Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Are Clif Bars a healthy snack?

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I wanted to write a little about Clif Bars because I think there’s a lot of confusion about them. Before I start though, I should get this out of the way, this is not a sponsored post. I have no affiliation with Clif Bar whatsoever. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to it.

For those who don’t know what Clif Bars are, I’ve linked to their website above. Basically, they are energy dense snack bars designed to fuel athletes before, and depending on the activity and the athlete, during exercise. If you go to their website the first thing you see are a collection of images of people engaged in physical activity from climbing to cycling. Much of their energy density comes from sugar. One bar contains 20+ grams of sugar (that’s about 5 teaspoons) and about 250 calories. This nutritional composition is often a good thing for athletes who are looking for easy to digest snacks that will quickly provide them with fuel. However, for non-athletes, or people who are not looking for a calorically-dense snack, possibly not the best choice.

The reason why I wanted to write about this today is because I think most people who are consuming Clif Bars as a snack are not aware that they’re intended for active people and are operation under the false impression that they’re a “health food”. Anybody else watch the new version of Queer Eye? It was great and I totally want to be the first woman on the show (hook me up!) but I digress. There was an episode in which the man they were making over was talking about how he tries to eat healthy, and then listed off fruit and Clif Bars, as examples of the healthy foods he consumes regularly. And I thought to myself how misguided this belief is that Clif Bars are a “healthy” snack for the average Joe who has a relatively sedentary job. He’s just getting a whole lot of sugar with a few vitamins and minerals thrown in. For comparison’s sake, a Mars bar contains 260 calories and 30 grams of sugar, a Snickers bar has 250 calories and 27 grams of sugar, an Oh Henry! bar has 260 calories and 26 grams of sugar. All quite similar to a Clif bar.

Despite the fact that Clif Bars are clearly intended for athletes and active individuals, I doubt that many people purchasing them are visiting their website and are likely unaware of this intended consumer. They’re sold in grocery stores with all the other snack bars, sometimes at the cash, and sometimes in free-standing displays. Aside from the picture of the man climbing the mountain on the front, there is little reason to believe that they’re not intended for the average individual.

Just for fun, I did a twitter poll to see what people thought (pictured above). Of course, my tweeps are an above average bunch and the results likely reflect that. I got a few comments from people that “it depends”, “with a caveat”, and that the question was a false dichotomy.

Now that I’ve totally ruined Clif Bars for you, I will mention that they have newer products that are actually pretty decent snacks. I always have a stash of snacks in my desk at work and one of my favourites to have on-hand is the nut butter-filled energy bar which has considerably less sugar than the original energy bar, (although the same number of calories – I should add that while I do have a predominantly sedentary job, I also run every day and regularly engage in other physical activity) only about two teaspoons. My favourite is the peanut butter flavour (yum!). Even newer on the market is the whey protein bar which has only about one teaspoon of sugar, 14 grams of protein, and 260 calories (these are good when I have a long day and a long run, otherwise they’re a little higher in calories than I’d normally want in a snack).

I should also mention that ideally a healthy snack contains two food groups, preferably with one of those being vegetables and fruit. Some examples: an apple and a handful of nuts, hummus and veggie sticks, a banana and peanut butter, bell pepper and cheese.

Long story short, are Clif Bars a “healthy” snack? Probably not for the average person but… if you’re an athlete or have a very active job and aren’t consuming many other sources of added sugar then maybe.

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Is a spoonful of sugar the way to get the vegetables to go down?

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When I saw this article: “Sugar, salt or sweeteners may be key to getting children to eat greens” last week in the Nutrition Resource Centre “News in Brief” email I knew that I had to read more. I mean, were the authors really suggesting that we should add sugar to veggies to get infants and toddlers to eat them? Or was this just a case of a misleading or misinterpreted press release? I found a copy of the full article: Mary Poppins was right: Adding small amounts of sugar or salt reduces the bitterness of vegetables and set about reading.

One thing that struck me right away was that this study was done with adults, no infants or toddlers, or children of any age were involved in the research. Adult participants were provided with puréed vegetables (broccoli, kale, and spinach) with varying concentrations of added sugar. They were asked to rate them on various attributes, and most importantly, they were asked to indicate whether or not they liked or disliked each sample. I was surprised that the conclusion would be drawn that adding sugar to green vegetables is a reasonable means to encourage infants to eat them (I’m saying infants because these were puréed veggies and as such are really only suitable for babies just starting to eat solid foods) based on ratings by adults. After all, adults have very different palates than infants and have very different relationships with food that have been shaped over decades. To me it seems inappropriate to conclude that because adults preferred sugar sweetened veggies that infants will as well. The authors themselves also state that, “It should be noted that infants and toddlers are also not merely small adults”. However, they also use the analogy of adults beginning coffee consumption with added sugar and gradually weaning off the sugar as justification for proposing adding sugar to vegetables when the World Health Organization, among many other bodies, is currently encouraging reduced consumption of added sugars.

The second thing I wondered about was precisely how much sugar was added to each serving of vegetables. The news article, and much of the journal article, references 1% and 2% concentrations but what did that translate to in teaspoons or grams? It sounds pretty innocuous, right? 1% or 2% is hardly anything. Well, in actuality the 1% was equivalent to the addition of 1/2 teaspoon per serving and the 2% was equivalent to 1 teaspoon per serving. Not an insignificant amount when you’re talking about toddlers who are generally only consuming a tablespoon or two of a food in a serving. Interestingly, the researchers asked parents how comfortable they would be offering their babies vegetables with added sugar in amounts of 8 calories, 16 calories, 1/2 teaspoon, or 1 teaspoon. The 8 calories = 1/2 teaspoon = 1% concentration. The 16 calories = 1 teaspoon = 2% concentration. Essentially asking: how can we frame this added sugar to make it more palatable to parents who are trying to feed their children healthy diets?

