Category Archives: Current Nutrition News

Baby Carrots – “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

“Life expectancy would increase by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”

–      Gary Larson, The Far Side cartoonist

Despite the huge growth of farmer’s markets and apparent interest in better quality food over the past few years, we aren’t eating any more veggies now than we were a decade ago. Let’s face it, vegetables have an image problem. I’ve heard all the reasons so many times – not tasty enough, convenient enough, too expensive, too much work to prepare, take too much time to eat, etc.

Oh sure the farmer’s market crowd oohs and aahs over bundles of rainbow-colored Swiss Chard or fresh, crisp asparagus, but in general people aren’t sneaking out at night to the produce department to satisfy snack cravings. In fact last time I checked French fries were still the most commonly consumed vegetable in the U.S. (unless fries are omitted from a particular survey in which case iceberg lettuce claims top spot).

So, this week I stumbled onto something potentially exciting in the vegetable world (at least for nutrition geeks like me) as I prepared to show my Food & Society class (the class I described in my last blog entry) an example of a sign of positive change.

There is a new PR campaign by “a bunch of carrot farmers” to promote baby carrots “like junk food.” (www.babycarrots.com) The $25 million dollar effort started last fall with vending machines in a few east coast high schools that dispense brightly colored packages of baby carrots available for just .50 cents.

Okay, even though $25 mill sounds impressive I realize it’s a mere pittance compared to the billions spent to promote fast and other junk food annually. It’s unlikely the fake orange cheese snack makers are trembling right now at the new orange crunchy snack kid in town. And yes, promoting more excessively (non-recyclable) packaged foods isn’t helping our landfills, nor are these conventionally grown veggies helping the causes of sustainable agriculture or re-regionalized food systems.

But, to reiterate one of my main themes these days, I am looking for signs of progress – not perfection (see previous rant related to Lunchables).  As we simultaneously struggle to help people eat better for their health and to re-tool our food and agricultural systems for a more sustainable future, there is much work to be done.

As we work to get junk food out of schools we need to replace it with something. Maybe baby carrots can blaze the vending machine trail for fresh snap peas, grape tomatoes, and colored bell pepper strips. Maybe for another quarter you can get a side of hummus or Ranch dressing to dip them in (increasing palatability for picky eaters).

We need to eat more vegetables. Kids need to eat more vegetables. We whine incessantly about the cost and inconvenience of vegetables and lament veggies’ lack of cachet in our modern food culture. (Though last fall in Manhattan an auction featuring heirloom vegetables was part of an event that raised over $250,000 for various charities!) Now enter “a bunch of carrot farmers” and some creative, savvy ad people and voila, baby carrots are getting a makeover.

The part I love about the ad campaign (aside from the prospect of getting more people to eat more carrots) is that it’s creative and fun. The campaign makes fun of commonly used advertising strategies – sexual innuendo, heavy metal music, violence, and politically incorrect (or at least suspect) language. There is a fun website (with LOUD and to my tastes obnoxious music), free iPhone app, Facebook and Twitter pages, and downloadable labels you can attach to your own baby carrot bags (providing a more eco-friendly packaging option for those who wish to print on recycled paper and re-use their own baggies or containers).

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for these baby (carrot!) steps toward positive change. I hope however, that you appreciate there is no single answer to the many nutrition, food and health challenges we face. If baby carrots are suddenly in the hands of even a few hundred school kids in place of high fat, sugar and salt-laden snack foods, even if it isn’t everyday it’s a good thing.

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
P. J. O’Rourke

New Lunchables… Progress Not Perfection

As a subscriber to Today’s Dietitian I received a press release recently from Kraft Foods announcing the expansion of their “Wholesome Product Line” of Oscar Mayer Lunchables. According to the article the new varieties include:

Chicken Strips made with 100% white meat chicken and Chicken + American Sub Sandwich which features rotisserie seasoned chicken and bread made with 8g of whole grain. Both products are good sources of protein and calcium and join the Lunchables with water roster introduced last year that offers quality meats, cheeses and spring water. (Lunchables Fact Sheet)

I’d read about this far when I rolled my eyes, annoyed that my subscription to a trade magazine makes me a target for this kind of propaganda. Then I thought I ought to take a closer look at the products before dismissing them completely. Generally speaking, I try to steer clients away from highly processed, packaged foods when possible and stick with a more whole foods approach. However, I also like the mantra “progress not perfection” so I need to know what to tell the client who is very clearly going to buy her kids Lunchables and merely wants to know if these new ones are better than their forebears. So, I read on.

