The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Monday, October 4, 2010

Peanut Allergies

Years ago, when I worked in retail, a woman who worked with me was fuming in the break room over an incident that had occurred in her child's school. Her son, allergic to peanuts, was getting no support form the school. She wanted there to be a ban on peanuts and peanut butter in her schools' cafeteria. I remember her mentioning that he had touched a table where another kid had eaten his peanut butter sandwich, and her child had to be admitted to the hospital because of a severe reaction that included shortness of breath.

Since then, I've known several other parents whose children are allergic to peanuts (and many of them have been allergic to other foods as well). I've also seen more awareness surrounding this issue. Yet, in my child's school, they serve peanut butter and jelly as regular fare. I can't help but wonder (first off) why so many youngsters have this horrible allergy and (secondly) why more schools aren't opting out of allowing peanuts or peanut butter in the school.

I am certain no principal or lunch room monitor wishes any ill will to the children they care for. I know that some schools have designated areas for those with food allergies (as my son's preschool did). But a friend of mine points out that it's unfair to alienate children based on their health concerns.

And she's right.

So what is the answer? According to a 2008 article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/23/nyregion/nothing-s-safe-some-schools-ban-peanut-butter-as-allergy-threat.html?pagewanted=1), some schools are banning peanut butter and other possible contaminants in their schools. I feel for the parents whose children without food allergies will only eat peanut butter, but after all, rushing a child to ER is far worse than a child nursing a growling tummy.

As for my other question...why are so many children allergic to peanuts?

The Mayo Clinic points out that if a child has one type of food allergy, they are likely to be allergic to other foods. Likewise, if a child has other allergies such as hay fever, they are more likely to have a food allergy as well (2 to 4 times as likely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Also, if there are food allergies in the family, one is more likely to have a child with a food allergies. Also, if a child has eczema, it increases the odds that the child will have a food allergy.

Why? Let's think about this. When your immune system discovers an enemy it rages a battle against the offender, thus protecting us from harm. Great for when you come down with the common cold. Not so great when it mistakenly identifies peanut protein as an enemy.

I have heard studies that pregnant women should avoid peanuts/peanut butter, that it raises the possibility of having a child with peanut allergies. Rest assured, I ate heavy amounts of peanut butter with both my children (and during nursing them) and as of this moment in time, they eat peanuts and peanut butter without a problem. I'd be curious to know how many other moms-to-be ate peanuts and peanut butter during pregnancy, and whether or not their children developed allergies to it. In other words...is there really a cause and effect, whether on the pro or con side of consuming peanut butter during pregnancy? (Besides the added weight gain, of course.)

According to an FDA docket, between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies doubled in the U.S. You may also be interested to know that in 2001 a study mentioned in the same docket showed that restaurants contributed to almost half of fatalities related to food allergies. Almost half! Is it any wonder that school wouldn't want to ban peanut butter from their menus? Granted, it's been 9 years since that docket was produced, but it serves to show one can't be too careful when it comes to serving food to unsuspecting people.

Here are the 8 most common food allergies, according to the FDA:
1. Milk
2. Eggs
3. Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
5. Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
6. Peanuts
7. Wheat
8. Soybeans
If you find yourself itching red welts across your body after consuming one of these products, it's likely you have a food allergy.

Please note that cashew allergies in children have risen as well. And that a third of children who are allergic to cashews are allergic to pistachios. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 million school-aged kids in the U.S. had a food allergy in 2007. That's a lot of children. The CDC cited that 1 in 4 children have a food allergy of some type. Scary, isn't it? Mind you, not all allergies are life-threatening. But they can be.

Again, no one knows what the causes are for the rise in food allergies among children. There are theories such as our diets (after all, more and more chemicals and alterations are being used at a greater frequency in order to keep food longer on the shelf and to make our produce more abundant). It could be our germ-phobic nature (our immune system has less to fight off when we are constantly washing everything in anti-bacterial gels and soaps, therefore it attacks with friendly fire, so to speak). But it may also be a reason we can not yet foresee. Perhaps many decades in the future, peanuts will be up there with poisonous mushrooms and berries. Something we can no longer eat. Another way that humans continue to evolve, mother nature having her way with us again.

Meanwhile, if you have a child with food allergies, consider joining FAAN (www.foodallergy.org). They give you a support system as well as tips to make life easier.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What the Shell Is Going On With Eggs?

