Archive for the ‘tricks and gimmicks’ Category

What sweetener do you use? Part 1

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

real sugar has some calories

I have a confession to make. On the rare occasions when I do use a sweetener, I actually use sugar or occasionally honey.

Now that doesn't happen very often; I don't have all that much of a "sweet tooth" and usually add a few Crasins to my unsweetened cereal in the morning and drink a non-coffee called Cafix (now that's a clever name; I suppose it's implying "Caffeine Fix") with a small amount of vanilla soy milk, but no sugar.

On Wednesday, January 4th of this year, The Wall Street Journal had a big spread in their "Personal Journal" section with an eye-catching title, Bracing for the Fake Sugar Rush." In the article four artificial sweeteners, Truvia, Splenda, Equal and Sweet"n Low' were compared to sugar. Prices were listed, tastes and aftertastes were compared, the sweetening agents were mentioned and the calories noted (0 for the articial sweeteners and 15 calories per teaspoon for the good old fashioned stuff).

Then I started thinking. I knew that adding 3,500 calories to my food intake theoretically would result in a weight gain of a pound. Since I enjoy math I wanted to figure out how much sugar that is. That translates into 233 and 1/3 teaspoons full or 1.167 kilograms of sugar (about two and a half pounds). So I'd have to eat two and a half pounds of sugar to, in theory, gain a pound of weight?

These three don't; but do they have any risks?

I went back to the article I just mentioned: my real reason for not using artificial sweeteners is two-fold. The WSJ admittedly "unscientific taste test" confirmed one of those; all four of the fake sugars had strange aftertastes according to their samplers: one was "Tab-like," one was compared to soap water, another termed metallic and the fourth said to leave a taste "like a copper pipe."

The other is safety; consumers often hear much later of concerns about new chemicals, whether they be sweeteners or medications. The managing director of a "brand-consulting firm" says one worry is "Did they test it on enough rats over a long enough period of time?"

Well, I've done basic lab research with rodents (three and a half years in medical school) and I'd really like to be able to say those experiments directly apply to humans, but I can't be sure that's a true statement. I did later work with dogs and when my boss (an associate professor at UCLA) was getting ready to present some of our results at an international conference, he came up with a great idea.

"Peter," he said, "when I show the slides with our data, someone in the back of the room is going to get up and ask if humans react the same way. So let's replicate our experiment in at least a few people."

Guess who was the first of those "people?" I was poked and prodded and infused with the same materials as our dogs.

In our case the data was essentially the same and when that inevitable heckler at the back of the room said his piece, my boss replied, "Let's have the first large slide."

But how much safety testing has been done with humans for these sweeteners? I'll try to find out if there are any long-term data on those of us who use non-caloric alternatives to sugar and write about that next.


Slim down those truckers

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

some truckers are relatively slender

I have two series of posts going, but couldn't resist the article I found in the New York Times while riding a recumbent bike in the gym. The title alone, "A Hard Turn: Better Health on the Highway," was enough to grab my attention.

The first story was typical, a trucker driving long hours every day, eating all the wrong foods, getting no exercise, gaining huge amounts of weight. I found the online abstract of a 2007 Journal of the American Dietetic Association article cited: long-haul truckers of necessity eat at truck stops and of 92 such truckers stopping at a Mid-eastern US truck stop nearly 86% were overweight and 56.5% were obese.

One of our family members used to be a truck driver and I've heard his stories of long days spent behind the wheel, eating greasy foods when he stopped. He's slimmer now and in better shape as his current employment allows him more exercise time and a choice of where and what to eat.

Now that insurance costs are rising sharply, the trucking firms are getting involved and the truckers themselves, there's over three million of them in the US, are coming to grips with the issue out of necessity. One group ran a blood-pressure screening clinic for 2,000 truckers at a truck show. Twenty-one were immediately sent to a nearby emergency room; one had a heart attack before reaching the hospital.

drive carefully around trucks like this

Trucks are involved in 400,000 accidents a year and 5,000 fatalities. I just watched a nearly eighteen minute video on how we, as drivers of passenger vehicles, contribute to those accidents; 70% are caused by the drivers of other vehicles (see link below). Yet many of the ones caused by trucker driver error occur because the trucker has a health problem or falls asleep.

