Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Archive for the tag “Food”

Marshmallow Fluff

I got an email forward from my mother-in-law a few months ago that had several little tricks or tidbits of knowledge that can be useful, such as “Reynolds Wrap has lock-in tabs to hold the roll in place.”  I can’t believe that I never noticed that before.  Some of the tips I had heard of previously, but some others seemed just too good to be true.

One of the tricks was, “Marshmallows can cure a sore throat. Perfect for kids who don’t like medicine.”  First of all, there is no over-the-counter medicine that can cure a sore throat.  The antibiotics that kill the Group A streptococcal bacteria causing your sore throat would do it though (and only if you have strep throat in the first place).  I’m sure they were talking about soothing a sore throat.  Even so, I would love a new trick to soothe a sore throat, especially if it involves marshmallows.  I considered how marshmallows could do such a thing.  I have heard of gargling with warm salt water, but never sugar water.  Maybe the powder on the outside of the marshmallow helps to coat the throat?  I wasn’t sure.

I didn’t really think about it until this week, when I got a cold.  My sore throat isn’t as bad as it usually is, so I thought, maybe I should stop by the store pick up some marshmallows.  That is, until my common sense came back to me and I decided to look into this a little further.  Further, as in, I Googled it.

With a simple search, I found the answer I was looking for.  Although some top hits were websites touting the wonderous marshmallow cure, the real answer was glaringly obvious.  The root of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, has been used for centuries to soothe a sore throat.  I decided this misinformation was a result of Telephone.  You know, the kids’ game when you whisper something into someone’s ear, then the sentence gets passed from person-to-person, and the words become distorted each time it gets whispered until the last person announces a sentence that makes absolutely no sense?  The problem now is, emails like this get passed around, and the Legend of the Marshmallow grows.  Other people put it on their websites and blogs as fact and eventually doctors will start prescribing marshmallows to children (I hope not).

Althaea_officinalis_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-008

Public domain image from Franz Eugen Köhler’s “Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen”

Now that I know I can’t make a S’more and cure my sore throat, although I bet it would do wonders on my mental health, I decided to see what this marshmallow plant can do.  The root of A. officinalis contains polysaccharides (long chains of sugars) that are sticky and viscous.  There are many types of polysaccharides present in the plant, including mucilage, pectin, and starch.  Aqueous extracts of the root contain polysaccharides that can coat the throat and stomach to protect it from irritation, which, in turn, may reduce dry coughs or gastric ulcers.  A specific pectic polysaccharide, rhamnogalacturonan, has been shown to suppress coughing in guinea pigs at high concentrations.  There is some evidence that methanol extracts from the root of the marshmallow plant contain antimicrobial activities as well.  A. officinalis inhibited growth of certain strains of bacteria that cause periodontal disease and stressed E. coli bacteria (although did not kill it).  Extracts from the flower may also increase good (HDL) cholesterol, reduce inflammation, alleviate gastric ulcers, and inhibit platelet aggregation.  Although these studies hint at reducing various ills, there are very few published studies (at least in America) that concern the marshmallow plant.

So, there you have it.  If you have some polysaccharide extract from the root of Althaea officinalis, it may reduce throat irritation and help suppress a dry cough.  If you don’t happen to have this on hand, then I recommend sucking on a lozenge.  This example just goes to show, don’t believe everything you read, even when it is intermixed with other useful information.  “Telephone” seems to have turned into “Internet”.  Instead of old wives tales or home remedies being passed orally, we have now turned to internet-doctoring ourselves for the same type of advice.  Mothers everywhere love sending forwards to their children (The perfume is ether!  Driving with no headlights on is a gang initiation!  Car-jackers put paper on your back window!) in an attempt to protect them from afar, even though most all of those scenarios have been proven untrue by Snopes.  My mother-in-law prefaced her email with, “I’ve heard of some of these, but others are a revelation, if they really work!”  If they really work, indeed.

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Stinky Feet Beer

Cheese and beer go together like rama lama lama ka dinga de dinga dong.  Cheese is a great partner to beer and can provide a similar taste or a sharp contrast.  Historically, cheese and beer were both produced and eaten by monks and farmers.  Many pubs combine beer and cheese into dips or soups that are usually very delicious.  I am a beer lover, so when I popped open a bottle of Berliner Weisse aged on fresh blueberries from a local brewery, I was excited.  It poured out an interesting mauve color.  (This color description reminds me of another science story – but I’ll leave that for a future post).  Then, like a shovel to the head, it hit me.  It attacked my nose with tiny odor knives.  The smell.  Was.  Disgusting.  I expected a sour blueberry aroma, but instead I got cheese.  Stinky feet cheese.  My family used this term when the cheese my mom bought had a certain ‘odeur’ to it.  I clearly remember a few instances when I curled up my nose and reeled away from the table after taking a sniff of strong cheese.  I think this primal sensory memory was permanently burned into my brain.  I grew up thinking that this term was something my family had just come up with.  I had no idea it was a real thing.

