With all of the decisions we make every day — work, family, relationships, household, finances — what we eat should not be one of the most difficult. I know we all have the best of intentions when it comes to eating healthy, but with diet trends, genetically modified foods, irradiation, conflicting studies, and clever marketing, the choice of what to eat has become mind numbing. Some choices just sound so contrary that it’s hard to know what’s a good diet choice and what’s just a good news stories. For instance:
The recent article, A Microscopic worm may be the key to heart-friendly bacon, is a good example of how confusing food choice can be. The article explains that scientists have successfully used DNA from the roundworm, C. elegans, to get cloned, genetically engineered pigs to produce omega-3 fatty acids.
Although according to the FDA spokeswoman cited in the article, it will be several years before this bacon hits the shelves, this new and “improved” bacon raises some very interesting questions:
- Is this bacon a bad thing because as humans we try and avoid contact with roundworms since they can live in our intestines causing nausea and vomiting?
- Not necessarily – It is a bit disconcerting since roundworms cause illness in humans through eating contaminated foods (mostly raw and fermented fish) and from touching our eyes with contaminated hands, but we are talking about DNA not worms (or larvae). Scientists are using DNA from roundworms to trigger these pigs to produce a higher ratio of healthy fat; they are not actually using roundworms or roundworm fat.
- Is this bacon a bad thing because the pigs are cloned and genetically engineered?
- Not necessarily — Genetic engineering (in its broadest sense) has been going on for thousands of years. All of the different varieties of vegetable seeds, rose bushes, fruits and vegetables that you buy in the supermarket are the result of genetic engineering in the form of cross pollination. Consider that companies are also developing omega-3-producing crops in hopes of making healthier cooking oils. Molecular breeding, gene splicing, and cloning may be newer, but the concept is the same — manipulating nature — in this case to make healthier bacon. Don’t get me wrong. There are some “very disturbing” concerns.
- Is this bacon a bad thing because it’s still fatty?
- Not necessarily — People are going to eat bacon. Bacon is fatty. So having a bacon option that offers a healthier fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids isn’t such a bad idea.
Understand that this science isn’t all about bacon; the article announcing the new bacon explains that researchers hope to genetically improve the omega-3 content in pork, then improve it in chickens and cows. Yet the concept of bacon fat being good for your heart is almost as confusing as beer being hyped as a healthy dietary choice — even against cancer.
If you saw the recent articles Beer for Life or Beer extracts reported to have anti-inflammatory effect, you may still be scratching your head. Not that the articles weren’t articulate and informative; they were. Indeed, they reported a very interesting new finding about beer consumption — beer has an anti-inflammatory effect.
A study published by Australian scientists in the journal International Immunopharmacology (Vol. 6, pp. 390-395) examined the effects of different beer extracts, including light beer, wheat beer, and non-alcoholic beer, on the production of neopterin (a marker for inflammation) and levels of tryptophan (since low levels are associated with more inflammation). In in vitro experiments using phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) to stimulate inflammation, researchers tested blood levels to determine changes noting that beer [with or without alcohol] suppressed degradation of tryptophan and production of neopterin. In other words, consumption of beer reduced inflammation according to indicators. The results showed that while alcohol may be good at killing germs, it isn’t the compound in beer responsible for these results, in fact, the results showed that the type of beer was not important, and that a 4% solution could reduce neopterin production by 65%.
While this may seem pretty straightforward, consider the implication of the effect beer (an acknowledged and accepted depressant) has on tryptophan levels (it keeps the level from falling). Researchers noted that, “This suppression might be connected with the calming effect of beer, since its normalizing effect on the tryptophan balance improves the availability of the ‘happiness hormone’ serotonin.” Could beer be an anti-depressant? Could beer benefit kidney and liver health?
In 2003, researchers at Okayama University in Japan found that mice that drank non-alcoholic beer while exposed to cancer-causing chemicals had 85% less DNA damage to their liver, lung and kidneys than those given water. The study did not determine the exact compounds in beer responsible for the chemo-protective actions, yet it did note that if the protective compounds are indentified they could be added to functional foods and drinks.
So is genetically altered pork good food or bad?
