Category: health

The unfiltered truth about caffeine

Coffee! If you're not shaking, you need another cup.

Photo by Flickr user Timothy Appnel [timaoutloud], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Journalist Murray Carpenter has a new book out next week titled Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us. As Scientific American summarizes, “His book examines the caffeine industry, the coffee and other products it churns out, and the complex effects the chemical has on our bodies.” Kirkus Reviews says that “Carpenter blends intriguing historical episodes with interviews, accounts of treks to caffeine-related locations and a multitude of test results.”

For a preview of some of the book’s themes, Maddie Oatman of Mother Jones interviewed Carpenter. Take the following as just one example of the lessons learned in his research:

There’s no standard amount of caffeine in each cup of coffee—even within the same brand.

“Starbucks gives an approximation of 20 milligrams per ounce. One 16-ounce cup of Starbucks puts you at about 320 milligrams of caffeine. One 16-ounce cup of Starbucks is for many Americans a good daily dose of caffeine.

“One researcher found that a 16-ounce cup had 560 milligrams of caffeine. The researcher, Bruce Goldberger, went to the same Starbucks and ordered the same blend of coffee for six days, and found that the levels varied more than twofold. He’s not the only one to have found those things. Even espresso shots, which are much more regimented, can vary.”

Check our her full post here.

The latest on the dangers of feeding antibiotics to livestock

Tom Philpott’s latest post for Mother Jones addresses a topic that’s high on my list of concerns about most modern meat production, i.e., indiscriminate antibiotic use on factory farms contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As he describes,

Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go to livestock farms. Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant pathogens affecting people are on the rise. Is there a connection here? No need for alarm, insists the National Pork Producers Council. Existing regulations “provide adequate safeguards against antibiotic resistance,” the group insists on its site.  It even enlists the Centers for Disease Control in its effort to show that “animal antibiotic use is safe for everyone,” claiming that the CDC has found “no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals.”

So move along, nothing to see here, right? Not so fast. On Monday, the CDC came out with a new report called “Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013″….. And far from exonerating the meat industry and its voracious appetite for drugs, the report spotlights it as a driver of resistance.

As usual, the post is informative and chock full of great links. Find it here.

An infographic from the CDC report.

Where have all the phytonutrients gone?

Aronia Berries

Aronia berries. Photo by majorbonnet via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an interesting essay by JO Robinson. It examines the loss of nutritional compounds in farmed produce over the years thanks to ongoing selective breeding by humans:

Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers….

Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I’ve discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.

Robinson goes on to carefully examine the case study of corn. It’s a fascinating article and well worth a read; check out the full piece and accompanying infographic here.

Paleolithic movement harks back to “physical culture” of past

Eliza Barclay had a nice post on NPR recently (on the Shots health blog) that examined similarities between a century-old fitness philosophy and the modern paleo movement. She writes,

As Hamilton Stapell, a historian at the State University of New York, New Paltz, found when he went digging into the archives of physical culture, there are striking resemblances to the paleo movement today. And, he argues, this shows that people seem to romanticize a healthier past in the midst of great societal upheaval: the Industrial Revolution, in the case of physical culture; and the digital revolution, in the case of paleo.

“The problem, according to physical culture and paleo, is modern civilization,” Stapell tells Shots. “With so much change, people reject overconsumption of food, alcohol and mainstream medicine, and look for ways to get back to nature. Both movements have a clear sense of going back to the past to fix the present, and a willingness to throw out what’s normal and acceptable to try an alternative.”

It’s an interesting read; find the full piece here.

Edmond Desbonnet (1868-1953) opened the first of his many schools of physical culture in Lille in 1895. Caption and image of color lithograph from Wellcome Library.

Why cantaloupe can’t catch a break

Cantaloupe: Problem Fruit

Photo by News21 – National via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Luke Runyon recently wrote an informative post for Harvest Public Media focused on why the cantaloupe, more than other melon varieties, seems to keep cropping up in news stories about outbreaks of foodborne illness. (I previously posted about one such outbreak.) Runyon explains,

Studies show cantaloupe is more likely to carry bacteria than most other produce, even more than its cousins in the melon family, like honeydew and watermelon. Cantaloupe regularly makes the top five in fresh fruit and vegetables likely to cause an outbreak, according to Doug Powell, professor and food safety expert at Kansas State University. Though, outside of the realm of fresh fruit, produce accounts for a small percentage of foodborne illnesses, at about 13 percent in 2005….

