Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Follow Friday: Project Big Life Sodium Calculator

A University of Toronto Dietitian has developed an online Sodium Calculator to help you estimate your daily sodium intake. This isn’t a precise measure of your sodium intake but it may serve as an eye opener to many people; especially those who don’t prepare many meals at home. Apparently I consume a smug 800 mg of sodium a day, 37% of which comes from baked goods.

If you’re interested in more closely tracking your sodium intake you may want to check-out something like the app Sodium 101.

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Pho pas

A recent article about Macklemore (an American rapper/singer for those who are unaware) caught my eye. What does Macklemore have to do with nutrition, you might be wondering. Well, the thing that caught my eye was a quote about his “go-to” meal, pho. He was quoted as saying, “pho feels healthy”. That’s a pretty common misconception about pho.

Pho is a Vietnamese dish which is primarily comprised of broth, noodles, and thinly sliced meat which cooks in the broth. It’s delicious and messy – those noodles always splash the broth in my experience. However, despite its simple, and seemingly healthy ingredients, pho is not the innocuous dish it appears to be. According to The Dish, one bowl of pho has a reasonable 600-700 calories but a whopping 3, 100 mg of sodium. The daily recommended intake of sodium for an adult is 1, 500 mg, the maximum intake being 2, 300 mg. 3, 100 mg is nearly a teaspoon and a half of salt!

Of course, preparations vary, so you may be able to find a low(er) sodium version of pho at a restaurant but I wouldn’t count on it. If you want to have a healthier pho, your best bet is to make it yourself. Bon Appetit has a quick faux pho recipe that contains 577 mg of sodium per serving. The sodium in this recipe could likely be further reduced by using a no salt added beef broth (or by making your own broth if you’re feeling ambitious).

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Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq continues to raise my blood pressure

Even after more than a year the Sodium Working Group is still coming back to bite health minister Leona Aglukkaq in the artery. I find this whole saga frustrating for a few reasons. One, as a taxpayer, I’m annoyed that my tax dollars went to fund a working group whose recommendations were ignored. Two, as a healthcare professional I hate to see the health of Canadian citizens be disregarded for the benefit of the food industry.

For those unfamiliar, the Sodium Working Group was a group made-up of food industry representatives, Health Canada “experts”, and scientists. The group advised that sodium intake of Canadians should be reduced through education, and ensuring that food companies were adhering to more stringent sodium content amounts. These recommendations were presented to the health minister, and the public, in a report back in 2010.

Current sodium recommendations for adults in Canada are no more than 1, 500 mg a day. However, food labels use the upper limit of 2, 300 mg as the %DV on food labels. This makes it appear that you are consuming less of your maximum recommended daily allotment of sodium than you actually are. Keeping in mind that recent research has shown that food labels are highly inaccurate, even if you do the math you may be consuming considerably more sodium than you think.

The NDP and Liberals are pushing for a bill that would see at least some of the recommendations of the Sodium Working Group see the light of day. A representative speaking on behalf of Ms. Aglukkaq actually had the audacity to respond with the comments that: “Because it addresses processed foods, the NDP could spend millions on a sodium registry but Canadians who want choice can still pick that up and put the salt on their food,” said Carrie, referring to a salt shaker. That’s why our voluntary approach is better, especially with the education and the collaboration.” This despite the fact that the vast majority of our sodium intake (about 77% according to the Sodium Working Group) comes from packaged food and restaurant meals. And we can see from the current inaccuracy of food labels that we cannot actually rely on a voluntary honour-system of food labelling.

So, we can’t rely on the government to lookout for us. We certainly can’t rely on the food industry either. Your best bet: prepare as many of your own meals as possible using as many minimally processed ingredients as possible. When reading food labels don’t just look at the nutrition facts panel; look at the ingredients panel as well, the numbers only tell part of the story.

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Grocery store lessons: Chef Boyardee

Whole grain has become one of those nutrition buzzwords alleging nutritional quality. Unfortunately, adding whole grains to an otherwise unhealthy product does not a healthy product make. This is the case with Chef Boyardee’s “Whole Grain Mini ABC’s and 123’s”. On a non-nutrition note: can’t they even get the punctuation correct? No apostrophes necessary chef!

Okay, I’d like to think that people would be savvy enough to realise that Chef Boyardee is not a healthy food choice to give to their children. However, when products are health-washed with prominent labelling such as “Whole Grain” and “No Preservatives” perhaps the desire to believe that good nutrition can be had by simply opening a can is too overwhelming for some to ignore.

First, let’s take a look at those nutrition claims. Whole Grain: The pasta used is made from both whole grain wheat flour and non-whole grain flour. So yes, there is whole grain used but it’s not 100% whole grain. No Preservatives: Really? Then why is there so much salt added? 540 mg of sodium (in half a can) and the ingredients list sea salt and salt back-to-back, a sneaky way to move salt  further down the ingredient list. That’s still nearly half the amount of sodium an adult should be having in one day.

Aside from the ridiculous amount of sodium, this really isn’t the worst premade product on the market. It’s got 230 calories, 10 g fat (3.5 saturated), 590 mg potassium, 3 g fibre, and 8 g protein. However, you’d still be better off making spaghetti and sauce yourself. Even if you use a jar or can of sauce you can choose one that’s got more vegetables (the Chef Boyardee only has tomato puree so it essentially has none) and add some yourself. Don’t let labels mislead you; they are marketing, not educational, tools.


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Sea Salt vs Table Salt: The battle wages on

I know that I’ve ranted about the confusion surrounding sea salt before but I think it bears repeating.

Chatelaine magazine has all these little tips at the bottom of each page and in a recent issue one read: “Season with sea salt – it has way less sodium than table salt.” No wonder people are confused! There are advertisments for french fries stating that they’re seasoned with sea salt, implying that makes them healthier than other fries (of course, there are other health concerns with excessive fry consumption besides the sodium content). Then messages like the one in Chatelaine are appearing in the media.

To be clear, there is very little difference between the sodium content of table salt and the sodium content of sea salt. Table salt contains 593 mg of sodium in 1/4 teaspoon. Sea salt contains 510 mg of sodium in 1/4 teaspoon. Yes, it appears that there is slightly more sodium in the table salt. However, for the package of sea salt I was looking at 1/4 teaspoon was equivalent to 1.3 grams while the 1/4 teaspoon of table salt was equivalent to 1.5 grams. That means, gram for gram, table salt contains 395.33 mg and sea salt contains 392.31 mg. So, does table salt contain way more sodium than sea salt? Nope. They’re pretty similar. Keeping in mind that this is relying on labels and the Canadian Nutrient Data File, neither of which are renowned for accuracy. I think if you were going to make any sort of claim about sea salt and sodium, the correct scientific wording would be: sea salt may contain an itsy bitsy teeny weeny little bit less sodium than table salt.