till practices. Compared to 1996 levels of GHG emissions, GM crops provided global savings of approximately 32.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in 2006 alone. That’s the equivalent of taking over 6.5 million cars off of the roads for a year. In addition, GM crops have provided substantial farm-level income increases by way of increased yields, better quality produce, and increased replanting efficiency.
On the negative side, opponents of GM crops have raised concerns about the novel cultivars’ impact on biodiversity, weed resistance, and gene transfer to non-GM crops. On the issue of biodiversity, both sides of the issue agree that it is an important subject to watch. Theories have suggested that, were GM traits passed onto wild relatives, then other native species could be out-competed into extinction. In addition, the release of a particular crop variety with a major advantage over all others could lead to the use of only one cultivar, significantly decreasing crop biodiversity. Yet, while gene transfer between species has been recorded in GM crop locations, no significant negative effects have been noted. As well, seed companies work to prevent the use of a single cultivar by introducing the same trait into many different varieties of a crop. Therefore, the chance of one cultivar becoming overwhelmingly dominant is quite low.
Finally, the issue of weed resistance is worthy of attention and study. Gene transfer from GM crops to wild plants has been shown to occur. However, the occurrence of such an event is extremely rare and the resulting hybrids are often sterile, much like mules and the familiar yellow bananas we find in grocery stores. Despite the low risk of problems with weed resistance, issues have arisen in some areas of the southern US with crop field infestations of herbicide-resistant plants, particularly pigweed. In most cases, the problem was managed by crop and herbicide rotation. In some rare cases, the fields had to be abandoned. Fortunately, the benefits of GM crops grossly outweigh the rare problems they may cause with the development of resistant weeds.
The conclusion here is that GM foods pose little risk to human health. They are studied quite extensively before being put on the market, and the screening procedures have been so successful that no significant health issues related to GM foods have ever been reported. The fact is that GM crops are eaten every day by millions of people in the US alone with no ill effects. On the environmental side, GM crops pose a very small threat to their natural environments. While the concern over gene transfer to non-GM plant species is real, it has never been shown to cause a problem with ecosystem biodiversity. Unfortunately, there is a small risk of resistant traits to undesirable weed plants that can then infest crop fields. However, with diligent farming practices the detriments of such species can be all but avoided in most cases. GM foods offer the farmer and society at large a way to produce healthier, more bountiful produce in a way that is less harmful to the environment. We need higher yields and lower environmental impact to deal with our fast growing human population. Let’s embrace the technologies that we have and get over the irrational fears surrounding GMOs.
We’re almost a week into 2011 now and many gyms, health clubs, and diet centers are bustling with a swell of new members, thanks to the time-honored tradition of the New Year’s resolution. Come back in February though, and the scene may look a bit sparser. What is it about the New Year’s resolution that leads to this utterly predictable progression from discipline to eventual surrender? Clearly it’s not such a bad idea to make productive goals for one’s self, especially at notable times of change like the beginning of a new year. The period of transition from one year to the next allows us time to reflect on our achievements and failures, our moments of glory and our downhill slides. It gives us a clearer perspective on what we currently are and where we want to go. So what’s the problem?
The first major mistake that people make when beginning to execute their fresh, ambitious New Year’s resolutions is to jump into too many changes at once. For example, say your resolution is to lose 20 pounds over the next year. It’s a common goal and one that is dearly needed in the lives of many individuals (though I’d personally rather it be framed in terms of body fat percentage). However, if you’re currently a desk jockey with a busy schedule, adding five or six outings to the gym per week may simply be too much to handle at first. Besides the physical ramifications of such a large-scale change to your exercise output, abruptly altering your lifestyle in big ways can often lead to a quick jumping of ship. It may be more reasonable to plan a trip or two to the gym per week and find time to fit them into the schedule. Later, as you become used to the new weekly timeline, you will be able to open up more space and continue to add sessions as needed. Jumping into any large commitment tends to induce at least a bit of anxiety. By applying your new exercise and nutrition goals slowly but surely to your current lifestyle, you will find the results to be much more satisfying, productive, and sustainable over time. Remember, a small improvement is better than no improvement at all.
The second mistake often seen with New Year’s resolutions is to expect too much too soon. While this problem is an ever-present plague in the nutrition and fat loss industry, it is especially prevalent around the New Year. Big goals and big ambitions can seem insurmountable when viewed as one large block. Taking the example of losing 20 pounds again, viewed as a lump sum, it’s a pretty significant number. When people don’t see the first 10 pounds come off by the end of January, they often start to panic and may even abandon the plan entirely. One way to avoid the stress of making small progress towards a large goal is to break the big number down into smaller, intermediate goals spread out rationally over time. That way, you always have an achievable, short-term goal on which you can focus. As the small landmarks are reached, the overall progress will grow and grow without you even having to consider it. Three to five pounds of fat loss per month is a good goal for most people. If you have a lot of fat to lose and are starting with some notably bad eating and exercise habits, you can set more aggressive goals, but always be sure to keep your expectations within reason. Setting proper goals is the first step to success and it doing it right often requires a level of objective self-assessment that many people aren’t used to. In the end, though, you will find that small, approachable goals set out over time will provide you with a much easier path towards big achievement.
Finally, and this may be the biggest issue of all regarding New Year’s resolutions, there tends to be a sense that, because we have failed with so many resolutions in the past, it’s ok to give up on your new ones, as well. The fact is that a resolution should be just that, a decision to become resolved, resolute to achieve your goal. Determination is a big part of being successful in many areas of life. You simply have to have a reason to make it happen. For some it may be about overall health, blood pressure, cholesterol, or well-placed concern over future complications from carrying excess fat and a lack of exercise. For others the driving force may be more present. Diabetes, mobility problems, or an inability to do what you want to do in your daily life can all be great motivation to stick to your resolutions. There are still others who want more out of their bodies, whether it’s greater sports performance, better endurance, or more strength and power. Whatever your reason for making a resolution this year, keep it fresh in your mind. When training gets hard (and it does), you will need to be able to focus on the reason why you are there.
This year, don’t just make a resolution. Design a plan for success with reasonable, small goals spread out over time. Make changes to your lifestyle slowly but surely to allow yourself time to adjust. Know your motivation and keep it in mind at all times. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks and small failures. They are a part of the process and are common to everyone’s experience, especially when making big life changes. Finally, get your friends and family on board, either by actively joining in with you as you make improvements or by simply being there to support you and help to keep you on track. Be resolute in your decisions and be accountable to yourself and your goals. 2011 can be the year that you permanently change your life for the better, so stick with it!