Posts Tagged ‘USDA’
An apple a day used to keep the doctor away, at least according to folk wisdom. But not any more – unless it’s organically grown. Apples top the list of foods contaminated with pesticides, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization, in its annual report called “The Dirty Dozen™.”
The listing of foods that may have toxic levels of pesticides is part of the group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce, which draws its data from tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Even after washing, more than two thirds of the tens of thousands of food samples tested by the agencies showed pesticide residues. The most contaminated fruits were apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches and imported nectarines. Among vegetables, the most contaminated were celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.
The contamination levels varied significantly between different foods. Potatoes had a higher total weight of pesticides than any other food crop. A single grape tested for 15 different pesticides. So did sweet bell peppers.
Corn, which is widely used as an ingredient in processed foods, does not appear in the EWG’s guide because as such it’s no longer considered a fresh vegetable. Neither is soy. Still, concern over pesticide contamination should also include processed items.
In addition to its notorious “Dirty Dozen™” rating, the EWG also publishes a list of the least contaminated foods, called the “Clean Fifteen™.” These show the lowest levels of pesticide residues and are generally safe for consumption. They include pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, grapefruit, corn, onion, avocado, frozen sweet peas, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.
Pesticides have long been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly to developmental problems in young children. Some pesticides have been found to be carcinogenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
There are currently about 350 different pesticides registered with the government and permitted for use on food crops. Among the most toxic ones are organophosphate, a potent neurotoxin that can adversely affect brain development in children, even at low doses; and organochlorine, a once widely used pesticide that is now officially banned but still persists in the environment and continues to pollute plant foods grown in contaminated soil.
Particularly disconcerting is that pesticides have been found in processed baby food. For example, green beans used for baby food tested positive for five pesticides, including organophosphate, and pears showed more than twice as many.
While there is only so much consumers can do to protect themselves and their loved ones against the exposure to pesticides and other toxins in their food supply, it is important to have the information available that allows for better-informed choices. Buying organically grown produce may be the best option, but it’s not affordable for everyone. Mixing both organic and regular foods can be a workable compromise, thereby avoiding the worst offenders and limiting the damage to your budget with the rest.
In addition, you may also want to visit your local farmers market once in a while. Ask the farmers about their farming methods and whether they use pesticides. Some small farms may not be certified “organic” because of the costs involved but still adhere to eco-friendly procedures.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
Less salt in our food supply could save at least half a million Americans from dying prematurely over the next ten years, according to separate studies conducted at three universities, two American and one Canadian. If the average daily salt intake were to drop to 1,500 milligrams, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the number of lives saved could more than double. All study results were published in the medical journal Hypertension, a publication of the American Heart Association (AHA).
Americans currently consume on average 3,600 milligrams of salt daily, mostly in form of sodium, widely used as an ingredient in processed foods. Sodium is considered a significant contributor to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke, all leading causes of death in the U.S. today.
About a third of American adults, or 68 million, suffer from high blood pressure, a.k.a. hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The condition was identified as a primary or contributing cause of nearly 350,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2008, the last time the CDC has updated its research on the subject.
Despite of these alarming statistics, there are currently no signs of improvement. Even better treatment has only shown mixed results. Less than half (46 percent) of high blood pressure patients have their condition under control, according to the CDC.
Because the salt content in processed food is already added before it reaches the consumer, there is little opportunity to make changes on an individual basis other than limiting one’s choices to fresh items like produce. This would also exclude many options in restaurants.
“Individuals can’t make this choice easily,” said Dr. Kirstin Bibbins-Domingo, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to ABC News. “So maybe we should find ways to work with the food industry,” she suggested.
The National Salt Reduction Initiative, a partnership started by the New York City Health Department that has expanded to nearly 100 city and state health organizations across the country, has been trying to get food manufacturers and restaurant operators to cut salt by 25 percent or more since 2008, the year of the organization’s inception. The current goal is to achieve a reduction of 20 percent by 2014.
