Blog Find: NutritionFacts.org

In my wanderings around the internet, I find many different blogs – some good, some bad, and some worth bookmarking.

Here is the latest find:  http://nutritionfacts.org/

This one I rather like as it is written by a doctor, and is free – rather than hiding the information behind the old-fashioned method of paid subscriptions (I’m looking at you, academic journals!).

Here are some posts which caught my eye:

  1. Are Fatty Foods Addictive?
  2. Are Sugary Foods Addictive?
  3. Minimum RDAs for Antioxidants
  4. Fish Intake (Mercury Exposure) and Fetal Brain Size

Going Organic – The Dirty Dozen Foods

Non-organic methods of farming are a recent invention – for millennia, humans have been farming and producing crops using natural pesticides and fertilisers, and have not traditionally given antibiotics to cattle. However, in the drive to increase yields and maximise profits, as well as to avoid famines, non-organic methods have become the norm.  Organic foods cost more than non-organic foods – it is a simple equation that organic farms have lower yields than non-organic farms and higher labour costs, so have to sell at a higher price. In our recent tough times paying over the odds is particularly difficult to stomach (puns always intended!).  While there is little scientific evidence to support the nutritional benefits of only eating organic foods (2010 review study), I think it is just common sense that we should try to avoid exposure to various chemicals which aren’t strictly necessary. This is why the USA Environmental Working Group’s annual list of dirty dozen foods is rather important (as well as their two extra “plus” foods which are nearly at the level for inclusion). You can therefore hedge your bets a bit if your budget allows a little leeway.

Foods on the Dirty Dozen list

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Cherry Tomatoes
  4. Cucumbers
  5. Grapes
  6. Hot Peppers
  7. Nectarines (imported)
  8. Peaches
  9. Potatoes
  10. Spinach
  11. Strawberries
  12. Red peppers (bell peppers)

and on the plus list:

  1. Kale/Collard Greens
  2. Courgettes

However, this is a list on foods for sale in the USA and should be taken with caution by those in the UK (like I am). Since the UK imports 95% of its organic foods, mostly from Europe (BBC news article from 2010), this is still therefore relevant to the debate, as you then get into the carbon footprint issues of food miles. Organic foods are not necessarily local after all.  If you’re more concerned with your own personal intake of chemicals and less about the environmental impact of transportation, then this list can be argued to be relevant still due to the likelihood that the major pests these particular crops are susceptible to are quite universal, especially when taking into account that some of these foods have skins which tend towards absorbing the chemicals more readily.

What particularly shocked me about the UK rules for organic produce is that they’re so vague – there is no guarantee that only organic methods have been used at all. Until as recently as 2011, chicken feed was allowed to include some (5%) non-organic feed, which had been reduced from a higher number of 20% in previous years (same BBC news article as above). Antibiotics are still allowed to be used when an animal is ill – although I couldn’t find information about how that ill animal would be treated after they’d had their antibiotics on the Soil Association Website (Would they be segregated from the rest to prevent spread of infection? If they are a dairy cow, would they still be milked? If so, how would that milk be treated/labelled? If they were shortly to be slaughtered, would they be kept to the side and labelled as non-organic? Or would they keep their organic label?).  There is also a list of allowed non-organic items which can make up 5% of a supposedly organic product – is it just me, or does that sound like a cop out?

I have only recently started buying some organic fruit and veg – mostly due to finding out about the Dirty Dozen List last year. However, with meat I have always tended to go more for the food miles and free range issues – although I’m now considering going organic with them as well, but won’t until I hear either some stronger evidence supporting organic food, or some stronger rules ensuring organic actually means organic.

Further research:

  1. The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide (Amazon.co.uk link; Amazon.com link)
  2. The Organic Cook’s Bible (Amazon.co.uk linkAmazon.com link)

 

An Essential Nutrition Briefing – Vitamins

I’ve been reading a lot recently about nutrition and wanted to share what I’ve found out here in an easy to digest (pun intended!) format.  So there will be a series of posts on essential nutritional information and debates that are being raised which I think are interesting.   The first topic I’ve selected is Vitamins, but there will be future posts about specific types of vitamins in more depth, as well as coverage of minerals, the other food groups, and summaries of “hot topics” like whether you should supplement and so on.

Some basic facts about Vitamins:

  • A scientist called Casimir Funk invented the term vitamin in 1912 – here is a link to the Nobel Prize website which summarises a history of vitamins
  • Vitamins are vital organic compounds which the body needs in order to function properly.
  • They are distinct from minerals, amino acids and fatty acids which the body also needs.
  • They are required in limited amounts which means that there is a recommended daily range for each of them.
  • They cannot be synthesised by the body (although Vitamin D is controversial in that we can synthesise it in the body as well as by getting it in our diets).
  • They need to be found in the diet (so that is why we need a balanced diet).
  • They are frequently group names of which there are multiple varieties (e.g. Vitamin A includes retinal, retinol and caretenoids)
  • Deficiencies of vitamins can cause serious medical complications (e.g. rickets, scurvy etc)

There are 13 types of vitamins currently recognised:

  1. Vitamin A
  2. Vitamin B1 Thiamin
  3. Vitamin B2 Riboflavin
  4. Vitamin B3 Niacin
  5. Vitamin B5 (Biotin)
  6. Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
  7. Vitamin B6
  8. Vitamin B9 (Folate)
  9. Vitamin B12
  10. Vitamin C
  11. Vitamin D
  12. Vitamin E
  13. Vitamin K

I’m going to be looking at each of these individually in future posts, keeping the briefing style of post, and will update the list above with links as I go.  So hopefully, you’ll see the list above turn into clickable links in due course!

