Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Will new nutrition labels make us all thinner?

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Not to be negative, but I saw this headline: How much will new nutrition labels help fight obesity and I immediately said “not at all” (in my head because I was at work and our office is open-concept).

I know the new (American) nutrition facts panel is supposed to help curb obesity because they’ve made the calories so damn big but personally I think it’s not going to help anyone to lose any weight. If people are counting calories and trying to lose weight making them bigger isn’t going to make weight loss any easier. If someone’s not counting calories it’s unlikely that a big bold calorie count is going to prompt them to change their minds about their purchases. I also think the emphasis on calories is not beneficial to anyone.

Yes, lots of people find calorie counting helpful when they’re trying to lose weight. I still yearn for a simpler time when we didn’t need this information. When we didn’t rely to heavily on prepackaged foods that managed to jam in so many calories and so few nutrients. Personally, I think that, for the average consumer, the ingredients label is where they should be looking more often than the nutrition facts panel. The NFP doesn’t tell you anything about what’s in the food you’re potentially putting in your mouth. It just tells you about the artful mastery of the manufacturer who wants to make sure you buy into the charade of fortified highly processed products as healthy choices.

Putting calories front and centre puts a negative lens on food. It takes away from food tasting good, being pleasurable, and providing us with energy and puts the emphasis on guilt and shame. Neither of which are things we should be associating with food.

Rather than focusing our efforts on fighting against obesity we should be fighting for health.

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Sugar: not just sweet

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Image by m01229 on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence

A couple of weeks ago I attended a webinar titled: Beyond Sweetness: The functional roles of sugar in foods and the challenges in replacing/reducing itThis was put on by the Canadian Sugar Institute so I was expecting a big pro-sugar, pro-industry bias. Naturally, it wasn’t anti-sugar, but it was much less biased than most other industry sponsored webinars I’ve attended. I was a little disappointed because I was hoping to get some good ranting blogging out of it. Upon further reflection, I decided that even though it didn’t make me ranty that there was information worth sharing.

The webinar began with an overview of the functional properties of sugar in foods by Professor Douglas Goff. These are worth looking at because as many celebs (cough *Jamie Oliver* cough) decry sugar as the latest nutritional villain we need to remember that making food sweet is not sugar’s only role as an ingredient.

Sugar is important for sensory properties of foods. It adds sweetness, but it also masks bitterness or acidity. It can also enhance the aroma of a food and its texture (what’s known as “mouthfeel”).

Sugar can also prevent microbial growth in foods by lowering water activity (think: jams and jellies). It’s also important as food for encouraged microbes such as yeast in wine and beer during fermentation, or for yeast in bread so that it will rise.

Sugar plays an important role in chemical reactions in foods. Without sugar we would have caramelization of onions or sweet potatoes. We wouldn’t have the maillard browning reaction (taking me back to my first year nutrition food lab days) which gives us colour and flavour changes in combination with heat and amino acids (think: browning meat and toast). We also wouldn’t have the plasticization of polymers which sounds very frankenfood but is really just things like the formation of starch gel (aka pudding).

Finally, sugar is essential for phase transitions. Things like crystallization and candies, depressing the freezing point to give us “scoopability” in ice cream.

The second part of the webinar, by Professor Julian Cooper, centred around the difficulty in replacing sugar in foods and actually improving the “ingredient deck” and nutrition profile at the same time. As you can see, in many foods it’s not just about replacing the sweetness in the food. Sugar can serve numerous functions in a food.

The presenters pointed out that in replacing sugar you may actually end up with a more calorically dense food than the original sugary version. Replacing sugar in a food doesn’t necessarily make it healthier. Which, brings us to the point that I’m always trying to make when I see sugar being demonized: by removing sugar we may actually end-up making foods that are worse for us (like we did when we took fat out of everything).

In some cases, manufacturers could certainly remove/replace some of the sugar in their products and end-up with a perfectly acceptable lower-sugar version. In some cases, you’re going to end-up with an inferior product if you remove/reduce/replace sugar. Rather than trying to re-engineer all of the food on the market we should be making more mindful choices. There’s nothing wrong with having a cookie, chocolate milk, or (gasp) craisins. Sugary foods should just make-up a smaller portion of most of our diets.


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Can a chef trick you into preferring inferior food?

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Image of seafood saffron risotto taken by Gail on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Did anybody else see this article about a chef tricking restaurant patrons into indicating that they preferred an inferior version of saffron risotto over one using higher quality ingredients?

