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Gluten-free foods: the healthiest for everyone?

A sign that says Gluten Free
Above: a sign that says “Gluten Free.”

Gluten-free foods are becoming increasingly popular around the college campus that I currently call home, reflecting, I believe, a similar trend at the national level. In fact, it is so popular that I begin to view it as the next fad food for very health conscious college students. We not only need to eat healthier desserts in the form of frozen treats called Tasti-D-Lites (it has become a phenomenon since it moved onto campus a few weeks ago; so many students can be spotted eating these frozen treats), but we now also need to eat the “healthiest” grains. However wheat, like frozen yogurts, no longer makes the top of the list anymore. In the search for the healthiest of everything, gluten-free foods and Tasti-D-Lites come out on top.

But do we really understand what a gluten-free diet means for health when we designated the newly installed gluten-free food section in our Great Hall cafeteria as our favorite place to find healthy food? Did we misunderstand the purpose of eating a gluten-free diet? These questions are addressed in a Health.com article titled “Will a gluten-free diet improve your health?”

The simple answer to the title question in Carina Storrs’ article mentioned above is: not really if you do not have celiac disease and you are not gluten-intolerant. In fact, eliminating gluten-containing foods might require you to supplement your diet with other foods and/or vitamin pills to complete a balanced and healthy diet. This is because gluten-free foods often lack iron and some important vitamins such as vitamin B and D, and because fortification of gluten-free foods is also not as common, people with a gluten-free diet need to find other sources of these essential nutrients. Furthermore, many currently available gluten-free foods are manufactured with excessive sugar and fat so they could mimic the taste and texture of food containing gluten, and therefore they could be very unhealthy.

Gluten is a protein found in some grains such as wheat, barley and rye. These grains are often made into bread, pasta, and numerous other grain-derived products. When consumed by people affected by celiac disease, gluten erodes their intestinal walls, leading to mal-absorption. So for these people, a gluten-free diet would definitely improve their health. Those who do not have celiac disease could also feel gastrointestinal discomfort upon gluten consumption if they are gluten intolerant or sensitive. Some symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomachache. For people who suffer from either celiac disease or gluten intolerance, completely forgoing every product made with gluten is the only treatment for their symptoms, therefore eating gluten-free food could benefit their health and well being.

Gluten-free food originated to provide more food options and to treat celiac disease and gluten-intolerance. However, today many health conscious people also eat gluten-free foods because they believe that a gluten-free diet is healthier. Unfortunately, for those not afflicted with either celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, gluten-free foods are not at all healthier than gluten-containing foods. Storrs put this fact clearly when she wrote:

“Even though celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow have reportedly cut out gluten to ‘detox,’ there’s nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet.” – Carina Storrs

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Chocolate, healthy or unhealthy?

A box of chocolate.
Above: A box of chocolate.

As a big chocolate fan, I can’t help but wonder whether chocolate is actually good for health or not. However amidst various claims on the health benefits or the harmfulness of chocolates, I choose to believe that at least dark chocolate is healthy for regular consumption. This possibly biased decision is actually based on my love for chocolate and recently this decision was challenged by my exercise partner for the semester.

Because she had eaten chocolate today, she must go to the gym to exercise in order to shed the cholesterol that she believed she had gained from the chocolate consumption. This is a rule that my friend strictly enforces upon herself. Since, like me, my friend also can’t resist chocolate, she decided to live by her rule in order to eliminate the cholesterol. However, is this exercising really necessary? How much cholesterol is actually in chocolate and is this amount detrimental to health? What about the fat in chocolate? The most important question (for me at least) is whether dark chocolate is included in this category of “bad-for-health chocolates”? What about the studies that suggest dark chocolate is good for the heart? To find accurate answers for these questions, I visited two credible websites: the Mayo Clinic website and the Cleveland Clinic website.

Cleveland Clinic, a premiere medical research, primary care, and education institution devotes an article to the explanation of the health effects of chocolate. According to this article, whether chocolate consumption is beneficial or detrimental to health depends on several factors: the flavonoid content of the chocolate, other components of the chocolate, and how much is consumed.