Some truckers are taking steps to decrease their weight and its accompanying risks for themselves and those who share the roads with them. A number of companies are helping (and perhaps finding a lucrative new client group). I just looked at a website for "Rolling Strong," and found a gym in my area that offers fitness programs for truckers. Others are joining Weight Watchers, a solid organization that my slender wife has belonged to for many years (she says she was "chunky" in high school) or creating their own programs for fitness: one carries a fold-up bike in his 18-wheeler and uses it whenever he stops for a break. Many are cooking in their trucks or even hiring a trainer.

Others joined the Healthy Truckers Association of America, paying $7.50 a month to belong to an organization that is rapidly growing (see link below to Chicago tribune article). That group now offers truckers a prescription drug card enabling its members to save ~60% on meds.

I applaud all these moves; if I'm on the road with a large truck or a series of them, I'd like their drivers to be in shape and wide awake.

Eating and drinking European style

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Living and eating at a vineyard

We're just back from 3+ weeks in Europe, almost all of that in Portugal. We had keys to an apartment situated in a village west of Lisbon and owned by old friends. Downstairs was a superb Brazilian restaurant and 100 feet from our buildings door was another, more casual eatery in a glass-sided tent-like structure. We dined at those two places a lot, but also rented a car, drove north, and stayed in walled cities, a university town and a farm in the Douro Valley raising grapes for Port wine, olives and some fruit.

We discovered a new style of eating and drinking, far different from American fast food restaurants or home meals eaten on a couch in front of a television set or hurriedly at a table. Many of our dinners lasted well over two hours and almost all were accompanied by red wine.

We had already, over the past few years, changed our style of eating, at least for our evening meal. We move from the kitchen area to the dining room, serve one course at a time, portion out our meat, salad, and vegetables in the kitchen so we don't have platters of food before us as a temptation to refill our plates. We slow down, talk and reflect on our day or on issues of substance. Perhaps three times a week we have a glass of wine, almost always a sweet white varietal. Our dinners often stretch out to an hour in length, sometimes longer.

I've read about the supposed health benefits of red wine (the Mayo Clinic website has an excellent short review on the subject) and, in recent years, realized there are some reds I can drink without having the kind of reaction (mostly nasal stuffiness) I got from Cabernet sauvignon in the early 1970s. I went back to a March 2011 update from Mayo's which, with appropriate cautions, discusses an antioxidant named resveratrol, which comes from grape skins. Because red wine is fermented with grape skins longer than is red wine, it contains more of this polyphenol chemical.

I knew I wanted to try and likely buy some Port. That was easily done during our four-day farm-stay. But elsewhere in Portugal there were various other local red wines. So we walked from our hotel to a restaurant (I don't drink and drive), ordered some red wine and markedly changed our eating style.

Take a bite, put down the utensil, savor, swallow and then talk for a while. Our meals stretched out to two hours and often beyond. In one restaurant we were next to a French couple and beyond them was a Canadian couple. We entered the place before either and left last.

We usually ate bread (freshly made) and ate desserts. I knew I would gain a few pounds, but I also knew I could lose it quickly when we returned home. The food, on average, was wonderful. We ate lots of fresh fish, lots of vegetables and the occasional mousse de chocolata. We hope to carry over some of those habits now that we're home.



Can there be long Life without Life?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

A "fountain with Youth" that's real

I was reading two articles, in our local paper last weekend when I realized I was channeling Yogi Berra and his famous quote, "It's déjà vu all over again. What's happened is a return to Herodotes, the Greek historian (5th century BCE) who told of a fountain in Ethiopia responsible for extraordinary lifespan and to Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who traveled on Columbus' second voyage (1493) and described the Fountain of Youth, supposedly found in Florida.

