Blog 

Here is where I share my thoughts, ideas and opinions about the world of nutrition, food and health. I hope you find good sense, helpful guidance and inspiration to eat great healthy food that makes you feel good.

I write regularly for GI News, an online newsletter for 60,000+ Australasian and International subscribers interested in the glycemic index (GI) and associated health topics such as diabetes, weight loss and a healthy heart. It’s a great read. http://www.gisymbol.com/category/gi-news/

 

29 Mar 2017

Do you need sugar-free chocolate?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Easter is the season that will test the New Year’s resolutions of many. You will be quietly going about your grocery shopping and the chocolate bunnies will literally hop right into your shopping trolley! If you’d like to stay on the path of health over Easter, are sugar-free chocolates a better option? Let’s look at what’s in them.

 

First up, what are the typical ingredients in regular chocolate?

  •        Lindt Excellence Smooth Blend 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate: Cocoa mass, SUGAR, cocoa butter, emulsifier (soy lecithin), vanilla.
  •        Lindt Lindor Milk Block: SUGAR, vegetable fats, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, cocoa mass, lactose, skim milk powder, milk fat, emulsifier (soy lecithin), barley malt extract, flavourings.

 So, what are the typical ingredients in sugar-free chocolate? Numerous sugar replacement additives are used to add flavor, texture and bulk (underlined).

  •        Well Naturally Rich Dark Chocolate: Cocoa mass & cocoa butter (70% cocoa solids), polydextrose, erythritol, soy lecithin, natural flavour, stevia.
  •        Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate: Chocolate 57% [Cocoa Solids 40% (Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Mass), Maltitol, Full Cream Milk Powder, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Natural Flavour, Natural Sweetener (Steviol Glycosides)] Filling 43% [Maltitol, Vegetable Fat, Cocoa Powder, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Natural Flavour].

In sugar-free chocolate, polydextrose, maltitol, erythritol and stevia (steviol glycosides) provide the sweetness and mouth-feel that is normally provided by sugar. While they are safe to eat in moderation, the body is unable to completely absorb polydextrose, maltitol and erythritol and they may produce unwanted side effects if consumed in excess, hence the warning printed in capitals on sugar-free chocolate wrappers: “EXCESS CONSUMPTION MAY HAVE A LAXATIVE EFFECT.”

 

Well Naturally claims their sugar-free chocolate is:

  •        Naturally sweetened with stevia. Contains no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or sweeteners.
  •        A suitable treat for those wanting to reduce their sugar intake, such as diabetics and those watching their weight [when eaten in moderation].

 Are sugar-replacers “natural” ingredients?

Companies such as Well Naturally claim the sugar-replacements they use are natural, not artificial. Then why do these sugar-replacements (polydextrose, erythritol and stevia) sound so artificial?  

 

While the leaves of the stevia plant are sweet, the manufacturer does not simply crush leaves and mix them into the chocolate. Stevia is produced using a five-step process that involves interactions with chemicals such as resins and alcoholic solvents to change the stevia leaves into steviol glycosides. Natural? Not really. Not like honey from the hive. The word ‘natural’ is not well regulated in the food industry and tends to be subjectively interpreted by manufacturers.

 

What about “no artificial” claims?

“No artificial” claims often make baddies of things that are chemically identical to their “natural” counterparts. For example TO COME. When you get right down to it, if we ate less processed foods the “artificial” colours and flavours problem would almost disappear. A cynic might say the proliferation of “no artificial” claims just give us permission to eat other versions of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods …

 

It’s true that there’s a very small proportion of the population who are very sensitive to “artificial” colours and flavours, but they are sadly also sensitive to naturally occurring chemicals in food as well. While some artificial colours have been implicated in behavioural changes in children, the doses are large and the effects small, and the mechanism of effect is poorly understood. A systematic review and meta-analysis found there isn’t enough evidence to support eliminating artificial colours in children with ADHD. What about preservatives? Chocolate doesn’t typically have any – and in our house it doesn’t last long enough to need them.

 

Is sugar-free chocolate suitable for people living with diabetes and those trying to lose weight?

We put together the following table to see how the nutritional content differs in 100g of dark and milk chocolate compared to the same amount of sugar-free chocolate.

 

Nutrients

Lindt Excellence Smooth Blend (dark) 70% Cocoa

(100g)

Lindt Lindor Milk Block (100g)

Well Naturally No Sugar Added Rich Dark Chocolate (70% cocoa)

(100g)

Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate Smooth Centre (100g)

Energy – kilojoules

2530kJ

2550kJ

1980kJ

2200kJ

Energy – calories

605 calories

610 calories

474 calories

525 calories

Protein

6.9g

4.7g

6.8g

5.6g

Fat

— Includes saturated fat

48g

29g

46.1g

34.5g

43.2g

26.2g

37.2g

28.2g

Carbohydrates

— Includes sugars

— Includes starches

33.0g

29.0g

0g

44.3g

43.6g

0g

5.4g

0.7g

0g

6.2g

4.7g

0g

 

Well Naturally claim that when eaten in moderation, their sugar-free chocolate is a suitable treat for people living with diabetes and those who are watching their weight. The Well Naturally Rich Dark Chocolate contains 28% fewer calories while Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate Smooth Centre contains 14% fewer calories; therefore it does offer a saving (if you can stop at one). Despite these calorie savings, sugar-free chocolates are still calorie-dense and contain large amounts of saturated (cholesterol-raising) fats. Just a few bites (21g bar) of Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate Smooth Centre contains the same amount of calories as a 200g large apple with far less tummy-filling power.

