“superfoods” and why you should ignore them.

I’m so sick of people talking about “superfoods”.  Did you know most nutritionists won’t even use that word?  It’s because it was coined by Dr. Stephen Pratt (well, there might be dispute over the first guy to pitch the sale) and doesn’t necessarily have any real science behind it.  It’s literally just a marketing ploy.  It’s like “going on the Atkin’s”, you can “go on the Pratt’s” and eat from his list of alleged “superfoods”.  (He began marketing the concept in 2004 with the publication of his book, “SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life”.

So what constitutes as a “superfood”?

According to Pratt, there are three qualifications for food to be a superfruit:
1. It has to be readily available to the public,
2. It has to contain longevity-enhancing nutrients, and
3. The health benefits have to be backed by peer-reviewed, scientific studies. (says CNN)

Oh…..so basically you just need to not eat junk.  Yeah, that’s not a diet.  That’s just survival.

Pratt claims his diet wasn’t for losing weight, but that’s what people got excited about.  Probably because someone cut out McDonald’s for a week, ate a little less junk and some more real food, and then thought Gee!  I’m losing weight!  (Except now I have to actually pay real money for food…)

Basically, superfoods are supposed to contain high densities of nutrients that prevent or even reverse the effects of aging, cardiovascular disease, Type II Diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers.  Now, I have no problem with thinking foods can reverse these sorts of things.  My problem is the marketing.  These are not “superfoods” – they are food.  Foods that do this kind of work are foods that should be part of our normal lifestyles.  They should be foods native to our area and not hard to obtain for the public.  They’re not supposed to be fancy import berries or exotic things.  They’re food.  Like, real food.  So this whole reversed marketing thing makes me frustrated.  You know, when an advertisement for McDonald’s seems normal rather than appalling and then “superfoods” become a marketed thing as some miracle solution to all your problems.

I bet McDonald’s owns some kind of “superfood” initiative.  It’s like when tanning salons advertise on their signs that they have sun damage reversal treatments included in their tanning packages.

But fine, fine, let’s just go along with it.  So, on this “superfood”, ground-breaking diet, what would you eat?

Pratt lists green tea, meats like salmon, greens like broccoli and spinach, and some kinds of berries.  Specifically, here are 20 foods: apples, avocados, beans, blueberries, broccoli, cinnamon (yeah, that’s a tree bark), dark chocolate, dried superfruits (um, okay), extra virgin olive oil, garlic, honey, kiwi, low fat yogurt, oats, onions, oranges, pomegranates, pumpkin, soy, spinach, tea, tomatoes, turkey, walnuts, and wild salmon.

The key part left out of this list is the emphasis on “organic” and “wild”.  For example, one should avoid farm-raised salmon as its fed dyes to make its meat pink the way we  expect healthy salmon to be pink in the wild.  And this dye is probably toxic and currently unregulated.

One of my problems with this list is…, if I ate locally and healthy as someone would have eaten where I live hundreds of years ago, here are the foods that would be available to me from that list: crabapples, wild legumes, wild blueberries, dried blueberries, wild garlic, wild honey, wild onions, squashes, wild greens, sumac tea, wild turkey, black walnuts, and wild salmon.  Sounds a lot simpler.  I kind of like it. It just seems illogical to me that we have to import pomegranates and olive oil and kiwis and such to eat “healthily”.  Clearly this list caters a lot to spoiled tastes.

Ah, but the kicker is…since “superfoods” became a thing, people have completely run with the idea and promoted foods that actually are not “superfoods” and which might increase your risk of things like cancer rather than reduce them.  People are suddenly consuming way too much of these FAKE superfoods and seeing negative side-effects as a result.  This article lists 7 “hipster” superfoods and the problems with them:
1. coconut water
2. almond milk
3. quinoa (whose popularity has skyrocketed prices so indigenous Andeans can no longer afford to eat their own crop)
4. goji berries
5. kale (can cause hypothyroidism when abused!)
6. juicing
7. clay (yes, people eat clay).

And, fun fact: Blueberries aren’t even nutritiously dense enough to be qualified superfoods.  But marketers would have you believe otherwise!  Business analysts don’t care about your health, remember – just about their sales and income!

Forks over Knives.

First, I just want to say – wow, yesterday was like whiplash after I posted and then everything blew up in my face for completely isolated reasons.  But that’s irrelevant.  I guess.

I’m trying to catch up with myself here – I’ve been reading so much and not writing as much, plus work is a lot at the moment.  But I watched a documentary this past week called Forks over Knives.  It’s about how horrible animal products are for people, basically.  They made all kinds of correlations between health, age, diet, etc… and backed their claims up with things like evidence of how Asian cultures have adopted American eating habits in many regions that are now suffering in health like we are despite their notoriously clean history.