I think that’s actually the wrong question.
- Sure, pork with a better fat content is better for you. But is mixing roundworm DNA with pigs the best way to get there? And if you think there’s no problem with it, then would you be as happy with the idea of mixing roundworm DNA with your own DNA so that your own body produced its own Omega-3 fatty acid?
And besides, you don’t have to create Frankenfood to get the same result. Just improve the animals’ diets and you get to the same place naturally. For example, include flax seed in chicken’s diets and you get Omega-3 rich eggs. Grass feed your cattle and you get high Omega-3 meat — DNA alteration not required.
- And as for beer, there are many healthier ways to reduce inflammation — Omega-3 fatty acids being a prime one.
Which brings us to the point of this newsletter — Functional Foods.
When we talk about the dietary values of foods, we are no longer just talking about the vitamins and minerals and calories and cholesterol; we are talking about the compounds within foods that offer health functions beyond simple nutrition.
Thinking of foods in terms of health function offers a potential that is actually very exciting, very empowering, yet not clearly defined. Welcome to the world of Functional Foods. If you look at The American Dietetic Association’s website they cite many definitions for Functional Foods, including:
- “Foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.” The International Food Information Council (IFIC).
- “Food similar in appearance to a conventional food, consumed as part of the usual diet, with demonstrated physiological benefits, and/or to reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.” Health Canada.
- “Foods in which the concentrations of one or more ingredients have been manipulated or modified to enhance their contribution to a healthful diet.” The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Or as the American Dietetic Association says:
- Knowledge of the role of physiologically active food components, from both (plant) phytochemicals and (animal) zoochemicals, has changed the role of diet in health. Functional foods have evolved as food and nutrition science has advanced beyond the treatment of deficiency syndromes to reduction of disease risk.
And people are taking notice. A 2005 study conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that:
- 69% of consumers believe nutrition plays a central role in maintaining/improving health.
- 83% are favorable to functional foods.
A March 27, 2006 article (Consumers Connect the Dots Between Food and Health: Most Americans are interested to learn more about foods that offer benefits beyond basic nutrition) reported that Americans are beginning to recognize the relationship that certain foods or food components may have in reducing the risk of certain diseases:
- 92% of Americans recognize that fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, and some breads and cereals, is good for maintaining a healthy digestive system.
- 83% recognize that fiber may reduce the risk of cancer, and 78% recognize that fiber may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- 93% of Americans recognize that calcium, found in milk, cheese, yogurt, and some fortified beverages, may play a role in the promotion of bone health.
- 78% recognize that Omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish and fortified foods (i.e. eggs w/ omega-3), may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- 57% recognize that lycopene, found in processed tomato products, such as tomato sauce, may reduce the risk for certain cancers.
- Nearly half recognize that pre- and probiotics, found in some fortified foods, such as yogurt and dairy beverages, may aid in digestive health, and that soy protein may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Supporting data tables for this information can be found at www.ific.org/newsroom/releases.
Sounds good. The people surveyed seem to have a good understanding of how food choice can affect and effect health. Right?
Separating the wheat from the chaff
As always, not necessarily. In the above survey, the word “recognize” should perhaps be substituted with the word “believe.”
- People may “recognize” the value of fiber, but not all fibers are created equal, a distinction usually lost in translation. Some fibers (glucomannans) slow sugar absorption, whereas other fibers (beta glucans) lower the risk of heart disease. And some merely provide bulk (wheat bran).
- The calcium question is far more nuanced than most people believe. More is not always better.
- And as for the calcium building benefits of dairy, check out Dairy Diet Delusions.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are indeed hot right now (small vindication for those who have been preaching their virtue for decades), but most people are not aware that the real problem is not a shortage of Omega-3’s, but an imbalance in the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids. Having a candy bar with a little extra “functional” Omega-3 fat in it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not making major changes in the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids in your diet.
- People are certainly aware of the value of lycopene, but almost no one seems to be aware that lycopene is never found in isolation in nature, but as part of a carotenoid complex. Much of its benefit derives from its interaction with the other carotenoids. And, beyond that, its effect is enhanced by the presence of a complete vitamin E complex.
