Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Grocery store lessons: coconut water

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As with coconut milk, for some reason I assumed that coconut water was just that, the water from the centre of a coconut. Once again I was wrong. You would think that as a dietitian, and a regular label reader, I would have the good sense to check-out the ingredients of any product I’m buying. Some day I’ll learn!

So… coconut water. Not always just coconut water apparently. Some brands are made from concentrate, some have additives like “natural flavour” and citric acid. Other brands are watered-down coconut water. Still others have added flavours (along with which tend to come added sugars) ranging from various fruits to chocolate and latte. Obviously, these versions tend to negate any of the benefits from consuming coconut water.

Now, I like coconut water. I often have a small (i.e. about 1/2 cup or less) glass in the morning. It’s tends to have about half the sugar that a glass of juice would have and most of us can do with a little bit more potassium. That being said, it’s not for everyone and I’m certainly not advising everyone to consume it. However, if you’re like me and you do enjoy it, just be sure to read the ingredients and make sure that you’re getting 100% pure coconut water.


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The argument against glycemic index labelling

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The International Scientific Consensus Summit on Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load and Glycemic Response resulted in a consensus statement that, among other things, proposed consideration of the inclusion of glycemic index/load on nutrition labels. As a dietitian I can see how that information might be interesting and useful. However, I’m not so sure that it would be all that useful to the vast majority of consumers. Most people struggle with label reading as it is and adding GI information (which can be confusing) will just complicate matters. It’s also just one of many factors to take into consideration when selecting foods.

A high glycemic index rating doesn’t necessarily make for an unhealthy food (think watermelon). Just as a low glycemic index rating doesn’t necessarily make for a healthy food (think agave syrup). This doesn’t even get into the complication of the difference between glycemic index and glycemic load. let’s just say that GL has more meaning and leave it at that. Another consideration: we don’t eat most foods in isolation. Bread has a fairly high GI but how often do you eat a slice of bread by itself? Most of us will use it for a sandwich or toast it and spread peanut butter on it. The addition of low GI foods mediates the effect that high GI foods have on your blood sugar. I also foresee such labeling as another opportunity for the food industry to mislead consumers (think “gluten-free” and “cholesterol-free”). Health-washing processed foods so that people can feel better about buying their low-GI agave sweetened corn puffs.

Nutrition has already become far too complicated. I don’t think that we need another number on packages to make things more complicated for people. A good rule of thumb: avoid foods with packages altogether as often as possible.


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Lose nine pounds just by reading!

There’s been lots of talk recently about a new study showing that people (especially women) who read food labels at the grocery store tend to weigh less than their non-label reading counterparts. No big surprise. People who are more educated and health-conscious are probably going to have lower levels of body fat and to weigh less than people who are not concerned about their weight.

What’s irking me is the approach being taken to some of this media coverage. A recent article in Chatelaine online was titled Lose nine pounds by doing this simple task. Not exactly. Just because women who read labels weigh, on average, nine pounds less than women who don’t read labels doesn’ t mean that you’ll lose nine pounds by starting to read labels. For one thing, you need to know how to read labels. Just reading something isn’t going to help. You need to be able to use the information that you’re reading to make informed decisions. Also, perhaps there is more to the lack of label reading than simply not doing it. The study found that label readers were also more educated than non-label readers. It’s entirely possible that there may be low literacy levels or other reading and comprehension problems that may be preventing people from reading labels. Finally, label reading was correlated with other healthy behaviours. It’s difficult to tease these apart which makes it hard to say that the weight difference is due to label reading alone.

What ever the reason is for people not reading labels, simply telling them to do so is extremely unlikely to result in a nine pound weight loss per person.


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Grocery Store Lessons: Almond milk

I made an interesting discovery the other day at the grocery store. My usual brand of almond milk was unavailable so I was comparing the labels of the available brands. I noticed some interesting ingredients:

The first two are fine by me. Inulin? Unnecessary. It’s that pea fibre that’s being added to all sorts of products to claim that they have fibre (e.g. “smart” pasta) but that may not have the same benefits as other types of fibre. It doesn’t really bother me that it’s in the almond milk. It’s the canola oil that bothers me. Why add oil to almond milk? I’m no food product developer but it seems like a pointless addition of fat and calories.

The really sad news: when I looked it up, my usual almond milk also had added canola oil. Lesson learned. Always read the ingredients, not just the nutrition facts panel. I started buying this brand because it was one of the first ones I saw that was fortified. Fortunately there are now a number of fortified brands on the market. Here’s hoping that at least one of them isn’t “fortified” with oil.


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What’s in your coconut milk?

I made an interesting discovery at the grocery store recently. I was buying coconut milk and in an effort to be frugal I thought that I should go with the cheapest brand. However, the cheapest brand looked a little sketchy and I decided to check the ingredient list to ensure that there was no added melamine. I was surprised at how many ingredients were in the coconut milk and decided to check-out all of the brands…

Considering the fact that I’m a dietitian and a pretty avid label checker I was both amazed at the number of ingredients in these coconut milks and ashamed that I was only just figuring this out after many years of grocery shopping. I also figured that there must be others like me who had never considered the possibility that coconut milk would consist of anything other than, well, coconut milk. I had thought that the “light” coconut milk might have some weird stuff, in reality it was a little better than some of the others (see bottom left photo) and simply had more water than coconut milk. Tip: if you want “light” coconut milk, buy the regular stuff and water it down, save yourself some money!

Exactly what are these added ingredients hiding in your coconut milk? Guar gum is a thickener made from a type of seed. It’s pretty common in foods, especially ice cream and it’s pretty harmless. Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose a synthesized thickener and stabilizer used in many foods. According to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest it’s safe. However, I also found this Material Safety Data Sheet that made me rather wary. Polysorbate 60 is an emulsifier and is also supposedly safe in foods. However, use in cosmetics is restricted. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to eat something that might not be safe for me to put on my skin. Sulphites are used to prevent discolourization in foods. They can be dangerous to those with a sensitivity, and to those suffering from asthma.

While many of these additives are allegedly safe, to me that’s not the point. If I’m buying coconut milk I want coconut milk, not coconut milk and a bunch of other things to make it creamy and white. I’m perfectly capable of shaking the can before opening to emulsify it. Also, if you want to use the thick cream from the top of your coconut milk, you may be out of luck if it’s heavily emulsified and stabilized. Let this serve as a reminder to you to always read the ingredient lists on packaged foods, I know I will!