 

The significantly lower carbohydrate content of sugar-free chocolate may be of benefit for people counting carbs to manage their diabetes, but this is less of an issue if portions are limited (100g chocolate is too much at a sitting for anyone). My 91 year old grandmother has diabetes, mild dementia, a wildly sweet tooth and struggles with portion control so I recently bought her some for a birthday treat.

 

Diabetes Australia says, “a healthy eating plan for diabetes can include some sugar…however foods that are high in added sugars and poor sources of nutrients should be consumed sparingly…foods and drinks that have been sweetened with an alternative sweetener such as…sugar-free lollies etc, are best enjoyed occasionally…” And not to promote overconsumption in any way, but the fact is regular chocolate has a low GI. Everybody – including people with diabetes – can enjoy small portions of regular treat foods and don’t need sugar-free versions. In our experience reframing treats as better for you because there’s no sugar added gives us license to eat more and negates any kilojoule saving- we’re illogical creatures!

 

The un-plugged truth

While sugar-free chocolate may offer some advantages at Easter time there is no real need for it. Don’t mistake sugar-free chocolate for a health food. Enjoy small portions of the best chocolate you can afford and savour it slowly and mindfully with respect and appreciation.

 

Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article. 

07 Mar 2017

Carbs and your heart

Posted by Nicole Senior on Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Carbohydrates- especially dietary fibres and resistant starch- are important for a healthy gut and happy gut microbiota but the types of carbs you eat are important for your heart as well.

It’s well known the types of fats you eat are very influential on your cholesterol levels but less well known that carbohydrates are no longer neutral in the cardiovascular risk equation. Choosing the wrong carbs increases your risk of heart disease. This was demonstrated in a study published by the Harvard Group in 2015. They compared the effect of saturated fats, unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrate on the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) in two large cohorts: the 84,628 women nurses and 42,908 male health professionals followed up over 24-30 years. They found the typical result that saturated fats increased risk and unsaturated fats (especially polyunsaturated fats) were protective. Also unsurprising was their finding that wholegrains were also protective. But the real newsflash came with their finding that refined starches and added sugars were positively associated with CHD. Oh dear: refined starch and sugar are just as bad as saturated fats for the risk of heart disease. While the message is well and truly out about reducing added sugars, refined starches are what GI expert Dr Alan Barclay calls ‘the dark continent of nutrition’- we’re clueless. You can read more about this in a previous issue of GI News here.

If this sounds like an added complication you could have done without, relax. What this means in terms of everyday food choices is the stuff we’ve been banging on about for years and very much within your reach. It’s a matter of choosing quality carbs.

Here’s your three step plan to better quality carbs:

1.       Ensure at least half your grain foods are wholegrain

  • Choose wholegrain and high fibre breakfast cereals
  • Use wholegrain bread and crispbread
  • Buy wholemeal pasta, noodles, couscous and brown rice

2.       Choose lower GI carbs as often as possible

  • Look for dense grainy breads, breads with with seeds or soy, or sourdough
  • Buy lower GI rices such as basmati, Doongara, wild rice
  • Include pulses and legumes in your meals (eg chickpeas, kidney beans, soy beans)
  • Choose lower GI potatoes and starchy vegetables (eg Carisma, Nicola, taro, kumara, parsnip)

3.       Limit added sugars and refined starches

  • Leave sugary drinks such as soft drinks, flavoured waters and sports drinks to special occasions
  • Enjoy confectionary such as candy (lollies) and chocolates occasionally and in small amounts
  • Enjoy cakes, biscuits (cookies), pastries, sweet buns and donuts sometimes and in small amounts
  • Limit the quantity and frequency of white bread, white rice (and rice crackers), regular potatoes and low-fibre breakfast cereals (eg puffed rice, flaked corn)
  • Limit highly processed food products with high levels of refined starches such as potato crisps, rice crisps and crackers, extruded savoury snacks (potato thins, cheesy puffs, twists etc)
  • Limit foods with high levels of added refined starches such as maltodextrin (check the label) and all the food additives with the term ‘starch’ in the name (additive code numbers 1400-1451). Remember, the ingredients are listed in order by weight on the label so starches near the top of the ingredients list are present in the largest proportion.

30 Jan 2017

Should you switch to almond milk?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Monday, January 30, 2017

Foodnavigator USA projects almond milk will be the fastest growing segment in the dairy alternative market with a compound annual growth rate of 15% in the coming years. Have you tried it? It’s hard to miss if you visit cafés in Sydney, especially in hip areas, nestling alongside other hipster fare such as gluten-free muffins, protein balls, and chia cookies.

Like many trendy foods and drinks, almond milk radiates its charms under a health halo, marketed as a “healthy” alternative to traditional milk in your coffee. Sydney people drink a heck of a lot of coffee – I’ve often thought if the coffee supply ran out the city would grind to a halt (pardon the pun). But caffeine has always had a less-than-holy reputation (it is a drug after all). This where the marketing of almond milk to cafés has done the trick: if people think their coffee is good for them they’ll drink it with abandon. Genius!