Unless you're foraging in the forest for your breakfast and have no access to any media whatsoever, you probably have heard about the latest egg recall.

The specific illness concerned is Salmonella Enteritidis. If you aren't sure what the symptoms are, let me tell you: you will have a fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea anywhere from 12 to 72 hours of ingesting this bacterium. It can last 4 to 7 days. Like other illnesses that cause severe diarrhea, the infected person may require hospitalization. Young children, those with compromised immune systems, and the elderly may suffer far worse than a few days sitting next to a toilet bowl. The illness can spread from the intestines to the blood stream, spreading the bacterium throughout the body. The worst cases may end in death, so this is a serious matter.

With this particular strain of bacteria, you can not wash the eggshells and wash away the Salmonella. It is inside the egg. It begins within the laying chicken's ovaries. An infected hen may lay normal, healthy eggs while only occasionally laying an infected egg. (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/salment_g.htm) Cooking the egg thoroughly and consuming it immediately reduces the risk of contamination, although people who have contaminated eggs in their possession are encouraged to return or toss them.

I looked over the inspection paperwork for both Quality Egg LLC and Hillandale Farms, both companies where the outbreak was found to have occurred. There were numerous problems found on both these farms, including excessive amounts of flies and maggots at one farm, and insufficient rodent control at the other. There were also birds' nests discovered at the site of one farm, another violation of code. I'm going out on a limb here to say I doubt these are uncommon incidences at chicken farms. I imagine these things happen frequently. The question is: are the companies working on preventing these situations? Is the FDA making sure farms are well monitored? I don't know.

What I do know is that another possible cause for the Salmonella is chicken feed. Guess what their feed is made of? Bone meal! That's right, your friendly neighborhood herbivores have been forced into becoming omnivores. I can already feel Mother Nature fuming. So what does that mean for us? When we mess with the natural order of the world, we make big changes. You can't chop off a tree's roots without damaging the tree.

Whether it was the feed that contaminated the eggs or the poor living conditions the chickens endured, I don't know. But no matter what, this won't be the last we hear of salmonella.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cholesterol Tests: What's Your Liver Function?

I've never been told my liver function results along with my cholesterol numbers before today. But now I will always ask for them. Why? Because I don't know what levels my liver normally functions at.

Today I received a call to let me know that while on Simvastatin and enjoying a meatless diet for three months, my cholesterol numbers did not change significantly. However, my liver numbers were elevated.

What the heck does that mean? I wanted to know. The nurse told me my AST was at 43, and it should be between 14 and 34. My ALT was 75, and it should be between 1 and 33.

Oh. Of course. I see.

But I did not see at all. Although I tried to gain more of an explanation, there wasn't much more she could tell me, and perhaps she had a million more phone calls to make about results more dire than mine. So after I hung up, I decided to do a little investigating of my own, because that's what I do when I don't understand something.

I will now enlighten you. Let me first explain that the blood test you receive to determine cholesterol levels while on a statin drug is also used to determine the presence of particular liver enzymes in the blood. When your liver becomes injured, these enzymes spill into the blood stream. Therefore they can be read by a simple blood test.

Here's some terminology for you along with pertinent information: AST stands for aspartate amniotransferase. It is also known as serum glutamic oxaloacetic tranaminase, or GSOT for short. The test for AST is not a specific indicator of liver injury. This is because injury to the heart, muscle, kidney and the brain may also have elevated AST numbers.

ALT stands for alanine amniotranferase. It's also known as serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase, or SGPT for short. Thank goodness for acronyms. The test for ALT is a more specific indicator of liver damage.

My doctor's office gave me a different AST and ALT "normal range" than could be found on any of the sites I visited. MedecineNet.com informed me the AST normal range fell between 5 and 40 units per liter of serum. (Serum is the liquid part of the blood.) Liverdoctor.com mentioned 0-45, and SimpleFactsProject listed it as 5-43. Likewise, the ALT numbers were: 7-59 per liter of serum, 0-45 and 5-60 respectively.

Okay, that was confusing. So I'll stick to my doctor's office's numbers. AST: between 14 and 34. ALT: between 1 and 33.

Now, here is something interesting I found on MedecineNet.com. Taking particular medications may cause liver enzymes in the bloodstream to rise. In a study using my favored pain reliever of choice, Tylenol, 33-44% of the people who took 4g. of it daily for 2 weeks had elevated ALT levels: up to three times the normal limit. The people taking the placebo drug had no change.

