science

NO to GMO?

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It’s the bottom line that got us in this quandary: higher yields + higher quality = happy consumers. Many thought genetically modified organisms (GMO) would be the missing factor to solve the equation. So why are so many people unhappy?

GMO-Corn

The original plan for GM foods was that it would lead to a greater crop yield and improve quality and nutrition. This in turn would help feed the world with superior quality foods and increase the profits of growers. Naturally, weeds and bugs stand in the way of increased crop yields so biotechnologists used genetic modification to develop seeds that would progress the bottom line.

Some may think this process is just speeding up the breeding process. However, many GM crops are made by mixing different species’ genes in a way that would never occur in nature. For example, GM plants are resistant to bugs because a piece of bacterial DNA, from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt toxin), is inserted into plant DNA to give it insecticidal properties.

Once again, plants are given bacterial DNA to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate, one of the main ingredients in Round-Up. Unfortunately, the excessive amount of herbicides being used on crops, though they are bred to handle them, is causing problems in the environment and in humans. Glyphosate along with all the other chemical components of pesticides either get into the soil and water or remain on the plant awaiting human consumption. Studies show occupational glyphosate exposure, as well as exposure to individuals in close distance to fields being sprayed, may cause DNA damage and cancer in humans.

Furthermore, the reliance on glyphosate has led to the micro-evolution of resistant weed species. By not practicing better weed and pest management, we are setting the stage for the growth of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that can withstand the heavy pesticide and insecticide usage.

There is, however, another way to influence plant DNA. The developing scientific process of TILLING, targeted induced local lesions in genomes, is faster than traditional crossbreeding yet does not involve genetic engineering. Instead of adding foreign DNA, plants are exposed to physical and chemical agents and then screened for beneficial mutations that cause the plant to withstand the harsh experimental environment. With all the backlash on GMO, this new method may provide another option for improving the bottom line. Nevertheless, there are risks and drawbacks with TILLING along with benefits.

One could argue that no matter what you do, whether it is traditional crossbreeding, genetically modifying, or practicing TILLING, there will always be survival of the fittest. Weeds will respond to beneficial changes in plants (natural or human-induced) and only the strongest will reproduce. That is nature. All we can do is work to stay ahead of it. But we need to get ahead in a smart way—a way that will not negatively impact future plant and human life.

I am not necessarily opposed to biotechnology, but I also do not blindly support it. There are too few studies looking at the long-term effects of GM foods.   What I would support is a more environmentally responsible way of doing things. Consider possible repercussions before diving into an idea. For example, do we want to spray chemicals all over the earth to support the crops of biotechnology? Weigh the positives and negatives that would result now and in the future.

If we can modify plant genes in a way that would actually be helpful, not harmful, to mankind, I think there would be more support.  If this technology had more to do with improving the nutrition of people (Golden Rice) and bringing fewer burdens on the environment instead of being driven by profit, people would promote it. Until we carry out more research and implement mindful strategies, people will likely continue to be unhappy with GMO.

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Stranded on a Desert Island

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If you only had three foods to eat to stay alive, for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Beans? Eggs? Brown rice? Milk? Spinach? Salmon? Blueberries? Or maybe you would choose the top three in the super foods list.

Now, if I were trapped on a DESSERT island, I would surely be packing the dark chocolate bars, double chocolate brownie ice cream, and peeps. My peeps would keep me company and I would name one Wilson.

peep
^^Wilson^^

You’re just a peep, but let me tell you what I would choose and why.

Each food serves a purpose and a diet full of variety is what keeps one healthy. People often ask me: “what are the very best foods I can eat?”  I sigh and tell them all whole and natural foods on this earth are good for you!  Of course moderation is key.  But Wilson, three foods!  Just think!  If you had just three foods to sustain life, what would you pick?  What three foods would give you the best proportion of essential protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals to meet all the nutrition requirements the body needs to survive?

To start, I would choose a food that has all the essential amino acids, or building blocks of protein.  Essential amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine) cannot be made in the body and must come from the diet.  A complete protein contains these nine essential amino acids in the correct proportion.  While most foods contain all the essential amino acids, they do not necessarily have them in the correct proportions our bodies need.  Animal sources like eggs, milk, poultry, meats, and fish are examples of complete proteins.  Plant sources tend to have a lower amount of one or more essential amino acids and therefore need to be paired with a food that can compensate.  For example, combining beans and rice is a popular way to achieve a complete protein.

