bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Are these 27 foods you should never buy again?


Reader’s Digest published the article 27 foods you should never purchase again. Reasons given include: being a rip-off, being gross, being fake, and being “drastically” unhealthy. Here’s my take on the list:

1. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is apparently over-priced in comparison to other flavourful hard cheeses. Depending on the prices at your grocery store this may be true. As they state, Pecorino Romano makes a nice substitute.

2. Smoked and cured meats are too fatty and are linked to a number of health problems. I certainly don’t think that bacon and sausages should be every day foods. However, I think that there is no problem with consuming them once in a while. Bacon is delicious.

3. “Blueberry” items often don’t contain any actual blueberries. Read the ingredients. Make an informed decision.

4. Multi-grain bread “is junk food masquerading in a healthy disguise.” They suggest checking the label for “whole wheat” as the first ingredient. Sure, the bread section of your grocery store can be difficult to navigate. However, it’s not necessarily a junk food and you should be looking for whole grain on the label, not whole wheat.

5. Reduced fat peanut butter fat is replaced with sugar. I’m on board with this one. Go with natural nut butters that contain nothing other than nuts.

6. Bottled tea is expensive and contains lots of sugar and calories. Good advice; brew your own at home and sweeten minimally.

7. Tomato-based pasta sauces are over priced. Sure, this may be the case but for those who are time-pressed taking an hour to make their own tomato sauce may not be viable. If you have the time, go for it. If you don’t, and you have the money, check the ingredients and don’t feel bad about buying a jar or can of tomato sauce. Add extra veggies for more nutrients.

8. Swordfish are high in mercury. True. Go for smaller fish, lower down the food chain.

9. Energy drinks are “sugar bombs” and have been linked to adverse health effects. No argument from me on this one!

10. Gluten-free baked goods unnecessary if you don’t have a condition that means you can’t have gluten, may be high in calories, and expensive. I agree that this items may be less nutritious than their glutenous counterparts. However, for those on gluten-free diets they can be nice to have. And some of them can be nutritious. As always, read the label.

11. Flavoured non-dairy milks are expensive and unhealthy. Well, yes, you should avoid the sweetened non-dairy milk, but you can buy unsweetened vanilla and chocolate non-dairy milks. For the many people who are lactose intolerant, allergic to cow’s milk, or vegan, nut, grain, and seed milks provide a viable alternative. They can also be a nice change for anyone. As always, read the label to make sure that it’s fortified (so that you’re getting the calcium and vitamin D and other micronutrients that you would get from cow’s milk) and also, be aware that these milks are not a good source of protein.

12. Foods made of WOOD - Cellulose is actually wood shavings. While cellulose is found in plants, it does appear that the cellulose used as a food additive is wood pulp used to add fibre and impart a creamy mouth-feel. I’m not sure if this is anything to get too worked-up about. Cellulose from a tree should be the same as cellulose from a plant. Still, it’s best to minimize your highly processed packaged food consumption so it’s something to bear in mind.

13. White rice is associated with higher diabetes risk. Yes, it’s always best to go with whole grains but having white rice every now and again isn’t going to kill you.

14. ‘Gourmet’ frozen vegetables are easily made on your own. Agreed. Unadulterated frozen veg are a great thing to have on-hand. They’re affordable, nutritious, and keep for months in the freezer. However, when you get into the “gourmet” ones you’re getting added fat and salt and probably other things. Far better (for your health and your bank account) to add your own herbs and spices when you’re cooking.

15. Microwave sandwiches you’re paying for packaging and additives. These things are so far off my radar! Definitely a waste of money. If you don’t have time and ingredients to make your own sandwich for lunch most grocery stores have delis at which you can purchase freshly made sandwiches which they can even grill for you.

16. Premium frozen fruit bars are overpriced; you should make your own. Yes, you can make far better flavours at home if you have time and freezer space and if they’re your sort of thing.

17. Boxed rice ‘entree’ or side-dish mixes may have added flavours but they also have considerable added cost. Yep, best to add your own herbs and spices. Try cooking in broth or coconut milk for extra flavour as well.

18. Energy or protein bars are expensive and full of sugar, fat, and calories. Yes, many of them (and granola bars) are candy bars masquerading as health foods. However, some of the better ones (again, read the label) can be handy snacks or meal replacements to have on-hand in a pinch.

