For The Love Of Food

by | Mar 30, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Before we get to this week’s top stories I want to announce that I’ll be out of the country for the next two weeks (going to Japan, suggestions welcome!) for my first non-work related vacation in about 5 years (woohoo!). I’ve worked hard to get a full two weeks of new blog posts scheduled for while I’m away, but unfortunately the Friday link posts and farmers market updates will have to wait until I get back.

This week, a wonderful (and true) fish story, lots of bad science, and some interesting news about diet soda.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

 What inspired you this week?

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5 Reasons I Still Like Fitbit Better Than Nike+ FuelBand

by | Mar 26, 2012

Last month Nike jumped into the high-tech pedometer game by introducing the Nike+ FuelBand. It’s a fun device, and a certain tech dude I know thinks it’s the coolest ever. But I’ve held off on sharing my opinion until I had a few weeks to play with the FuelBand, in order to avoid another early review debacle.

My overall sentiment is positive, and I think the social Facebook integration has A TON of potential. The most obvious comparison is to the failed Jawbone UP, and for the most part I think it is an improvement. The device display is beautiful, and the wireless sync definitely 1-ups the Up. The FuelBand doesn’t appear to break after a week either, which is a nice feature.

I’m disappointed that the device doesn’t have the buzz reminder feature that notifies you when you’ve been inactive for a set amount of time, which was my favorite feature of the Up. The FuelBand also doesn’t even pretend to help monitor your sleep, though I didn’t find that feature of the Up particularly useful since crawling into bed with a bulky plastic wristband isn’t exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.

All that said, you’re probably reading this just to know whether or not the FuelBand is worth buying over the only true competitor remaining on the market, the Fitbit.

5 Reasons I Still Like Fitbit Better Than Nike+ FuelBand

1. Battery life

I’m a tech geek and being plugged in is a way of life. Frequent charging doesn’t bother me too much, and I expect the cool colors and graphics of the FuelBand to eat a little more battery. But when I know I can get 2-3 weeks of life out of a 20-minute Fitbit charge, FuelBand’s 45-minute charge session for a measly 2 days of activity seems like less of a bargain.

I’ve heard some people get better battery life (a whopping 4 days!), but that hasn’t been my experience.

2. Comfort

The most immediately noticeable difference between FuelBand and Fitbit is how you wear it. Though the FuelBand bracelet is slightly more comfortable than the Jawbone Up, I wouldn’t exactly call it unnoticeable and it still makes putting on long sleeves (aka getting dressed in San Francisco) less than simple. Also, my skin has been pinched in the USB clasp more than once. Ouch!

Most ladies I know strap the Fitbit effortlessly to their undergarments and forget about it. Dudes can clip it to their belt or pockets on their jeans.

3. Style

Another problem with wearing a big plastic bracelet is wearing a big plastic bracelet. It’s not hideous, but it isn’t exactly chic either. Personally I prefer my pedometer to be a concealed healthstyle weapon.

4. Simplicity

The graphics are kinda cute, and the social part of the app is definitely cool, but introducing a bizarre new measurement unit seems pretty unnecessary. We already have steps and calories, why do we need NikeFuel? I know when I have gone to the gym, so giving me a number that will be predictably higher on gym days doesn’t add much. I suppose it makes it slightly easier to compare activity among friends, but I still think total steps is a more important number to track.

To be fair Fitbit added an extra number in their latest version—flights of stairs—but this unit actually makes sense to me and adds value beyond simple activity. And in case you’re wondering, no FuelBand doesn’t tell you flights climbed.

5. Price

The $150 price point isn’t crazy, but the Fitbit is about $82 on Amazon right now. That’s almost half the price.

What do you think of the Nike FuelBand?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Mar 23, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Why eating vegetables is cheaper than eating at McDonald’s, there are worse things than white rice and the best reason I’ve ever heard to go to the gym.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Mar 16, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Why you shouldn’t tweet and eat, fake chicken is not ethical and orange juice isn’t good for you.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Red Meat Is Killing Us All! Or not…

by | Mar 14, 2012

Photo by Irwin-Scott

I’ve had about a zillion people ask me about a new study that came out in the Archives of Internal Medicine this week linking red meat consumption to increased mortality.

Naturally some people are afraid their carne asada habit may be dooming them to an early death, and who could blame them with headlines like these?

On the other hand, I suspect many of you have dismissed the study out of hand because it conflicts with your world view that animal foods only make good things happen.

But in the interest of science and being grown ups, let’s take a look at the study and see what we can learn.