[Colorado State University food microbiologist Larry] Goodridge said from farm to table, there are many places where melons can be subjected to bacterial growth, whether on the rind or in the cantaloupe’s flesh. They’re also dense with water, which make them susceptible to the growth of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.

“Bacteria love water to grow,” Goodridge said. “Inside the melon, there are a lot of nutrients. The pH of the flesh is neutral and bacteria love that.”

On the production and processing side of things, there are also increased chances of cantaloupe contamination. Unlike in many other fruits, bacteria can still grow inside cantaloupe after it has been picked.

For the full story, including a lot of great links, head here, then check out Runyon’s story about Colorado’s “Sweet Melon Capital,” which was struck by a listeria outbreak in 2011.

Is good fast food the next big thing?

Lyfe Kitchen

Photo by Paul Robert Lloyd via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve finally gotten around to reading some of the recent “Food and Drink Issue” of The New York Times Magazine. I especially enjoyed Mark Bittman’s piece titled “Yes, Healthful Fast Food Is Possible. But Edible?” He writes,

Numbers are tricky to pin down for more healthful options because the fast food industry doesn’t yet have a category for “healthful.” The industry refers to McDonald’s and Burger King as “quick-serve restaurants”; Chipotle is “fast casual”; and restaurants where you order at the counter and the food is brought to you are sometimes called “premium fast casual.” Restaurants from these various sectors often deny these distinctions, but QSR, an industry trade magazine — “Limited-Service, Unlimited Possibilities” — spends a good deal of space dissecting them.

However, after decades of eating the stuff, I have my own. First, there are those places that serve junk, no matter what kind of veneer they present. Subway, Taco Bell (I may be partial to them, but really…), McDonald’s and their ilk make up the Junk Food sector. One step up are places with better ambience and perhaps better ingredients — Shake Shack, Five Guys, Starbucks, Pret a Manger — that also peddle unhealthful food but succeed in making diners feel better about eating it, either because it tastes better, is surrounded by some healthful options, the setting is groovier or they use some organic or sustainable ingredients. This is the Nouveau Junk sector.

Chipotle combines the best aspects of Nouveau Junk to create a new category that we might call Improved Fast Food. At Chipotle, the food is fresher and tastes much better than traditional fast food. The sourcing, production and cooking is generally of a higher level; and the overall experience is more pleasant. The guacamole really is made on premises, and the chicken (however tasteless) is cooked before your eyes. It’s fairly easy to eat vegan there, but those burritos can pack on the calories….

Chipotle no longer stands alone in the Improved Fast Food world: Chop’t, Maoz, Freshii, Zoës Kitchen and several others all have their strong points. And — like Chipotle — they all have their limitations, starting with calories and fat….

Despite its flaws, Improved Fast Food is the transitional step to a new category of fast-food restaurant whose practices should be even closer to sustainable and whose meals should be reasonably healthful and good-tasting and inexpensive. (Maybe not McDonald’s-inexpensive, but under $10.) This new category is, or will be, Good Fast Food, and there are already a few emerging contenders.

The essay is thoughtful and interesting (as usual with Bittman), so I encourage you to check it out here.

Less sodium, longer lives


Photo by revjdevans via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The New York Times ran an article earlier this week on the public health benefits of reduced sodium intake. Jane Brody’s piece begins this way:

Centuries ago, salt was more valuable than gold, but today the condiment has fallen out of favor. Now we know that its main component, sodium, can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

A new report, prepared by experts from three leading universities, projects that a small, steady reduction of sodium in the American diet could save up to half a million lives over the next decade. And a more rapid reduction could save even more lives — as many as 850,000.

The Finns have already proved this projection. As described last month in The New England Journal of Medicine, since the early 1970s, when Finland launched a national campaign to reduce salt intake, daily consumption has dropped by 3,000 milligrams a day in men and women, with a corresponding decline in death rates from stroke and coronary heart disease of 75 to 80 percent.

It’s a very informative post. For example, think overtly salty foods like pretzels are the worst sodium culprits? Nope, it’s bread! The article includes some nice links as well, so check out the full piece here.

