Tag Archives: nutrition

The average American wastes almost a pound of food every day

“Imagine coming home with four bags of groceries and throwing one straight into the trash. That’s really what is happening in most households,” said Karen Bakies, lead author of the new study and vice president of nutrition affairs for the American Dairy Association Mideast in Columbus, Ohio.

The new survey — carried out by the American Dairy Association Mideast, which aims to provide science-based nutrition information — found that food waste is virtually ubiquitous in the US: 94% of Americans throw away food, and the average family wastes around one-third of the food they buy. Overall, the average American wastes 250 pounds (114 kg) of food a year.

“Whether people are over purchasing groceries or getting tired of their leftovers, too much food is being thrown away in America,” Bakies adds.

This is problematic for many reasons. For starters, all that food takes a lot of energy and resources to produce, package, and transport, which in turn generates greenhouse gas emissions. This means that when you throw away food, you essentially throw away much more than food — you also waste the energy invested to produce it. Disposing of the food also requires resources such as water or labor. Secondly, food is not a luxury that everyone can afford — even in the US. Around 40 million Americans struggle with food, and 2.9 million households with children are food insecure at some time each year.

Lastly, food also costs money, which of course means that food waste literally flushes money down the drain.

“A family of four could save up to $2,000 by wasting less food, but it’s not just great for your family, it’s also great for your community. Just half of that money is enough to provide over 8,000 meals to those in need.” said Bakies. “And if you do find yourself with extra groceries, donate them to a local food pantry rather than letting them go to waste.”

The good news is that things can be improved with a few simple tips, researchers say. Here are some of them:

  • Organize your fridge. “First in first out” is a good rule of thumb, because foods often get forgotten at the back of the fridge.
  • Use the freezer. Almost all leftovers, both from cooked food or other ingredients (bread, fruits, etc) can be frozen and reheated at a later time. This not only prevents food waste, but can give you a free meal later.
  • Get creative when cooking. Maybe you bought some yogurt for a cake, and there’s a bit left over. You can either freeze that or use it in another recipe, like a salad or another cake.
  • Don’t over-buy. Sometimes (especially when we’re hungry) we tend to buy out at the supermarket, and often times, we buy more than we need. Keep a mental note of what’s left in the fridge and buy foods that complement those — use everything!

The USDA also has a really useful app, called FoodKeeper. The app can tell you how to store and cook over 400 foods and even sends alerts when food in your refrigerator is approaching the end of its recommended storage life.

Immigrating drastically changes people’s microbiome

As soon as a person immigrates to the US, their microbiome starts to change.

People switching from a Thai diet to an American diet exhibit a drastic reduction in microbiome diversity. Depicted here: a Thai dish (fish in chili sauce).

Immigration is a touchy subject in many parts of the world, but while some things are debatable, researchers found clear signs that the microbiome of immigrants drastically changes when they come to the US. Specifically, researchers from  the University of Minnesota and the Somali, Latino, and Hmong Partnership for Health and Wellness have studied communities migrating from Southeast Asia to the US, finding that their gut biome is immediately “Americanized.”

“We found that immigrants begin losing their native microbes almost immediately after arriving in the U.S. and then acquire alien microbes that are more common in European-American people,” says senior author Dan Knights, a computer scientist and quantitative biologist at the University of Minnesota. “But the new microbes aren’t enough to compensate for the loss of the native microbes, so we see a big overall loss of diversity.”

It has to be said that this isn’t really a good thing. Generally speaking, microbiomes from the Western world are associated with greater obesity, whereas people from developing countries tend to have more diverse and healthy microbiomes (particularly in areas where fruits and vegetables are more popular). It seems quite normal that a person’s biome would shift when the diet changes, but it’s striking to see how much diversity is lost, and how fast this happens — in only six to nine months.

“Obesity was a concern that was coming up a lot for the Hmong and Karen communities [from Thailand] here. In other studies, the microbiome had been related to obesity, so we wanted to know if there was potentially a relationship in immigrants and make any findings relevant and available to the communities. These are vulnerable populations, so we definitely try to make all of our methods as sensitive to that as possible and make sure that they have a stake in the research,” says first author Pajau Vangay.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Good microbes” footer=””]The gut microbiota (also called the gut microbiome, and previously called the gut flora) is the name given to the microbe population living in our intestine. Essentially, our gut contains trillions of microorganisms, from hundreds of different species, containing 3 million genes — 150 times more than human genes.

These are, essentially, “good” microbes — at least some of them.

Increasingly, the gut microbiome has been shown to be important in a number of diseases, including your weight, general health, and even mental health. [/panel]

The team compared the microbiome of Thai immigrants to people who were still living in Thailand. The study also featured the children of those immigrants, as well as Caucasian American controls. Researchers were also able to follow a group of 19 Karen refugees as they relocated from Thailand to the US, allowing them to see how the microbiomes were changing in time.

Significant changes took place quite fast. Most notably, a Western strain of bacteria (Bacteroides) began to displace the non-Western bacteria strain (Prevotella). The kids’ biomes changed significantly faster than those of the adults.

Overall, the changes seem to be a logical consequence of a change in diet, but they are still concerning.

“When you move to a new country, you pick up a new microbiome. And that’s changing not just what species of microbes you have, but also what enzymes they carry, which may affect what kinds of food you can digest and how your diet interacts with your health,” he says. “This might not always be a bad thing, but we do see that Westernization of the microbiome is associated with obesity in immigrants, so this could an interesting avenue for future research into treatment of obesity, both in immigrants and potentially in the broader population.”

While no direct cause-effect has been established between a Western diet and obesity and other health issues, there is a lot of correlation between the two. Migration from a non-western nation to the United States is associated with a loss in gut biome diversity, which may predispose individuals to metabolic diseases, researchers conclude.

“We don’t know for sure why this is happening. It could be that this has to do with actually being born in the USA or growing up in the context of a more typical US diet. But it was clear that the loss of diversity was compounded across generations. And that’s something that has been seen in animal models before, but not in humans,” says Knights.

The study was published in Cell. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.029

Wheat.

U.S. researchers poised to level-up wheat’s nutritive value by making it absorb minerals

The USDA Agricultural Research Service wants to level up wheat, making it more nutritious.

Wheat.

Image credits MaxPixel.

Getting a proper meal today might seem as easy as popping into the nearest diner, but appearances can be deceiving. Our diets, while gaining in calories, are also steadily losing in the nutrient department — for example, about 60% of the world’s population doesn’t get enough iron in their diet, says Robert Graybosch of the Agricultural Research Service.

However, a new paper that he and his team published aims to solve this problem by packing wheat with more nutrients, especially minerals, through biofortification.

Nutrient Keep

“People in many parts of the world do not consume a balanced diet and their main foods lack minerals,” Graybosch says. “This can be addressed by fortification, the process of adding minerals back to food products.”

“This is done with flours used for bread baking.”

While fortification is a process that takes place after the crops are harvested, biofortification begins even before the seeds are sowed. Fortification involves boosting the nutritional value of a food item, such as dough, through the addition of minerals such as iron as the food item is being processed. Biofortification involves naturally increasing a crop’s nutritional value by making it draw more iron from the soil in the first place.

That being said, Graybosch states that people are hesitant to eat products that contain ‘weird’ ingredients added during processing. And, if the GMO debacle has taught us anything, people are similarly put off by ‘engineered’ crops. While we may debate at length about the merits of eating organic (it’s just bragging rights), Graybosch’s team decided they’d steer well clear of the controversy and instead work to make flours naturally contain more minerals.

“Biofortification can be done via traditional plant breeding using natural genetic variation or natural mutations, or via genetic engineering,” he says.

“If one found a mutation that resulted in more grain iron, and then bred this trait into wheat that was produced and consumed, then we could say the crop has been biofortified.”

The team developed several experimental breeding lines of winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) by mixing several currently-available wheat types. A breeding line is the first step in creating a new type of an already-existing crop. Their goal was to combine two properties — a high level of protein and low phytate levels — into the grains. Phytate (phytic acid) is an antinutrient that prevents the body from absorbing certain minerals.

USDA-ARS.

USDA-ARS student interns Alison Coomer and Marco Gutierrez examine wheat plants in the greenhouse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus.
Image credits Robert Garybosch.

While biofortification can be a powerful tool, it can easily backfire. It’s not unusual to see a more nutritiously-dense crop drop in yield, which would hurt farmer’s profits and lead to an overall lower net nutrition level.

However, the team showed that they could successfully combine the two traits in a new strain of wheat without negatively impacting its yield. Such a plant, they report, would boast increased amounts of zinc, calcium, and manganese. The team was able to identify which combination of genes is required to create it. However, more work needs to be done before this biofortified wheat is ready to be planted by farmers: they still need to breed these genes into plants adapted for different wheat-growing areas, such as the Great Plains of the U.S.

All that’s left to do now is to breed these genes into plants adapted for different wheat-growing areas, such as the Great Plains of the U.S.

“It is important to note that all wheat grown in a specific area is adapted to that area,” Graybosch explains. “Great Plains wheats do well in the Great Plains, but not elsewhere. If the trait is of interest in other locations, additional breeders need to start introducing it to their own backgrounds. And they are interested in doing so.”

“I think anything that can improve food mineral nutrition at low or no cost to the consumer is of value,” he adds. “Anything we can do to improve nutrition worldwide will go a long way toward improving the lives of our fellow earthlings.”

The paper “Biofortification of Hard Red Winter Wheat by Genes Conditioning Low Phytate and High Grain Protein Concentration” has been published in the journal Crop Science.

Low-carb diets may be cutting years off your life, new study says

A lot of people looking to lose weight are trying low-carb diets such as Keto or Atkins, but in doing so they may be shaving years off their lifespan. According to a 25-year-long study, individuals whose diets were either low or high in carbohydrates had a higher risk of death than those who consumed a moderate amount of carbs. Another important finding was that switching meat for plant-based protein led to healthier outcomes, in people with low-carb diets.

Pasta is a high-carb dish. Credit: Pixabay.

For their study, researchers followed 15,428 American adults aged 45-64 years from 1987 until 2012. The participants had to self-report their diets, based on which the researchers estimated the proportion of calories they got from carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

After correlating health outcomes with diet, researchers found that, over a 25-year period, people who had a moderate carbohydrate intake (50-55% of daily calories) had an average life expectancy of 83 years — that’s four years longer than those with low carb intake (40%), who lived only 79 years on average. Participants with a high carb intake (more than 70% of daily calories) had an average life expectancy of 82 years, slightly lower than the moderate carbs intake group.

Carbohydrates include foods such as fruit, vegetables, and sugar but most often people ingest the most carbs from starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, and pasta.

The researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, then compared low-carb diets rich in animal protein and fats with those that contained lots of plant-based protein and fat. They found that the latter diet slightly reduced the risk of death.

Low-carb diets that replace carbohydrates with protein or fat are becoming increasingly popular. The new study published in The Lancet, however, suggests that people ought to be more careful and shouldn’t jump on the latest diet fad before doing proper research.

Although previous randomized trials have shown low carbohydrate diets are beneficial for short-term weight loss and improve cardiometabolic risk, this study shows that low-carb dieting may shorten lifespan if done for many years.

“We need to look really carefully at what are the healthy compounds in diets that provide protection”, says Dr. Sara Seidelmann, Clinical and Research Fellow in Cardiovascular Medicine from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA who led the research.

“Our data suggests that animal-based low carbohydrate diets, which are prevalent in North America and Europe, might be associated with shorter overall lifespan and should be discouraged. Instead, if one chooses to follow a low carbohydrate diet, then exchanging carbohydrates for more plant-based fats and proteins might actually promote healthy aging in the long term.”

In the same study, the authors also performed a meta-analysis of data from eight prospective cohorts involving 432,179 people in North American, European, and Asian countries. The analysis revealed similar trends — participants whose diet consisted of high and low in carbohydrates had shorter life expectancy than those with moderate consumption.

“These findings bring together several strands that have been controversial. Too much and too little carbohydrate can be harmful but what counts most is the type of fat, protein, and carbohydrate,” says Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and co-author of the study.

As a caveat, there are some limitations to this study. The conclusions are associations not causal relationships and the researchers had to rely on the participants to remember what they had eaten in order to determine their diets. The food questionnaire in the study may have also led some people to underestimate the calories and fat they had eaten. More research will likely follow but, in the meantime, it may be a good idea to stay away from low-carb diets.

 

Mangoes may improve your cardiovascular and gut health, new study shows

Delicious and nutritious: a mango a day is good for your body, a new study on women found.

Yum!

The study was carried out on 24 postmenstrual women, who consumed two cups (330 grams) of mango every day for two weeks, after which they resumed their normal diet, eliminating any mango consumption from their diet. Researchers found that systolic blood pressure was significantly lower two hours after mango intake, compared to the baseline value. Values for pulse pressure were also significantly lower.

“This is the first study to demonstrate positive vascular effects of mango intake in humans,” said lead researcher Robert Hackman, with the UC Davis Department of Nutrition. He presented the findings today at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting, Nutrition 2018, in Boston. “Our results build on previous animal and cell studies that point to the potential benefits of mangos to promote health.”

So how does the mango work its magic? Well, mangoes contain polyphenols, including mangiferin, quercetin, gallotannins, and gallic acid. These substances have long been suspected of having a beneficial effect on the human body, but these effects haven’t been conclusively demonstrated. While the study didn’t establish a direct causality, Hackman and colleagues suspect that these polyphenols are responsible for the improvement. For this study, researchers chose a particular type of mango rich in polyphenols (honey mango, often called Ataulfo).

Researchers also measured levels of hydrogen and methane in participants’ breath, which are an indicator for microbial fermentation in the intestinal tract. Out of the 24 women, 6 produced methane. After consuming mango, 3 of them showed a significant reduction in produced methane, which is considered a healthy improvement.

Of course, this study comes with several drawbacks. For starters, its sample size was only 24 women, which is quite small. Also, two cups of mango a day is quite a bit, and it’s unrealistic for most people. Still, results are encouraging, and seem to suggest that mango can play a significant role in a healthy diet.

This is not the first study to suggest that mango consumption can boost the body’s health. Previous studies have found that it helps fight inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and contains a wide variety of important nutrients.

Results definitely warrant longer-term studies with a broader sample size, which researchers will look to carry out in the future.

Journal Reference: Li X, Vanness MA, Holt RR, Horn WF, Keim NL, Keen CL, Hackman RM. Effects of two weeks of daily mango fruit intake on vascular function, blood pressure and gut fermentation in healthy adult women. The FASEB Journal, June 2018.

Ancient jawbones hint at ancient humans’ diet

Over 10,000 years ago, humans in Borneo feasted on dried meats and palm plants, new research suggests.

Two human jaws from the Niah Caves in Borneo were originally discovered in 1958 but only just revealed. Top jaw is 30,000 years old, bottom jaw 11,000 years old; left image is Niah Caves archaeological site where they were both found. Image credits: Darren Curnoe.

While researchers have a fairly good idea about the diet of Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, not much is known about populations in South-East Asia, since very few remains have ever been found. But the Niah Caves in Borneo might change all that: researchers have made several promising findings in the area, shedding much-needed light on the island’s inhabitants.

The cave isn’t a new discovery; in fact, it’s been studied for decades. But new technologies are enabling researchers to see these findings in a new light. In a new study, Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia, along with colleagues, have re-analyzed three human mandibles that were previously excavated from the West Mouth of the Niah Cave in 1957.

The mandibles were dated with Uranium-series techniques to 30,000, 11,000, and 10,000 years old respectively. The shape and characteristics of the jawbone can provide important clues about what its owner usually ate. For instance, the older mandible was smaller but more robust than the other two, indicating that it was subjected to a lot of strain, probably due to chewing a lot of tough foods — the most likely candidates are dried meats or palm plants, a diet that has previously been identified in the Niah Caves.

Niah Caves – Malaysian Borneo. Entrance to the Great Cave. Image via Wikipedia.

It likely wasn’t an easy life for any of these people. Living close to a rainforest was challenging, and not many resources were around. These people were likely struggling to make a living and eating raw plants and dried meats likely made up much of their diets.

“These early modern humans were seemingly adapted to a difficult life in the tropical rainforests with their very small bodies and ruggedly build jaws from chewing really tough foods,” says Curnoe. “They tell us a lot about the challenges faced by the earliest people living in island Southeast Asia.”

It’s unclear to what extent they were able to adapt to the changing environment.

Journal Reference: Curnoe D, Datan I, Zhao J-x, Leh Moi Ung C, Aubert M, Sauffi MS, et al. (2018) Rare Late Pleistocene-early Holocene human mandibles from the Niah Caves (Sarawak, Borneo). PLoS ONE 13(6): e0196633. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196633

A fiber-rich diet can protect against the flu

Researchers have found an unexpected ally for protecting the body against the flu: dietary fiber.

Want to avoid the flu? Eat more fiber, a new study suggests.

More and more research is showing just how important our diet is for preventing a number of diseases and health conditions. It’s not just about straightforward problems, like diabetes or cardiovascular diseases — sometimes the prevention effect can be rather surprising. In this case, it seems that dietary fiber can blunt excessive and harmful immune responses in the lungs, while at the same time boosting antiviral immunity by activating T cells. This whole process is mediated by changes in the composition of gut bacteria.

“The beneficial effects of dietary fiber and SCFAs on a variety of chronic inflammatory diseases, including asthma and allergies, have received substantial attention in recent years and have supported momentum toward their use in clinical studies,” says senior study author Benjamin Marsland of Monash University. “But we were concerned that these treatments might lead to a general dampening of immune responses and could increase susceptibility to infections.”

Influenza, commonly known as “the flu”, affects millions of people every year, being one of the most common viral infections in the world. Aside from being extremely unpleasant, influenza can also be dangerous — and in some cases, fatal. Finding a way to boost immunity through diet alone would be a valuable tool for public health.

Dietary fiber is essentially the indigestible portion of food derived from plants. Although we don’t digest it directly, we can still draw a number of very important benefits from them. Dietary fiber helps keep our digestive system healthy, fighting obesity and severe diseases such as bowel cancer. It generally does this by keeping your gut bacteria healthy, but in the case of influenza, it’s a bit strange: the fiber seems to selectively turn on some parts of the immune system while switching others off — both to positive effect.

“We typically find that a certain treatment turns our immune system either on or off,” Marsland says. “What surprised us was that dietary fiber was selectively turning off part of our immune system, while turning on another, completely unrelated part of our immune system.”

This study also suggests that the so-called Western diet (high in sugars and fats, low in fiber) increases susceptibility to inflammatory diseases while decreasing protection against infections, something which has already been confirmed.

However, this study has only been carried out on mice. There’s a good chance the results will carry over to humans (something which researchers will test in the near future), but it remains to be seen if this is the case. At any rate, adding more fiber to your diet is always recommended, and will almost certainly provide significant health benefits.

Journal Reference: Immunity, Trompette and Gollwitzer et al.: “Dietary Fiber Confers Protection against Flu by Shaping Ly6c- Patrolling Monocyte Hematopoiesis and CD8+ T Cell Metabolism” http://www.cell.com/immunity/fulltext/S1074-7613(18)30191-2

Vegetarian diets could help avert one-third of early deaths, Harvard researcher states

The benefits of a vegetarian diet have greatly been underestimated, American physician and nutrition researcher Walter Willett told the audience at a recent conference. Giving up meat while still maintaining eggs and dairy in your diet does wonders for your health and could prevent up to one-third of all early deaths, Willett concludes.

“We have just been doing some calculations looking at the question of how much could we reduce mortality shifting towards a healthy, more plant-based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimates are about one third of early deaths could be prevented,” he said.

“That’s not even talking about physical activity or not smoking, and that’s all deaths, not just cancer deaths. That’s probably an underestimate as well as that doesn’t take into account the fact that obesity is important and we control for obesity,” he added.

Recent research has consistently shown that vegetarian diets, while far from being a panacea, are effective at reducing weight and maintaining health. However, Willett’s study suggests that figures from previous studies gravely underestimate the benefits of such diets. For instance, the Office for National Statistics suggested that 141,000 deaths a year in Britain were preventable by renouncing meat, while the new research reports that about 200,000 lives could be saved each year in the UK if individuals removed meat from their diets.

He wasn’t the only one to praise vegetarianism at the Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference, where he presented his results. Professor David Jenkins, of the University of Toronto, who is credited with developing the glycemic index, also praised the effect that a plant-based diet has on one’s health.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”” footer=””]The glycemic index is a rating system which shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) level when that food is eaten on its own, a unit widely used in nutritional and gastronomic guides[/panel]

In a study on gorillas, Jenkins found that if gorillas are fed the equivalent of a human vegetarian diet, their cholesterol drops by 35% in only two weeks — the expected equivalent of a strong treatment with statins — a class of lipid-lowering medications. Having a simple diet change be as effective as a medical treatment is remarkable and shows just how important the vegetarian diet can be.

“That was quite dramatic,” Jenkins said “We showed that there was no real difference between what we got with the diet and what we got with a statin.” However, at least for now, the diet switch on its own is no substitute for medical treatment.

Even if you don’t entirely give up meat, reducing meat intake can have extremely beneficial results. There is substantial research which shows that reducing meat from our diets (especially red meat) can help us be healthier and live longer.

Results have not yet been peer-reviewed.

We waste a pound of food every day

Scientists have measured just how much food American families waste, and they found a surprising correlation between how healthily we eat and how much food we throw away.

Image credits: Steven Lilley / Flickr.

Wasting food

By now, it should surprise no one that we throw away a lot of food — a lot. Roughly a third of all the world’s food (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted every year. Much of that falls on distributors and retailers, but regular consumers are also a big part of the problem. Now, a new study has found that between 2007-2014, US consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food per day — that’s about a pound (422 grams) per person, every day. This corresponds to 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water being wasted. In terms of total calorie consumption, 30 percent of the average daily intake.