Artist’s rendition of stinky feet cheese

There are several different organisms (bacteria and mold) that produce compounds to make cheese smell rank.  The bacteria that causes Limburger cheese to smell like a dirty foot party is Brevibacterium epidermidis.  Guess where this little guy was cultured from?  You guessed it – actual stinky feet (epidermis = skin).  This type of bacteria converts the amino acid methionine (found in foot sweat and dairy proteins) into gaseous methanethiol.  There are other places this methanethiol byproduct is lurking other than your cheese and your feet.  I learned this a few years ago from my friend Stef.  She made a comment about our pee smelling bad after we had asparagus at dinner.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  Turns out, the metabolism of asparagus produces a cocktail of volatile organic compounds that can cause your urine to have a sulfuric smell, and one of those compounds is methanethiol.  I apparently don’t have the single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, which is a DNA sequence variation) in my olfactory genes to detect it or am one of the few who may not produce ‘asparagus pee’ because my urine didn’t smell any different to me.  Another organism that is very sensitive to methanethiol is Anopheles gambiae, the principal type of mosquito that carries malaria.  Dr. Bart Knols and colleagues observed female mosquitoes were attracted to stinky feet – and created a mosquito trap baited with dirty socks (see Table 1).

Mosquito table2

CC copyright: Njiru BN, et al. (2006) Malaria Journal, 15:5-39.

Although I may not have mosquito-like senses when it comes to methanethiol, I’ve determined that I am pretty sensitive to isovaleric acid.  This fatty acid is produced on feet and in strong cheeses such as Durrus by the bacteria Staphylococcus epidermidis through metabolism of the amino acid leucine.  This bacteria can also grow out-of-control on your face and cause bad acne.  Whenever I smell isovaleric acid, you can bet that I’m calling the odor ‘stinky feet cheese’.  Similarly, another bacteria called Propionibacteria can be found on feet, in cheese (like Swiss), and on acne-laden skin.  This bacteria can produce isovaleric acid as well as propionic acid, which has a vinegar-like smell.  Who knew stinky feet and stinky cheese had so much (bacteria) in common?

So how did isovaleric acid get into my beer?  I’m pretty sure they didn’t brew it with dirty socks or pungent cheeses.  Hops contain three different types of alpha acids that create the bitter flavor in beer.  If the hops get old or are not stored correctly, one of those alpha acids, humulone, can oxidize and produce isovaleric acid.  You can even buy capsules of purified isovaleric acid to train yourself to identify this smell and taste in your beer.  Hops are usually boiled with the wort (the sugar-water produced from mashing the grain) to introduce the bitter flavor and the isovaleric acid byproducts will be drastically reduced.  However, Berliner Weisse wort may only be boiled for about a quarter of the time than as for other types of beer (or not even boiled at all).  This leaves the stinky, cheesy isovaleric acid in the beer.  The off-flavor is intensified by the low pH of the sour mash.  However, there are many Berliner Weisse beers that do not have this cheese flavor (and that are presumably boiled for a longer period).  The worst part was, the aftertaste of my beer had a strong cheese flavor…and it lingered.  Needless to say, I could only stomach two sips – and the second one was only to confirm its nastiness.  After chugging a glass of water, I found it quite unfortunate but necessary to dump the rest.

A few weeks after this beer was released and killed the noses and palates of its drinkers, the brewery admitted the mistake and recalled the beer.  Since then, they have brewed a new batch of the blueberry Berliner Weisse and also brewed a batch with raspberries.  I thoroughly enjoyed the raspberry beer and its tart, fruity flavor…and smell.  In fact, I might even pair the next bottle with a nice (mild) cheese.

Blue Lady

The second batch of blueberry Berliner Weiss

Five Chins

I first heard about Five Guys on NBC’s Inside the Obama White House a few years ago, in which Obama went there and picked up lunch for his staff.  I’m sure that happens all the time (ha).  It was apparently one of Obama’s favorite places to eat.  Soon after that special, I noticed Five Guys restaurants started springing up around town.  One came into our neighborhood recently, so my husband suggested we walk up the street (about a half mile) and try it out a couple of nights ago.  Boy, I’m glad we walked there.

The staff was friendly and loud, and yelled a kind of a statement-and-respond thing.  When you walked in the door, the counter guy would say, “Two in the door” and the response from the cooks was, “Got it”.  There were no descriptions on the menu, but I decided a burger was fairly straightforward.  I ordered the cheeseburger and was happy with all of the available veggies to add for free: lettuce, tomato, mushrooms, pickles, onions, and green peppers.  Then the counter guy asked if we wanted to split a fry – a regular fry, not a large.  I thought – wow, this guy isn’t trying to upsell us and I actually don’t need a lot of fries with this burger anyway.  I was wrong.  The fries came out in a cup, which was a large amount of fries, but then the whole bottom of the paper bag was covered in fries too.  It was enough fries for 4 people.  AND the cheeseburger was a double patty and double cheese sandwich.  I looked at the menu and saw they had a “little cheeseburger” which apparently means “normal size”.  So after we ate most of our burgers and only half of the fries between the two of us, we walked rolled home and I decided to look up the nutrition facts online.

I was pretty shocked.  The cheeseburger has 840 calories (500 of those from fat) and 55 g of fat (26.5 g of those are saturated).  I was actually grossed out by reading these numbers.  The most surprising part?  The fries are listed as “regular” and “large”.  The nutritional information actually states, “one serving of fries (approx. half of regular order)”.  I could not believe that they do not sell individual servings of french fries.  They don’t even offer it.  Everything was super-sized there, and it didn’t need to be.  I’m not sure how many people could even eat all of the food presumed for one person there.  I’m guessing there is a lot of food wasted at that restaurant.