First, flavonoids are antioxidants found in plant-derived foods like tea, apple, and cranberries, etc. These antioxidants could prevent LDL (bad)-cholesterol oxidation, which hurts the arteries and promotes plaque formation on the arterial wall. Furthermore, these antioxidants could lower both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure, promote blood flow, and prevent clot formation. With all these benefits to health, it is not surprising that consumption of foods with high flavonoid contents, such as berries and tea, is vigorously promoted by health professionals and by the media (the number of times we see commercials boast the antioxidant content of their products. For instance, Snapple claims that they have “The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth.” EGCG is a flavonoid antioxidant.).

Snapple poster claiming that they have ‘The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth.’
Above: Snapple poster claiming that they have “The Green Tea with the most EGCG on Earth. EGCG is an antioxidant.

Fortunately I can also get some of this flavonoid from chocolate, not just from berries and tea. However, before rushing to purchase enough chocolate to replace berries and tea, it’s important to realize that not all chocolate contain the same amount of flavonoid. According to Cleveland Clinic, chocolate are processed differently and some production methods remove flavonoids. Therefore, it is important to find and consume those chocolate that retained the most flavonoids after processing. This is, however, easier said than done. A simpler way to choose chocolate that contain high levels of flavonoid is to choose dark chocolate over milk and white chocolate. Dark chocolate usually contains 50-80% cocoa (the component of chocolate that actually contains the flavonoids), milk chocolate 15-25%, and white chocolate has almost no flavonoids (Mayo Clinic, 2008). So choosing dark chocolate would mostly likely give you the flavonoids you want.

Despite its benefits, chocolate could have harmful effects on health. This is because 1) chocolate does contain fat and 2) unhealthy substances such as caramel and sugar could be added in large quantities to chocolate, depending on the type of chocolate you purchase. First, chocolate contains three types of fat that come from the cocoa butter used for chocolate production. Two of these fats, stearic and palmitic acids, are saturated fats that could increase LDL(bad)-cholesterol. When consumed in large quantities, these fats do have an unfavorable effect on the cardiovascular system. However, when consumed in lower quantities, these fats do not post a big health hazard. Thus, moderation is the key to gaining the benefits and avoiding the harmful effects of chocolate consumption. Second, chocolate that are not pure chocolate but chocolate “mixtures” with unhealthy components such as caramel and marshmallow definitely elevate the harmful effects of chocolate in comparison to the benefits of chocolate. Therefore it is necessary to avoid these chocolate mixtures. According to the article on the Mayo Clinic website, consuming 6 grams or about a square of pure dark chocolate is the best.

After reading about chocolate from both Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic websites, I am now much more confident in my consumption of dark chocolate. Maybe I consume 3 squares a day, but I’m content that this amount, which does not equal over-consumption , can help to keep my cardiovascular system healthy while not requiring me to burn off the fat and cholesterol every time I eat chocolate. To my friend, and all chocolate enthusiasts out there, this might also be very good news!

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Food Coloring

Food for thought…
Easter bunny reading newspaper article on FDA restricting food dye use on Easter eggs.
Above: A fun cartoon of an Easter bunny reading a newspaper article about FDA restricting food dye use on Easter eggs, suggesting that food dyes might not be entirely safe.

Food coloring is a very common additive to our food. Many processed food we consume contain this substance in order to provide consumers with the “expected color” for a particular food. For instance, consumers expect banana or lemon puddings to be yellow while they expect their oranges to have brilliantly orange skin (yes, orange food coloring is sometimes injected into the skin of oranges to give off-season and not-so-great-looking oranges the bright orange color that we usually see in very well grown oranges).

