Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Is organic milk really better than conventional milk?

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Last week it was all over the news that organic milk is nutritionally superior to conventional milk. Don’t you just hate that non-organic is commonly known as “conventional”? When did the use of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and genetic modification become conventional anyway? I really think that we should have a more nefarious name for it. Anyway… I digress. The purpose of this post is not actually to bash non-organic farming. Nope, not today. Today I want to rant about this study.

First off, who sponsored the research? Oh, just CROPP, only the “nation’s largest and most successful organic farmer cooperative” according to their website. Oh sure, they had no influence over the design and results of the study but do you think it would have been published if it hadn’t found that organic milk was superior to non-organic milk? This is not unbiased research.

And let’s just talk about the finding that organic milk is much better for you than non-organic milk. The newspapers were reporting that organic milk contains significantly more omega-3 fatty acids, and significantly fewer omega-6 fatty acids, than non-organic milk. So, we should all drink more full-fat organic milk to obtain our omega-3s. Now, scientific significance is a funny thing. In this case it showed that there was a bit more than twice as much omega-3 in the organic milk, and about 1/4 as much omega-6. Wow! That’s a HUGE difference! Is it though? When we’re comparing 0.0321 g of omega-3 in organic milk and 0.0198 g in non-organic milk (per 100 g). No, no it’s not. And when we read the small print at the bottom of the graph stating that the results were biased because unreported small values were entered as zero this could make for a comparatively large margin of error. Especially when the researchers reported that they obtained more samples of organic milk than non-organic. This could quite easily have skewed the results to make the values appear lower in the non-organic than in the organic.

As the researchers point out, there was a great deal of seasonal variability in the fat-profile of the organic milk. This indicated that the increased omega-3, and decreased omega-6, was more likely a result of consumption of a grass and forage based diet rather than a grain-based diet. Basically, the miniscule benefit from consuming organic milk is a result of the diet composition, not the fact that it was organic.

I’m a big supporter of organic food and products. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is little reason to choose organic milk over non-organic. There may, however, be some reason to choose grass-fed dairy products over grain-fed dairy.


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Omega-3-6-9

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Based on some things I’ve seen lately, I thought it was time for a little omega refresher.

Omega-9 fatty acids: These are non-essential fatty acids as our bodies are capable of synthesizing them. This means that a dietary source is unnecessary. Don’t be fooled into buying a 3-6-9 supplement.

Omega-6 fatty acids: These are essential fatty acids; our bodies are not capable of synthesizing them so we must obtain them from dietary sources. Omega-6 FAs are plentiful in most of our diets and, therefore, don’t require supplementation. We get Omega-6 from plant oils, nuts, and seeds. In fact, we get so much Omega-6 that it may be having negative effects, such as increasing inflammation. We should be consuming a ratio of 2:1 to 4:1, Omega-6 to Omega-3. However, many of us are consuming in excess of 14-25 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 (1)!

Omega-3 fatty acids: These are also essential fatty acids. In order to obtain enough Omega-3 we only need 2-4 teaspoons of plant oils a day. This is where it gets tricky. You’ll see a lot of foods marketed as being good sources of Omega-3, more than salmon for example, but they neglect to mention that we also need to consume EPA and DHA, two forms of Omega-3 which are not available from plant-based sources. Plants can provide us with plenty of ALA, which was can modestly convert to EPA and DHA. However, the conversion rate is pretty minimal. Under optimal conditions (such as when we’re not also consuming excessive quantities of Omega-6) conversion can reach up to about 4%. Not great when it’s advisable to consume 0.3-0.5 grams of EPA and 0.8-1.1 grams of DHA per day (2). It’s best to obtain these by eating fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, mackerel, or trout) twice a week. If you don’t consume fish regularly, it may be worthwhile considering taking an Omega-3 supplement that contains both EPA and DHA as it’s pretty much impossible to get as much as you need by converting plant sources.

 


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Grocery store lessons: Fibre & Omega-3 Granola Bar

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I recently noticed a proliferation of omega-3 fortified food products (Kraft Dinner, granola, and these Fibre & Omega-3 Granola Bars from Quaker). Commercial granola bars are one product that tend to offend my dietetic sensibilities at the best of times. Most of them are candy bars masquerading as health food. These bars are no exception.

The nutrition claim on the front of the package touting “400 mg of omega-3” is extremely misleading. The ingredient list:

GRANOLA (WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS [WITH OAT BRAN], BROWN SUGAR, ROLLED WHOLE WHEAT, HONEY, SUNFLOWER OIL, MODIFIED MILK INGREDIENTS), SEMISWEET CHOCOLATE CHUNKS (SUGAR, CHOCOLATE LIQUOR, COCOA BUTTER, SOY LECITHIN, VANILLA), CORN SYRUP, CRISP RICE (RICE FLOUR, SUGAR, SALT, MALTED BARLEY EXTRACT), INULIN, ROLLED OATS, INVERT SUGAR, MILLED FLAXSEED, BROWN SUGAR, GLYCERIN, SUGAR, SUNFLOWER OIL, BRAN STRANDS (WHEAT BRAN, OAT HULL FIBRE, EVAPORATED CANE JUICE, OAT BRAN, MALTED BARLEY EXTRACT, SEA SALT, SODIUM BICARBONATE, COLOUR), HYDROGENATED PALM KERNEL AND PALM OILS, ROLLED WHOLE WHEAT, WATER, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOURS, SOYBEAN OIL, WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, MOLASSES, BUTTERMILK, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, MILK FAT, SODIUM BICARBONATE, CARAMEL COLOUR, SORBITAN MONOSTEARATE, POLYSORBATE 60, BHT (PRESERVATIVE), SKIM MILK POWDER.