The short answer to this imaginary client question is: yes. However, I discovered the press release doesn’t include the remainder of items in these conveniently packaged meals such as the crispy rice treat or Nilla Wafers and Kool-Aid Fun Fizz Tropical Punch Drink Drop (not sure what those are but without the addition of vitamin C to make parents think it’s a good thing I suspect no one would place them in the “health food” category). But I guess we shouldn’t be so picky, after all we are now getting a water beverage option, 8 grams of whole grain (though this is a tricky spin since we are really concerned about the amount of FIBER not the amount of whole grain…this label claim is typically a marker for a food being hawked as “healthy” that really isn’t), a full serving of fruit, and supposedly better quality chicken in at least two of these offerings – all for $3.49. What’s wrong with that?

(Sigh.) The dilemma I face is that as much as I want to be pragmatic and to work with clients “where they are,” (and I actually do this quite well) it is really difficult for me to embrace foods like Lunchables, even if they have evolved as a slightly better product from a pure nutrient content perspective. It gets back to my own broader nutritional view. The reality is that Lunchables aren’t likely to ever fit a predominantly “whole foods approach” to eating (and I don’t mean the famous upscale grocery chain – just food in its simplest form without a bunch of additives to prolong the time it spends on a shelf) even with the bottle of water and Mandarin oranges.

Kraft Foods is merely responding to a vocal part of the market clamoring for healthier, yet convenient foods to feed kids. They are in the business of selling food and we want cheap food that we don’t have to spend much time preparing. (Yes, I know that the simple, whole foods I promote can be easily and inexpensively prepared at home, but this requires time and skills, whether it’s nutritious or not, and in case you haven’t noticed, Home Economics is a dying art – if not already dead.) But here’s the thing, if we want convenient and cheap food (and it’s clear we do) then we will not shed the lengthy ingredient lists of foods like Lunchables any time soon.

Though the improvements to Lunchables don’t satisfy those of us yearning for short, easy-to-decipher ingredient lists using only stuff we’d find in a home kitchen, and there is probably still plenty of added salt, sugar and fat to entice the kiddos to chomp these down and beg for more, these latest changes do represent progress. Manufacturers like Kraft are making efforts to offer foods lower in sodium, fat and calories and ultimately this is a good thing. I view foods like microwavable meals and Lunchables as symptoms of larger cultural issues related to food – it’s production, distribution, how we view it, how we eat it, and the importance we attach to it. Ultimately what I’d like to see amounts to a cultural revolution and such a thing isn’t likely to come about from anything industry initiates…after all, the food industry is driven by us (at least in part).

So what’s a dietitian interested in a more “whole foods approach” to eating to do?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi

I cook and I teach others who want to cook. I minimize the highly processed and packaged foods I buy and eat, and I encourage others to do the same, but I’m not a zealot about it. Not everyone is ready for a major overhaul of their eating (whether they need it or not). I can help most by being knowledgeable, compassionate, and realistic – and hopefully, a good role model. I don’t think I need to embrace products like yuppified Lunchables, but I do need to recognize that the changes I want to see aren’t likely to happen quickly. I must adhere to my mantra and accept progress without perfection, at least for the moment.

“Is Dairy Really Bad?”

When I entered the hockey locker room to get ready for our first practice of the season last night I was greeted by a teammate who wanted to know if dairy was really “that bad” for her. Knowing this player’s husband likes to read about nutrition and “experiment on himself” using various approaches he investigates, I suspected this was his latest dietary discovery. In my usual way I replied that dairy is not necessarily “really bad” for everyone, though I know there are many who believe it’s a dietary evil.

Turns out her husband is reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. According to Campbell dairy protein (along with all other animal protein) is at the root of many of our culture’s ills, particularly cancer and ironically, osteoporosis. It’s been a while since I began reading Campbell’s book (and quite frankly I never finished it) so I didn’t remember the details aside from a clear pro-vegan agenda in the book. I skimmed the osteoporosis section my teammate had just read in alarm, and was reminded of one of the things I didn’t like about the book. Campbell uses studies that support plant-based diets to back up his own theories related to animal protein.