So how healthy is it? Let’s look at what’s in it. The commercial varieties are basically water (about 97%) plus almond paste along with additives to make it pour well and taste good such as emulsifiers, flavour, salt, oil and vegetable gum – some brands add sugar or syrup to boost appeal. As for nutrition, a recent article in the New York Times says plant milks pale in comparison to dairy milk, an expert says some plant milks are “startling low” on nutrition, while a study in the Journal of Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition suggests plant milks should not be considered a nutritional alternative to cow’s milk. Why? It has almost no protein or calcium. While some brands do have calcium added, it is not as well absorbed this way as the calcium in dairy milk is.

In Sydney, we’re seeing many cafés making their own almond milk with perhaps a bit more almond and no additives – but it has almost no calcium either. In these days of protein worship it’s odd to see such a minimal protein product as almond milk capture so much attention. Unless you have a good reason to avoid dairy milk, such as allergy or intolerance, nutritionally you’d be better off sticking with real milk; ideally light milk if you’re drinking more than a coffee’s-worth in a day (2–3 serves of dairy food a day are recommended).

From a nutritional point of view, I think almond milk is more a missed opportunity than an outright assault. Critics have been less kind, implying plant milks are akin to junk food

. To me that’s like rushing to the opposite extreme. However, the fact that almond milk contains almost no almond – around 2.5% - means all that delicious goodness of a handful of almonds has been diluted to next to nothing. It’s kind of like eating a fruit flavoured yoghurt and expecting goodness from the fruit. While immodest marketing claims that suggest almond milk has the cholesterol-lowering benefits of almonds or their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content are fanciful to put it kindly.

Nutrition content of milk vs almond milk per 100ml serve (a bit over 1/3 cup, which is less than the average café latte)

Milk alternative

Ingredients

Energy (kJ)

Protein (g)

Fat  (g)

Total carbohydrate

Total sugars

Calcium

(mg)

Whole milk

Milk

293

3.5

3.5

6.3

6.3

107

Light milk (1%)

Milk (fat reduced)

 

194

3.8

1.2

6.1

6.1

109

Almond milk, calcium added

Brand 1

Water, almonds (2.5%), calcium, emulsifier, natural flavours, salt, vegetable gum

105

0.4

1

3.3

2.9

83

Almond milk, calcium added,

Brand 2

Water, almonds (2.5%), calcium, emulsifier, flavour, salt, vegetable gum, antioxidant, vitamins

173

1.4

3.5

0.8

0.3

120

Almond milk, nothing added,

Fresh pressed

Water, almonds (10%)

256

2.1

5.6

0.5

0.4

22

When it comes to cooking with almond milk you’d do well to use recipes developed specifically for almond milk to ensure a good result as its very watery. And think about boosting the goodness with addition of nutritious ingredients such as nuts, seeds, wholegrains or egg.

Foodnavigator.com says North American consumers are choosing almond milk to help lose weight, and they quote marketing claims that almond milk can boost satiety (fullness). I searched the published scientific literature and found no studies on satiety of almond milk. It seems highly unlikely that such a low protein beverage could have a high satiety value (protein is the most satiating nutrient). There are no studies on using almond milk instead of cow’s milk for weight loss either. And there are no scientific studies suggesting dairy milk is fattening. The opposite. A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials found weight-loss diets that include dairy foods including regular milk result in greater weight loss than those without.

Years ago in Sydney’s Italian district I used to visit an authentic Italian café that refused to serve anything but regular milk in their coffee and saw anything else as an insult to their proud barista tradition. I can only admire their resistance to the folly of food trends.

The unvarnished truth

Almond milk is not nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk and has very little going for it nutritionally.

If you need to avoid dairy foods and soy milk with calciusm, choose an almond milk with added calcium.

22 Nov 2016

Does cholesterol even matter anymore?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Does blood cholesterol even matter anymore?

You might have heard the conspiracy theories about cholesterol. They say concern about high cholesterol is a story made up by big-pharma to sell more drugs. I’m not happy about the billions spent on cholesterol-lowering drugs either (diet works too!), but that doesn’t mean your cholesterol level isn’t important, or even that drugs aren’t helpful. It’s true that estimating cardiovascular risk involves assessment of many factors and cholesterol management is more nuanced nowadays but cholesterol in your blood is still important. Here are a few facts that reinforce the importance of actively measuring and managing blood cholesterol levels:

  • High blood cholesterol increases your chances of having a heart attack; the higher your cholesterol, the greater your cardiovascular risk. REF
  • The World Health Organisation says over 60% of coronary heart disease in developed countries is due to total cholesterol levels over 3.8mmol/L (150mg/dL) REF.
  • The US Department of Health says research from experimental animals, laboratory investigations, epidemiology, and genetic forms of hypercholesterolemia indicate that elevated LDL cholesterol is a major cause of CHD. In addition, recent clinical trials robustly show that LDL-lowering therapy reduces risk for CHD, and consider LDL cholesterol a primary target for treatment. REF
  • The INTERHEART study of 30,000 people in 52 countries estimated 45% of heart attacks in Western Europe are due to abnormal blood lipids, and people with abnormal blood lipids are three times more likely to have a heart attack than those with normal levels REF.