They did have a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which was fun.  It is a machine that you can use to mix in flavors with your soda or water.  There are apparently 127 different combinations possible between the base flavors and the mix-ins (orange, cherry, lime, raspberry, lemon, strawberry, grape, peach).  This is a good marketing strategy for Coca-Cola and making Coke “new” without having to make New Coke (remember that?).  I was wondering if the raspberry Coke Zero we shared (which was pretty tasty) was still calorie-free.  Five Guys didn’t have nutritional info online for any drinks, but I did find that info elsewhere and was happy to see that all of the mix-ins were zero calories, or 5-10 calories if you drank 20 oz. of the stuff.

That said, I will probably not go back there again.  Other fast food restaurants have burgers and fries that are not healthy, but still contain less fat and calories than Five Guys.  I don’t want to support restaurants that contribute to the obesity problem in America without giving people a choice to enjoy food that is properly portioned.  When my husband wants to go there again (I know he will), I’ll suggest we go to the cafe next door that just opened and was handing out flyers when we walked by.  There’s no way their Thai veggie wrap has the majority of my day’s worth of calories and fat, but it’s probably just as tasty.

Eat Your Nerd Grenades

There is an obesity problem in America.  Educating children about eating a balanced diet is the most important thing we can do to prevent further increases in obesity.  As a child, I had to stay at the dinner table until I ate all my vegetables.  I remember one time that I sat at the kitchen table at least an hour after dinner was over, pouting over my turned-cold broccoli.  I eventually choked it down.  I learned that it’s important to eat a balanced diet, and now I choose to eat my broccoli.  Thanks Mom and Dad.  If children eat fresh fruits and vegetables from an early age, they will actually like to eat some of them.  Just ask my 7-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew if they like beets and brussel sprouts.  (They do).  Any headway made on reducing childhood obesity depends on parents taking responsibility for their children’s diet and educating them about it.

Courtesy of eatnearrockford.blogspot.com

Several studies based on exposing children to healthy foods by their parents increase children’s acceptance of that food.   Giving a bite of vegetable to a child every day for 2 weeks exposes them to that food and increases the consumption and likability of that food.  Dr. Lucy Cooke of the University College of London recently demonstrated that exposure to a healthy food followed by a tangible reward of a sticker increased their intake and liking of that food as well.  (Not to brag, but I had a pretty big sticker box as a kid – and I never got any for eating vegetables!)  There has been a lot of media coverage lately on a study claiming that children’s food choices were affected when silly names were associated with vegetables. Although the authors conclude that the silly names increased vegetable intake, I don’t think the experiment was well-controlled.  The baseline vegetable consumption of the control group before the intervention was 1.8-23.5-fold higher than that of the treatment group, depending on the vegetable.  That means, the children who were served the silly-named vegetables were eating a lot less vegetables at the beginning of the study (and intake at the end of the study was still less, for 3-out-of-4 vegetables, in the treatment group than the control group without the silly names).  For example, if Paul in the control group ate 4 carrots at the beginning of the study, and he ate 5 carrots at the end, that would be a 1.25-fold increase.  If Sally ate 1 carrot at the beginning of the study, and then they called carrots “X-ray Vision Carrots” and she ate 3 carrots, that’s a 3-fold increase.  Look what happened when you gave carrots a silly name!  You just can’t compare these groups well with the simple statistics they used.  Perhaps these conclusions were made because the people who performed the study were marketing guys (and I believe, marketed loose data to the public).  Nevertheless, children are influenced to some extent by marketing, but they are influenced more by what those around them (parents and peers) are doing.  It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children are eating a healthy diet.

Along the same lines, there is an uproar over the new government regulations for subsidized school lunches.  I found the clip below from The Daily Show to be humorous (and fairly accurate) – it spawned this post (and the title).  Children need to learn to eat healthier, but if parents and schools don’t teach them that, then the obesity rate will keep on rising.  Advice to children in the immortal words of John Stewart: Eat your motherf*cking lunch.

Juicing the Most out of Your Medication

Many of your medications may have warnings of TAKE WITH FOOD or DO NOT EAT 30 MINUTES BEFORE OR AFTER THIS MEDICATION because oral drugs may upset the stomach or not be absorbed as well depending on food intake.  Some foods, like the grapefruit, can act like a drug themselves.

Grapefruit juice contains a chemical called  bergamottin (and 6’,7’-dihydroxybergamottin, which were first found in bergamot oranges).  This chemical is a specific inhibitor of an enzyme in your liver and small intestine called cytochrome P450, family 3, subfamily A, polypeptide 4 (CYP3A4) that usually metabolizes macromolecules (lipids, proteins), but also drugs and toxins.  Depending on the drug, CYP enzymes can either increase or decrease the amount of active drug in your circulation (called bioavailability).  There are warnings not to drink grapefruit juice with some statin medications because that would increase the bioavailability of the statin and could cause side effects and organ damage.