I think it’s important to remember that a plant-based diet does not have to be vegan or any kind of vegetarian diet it just needs to include more plant foods like veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts, and grains (preferably whole grains) than animal foods. Campbell is absolutely right that there is a plethora of research to support this approach to eating for excellent health and disease prevention but when he extends that to say we must shun all animal protein he loses me (and many other nutrition professionals).

However, let me be clear on this, I’m no fan of the highly politicized nutrition guidelines that favor various big industries, including dairy. I don’t believe dairy foods are required for good health (bone or overall) and the various plant sources of dairy are loaded with other important nutrients and phytonutrients that offer huge rewards both at the time of consumption and as protection against future health issues. Knowing that Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics) is a fairly objective resource for food information I referred back to her book What to Eat to read her thoughts on the subjects of calcium and dairy foods.

Nestle also does not believe dairy foods are a requirement for good health or strong bones (and makes the point that cows don’t drink milk after calfhood yet manage to grow bones that support 800 pounds or more of weight in adulthood – by eating grass!). Part of the confusion regarding the role of calcium in bone health is that it needs to be appropriately balanced with several other key nutrients to assess individual needs with any certainty. There are also several lifestyle factors that significantly impact bone health such as physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption.

The fact that milk happens to provide potassium, vitamin D (fortified), magnesium and lactose that promote calcium retention is a good thing. Unfortunately it also contains protein and phosphorus that promote calcium excretion. Like Campbell, Nestle points out that cultures with high rates of osteoporosis do eat the most dairy but she also reminds us that people in these countries are less active, smoke more and drink an excessive amount of soft drinks and alcohol (not to mention the excessive amount of sodium in their diets – another factor that promotes calcium losses) so their disease rates may have little to do with any particular food or drink.

As for the overall “evils of dairy” I agree with Marion Nestle’s take on the dairy debates:

…the current state of the science is that if milk does increase health risks, these have to be small. I think the science also suggests that if milk does have health benefits, these too are small. Milk is just a food. There is nothing special about it. Cow’s milk is not necessary and it is not perfect (at least not for humans). But cow’s milk also is not a poison…. You do not have to drink milk to be healthy, but if you like drinking it you can do so and stay healthy.

–        Marion Nestle, What to Eat (Northpoint Press, 2006)

Spinach, Burgers, Peanut Butter, Eggs…What Next?

I am troubled by the number of current news headlines related to not only the massive egg recall due to salmonella outbreaks but several other food recalls as well. Note I am troubled, not surprised. I recently read Paul Roberts’ disturbing book The End of Food (as uplifting as the title suggests) in which he writes about both the past and future of our industrialized food system. As you can imagine the future is a big question mark but he predicts increases in evidence that our food system is not only unsustainable but seriously broken – unsafe.

Normally I read such gloom and doom prophesies with skepticism, knowing such travesties could happen but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will happen. I try to stay positive, focusing on the evidence of change I see all over the country in terms of re-establishing local and regional food systems via the growth in farmers markets, CSAs, small farm cooperatives, and even home gardens. I find hope in the fact that people with varied political views have watched films like Food, Inc. and have made changes or are at least thinking about changes they can make in their food buying habits.

I am not convinced however, that we really grasp the trouble we are in right now in terms of our food system. The fact that eggs from one or two large farms can sicken so many people across a huge swath of the country is one thing, the fact that we don’t know how it started or what to do about it is quite another.

I’m tired of the onus of responsibility for not getting sick being on us, the eaters. If I want to eat my eggs cooked over medium or my burgers medium rare then it’s my fault if I get sick.  I’m also tired of reading that companies are so generously volunteering to recall tainted foods given they don’t have to do so according to current laws. So we should give them a badge of honor for making some effort to take back defective products? What is wrong with this picture?