That being said, I would choose milk to be my source of complete protein.  It has a high protein digestibility score plus it is higher in calcium, magnesium, and B-12 than a serving of egg.  (And I would be so bored on the island I would learn how to make yogurt and cheese.)

Then, it would hit me that I’m on this island alone; I will need a lot of energy to build myself a home and arrange logs to spell out “help.”  Therefore, I need a high-energy food like a starch that will build up my glycogen stores as well as provide immediate energy.  At first one might think potato.  But I’m going to delegate a sweet potato to be my source of energy and added goodies like potassium, Vitamins A, C, and B-6, and fiber.  (I’m totally making sweet potato fries over the fire.  Wilson, you’re next!  You delectable puffy golden brown s’more, you!)

peep smore

Ok, now for my last choice.  (Big puff of air through small opening of mouth.) Man, this is tough.  I have many nutrient holes to fill such as Vitamins E and K, some of the B vitamin family, iron, and the list goes on.

The first food that comes to mind to fill these holes is spinach.  Spinach is high in Vitamins C, A, and K, and folate, and is a good source of calcium, iron, and Vitamins E, B2 and B6.  But even a 10-ounce package of spinach, a half-gallon of milk, and five cups of sweet potatoes, providing a total of 2137 calories, would leave me deficient in Vitamin E, iron, and zinc, and exceeding the safe upper limit for magnesium and calcium, and extremely exceeding the upper limit for Vitamin A.

Really Wilson, I hope this helps you realize you really can’t live off of just three foods and achieve all your daily requirements of every vitamin and mineral.  It would be extremely hard.  But what do you know about hard; you’re a marshmallow.

 

Please, don’t let Wilson and I carry on this ridiculous dialogue alone.  Leave your comments below.  What three foods would YOU take with you on this desert island?

How bad are artificial sweeteners?

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I love Diet Coke. Having one at lunch, with a sandwich and some veggies, somehow is just refreshing. But I’ve found that my acceptance of Diet Coke, and the artificial sweeteners that make it zero calorie, surprises people.

I get responses like “I won’t touch that stuff” or “I’ve heard that’s terrible for you” or “You drink that shit?”

It’s clear that sweeteners got a bad reputation. However, studies estimate that 75% of the population consumes them regularly (that’s right, they’re even in yogurt). So where does this criticism come from and is it justified?

The Saccharin Saga

Saccharin, most notably found in Sweet’n Low, gained popularity in the 1960’s as demand for a thin waist line increased. At that time sweeteners were widely believed to be a healthy alternative to sugar. But in 1970 a study was released linking bladder cancer in rats to saccharin consumption. Congress mandated that further studies of Saccharin be performed and that products containing it be labeled:

Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

For years saccharin carried that warning label on it, like cigarettes. But unlike studies linking smoking with lung cancer, that study was poorly designed. The lab rats ate more saccharin than a human could proportionately consume. And even then, only male rats had increased rates of bladder cancer, which they are physiologically prone to. Subsequent studies showed no relationship between saccharin and human illness, the FDA removed the warning label in 2000.

Currently there is no sound evidence linking artificial sweeteners to human illness.

Sweeteners and Satiety

In the last decade research has shifted to satiety and hunger, suggesting a link between sweeteners and weight gain.

Some scientists hypothesize that artificial sweeteners upset our brain’s pleasure centers. Eating sugar causes a spike in blood glucose levels that trigger dopamine release, making us feel happy. But because artificial sweeteners provide a sweet taste without raising blood sugar, the pleasure derived from eating sweet foods is decreased. Thus, we eat more in attempt to stimulate the happy feeling we missed by eating sweeteners.

Another theory suggests that satiety is only disturbed when we substitute food for zero calorie products. So, if you drink a diet coke instead of eating a snack, your body is going to respond by being hungry later in the day. This would happen with or without the sweetener. It’s simply how our bodies respond to skipping meals.

These are just two theories for why sweeteners are associated with weight gain. And there is contradicting literature that suggests sweeteners can be beneficial for dieters. If you enjoy the occasional low calorie soda, I recommend having it with a meal or snack to help balance any offset to satiety.