Drugs or diet?

Cholesterol lowering drugs are some of the most commonly prescribed in the community and a common belief is taking cholesterol-lowering medication means you can eat whatever you want. The idea that drugs overcome a poor diet is a common misconception and a huge missed opportunity. Fortunately in this age of ‘natural health’ there is a growing interest in avoiding drugs if possible, and an increasing acceptance of diet as a mainstay of treatment. The good news is, diet and medication can work together to produce even better results. Diet and drugs are complementary because they work via different mechanisms: most (statin) medication works on cholesterol production in the liver while diet works in a variety of ways including reducing absorption of cholesterol from the gut. The big plus for diet, however, is it works to improve numerous risk factors simultaneously including blood vessel function, weight, blood glucose, blood pressure, inflammation and blood clotting (just to name a few of the ones we know about). If your doctor recommends taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, there’s a lot you can still do to help your heart. While you might forget to take your pill, eating is something we do every day and making the right food choices can be just as powerful –and even better – than any drug. And the best part: it can taste terrific!

The revised and updated 3rd edition of Eat to Beat Cholesterol by Nicole Senior and Veronica Cuskelly is now available, published by New Holland, available here http://au.newhollandpublishers.com/eat-to-beat-cholesterol-updated-edition.html

This post also appears on GI News in September

The revised and updated third edition of Eat to Beat Cholesterol is now available in stores and online.

02 Nov 2016

Is your home a blue zone?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Have you heard about blue zones? These are areas in the world where people live long and happy lives, and the subject of a book on the subject by Dan Buettner. His book was a New York Times bestseller- it seems loads of people are interested in staying young and learning from the longest living people on earth.

Where are these blue zones?

Ikaria, Greece: the Mediterranean diet is normal and life moves at a slower pace

Sardinia, Italy: Meals are traditional Italian, and being on the Mediterranean follow the Med diet principles, including moderate alcohol.

Okinawa, Japan: traditional diet of vegetables, sweet potato, tofu, ginger and garlic, and the concept of ‘hara hachi bu’ or eating until you’re only 80% full.

Loma Linda, USA: a Seventh Day Adventist community that enjoys a vegetarian diet, shuns alcohol and bound by shared religious values and principles.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: a diet characterised by rice, beans, eggs, cornmeal, vegetables, oranges, very little meat and  eating only a light dinner, engaging in physical work all their lives, and having a strong sense of purpose into their dotage.

 

What lifestyle characteristics do they share?

A plant-based diet: nutrition research backs up the idea of plant-based diets reducing risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Plant-based diets are characterised by vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes.

Purposeful physical activity: folks in blue zones don’t work out at the gym but their daily life involves movement, whether it be physical labour in the farm or garden, or walking to get around.

Strong social networks: communities in blue zones feature strong social connections. In the case of Loma Linda it is the shared religion of Seventh Day Adventism, or in other places it is living is smaller, closer communities in a culture that values collectivism. Family and community are important and old people are embraced rather than segregated and isolated.

How can you take the blue zone challenge?

You may not live in a remote Greek village and fish for a living but there are some things you can take on board in your own life. Why not try the blue zone challenge?

Monday: go for plant power. Eat more vegetables and fruit, or try a meat-free meal for #MeatFreeMonday

Tuesday: plan some down time. Switch off from the hyper-connected world and stop to smell the roses, grass or trees and just be. For extra wellbeing points, learn meditation and practice it regularly.

Wednesday: walk more. Walking to get places rather than driving is a great way to be active without much thought. Or perhaps take a walk to clear your head during your working day.

Thursday: eat until only 80% full. This is a tough one if you’ve been raised to clean your plate but it helps if you serve smaller portions and eat slowly and mindfully. And plan some distracting activity after dinner such as reading or chores, or close the kitchen, brush your teeth or chew sugar-free gum to indicate the meal is over.

Friday: make real human connections. Social media is not the same as actually talking to someone. Perhaps put your phone away during dinner and focus on talking with your loved ones, or call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. For a real challenge, talk with a stranger and see where the conversation takes you.

Disclosure: this post was inspired by an event I attended for Be Natural on the launch of their new plant-food based products including granola, cereals and bars. I also received free samples and they were enjoyed by my whole family, including Mr 4 who was particularly taken with the Wholegrain bites which is great because they are 80% wholegrain, organic and low in sugar.  

