bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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When is a strawberry not a strawberry?: The marketing of food to children

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

Photo credit: Dr Dan Flanders. Thanks for the blogspiration!

One of my twitter friends recently posted the photo shown above and asked his followers to discuss the marketing of healthy foods; i.e. fruits and vegetables to children. My immediate reaction was to say that this was at least a better practice than the ubiquitous marketing of “junk” food to children. At least these popular characters are promoting something that parents and healthcare professionals are always trying to get kids to eat more of. Maybe if mum can’t get her child to eat a carrot Bugs Bunny can (I don’t know if kids even know who Bugs Bunny is these days but you know what I mean). Then I thought about it a little bit more.

Do strawberries really need TV characters to get kids to eat them? Strawberries are fairly popular amongst all ages, no? What about the leafy greens, the root vegetables, the mushrooms? Who benefits from this type of marketing? Not the children who aren’t gaining exposure to new foods. Not the parents who now have to deal with their children demanding expensive out-of-season fruit. Not the farmer who makes very little of the actual retail price of her/his product. Some marketing company I suppose.

What about all the other strawberries? Even if you argue that this type of marketing is getting kids to consume more fruit the fact is, it’s only getting children to consume more of one specific brand of one specific variety of fruit. What impact might this have on local farmers who don’t have kid-friendly characters on their packaging? This type of marketing does nothing to support local in-season fruit and vegetable consumption.

Besides the strawberries and the farmers does this type of marketing harm children? Possibly. As many argued after the Eat Right! debacle of putting the Academy of Dietetics logo on processed cheese slices, dietitians shouldn’t be lending their name to any food. Healthy eating isn’t about any one particular food, it’s about the broader diet. Putting a dietetic organization’s logo on a food product is not only a vote for that single food, it’s a vote against all of the other foods that don’t feature the logo. In a similar vein, marketing of specific foods to children promotes those foods and those foods alone. It makes food more about sales and marketing than it does about health and enjoyment. We don’t need to bombard children with more messages to consume (both in a figurative and in a literal sense) than we already do. Let’s make food more about food and less about profit.


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Showing a little KINDness to KIND bars

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Last week everyone got all in a kerfuffle because KIND bars were told that they were not allowed to use the term “healthy” to market their snacks by the FDA. Since I’ve promoted KIND bars on here in the past (my first, and only, giveaway) I felt that I should weigh in on the subject.

In my opinion, as far as snack bars go, many KIND bars are a damn sight better than the alternatives. Many of them contain only about a teaspoon of sugar, compare that to upwards of six teaspoons in other snack bars. They are all nut-based, which is a nice change from the refined ingredients in many granola bars. The packaging on KIND bars doesn’t actually state “healthy”. This was a claim made on the KIND website. If you want to see some misleading packaging, just take a walk down the granola bar aisle. Here are just a few examples that I found:

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I understand that the FDA and CFIA need to ensure that food manufacturers aren’t using terms willy nilly. Otherwise you’d have every bottle of pop, chocolate bar, and bag of chips claiming some sort of health promoting abilities or ingredient. But really, really? I think that all this incident does is to highlight the difficulty with food marketing and health and nutrition claims. “Healthy” is a relative term and the criteria the FDA has used to define it may not fit for everyone. As you know, the negative effect of dietary saturated fat (especially from plant sources) has recently been called into question. Using specific nutrient quantities to determine whether or not a product can be marketed as “healthy” is tricky, and frankly not all that useful. You’re far better off reading the ingredients and making your own decision as to whether or not you want to include a particular food in your diet.


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What you need to know about magnesium

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Photo “nuts!” by Adam Wyles on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I recently read an article about magnesium that someone shared on facebook. Shockingly, for FB, it wasn’t nearly as inaccurate as I had expected. However, there were a couple of things in it that I wanted to address. The premise of the article was that most of us are magnesium deficient. This is untrue. Most of us don’t consume enough magnesium but there’s a world of difference between that, and being truly deficient. Magnesium deficiency manifests as an irregular heartbeat which may be accompanied by weakness, muscle spasms, disorientation, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. People who are at greatest risk of magnesium deficiency include: users of some diuretics, those with diabetes, people with alcoholism, as well as those who live in climates where they experience frequent heavy perspiration or those who have long bouts of vomiting or diarrhea.

So, how much magnesium should you be consuming? If you’re a man between 19 and 30 years of age, you should be consuming about 400 mg a day. Women in this age group should be consuming about 310 mg a day. Needs increase beyond this age by about 20 mg/d for men and 10 mg/d for women, and for those experiencing the conditions listed above. For more information of magnesium recommendations, click here. According to one of my old nutrition textbooks (Perspectives in Nutrition by Wardlaw and Hampl), assuming things haven’t changed that much in the past eight years, men consume 325 mg, women 225 mg, on average each day.

It’s not that terribly difficult to reach the recommended intakes of magnesium. One cup of spinach contains 157 mg, one cup of squash `105 mg, 1/4 cup of wheat germ 90 mg, 1/2 cup of navy beans 54 mg, 1 cup of plain yoghurt 43 mg… Nuts and seeds are also good sources of magnesium; as is dark chocolate and raw cacao (nibs, powder). Other leafy greens, beans, and legumes are also good sources of magnesium.

