Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Grocery Store Lessons: Excel Naturally Sweetened Gum

Last week my friend Mark tweeted this:


I think our fear of “unnatural” or “artificial” ingredients has gone too far. I’m generally one to go for real sugar any day over artificial sweeteners. I prefer the flavour and I’m of the opinion that a little of the “real” thing is better than a lot of the fake. In some case though it just doesn’t make sense to be choosing real sugar.

There is no benefit to choosing sugar-sweetened gum over gum sweetened with sugar alcohols. We know that sugar consumption, especially when in products that spend a long time in the mouth (such as gum) promotes the development of cavities. While xylitol (the sugar alcohol generally found in sugar-free gums) may not be the great cavity preventer it was originally touted as, it certainly doesn’t promote the development of cavities like sugary gum does.

It’s beyond me why anyone would think that a “natural” (and come on, how natural is commercial chewing gum anyway?) gum containing sugar is a superior choice over artificially sweetened gum. Shame on Excel for taking advantage of the fear of the “unnatural” by reverting to a product that is likely to incense dentists, dietitians, and doctors alike. File this product under another great example of a natural fallacy.

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Grocery Store Lessons: Liberte Baby Yoghurt


Baby yoghurt isn’t a new product. I had thought about blogging about it a while ago and then forgot and then thought that it had been discontinued. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. File this one under ridiculous unnecessary products that you never need to buy.

There is no reason that a baby needs yoghurt with added sugar. And that’s what this product is. It’s a series of yoghurts with 6% milk fat. You’re supposed to start them on the plain (with a mere teaspoon of sugar per 75 gram package). Ingredients: whole milk, cream, cane sugar, milk protein concentrate, bacterial cultures, and vitamin D. Then you can progress to the yoghurts at “step 2”; banana or strawberry.

The banana and strawberry both have 7 grams (just under two teaspoons of sugar) per 75 gram serving.

Ingredients in the banana: whole milk, fruit preparation (banana puree [i.e. flavoured sugar], cane sugar, water, tapioca starch, pectin, natural flavour, lemon juice concentrate), cream, cane sugar, milk protein, concentrate, bacterial cultures, and vitamin D.

Ingredients in the strawberry: whole milk, fruit preparation (strawberry pureecane sugar, water, rice starch, natural flavour, carrot juice concentrate, cranberry juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate), cream, cane sugar, milk protein concentrate, bacterial cultures, vitamin D.

Babies don’t need sweetened yoghurt. Just because many adults need sugary flavoured yoghurts doesn’t mean that babies do. Their tastebuds are much more sensitive than ours and they’re also learning what they like (and dislike). There’s no need for us to impose our preferences and sweet teeth on them. Lots of babies enjoy the tangy taste of plain full-fat yoghurt.

Parents don’t need to shell out the extra cash for smaller servings of plain yoghurt for their babies. Save your cash and get unsweetened plain yoghurt for your baby.


The defence of juice


I find the ability of people to rationalise things astounding. We all do it in some manner in our lives. But it still amazes me to see people staunchly defending illogical stances. Take for example juice.

I’m not opposed to juice per se. I grew up during a time when orange juice was a standard at breakfast. I drank juice boxes at school. Juice wasn’t the nutritional pariah it’s become. Of course, we now know that juice is essentially liquid sugar, with a few vitamins thrown in for good measure. Drinking a glass of apple juice is nowhere near as nutritious as eating an actual apple. I would never recommend that someone consume more juice but if you’re enjoying a glass of juice a day, or an occasional glass of juice, it’s the same as any other sweet treat and I’m not going to take that away.

What I don’t get are the people who say that juice contains “naturally occurring” sugar so it’s somehow healthier than any other food containing “unnaturally occurring” sugar. Nope. Not buying it. Sugar is sugar. This is not demonizing sugar. This is not demonizing juice. It’s just a fact. Where do people think that refined and added sugars come from? They’re not made from chemicals in a lab. They’re made by processing plants that naturally contain sugar. There’s nothing nutritionally superior about the sugar in juice. It’s no better (or worse) for you than the sugar in a handful of jujubes.

Let’s stop sugarcoating juice and face the facts. Juice is liquid sugar with better PR than other sugary beverages.


Bring on the nanny state



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By Marlith (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written before about my reluctance to jump on the soda (why are we calling it soda in Canada, anyway? It’s pop, people) tax bandwagon. I just don’t think that it’s addressing the true problem and it’s once again placing the onus on individuals. I’d much rather see high-fructose corn syrup become less artificially inexpensive to produce so that pop would cost more to manufacture and therefore be sold for more. Start paying the farmers more for the corn. Anyway… I found myself in a weird situation when I read the un-authored (what the heck MacLean’s? Where’s the byline?) editorial about the ill-conceived soda pop tax.

According to the author, the problem with the Senate’s new report on obesity is that it lumps all overweight and obese people into one category. Thus, implying that anyone who surpasses the magical BMI cut-off is unhealthy. I don’t disagree with the fact that it’s possible to be healthy at many different weights, shapes, and sizes. I do take some exception to the argument that overweight people are actually healthier than those of “normal” weight. The problem with studies that suggest this is that they’re not taking into consideration changes in weight and the fact that many people lose weight when they’re ill. This may give the false impression that weight is protecting people from illness rather than showing that unintended weight loss is a consequence of illness.”Healthy” weight people may die younger than overweight people because illness may be missed until it’s too late to treat in people who appear to be healthy.These studies also tend to only look at mortality, giving “healthspan” no consideration. Just because you’re living a longer life doesn’t mean that you have good health or a good quality of life during those extra years.

Anyway… I’m a little off-track from the topic I really wanted to address. Essentially, the author is saying that it’s not the government’s job to “tell us what to eat or how much we should weigh”. It’s suggested that the senate report should have focused more on health promotion, which they define as getting kids more physically active. Sigh.

Health promotion is actually providing people with the tools they need to control and improve their own health. It’s more of a population health approach than an individual approach. As such, a pop tax would be a method of health promotion. As essential as physical activity and exercise are to good health it’s fairly well established at this point that diet has a far greater bearing on weight than exercise does. This pop tax is certainly not the approach I would take toward decreasing obesity rates and improving the health of Canadians. However, it’s better than nothing and if it gets people to drink less pop then that’s a positive outcome. If the author truly believes that the government is not already affecting the food choices of Canadians through policies and systems then they’re sorely mistaken.

I’ve read some very good criticisms of the senate’s report. This editorial was not one of them. If you’re interested, check out Dr Sharma’s blog and this piece by Michael Orsini in the Globe and Mail.


Sugar: not just sweet


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.