reveals that the source of omega-3 is milled flaxseed. Given the highly limited ability of your body to convert the ALA omega-3 in flaxseed to the essential DHA and EPA, this equates to less than 1% of your recommended daily DHA and about 1% of your EPA. Not exactly a good source of these nutrients.

In addition, to the misleading front-of package advertising, do you really want to eat (or give your kids to eat) a snack that contains such a lengthy list of ingredients and includes 10 sugars in that list?

You’ll also note the claim that the bars provide 5 g of fibre. That’s actually not bad for a snack. However, if you refer to the list of ingredients, some portion of that fibre come from inulin, which may not provide the same benefits as other sources of fibre.

Remember, nutrition claims on the front of packages are actually advertising.


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Grocery store lessons: Kraft Dinner Smart

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You probably heard about the Kraft Dinner made with cauliflower last year. Well, I was perusing the store for new “healthy” foods to blog about last week and I noticed there’s also a “flax omega-3” version of this “Smart” Kraft Dinner. Looking at the side panel of the box, it shows that there is 0.3 g of omega-3 per serving. As that comes from flax, that’s (at best) about 1% of of your recommended daily DHA and about 1.4% of your recommended daily EPA. Not exactly staggering.

The box also brags that it doesn’t contain any artificial colours, flavours, or preservatives. The box shows “natural flavours” whatever those are. Natural does not necessarily denote health or safety. It also shows “annatto” for colour. I looked it up and apparently it’s a plant used for “diabetes, diarrhea, fevers, fluid retention, heart burn, malaria, hepatitis, and bowl cleansing (1). Side effects as a medication are unknown but supposedly as a food ingredient it’s safe.

Don’t be fooled: Kraft Dinner is still not a healthy choice. Adding a healthy food to an unhealthy food does not miraculously make it healthy. Sticking a little bit of flax into Kraft Dinner does not make it a super food.


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Something’s greasy about Dr Esselstyn’s diet

A friend and reader recently alerted me to this article about the horrors of including oils in your diet. I confess, I groaned when I started reading the article.

“Part of living a plant-strong life is letting go of oil. This includes all oil: olive oil, coconut oil, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, ANY oil.

(You can keep motor oil for your cars!)”

According to the author, much touted healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet, are healthy despite the oil included in them, not because of the oil included in them. I understand their argument that oil is made by processing whole foods, as a dietitian, I’m often advising people to consume foods in as close to their natural state as possible. However, in some cases this just doesn’t make sense.

Yes, oil is fat. This is not a bad thing. Fat is not the demonic food it was believed to be back in the 1980s. We need fat in our diets (about 20-35% of our calories should come from fat). Oils can provide us with some healthy fats. I honestly don’t know how I would cook my food or make a pesto if it weren’t for olive oil. How dull my diet would be if I were to only eat plant-based foods without any added fats.

I would venture to guess that the key is really consuming fewer convenience foods, not less plant oil.There is no evidence, aside from anecdotal, to support Dr Esselstyn’s diet. If he were simply advocating a plant-based diet I would say there was nothing particularly wrong with it. However, he advises against consuming any fat-containing foods such as nuts, avocados, and oils. I’m also wary of any doctor who is profiting from selling you a book that makes health promises.

Further in the article, the author suggests that a fat-free diet can be healthy and we can get enough fat in our diets by applying oil to our skin. This blew my mind a little. It shows a clear lack of understanding of nutrition and the digestive process. There is no way for fat or vitamins applied topically to be absorbed into our blood stream and used by our bodies. Oil applied to skin acts as a moisturizer not as food. It’s not just about the fat itself, it’s the ability that fat affords us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (ADEK).

For those concerned about omega-3s, fear not, Dr Esselstyn says, “It is difficult to be deficient in Omega 3 if eating 1-2 tablespoons of flax seed meal and green leafy vegetables at several meals”. That’s odd because 1-2 tablespoons of flax meal provides us with about 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. This can provide us with up to 0.064 g of DHA and 0.096 g of EPA (the essential fatty acids we can only obtain through dietary sources such as fatty fish). One cup of spinach provides about 0.044 g of omega-3 (0.0176 g DHA and 0.0026 g EPA). The general recommendations for EPA and DHA are 1.25 g each per day. This oil-free diet provides about 16% of our needed DHA and nearly 20% of our needed EPA. Perhaps moisturizing with mackerel will provide those missing omega-3s?