The doctors in the film were interesting characters and I was shocked to Google one and find out he is in fact living in my neighborhood in Cleveland.  Then it made sense.  I’m in a wealthy part of the city and right beside my old college, Case Western Reserve, where they have the Cleveland Clinic.  Yeah, that makes sense.

While I was researching more on the topic and contemplating finding the book to read too, I was coming across a lot of interesting words and ideas.  For example, fruitarianism.  Eating only things that fall from plants – the perfect peaceful diet.  Nuts, fruits.  Limited, though.  The reason why Apple is called Apple because Steve Jobs was practicing this diet at the time.  It is possibly more akin to our natural diets than we realize, but it results in deficiencies.  Another concept I saw is “forest gardening”, which supports the sustainable practices I was mentioning previously in my small farms rant.  It combines more practical, natural settings to grow plants like the prairie studies are researching.  And, finally, I found a phrase that I really enjoy: “environmental veganism”.

Environmental vegetarianism is the practice of vegetarianism or veganism based on the indications that animal production, particularly by intensive agriculture, is environmentally unsustainable.[1] The primary environmental concerns with animal products are pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land.

I’m a fan of that.  And this documentary doesn’t stray far from that concept, although it primarily focuses on health of the human body.  But I’m glad I already practice similar eating habits to those covered in the film.  I’m glad I know my homeopathic remedies well.  I find it silly to think we’ve “rediscovered” the power of plants when, realistically, we are just reinventing a wheel that mother nature made, we used, and then we subsequently forgot.

Words of Wisdom: Perseverance

quoteQuote for today: “Forget all the reasons why it won’t work and believe the one reason why it will.”  I saw this quote regarding perseverance and liked its simplicity as well as how it has applied to the things I have done against popular belief and how I continue to do those things.  It’s easy to let people tell you why you can’t succeed.  Sometimes they say this out of statistical evidence, personal opinion, or even jealousy towards your visions.  I’ve always been one who thrives from doing things I’m told can’t be done.  I find being told it can’t happen makes me absolutely determined to do it.  Maybe this is why my athlete director sat me down once and said, “Kid, I really like you.  You’ve got… spunk.  And a lot of it.”  It was that spunk that pulled me through creating a hockey club at my school so that I could finally play the sport I wanted to play for an official team.  We lost all but one game the first season, then went to the championship the next year for the state medal.  My perseverance and persistence to raise $3000 in two days and train enough players to make a team landed me with an enormous scholarship from Case Western Reserve University.

The same time of perseverance is what got me a summer traveling abroad this year, to pursue a double major that the faculty thought was impossible to achieve.  Against all odds, I have completed enough credits for a major in Environmental/Civil Engineering and French while also being an active member in a co-ed service fraternity, archery club, collegiate and extracurricular roller and ice hockey, NCAA XC, NCAA T&F, Premiere Scottish Highland Dance, and several instrument groups.  I’ve managed to travel to a couple dozen countries in the last year to compete in research and pursue my dream of traveling and understanding cultures.  I obtained three internships during the course of a year when I was told none exist.  This lead me to compete in research with AISES in Alaska, a trip which was completely free thanks to funding I managed to find last minute from my school and the ASCE group in Cleveland.  But determination doesn’t have to be so elaborate.  It’s also the reason why I eat healthy food and work out regularly .  It’s why I pushed myself to bike around the Finger Lakes in 2009, hike the Calanques of Cassis and Marseille on my own this summer, and finish a 130km journey by CityBike from Arles to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and back (the latter two are described on my blog, kfdevault.wordpress.com).

Let’s not be mistaken; this isn’t an entry about the things I’ve managed to do.  This is an entry about the things I’ve tried to do against popular belief as an inspiration of why you can do any of the simplest – or most complex – things you wish to do without hesitation.  If you want it, just get it.  I’m a firm believer in “If there’s a will, there’s a way”.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky enough for my life to follow suit as such, or maybe there really was something in my perseverance that landed me with a great job after years of struggle against the current of likelihood.  All I can say is, whether it’s a new job, new hobby, or new diet, you just have to convince yourself it’s what you want and you’d be surprised how thrilling the journey to success will actually be.

Happy Monday!

 

The High-Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

I’ve always avoided high-fructose corn syrup.  But I’ve also always avoided sugar, period.  I was never sure if I should avoid one more than another.  Instead, I aim to choose items that are in their whole forms, like bulk nuts and other fresh ingredients that I make into something with my own hands.  However, avoiding the topic couldn’t last forever.  I decided to organize my own thoughts on the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) debate.

What is sugar?
Before we can attack HFCS, let’s think for a minute about what sugar is and what it does to our bodies.  First of all, sugar as we know it today generally translates to beet sugar or sugarcane.  The key to the definition is that these food sugars are monosaccharides (simple carbohydrates) such as glucose and fructose.  Simple carbohydrates chemically break down quickly for sudden energy release from the split bonds.  Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are known to be more complicated to break down and therefore release energy more slowly but steadily.  Sucrose is a disaccharide, with one glucose linked to one fructose.  Sugars are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen based.