You can check them out for yourself at www.benatural.com.au

17 Oct 2016

Food myths, profitable half-truths and pseudoscience

Posted by Nicole Senior on Monday, October 17, 2016

No doubt you’ve heard word on the street that saturated fat is no longer bad for your cholesterol or bad for your heart. You’ve probably heard the seemingly welcome news to enjoy butter on your toast and chomp through fatty chops with newfound freedom. Don’t you know that sugar and vegetable oils are the new baddies? It’s all been a conspiracy you see. Those nasty drug companies, cane farmers and oilseed farmers are simply trying to kill you in order to sell more product. Don’t worry about the bulk of evidence that doesn’t support such assertions, just be reassured the minority of loud and persuasive doctors and researchers (and the odd lawyer) are the only ones who know the real truth. It is because they are not at the centre of the science and research that gives them this enlightened perspective. Where the experts see outliers, they see the hidden truth. We are blind and they are the ones who see. And of course celebrities are also on board with these anti-sugar, anti-oils messages and they know their stuff. Even the ABC has examined the scientific arguments on their smarty-pants show Catalyst and found sugar is the root of all evil. It doesn’t really matter they gave more time to the American made-for-TV kiddie doctor than our home grown world-leading experts on carbohydrates and health. Maybe the experts are just making a mountain out of a molehill with the whole obesity and chronic disease problem. They really have been naïve – the answer has been staring them in the face the whole time: it’s the sugar and oils at the root of all modern maladies. And that National Health and Medical Research Council review of thousands of studies that took three years to complete? Well, that was a token effort. What would they know? The World Heart Federation and our own Heart Foundation with their panel of experts and review of the evidence don’t hold a candle to the single minded efforts of a few committed individuals. And who wouldn’t support the idea of a simple solution, especially when Jill from finance cut out sugar and lost 4 kilograms. And Helen from HR swears coconut oil has cleared up her skin and improved her cholesterol. And John from sales uses butter on everything and hasn’t had a sick day in years.

Ok, now I’ve got that out of my system. The world is full of food and nutrition myths and sometimes I fall into to a funk of cynicism. I pick myself up to fight another day with the thought that it’s all a game. Someone is always controlling the conversation for their own ends. It is my quest to go with the evidence, even when it’s uncool (see last point below). Oh, and if you’re interested here are my evidence based statements regarding the manufactured controversies of the moment (with a little translation into practical daily tips):

Sugar is not toxic. You can enjoy a little sweetness in your life without harm. It’s best to get it in nutritious foods. Keep sweet drinks to a minimum and enjoy confectionary sparingly. Fruit is healthy but best eaten whole. Dilute juice with water.

Vegetable (seed and fruit) oils are good for you. Enjoy a variety of different oils instead of butter for cooking. Olive, canola, sunflower, rice bran – whatever you fancy. The idea that omega-6 fats are harmful is a minority opinion and unsupported by the evidence. And despite a concerted smear campaign, Australian margarines are healthier than butter and recommended by health authorities here and around the world.

29 Jul 2016

Nutrition trends 2016

Posted by Nicole Senior on Friday, July 29, 2016

I was asked to put together a presentation to journalists on ‘hot topics’ in nutrition as part of the Dietitians Association National conference held in Melbourne in May. Here’s some of what I came up with.

Firstly, I apologised for the cynical flavour of the trends. I explained this was because I was reacting to the rise of the non-expert and how much of the public attention they received. The rise of the non-expert is now a trend itself dubbed the ‘death of expertise’. It’s hard not to be cycnical when the media is clogged with chefs, journalists, lawyers and ‘health bloggers’ spouting rubbish and whipping up fear (and loathing) about food. Anyhow, I tried to have some fun with them too.

Free from everything

This trend is about the explosion of foods designed to cater for people with food allergies and intolerances. This sounds admirable and helpful for those with actual medically diagnosed problems but this trend has morphed from a niche into a major mainstream trend. The size of the growth in these products is disproportionate to the need for e them and has created a whole tribe of consumers who have self diagnosed allergies and intolerances or have been hoodwinked into thinking that milk, dairy, gluten, wheat and fructose (to name but a few) are bad for you and that products free-from these are healthier (they’re not unless you really have a problem). Many people think gluten is harmful and causes weight gain and gluten-free foods must be better when in fact processed versions are often nutritionally worse.

Vegan superiority

When is a sometimes food not a sometimes food? When its vegan, of course. This was illustrated beautifully by the front page of a major Sydney newspaper’s food supplement that featured an article all about going vegan with a cheesecake on the cover. It’s as though if no animals have been harmed, then vegan foods must be healthy and slimming; a free-pass through the moral food maze. The rise of veganism has meant there are more suitable food options available in supermarkets, cafes and restaurants for those who choose to avoid animal foods, but there has been some extreme liberties taken with purported health benefits. ‘Vegan’ on foods is not a health halo; a cheesecake is still a sometimes food.

Sugar police

Sugar-avoiding has become a religion with the promise of deliverance from all that is bad in the world (or at least with health). I’d suggest the messiahs behind this movement are the biggest sinners. We’ve seen single issue nutrition (SIN) movements before (eg fat) and we’ll see them again. It’s easy to blame obesity, diabetes and moral decrepitude on sugar and forget all about the multitude of other factors.  This anti-pleasure marketing machine is about magic bullets and we know these don’t work. They seem so well-intentioned but are actually well strategised entrepreneurialism that has boosted sales in sugar alternatives, books and website advertising. Pseudoscience sells.

Fear and loathing in carb-vegas

Carbohydrates are perhaps the most misunderstood nutrient. In actual fact there are good and bad carbs but this message is too complicated for the social media mindset so the easiest message is to just skip ‘em altogether. The low-carb diet movement is all about making it easy to follow, and cutting out carbs is relatively simple. Its cut and dried; black and white. The rationale is also ‘simple’, as in ‘not very smart’ or ‘unsophisticated’. Still, if you look hot on Instagram and say low-carb helped you get there, who is the average person to argue? Again, ‘low-carb’ is not a lifestyle but a license to make money selling specialty food products which aren’t usually healthy.