19. Spice mixes may seem like a good way to reduce the number of spices you have to buy but usually contain a lot of salt. Again, check the label. But, I generally agree with this. Best to keep staple spices on-hand and make your own blends and rubs.

20. Powdered iced tea mixes or prepared flavoured iced tea are expensive and full of unhealthy ingredients. Umm… See #6.

21. Bottled water is expensive and environmentally unfriendly. Not to mention, provided your tap water is potable, it’s usually less safe than tap water. As they mention, there are occasions when bottled water may be a necessary purchase. In general, stick with tap.

22. Salad kits are expensive. Those added croutons and chips and whatever else they come with these days aren’t great for you either. Yes, if you can use up all of the ingredients you’d need to make your own salad before they go bad, this is the best option. If you can’t, check out the ready-made salads in the deli dept.

23. Individual servings of anything are expensive; buy a big package and portion out your own. While most of the foods that come in this format tend to be nutritionally void, if you’re going to buy them anyway and you struggle with portion control I do think that they can serve a purpose.

24. Trail mix pre-bagged is expensive, make your own. Any way you slice it, nuts and dried fruit are going to be expensive. Sure, make your own if you want, but also go for mixes in the bulk food section or hit-up a bulk food store. Don’t forget that trail mixes are very calorie dense. Watch your serving sizes!

25. Snack or lunch packs are overpriced and full of salt. Agreed. These are not good choices. Make your own healthy bento-box lunches for your kids instead. Use fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain crackers or flat breads, “real” cheese or meat.

26. Gourmet ice cream is expensive and there’s usually a cheaper brand that’s just as good. True, many store-labels are manufacturer by brand-name labels. Ice cream should be a “sometimes” food anyway though so price might not matter and you might be better off getting a small tub to avoid eating too much in one sitting.

27. Pre-formed meat patties are more expensive than making your own and may have an increased risk of bacterial contamination. Added bonus: when you make your own you can add special spices and chopped onion and jalapeno.

While it does seem that I agree with much of this list. There were a few additional comments I added that I feel are worth consideration.


Why the home test for vitamin quality is crap



I’ve had a number of people mention to me about testing vitamin quality by attempting to dissolve them. While this seems like a good idea, initially, upon further consideration, I can think of a number of flaws with attempting this at home.

The Consumer Lab provides a step-by-step guide to testing the disintegration of vitamins at home. They recommend putting the pill in water warmed to body temperature and then stirring continuously for 30 minutes, maintaining the water temperature. Unless the pill is chewable, enteric coated, or timed-released, it should break down. The implication is, if it doesn’t, it’s not breaking down when you ingest it and your body isn’t getting the nutrients from it. But, there are some problems with this premise.

First, your stomach is a highly acidic environment. Stomach acid usually has a pH of 1.5-3.5. Water, on the other hand, has a pH of about 7 (i.e. neutral). If you wanted to mimic the conditions of the stomach, you would need to use warmed lemon juice, or a similar acid.

Second, creating a warm, acidic environment isn’t enough. Most vitamins are recommended to be consumed with food. During digestion, the stomach releases a whole host of digestive enzymes which work to break down your food, and some of them would likely also have an impact on breaking down any vitamin and mineral supplements. Together the stomach secretions and jumbled-up food forms “chyme” which is generally ready to leave the stomach after 1 to 4 hours. That time-frame gives your vitamin a whole lot longer to break-down than the 30 minute warm water home test does. The stomach also secretes “intrinsic factor” which essential for the absorption of vitamin B-12 (don’t forget to add that to your cup of body temperature lemon juice).

Third, digestion doesn’t end in the stomach. After the chyme moves from the stomach to the small intestine which is actually where most digestion takes place over 3 to 10 hours.

Fourth, as the Consumer Lab test notes, a number of vitamins are designed to take long periods to break-down (i.e. timed-released). Others (i.e. enteric coated) are designed not to break-down until after exiting the acidic environment of the stomach and entering the neutral environment of the small intestine.

Fifth, have you ever shat out an intact vitamin pill? Unless your body’s stashing whole pills somewhere along your digestive tract, it’s probably safe to say that it’s being broken-down along the way.