Now we have a huge contingent of baby boomers (estimates in the 70 million range) who are about to reach 65 and don't want to grow or look older. The market for anti-aging remedies is currently about $80 billion a year and is expected to top $110 billion in the next four or five years. We live in a society that worships youth and many of our compatriots are being sold magic potions that some claim will prevent aging or at least most of its signs.

One of the articles had an amazing photo of Dr. Jeffrey S.Life, age 72, a body builder and author of a book titled The Life Plan: How Any Man Can Achieve Lasting Health, Great Sex and a Stronger, Leaner Body. You can buy this $26 book for $14.94 on Amazon, but I think I'll skip it.

Dr. Life's program includes diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle; it also features, for at least some of his patients, injections of human growth hormone (at roughly $15,000 a year) plus testosterone.

The data on these hormone replacement regimens is, to say the least, not as rock solid as Dr. Life's toned torso. The NIH has a division called the National Institute On Aging (see link below), and the Geriatrician who heads this organization is solidly against widespread use of hormone replacement therapies.

What makes sense to me is exercising regularly, staying lean (or getting there) and stopping smoking. I noted that Dr Life's mentor died at age 69, a long ways short of my physician Dad's 94-year lifespan. Dad ran most days until his late 70s, stayed trim and quit smoking as a young doc when he realized he had three cigarettes going in three ashtrays in his three-room office.

lots of these out there

I think many baby boomers and others would like to find a magic bullet, a tonic or elixer that would allow them to eat what they want, do what they want and live to 100.

Until you show me a long-term, controlled study that points that way, I think we're as shy of the Fountain of Youth as we were in the days of Ponce de Leon or Herodotes.

Eat less and spend your money on a health club membership or a pair of running shoes instead.

Beating the heat by using the new data:

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Ready, set, eat well

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described how the Houston Texans professional football team is using data I read in the Archieves of Internal Medicine online to improve player safety. The Texans are facing some of our worst summer heat and are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent heat-related injury.

I'm not at all sure I agree with their stategem, practicing in triple-digit weather outdoors in the full sun. Their theory is that doing so helps their players remain fresh in the heat of early-season games. Other teams have opted for temperature-controlled practice arenas or night-time workouts or cooler climes.

We'll wait and see the results, but at least they're using the latest medical research and some practical concepts.

Players are weighed pre-practice and afterwards (the team, collectively, lost an incredible average of 450 pounds per two-hour session one week). That's in spite of replacement fluids and ice to the tune of 100 gallons of water, 50 cases of Gatorade and three quarters of a ton of ice for ninety men. One three-hundred-plus tackle lost seven pounds and had to receive IV fluids.

The Archives  article and a subsequent Harvard Heart Letter detailed research and historical perspective. Our intake of sodium, in table salt and foods, is important, but the ratio of how much sodium to potassium in our diets may be even more crucial.

An older edition of the Harvard Heart Letter compared our modern diet to that of our primitive ancestors. Paleolithic man consumed sixteen times as much potassium (in milligrams) as sodium; today our typical diet has nearly five times as much sodium and less than a quarter of the potassium as the hunter-gatherers ate, so the ratio has marked changed.

lots of potassium in this bunch

So how do you return to a healthier diet, in those terms. Well, a banana, for instance has over 400 milligrams of potassium and almost no sodium (1 milligram). An orange has over 230 times as much potassium as sodium, steamed Brussels sprouts 35 times as much (I mean in milligrams in all cases, so scientifically my comparisons are ratios).

The Texan's head dietician and senior trainer are altering the team's diet, using lots (and I mean lots) of electrolyte-containing vegetables and fluids. They even formed a players' food committee to make sure the team members would have choices that they would like. Southerners want okra and potatoes, so that's what they get. The team members were concerned about blood pressure effects from all the salt they're getting; then they heard how the new research showed foods high in potassium and other electrolytes can balance out the effects of sodium.

The proof is in the pudding is the old saying; we'll see how the Houston team does when the season starts.

But I can certainly see the sense behind their approach.