Creative Commons Copyright John Steven Fernandez

Some researchers are actually using the power of the grapefruit to benefit patients.  They are investigating whether grapefruit juice could be used as a ‘drug booster’ –  the drug dosage could be lowered, but the resulting bioavailability would be the same.  Using less drug would translate to a lower cost to the consumer.  During Phase I trials in humans, researchers determined that an 8-oz. daily glass of grapefruit juice increased the bioavailability of 25 mg of sirolimus (a possible anti-cancer drug that is currently used as an immunosuppressant) to that of 90 mg of sirolimus alone.  That translates into taking 25% of the usual drug dose but seeing the same effects of the drug on cancer cells.

There are a couple of drawbacks to using grapefruit as a prescription.  The concentration of bergamottin can vary between grapefruit juice batches.  The authors of the Phase I study contacted the Florida Department of Citrus to obtain a frozen concentrate that was tested for bergamottin levels before they used it.  The other inconsistency is the variation between individuals.  Some people have higher levels of CYP3A4 enzyme in their small intestine (as much as 40-fold), and those people see the greatest effect from grapefruit juice.

Grapefruit could be a powerful medical tool because it is a natural, easily available, low-cost food that has a specific and well-known molecular mechanism.  Who said money doesn’t grow on trees?

McCalories

The next time you go to McDonald’s, don’t just automatically order your #4 Extra Value Meal, take a look at the menu board.  McDonald’s just announced they will post the calories on all of their in-store and drive-thru menus this month.

I think this is a step towards educating the general consumer.  Some people who go to McDonald’s frequently may not care about this information, but for people who go to McDonald’s when they just don’t have time or are on the road and want to make smarter choices, this will be a welcome change.  In July, McDonald’s began their Favorites Under 400 Calories program, which lists menu items in 100-calorie sections.  This is a great way to attract attention to healthier options, even though some of those items are fairly small and would need other items to make a filling meal (looking at you, side salad without dressing).

For any restaurant, having nutrition information available online is necessary to make better choices (especially for people with diabetes or food allergies), but having nutrition information quickly available when you order is even better.  However, calories are not everything.  Maybe you want a cheeseburger but think to yourself, “I should really just get a salad and be healthier”.  You look at the menu board and see that a cheeseburger is 300 calories (12 grams of fat) and a Southwest salad with grilled chicken and Southwest dressing is 390 calories (14 grams of fat).  The salad may have more calories, but when other nutrient data is factored in, the salad is actually healthier with more fiber and vitamins and less saturated fat.  It might even satiate your appetite longer than the cheeseburger, which could lower your total daily calorie intake.  Even so, the calorie information on the board will probably be more useful to people who usually get a large Extra Value Meal and are shocked by how many calories they are actually eating and cause them to order something less calorie-laden.  And for this reason, I support the calorie information on the menu.

All of this, of course, comes four years after New York City required restaurants (or, technically, food service establishments) to post calories on their menu boards.  Studies (based on surveys) suggest reduced calorie choices were made at some establishments (McDonald’s, KFC, Au Bon Pain) but not others (Subway) after this law was enacted.  In one study, only a subset of people who were surveyed (15%) knowingly made lower calorie choices after calories were posted on the menu.  Socioeconomic factors seem to have a large impact on menu choices and calorie-posting did not seem to affect a majority of adolescents.  However, these studies must be looked at with caution, because they do not consider food choices in the same people before and after the calorie-posting.  When a regression model was used to control for restaurant chain, store location, sex of customers, type of purchase, and inflation-adjusted cost, there was a statistically significant decrease in average calories before and after the regulations, which was masked when all the data was pooled together.  In addition, some people may have stopped patronizing certain restaurants altogether after the calorie regulations but these surveys don’t control for that type of information.

But hey, even if posting calories on the menu only affects 15% of consumers (although I think more-controlled studies would show a higher percentage), that is still 15% of consumers making healthier food choices when eating away from home.  So thank you McDonald’s, for at least attempting to assist customers nationwide in making healthier decisions.  The fast-food chain’s 2012 nutrition progress report also introduces their plan to include more fruits and vegetables on their menu; reduce sodium across the board; and reformulate some items to reduce sugar, saturated fat, and calories.  And don’t worry, a packet of low-fat balsamic vinaigrette is only 35 calories…and you probably wouldn’t use the whole thing on your side salad anyway.  Morgan Spurlock would be proud.

Courtesy of McDonalds USA

Not Signed, but Sealed

The 2012 Farm Bill has seen twists and turns in the legislature over the last couple of months.  Although it has turned into a bipartisan standoff over money, many of the programs from the 2008 Farm Bill have expired or will expire in September.  Several ‘food and health leaders’ have signed an open letter to Congress asking them to reject the Farm Bill in its current form because they believe the bill gives the most money to the largest commodity crop growers while underfunding conservation and nutrition assistance programs.  I agree that most fruit and vegetable growers for human consumption are currently overlooked in the Farm Bill.  I won’t get into politics here, but I think most bills that come through our government are bloated and need revision because politicians are attempting to help out their constituents.  I also believe the 2012 Farm Bill should be revised in several areas…but why does it seem like everyone waited too long to voice their opinion?  Any really beneficial programs that are supported by the Farm Bill will be terminated if it is completely rejected.  Will everyone be able to compromise and revise the Farm Bill before it’s too late?  What makes the bill especially important right now is the drought that has taken over the Midwest.  How will the government respond when those harvests – which will affect food, animal feed, and ethanol supplies – are lost?  I just got back from a road trip and the brown fields in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas were a bit depressing.