Sixth, just because a supplement is breaking-down in your body doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being absorbed. Determining that it dissolves in a cup of warm water won’t tell you if you’re obtaining any nutrients from it.


Will canned fruit really kill me? Lessons from epi research



One of my twitter friends retweeted the above tweet yesterday (identifying info removed to protect the guilty). I asked if they had a link to research to support this claim and received a link to this article in Science Daily in response. Dutifully, I followed-up with reading the full journal article. I just couldn’t fathom how eating canned or frozen fruit and vegetables could increase your risk of cancer.

For one thing, right off the bat, the authors are make no mention of frozen vegetables, they refer only to frozen fruit. Just to be clear, that was not a claim they were making.

It’s important to note that the study is observational epidemiological research. It’s impossible to infer causation from such research. At best we can say that there is a correlation between fruit and veg consumption and cancer diagnoses. We can’t say that fruit and veg consumption, or lack thereof, is causing the cancer.

The researchers questioned the participants regarding their fruit and vegetable consumption on the previous day, once a year, for seven years. This data was then linked to all-cause mortality up until 2013.  A few points to make here: 1. fruit and vegetable consumption included fruit juice and dried fruit, as well as pulses (e.g. lentils, beans, legumes) which many would categorize as meat alternatives; 2. dietary recall is notoriously inaccurate… can you remember everything you ate yesterday, including the quantities? 3. we are operating under the assumption that one day is truly representative of most days for the study participants, rather a large assumption.

Some potential confounding variables were controlled for; such as, physical activity, education, socioeconomic status, and BMI. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some variables were overlooked. As the researchers themselves point out, they didn’t look at total calorie consumption or other specific aspects of diet (e.g. sodium intake, macronutrient composition, consumption of fast food, timing of food intake, changes in diet, sedentary time, etc). Any of these things could have affected the apparent relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD) or cancer.

As someone else on twitter pointed out, it’s also worth noting that the relative risk of dying was quite small. Out of 85, 347 participants, 1, 336 died from cancer and 1, 482 died from CVD. That’s a whooping 3.3% of all participants. Although the researchers found an inverse relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption (except for canned and frozen fruit for which they found a positive relationship) and all-cause mortality I question how meaningful this is. After all, suicide was the leading cause of death in both men and women between the ages of 20-34 years, accidental poisoning was second, and car accidents were third in England and Wales in 2012 (1). Is diet that much of a factor in such deaths? Why look at all-cause mortality? Why not focus solely on lifestyle related deaths?

Yes, it would appear that consuming more fruit and veg is correlated with reduced risk of dying, particularly from CVD. It’s certainly not going to harm you to eat more fruit and veg, unless you’re eating more canned and frozen fruit. So, why would that be? Well, remember the researchers didn’t examine the entire diet, nor did they distinguish between fruit packed in syrup and canned fruit packed in water, or frozen fruit without additives. It’s quite possible that other aspects of the overall diet (or the type of canned/frozen fruit) is responsible for the apparent increase in all-cause mortality in canned/frozen fruit eaters.

That brings me back to the tweet that started all of this. It came from someone who promotes health and fitness and who has a number of followers. Personally, I think that it’s irresponsible to tweet something like that. The tweet misinterpreted the findings by lumping frozen and canned fruit and vegetables together. It also sent a terrible message: if you can’t/don’t eat fresh fruit and veg you may as well not bother; you’re probably going to get cancer if you eat canned/frozen so you’re likely better off polishing off that box of Oreos. Sigh. Many people can’t afford, or don’t have easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Frozen and canned are preferable to none, especially if you make good choices. Frozen fruit and vegetables (without added sauces or syrups) are often more nutritious than their fresh counterparts as they are picked and frozen at peak-ripeness rather than under-ripe and spending time in transit, warehouses, on grocery store and fridge shelves. I would also argue that canned are preferable to that box of Oreos. If possible, choose fruit packed in water or juice, not syrup. Choose veg that are packed without added salt. If you can’t find vegetables without added salt, drain and rinse them well before using; you can get rid of up to 40% of the added sodium by doing this.

Don’t be discouraged if you feel that 7+ servings of fruit and veg are beyond your reach. Remember that every little bit helps; fresh, frozen, or canned.



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