Other medications that may increase liver enzyme levels include ibuprofin, atorvistatin (Lipitor), niacin, fluconazole (anti-fungal mediaction) and many others. For a full list see: http://www.medicinenet.com/liver_blood_tests/page3.htm.

It's also important to stress that moderate liver enzyme elevation is entirely normal. But I want to point out my doctor became nervous seeing my numbers which, in my medical-naive opinion, do not seem extremely high. I wish I'd kept track of my liver function numbers before this came about, but I never thought to do so. But I will.

And so should you.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Eating on the Run

Yesterday, as I was driving my son to an activity in the morning, I counted three people in cars scarfing down food. Mind you, I wasn't looking into every vehicle whizzing by, I just happened to glance inside a few cars and noticed this trend. I'm sure had I peeked inside every truck cab or behind every steering wheel I might have seen many, many more people gulping down their breakfast sandwiches. But with safety in mind, I kept my eyes (mostly) glued to the road before me.

I have to ask...are people so rushed they need to eat on the run? Is it so difficult to eat a bowl of cereal at home before rushing out the door to work?

Here are my reasons for why we shouldn't be doing this:

1) The most obvious-hello? Not safe! If people think talking on a cell phone contributes to accidents...have you ever tried balancing a greasy hash brown and egg muffin sandwich on the lap while maneuvering through traffic? How about when the hot ketchup-coated pickle falls off the burger onto a white skirt? Ouch! Double jeopardy. Obviously, you're using one hand to hold the food, the other to steer, and desperately trying to keep grease from ruining your tie. How safe can that be? I just gotta ask.

2) The food can't be healthy. Face it, when you're hungry, you'll grab anything, calories be damned! And fast food isn't exactly well-know for its healthy food, no matter how hard the companies try to promote the salads and "lite" fare. Besides, no one I know has lettuce with their coffee.

3) People should sit down and eat with their families. I know, I know. Some people don't have families, for one thing, and even if they do, the members often wake up at various times, and some are hungry right away while others don't want anything until much later. But I'm putting this out there anyways: if you can make eating together a priority, it will make a difference in your family's life. No matter what, you do your children no favors forgoing breakfast at home. Breakfast helps give the brain a jump-start. Be a good model! Show them you need it, too.

So if I passed you this morning stuffing a breakfast burrito down your throat..and you know who you are...I apologize for entreating on your private moment. But know I'm on to you.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is HFCS a menace or a scapegoat?

I've been poring over article after article, and still have not discovered sufficient evidence to support the theory that high fructose corn syrup is to blame for America's obesity problem.

Let me begin by explaining the recent study performed at Princeton University. The article: "High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels," written by Miriam E. Bocarsly, Elyse S. Powell, Nicole M. Avena and Bartley G. Hoebel, discusses the study's findings, supported by a grant from the US Public Health Service.

The theory was based on the finding that between 1970 and 1990, consumption of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) went up over 100%. This is, in part, because it's relatively inexpensive to produce, therefore it's cost effective for companies. It also helps baked goods have a longer shelf life. Because obesity has risen during that same time period, some scientists believe there is a direct correlation between the weight gain and the increased use of HFCS. Therefore, why the study was conducted.

In this study, used laboratory rats for both short term (male rats-2 month term) testing, and long term (male and female rats-6-7 month term). The results: after two months, the male rats fed HFCS gained "significantly more weight" than the ones fed sucrose, although they consumed a similar amount of rat chow. After a six-month period, the rats who'd had HFCS included in their diets also were found to have increased fats pads around their abdomens, while the control rats (the ones not fed the HFCS) did not.

Something else interesting...the rats fed both sucrose or HFCS voluntarily ate less of the rat chow, thus not increasing their calorie intake. Nature's way of preventing animal obesity! Although the animals consuming HFCS and reducing caloric intake still gained weight. Interesting, right?

Something else very interesting: the male rats gained more weight and at a more rapid weight than the females who consumed the same amount of HFCS. Although there is mention that the study was slightly different for males vs. females in that males had "ad libitum" access to chow (whenever they wanted it), while females only had 12-hour access to chow. Again, very interesting.

HFCS and sucrose have similar properties. Sucrose is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. HFCS is sold in two formulations. Either 42 percent fructose, or 55 percent fructose, the latter having 42 percent glucose and 3% higher saccharides (simple carbohydrates). I believe it is the 55% fructose formula that was used in the study.