Critics say that such measures are impractical and would make little difference. Public health advocates have been focusing on hypertension as if no other health threats existed, said Morton Satin, Vice President of science and research at the Salt Institute, a trade association for the salt industry, in response to the recent studies to ABC News. The association warns that low salt intake could produce its own set of health problems, especially for the elderly.
While most experts would agree that multiple factors can be responsible for the development of high blood pressure, including genetic predisposition, gender, age and other non-modifiable components, poor diet and lifestyle choices, which are modifiable and therefore preventable risk factors, usually play a much greater role. In a milestone conference on the connections between sodium intake and blood pressure, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the participating scientists concluded that “an abundance of scientific evidence indicates that higher sodium consumption is associated with higher levels of blood pressure, [as demonstrated in] animal studies, observational epidemiologic studies, and clinical studies and trials.” They were also hopeful that more effective strategies could be developed to improve diet and lifestyles patterns that benefit the larger population.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading: “Too Much Salt in Our Food Creates Serious Health Hazards.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
School children will find more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products on their lunch plates under the new nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines also seek to reduce or eliminate high contents of sodium, saturated fat and trans fats. For the first time, food and beverages sold in vending machines on campus will have to meet certain nutritional standards as well.
The newly adopted nutrition standards are largely based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies and are designed to help in the fight against childhood obesity, which is now affecting 17 percent of children living in the U.S.
Under the revised rules, all meals served in school cafeterias will have upper and lower limits of calories, which vary with each age group. Kindergarteners to fifth-graders will receive 550 to 650 calories per meal, 6th to 8th graders about 700 calories, and 12th graders up to 850 calories.
The extra costs for better nutritional quality come to about $6.8 billion over the next five years, according to government estimates. “Schools are definitely going to be challenged by the additional costs of meeting the new rules,” says Dianne Pratt-Heaver, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a non-profit organization that represents school cafeteria vendors and operators. The government will pay schools six cents per meal on top of the current rate, which is not nearly enough to cover expenses, according to the SNA. The school lunch program provides daily meals to about 32 million students, often for free or at a reduced price.
Regardless, Ms. Pratt-Heaver says, her organization approves of the new policies. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) has also signaled its support. “Given the realities of federal, state and local budgets, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is committed to leading the creative collaborations that will be needed to implement changes in the school food program,” said Sylvia A. Escott-Stump, a Registered Dietitian and President of the Academy in an official statement by the organization.
The new regulations mark the first overhaul of the school lunch program since the 1990s and will gradually be phased in over the next three year. It was not an easy task, considering the oftentimes vehement opposition from food manufacturers, which culminated in last year’s controversy over whether pizza (or rather the tomato paste topping) should qualify as a vegetable serving. So far, it does, at least legally.
Also somewhat unresolved remains a dispute over the nutritional benefits of potatoes. The National Potato Council (NPC) has voiced strong objections to any attempts to limit servings of potatoes in school lunches, including French fries. “We still feel like the potato is downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines,” said Mark Szymanski, a spokesperson for the NPC. “It seems the department still considers the potato a second-class vegetable.”
There is some reason for that. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which followed over 120,000 people for up to 20 years to find out what kinds of food affected their weight, potatoes were found to rank among the greatest weight boosters.
There is a very strong hypothesis that potatoes in particular lead to weight gain, says Professor Walter Willett, an Epidemiologist at Harvard and lead author of the study report. The reason is that potatoes are consumed fully cooked and rapidly broken down into sugar. Sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and eliminated by insulin, which leaves us hungry again after just a few hours. Particularly problematic, Dr. Willett says, are potatoes made into French fries and potato chips, “because they’re designed to make us overeat.”
Fried potatoes are also much higher in calorie and fat content than the steamed or baked varieties because of the oil used in the process. While one baked medium-size potato carries about 110 calories and virtually no fat, a medium-size serving of French fries has about 380 calories and 19 grams of fat.
Calories and fat, of course, are not the only issues. High levels of sodium are of equally great concern. While a medium-size potato contains about 10 mg of sodium (without added salt), a medium-size order of French fries comes with a whopping 270 mg.