Sad Corn

The Farm Bill is huge.  You can read the 2008 bill here.  It includes commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, farming credit and loans, rural development, research , forestry, energy, horticulture, livestock, crop insurance and disaster assistance, commodity futures, and even a section of ‘miscellaneous’.  What actually caught my eye was the research part of the bill.  I earned my undergraduate degree from a land-grant university, so I was well-acquainted with that part.  This section of the bill also sets aside funds specifically for nutrition and agriculture research.  You are probably familiar with many innovations to come out of this bill but you would never really know it.  Ever wonder how those cut apples from McDonald’s stay white and crisp?  You can partially thank the U.S. government for that.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service teamed up with Mantrose-Haeuser, an edible coating company, to create and patent a product that would keep fresh-cut fruit and vegetables from browning.  The result is NatureSeal AS-1.  For years prior, scientists attempted to come up with a solution to prevent fresh food browning without harsh chemicals, flavors, or reduction in nutrition.  They finally did it with the help of the USDA.  NatureSeal AS-1 is a mixture of vitamins and minerals that will keep some fresh fruits from browning for at least 21 days.  That sure beats the couple hours it took last time I left an apple core out on the counter!

Apples to Apples

The calcium citrate-based coating is applied to freshly cut produce to maintain color, crispness, and water content.  Originally developed for apples and pears, AS-1 also retains the freshness of pineapples, melons, avocados, limes, nectarines, plums, starfruit, and coconut.  NatureSeal has developed formulas for many other fruits and vegetables as well as for frozen and dried fruits.  Which makes me happy – I love dried apricots, but the sulfites used to preserve them would always make me wheeze and cough.  NatureSeal products are sulfite-free.  My husband loves the baby carrots that come ready-to-eat (well, not technically baby carrots, they are just big carrots that have been shaved down, or ‘baby-cut’).  NatureSeal is used to prevent whitening and carotene loss from those little guys too.  The company has expanded their product line to include pre-washes that kill bacteria on fresh fruits and vegetables without the harsh chlorine.

Even though I am a proponent of buying fresh, whole foods at the market or grocery store, I am glad that grocery stores and restaurants are able to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables to people who will reach for the baby-cut carrots or a fruit cup instead of a bag of chips.  Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s are able to add fresher foods to their menu too.  No matter how you feel about fast food restaurants, they aren’t going away any time soon.  It’s nice to have the ability to order apple slices instead of french fries when your sandwich just doesn’t quite fill you up.  Switching from a small fry to a packet of apples saves you 215 calories and 11 grams of fat – and will even give you 160% of your daily allowance of vitamin C.  You just have to make the switch.  And keep an eye on that Farm Bill – it’s not all bad, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.

Some things still grow in Kansas

Clueless or Clued-in?

Note: Sorry to those who were interested in hearing about this topic a month ago.  I was sidetracked.  Life moves pretty fast – I didn’t want to miss it.

Birds do it.  No, not THAT.  Premastication.  The process of chewing food before giving it to your young.  Alicia Silverstone also does it.  There has been a lot of “gross” utterances after viewing this video.  Although Alicia Silverstone has done much more than Clueless (and Aerosmith videos!), she is best known for that classic 90’s movie.  Perhaps her inner Clueless Cher was coming out when she posted that video, because “anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good.”  She has been lampooned almost everywhere, especially by Jimmy Kimmel telling parents to premasticate for their own children.  I think he just likes torturing kids.  So I decided to look at this objectively and see if there are advantages to pre-chew food for children.

Premastication has been used to feed infants and wean them off breast milk in many cultures.  A 2009 article from Gretel Pelto and colleagues, “Premastication: the second arm of infant and young child feeding for health and survival?”, attempted to determine the prevalence of premastication.  The group mined Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) containing data on 370 different cultural groups around the world from the past 50 years.  They found 119 files from different cultures that contained text about infant feeding or weaning, and 38 of those mentioned premastication.  Of those 38 cultures, 31 practiced premastication solely to provide food to children (the others references spiritual or medicinal reasons).  That means, from this sample, at least 1/4 of cultures from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies have practiced premastication.  To determine whether premastication may be under-reported in these ethnographic studies, they recruited Chinese students from the University of Beijing to interview their mothers or caregivers and ask about infant feeding practices.  From 104 interviews, 63% of caregivers had practiced premastication.  Based on these snapshots, the actual number of caregivers that use premastication to feed their children may be higher than reported.  A 2008 FDA study in the U.S. found only 14% of mothers pre-chewed their infant’s food, with an inverse correlation to education.  Premastication can vary greatly between regions and cultures within America, as 65% of African-American mothers and grandmothers from Omaha, Nebraska reported premastication practices.  These numbers my be surprisingly high for those that have not been exposed to this behavior, but clearly show that premastication is used to feed children in many modern societies.  The real controversy stems from whether this practice is actually beneficial to children.