Now before you go tossing out every HFCS containing item in your fridge and pantry, I want you to consider a couple of factors. First, this is only one study, and the one most highlighted in the media at this point of time. Other studies have proved inconclusive, and in every study mistakes can be made or numbers fudged. Not that I feel this is so with this particular study, but I take everything with a grain of salt. Second, these rats were on a controlled diet of HFCS. We, the consumer, are not. We have a choice of eating a muffin made with HFCS every day, or instead, once a week.

My point?

Perhaps high fructose corn syrup is metabolized differently than table sugar. I believe this to be true. Studies have indicated that fructose is absorbed further down the intestine than glucose. Because of this, the liver metabolizes most of the fructose. It is converted (and I'll spare you the scientific names and details) to what may possibly raise triglyceride levels. Again, there need to be more studies to prove all of this.

But what really needs to be said is that we Americans, land of the Supersize-Me, need to be responsible for what goes into our mouths. If you're eating more baked goods than you are vegetables and fruits, drinking more soda than you are water (or tea), and munching on Doritos at your desk everyday, you're going to increase your waistline, whether or not anything you consume has HFCS. That is, unless you have a thyroid problem, or some other situation where you can not gain weight. But for the majority of us...we consume everything placed in front of us at a restaurant even though we know that plate has enough calories for at least two meals. (Another reason why waistlines have increased since 1970. (Please read this article for a study on restaurant portions: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v12/n3/full/oby200464a.html)

So I feel blaming high fructose corn syrup for America's obesity woes is harsh. Yes, too many foods have high fructose corn syrup in them. But they do enhance the flavor of the product, and we can keep the item longer in a pantry...a must for those of us who prefer to grocery shop every two weeks. There is a place for such a product. But the products it's in shouldn't take the place of fresh greens and sweet fruit. But then again, neither should consuming products made from table sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Now you know more about the study. Do your own, and decide what foods are right for you.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Recipe Ideas

I love coming up with recipes. In fact, I often don't have on hand all the ingredients needed in order to follow most recipes. I will be including my recipes on this site, most of them healthy, vegetarian fare though occasionally I may include fish or chicken.

As an amateur food detective, I've discovered great pairings where you can't go wrong. Chicken and thyme, for example. Or tomatoes and basil. Garlic works well with most foods.

But here's a discovery I recently made that I'd like to share, along with a story.

A while back, I had a family reunion to attend in Watertown, NY. My wonderful aunt chose a place for us to stay overnight, a bed and breakfast in the nearby town of Dexter. (http://www.dexter1855house.com/index.html) The proprietress welcomed us as if we were old friends staying for a visit. The home was cozy, inviting, beautiful decorated. And the food...marvelous. She served blueberry pancakes and gingerbread waffles with real whipped cream. No mixes or canned fluff! This was the real deal, homemade and delicious.

The next weekend, I craved those gingerbread waffles in the worst way. But when I went on allrecipes.com (a favorite site of mine), the gingerbread waffle recipes had a million ingredients, most of which I did not have in my pantry or refrigerator. Not to mention that measuring and mixing is too time consuming for a parent with two children in need of attention every two minutes. But the craving lingered, so I wondered if I could short-cut my way to feeding it.

Feeling clever, I purchased a gingerbread cake mix. It took me about one minute to break and egg, add water, and stir. When the waffle iron was hot, I poured the batter in, hoping this wasn't some far-fetched idea based solely on desire.

I'm here to tell you, it worked. They weren't as delicious as the ones at the Dexter 1855 house, but boy, they came in a pretty close second. And my whipped cream was Reddi-Whip, but I forgave myself for my laziness.

I'm going to try other cake mixes, now. See what else I can come up with. Sure, it's like eating cake for breakfast, but why not treat myself once in a while?

Stay tuned for other ideas and recipes.

Oh boy. After thinking about those gingerbread waffles, my mouth is watering. Good thing I froze the extras!

Friday, May 28, 2010

What the Heck Does That Mean? Food Labels Uncovered.

I'm not a meat-eater (with the exception of some seafood), but my family eats meat, and I'd argue most people around the globe would happily indulge in animal protein.

Here in the USA, food is categorized according to specific characteristics. (Information gathered from USDA website).