A better school lunch: Greeley in the New York Times Breaking News

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

It's time for a better school lunch

I was reading the NYT breaking news on my Kindle this morning, when to my surprise I saw an article, "Schools Restore Fresh Cooking to the Cafeteria," on school lunches in Greeley, Colorado. We live 20-25 miles northwest of Greeley and I'd never thought of the city as being a hotbed of innovation.

At a tad under 93,000 inhabitants, Greeley is mid-sized at best, but 60% of its 19,500 students qualify for lower-priced or free meals, so they have decided those meals will be healthy ones.They're not alone in this endeavor. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a campaign whose motto is,"Foods served in schools should promote the health of all children." Their 2008 school lunch report card ranked twenty school districts across the nation with letter grades from A to F.

Here's that URL:

At the top with A's were schools in Montogomery County, MD, Omaha, NE, and Pinellas County, FL, I was pleased that my grandson Jordi's schools in Fairfax County, VA got an A-.  At the bottom were schools in two areas of Louisiana. I bet Greeley will climb up the list in the next few years.

So what's their plan? Like many Colorado schools, they've participated in Cooks for America, a group that runs a chef's boot camp for school cooks  Here's what that organization's website says: "Distinguishing the Cook for America® approach from that of countless other school food reform projects is its emphasis on holistic, systemic change through the creation of a school foodservice work force that is both capable of preparing healthy scratch-cooked meals from whole, fresh foods, and empowered and motivated to do so."

Greeley schools will be cooking from scratch, roughly three-fourths of the time at the start of this school year according to the NYT article, and aim to reach 100% in the 2012-2013 time frame. They'll be using fresh ingredients, avoiding chemicals (e.g., their bean burritos will have 12 ingredients this year versus 35 last year).

Although Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, Weld County, where Greeley is located, had rates growing faster than much of the state. So the numbers were crunched with amazing results: cooking from scratch will actually save money. A large foundation grant helped with construction and new equipment and the old central kitchen was renovated, so the budget for staff was actually reduced.

Chenically-colored macaroni and cheese

The district hired an experienced executive chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) and worked in high-end restaurants. He hopes his concepts for healthy cooking will wend their way back to the districts homes. One of his innovative ideas is to replace the chemically-colored commercial macaroni and cheese with a version whose familiar yellow will come from the Indian spice turmeric. His salad dressing will have no sugar and only a quarter of the sodium that's been present in the factory-made variety.

My hat's off to Greeley.


A gastronomic slant on invasive species

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

So that's a lionfish

I normally think of invasive species as plants that are non-indigenous, kudzu comes to mind. Actually, in our Colorado garden areas, a plant called bindweed invades and takes over unless we are diligent about weeding. When I Googled it, I found it did indeed meet the definition more commonly used, a plant or animal imported from another country or continent (in bindweed's case Eurasia), sometimes for seemingly logical reasons (e.g., as an ornamental or to control another species regarded as a pest).

But let's switch gears. There was an article in The New York Times on July 10, 2011 that caught my attention. Its title was "Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It," and it began with a photo of a flamboyant fish, the lionfish. That led me to the website for Food and Water Watch, a non-profit, independent organization with an impressive and eclectic Board of Directors and a mission to ensure the food, water and fish we consume are safe, accessible and sustainably produced.

Their 2011 Smart Seafood Guide now has "Recommended Invasive Species" Many of these, once introduced into a new habitat, have no natural predators, so the suggestion is that we fill that niche. For instance we could eat the lionfish, which, according to the NYT article, is devastating reef fish, both in the Caribbean and coastally, off Florida. But caught by spearfishing and braised in brown butter sauce, lionfish tastes wonderful.

The Nature Conservancy sponsored a lionfish food fair a year ago, paying local fisherfolk $11 a pound for the pesty fish. The fritters made from this invasive species went over well with the crowd. There was concern with lionfish, as with many other species, about the possibility of toxins from microbes, so selective fishing from "clean" areas was necessary.

The Smart Seafood Guide I downloaded from Food and Water Watch lists eight other species as potential menu items. Asian carp, which are not bottom feeders, are caught with nets of several kinds or even on hook and line. They've spread from the Southeast through floods and are moving toward the great Lakes. They eat plankton in amounts out of proportion to their size and thus compete with native fishes. They're a bony fish and a NYC chef, the James Beard Foundation and Food and Water Watch have combined in an effort to develop recipes for these and others of the unwanted species.