Bittersweet 

A recent Food Navigator article caught my attention as it focused on our demonization of artificial sweeteners. In it, scientists and public policy experts argued that sweeteners should be more commonly used to replace sugar. As a dietitian, that makes me cringe. Not because I believe them to be unhealthy. But because increasing their use would exasperate our already troubled relationship with food, causing us to eat more, well, shit.

People tend to latch on to simple remedies, or blame one food as a scapegoat for our health problems. When really, there aren’t terrible foods or magic bullets, just balanced and unbalanced eating.

Personally, I think artificial sweeteners are the same as most things in life. Great, if used in moderation.

MSG: Hero or Villain?

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Once upon a time, a fair maiden Glutamate and a strapping lad Sodium got together and had a child: Monosodium glutamate, who later became known as Ms. G for short. Ms. G was born in 1908 and had an awesome childhood. She had a magical power that caused taste buds to experience the taste “umami.” Everybody in the United Plates of Food loved her and wanted her in all their dishes. She became quite popular. Not to mention, Ms. G had 1/3 the amount of sodium of her half brother NaCl, or Sir Tablesalt. Everyone in UPF understood the destructive hypertension Sir Tablesalt brought to the land so Ms. G was considered a hero to all who enjoyed the umami flavor and lower sodium alternative.

But as time passed, people started blaming her for symptoms they were having after eating a number of Asian dishes she starred in.  These symptoms included headaches, nausea, flushing, sweating, heart palpitations, and chest pain.  People called it “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”  To make matters worse, people pointed at her for the cause of migraine headaches, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and intolerances.  Soon, she became known as a villain.

Hero-or-Villain-01

Before we delve into the fate of Ms. G I think it’s best to take a brief story time intermission.  So no one confuses fairy tale and fact, I’m going to switch gears here and give it to you straight.  Since many thought MSG was the culprit of the afore mentioned health concerns, scientists carried out research involving MSG and its effects in both animals and humans.  Research has been going on for decades and still, scientists cannot find conclusive data stating MSG is harmful.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even classifies MSG as a food additive that is “generally recognized as safe.”  Sure, a few studies have proven MSG to be harmful.  BUT, these were done in mice given extreme amounts of the additive compared to their weight.

Still, scientists agree that some people may be sensitive to the effects of MSG. For this reason, the FDA requires that foods containing added MSG list it in the ingredient panel on the packaging as monosodium glutamate. Of course, MSG occurs naturally in ingredients like hydrolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed yeast, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, protein isolates, and also in tomatoes and cheeses. Even foods with these naturally occurring MSGs cannot claim “No MSG” or “No added MSG” on their label. Moreover, it cannot be listed as “spices and flavoring.”

This is where people get heated. Many food companies don’t necessarily follow these requirements and try to cover up MSG in whatever way they can. It is up to the consumer to recognize MSG’s other common names (these among others) if he really wants to know for sure.

So, does everyone live happily ever after? Keep reading to find out!

 

To this day, scientific evidence shows Ms. G is safe, yet some may need to restrict her in the food they eat to avoid adverse reactions. Thankfully, this is such a small number of individuals and studies of Ms. G and her link to health concerns are inconclusive.

Hero? Villain? Neither? Maybe one day the United Plates of Food will unveil her true identity.

What SUPP with My Brain?

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I’m sitting here eating an olive oil and spice crusted salmon fillet with a side of roasted asparagus, trying to decide if my topic is thought provoking enough for my first blog post.  To tell you the truth, I chose the topic “memory enhancing foods and supplements” not just because it’s a popular topic, but also to research for my own benefit.  Folks, I’m losing my mind.  Seriously.  While my sisters can remember things from our childhood, down to the very location a certain conversation was had, I can’t seem to remember entire months out of that same year!

funny-old-ladies-bad-memory

I’ve researched all the memory foods: blueberries, cruciferous veggies and leafy greens, walnuts, flaxseed, coconut oil, green tea, coffee, rosemary, cold water and oily fish like salmon… wait—salmon?!  That’s what I’m eating right now!  And come to think of it, I eat ALL of those memory foods quite frequently.  They are staples in my diet.  Although it seems I have the food aspect covered, I want to do more.

We hear so much about supplements that improve cognitive function like ginkgo biloba, Vitamin B12, and choline, to name a few.  In fact, ginkgo biloba has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years!  I did some research to try to connect these notions with science.  I knocked on science’s hopeful, shiny door and was discouraged to find a somewhat muddy answer.