If a product is "certified," that means it's been evaluated by both the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Agriculture Marketing Service to meet specific standards for class, grade, or other quality characteristics. A company can certify it's own product, but it must be labeled as such. For example, "(Name of company)'s Certified Beef."

"Free Range/Free Roaming Chicken" means that the animals have had access to an area outside. Here's the thing about this, however. According to PETA, there are no USDA guidelines on how long the animals must be outdoors. And "access" does not necessarily mean the animal has actually been running around, flapping its wings in the fresh outdoor air. See http://www.peta.org/mc/factsheet_display.asp?ID=96 for more information on this and other related topics.

"Chemical Free" is not allowed on the label because it is a misleading term and could be confusing to the consumer. Antibiotics are not considered a chemical, for example.

"Fresh Poultry" means the internal temperature of the product must not be below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. (Although it may vary 1-2 degrees below that number depending on whether it's sold within an inspected establishment or commerce.)

"Mechanically Separated Meat" is when the meat is forced through a sieve (or something similar) under high pressure to separate the bone from surrounding edible tissue. Mechanical beef is considered inedible because of the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). As an aside, BSE (as it's also called) has only been found in one cow in the USA (2003), and that cow was originally purchased from Canada. More than 180,000 cases of BSE were confirmed in Great Britain in the 1990's, and the epidemic peaked in January of 1993. There's strong evidence that the outbreak was caused by a antibiotic resistant prion, spread by feeding young calves meat-and-bone meal. Hello? Feeding meat to an herbivore? Of course there would be problems! Anyhow, in August of 1997, the FDA prohibited the use of most animal protein in ruminants' diets. (Ruminants are hoofed, horned animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. Didn't know that? Hey, neither did I until doing this research). The USDA and APHIS (since 1989) also prohibited the importation of these animals and most of the edible products made from these animals from all of Europe. (APHIS-Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service) Some sheep, by the way, have a similar disease called "scrapie." Anyhow, that's why, in a nutshell, you won't see Mechanically Separated Beef.

"Natural" means the product has been minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colorings. Why place "natural flavorings" on a label instead of listing what has been used? One reason I've found is because a company may not want to give away its "secret recipe." Still, I don't like this label. I want to know what's in my food! It seems awful sneaky, being able to be so vague.

"No hormones" in beef means that the company must provide documentation to the USDA showing that no hormones have been used in raising the animals. I'm searching to see if I can find what kind of documentation is needed. How can it be proven?

"Organic" food has stringent guidelines. The food must not have been grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sludge from sewage. Animals must have been fed food without animal by-products (thereby most likely the bovine will not have contracted BSE) and should be free of hormones or antibiotics. More on organically grown food in further posts.

There are many more labels, but these are a start to aiding you in making healthful choices for you and your family.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Whole Grain? 100% Wheat? What's That Mean?

Here's an interesting tidbit for those of us who look for whole wheat products on grocery shelves.

First, let's discuss what constitutes a whole grain. According to www.wheatfoods.com, when a wheat germ keeps its germ, bran and endosperm in its entirety, it's considered a whole grain.

The bran and the germ are separated out to make all-purpose flour, and instead the endosperm is left, ground into a fine powder. (I dare you to visit a neighbor and ask to borrow a cup of ground endosperm.)

Enriched all-purpose flour has iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid added to it, and bleached flour has been whitened through a chlorinating process. This process has been shown to bring about a better final product (http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?seq_no_115=198716), but also has some people crying that it creates yet another carcinogen. Although I can find little to prove this, and nothing with enough credibility for me to comment about it. But bleaching flour is a chemical process. As those of you who have been reading this blog already know, I whole-heartedly believe chemical processing alters food in a negative way. See this site: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/03/26/The-Little-Known-Secrets-about-Bleached-Flour.aspx for interesting thoughts on bleached flour.

Unbleached all-purpose flour is bleached by oxygen over a period of months. Because of this, unbleached flour tends to be more expensive then bleached flour, which is much quicker to process.

Rolled oats and quick oats are considered a whole grain because they contain the essential parts of the grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Graham flour is another name for whole wheat flour.

Here's what I find interesting. The FDA recommends that wheat flour not be listed as a whole wheat or whole grain because wheat flour does not contain all parts of the grain. Manufacturers can list "10 grams of whole grains" though, for example. I'd like to know what, exactly, does 10 grams mean? I can't measure that when I make my sandwich, so I can't tell if most of the product is "filler."