The Science of Ingredients: Serotonin and Tryptophan

The Educated Foodie Science Graphic PNG

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a hormone found throughout the body, mostly in the gut and in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).  In the digestive system it helps the smooth muscle contract and so eases digestion.  In the brain it helps regulate mood, among other things, and is known as the happiness hormone as it contributes to a general feeling of well-being.

What has the research found?

Levels of serotonin have been found to be linked with:

How do we ensure we get enough Serotonin?

It is a hormone which cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so must be produced within the brain.  This is where the food bit comes in – we must eat tryptophan containing foods in order to be able to produce serotonin in the brain.  Eating foods high in tryptophan ensures that we have enough of the building blocks to make serotonin for ourselves.

These foods include:

  • Dairy: yogurt, milk, cheese
  • Protein: beef, pork, turkey, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
  • Soy: tofu, soy milk, soybeans/edamame
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Whole Grains: oats, brown rice, wheat, wheatgerm
  • Nuts and seeds: hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fruit: mangos, dates, bananas
  • Vegetables: kelp, spirulina, potato skins
  • Cocoa: chocolate, cocoa powder

Alternatively, you can take a supplement of 5-HTP, although of course whether or not you believe in taking supplements is the basis for a whole series of posts!  If you do decide to take a supplement of it, remember to take it at night as it does make you feel drowsy…

The Science of Ingredients: Caffeine

_44057447_coffee.203Image source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6945697.stm (cited later on)

Caffeine is part of most people’s everyday lives (especially mine!), for the most part deliberate, although there are many places where caffeine can be found which are rather surprising (such as chocolate and decaf).    Caffeine is naturally found in chocolate, coffee and tea and is added to cola, energy drinks, and medicines such as flu remedies among others.   Decaffeinated coffee still contains approximately 10% of the original caffeine making the name “decaffeinated” somewhat of a misnomer.  It is absorbed very quickly, usually within a few minutes, and acts to block chemical signals in your brain that tell you to feel sleepy – so you end up feeling more awake.  Unsurprisingly, it has been shown in various studies that caffeine can interrupt normal sleep patterns, and that abstinence from caffeine improves sleep for those who suffer from insomnia.

Caffeine is addictive and has significant withdrawal symptoms including headaches, depressed mood, irritability, flu like symptoms, and nausea.  Typically withdrawal symptoms last 2-9 days and have been reported in people who consume as low a daily dose as 100mg/day (one cup of coffee).  Enough evidence of this withdrawal has been found that it has now been included in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  It is possible to overdose on caffeine, with one man reportedly dying from eating too many energy mints.

All of these suggest that caffeine is a really bad component in your daily cuppa.  Are there any actual positives of caffeine?  Various recent studies are suggesting that there are some good reasons to include caffeine in your daily rituals so you may be able to relax a bit.  One study showed that a cup of coffee before exercising can help you to exercise for longer than you would otherwise, while another showed that fat burning was increased following strength training after a cup of coffee.  Specific sources of caffeine have also been investigated, with green tea demonstrating a helpful influence on muscle recovery following strenuous strength training – although that was a study on mice and human mileage may vary.  Various studies have shown an improvement in cognitive abilities following caffeine intake, such as this one on information processing, and this one on the prevention of “cognitive decline” in ageing rats.  A further study has found increased life expectancy for those who drink moderate amounts of tea or coffee, although this comes with the warning that high doses may lead to increased anxiety-related illnesses.

The current advice from the Food Standards Agency in the UK lists a recommended maximum daily doses of caffeine of 400mg for adults, and 200mg for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive.  So how much is that?  While the table below lists standardised amounts these should be taken with caution as caffeine amounts vary hugely depending on the type of bean, how the beans are roasted and how they are served.  This makes for an interesting day of mental maths for most people doesn’t it?

CAFFEINE IN FOOD AND DRINK

• 1 mug of instant coffee: 100mg
• 1 mug of filter coffee: 140mg
• 1 mug of tea: 75mg
• 1 can of cola: 40mg
• 1 can of ‘energy’ drink: up to 80mg
• 1 x 50g bar of plain chocolate: up to 50mg
• 1 x 50g bar of milk chocolate: up to 25mg

So if you eat…

• one bar of plain chocolate and one mug of filter coffee, or
• two mugs of tea and one can of cola, or
• one mug of instant coffee and one can of energy drink

…you have reached almost 200mg of caffeine.

Source: Department of Health