First, it is worth mentioning that the study was fairly well-designed and conducted by a respectable team of scientists at Harvard. They reanalyzed data from two large prospective cohort studies: The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS, 1986-2008) and the Nurses Health Study (NHS, 1980-2008).

Both cohorts were large groups of health care professionals, which would presumably limit differences in education and income that can often confound health studies. The participants filled out regular food frequency questionnaires that have been previously validated as decently reliable (though food frequency questionnaires are notoriously unreliable).

Importantly, all the participants were eating Western diets during what have come to be known as the least healthy decades in US history. Also important, during the course of the study both red and processed meat consumption declined in both men and women.

“The mean daily intake of unprocessed red meat dropped from 0.75 to 0.63 servings from 1986 to 2006 in men and from 1.10 to 0.55 servings from 1980 to 2006 in women.”

The authors never comment on what this reduced consumption means for their analysis, however, since they “created cumulative averages of food intake from baseline to death from the repeated food frequency questionnaires.”

According to the report, people who ate the most red meat were more likely to smoke, drink, eat far more calories and be overweight. They were also less likely to exercise and eat healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. Basically they were less healthy people with less healthy habits.

The authors claim to have controlled for such lifestyle factors by doing statistical corrections for these variables, which is the industry standard for this type of analysis. They also performed a sensitivity analysis to see if any other dietary variable (including glycemic load) may have impacted their results. They did not detect any significant differences when controlling for these factors, which I admittedly find surprising.

To their credit, the authors made an effort to distinguish between processed and unprocessed meats. Given the time during which the study took place, however, it’s unlikely that any of the participants were eating non-industrial, grass-fed and pastured meat. I think this is an important point, particularly when considering cancer mortality, since toxic compounds tend to accumulate in the fat of animals.

In their analysis the authors estimated that for every one serving of red meat per day (defined as 3 oz), total mortality risk increased by 12% (20% for processed red meat alone, 13% for unprocessed). Heart disease risk increased by 16% for total red meat (21% for processed red meat, 18% for processed), and cancer risk increased 10% for total red meat (16% for processed, 10% unprocessed).

To help put this in perspective, in the Nurses Health Study (the larger of the two) the group that ate the least meat consumed about a 1.5 oz (half a deck of cards) of meat per day and the group that ate the most consumed around 6.5 oz of meat per day (here’s the data I’m pulling from, using the 3 oz serving size for conversion).

Remember, these numbers are for daily consumption. For the highest group, that’s nearly 3 pounds per week (45.5 oz). For the lowest group, under 1 pound (10.5 oz). Realistically, the lowest group probably ate red meat 1-2 times per week, while the highest group ate it once or twice a day. How we got from here to “all red meat will kill you” isn’t exactly clear.

Interestingly, when they did an analysis to see the specific effect of saturated fat in meat it accounted for only 4% of the 16% estimated risk. This is fairly low considering that saturated fat is supposedly what makes meat so bad for us by raising cholesterol. But since the authors say that saturated fat could account for some of the increased risk, can we at least assume that those eating the most meat were more likely to have higher cholesterol? Not so fast. It turns out that in both cohorts, those in the lowest group of meat consumption were the most likely to have high cholesterol. (Thanks Denise Minger for making this astute observation).

So what about the meat is killing us exactly? In addition to saturated fat, the authors also estimated that heme iron in meat (assumed to be a risk factor for some diseases) can account for another 5% of the risk, but they do not elaborate on how this might work. It is unclear what else about red meat may be increasing mortality risk, though preservation methods are suspected for the higher risk associated with processed meats.

The authors also used some fancy statistical magic to estimate what would happen if the participants theoretically replaced one “daily” meat serving with an equal portion of either fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy or whole grains and determined that mortality risk would decline 7%, 14%, 19%, 10%, 10% and 14%, respectively. It is important to remember though that *ahem* these are not real experiments but merely estimations based on the numbers and statistical models used in this study. At best an analysis like this can generate a hypothesis that could then be tested in a controlled trial.

Fortunately controlled studies replacing meats (oh, and all the other crap in the Western diet) with other nutritious, whole foods have already been done. For example, in the Lyon Diet Heart Study (1988) a group of patients who had already had a heart attack were instructed to change their diets. One group went on the low-fat American Heart Association diet, the other group adopted a Mediterranean style diet that included lots of green and root vegetables, fruits, legumes, more fish and poultry, less red meat, olive oil and no cream. After only 3 years the study was stopped by the ethics and safety committee because the Mediterranean diet group had a 70% reduced risk of death compared to those on the low-fat diet.