Even something labeled "stone-ground" or "multi-grain" might not have the same nutritional value of whole grain bread. Would you have known that if you saw a loaf on a shelf, a lovely drawing of a wheat field across its molasses-dyed slices? Of course not. You'd think, "Gee, this bread is perfect. Rich in fiber. And multi-grain, so it must contain more than endosperm."

There aren't enough regulations to help consumers choose their bread wisely. It's easy to be fooled when most of us think wheat bread means...well...wheat bread, germ and all. But if you want to choose the healthiest alternative, go for the one that lists whole grain first thing in the ingredients. And then look for one that doesn't contain high fructose corn syrup. We've all heard about the negative effects of that stuff.

Ah, but that's another day, another post.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lowering High Cholesterol

I have high cholesterol. I'm not talking border-line high risk levels. I'm talking scary high levels. The kind you'd expect from someone who's 500 pounds and eats hot dogs and potato chips for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

Except I'm not overweight, and I don't eat a high fat diet. In fact, when I mention my cholesterol levels to others (somehow it tends to be a topic of conversation with those of us slipping into middle-age), they gape, sputtering, "But you're thin!"

Ah, yes. Thanks for the compliment, and, by the way, sometimes high cholesterol is hereditary.

My levels generally hover around the 380's for total cholesterol. And in case you're a cholesterol novice, the American Heart Association recommends total cholesterol level to be below 200 mg/dL, stating this means the likelihood of developing heart disease is low, as long as other risk factors aren't in place, such as high blood pressure. But that's another blog article for another time.

As you can see, my risk level for heart disease is high according to the AHA. Yet I'm not 100% convinced cholesterol is the evil weapon of death doctors make it out to be.

Still, I'm always trying to lower it.

First, let me explain what makes up the total cholesterol numbers. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. The American Heart Association mentions that being under 100mg/dL is "optimal." LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol. Lipoproteins are made of fat and protein (Medline Plus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003495.htm). Too much LDL being carried through the arteries can clog them.

HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It's also called "good" cholesterol because it offers protection from heart disease. There are a number of theories about how this works, one being that it carries LDL from the body. However, this is simply a theory, there may be much more to it than that.

Cholesterol tests can also determine triglyceride levels, which are leftover calories stored in fat cells for later use. The American Heart Association states that under 150 mg/dL is a normal level.

In my studies on myself, when I avoid all meat (with the exception of fish), I generally lower my cholesterol level by 70 mg/dL. In 2002, after being a fish-eating vegetarian for several months, my total cholesterol level dropped to 301 mg/dL.

When I added a statin to my daily regimen, I actually was able to get my level down to 199 mg/dL.

I went back to eating meat when trying to conceive my first child, and remained that way for years (until recently). I also had to stop taking the statin. My levels went up again.

Last year, after having two children and no longer nursing the second one, I went back to check my levels. I'd not eaten red meat in years, and only consumed small amounts of turkey, pork and chicken. My levels: 337 mg/dL total. LDL: 272 mg/dL. HDL: 52. Triglycerides: 58.

I wanted to try Niacin before going back to a statin again.

Niacin is purported to raise one's HDL (considered the "good" cholesterol in your body) by 15-35%, according to the Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/niacin/cl00036). Niacin is one of the B vitamins, used to convert carbohydrates into energy.

I'm going to divulge my cholesterol numbers during this trial period. While on 500 mg. a day of Niacin, my total cholesterol dropped to 308. LDL: 239 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. While on 1000 mg. of Niacin, it went down a teensy bit more. Total: 293 mg/dL. LDL: 226 mg/dL. HDL: 55 mg/dL.

The totals weren't low enough to please my doctor, but boy! I was thrilled. Under 300? Great.

My doctor placed me on a statin, and I went off of the Niacin. Total cholesterol on 20 mg. of a stain: 240. LDL: 179 mg/dL. HDL: 50 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 65 mg/dL. Cholesterol on 40 mg: 211 mg/dL. LDL: 147 mg/dL. HDL: 49 mg/dL. Triglycerides: 73 mg/dL.

Now I am going back to being a fish eating vegetarian, taking a statin, and exercising regularly. I am also trying to quit eating foods that contain white flour (more on the effects of bleached flour on our health in another post), and trying to consume less sugar. In a few months, I will know how effective all this is in lowering my cholesterol, and I will post the findings here. But this is what I hypothesize:

1) Niacin helps raise HDL cholesterol levels, but not enough to make a significant difference in my numbers.

