Thursday, May 17, 2018

Labeling Deception

Nutrition labels and various certification seals are supposed to give consumers more information about exactly what they are buying. But the average consumer doesn't have much chance against the lawyers and marketing departments of the companies that produce our food. They are experts at misleading you while carefully avoiding breaking any laws or regulations.

Some examples from the labeling of the meat we buy....

"No Hormones"

This is a good thing but not particularly impressive when found on chicken turkey or pork. It is illegal for growers to treat these animals with hormones. The claim only has meaning on beef.

"All Natural"

Sounds good. But all it means is that no artificial ingredients or color was added to the meat. It tells you nothing about how the animal was raised or whether it was treated with hormones or antibiotics.

"Grass Fed"

A verified seal like "American Grassfed" or "Certified Grass Fed by AGW" means the animals were never fed on grain and and spent their lives on pasture. But most grass fed claims are unverified and offer no guarantee that they are true.

"Sustainably Raised"

This claim has no official or regulatory definition. Anyone can slap it on their meat. Ignore it.

"No Antibiotics"

The FDA has banned the use of "No Growth Promoting Antibiotics" but you will still see the term in use. "Raised Without Antibiotics" and  "No Antibiotics Ever" may or may not be true. The "USDA Process Verified" seal means the claims have been independently verified. "USDA Organic" means that the animals were given no antibiotics, no hormones and only organic feed.

Finally, most meat has no nutrition labeling at all. The USDA does not require it. Instead they permit posting nutrition information on a poster displayed near the meat counter. Can't find the poster? The cut of meat you are buying isn't on it? Too bad for you.

Companies deliberately confusing people about the meat they buy probably isn't a big deal though. Its not as if they were eating it or anything.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Apple Cider Vinegar and Blood Sugar

Apple cider vinegar has gained enormous popularity as a home remedy for just about anything that ails you. From easing arthritis to erasing skin blemishes, apple cider vinegar is said to do it all. There is only a single benefit that is scientifically proven however, and its an important one.

For people dealing with diabetes or prediabetes, consuming vinegar with a meal has been shown to reduce post-meal blood sugar spikes by as much as 40% compared to people having the same meal without the vinegar. Much of the metabolic damage caused by diabetes is caused by these blood sugar spikes so this is significant.

It is the acetic acid in the vinegar that has the beneficial effect, blocking the absorption of carbohydrates and helping to clear excess sugar from the blood. Any vinegar will do this, not just apple vinegar.

It doesn't take a lot to get the benefit. In the studies confirming the effect, a dose of 2 tablespoons was used. Less was not as effective, and more did not seem to have any added benefit. Consuming the vinegar at or near the start of the meal seemed to be most effective.

If you are struggling to manage your blood sugar, try building some vinegar into your meals. Making your own vinaigrette salad dressing is a good way to do it. (Mix 1 part olive oil with 1 part red wine vinegar and add some herbs or a little mustard. This is less oil and MUCH less sodium than a store bought dressing). You can also use a flavored vinegar as a dip for bread in place of butter.

And you don't have to become a fanatic and do this every time you eat (although there would be nothing wrong with doing that). As with most things, even once in a while is better than not at all.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Certification for Aquaculture

Having heard about problems with "farm raised fish" such as the quality of the feed used, depletion of fresh water supplies and issues with runoff contamination, I have passed it by in favor of the "wild caught" label. This costs me significantly more than comparable farm raised offerings, but I care about what I eat and I want to support sustainable wild fishing.

As it turns out, there may be more to the story than that.

"Wild fish supplies are just not there any more," says Aaron McNevin, Director of Aquaculture for the World Wildlife Fund (an eco-friendly organization if ever there was one). "Some 80% - 85% of wild fish stocks are fished out or are at their capacity. To make matters worse, modern fishing techniques are causing damage to the oceans beyond just depletion of fishing stocks, such as damage to the sea floor by trawling or 'bycatch' - species caught unintentionally in the nets which are then destroyed."

I hadn't though about that. But wait! There's more!

Many environmental organizations now recognize that aquaculture -  the breeding and harvesting of marine animals in all types of water environments for food - must play an increasingly important role in supplying seafood to a hungry world. "For aquaculture, just like any other type of farming or ranching, there are good producers and bad producers," says McNevin.

How are consumers supposed to tell the difference? Fortunately, there are certification programs - as we see in the organic farming world - that give us a reliable method of determining if farmed fish is produced responsibly and sustainably. Here are two that you can depend on.

Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, offers a grading system and their web site provides guidelines for choosing safe, sustainable seafood - both wild caught and farm raised.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, has established measurable standards for responsibly farmed seafood. Look for the green ASC seal on farm raised seafood that meets the standards.