So, this is a rant. I don’t have the answers – just more questions. I believe the local food movement is important but I still rely on our industrialized food system for foods I either can’t get locally or can’t afford at the “true cost” of those foods. I struggle with the fact that I need to change my personal eating habits to save the world, knowing that my habits alone won’t do the job. I already eat way less meat than the average American, lots of plant foods including organic, locally or regionally grown varieties, and aim for more whole than processed and packaged foods. Despite what the optimists advocate, all of this clearly isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong – these practices do keep me healthy and feeling good most of the time and that is part of my reason for making these choices. But I don’t have any illusions I am saving the planet or helping to feed any of the billion or so “food insecure” people worldwide. One thing I do know is that we all need to get angry and then, more importantly, take some kind of action. As the cost of food rises, as it will most certainly continue to do with rising oil costs rippling throughout the food production and distribution chain, we must demand it be safe. How this will happen will be an ongoing source of debate I’m sure.

Meanwhile, I will continue to be optimistic and do my small part to support alternatives to the current food system and think about the famous Betty Reese quote “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

The Raw Milk Conundrum

I’ve been watching the raw milk debates heat up in recent years and finally decided to dive into the topic for this blog. I spent several hours poring over articles, research abstracts and reviews of research, government statistics for food borne illness, and more, in an effort to give a balanced perspective on the subject. The fact that there are so many issues involved with raw milk including public health/safety, consumer freedom, current food production and distribution systems, and nutritional quality, makes this a very messy issue to tackle in a diplomatic way. People who have opinions on the topic are passionate. After all of my research I remain somewhere in the middle of the debate, so in theory anyway, I hope to present my thoughts based on my research and observations as objectively as possible.

First, as a health care provider in an often EXTEMELY litigious culture, when asked about raw milk by clients I need to think about liability. It may be true that a small number of deaths each year from food borne illnesses are attributed to raw milk but statistics represent real people. I don’t want my clients (or anyone else’s for that matter) to get sick or die because I told them to drink raw milk. Now a farmer who has fed her family raw milk for years with no ill effects may not give this a second thought, but then her kids aren’t likely to sue her if things go badly.

As a dietitian passionate about the benefits of a diet based on whole foods, raw milk poses more of a challenge. In concept I like the idea of drinking milk straight from the cow in its natural, unadulterated state and have enjoyed raw milk, yogurt and cheese at different times from local sources. But the pasteurization of milk is an example of processing that can benefit both consumers and manufacturers in our industrialized food system. Pasteurization does kill some (though not all) of the potentially dangerous microorganisms in milk (benefits to milk drinker) and it extends the shelf life of the milk (benefit to milk manufacturer and all involved in the supply chain). Realistically, these benefits go both ways in that “safer” milk may mean fewer law suits and longer shelf life helps keep cost of milk down.

Nutritionally speaking, it is true that some naturally occurring nutrients in raw milk are destroyed by pasteurization, though the degree to which this happens varies with the process used (simple pasteurization, ultra heat methods, etc.). There may be more beneficial fatty acids, special proteins that help us absorb or use folic acid (folate binding proteins), and beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in raw vs. pasteurized milk, however extensive research in this area is lacking.

Also, raw milk is not the only source of these nutrients and probiotics. So, from a nutritional perspective, at this point there just is not enough objective evidence to convince me that the benefits of drinking raw milk outweigh the risks, at least for the general population. I’m thinking in particular about high risk groups like kids, elderly, and people with compromised immune systems who are most likely to get really sick or die from the pathogens that may be found in raw milk.

Of course there are many other foods we eat knowing there are risks involved but we either really like the way these foods taste, don’t realize there are risks, or believe the health benefits outweigh the risk of illness. I’m thinking raw sushi, sprouts, lettuce, and let’s not forget the food that probably sickens (and kills) the most people every year, ground beef. In fact this is where the consumer freedom arguments kick in and cries of nanny-ism abound. We live in a dangerous world and take risks all the time. At what point must the government step in and protect us from ourselves? (No answers for this one, just laying it out there.)

In fact it is this aspect of the debate that probably gets me fired up the most. I can’t help thinking that while government agencies fret about raw milk, the largest outbreaks of food borne illness in recent years are linked to hamburgers, eggs, chicken, peanut butter, and various vegetable crops tainted by pathogens spread by animal matter. I think about the fact that contaminated ground beef cannot be tracked to its source due to current laws and food industry practices, yet thousands are sickened by this food every year. Just over a month ago (June 2010) there was a recall affecting nearly 40,000 pounds of ground beef from manufacturing plants in New York and California.