2) Niacin helps lower LDL levels, but not enough for my levels to be where the American Heart Association feels they should be for better heart health.

3) Becoming a pesce-vegetarian (fish and dairy eating) lowers my numbers significantly.

4) Statins are an effective means for lowering cholesterol.

5) Statins alone will not bring my cholesterol down to a level that satisfies the American Heart Association's recommendations.

My biggest questions are: why do some people naturally produce an overabundance of cholesterol, and others don't? Why do some people with high cholesterol live long lives if it's such a terrible killer? Are cholesterol lowering drugs more hype than help? Another column, another day, but I will do my best to answer these questions and others like them.

For an interactive chart sent to me by the marketing manager of Healthline (which is very interesting to read, by the way) check out: http://www.healthline.com/health/cholesterol/effects-on-body

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ADHD and Pesticides...a buncha bunk?

So now there's a study linking pesticides to ADHD. But it raises the question: if pesticides cause ADHD, how come in towns where produce is purchased from the same supermarket, not all children have ADHD?

You can argue that not all children eat the same produce, and we know strawberries contain more pesticides than, say, an orange. You can also argue that some people wash their produce better than others do (and some may not wash it at all).

You may be scratching your head, wondering what I'm talking about. In case you haven't been scanning news articles on the Internet lately, a study by the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that their study has found a possible link between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and concentrations of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates in the urine of 8-15 year olds.

I'm going to break this down a little. According to the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, organophosphates are "the most common pesticides used in Peruvian agriculture." (Dec. 2006)Crops they're used on: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, alfalfa, apples, grapes and garlic. By the way, the study they conducted found OPs (as the chemical is called) to be dangerously toxic to agriculture workers when handled without wearing the proper attire and not taking the right precautions.

Forty OPs are registered with the EPA in the U.S., according to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics study, and the US Pesticide Residue Program Report's 2008 study found OPs in almost a third of frozen blueberries and strawberries, and almost 20% of celery samples.

The study took urine samples from 1,139 children, and 119 met the ADHD criteria. Here we must wonder if there are biases. The diagnosis was made through interviews with a parent and based on "slightly modified criteria" from Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. This interview was conducted via telephone. I can't find any evidence of a doctor making an evaluation based on observing the child's behavior, thus may I make the hypothesis that some children may have been labeled ADHD, but perhaps not be clinically considered ADHD.

The study found that children with higher levels of dialkyl phosphate metabolites of organophosphates in their urine were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Again, I question why only 119 children had this diagnosis when certainly more than that must have consumed similar levels of OPs in their diet.

I definitely believe pesticides are dangerous, even toxic, especially for the workers who use these chemicals on a daily basis, and probably for their offspring as well. But I am not quick to believe in a positive link between ADHD and OPs. Neither does the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also points out that there are more studies to be done before they close the book on this case.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Polysorbate and IBS

Here is another food additive that may be causing you trouble. Have you ever eaten a meal and suffered from cramping and diarrhea soon afterward? Check the ingredients. You may find polysorbate listed. Polysorbate is an emulsifier, used to keep oils from separating in cake frosting, for example. You'll find it in cake mixes, Cool Whip, pancake mix, sometimes even prepackaged fish fillets or chicken nuggets.

I don't mean to alarm you, but polysorbate is also often found in cosmetics, again to keep the make-up from separating. That's right. The chemical used in your foundation may be making its way to your stomach via the pre-made cake you purchased for your son's birthday.

Yuck.

But that's the least of your troubles if you have a sensitivity to the substance, like I do. If I consume it, I know it. I'm sick for hours until it leaves my system.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest claims polysorbate is safe for consumption. I'm not so certain.

According to a Japanese food safety study (yes, I had to really work to find information), studies showed no carcinogenicity and no genotoxicity. However, the study has found that diarrhea was observed as a major symptom. (www.fsc.go.jp/english/evaluationreports/.../polysorbate_report.pdf)

The listings for polysorbate are with numbers such as 20, 60, 65 and 80. This has to do with the molecular structure and is too complicated to go into here. Not to mention I have difficulty understanding it myself. It has to do with hydrophilic vs. lipophilic proportions, all very scientific.

By the way, polysorbate is derived from fruits and berries; an artificial creation through food processing.