Despite the general conclusion that adding sugar to vegetables may encourage young children to eat them, even the ratings by adults were not overwhelmingly improved by the added sugar. For broccoli and kale purées both 1% and 2% sugar increased overall liking. For spinach the 2% sugar (but not the 1%) increased overall liking. For broccoli and spinach the sugar increased the ratings of liking from disliked to liked. However, for kale, even at the highest sugar level ratings never rose above the midpoint (i.e. neither like nor dislike). So, these adults did not like any of the green vegetables to begin with (at least not in puréed form) but after adding higher quantities of sugar they liked the spinach, and even with the smaller quantity of added sugar they liked the broccoli. But neither amount of sugar was enough to get them to like the kale. Would babies have different initial reactions to these vegetables? Would the addition of sugar cause them to change these reactions? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can say based on the results of this study alone.

Just for fun, I took a look at the funding sources for the study after I finished reading it. Can you guess what one of the funding organizations was? If you guess the Sugar Association you’d be correct. I think this explains a lot because honestly I was a bit baffled as to why anyone would be looking into adding sugar to get babies to eat vegetables and why such tenuous conclusions would be drawn and publicized based on the actual findings. But who other than the Sugar Association would think that we need to encourage babies to eat more sugar?

I think a better analogy than the sugar sweetened coffee for this research would be the argument that chocolate milk is a good way to get kids to drink milk or that baking apples into a pie is a good way to encourage fruit consumption. In some ways it’s even worse because infants are at the mercy of their caregivers when it comes to what foods are offered to them and encouraging a preference for only sweet foods at such a young impressionable age could have long lasting implications for their food choices and health throughout their lives.

 


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Starbucks iced coffee is heavy on the syrup and light on the truth

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It may be getting a little cool for cold brew (no, not beer, coffee brewed with cold water basically a sort of iced coffee) but we recently had a belated summer heatwave here and I thought I might switch-up my usual Starbucks latte order for an iced beverage. I thought I might get a cold brew. You know, nice and refreshing. I knew that I would have to look closely at the options to get something without added sugar because as I’ve ranted about before, sweetened is the ridiculous default option for iced coffee at Starbucks.

I love having the Starbucks app because I can order ahead, walk over from work, and have my drink ready to go. So as I head out from the office I start perusing the menu for a nice cold beverage option. I see “vanilla sweet cream cold brew” which sounds great but clocking in at 110 calories isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. There’s also “Narino 70 cold brew” which is really what I’m looking for at 3 calories, no added, sugar or cream. Just to keep my options open though (maybe I want a little something extra), I scroll down the menu and see “iced coffee” which sounds great. It’s “lightly sweetened” which sounds perfect. Just a touch of sweetness would be a nice treat.

How much sugar would you say “lightly sweetened” means? A teaspoon? Maaaybe two teaspoons? How about FIVE teaspoons??! That’s correct, a “lightly sweetened” iced coffee from Starbucks contains 5 freaking teaspoons of sugar. That’s one teaspoon less than the recommended maximum daily amount of added sugar for an adult woman so forget having any other treats. Just one so-called “lightly” sweetened iced coffee and put a fork in me because I’m done.

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Anyway… I got so annoyed when I saw that, I ended up not ordering anything and just making a coffee (black, no sugar) when I got back to the office because if I’m going to have a treat I want it to be something better than a Starbucks coffee. And if you want your treat to be a Starbucks coffee, that’s cool too, but I just wanted to make sure you were aware that the “lightly” sweetened iced coffee is heavy on the misleading description and light on the accurate advertising.


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An open letter to police departments

To Whom it May Concern,

I see that the Ontario Provincial Police, and I’m sure many other police departments across North America, are offering “positive tickets” to youth this summer. These tickets are coupons for free “frosters” a slushie/slurpee beverage from a convenience store chain.

I applaud the police for endeavouring to create positive relationships with children and youth. Police provide an essential service to our communities that is often overshadowed by newsworthy acts of violence, aggression, and intimidation. By fostering positive connections to young people it is more likely that these youth will continue to maintain good relationships with police into adulthood. A good relationship between the police and the community better serves everyone.

A 12oz Mac’s froster contains approximately 222 calories all of which come from its 52 grams (13 teaspoons) of sugar. There are no other nutrients in this beverage. The World Health Organization recommends that consumption of “free sugars” (i.e. added sugars and those found in beverages like fruit juice) be limited to 5% of total calorie consumption per day. This equates to about 5-8 teaspoons of sugar per day for preteens and teenagers. As you can see, just that one froster alone contains about twice the daily recommended limit for free sugars. Excess free sugar can contribute to dental caries. Inadequate consumption of nutrients, due to displacement by nutrient lacking sugary foods and beverages, or excessive consumption of calories resulting from frequent consumption of sugary beverages may result in malnutrition, including obesity, and contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In addition, using food as a reward can lead to a life-long unhealthy relationship with food. Tying behaviour and emotion to food can result in children using food as a maladaptive coping mechanism as they get older.

I urge you to consider offering a healthier (non-food) alternative to these “positive tickets”. Why not partner with a local community centre to offer free swimming passes? Or a local park to offer free entry? Other options include: movie tickets, tickets to see a local sports team. I’m sure that with a little promotion that many local businesses would be happy to offer rewards in the region(s) you serve. This initiative provides both positive publicity for the police and for the organization donating the “prizes”. Do the health of the youth a favour and support local businesses while you’re at it. This would truly be a positive direction for the police and the community.

Thank you for your consideration.

A concerned dietitian