Meanwhile, according to the CDC “from 1998 to May 2005, raw milk or raw milk products have been implicated in 45 food borne illness outbreaks in the United States, accounting for more than 1,000 cases of illness (CDC, unpublished data, 2007).” To further put this into perspective, according to data supporting a recent bill proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont) to improve the meat inspection and tracking process:

Roughly 73,000 Americans are sickened annually by E. coli, 2,000 are hospitalized and 60 are killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs associated with E. coli exceed $405 million a year.

So, on one hand people are clamoring for a better system to make our food supply safer on the heels of numerous outbreaks of food borne illnesses (most would admit this is a good thing – unless you own a meat packing plant), while other people want the government to stay out of their business and let them drink raw milk (knowing there are higher risks of contamination by food borne pathogens). What’s the government to do?

Finally, while I agree that changing our food system to foster more localized food production and distribution, including better care for its animals, could be safer in terms of sanitation and ultimately decrease contamination risks. At the very least this type of system would make it easier to track problems and affect fewer people when pathogens do contaminate a food. But here’s the reality: our entire food system isn’t going to change overnight. In the meantime, allowing the sale and distribution of raw milk is tricky. Currently 25 or so states have some kind of legal raw milk sales, though some are just for animal feed and not human consumption. However, I worry that if we encourage raw milk consumption on a larger scale, big agribusiness will be lured into the fray to cash in on this current food trend, just as it has with organic and “natural” foods. I suspect such a transition would not help small farmers.

To wrap this up, professionally I don’t recommend raw milk. There may be nutritional benefits to raw vs. pasteurized milk (in fact I suspect there are and we will learn more with further research on the topic) but right now the evidence of nutritional superiority isn’t compelling enough to balance the risk of contamination, especially for vulnerable people (kids, elderly, sick, etc.). As for the consumer freedom part of the issue I think if raw milk is legal then people can weigh their own risks just as they do with other adventurous eating habits like raw sprouts, sushi, and of course, burgers.

Should You Really Skip Breakfast Before a Workout?

Nutrition headlines are notoriously misleading, spinning the latest research to make it seem sexy, new, controversial, or otherwise exciting. One such headline struck me this week “Skip Breakfast Before Exercise to Burn More Fat.” Despite the fact that this report emerged from a recently published study this concept is far from new. This appears to be yet another take on the fat burning myth that has been popular among some personal trainers for over a decade.

The implication of this headline, and the persistent fat-burning myth, is that you can skip breakfast, do your usual workout (meaning you’ll burn the same number of calories) and more of what you burn will be fat.  The reality is that without proper fueling you will not go as intensely (translate: as hard or as fast) therefore you will not burn the same amount of calories. So, more of the calories you burn may be fat calories but in the grand scheme of things if you want to lose weight you want to burn more calories (preferably without sacrificing muscle). For sports performance you probably want to go faster, harder or longer and to build (or at least maintain) muscle mass. Skipping breakfast prior to your usual workout is not likely to help you achieve any of these goals.

Now if you prefer slower exercise that happens to be more in the “fat burning zone” that’s great. Making exercise enjoyable is important for both short term weight loss and long term maintenance of good health. But you will need to exercise longer or more often (translate: longer duration overall) than you will with higher intensity exercise to lose weight or to gain other improvements related to sports performance. Again, not a problem but skipping breakfast is a bad idea if you want to increase the amount of time you exercise, even at a lower intensity. For one thing you’ll get hungry and what’s fun about exercising slowly with lots of time to think about how hungry you are?!

One caveat in the whole fast vs. fed before exercise is that you may not need a big breakfast – or a breakfast at all to sustain a decent workout. A small snack may be plenty, especially if you exercise for an hour or less.  If your exercise of choice includes sprinting or doing laps on hills you may not be able to digest anything solid so some kind of beverage may be all you can tolerate before exercise. There is a lot of individual variation among athletes with respect to optimal fueling. The quality of your workout, as well as how you feel before, during and after your workout, will help you find the best fueling strategy.

If you are a casual exerciser just trying to drop a few pounds I recommend doing whatever makes you feel the best and keeps you motivated for your exercise routine. If you currently don’t eat before you hit the gym and you feel great, have plenty of energy and are meeting your weight loss goals, fine. If not eating makes you think about food the whole time, work out less intensely, for less time or less often you may want to add a snack or small breakfast to fuel your workout.