Turns out most studies look at the effects of B12 in the elderly rather than in all adult age ranges, which makes sense as B12 absorption decreases while dementia increases with age.  But still, that’s not very useful to me.  Studies of choline, the essential micronutrient found in eggs, mainly focus on memory development in human infants and animal pregnancy.  Again, not quite what I’m looking for.  I was excited to see a meta-analysis by Laws et. al. look across a wide spectrum of adult ages and include over 2,000 subjects.  My excitement for a strong study faded when I realized they found no impact of ginkgo biloba on a range of cognitive functions like memory, executive function, and attention.

These studies are essential for moving forward, but really, we don’t know all the answers yet.  I trust scientific studies, but I also trust thousands of years of traditional, holistic medicine.  The atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 left at least 90,000 people dead, yet 6 trees within the site remained standing when the smoke cleared and still stand today.  Those hardy tenacious trees are none other than Ginkgo biloba trees.  They stand the test of time as well as radiation and destruction.  Something must be said for this observance, too.  I truly believe science is making great progress but really, more research is needed to fully understand the use of traditional medicines and herbs.

So where do we go from here?  How can we take this knowledge and increase our brainpower??  Well the first step is to focus on getting your nutrients from your diet!  Improve your diet by including a wide variety of whole, clean, unprocessed, nutritious foods, especially those listed above.  Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food (thanks, Hippocrates).

Looking at it in an individualistic approach, specific people could benefit from a supplement while others may not.  Different bodies respond differently to different stimuli. Therefore, it is important to speak with a professional before taking an herbal or supplement since they are not regulated by the FDA.  A professional will be able to help identify drug interactions and recommend safe amounts to take.  And even at safe limits, while a supplement may not harm your body, it may harm your wallet if you continue to take it without any noticeable benefits!

I, personally, think I might try an herbal supplement and see if I notice any benefits like quicker processing speed and better long-term memory.  Hey, I have a $20 coupon for a nutrition store that I received for completing a marathon last year; why not use it?  Maybe my memory will dig up some good, juicy, 10-year-old conversations I had with my sisters years ago, maybe it won’t.

Hmm…now if I could only remember where I put that coupon…

How to Trust a Nutritionist

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Hi! My name is Allison and I just graduated with a master’s degree in nutrition. I am, essentially, a nutrition expert.  But should you trust me?  Should you believe all of my trendy nutritional factoids?  Let’s experiment with my thoughts on coffee:

Coffee. God I love coffee. The rich flavor.  The heavy aroma. The deep succulent taste that wakes me up with the confidence to tackle life.  Plus, emerging research shows that coffee can prevent depression, keeping drinkers happy and productive.  It is also brimming with antioxidants that fight cancer and keep us energized.  You can feel safe and guilt free drinking coffee regularly.

How was that? A little too bright? Let’s try again:

Coffee is terrible for you. As a nutritionist, I never drink it.  It is an unregulated and addictive substance that yellows your teeth and blackens your heart.  Studies have shown that coffee causes anxiety and depression in regular users.  Plus, it is brimming with carcinogenic toxins that damage your body. You should feel guilty about every cup you drink.*

coffee

Neither paragraph is wrong.  Both are substantiated by scientific studies.  But the nature of science allows us to test and retest theories.  It causes the information we base our recommendations on to improve. To become more complete. 

However, this makes communicating nutritional information tricky. When our opinion on something like cholesterol and heart disease takes a dramatic turn, it causes confusion and distrust.  A recent study showed that seventy-one percent of consumers do not trust food claims from experts.  Seventy-one percent!

The truth is, science, and especially the science of food, is skewed by subjective opinions. With countless nutritional claims, and research studies to support them, almost any statement can be made.  However, not all research is current.  Not every study is legitimate.  And not every expert knows what they’re talking about. Being skeptical about information is healthy.  As a nutritionist, that is my job.  I use my background in hard sciences to interpret the legitimacy of nutritional information, connecting the pieces into one comprehensively delicious picture.

So, hey!  We’re nutritionists and we’re starting a nutrition blog. Our posts will be current, fun and tasty.  But, please, don’t passively believe everything that’s said. Make it a conversation. And together we’ll build some sense of the food we love.

*Allison is a passionate coffee drinker. It pains her to write anything critical about the wonder brew.