Reclaiming food-marketing tricks from the dark side


Photo by USDAgov via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday NPR’s food blog, The Salt, featured a piece from Kevin Charles Redmon that reported the results of a recent scientific study on how small changes in the school lunchroom can nudge students to make healthier choices. Redmon writes,

A minor lunchroom makeover could make a big difference, says Andrew Hanks, a behavioral economist at Cornell University.

In a study published online by The Journal of Pediatrics, Hanks and his colleagues David Just and Brian Wansink, at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, demonstrate that small, simple changes in presentation and layout can have a large impact on how — and what — students eat.

Wheel the salad bar into a high-traffic area, for example, and place an attractive fruit basket next to the register. Stock juice popsicles alongside ice cream in the freezer, and have the cafeteria staff gently “up-sell” fruits and vegetables – for example, by asking, “Would you like to try an apple?”

“The whole premise behind this is that, as consumers, we have behavioral biases that lead us to make certain decisions,” Hanks tells The Salt. “If a food is more convenient to reach in a lunch line or store, “we’ll probably take that over a close substitute. If the cookies are easier to reach than the apple, you’re probably going to take the cookie.”

It’s a tantalizing idea, turning techniques of processed-food makers and marketers into tools for positive social change. Check out Redmon’s article for the details and links. Also check out a related video from one of the study’s collaborators here.

The post reminded me of the closing section of Michael Moss’s great piece in The New York Times Magazine, based on his book Salt Sugar Fat (both of which I blogged about here and here). As Moss wrote in the NYT:

When I met with [Jeffrey] Dunn, he told me not just about his years at Coke but also about his new marketing venture. In April 2010, he met with three executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions — a food producer in the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers — mothers, children, young professionals — people, he said, who “keep their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches their attention.”

He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with much calculation: “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food.” …

The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle.

“We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.”

Yes, Luke, The Force is strong in you!

“Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”

073/366 - Breakfast II

Photo by THEMACGIRL* [Pam Culver] (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As with Michael Moss’s new book, Salt Sugar Fat, which I ended up posting about not once but twice, I decided that although I posted last week about Melanie Warner’s new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, her work deserved a second shout out.

As Yoni Freedhoff describes in a blog post,

Warner reports that her interest was piqued consequent to her tremendously odd processed food collection – a collection she started to satisfy her desire to see how long beyond a processed food’s printed best before date that food would continue to be edible. From 9 month old only slightly brown around the edges guacamole, to 2 year old somewhat shrunken and crystallized processed cheese slices, to cereals older than 2 of my children that still look and taste like new, to chicken “nuggets” that rather than being immortal, liquefied (rather than rotted) within 10 days, Warner set out to figure out why.

Her book explores the history of some of the food industry’s biggest sellers: “Eternal” sliced cheese and the mistake that led to its creation; processed cereal and the story of a man who bragged that he never consummated his 40 year old marriage; discretionary fortification of foods and how and why your milk might contain extracts of sheep wool to return to it some of the vitamins stripped clean by the unbelievably harsh world of processing; the growth of soy and a tale of food flavourists and the debate over omega 3 and 6 ratios; whether or not there is such a thing as a healthy processed food, and much, much more.

Warner attributes her interest in food to her mother Therese who both accidentally ate the 9 month old guacamole (without negative effect), and also instilled in Warner two important messages, “What you put into your body matters, Melanie”, and, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”.

As Carey Polis writes at Huffington Post,

Pandora’s Lunchbox explores the world of processed food, whether it is understanding exactly what American cheese slices are made of, or explaining how soybean oil is showing up in so many different foods. Warner doesn’t expect people to suddenly give up processed foods after reading her book — this isn’t quite “The Jungle” here — and even admits that when she was writing the book, she ate and fed her children more processed food than she typically did. She faced the same problem countless of Americans do: sometimes there simply isn’t time to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal. “I don’t think it is realistic for people in this day and age to cook every night of the week,” Warner told The Huffington Post.

“Everyone has food that they hate to love. Some of that is totally fine,” she explains. “Some” is the key word here though — Warner is far from thrilled with the current state of the food system. But since a massive overhaul of major companies isn’t likely, she suggests some more realistic solutions. “In an ideal world, the processed food industry will be much much smaller,” she says.

The $1 trillion industry isn’t doing everything wrong, though. Minimally-processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, are a step in the right direction, she argues. They can still provide some nutrients and convenience while not offering tons of added chemicals or preservatives.