Worries about sodium content have also fueled the debate over tomato paste on pizza. While tomatoes in their natural form are almost sodium-free, processed tomatoes like tomato paste, canned tomato sauce and ketchup can have over 1000 mg of sodium per serving (100g). High levels of sodium are known to cause a number of negative health effects, including heart disease and high blood pressure.
As a dietitian and grandmother of kindergarteners and gradeschoolers, I obviously support the changes the new guidelines are trying to achieve. However, much work remains to be done before all school children can receive the quality nutrition they need to grow up healthy and succeed at learning.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
Just a few months after the government released its newest nutritional guidelines for Americans, called “MyPlate,” researchers at Harvard School of Public Health decided to offer their own modified version.
The “Healthy Eating Plate,” as the alternative plan is called, offers more specific recommendations for following a healthy diet than MyPlate, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS).
The Harvard plan is “based on the most up-to-date nutrition research, [which] provides consumers with the information they need to make choices that can profoundly affect their health and wellbeing,” said Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. He went on to say that he and his team tried to address the shortcomings of the government’s guidelines: “The main thing is that MyPlate isn’t specific enough to really give enough guidance.”
Like the MyPlate icon, the Harvard recommendations are conceived in form of a plate. There is a similar division in four sections for fruit, vegetables, grains and protein but with added information on what foods in each category are actually healthier than others. For example, a clear distinction is being made between grains and whole grains. Whole grains are part of a healthy diet, while refined grains such as white bread and white rice are not.
Likewise, not all sources of protein are equally recommended. Fish, beans, nuts and, to a lesser extent, poultry and lean meats are considered good sources, however, red meat, bacon, cold cuts and processed meats are not and should be avoided altogether.
Even vegetables are not all safe. Most are, but potatoes, especially in form of French fries, shouldn’t count as healthy. The reason is that potatoes are full of rapidly digested starch and can have a “roller-coaster effect” on blood sugar levels and insulin secretion – which can lead to overeating with all its well-known consequences.
With regards to oils, the government’s guidelines are mum. But there are healthy fats we can get from olive- and canola oil and they are important to mention, according to Dr. Willet.
He is also critical of the inclusion of milk in every meal, as the MyPlate graphic seems to suggest by adding a separate container for dairy products. “Modest dairy consumption is OK,” he said, “but having a glass of milk with every meal is excessive and does not reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.” The Harvard plate replaces milk with water and recommends only one or two servings of low-fat milk per day. The consumption of fruit juices should be limited, while sugary sodas should be completely avoided.
The Healthy Eating Plate also features a symbol reminding us of the importance of exercise, something that is completely missing from the MyPlate graphic.
One of the reasons for publishing an alternative and arguably improved version of the just released USDA guidelines is the growing frustration among health- and nutrition experts over the domineering influence of the food industry on government policy-making. “Unfortunately, like the earlier USDA [Food] Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not a recipe for healthy eating,” said Dr. Willett.
Other nutrition experts voiced criticism with regards to some aspects of the Harvard approach. For example, some noted that dairy products like milk and yogurt should not be limited for children because of the importance of sufficient calcium supply during growth. Others worried that the new graphic was too detailed and too hard for many consumers to follow. Defenders of the MyPlate say that the strength of the USDA icon is its simplicity, while it is also much more intuitive and self-explanatory than the Food Pyramid variations of the past. It would not be helpful to give up on that advantage by adding on more information.
I think that both the USDA and the Harvard concept are a step in the right direction. Considering how much consumers are already confused about eating right and staying healthy, user-friendliness is certainly a virtue. Those who are ready and willing to embark on a regimen of good nutrition and regular exercise learn very quickly that it’s not a one-step process but a life-long journey that has many ups and downs. So it makes sense to begin with a few essentials and go from there as one progresses. In the end, success will only come with stick-to-itiveness and the willingness to keep learning – I’m sure the Harvard professors can appreciate that.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
It’s been almost a hundred days since the government released the latest update of its Dietary Guidelines. For the last thirty years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly given their recommendations for healthy eating to the American public – obviously without much success.