If you do decide to take a magnesium supplement, you should be aware that they are not all the same. Magnesium oxide tends to be the most common and inexpensive form of supplemental magnesium. However, it is also the most poorly absorbed form of magnesium. Liquid magnesium supplements will be best absorbed; the quantity of magnesium listed on the label is not as important as the form. As far as tablets and capsules go, Magnesium lactate, magnesium gluconate, and magnesium citrate are the most absorbable. However, magnesium citrate may have laxative effects, and magnesium hydroxide and magnesium sulfate are forms commonly used as laxatives. Zinc supplementation may interfere with magnesium absorption, while vitamin D supplementation may enhance magnesium absorption. Some medications may also affect magnesium absorption. As with any supplement, you should always check with your pharmacist to ensure that there will be no interactions with any other medications you’re taking. As with any nutrient, it’s best to try to get it from your food rather than from a supplement.


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The Arctic apple should go rot (with extra rants)

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I have a few things I want to say about GMOs as there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding them and I’ve had a couple of people suggest related topics for blog posts.

1. The Arctic apple was approved for production by the FDA and the CFIA a few weeks ago. Some food manufacturers people are pretty excited about this because it means that you will now be able to slice or bite an apple without having to worry about unsightly enzymatic browning. I mean, god forbid that your apple innards not be a pristine white. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that this was approved at the same time as everyone’s expressing such enthusiasm for “ugly” vegetables and fruits?

It’s this sort of use of genetic modification that makes me particularly angry. The primary argument in support of GMOs is that they will help to feed the world through hardier higher yielding crops. An apple that doesn’t brown is going to be of no benefit to people living in drought stricken regions. It’s not going to help alleviate the hunger of anyone except the food manufacturers who think that apples need to be pre-sliced and packaged in plastic pouches at exorbitant prices. Did you know that an apple comes with a lovely natural protective skin on it and that it can be sold intact? Did you know that you can eat an apple without slicing it first? And that there are kitchen tools called knives that enable you to slice an apple yourself if that’s your preferred method of consumption. Come on. Creating an apple that doesn’t brown when exposed to the air should not have been a priority for engineers. Do something worthwhile.

2. Non-GMO is not the same thing as organic. Based on the current definitions, all organic foods must be non-GMO but not all non-GMO foods are organic. Organic foods must also be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. Which leads to number three…

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3. Mamavation’s top 10 reasons to feed your family organic which are basically a list of lies. One and two being true (although not necessarily good reasons to feed your family organic) and the rest, aside from number six, being misleading at best and completely false at worst. 3. Organic foods have been found to contain residual pesticides. Organic farmers are permitted to use pesticides, they just can’t use inorganic (i.e. synthetic pesticides). In addition to those pesticides, organic crops also become contaminated with inorganic pesticides through air, rain, and soil contamination. 4. Have you ever looked at any of the packaged organic foods in your local supermarket? Products containing preservatives are plentiful. While they may not contain artificial flavours or colours this doesn’t make them nutritionally superior. Natural fallacy anyone? Beaver anal glands (can’t miss an opportunity to mention them!). 5. No antibiotics or hormones. You won’t find these in any Canadian milk regardless of whether or not it’s organic. In fact, you’ll only find hormones in beef and antibiotics in some animals (1). 7. There is no evidence, despite numerous studies, that organic foods contain more nutrients than non-organic foods. 8. Better taste. How to argue with subjectivity? I have had some delicious organic foods and some that taste terrible. I think that freshness and variety are more important factors in flavour profile than organic is. 9. Support the farmer and the farm. Organic is irrelevant here. I think that she’s confusing conventional agriculture with factory farms. Many smaller farming operations may be organic without being certified organic, they may also not use organic practices. You can also buy organic foods that come from large-scale farming operations. A better suggestion: buy local, know your farmer. 10. Reduces pollution and saves energy. Again, this is confusing farm-scale with organic and conventional farming practices.

While I’m not a supporter of genetic modification, I’m even more opposed to ignorant fear mongering.


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Thoughts on “The Myth of High-Protein Diets”

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Image used under a Creative Commons Licence. Photo by Sean_Hickin on flickr.

Part of me is a little hesitant to address the op-ed piece by Dr Dean Ornish in the New York Times last week. This because, the low-fat zealots have already attacked me for criticizing Dr Esselstyn in the past. But, you know me, when something gets under my skin I can’t leave it well enough along.

The piece was titled: The Myth of High-Protein Diets. One would think that the accompanying article would be about pitfalls to following a high-protein diet. However, Dr Ornish focusses solely on animal protein, with an emphasis on meat and fat. The gist of his argument is that if you eschew animal products you will live longer, as will the planet. Okay, so it’s not the myth of high-protein diets. It’s the myth of high-animal products diets.

One of the studies Ornish cites is one that I blogged about a year ago. At the time it ignited headlines proclaiming that protein was akin to smoking and that animal protein would contribute to our premature demise. Suffice to say, the study was flawed and these conclusions were tenuously drawn. In fact, in older adults, diets that were higher in protein were actually positively correlated with reduced mortality. And there was no negative effect from plant sources of protein at any age. So, even with the poor quality of this research, some of the results were in direct opposition to Ornish’s interpretation of them.

I read articles like this and think to myself “it’s no wonder that people are confused about what to eat and don’t trust any health care professionals”. You have one doctor insisting that a low-carb diet is the key to a long healthy life, another insisting that it’s low-fat, another insisting that it’s high-carb, another insisting that it’s blahblahblah. Of course, they all have the book to sell you. Maybe they’re all right. Maybe you can be healthy one any of their highly-restrictive diets. As I’ve said before, the best diet is the one that you can enjoy and follow for life. For me, that involves eating fat, protein, and carbs from both plant and animal sources. Yeah, I know it’s not sexy, but balance and variety are the hallmarks of a nutritious diet.