The paleo way

We couldn’t really forget Pete, could we? This celebrity led movement has started to founder under the weight of its loony leaders self-belie; he keeps saying the silliest things and drawing the ire of actual health professionals, undermining any credibility he might have had. But the groundswell still gathered momentum; I saw a paleo-cafe just the other day. And the food marketers were happy to jump on board to produce a whole bunch of paleo-junk food with the promise of a skinny frame, tan and perfect teeth. Again, paleo is a marketing strategy dressed up as health advice.

When is a sometimes food not a sometimes food? When its paleo (like this paleo cookie)

16 May 2016

Bulletproof coffee: seriously?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Monday, May 16, 2016

The term bulletproof doesn’t mean its super strong; bulletproof coffee is coffee made with butter. Yep, you read correctly, it is espresso coffee with a knob of butter, and very often a shot of MCT oil as well. Yes, bulletproof coffee is a ‘thing’. Like many fad diet extension products, it may not be a good thing, but it’s a ‘thing’ none the less. Why? Well I can only think the original developer – an American guy named Dave Osprey – was feeling wildly creative and under the hyper-energetic influence of caffeine (or other psychotropic drugs) at the time. According to Wikipedia, he got the idea after drinking yak-butter tea in Tibet.  The Tibetans drink it as a concentrated source of energy to power their punishing climbs in the freezing mountainous environment in which food can be scarce. He thought it might be a winner in the USA. You know, one of the richest and fattest nations on earth. He managed to sell this idea to the masses with the promise bulletproof coffee will make you smarter and boost your metabolism (that’s code for ‘help you lose weight’). There’s no good evidence to support any of these claims and he has no expertise to be making them, yet bulletproof coffee is a ‘thing’. Dave is a silicon valley technology entrepreneur and has an entire ‘bullet-proof diet’ enterprise. I can’t think of another field in which someone with no training or expertise could make a success out of their health hobby-horse. Welcome to the world of fad diets.

And before you think, ‘only in America’, bulletproof coffee has been available in trendy city cafes in Australia for a while but I nearly choked on my proper coffee when I read about a trendy Melbourne cafe developing a new ‘vegan’ version of bullet coffee: a long black with a chunk of butter and MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides) which they suggest boosts metabolism and concentration (I can only assume they have a non-dairy butter of some sort to make it properly vegan). That sounds great but even online chat groups of ‘believers’ contain queries from people not experiencing any of these effects.  There is no good evidence supporting these claims. The proprietors of this cafe and the people that buy their vegan bulletproof coffee must believe the ridiculous health claims made about MCT oil and bullet coffee. Of course they are tragically misguided.

Bulletproof coffee has now taken on paleo cache. Perhaps because paleo people think dairy milk is a cursed food humans don’t need because it didn’t exist in pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer times. Of course the flaw in this logic is that butter is made from milk fat and making butter is quite a time intensive activity requiring some sort of kitchen rather than roaming the African savannah. Not to mention getting power and water to the espresso machine. But it’s OK because paleo disciples typically specify bulletproof coffee must be made with butter made from milk from grassfed cows. Well, that’s OK then.

Where do I start with the nutrition nightmare that is bulletproof coffee?

  • First and foremost, it sounds disgusting. An abomination in the temple of coffee worship. The capuchin monks must be rolling in their graves.
  • Coffee used to be a pick-me-up that when consumed with a little milk and sugar, was quite low in kilojoules (calories). Bullet proof coffee turns your coffee into a kilojoule explosion.
  • Despite the fanatical endorsements of celebrity chefs, butter is not a health food. Its dairy fat, and consists mostly of saturated fat that will raise your cholesterol if eaten to excess. I’d say drinking butter in your coffee as well as in the ‘paleo’ or ‘low carb’ gluten free, high protein cookie you’re having with it, is eating butter to excess.
  • MCT is not a weight loss tool. It is pure fat. While in the tightly controlled environment of a lab, MCT oil is metabolised differently to other regular fats and oils and is more rapidly absorbed, metabolised and less likely to be stored as body fat. But in the free-for-all eat-fest that nutrition scientists like to call ‘ad libitum’ eating (the way real people eat in the real world) this distinction doesn’t matter much. MCT is adding energy rather than taking it away, and not in a delicious way. And for diet-tribes that preach fresh, natural and unprocessed foods, MCT is highly processed. You don’t get MCT oil in nature, you make it in a lab by isolating fractions of coconut and palm oil.

 I see a lot of crazy things in the world of fad diets but this one really takes the cake. It is by far the craziest product of the moment.

Yes this is coffee with an oil slick. Eeeeuw! Photo source: LA Times

23 Feb 2016

Making sense of Health Stars

Posted by Nicole Senior on Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Now that the Health Star Ratings (HSR) have been around for a while, the 'commentariat' has had time and opportunity to weigh in with their opinions. You can read my previous post on the HSR here. While no system can ever be perfect, I think the HSR is a good system but it has copped some unfair criticism, and mostly from a misunderstanding of food and nutrition as well as how the HSR should be used. Here are some of the issues that have been raised.