- And while more and more people recognize the value of probiotics, those same people do not know that many commercial yogurts actually heat their yogurt to eliminate all trace of the probiotics — to prolong shelf life.
And then there’s bread, the “great” functional food.
When grain is made into refined white flour (primarily to prolong shelf life), more than 30 essential nutrients are largely removed. All fiber is removed. All of the wheat germ is removed. And all essential fatty acids are removed. Only the starch is left.
Of the 30 natural nutrients removed, only synthesized B1, B2, B3, and iron are put back in to create one of the first (dating back to the early 1940’s) “functional foods” — “enriched” flour. This truly is a creative definition of the word enriched considering that “un-enriched” whole wheat flour contains 44% more vitamin E, 52% more pantothenic acid, 65% more folic acid, 76% more biotin, 84% more vitamin B6, not to mention more magnesium, calcium, zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium, vanadium, and copper.
As for fiber, enriched white bread has just 25% as much as real whole wheat. And much of the bread now marketed as “whole-wheat” is in truth white bread with burnt sugar added for coloring. But heck, several years ago, Fresh Horizons bread added sawdust to replace the lost bran, calling it cellulose on the label and advertising it as “high-fiber” bread.
How can this be? Quite simply, it is legal to describe flour as “whole wheat” on the label, even when the bran and germ have been removed. Which leads us to our conclusion — let the buyer beware!
The concept of functional foods is essentially a good one. When we talk about the dietary values of foods, we are no longer limited to talking about minimum levels of vitamins and minerals (often synthetic) in highly processed foods. Finally, thanks to the emergence of functional foods in the marketplace, we can now talk about optimized levels of micro and macro nutrients — and about the compounds within those foods that offer health benefits beyond simple nutrition.
Unfortunately, along with the good, comes much that is bad.
- Adding roundworm DNA to pork does not make it a health food — merely less unhealthy.
- Adding sawdust to white flour does not make it a high fiber health food — merely an historical footnote as a failed marketing concept.
- Adding 100% of the RDI of synthetic/processed vitamins to denatured breakfast cereals dietary shakes and food bars does not make them “complete balanced meals.”
- Adding marginal amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids to food bars does not correct the imbalance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
Unfortunately, when it comes to functional foods, we’re kind of in the “wild west” phase. There is little law and order, and the frontier is ruled by brazen marketing gunmen and savage scientists performing genetic experiments on unsuspecting animals — and the people that eat them. When it comes to buying functional foods, the best I can offer you are some guidelines.
- When it comes to foods with added vitamins, what’s the food behind the added vitamins? If it’s made with sugar and processed grains and flours, adding all the vitamins in the world won’t make it healthy. And for that matter, in how many different foods that you eat each day do you need 100% of your RDI of all your vitamins (and mostly synthetic ones at that)?
- When it comes to Omega-3 fatty acid, how much is being added, and what is it being added to? If it’s being added to sugar, flour, and other high Omega-6 oils such as corn, safflower, and canola oil, what’s the point?
- When it comes to fiber, does the food specify where the fiber is coming from? Is it water soluble? Does it have a “function” other than merely bulk such as lowering sugar and cholesterol levels? How much is being added — is it enough to make a difference? And finally, is it digestible? If it causes intestinal distress and a huge amount of gas, blow it off.
- When it comes to added herbs, what is the quality of that herb? You can buy ginseng for as little as $5 a pound and put it on your functional food label. The good stuff, the wild crafted or organic ginseng, costs $400-600 a pound. Which one ended up in your functional food? Which one do you think actually works?
- When it comes to added nutraceuticals like CoQ10, how much has been added? Is it just “pixie dust” label dressing or is it actually present at functional levels (30 mg minimum for CoQ10. 100 mg is better.)?
In the end, the best advice is to find a manufacturer you know and trust and believe follows the above guidelines…and hope they don’t betray that trust. And conversely, if you find a manufacturer blatantly breaking any of the rules in any one product, you can probably abandon every other product they manufacture.
Oh yes, and as for the high Omega-3 pork — when they also figure out how to add brisket of beef DNA to make it Kosher, then let’s talk…