The Beard Foundation's VP noted that we've gone from weeding out some plant species to regarding them as delicacies; perhaps we can do the same with our Asian crabs, Asian carp, lionfish, Asian swamp eels, Chinese mitten crabs, European green crabs, rusty crayfish, walking catfish (able to live out of water for short periods and move short distances on land), and two species of tilapia.

spearfishing is the way to catch lionfish

There are a number of other avenues being explored to control these critters and we'll also need to prevent their deliberate further spread once the profit motivation comes into play.

But to me, it sounds like it's time for a fish dinner

Vitamins & supplements: part 1

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

The amazing mangosteen

I started reading the New York Times breaking news on my Kindle this morning and ran across a story titled "Support is Mutual for Senator and Utah Industry." The photo below the byline showed US Senator Orin Hatch at the HQ of one of his state's firms; this one puts out a $40 bottle of fruit juice. Well, that's a lot more than I usually pay (and I almost always buy fruit, not juice, anyway). But my interest was piqued, so I read the story and then did background research.

The fruit involved in the mangosteen, a name I vaguely remembered from my Air Force tour in the Philippines. It's been used in medicinal products in India and China for many years, but much more recently sold in mixed juice form in the United States with fairly incredible health claims (improves immunity, fights cancer, has anti-aging properties).

The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website says, "Despite claims by several marketers, the efficacy and safety of mangosteen products for cancer treatment in humans has not been established." They do mention that several small studies suggest it may be beneficial for halitosis, but also note at least one person who suffered a major side effect after prolonged use of mangosteen juice.

I was able to find a single randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that demonstrated some laboratory evidence of changes in immune function in a small group of 40 to 60-year-old  who took a mangosteen product that also contained multivitamins and "essential minerals" over a 30-day period. The study participants who got the combination product also felt their health improved.

So is this another expensive scam or will further study find we should all consider drinking mangosteen juice? Frankly I don't know, but I'd bet it's going to be hard to find out.

In March of this year, a Board Certified Family Practice physician who is now on the "mangosteen circuit" apparently spoke at the central Utah headquarters of the firm producing the miracle juice and claimed it had "anti-tumor," "anti-obesity," "anti-aging," "anti-fatigue," "antiviral," "antibiotic," and "anti-depressant" properties.

When asked how he knew the juice wasn't snake oil, he replied, "A company that is selling snake oil is not going to stay in business for 11 years and grow as fast as this company is growing."

That's strange. If I were asked a similar question I'd want to be able to show solid, evidence-based data generated by researchers who have no financial interest in the company.

sell very expensive juice with extensive but unproven health benefit claims

But the senator has apparently been the focal point for legislation that says nutritional supplement companies can bring out new products without FDA approval and make lots of general health claims without studies of safety or effectiveness.

Oh, and by the way, the New York Times mentioned that the doctor making all those sweeping statements has had his license to practice revoked on two occasions, for charges including prescribing excessive amounts of narcotics and for giving a weight-loss clinic signed, blank prescription forms.

He's not my idea of an ideal spokesperson.

Lies, damn lies and misleading labels

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)

A while back I mentioned the Nutrition Action Healthletter that the Center for Science in the Public Interest puts out. The April edition has a fascinating article titled "10 Common Food Goofs" written by CSPI's PhD house nutritionist, Bonnie Liebman. I knew some of the concepts she mentioned, but certainly not all of them and her specific examples are superb.

The main thrust is we need to read labels and read them carefully. Yet even if we do so the food industry with the "help" of the FDA frequently misleads us. One examples had to do with portion size.  My wife, an extremely successful lifetime member of Weight Watchers (she's five foot nine and weighs 130 pounds), taught me this concept a while back. Her idea of an appropriate serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards.