Fairfax media covered a report NSW Health prepared examining alignment between School Canteen Guidelines and the HSR. While the report concluded a fairly good alignment between canteen recommended foods and foods scoring three stars and above, in sensational fashion only exceptional foods were highlighted- foods that were red and amber rated in canteen guidelines which scored three or more health stars.  The NSW Health report was not proposing the HSR be used in school canteens right away, but simply looking into utilising it in some way in the future. The one glaring difference to be overcome is that canteen guidelines are based on a serve of food while the HSR is based on 100g of a food. (School canteen guidelines are a dogs breakfast in Australia with the states and territories doing their own criteria making it a nightmare for food companies trying to market products to canteens nationally. Moving them toward agreed national guidelines would be a step forward.) 

Some criticise the HSR as giving processed foods a 'health halo'. The fact is, the HSR is meant to be used to identify healthier choices within processed and packaged foods. In my experience this is where people need the most help; when they're staring at a myriad of products with lots of small print on the supermarket shelf and wondering which one is best (this is where the Heart Foundation Tick was excellent - it was easy to spot). It is assumed that people know that fresh whole foods are healthy. It makes intuitive sense that people don't need stars on fresh fruit and vegetables to know they are healthy, but I'd welcome any evidence to the contrary.

A journalist highlighted the example of a flavoured milk scoring 4.5 out of 5 stars and was appalled when she checked the nutrition information panel to find it contained 22g of sugar. She was similarly disappointed at a fruit flavoured yoghurt. What she didn't realise was that milk contains natural sugars which inflates the total sugars listed on the label. And what she failed to appreciate (no small thanks to the quitting sugar bandwagon) was that milk and yoghurt are a nutrient dense core foods and its OK to enjoy a little sugar in these foods- it makes them taste good.These foods score well under the HSR because they contains lots of good stuff that offsets the sugar added. Its the nutrient poor foods like soft drinks and confectionery we need to be wary of. General paranoia in the community about processed foods and the predominance of fad diet culture has created misunderstandings about food and nutrition and increased skepticism about front of pack labelling.

The underlying question that both school canteen guidelines and the HSR aim to answer is: which foods are healthy and which aren't? This is a harder question to answer than you might think. The Dietary Guidelines classifies foods as 'core' and 'discretionary' but by no means provide all the answers when you're faced with a smorgasbord of supermarket products. Its easy at the extreme ends of the spectrum: apples are healthy 'core' foods and apple flavoured cordial is discretionary. But where the lines get fuzzy is with the foods in between that have been changed, combined or added to in some way (which lets face it is a lot of foods we eat). For example, an apple bircher muesli made with apple, muesli, nuts, yoghurt and honey. It has all the goodness of the core foods in the recipe with some added sweetening. And what about an apple cake made with wholemeal flour, walnuts, olive oil, apple and prunes? Its a cake, but its a pretty healthy one. Cake is discretionary but the HSR would offset the beneficial components with the overall kilojoule density. A more traditional cake would not score as well - and isn't that the whole idea? If you want cake, choose the healthier one with more stars. Its hard to define a healthy food versus an unhealthy food (or should we say less healthy?), and perhaps we should not expect any tool to do this perfectly. Food is complicated.

The HSR rating scoring system will be reviewed over time and hopefully this will reduce anomalies but in the meantime lets give the HSR a chance and use it correctly. You can be confident that eating fresh, whole, minimally processed foods is good for you even if they have no stars. And just because a processed food has stars, doesn't mean you should eat more of these and less whole foods. Use the HSR to choose healthier options of processed and packaged foods of the same type, such as soup A vs soup B. Don't use the HSR to choose the healthiest between soup and cheese because they are too different. 

Everyone knows a banana is healthy but the HSR can help you choose a healthier banana cake and help banana cake bakers to change to healthier recipes to earn more stars

06 Jan 2016

Ten foods I eat rarely and why

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Every now and again I see an article about foods that nutritionists won't eat. So I asked myself: which ten foods would I never eat? Since this is my blog and I don’t have to play along with journalistic tendency to create sensation, I’m going to say: none. Besides foods that are poisonous, or have extreme yuck factor (like fermented yak milk or raw ox blood), I prefer not to take a hard line on less healthy ‘sometimes foods’. Such food judgements don’t sit well with me. I prefer to be a food democrat.  In short, when it comes to food: I never say never! Instead I’m going to put together my own list of foods I eat rarely or very occasionally, and why.

10 Foods I eat rarely and why

  1. Croissants

Despite their romantic aura that conjures Parisian cafes and holiday romances, there is an ugly truth behind these golden breakfast beauties: trans fats. Croissants, Danish pastries and the like are some of the few foods left that are high in trans fats. This is because they are made using commercial shortenings that are partially hydrogenated to achieve their desirable texture and keeping qualities. This industry still needs to come up with an affordable, trans-free shortening product that produces a desirable result. That; and croissants are usually served with butter that adds saturated fats- it’s a bad fats buffet on a plate. Having said all that, when in France (or on Bastille Day), I don’t say no.

  1. Doughnuts

During university I worked a stint in a cafe that made doughnuts and I must confess it is true what they say about working in a cake shop, chocolate factory, donut shop etc. You just get sick of them. However in the fullness of time I have once again stepped into the breach (most notably at the Berry Donut Van) and can say there is a marvel about the magic created with simple ingredients. You’d never predict that frying yeasted dough made with flour and water and then coating them in sugar and cinnamon would taste so good, but indeed it does. But doughnuts are fried dough coated in sugar and there lies the rub. And when you consider the oil is probably solid at room temperature (highly saturated, with or without trans fats, depending) there’s nothing good for health here. And adding jam, sprinkles, compound chocolate, fake cream and custard does nothing to redeem them. No thanks, except in special circumstances (see above regarding the Berry donut van).