For more, check out Warner’s conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, which Goodman introduces this way: “As we continue deep inside the $1-trillion-a-year ‘processed-food-industrial complex, we turn to look at how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. And the vitamins and protein added back to this processed food? Well, you might be surprised to know where they come from.” The interview is available online in two parts, here and here.

Opening Pandora’s Lunchbox

Macaroni & Cheese Crackers: American Junk Food

Photo by greencolander [Michelle Tribe] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You know the phrase Pandora’s Box, yes? As the folks at Merriam-Webster summarize, its meaning of “a prolific source of troubles” derives from Greek myth, as in “from the box, sent by the gods to Pandora, which she was forbidden to open and which loosed a swarm of evils upon humankind when she opened it out of curiosity.”

Melanie Warner’s new book draws on that myth for its title, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. (I might call Pandora’s Lunchbox the best non-fiction title of the year, if only it didn’t rest on that tired misogynistic trope of woman as bringer of all that is evil. Oh well.) Paired with Michael Moss‘s Salt Sugar Fat, our heads are sure to spin as we consider what modern food science has done to the American diet.

Like Moss’s book, Pandora’s Lunchbox is getting nice reviews. Publishers Weekly says, “Warner takes readers on an investigative journey into the history, current practices, and future trends concerning food processing and additives…. Warner’s thought-provoking study does an excellent job presenting the facts without sensationalizing, and offering common sense solutions to those seeking to make better food choices.” Kirkus Reviews concurs: “What is lost from, or added to, factory-produced food in the quest for uniformity, flavor, cohesiveness, moistness and the ability to withstand temperature extremes? To answer this question, journalist Warner examined Kraft prepared-cheese product, Subway’s sandwich bread, breakfast cereals, soybean oil, chicken tenders and other foods. The author clearly explains the procedures and chemicals used to keep mass-produced food consistent and unspoiled, and she identifies the paradox of the food-processing industry: ‘that nutrition and convenience are sometimes deeply at odds with one another.’ … A well-researched, nonpreachy, worthwhile read.”

The book is also making a bit of a splash in the press; here are a couple snippets to further whet your appetite for Warner’s work (if not the foodstuffs she writes about).

Andy Bellatti offers an informative Q&A with Warner, which includes this gem:

Q. You investigated how soybean oil is made. Can you explain why calling it “natural” is a complete misnomer?

A. It’s not easy getting mass quantities of edible oil from soybeans, which are small, brittle beans containing less than 20 percent oil. First you have to drench them with hexane, a toxic chemical solvent that is known to cause nerve damage in humans. The hexane percolates through the soybeans several times and is then removed from the oil (any residues that remain are small.) After that you have to treat the oil with sodium hydroxide and phosphoric acid, then bleach it with a filter, and deodorize it under heat and an intense vacuum. Then often the oil is hydrogenated or interesterified, allowing it to be more stable for frying or other high-heat conditions. Calling any of this “natural” is a farce.

Also check out this piece from PBS News Hour, which lists “Seven Foods You Think Are Healthy But Aren’t, According to Melanie Warner,” including #2, Subway sandwiches:

Subway has done an outstanding job of promoting itself as the “fresh” and healthy alternative to fast food, and to some extent, these accolades are deserved. Much of the chain’s food has fewer calories, fat and sodium than what you get at McDonald’s and the like. But unless you’re getting a sandwich with nothing but veggies, there’s very little about it that’s “fresh.” Even though Subway bakes its bread inside the stores, it’s definitely not Grandma’s homemade loaf going into those ovens.

The dough is produced in one of 10 large, industrial factories around the country, where it’s loaded up with additives like DATEM (short for diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides), sodium stearoyl lactylate, potassium iodate, ascorbic acid and azodicarbonamide. That last one — azodicarbonamide — is known to break down into a carcinogen when heated and is a chemical used in the production of foamed plastics. When a tanker truck carrying this substance overturned on a Chicago highway several years ago, city fire officials had to issue their highest hazmat alert and evacuate everyone up to a half mile downwind. Mmmmm, fresh!

On the same page, be sure to watch Warner’s conversation with Hari Sreenivasan.

For the PDF of Subway's full ingredient list, click the photo.

I’ve linked to the PDF of Subway’s full product ingredient list, so click the image if you’re feeling brave.