Studies have shown that when a food does not have the expected color, it is perceived to taste different from the same food that does have the expected color. A study on the effect of food coloring on the perceived taste of Cheetos with the normal cheesy-looking orange color and Cheetos without the fo¬¬¬od coloring (which leaves it in a grayish color) discovered that consumers found the regular Cheetos to taste cheesier and that they derived a lot of pleasure from eating these Cheetos. In contrast, consumers who ate the gray Cheetos didn’t like them very much and reported that these Cheetos didn’t have the same amount of cheese as the regular colored Cheetos although both Cheetos were exactly the same except for the color. Because food coloring or food dyes are tasteless, it can be concluded from this study that the perceived difference in the taste of the Cheetos is entirely psychological; the difference in taste is generated by expectations. Based on results like this, it is no wonder that the food industry depends so heavily on the usage of food coloring in the production of its food. And this industry is reluctant to add a warning label on its food to inform consumers that ingesting food coloring could possibly cause undesirable side effects such as increasing hyperactivity in ADHD patients and causing ADHD-like symptoms in non-ADHD populations.

Using food coloring has the benefits of allowing consumers to have a better experience with the food they eat and allowing food companies to sell more of their products. However, is food coloring safe to consume? As mentioned above, food coloring could cause undesirable health problems in some consumers, and recent research supporting the link between hyperactivity and food dye use renewed the concern that the regulation on the use of this potentially harmful substance is not strict enough. Despite the findings of new research, a committee at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted, on March 31, 2011, to continue to allow the use of food dyes without warning labels. This decision is based on the committee’s belief that data generated from recent research do not produce enough evidence that food dyes could cause hyperactivity in most children, especially those that do not have ADHD. Therefore food companies should not be required to add warning labels that could unnecessarily damage sales.

Like research for many other food additives such as aspartame and MSG, research into the safety of food coloring has not yet provided strong data proving the safety or the harmfulness of food dyes. Therefore, it is hard to decide whether we should continue to consume these artificial substances or not. For now, this decision is based on personal preference rather than government regulations. However, it is important to be informed of these issues and to evaluate new research data objectively in order to make the best decision on whether to consume or not consume these food additives. Maybe we will be surprised * in what we will find out in the future!

* I just want to share this interesting fact: The coloring agent Brilliant Blue G (BBG), a relative of the approved food dye Brilliant Blue FCF (FD&C Blue No. 1), had been found to protect motor neurons in the spinal cord of rats that had experienced spine injury and thus allowing them to recover part of their mobility. This finding led to the hope that BBG could be used to treat humans who have experienced similar spinal injures. Currently, more research is being done on BBG. Who knows, perhaps in the not distant future, BBG’s relative Brilliant Blue FCF, the one we consume, turns out to be neuro-protective also, and those who consume more blue M&Ms’ have a better chance at recovering from spinal injury if it does happen.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Recall!

Screen shot of the Food Safety page of msnbc.com
Above: A screen shot of the Food Safety page of msnbc.com.

One click on the “Food Safety” link on msnbc.com produced a surprise that I had never expected. At the left center of the page was a brief paragraph with the title “Products recalled over concerns about broccoli,” and below the paragraph followed about 50 linked titles that all announced recalls to various food products. From broccoli to beef patties to cheese, so many different products are recalled that spinach no longer takes the center stage as a contaminated food product. This surge in the number of contaminated food products surprised me immensely, and it raised the interesting question of whether this surge is due to tighter government regulations and more thorough inspections on food safety or due to worsening food production procedures in recent years. More importantly, are more consumers sickened by contaminated food and the reason these incidents don’t attract national headlines is because food poisoning is much more common nowadays than several years ago? Are we moving into a period where some food, especially fresh produce, can no longer be produced in a clean environment? All these questions beg for answers as they are important to the health of consumers.

Although the bacterium E. coli, especially the serotype O157:H7, used to be the most prominent bacterium causing food poisoning in humans, other bacterium such as salmonella and listeria are also finding their way into the food supply. Apart from bacteria, larger and more visible objects such as glass shards and even “extra protein,” to put it in the words of one consumer, in the form of a dead frog inside a bag of mixed veggie, had become food contaminants that endanger the health of consumers.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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