  1. Rice crackers

OK; I can tell you’re sceptical about this one, but bear with me. Rice crackers have taken a very high GI (glycemic index) food –rice- and made it worse by refining it more and taking all the water out thus rendering it even less filling. With my hand on my heart I can say I have eaten an entire packet in one sitting (it’s a long story involving a total lack of other options). Talk about a glycemic assault. The good thing about rice is that you eat it with meat and vegetables and these even out the glycemic impact. But not so with rice crackers, which can be eaten all by themselves with a smugness that comes from a ‘99% fat-free’ claim on the label. For your blood glucose you might as well have a handful of jelly beans – at least you know they aren't great and probably stop at a handful. Rice crackers are the poster food of the now-dead low-fat movement. RIP. If they’re at a party and there’s hummus to weight them down a bit, I’ll have a few but that’s about it.

  1. Pork belly

I'm just not into eating pig fat, even if there is a slither of actual meat that qualifies it as ‘pork’. Pork belly is a fashionable food and I've been served it at set-menu events. I've tried to enjoy it but I just don’t. And, I say again it is pig fat. I could think of a thousand ways I’d rather spend my discretionary kilojoules (see points 1,2 and 3 above). There is simply nothing to nutritionally recommend it; no ‘quid’ for your ‘pro-quo’.

  1. Cheap chocolate

This one comes under the ‘life’s too short’ category, as well as the idea that if you’re going to indulge occasionally, you might as go for the best. A modern dietary problem is that there are so many ‘sometimes foods’ around, their quality has suffered. Compound chocolate is a hoax – it’s not real chocolate at all. Shunning mediocrity and embracing quality is a great approach to limiting intake of chocolate and enhancing enjoyment at the same time (and you’re worth it). Chocolate is a gift from the gods (or mother nature) and it is excessive to receive gifts everyday (this is what makes birthdays and Christmas special), so give yourself the gift of good quality chocolate on occasion and enjoy it without guilt.

  1. Sliced white bread

Bread you don’t need to chew is not ideal. Fluffy white bread has almost no fibre and can be eaten too quickly (some say ‘inhaled’). It has a high GI too, so overconsumption comes at a high price for your blood sugar levels. The best bread is wholegrain bread you have to chew well, ideally sourdough. And you can buy it in supermarkets now so it’s not as exclusive as it used to be. And here comes the “but”:  I consider it a peak holiday eating experience to eat cooked prawns on fluffy white rolls with a squeeze of lemon and a beer on the side. There’s a time and a place for every food in this world.

  1. Alcoholic cocktails

Alcoholic cocktails are dangerous. They taste too good and encourage overconsumption. And besides the kilojoule overload, the alcohol intoxication just amplifies the harm (and embarrassment). The cocktail circuit has never been part of my scene, and even less so since I became a parent. I can’t remember the last cocktail I had, but if on my birthday a talented mixologist was to come to my house and whip me up something yummy (but not creamy- see number 8 below) I’d say ‘yes please’ but sip it slowly and stop at one or two.

  1. Cream

I’m not French, as you could most likely guess from this list! I’m not into cream; in or on desserts or sweet drinks or in savoury dishes or sauces. I guess they are all a bit too rich for my blood, and I just don’t enjoy them. My tastes are more attuned to the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Asian flavours and I think these rate well for health and longevity too. Even in cooking I’d rather used an evaporated cooking milk than cream to achieve a much lighter result. I’m not averse to the odd Devonshire tea, however. Fluffy white scones simply beg to be devoured with jam and whipped cream and with a pot of Earl Grey on the side.

  1. Regular soft drinks

I’m not anti-sugar (everything in moderation) but I do think soft drinks are the extreme sport of the beverage world. I reject the challenge of consuming 10-12 teaspoons of sugar in once sitting thanks very much, and prefer to get my food thrills (and kilojoules) from elsewhere. And I prefer to chew rather than drink my kilojoules, and in a more satisfying form. There are occasions that warrant carbonated drinks and on these occasions I choose the ‘diet’, or ‘sugar-free’ options. And I’m here today as proof that high intensity sweeteners do not kill, maim or sicken.

  1. Cheesey things in packets

These include cheese bombs, twisties, cheezels, rings and the like. These are made from highly refined grain flours and starch fillers then extruded into shapes and fried (or baked) and then doused in salt and overly intense flavours and colours. I don’t know about you but I’ve never tasted cheese anything like these “cheesy” flavours. (And don’t get me started on the overly intense faux-flavours of flavoured corn chips – it’s natural only for me). These products invariably have a high GI, zero fibre and loads of salt but are utterly irresistible and disturbingly unsatisfying. Plain potato chips cooked in good oil are much better by comparison but again are sinister in their ability to encourage you to finish the whole packet and reach for a sweet drink to wash them down. All these foods are party foods and do not deserve daily billing.  

Croissants? When in Paris or Bastille Day