I started from there and looked at what I ate. Twenty-six pounds ago my typical meat serving was 12-16 ounces, now it's six to eight ounces (I'm five foot eleven and now weigh 150 pounds). But Liebman takes the concept and moves it into areas I never thought my way through before.

One example is Fat Free Coffee-mate. Nestle's Original variety has a label that states it's free of cholesterol, lactose, gluten and trans fat and the Nutrition Facts label claims 10 calories, and zero cholesterol, sugar or salt.

There's a catch though and that's serving size. The FDA and the food manufacturers have decided to round down if you use just one absolutely level teaspoon as the serving size. That's not what most of us do when we use a coffee creamer.

If I do have a cup of coffee I almost always add a creamer and I don't measure out a level teaspoon. I usually don't pour the Coffee-mate, but I certainly use more than the "serving size." Liebman says if you drink a 12-ounce mug of coffee and pour in two tablespoons of Coffee-mate, you've actually added 50 calories and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, more calories and nearly as much saturated fat as if you'd added a similar amount of half and half.

There are nine other examples in her article, but the drift is the same. Serving sizes of a variety of foods, e.g., ice cream, aren't what the label may lead you to think. Contents may include only tiny amounts of what the label raves about (added fruits and veggies) or may have added vitamins that are best obtained from foods, e.g., not from expensive water that also contains added sugar and therefore calories.

On the other hand there are code words, "natural" and "made with real fruit" are two that Leibman mentions. We either don't know the code or need a magnifying glass to read the micro-print that explains it. The word "Natural," except for meats and poultry, is one of the vaguest terms in advertising. And Organic doesn't mean calorie-free.

Bottom line: read labels with extreme care. Better still, stick to unprocessed foods without labels.



What should I eat today? It depends who you trust.

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I ate out last evening and splurged a bit (I had one glass of Riesling, split an calamari appetizer, ate two-thirds of a Thai entree and split a favorite dessert, sticky rice with mango). So today my weight is up a little, but still within my allowable range.

Watch out for scam artists

But that sent me to my stack of recent articles on healthy and unhealthy eating and in particular to one from the April 2011 edition of the Nutrition Action Healthletter put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). I have four of their articles sitting on my work desk amidst others I found on the internet or in a medical journal.

The one that caught my eye was titled "10 Common Food Goofs: "Fool me once..." and written by Bonnie Liebman. She is the Director of Nutrition for CSPI, got an MS degree from Cornell and has worked since 1977 for the CSPI almost from its inception.

I was going to ping off her article, but then got caught up after Googling Liebman, in following the Web trail back to a harsh critique of CSPI coming from an organization called The Center for Consumer Freedom (TCFCF)

I personally respect CSPI, but my intellectual curiosity kicked in and I wanted to know if the criticisms, calling CSPI the "undisputed leader among America's 'food police,'" came from a valid source. It took a bit of hunting, but what I found was interesting.

The non-paper trail for TCFCF leads to an interesting character, Richard Berman, a high-paid lobbyist for the restaurant and beverage industry. I don't know his actual salary, but he traded in one very fancy house for another even fancier one in the past decade and a half. One ABC article said his business got $1.5 million back in 2004 from TCFCF.

His internet overview of CSPI slams its director, Michael Jacobson, an MIT-trained PhD microbiologist. But when I followed up on Jacobson's reputation, I found the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had given him its 2010 Foundation Hero's Award.

Berman, on the other hand, was noted in the 2006 ABC article I found online, as one of a growing group of lobbyists who've set up non-profit front groups to push their corporate messages. The Center for Media and Democracy was quoted as saying groups have filed complaints with the IRS against such smear tactics. A former IRS division director was quoted as saying, "If someone sets up a website claiming the moon is made of green cheese and they go through some elaborate proof of that, the IRS isn't going to say that's too absurd. It's a form of free speech."

So I'm going to stick with CSPI's publications and ignore Berman's industry-favoring slant. I found it interesting that one of the websites I found in tracing Berman's roots is titled

I think my bottom message is don't believe all that you read. Check up even on sites and publications you normally have confidence in.

That was a divergence from my usual blog posts, but I thought it was worth my time and hopefully yours too.