Breast milk should be supplemented with other foods for children around 6 months old to provide proper nutrition. Several studies have determined that production of salivary enzymes change with age, tooth eruption, and diet.  There is an increase in amylase, or the enzyme that breaks down starches, as the child grows.  By 3 months of age, children have 66% salivary amylase activity as adults.  The importance of salivary amylase is somewhat controversial because the pancreas also secretes this enzyme into the small intestine during digestion.  By 9 months of age, children have adult levels of pancreatic amylase production.  In fact, many digestive enzymes that break down protein and fat are found past the mouth in the digestive tract.  Unless there is a known problem with a child’s salivary enzymes, there are no data I could find to support the need for adult salivary enzymes in children’s mouths.  In fact, as children are exposed to more foods, their bodies adapt to produce more enzymes on their own.

On the other hand, there is actually a lot of overlap between antimicrobial factors (which help the immune system), hormones, and growth factors between breast milk and saliva.  When a child is weaning off breast milk, premastication could provide some beneficial factors that the child is losing from reduced consumption of breast milk, but again, many of those factors children begin producing themselves.  Some believe premastication is a way to bond with your child, although you don’t have to perform mouth-to-mouth to transfer pre-chewed food.  A hug and a kiss might work to bond also.

The biggest problem with premastication arises from the transfer of pathogens.  This is especially problematic in less developed countries where more people unknowingly carry hepatitis, herpes, HIV, Epstein-Barr, and other viruses.  Peridontic diseases can also be transmitted from the mother to the child.  Even in developed countries where mothers know their viral status, premastication could transmit H. pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.

Although some argue that premastication is beneficial and has just fallen ‘out of vogue’ much like breastfeeding did 50 years ago, the major benefits of premastication remain unproven.  There are no controlled trials on premastication because they would be unethical to perform.  Premastication was probably necessary before the average person could easily make or buy their own baby food.  The science behind premastication is just not there yet to promote the practice if other means to feed a child are available.  However, I don’t think anyone should be condemned if they choose to premasticate.  If a mother is free from transmissible diseases and feels like this might help a child wean off breast milk, then she could try it…but maybe don’t post a video of it on the internet.  For everyone else, just put the meat in the blender.

Beetle Juice: the next protein shake?

Michiel den Hartogh is in the kitchen assembling a “crispy cricket” concoction — complete with curried mayonnaise, crocodile pie and fried crickets — with the special care due any delicacy.

This isn’t a chef preparing for the next episode of Fear Factor.  This quote is from an article by Teri Schultz on the Netherlands restaurant Spacktakel and their chef experimenting with insects and worms in their recipes.  More of these kind of restaurants may not be that far off, with the European Union spending 3 million euros on insects-as-food research and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations assessing the potential of edible insects.

People have been eating bugs gathered from the wild for centuries.  There are thousands of insect species known to be safe for human consumption found throughout the world.  I think insects have turned up as a delicacy in some restaurants because it’s something different and could be the ‘next big thing.’  There seemed to be a trend with Kobe beef or local farm-fresh foods in many expensive restaurants over the past several years.  As local foods and Kobe beef become more and more common, chefs are looking for the next thing to tantalize customers.  Insects could be it.  If eating insects makes you shudder, how about the age-old luxury foods such as caviar and pâté?  Caviar are sturgeon eggs treated with salt to give them flavor and pâté is ground meat and fat blended to a spreadable paste.  Not that appetizing either, huh?

The biggest obstacles to eating bugs for most people are taste and consistency. The taste can always be altered by adding other foods to it, stewing it in a soup or sauce, or even frying it.  Preparing insects in these ways can also change the consistency, although some insects have exoskeletons that might have to be removed to avoid crunchiness.  In Japan, inago (grasshoppers) fried or boiled in sweetened soy sauce have been eaten for centuries.  Most likely, insects will be introduced for mass public consumption in the Western world through insect protein in powdered form and added into other foods.  (Insert joke about Jessica Seinfeld hiding spinach in her kid’s brownies here).  Unless they read the label in the grocery store, people might not even realize they are eating protein from insects.  Bear Grylls wishes he could be that lucky.

Photo copyright simplemathbakery.com

Insects have been known to be a good food source for years.  I found what appears to be a web 1.0 site from the late 1990’s/early 2000’s (complete with visitor counter!) at www.food-insects.com, which was created by Dr. Gene DeFoliart, now Professor Emeritus at UW-Madison.  Studies from his lab (and others) have measured high levels of digestable protein in insects (46-96% protein depending on the species, with digestability at 77-96%) including many essential amino acids (remember, those are the ones you must get from food sources).  Insect conversion of plant protein to body protein mass is much higher than cows (crickets are five times more efficient) and the protein content is comparable to vertebrate animals if the exoskeleton is removed.  The exoskeleton, which contains chitin, could then be used for other agricultural (fertilizer) or industrial (thickener, binder) uses.  Many different insect species (caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers) have high levels of minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc, as well as A and B  vitamins.

Insects as edible protein for humans could help the food industry end their battles with pink slime, feces contamination, hormone use, and animal housing conditions.  It would also make the FDA’s new ‘suggestion’ to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals moot.  Even though I am a meat-eater, I am concerned about the sustainability of large-mammal farming and how it affects the environment (methane gas, clear-cutting forests, etc.)  I don’t think beef, poultry, or pork will completely disappear, but the availability may decrease drastically in the future.