Studies have consistently shown that replacing some dietary meat with fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of heart disease. However, replacing red meat with anything else (even olive oil) seems to be pointless. For this reason I’ve always been skeptical that red meat is uniquely bad when the simpler explanation would be that eating more fish is uniquely good. I don’t see how this new analysis of old studies changes anything.

Lastly, although the authors included controls for lifestyle factors I’m highly suspicious that people with so many unhealthy habits are at an increased risk of death primarily because of meat consumption. Consequently, all that I’d feel comfortable concluding from the new analysis is that in the context of a Western diet, eating something other than meat every once in awhile is probably a good idea. Outside of the Western diet? It’s much harder to say.

What are your thoughts on the study?

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Is Coconut Palm Sugar A Healthy Sugar Substitute?

by | Mar 12, 2012

Photo by Robyn’s Nest

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can be very appealing to people looking to cut their calories or control blood sugar, and I get a lot of questions about them. Generally I don’t recommend processed or sweetened foods and encourage people to break free from regular sugar consumption, but I recently discovered coconut palm sugar and decided to look into it.

Coconut palm sugar has garnered attention as being a low-carb sugar substitute that is more nutritious than typical granulated sugar. Because of its complex flavor it is also gaining a reputation in foodie communities, with establishments like the popular Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco switching 100% of its sweeteners over to coconut palm sugar.

Pure coconut palm sugar is a natural product made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. There are several different varieties of palm (Palmyra, date, etc.), and “coconut palm” specifically refers to the coco nucifera plant.

Most of the “palm sugar” commonly sold in Asian markets is not pure coconut palm sugar but is blended with other fillers such as white cane sugar. Pure certified organic coconut palm sugar is sold under the brand name Sweet Tree in the US, and can be found at some natural food stores.

The information in this article applies only to 100% pure coconut palm sugar. Check your labels carefully.

Pure coconut palm sugar reportedly has a naturally low glycemic index (GI)–a measure of how food impacts blood sugar–which has led some people to claim that it is a valuable sugar substitute for people with diabetes or those looking to control blood sugar (the low-carb camp). Indeed, a lower GI may be a good indication that a food is safer for diabetics, though it is not a guarantee.

When I first saw that coconut palm sugar has a low GI I figured it would be composed largely of fructose, similar to the popular sweetener agave nectar (and high-fructose corn syrup). Fructose does not impact blood sugar because it is transported directly to the liver and converted to fat. For an explanation of this mechanism, check out Dr. Lustig’s video on the dangers of fructose.

I was surprised to find, however, that coconut palm sugar is reportedly very low in fructose, and its main sugar component is sucrose (aka table sugar). What confuses me is that the GI of coconut palm sugar is supposed to be 35, while the GI of sucrose is 64. Something doesn’t add up.

I could only find a summary of how GI was measured and not the published study itself. Also, this information was only available on the website of a company that sells coconut palm sugar. This doesn’t mean the number is inaccurate, but it is a little suspicious and I’d like to see the study repeated by another credible source or two before taking it as fact.

(UPDATE: At one time I found reports of newer tests that found discrepancies with the reported GI of Sweet Tree products, but the page has since been taken down)

The number of calories in coconut palm sugar is almost identical to the number in regular table sugar and its closer relative, brown sugar. But coconut palm sugar is notably higher in various micronutrients, probably because it is less processed than industrial sugars.

But does anyone really eat sugar for health benefits?

There are a number of good reasons to consider using coconut palm sugar as a substitute for white or brown sugar in your kitchen. For me the most obvious benefit is that it tastes amazing, similar to brown sugar but with a rich complexity I’ve never tasted in industrial sugars.

Overall coconut palm sugar is a tastier and possibly healthier substitute for granulated or brown sugar. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a health food, or even low-carb just yet.

Substitute coconut palm sugar for traditional sugar at a 1:1 ratio in normal cooking and baking.

Have you tried coconut palm sugar? What do you think?

Originally published March 10, 2010.

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For The Love Of Food

by | Mar 9, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Bad news about statins, Campbell’s vows to go BPA-free and instructions on how to troubleshoot bad eating habits.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week


What inspired you this week?

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Is It Healthier To Eat Like A Caveman?

by | Mar 7, 2012

Photo by Lord Jim

“What do you think of the Paleo diet which advocates zero grain consumption?”