As for me, I plan to give farm raised fish another look.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Six Foods with Proven Health Benefits

Long before there were pharmaceuticals, there was food. Countless cultures have treated illness and promoted good heath using what they found in the world around them. Hippocrates, "the father of medicine", around 400 BCE famously advised, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food".

This is still good advice almost 2,500 years later. Unlike drugs, food contains a symphony of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can interact to help us fend off disease. Unfortunately, well designed clinical studies are often hard to find because they can be very expensive to do (and there is not much of a return on investment in proving that kale can make you healthier). And evidence or not, marketing departments breathlessly promote the latest miracle food.

Here are six foods for which the evidence of health benefits is convincing, any or all of which you can conveniently add to your diet.

1. Berries.
    Berries of all sorts are a rich source of nutrients and research
    suggests they     they can have a powerful effect on human health
    by reducing chronic inflammation and cancer risk. Plus,
    blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries all taste
    great. Toss some on your morning cereal.

2. Cruciferous Vegetables.
    George H. W. Bush may hate them but you shouldn't. Broccoli,
    cauliflower,     cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy (Chinese
    cabbage) and kale are known to     reduce "oxidative stress"
    which helps with cardio-vascular health, blood sugar
    management and cancer prevention. If you are like me and the
    very mention of these foods provokes a gag reflex, there is
    hope. You don't have to cook them the way my mother did (boil
    them until they could be eaten with a straw). They can be roasted,
    stir fried or tossed raw into salads. Try Google to find recipes
    that you will find appealing.

3. Fish.
    Any fish. Sure some are better than others but all are better than
    meat and poultry. The Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are effective
    anti-inflammatories that help protect your heart.  Find a few
    varieties that you enjoy and then do so once or twice a week.
    (There is more to the Fish Story but that is for another day.)

4. Fermented Foods.
    Unless you are living in a cave without WiFi, you've heard about
    the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics. This refers to the biome
    of healthy bacteria that inhabit our bodies, the digestive tract in
    particular, and which account for about 3% of your body weight.
    Eating fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi,
    tempeh and miso provides a favorable environment for these
    microorganisms which in turn improved digestion and strengthens
    your immune system.

5. Green Tea.
    The epugallocatechin gallate (you can gall it EGCG) in green tea
    has been shown to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects
    and possible heart-health benefits as well. The only real drawback
    is that you have to drink a lot of it. If you enjoy the taste, try
    making green iced tea to replace the sugary drinks in your diet.

6. Nuts.
    Numerous studies have shown that consuming nuts aids in
    cardiac function, blood sugar management and weight control.
    Use roasted, unsalted nuts to replace less healthy snacks, you
    only need a small handful a day to get the benefits.

As with most all diet advice, you do not need to dive right in to the deep end of the pool. Add some of these foods to your existing meals, try different varieties and recipes, find what you enjoy. Any step forward is progress.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Arsenic in Your Food

Do you remember the film "Arsenic and Old Lace"? This was director Frank Capra's classic 1944 film about two elderly sisters in Brooklyn and their ongoing effort to permit lonely bachelors to die with smiles on their faces - by serving said bachelors elderberry wine spiked with arsenic.

It turns out that here in 2018 you don't have to add the arsenic, you can find it already in your food.

Arsenic is used as an additive in chicken and pig feeds to promote faster growth and a Johns Hopkins study found that the arsenic-based drugs fed to poultry remains in their flesh and is transformed into cancer-causing inorganic arsenic (iAs) when cooked. Manure from arsenic treated birds is often used as a fertilizer which then gets into our ground water and crops.

Arsenic has been found in a variety of crops including apples, Brussels sprouts, beets, carrots and wheat. But rice seems particularly adept at absorbing arsenic from groundwater. Rice and many products made from rice have arsenic levels "significantly" higher than the 5ppm set by the EPA as an acceptable limit, according to Consumer Reports.

More bad news? Men who had 2.5 beers per day had arsenic levels more than 30% higher than nonconsumers, and women who drank five to six glasses of wine per week had levels 20% higher than nonconsumers. The arsenic may be coming from the water used to brew these beverages, but beer and wine producers also use a filtration material, diatomaceous earth, that's known to harbor arsenic.

While the FDA assures us that arsenic levels in our food are safe, you may want to take reasonable steps to limit your exposure.

Don't just cook your rice, rinse it well first. When cooking, double the water to rice ratio to 6::1 and discard the excess after cooking. Brown rice tends to have higher arsenic levels that white rice does. Rice grown in California, India and Pakistan normally has lower arsenic levels than rice grown elsewhere.

Consume less conventionally raised chicken.

As always, you cannot depend on the government, let alone the producers, to keep your food safe. Its on you.