Currently browsing posts about: Antioxidants

Jun 4 2013

Questions about food politics: iPhone apps and phytonutrients

I’m always happy to answer questions dealing with issues related to food politics.  Here are responses to two that came in last week.  I’ll do another two sometime this week. 

Q1.  I was just introduced to your book, What to Eat, and I read it, cover to cover, thoroughly enjoying each area of the market.  I am emailing in hopes that you have a suggested iPhone App, which suggests or promotes healthy eating.  Not so much calorie counter Apps, but Apps which make suggestions towards healthier options or perhaps even suggests macro or micronutrients which we may be lacking based on the foods we are purchasing and consuming.  Any help is much appreciated!  Thanks!

A.  I’m a diehard BlackBerry user and haven’t a clue.  Readers: suggestions?

Q2.  I’m an NYU MPH student and will probably be taking your Food Advocacy class next spring.  I adore your blog and as of late have been especially appreciative of your Farm Bill breakdowns. (What a confusing document!)  I was wondering what your take was on the NYTimes article that appeared in the Week in Review on Sunday titled, “Breeding the Nutrition out of Our Food” by Jo Robinson.  Have we really been losing the phytonutrients in our food since we became farmers?

A.  Ms. Robinson, whose terrific new book, “Eating on the Wild Side” is out this week, collected data on phytonutrient (plant antioxidant) levels in wild foods and their bred-to-be-less-bitter supermarket counterparts.  The wild ones have more, but they usually don’t taste as good.  The idea that foods now are less nutritious than foods in the past fits conveniently with concerns about our industrialized food system.  But data on trends in nutrient content are difficult to come by (the methods change over time), and differences in health benefits are impossible to assess.  The bottom line: people who eat fruits and vegetables—even supermarket varieties—are healthier than people who don’t.  Would they be even healthier if the vegetables were more bitter because of the phytonutrients?  Hard to say.  I’m going to eat my veggies and not worry about this one.

Nov 23 2009

You heard it here: the hot trend is cupuaçu (?)

What, you may well ask, is cupuaçu?  I confess never having heard of it but thank heavens for Wikipedia, which explains in somewhat limited detail that it is a chocolate-like tree with a sweet fruit.  Botanically, it is a Theobroma in the chocolate family.

Mintel, the market research firm, identifies it as the newest antioxidant-rich fruit craze.  It says this fruit is not only rich in antioxidants, but also in vitamins, essential fatty acids and amino acids.  Well, yes, but so are all fruits to a greater or lesser extent.  But never mind.  Anything this exotic has to be a marketers’ dream “superfruit,” no?

Can’t wait to taste it.  If you know anything about this, do say, especially about how it might taste.

Mintel has six other predictions for upcoming hot trends:  sweet potato, cardamom, rose water, hibiscus, and Latin spices. Yum.  Aren’t you happy to be the first to know?

May 14 2009

Will the FDA start regulating supplements?

If the FDA is now going after health claims (see yesterday’s post), will it also start going after dietary supplements?  These, as I explained in my most recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle, get to make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims without the FDA being able to do much about them.  More and more evidence is coming in suggesting that supplements can be harmful as well as ineffective.   The latest example: antioxidant supplements are said to interfere with the beneficial effects of physical activity.    Will such studies encourage the FDA to insist that manufacturers demonstrate safety and efficacy before they put supplements on the market?  That would be a refreshing change, no?

Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3′s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3′s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.

Mar 30 2009

Antioxidants as a marketing tool

Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year.  I’ve been collecting choice examples: breakfast cereals, of course (they are always at the leading edge of nutritional marketing), but also jelly beans.  The marketing has become so competitive that unprocessed fruits and vegetables have to get into the act.  I’ve seen ads for blueberries, tomatoes, and artichokes advertising their high antioxidant content.  Of course they have antioxidants.   All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, and theirs may actually do some good.

Mar 25 2009

What do I think of Açaí?

I’m often asked about Açaí, the latest miracle fruit that is supposed to cure whatever ails you.

If this is a miracle, it’s one that must be enjoyed by the company that makes MonaVie brand Açaí, which sells for about $40 a bottle.  I had heard about Açaí and was not overly impressed.  But then I got an e-mail from a MonaVie enthsiast who was so convinced of its benefits that he sent me the research.

Here’s one of the studies. It looks formidible but its conclusions are simple.  In translation: MonaVie contains antioxidants.  The antioxidants in MonaVie act like antioxidants in the test tube and in the body, and they work better than potato starch, which has no antioxidants. Why am I not surprised? This is a study sponsored by the manufacturer.

You can read about this study and the rest of fuss over this juice in the March 12 New York Times. It’s in the Style Section (where else?).  The bottom line: all juices have antioxidants and most are a lot cheaper than MonaVie.

As for weight-loss claims: This month’s Nutrition Action Healthletter explains how to analyze Internet advertising, using Açaí as an example of truth-bending.

Apr 16 2008

Antioxidants in trouble again

Investigators keep trying to find health benefits from taking supplements of vitamins A, E, and beta-carotene but keep coming up with the same conclusion: antioxidant supplements do no good and – worse news – appear to cause harm.   Here we have the single-nutrient problem again.  When in doubt, get nutrients from foods.

Nov 19 2007

The (silly) battle of the antioxidants

Which fruit has the most antioxidants? The latest report says blueberries, followed by cranberries, apples, red grapes, and finally green grapes. What? Pomegranates don’t even make the top five? In this case, who knows? The investigators were testing a new assay method and those were the only fruits they examined. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. A fundamental principle of nutrition is variety. In this case, variety means that it’s good to eat different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Each contains its own unique complement of antioxidants and other nutrients and if you eat a variety of foods, you are likely to get all the ones you need and not overdo on any.

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