The Paleolithic diet is one of the most rapidly growing diet trends of the past several years. Followers of the Paleo diet argue that humans have not evolved to eat agriculture-based foods and can only achieve optimal health by consuming a hunter-gatherer style diet. Thus the Paleo diet is completely devoid of grains and legumes, and also shuns dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. The diet is composed primarily of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds.

(The Wikipedia article on the Paleo diet is actually pretty good if you’d like to read up on the details. I particularly like the Opposing views section.)

Like most diets the Paleo diet has a little bit of good science behind it, but also a lot of logical leaps and baseless assumptions. The evolutionary argument that humans are somehow maladapted to agriculture-based diets is particularly unconvincing (resting on many unproven assumptions), yet is the fundamental premise on which the Paleo diet bases its recommendations.

The reasoning behind the Paleo diet is less interesting to me, however, than the impact of the diet itself. Will “eating like a caveman” really help you be healthier?

Possibly, but not necessarily.

The most obvious advantage of the Paleo diet is the lack of processed foods. There is ample evidence that societies on traditional diets boast far better health than those on modern, Western diets–and the hallmark of modern diets is food processing. Paleo diets therefore are low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, excess salt and pretty much everything else that leads to “diseases of civilization.”

Paleo diets are also abundant in healthy, nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and meats. I have no doubt that anyone willing to stick to a Paleo eating plan will have a healthy weight and remain virtually free of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and may even have lower rates of cancer.

But the question still remains, is it necessary to eat Paleo to be healthy?

This is where I take issue with the Paleo philosophy. While a diet completely free of processed foods is undeniably healthy, the Paleo diet goes beyond this and demands considerable sacrifice.

Paleo diets do not allow for any grains or legumes. This pretty much eliminates every traditional cuisine on earth including Japanese, Italian, Indian and Greek. Not only is this a culinary tragedy, it ignores the fact that these cuisines feed some of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived individuals.

Traditional, global diets that exclude highly processed foods but also include grains and legumes have been some of the most successful for health. Diseases of civilization are only problematic in Western cultures where processed foods make up a large proportion of the calories and few whole food are consumed.

Proponents of the Paleo diet argue that it is necessary to eliminate grains and legumes because they contain “antinutrients,” substances that can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important vitamins, minerals and proteins. However, well-nourished individuals who eat a varied diet of unprocessed foods (including grains and legumes) are not nutrient deficient and are generally healthy.

Given that it is possible to thrive on a diet that includes some grains, legumes and even small amounts of processed foods, one must question if giving up the culinary joys of travel and global cuisine are really worth the sacrifice.

In my experience, food substitutions and modified recipes designed to mimic traditional meals can sometimes be tasty but can never replace true authenticity.

Another contention I have with the Paleo diet is the assumption that the same eating patterns will work for everyone. People’s lives differ in countless ways. We each have different levels of daily activity, demands on our time and food preferences. We also have different genetic backgrounds, which can result in significant differences in metabolism and hormone levels. These individual variations make dietary needs different for each of us.

Because of our individual differences, there is undoubtedly a percentage of the population that thrives on the Paleo diet and finds it easy to stick to and achieve results. Hooray! However there may also be a segment of the population (myself included) that finds living without grains and legumes to be chronically unsatisfying and unsustainable.

Try telling a foodie they can never eat cheese or drink wine again and see how far you get pitching a Paleo diet.

If you currently eat a typical Western diet with little variety and many processed foods, tend to have better success following rigid diet plans, and have no qualms about giving up or modifying traditional meals to meet your dietary demands, then you might have luck following the Paleo diet. However there is no reason to believe it is the only path to good health.

The best diet is the one that works for you. Finding a healthstyle you can embrace and enjoy is essential if you want to build a lifetime of healthy habits.

Do you follow a Paleo diet? What do you think?

Originally published February 22, 2010.

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Tonight at 6pm PST – Episode 20 – Summer Tomato Live

by | Mar 5, 2012

Tune in here at 6pm PST where we’ll be discussing food, health and all your random nutrition questions.

To participate click the red “Join event” button and login with Twitter or your Vokle account. The show is now open and free to everyone, so no password is necessary.

I encourage you to call in with video questions, particularly if your question is nuanced and may involve a back and forth discussion. Please use headphones to call in however, or the feedback from the show is unbearable.

If I don’t get to your question or you’d like a more in depth follow up, you can Ask Me or subscribe to the Tomato Slice newsletter.

Click here to see past episodes or subscribe on iTunes (video podcast or audio only).

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For The Love Of Food

by | Mar 2, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Scary news about sleeping pills, some good advice about omega-3 fatty acids and the fabulous nutrient value of a winter meal.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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