For now, I think the best way to use insects is for animal (non-human) feed.  There is a nice TEDx talk by Jason Drew in which he describes the forces behind his company’s plan (AgriProtein) to use fly larvae as animal feed, instead of feeding chickens and fish old chicken and fish parts.  This return to a more natural, mass-produced food for animals is a great idea.  Although free-range animals are best, the majority of our meat does not come from these animals.  Drew calculates that one kilogram of fly eggs can create 318 kilograms of protein in 72 hours by feeding off of blood waste from slaughterhouses.  The resulting larvae can be dried and powdered to add protein to any type of animal feed.  If this type of animal feed can be used for large-scale farm operations, it could drastically improve feed quality and pathogen transmission that we now have with animal ‘cannibalism’.

Currently, insects are an expensive delicacy for the Western world because there are not many companies producing insects for human consumption (although there are 20,000 insect ‘farmers’ in Thailand), but if mass production of ‘human-grade’ insects begins, they will become much cheaper than other animal meat.  In addition, I doubt there will be any movement to up-charge for healthier ‘organic’ or ‘free-range’ insects, which is a problem we currently have with other meat.  I’m interested to see if edible insects catch on in Europe and the U.S.  Perhaps in the future your spider roll at the sushi restaurant will actually be made of spider instead of soft-shell crab…but I’m also betting my mother will still not eat it.

How do you like them apples?

Creative Commons copyright msr via Flickr

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  Remember the good ol’ days when maxims like this were all you needed to live a healthy and long life?  Now, the public is bombarded with confusing messages about their health every day.  The latest example is 60 Minutes report on “Toxic Sugar”.  I had several people ask me about this because they wanted to know my opinion – so here it is:  just because Dr. Sanjay Gupta says something does not mean it is true…or any one scientific study for that matter.  Dr. Richard Lustig has been in the limelight recently, as his idea to tax sugar was the basis for my Boston Sugar Party post.  Let’s look at the “facts” Lustig and others presented in the report:

“Sugar is toxic.”  Sugar itself is not toxic.  You actually need sugar to live.  Your brain needs 6 grams of glucose (a type of sugar) per hour to work properly.  In addition, when your muscles and other tissues cannot take up glucose to create energy, as in the case of type 1 diabetics, you will starve to death.  Think of it this way:  you need water to live, but if you drink massive amounts of water, you will die within hours.  If you drink massive amounts of sugary drinks, your pancreas will pump out more insulin to remove the sugar from the bloodstream, and after a while you might become obese, then you may become insulin resistant, some people might become diabetic, and only then will you cause major organ damage.  Considering the time it takes to kill you after overconsumption, water is more toxic than sugar.

“There is no foodstuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous.”  Lustig was trying to make the point that humans WANT to eat fructose because of evolution and we instinctively know it’s safe to eat.  I’d like to see his analysis of fructose content on holly berries, sweet peas, and the other poisonous foodstuffs listed by a poison control center in Philadelphia.

“We were born this way.”  He is obviously a Lady Gaga fan, promoting her song, “Born This Way”…ok, that’s untrue, just trying to add some levity here…he just states that we are born to love fructose.  Yes, we may enjoy eating fructose (it has the highest sweetness out of all of the natural sugars), but I still don’t buy the claim that we are prone to it because of evolution and poisonous things.

“Fructose causes heart disease and stroke.”  This is new research coming out of the Dr. Kimber Stanhope lab, and any new hypothesis must be thoroughly tested before it becomes consensus.  The amount of fructose consumed is astronomically high, at 25% of daily calories.  This is not too unusual for scientific studies trying to determine effects from diets, but not many people are actually drinking this many calories every day without any type of exercise.  She states there is are increases in LDL cholesterol and “other risk factors” for cardiovascular disease.  No mention of whether these increases are statistically significant or if sugar is ACTUALLY “just as bad for their hearts as their fatty cheeseburgers.”

“[In the 1970’s] a government commission mandated that we lower fat consumption to try to reduce heart disease.”  This is true, governmental attempts to lower fatty foods did not make us healthier.  Some foods were processed down until the fat was removed, but all the sugar, salt, and calories were still there, and usually some chemicals added in to replace the fat.  However, there was no real regulation of fatty foods and many ‘low-fat’ items on the shelf were always considered ‘diet foods’ that people did not eat consistently.  People still gravitate toward high-fat foods.  Sugar alone did not increase American adult obesity to 36%.  You can order a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese from McDonald’s which has 740 calories, more than half of those calories coming from the 42 grams of fat.  But it only has 9 grams of sugar!  It won’t make you fat!  Again, this is just not true.  (Just to be fair to other fast food chains, an Extra-Crispy Chicken Breast at KFC will set you back 510 calories, 290 of those come from the 33 grams of fat…but only 1 gram of sugar!)  You need a well-rounded diet of protein, carbohydrate, and fat for your body to function properly.  Telling people that sugar is toxic creates the next “scare” that Lustig said happened with fat 40 years ago, and obesity rates will keep increasing.

