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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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MSG vs. Aspartame: Different, Individualized Perceptions

MSG_pic3
Above: MSG use is more prevalent than many people believe or know. Many processed foods such as chips contain MSG.

I have a habit of crunching on snack foods periodically while working on a very long homework assignment for a very long time; eating snacks seems to give me comfort and relieve my stress. So while working with a friend on such an assignment “requiring” the periodic consumption of, on that day, Pringles, I came to register the fact that I was actually ingesting monosodium glutamate or more commonly known as MSG when I informed my friend of the “unhealthiness” of my choice of junk food snacks. This fact bothered me a little, not because I didn’t know most chips contained MSG but because I realized for the first time that I was ingesting this potentially harmful substance willingly and without caution. I was surprised at myself, who is strictly opposed to any consumption of aspartame, to not be also banning MSG from my diet. I became intrigued by the question of why I eat MSG-containing foods so often while abstaining from aspartame. What makes these substances so different to trigger such different responses? Could my reaction to MSG explain why so many others continue to consume aspartame? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer through this post entry.

Although MSG and aspartame have very different chemical structures and pharmacological actions in the body, MSG and aspartame resemble each other in several ways. For example, both MSG and aspartame are food additives that enhance the flavor of food, both are approved by the FDA as safe for consumption (MSG categorized as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance by FDA and a comprehensive review of aspartame research by Magnuson et al in 2007 shows that aspartame consumption at current level is safe), and the safety of both have been supported and challenged over the years. While both the proponents and opponents for the use of either substances come from all over the world, it seems to me that aspartame is more accepted in the United States while MSG is more accepted in Asian cultures.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I’ve consumed meals cooked with MSG ever since I was able to eat solid food. Although my parents only used MSG occasionally in soup, my grandparents cooked almost every dish with MSG. To my grandparents, adding MSG is as normal as adding salt. After eating this chemical almost every day for their entire lives, my grandparents remain healthy to this day. Myself of course continue to each this substance, albeit much rarer after moving to the United States. So far, I have not had any side effects from previous MSG use or current consumption of MSG containing food.

Although my grandparents and I did not experience immediate side effects or long term health consequences from consuming MSG, I understand that, like every chemical substance, a portion of the population do react unfavorably to this substance. Thus, knowing this, why do I still feel comfortable consuming MSG and not aspartame? Similarly, why is it more acceptable to consume aspartame than MSG in the United States? The answer, I believe, is the “got used to” factor. Every since I was young, I have consumed MSG with my family and relatives, and therefore MSG doesn’t seem dangerous at all. However, with all my relatives around me opposing the consumption of aspartame, citing its toxic effects and the danger it poses to health, I have grown up viewing aspartame as a very dangerous substance that I should never consume. In contrast, many of my peers growing up in more Americanized home environments (this include all ethnicity and nationalities, even Asian Americans, etc) are much more comfortable consuming aspartame, but they are as against consuming MSG as I am against aspartame consumption!

It is very interesting to me how despite the similarities between MSG and aspartame mentioned above, people developed opposite perceptions on their relative safety. This make me wonder whether many other such food additives and food by themselves (processed food most likely) are consider healthy or not healthy only because we have been exposed to them for such long periods of time that they’ve become an integrated part of our lives so we no longer question their safety? (i.e. food coloring).

MSG_pic2
Above: Some claims about the dangerous effects of MSG on health.

For fun…food for thought:
Cartoon of MSG usage in Chinese food
Above: Cartoon about MSG from an original artist on www.cartoonstock.com..

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2011 in In our food...

 

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