So how did I come to realize I was sensitive to this substance? Again, I discovered that every time I consumed food made from a specific type of pancake mix, I would have cramping and diarrhea. I had no problem with another type of pancake mix. Only a small amount of ingredients differed, one being...oh, you know. Yes. Polysorbate. The rest of the dissimilar ingredients were ordinary ones which I ate in other foods without incident.

I also discovered that whenever I ate a food that caused major gastronomical difficulties, the ingredient list always specified polysorbate. I now know to avoid this substance.

The Link Between Migraines and Carrageenan

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 6-8% of men, and 15-18% of women in Europe and America have migraines each year. A migraine is defined as a headache that lasts between 2 hours to several days, and pulsates on one side of the head. It's often aggravated by being physically active, harsh noises, and bright lights. A migraine can also be painless, instead creating visual impairment such as halos.

Many times a cause can not be found for migraine sufferers, although often it is triggered by stress, environmental conditions, or food.

Over the years I have suffered terrible migraines...the kind that have me throwing up, unable to do much else other than lie in a dark bedroom, forehead pressed into my pillow. Through mild experimentation I have come to find these foods as triggers: red wine, smoked aged cheese, and movie popcorn butter.

Recently I have made a discovery that's made a tremendous difference in my life. Carrageenan, a derivative of seaweed, brings on a 48-hour migraine for me.

What is carrageenan used in, you ask? (Even if you didn't ask, I'll tell you.) Ice cream. Yogurt. Many frozen dinners. Artificial crab (made from white fish, which is cheaper). Wisegeek.com explains that carrageenan is used as a food thickener--in place of animal-based gelatin, for example. Being that it's made from seaweed, it's considered 100% vegetarian.

Problem is...like anything that's been processed...it can have side effects for some people.

Again, I took a look at a study by the World Health Organization. Interestingly enough, one of their studies determined that carrageenan lowered cholesterol and lipid levels in humans (2003 study). A good thing, right? But it also mentioned gastrological problems in mice. WHO found carrageenan safe for consumption. And I found nothing on migraine problems mentioned in their studies.

However, if you look at other sites on-line, you'll find I'm not alone in my carrageenan discomfort. Considered a MSG, it brings suffering to others as well. (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/ans/psychology/health_psychology/msg.htm)

Would you like to know how I discovered carrageenan as a substance to avoid? I ate ice cream. Yes. Simple as that. I had a two day migraine (milder than the type I was accustomed to getting...no throwing up and I was able to function on a nearly normal level, though the pain was intense). Chalking the migraine up to having eaten late that day, I consumed the ice cream again. Same thing occured: two day headache. I checked the label and noted that the only item that wasn't in other foods I'd eaten in the recent past was carrageenan. Fast forward a week. I ate a seafood sub from Wegman's grocery. Migraine city. Two days. Again. Next time I visited the store, I checked the ingredient list on the imitation crab. Yep. You guessed it. Carrageenan. Since then, I've tried to check labels before purchasing. But a few times I'd been in a hurry and had forgotten. Every time I came down with a migraine, I discovered I'd consumed something with carrageenan in it.

What I'd like to know is why it does this to me and not everyone else. But that is something to discover another time. For now, I have made a calculated observation: carrageenan can cause migraines.

Introduction

Growing up in the 1970's was a lot different than growing up in 2010. There wasn't a debate on whether high fructose syrup contributed to diabetes, or worries over the statistics of rising childhood obesity. For one thing, no one ever heard of high fructose, and kids didn't have a lot of junk food to choose from.

Oh sure, my sister and I drank soda instead of water, ate potato chips for breakfast if we wanted to, and spent plenty of time in front of the television. But we still managed to remain thin and healthy.

The question is...how?

Some would argue that we had great metabolism. Others might say we didn't have cell phones or computers back then, so we spent more time running around outdoors. All of this is true. But what if there's a much larger story behind this mystery? What if what we are putting into our mouths...even the salads and the low-calorie fruit drinks...are messing with our bodies?

What if an innocent sandwich is bringing in toxins that give us migraines, or a piece of cake is driving our stomach to revolt against us? Because for me, I have found both of those to be true. And with a little detective work and some painful experimentation, I have discovered foods that are making me sick, and foods that have packed pounds on my gut and rear end. And they could be doing the same to you, as well.

Follow me as I research and cover topics about the food we grow, produce, and consume. Because I plan to uncover some nasty little secrets corporations don't want you to know.