“If you limit sugar, it decreases the chances of developing cancer.”  Dr. Lewis Cantley’s example that cancer cells have insulin receptors and will therefore take up excess glucose from the bloodstream and grow into tumors was probably the most shocking to me.  Insulin receptors bind insulin (which is secreted from your pancreas and into the bloodstream after every meal) and if cells have certain glucose transporters, insulin ‘tells’ those transporters to move from inside the cell to the cell surface.  This results in increased glucose entry into the cell.  Many cells in your body have insulin receptors such as muscle, liver, fat, and brain.  Muscle (skeletal and heart) and fat cells have the glucose transporters that are ‘activated’ by insulin.  There is no data that I am aware of which claims cancer cells can take up more glucose than any of the other cells in your body.  Also, insulin signaling (what happens inside the cell after insulin binds the insulin receptor), once activated, is eventually downregulated by a negative feedback system.  Insulin cannot just sit on an insulin receptor and hang out, causing cancer cells to keep sucking up the sugar, or blue dots, as the schematic on the television show would like you to believe.

“Every cell in our body needs glucose to survive, but the problem is, these cancer cells also use it to grow.”  Once again ALL CELLS that have the insulin receptor use glucose to grow.  Period.

“Sugar is much more addictive than we thought early on.”  These scientists seem very careful with their wording.  Dr. Eric Stice showed that dopamine was released in Gupta’s brain when he drank some soda.  Activation of taste receptors on your tongue cause dopamine to be released in the brain, no matter what the food.  If a person likes spinach, the same dopamine receptors will light up in MRI brainscans, especially if the person is hungry at the time.  Dopamine regulates feeding behavior, and not just for sugar.  Maybe sugar can be addictive, but so can so many other things (including suntanning, as I mentioned in my Tanners Anonymous post).  We can’t possibly regulate every choice people make.

As a scientist, I believe the scare tactics that Lustig is using are not within the ‘unwritten rule’ of putting the science first in research.  I am all for new ideas, but a scientist cannot go on national television to state untested claims as fact and contribute positively to the field of science. You’re probably thinking, “he must be a first-hand expert to make these claims on television, right?”  During my scan of his last 27 papers published in peer-reviewed journals since 2009, I calculated only five that were original work coming directly from his lab (where he was last author and they were not review articles).  These five papers had nothing to do with ‘toxic sugar’ and its effects on the human body.  The most recent concerns growth hormone deficiency in children after radiation treatment, and the other four are about the efficacy of lifestyle intervention (behavioral) programs in obese children.  In the other 22 papers, he either contributed to another lab’s work, or they were review or opinion articles on sugar, fast food, and obesity.  Something about this seems fishy to me, and it isn’t Friday.  You can’t be an objective scientist and (what seems to me)  to be striving for fame at the same time.  He wrote an article about ‘toxic sugar’ in the journal Nature a couple months ago, and that’s when the mainstream media started to interview him and publish articles on his opinions.  There are 5 other articles in subsequent issues of Nature that refute his claims.  Here are some quotes from these articles:

Our meta-analyses of controlled feeding trials indicate a net metabolic benefit, with no harmful effects, from fructose at a level of intake obtainable from fruit (Nature. 2012 Feb 23;482(7386):470).

To describe sugar as “toxic” is extreme, as is its ludicrous comparison with alcohol…Nutritionist Jennie Brand-Miller of the University of Sydney is not alone in her disgust that you published this opinion piece (The Australian, 4 February 2012). The Dietitians Association of Australia believes that it is simplistic and unhelpful to blame sugar alone for the obesity crisis. Alan Barclay of the Australian Diabetes Council notes in the same article in The Australian that sugar consumption in Australia has dropped by 23% since 1980. But he adds that during that time, the number of overweight or obese people has doubled, while diabetes has tripled (Nature. 2012 Feb 23;482(7386):470).

Overconsumption of foods that have a high glycaemic index (that trigger a rapid and sharp increase in blood glucose), such as wheat, potatoes and certain types of rice, also contributes to obesity and diabetes. Emphasis on sugar alone is therefore too narrow a basis for devising policies to curb these problems (Nature. 2012 Feb 23;482(7386):471).

Rather than demonizing sugar, the authors would have better served public health with recommendations to manage a balanced diet with exercise (Nature. 2012 Feb 23;482(7386):471).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the US Food and Nutrition Board, and the European Food Standards Authority have all considered the issues now revisited by Lustig et al. and find no reliable evidence that typical sugar consumption contributes to any disease apart from dental caries. Without evidence that reducing sugar consumption would improve public health, Lustig and colleagues’ policy proposals are irrelevant. Scientific controversies should be settled by consideration of all the available evidence, not of a seemingly biased selection (Nature. 2012 Mar 8;483(7388):158).

I appreciate the attention the ‘Western Diet’ is getting (the diet high in refined grains, sugar, fat, and red meat), as there are major problems with it that lead to obesity and diabetes, but presenting hypotheses as fact to scare the public is not the way to do it.  This is how fad diets are created and may cause people more harm than good.  Educating the public with real information and making it easier for them to make good dietary choices is the best way to battle the bulge.  I say, it probably is best if you don’t drink sugary drinks everyday, but having one every once in a while will not kill you.  And enjoy that apple.

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