Today, weight problems are affecting two thirds of the American population. Obesity rates have skyrocketed from 15 percent to well over 30 percent. Just by looking at these numbers, it is obvious that the government’s efforts to improve our eating habits have been a dismal failure.
In June 2011, the traditional “Food Pyramid” was replaced with a new icon, named “MyPlate,” which supposedly resembles a dinner plate divided in four segments of various sizes. Each part is dedicated to a different food group: Vegetables, fruits, grains and protein as well as a serving of dairy products on the side.
So far, reactions have been mixed. Many nutrition experts have praised the simplicity of the graphic, which they believe will make the guidelines more intelligible and user-friendly than its predecessors. Others have criticized it as too simplistic to explain the intricacies of important dietetic principles. All of this may be true, however, the main question should be: Are consumers better off than they were with the older versions – or without following any of the government’s guidelines for that matter?
A great deal of attention was given this time to the “primary suspects” that most likely cause Americans to get fatter and fatter. Added sugars in sodas and processed foods belong to this group of offenders. So do fats, solid (butter) or liquid (oils). Sodium (salt) is seen as a major culprit, not only for weight gain but more so for high blood pressure and heart problems. Portion sizes are also of great concern. Americans do not only eat badly, they also eat way too much, the guidelines conclude.
So, the “MyPlate” recommendations call for a radical departure from all that. Forget the meat and potato diet of generations past. Instead, we are urged to eat at least five servings of vegetables, four servings of fruit, three cups of low-fat dairy products and six ounces of whole grains every day. Besides cutting back on fat, salt and sugar, we also better not indulge too much in alcohol and caffeine. Exercise, on the other hand, is something we can never get enough of: A minimum of 30 minutes daily is a must (60 to 90 minutes would be ideal).
Sounds good. But is it realistic? Considering our busy lifestyles and – with food prices constantly rising – our budget constraints, can the government seriously expect that people are willing or even able to follow its advice?
“I think there’s a risk of these guidelines setting people up for failure,” said Dr. Annette Dickinson, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association of dietary supplement manufacturers. “We know that people already aren’t doing what the last guidelines said. Yet these are more stringent. It is good to have a goal to shoot for. But this is just not a real-life solution.”
People don’t change their eating habits because somebody tells them to. For most of us, it takes a heart attack to get us thinking about our diet, according to Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist and author of the book “How to Cook Everything.” “I couldn’t follow those guidelines. I look at [them] and I’m going to adapt to as many of them as I can. But am I going to let this stuff scare me and run my life? Not unless I have to,” said Bittman.
Someone who famously changed his diet in radical ways is former president Bill Clinton. As he stated himself in a highly publicized interview with neurosurgeon and part-time CNN anchor/commentator Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Clinton decided to become a strict vegetarian to better control his heart disease. For people like him, eating right is a matter of life and death. But that’s an extreme situation. For the rest of us, there must be room for some flexibility, according to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD Health.
“Start where you are today and look toward guidelines as goals. If you are eating one serving of vegetables, eat two or three. If you are not exercising, 90 minutes a day is too much. Take baby steps. Make the changes in your lifestyle that help you incorporate some of these recommendations a little at a time,” said Zelman.
Bittman recommends a similar strategy. Seeing the larger picture of your nutritional needs is more important than following the recommendations to the letter, he said. “Set a rough limit for yourself. Be aware of the calories in different kinds of food, but don’t get obsessed counting them. Say, I’m going to try to eat two cups each of vegetables and fruit every day and a cup or two of whole grains every day. Even if you get 600 calories from a Big Mac and 450 calories from a medium order of fries, if the rest of your day’s diet were broccoli and apples and bulgur, you wouldn’t be that bad off.”
So, here are your more workable guidelines: Eat your burger or steak once in a while, if you must. But then make sure you’re getting plenty of the healthy stuff for balance. And that workout schedule? Stop putting it off.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD