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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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Organic Redefined

Food face.
Above: food face.

When I hear “organic”, I instantly think of no pesticides, no growth hormones, and for some reason a shockingly bright green field cultivated full of young crops. Of course, organic foods include not only food crops but also domestic animals, and it is equally important and difficult to define what an organic domestic animal is as it is to define an organic crop.

Organic food, at least to me, is quite simply defined. No pesticides and no growth hormones just about summed up the criteria I have for labeling a food organic. However, a recent article on MSN Health & Fitness titled “The Heart of Organic,” and my subsequent tour of the USDA’s webpage on organic labeling, changed my perception and understanding on organic food. Organic food is defined in a much more complicated way than I had believed.

In the MSN article, Nathan Donahoe, a chef and food activist, shared what he believed to be the definition of organic food. The first part of the definition, which stated that “’Organic’ doesn’t mean there are no pesticides used, just those that are ‘allowed,’” instantly alarmed me as it shattered what I considered as one of the most important criterion for being labeled as organic. Don’t get me wrong, I am not alarmed by the use of pesticides in general. I’ve grown up eating  fruits and vegetables that are most likely de-bugged with pesticides, and despite the health problems that pesticide overuse could cause, I still have no grudges buying all my fresh produce from regular, non-organic supermarkets. In a sense, I’ve accepted the use of pesticides based on my belief that current regulations are safeguarding consumer health by ensuring the safe application of pesticides. Therefore, my alarm towards Donahoe’s definition comes from my realization that what I believed to be the definition of organic is actually incorrect. Indeed, I started to wonder how far does my definition of “organic” deviate from the official government definition of “organic.” Furthermore, how many people actually understand what organic really refers to?

With these two questions bugging me, I set out to find the official definition of organic food from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website. Like Donahoe’s definition, the USDA’s definition also surprised me, both in a satisfied way and an unsettling way. According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (1995):

  • “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

  • “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

  • “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.

  • “Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

From this definition of “organic,” I feel unsettled by the fact that it did not explicitly state that pesticides are not used during organic food production, but instead it seems to suggest that as long as the ecosystem seems to be balanced and not excessively damaged by the pesticide use, these substances can continue to be used in the production of organic food. This vague suggestion seems to confirm Donahoe’s claim that pesticides are still part of organic food production. Despite feeling unsettled by this fact, I somewhat rejoiced in the definition’s emphasis on sustainable and environment-friendly agriculture. To me, it’s a healthy environment that will produce healthy food.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2011 in In our food...

 

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