Diners were led to believe that they were helping the chef choose between two versions of a dish for a new menu item. The first used a “rich homemade chicken stock” and was introduced by means of a plain card listing the ingredients. The second version used “bouillon powder diluted with plain old tap water”. However, it was introduced by the “chef” (actually the restaurant owner pretending to be the chef) with a story about its origins from a childhood memory as well as a description of the provenance of each of the ingredients.

Seventy-seven percent of the diners rated the “inferior” risotto as preferable over the higher quality version. They also consistently rated this version more highly in “terms of perceived quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell and portion size”. 

These “results” were interpreted as showing that people can be duped by chefs and that this is a result of the celebrity chef culture. Of course, this wasn’t a scientific experiment and doesn’t necessarily tell us this at all.

It may be true that people were influenced by the introduction of the food and the presence of the chef. We’ve certainly seen that food names and presentation can influence perceived quality through research done by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. However, this wasn’t scientific research and it irritates me that the article frames it as such. It’s entirely conceivable that the diners did actually prefer the “inferior” risotto. After all, the only apparent distinction between the two dishes was the use of homemade broth versus bouillon powder. Considering that many of us have palates that prefer the taste of salty food, diners may really have thought the bouillon version was better. It would be interesting to see the results of a true experiment examining the influence of the presence of a chef on the perception of meal quality.

I also find the whole “ha ha, we sure fooled you” sentiment a little over the top here. I mean, come on. It’s not like they tricked diners into believing the double down was fine dining. They swapped one ingredient, the broth, in a risotto recipe. It’s still practically the same recipe and it’s still freaking risotto.


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Grocery store lessons: a tale of two pasta sauces

Further to all of my discussion about sugar in food and nutrition labels I wanted to share with you the following nutrition facts label that has me stumped:

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Apologies for the poor photo quality. Hopefully you’re able to see that the nutrition facts panel indicates that there’s no sugar in this pasta sauce. That’s grand and all, no one wants a sugary tomato sauce. It’s also puzzling because tomatoes (and many other vegetables) naturally contain sugar. So how does one end up with zero grams of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving?

Compare this to another pasta sauce:

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This second sauce, despite having no added sugar, still contains 6 grams of sugar per serving. This is much more the norm  than the sauce in the first photo.

I know that people are trying to cut back on sugar. That’s great. But this is another example of why you might want to pay more attention to the ingredients in a food than to the nutrition facts panel. These are very similar products but tell rather different stories when it comes to sugar content. One supposedly contains no sugar, while the other contains about one and a half teaspoons in a serving. Even if you’re trying to cut back on sugar there’s really no point in getting riled up about a little bit of sugar naturally occurring from vegetables.


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Beyond sugar: Canada’s new nutrition labels

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Last week I wrote about the change to the sugar entry on the new nutrition facts label on foods. Of course, while most of us are focussed on this change, this isn’t the only change to come.

One of the other changes would be the removal of vitamins A and C from the nutrition facts panel. They would be replaced with Potassium and vitamin D. This is because it’s extremely rare for Canadians to be deficient in either vitamin A or vitamin C these days. However, most of us don’t get enough potassium and vitamin D (at least during the winter months). While in some ways I think that this is a good change, in others I’m not certain. The inclusion of these nutrients on nutrition labels provides us as consumers with valuable information. It also provides food manufacturers with the impetus to add potassium and vitamin D to foods in order to improve their nutrient profiles. Adding vitamins and minerals to a highly processed fairly unhealthy food won’t miraculously make it healthy. Generally, it’s better to choose natural sources of these nutrients.

Health Canada is also planning on standardizing serving sizes. This means that if, for example, you’re comparing one loaf of bread to another, the nutrition facts will have to be for two slices of bread. You won’t find one loaf that has the nutrition information for a single slice and another that has it for two. While it will definitely make comparison shopping easier it may also lead to some confusion about serving sizes. Yes, most of us will eat two slices of bread as a serving, but a Canada Food Guide serving of bread is still one slice. You don’t get to eat twice as many sandwiches as before and still consume an appropriate number of servings of grains and cereals.

In addition to the changes to the nutrition facts panel, the label will now also have to more clearly list the ingredients in an easy to read box. I don’t think that any of us (even me) can complain about that! As I’ve said before, you’re generally better off reading the ingredients than the nutrition facts panel.