Sugar in America.
Sugar has a bad association in America with diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.  We’ve been consuming sugar globally for hundreds of years and, in some cultures, for thousands of years, but the consumption rates in America have skyrocketed.  This article demonstrates the drastic increase of sugar consumption per person per year in America over the last two centuries.  Most data indicates a steep rise in American sugar consumption with the closure of the Civil War with two dramatic drops at the time of the World Wars.  Some studies have predicted that, based on the current trend line in consumption data, Americans will be consuming essentially ‘100% sugar’ by the year 2606 (based on a 95% goodness of fit and an assumed average caloric intake).  And while Americans are told they should be consuming no more than 100 to 150 calories per day of added sugar, they may not realize this includes sugar naturally found in food products.  For example, dairy products have lactose.  Fruits are actually very high in the sugar fructose.  Yet, while obesity continues to rise, it may not actually be sugar consumption that is to blame.  Studies find a more intense correlation between lifestyles and weight gain.  It is likely that sugar, high in calories and added to the vast majority of American foods, has a way of bloating one’s calorie count without much detection.  I guess the argument can be made that it’s in everything, so we eat it in place of healthier alternatives, and so we get fat.  But we don’t have to buy the sugary stuff!  We do because we crave it.  No one made you buy that candy or that dessert or even that stew that had nearly undetectable added sugar – it’s just what your tastes are accustomed to!  Because we actively partake in activities that maintain a sugary demand in our country.  Sugar doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but we have diverged from the evolved eating habits of our prehistoric ancestors.  Besides, anything is bad in excess.

What is high-fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is, chemically-speaking, essentially the same product as table sugar.  The difference is the glucose and the fructose in HFCS is unbounded, whereas it’s bonded in regular sugar.  Sugar can only be grown in the more tropical climates, thus its production is highly limited in the US and its tariffs for importing are high.  HFCS, on the other hand, is extremely cheap, very obtainable in a corn-dominated country, and highly soluble.  So what’s everyone complaining about?

Debunking accusations agains HFCS.
There are a number of studies that show HFCS is no more obesity-causing than regular sugar, but none of them deny that Americans eat too much sugar.  That’s the main source of the issue.  But people tend to blame companies for slipping HFCS (the cheap alternative to sugar) in everything to make the products taste better.  That means they sell more for less investment.  But does that mean using sugar instead would change anything?  The price.  Our tastes?  No.  Our sugar cravings?  No.  Therefore our obesity problem?  Probably not, unless some actual lifestyle changes were made.  So what other arguments are out there?  Well, there’s the one about the creation of HFCS being synthetic and artificial and therefore bad.  Well isn’t anything we make or do technically unnatural?  What is baking bread or scrambling an egg?  It’s just inducing chemical reactions.  I used to be opposed to “chemicals” until my friend pointed out that everything is a chemical.  And because the two kinds of sweeteners are chemical twins, what is the problem?  Another argument is that our brains being unable to register HFCS as sweet and therefore we consume more than we would of sugar.  In this article, a study is reviewed about the hypothalamus in the brain which detects consumption, calories, and other levels and which would be responsible for detecting sweeteners.  The study concluded that glucose and fructose do affect the brain differently, but that the boundedness or unboundedness does not have a proven affect on how they do this.  While reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice the author’s reference to carbonyls like they were some obvious health threat.  Carbonyls are a type of carbon monoxide ligand; ligands are directly connected to receptors in the body.  Some ligands are antagonists that block receptors.  Metal carbonyls are notorious for their toxicity and ability to block important oxygen bondings.  The carbonyls found in HFCS have a bad rap simply because a connection is believed to exist between the carbonyls present and diabetes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean obesity, now does it?  But what I find even more interesting (and explained extremely thoroughly in this article) is that these carbonyls and this unbounded property of HFCS doesn’t mean anything, as far as sodas are concerned.  The carbonation in soda in fact hydrolyzes up to about 90% of the bounded sugars so that they are now unbounded and, quite frankly, now identical to HFCS before you’ve even opened the can.

Conclusion
HFCS is overdramatized without people fully understanding the facts first.  There is also not enough conclusions about the topic, especially considering the amount of conflicting data from animal studies, etc., that currently exists.  Maybe non-carbonated products are worse in HFCS than in regular sugar, but I simply don’t know and not enough long-term data exists yet on the health effects.  I do, however, stand by the fact that we consume too much of whatever you want to call it (any combination of fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose,…) and that Americans need to become more active.  That is the problem leading to the obesity epidemic: CALORIE CONSUMPTION >> CALORIE EXPENDITURE.