To sum it up, a third of what Americans eat is wasted in the households.

The data was gathered from the 2015 Healthy Eating Index and USDA’s What We Eat in America (WWEIA) database, as well as publicly available food waste data.

Researchers also found a correlation which is surprising at a first glance: healthy eaters waste more than unhealthy eaters. But, if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: healthy eaters base their diet on fruits and vegetables, which go bad fast. Unhealthy eaters tend to eat much more processed foods, which have a longer shelf life.

“Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” says co-author Meredith Niles, a University of Vermont assistant professor. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.”

Researchers also found that healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets, but require more irrigation water and pesticides, which is somewhat surprising.

“Most existing research has looked at greenhouse gas emissions or land use and its link with different diets,” says Niles, a researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. “This study is the first to consider food waste as another important component of varying diet outcomes.”

Embrace imperfect food

Healthy fruits and veggies are delicious regardless of their shape.

There are several ways to combat food waste, but one small thing that we can all do is embrace imperfect food — fruits and vegetables that have an odd shape or have a few blemishes but are still sound and perfectly edible. French and British food retailers have already implemented policies where they sell such vegetables at a lower price, and the campaigns are enjoying great success.

Another thing you can do is have a general idea of what you are going to eat over the week. Most people shop on weekends, and if you do that, it helps to have a grocery list or at least a vague plan of what you’d like to eat. Try to eat what you want, and not what’s on discount at the supermarket. Oftentimes, we’re tricked by 2 for 1 sales or similar offers and buy much more than we actually need. Essentially, we will start being more aware of what we eat (and what we throw away), it only takes common sense and a very small effort to substantially reduce our environmental impact. It’s one of those small things we can do that has a very important consequence.

“Food waste is an issue that plays out at many different levels. Looking at them holistically will become increasingly important to finding sustainable ways of meeting the needs of a growing world population,” concludes lead author Zach Conrad at the ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The study has been published in PLoS ONE.

Study analyzes the environmental impact of chocolate production — and it’s not pretty

For many people, chocolate is always in style. Especially with Easter fast approaching, chocolate is melting from the shelves just like it melts in your mouth. But while we don’t often think about it, chocolate isn’t cheap — not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of environmental impact. A recent study by researchers at The University of Manchester has looked at the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of product, and the results aren’t pretty.

The study analyzed lifecycle environmental impacts associated with chocolate products made and consumed in the UK, focusing on three products which make 90% of the market: ‘moulded chocolate’, ‘chocolate countlines’ and ‘chocolates in bag’. Yes, sadly, good old-fashioned chocolate seems to have fallen out of favor to its heavily processed competitors. But even so, chocolate is the UK’s favorite confectionary product, with the whole industry being worth over almost $6 billion.

The average British person consumes 8 kg per year, which is equivalent to around 157 Mars bars. Like most people, the Brits love their chocolate.

But here’s the thing: chocolate takes a lot of resources to produce. A kilogram of chocolate requires about 10,000 l of water to produce and emits 2.9–4.2 kg CO.Professor Adisa Azapagic, Head of Sustainable Industrial Systems at the Manchester University and study author, says:

“Most of us love chocolate, but don’t often think of what it takes to get from cocoa beans to the chocolate products we buy in the shop.

“Cocoa is cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions, mainly in West Africa and Central and South America so it has to travel some distance before it makes it into the chocolate products we produce and consume in the UK.”

Cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate (at least in good chocolate) is mainly cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions. Countries like Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Brazil are the major producers of cocoa beans. These are all quite far away from the UK, meaning that transportation also consumes a lot of resources. Packaging, and in some cases, refrigeration, are also significant.

But it’s not just the cocoa — the milk powder required to make milk chocolates is also very energy intensive, and the milk industry itself produces massive greenhouse gas emissions.

The bottom line is, chocolate takes a big toll on our planet. Researchers aren’t asking that people stop consuming it, but they’re urging people to at least be aware of this impact. Azapagic concludes:

“It is true that our love of chocolate has environmental consequences for the planet. But let’s be clear, we aren’t saying people should stop eating it.”

“The point of this study is to raise consumers’ awareness and enable more informed choices. Also, we hope this work will help the chocolates industry to target the environmental hotspots in the supply chains and make chocolate products as sustainable as possible.”

The study has been published in Food Research International.

Cutting calories delays ageing, new study shows

A new comprehensive study has shown that reducing caloric intake slows down metabolism. Researchers believe the findings indicate that a low-calorie diet could extend lifespan and prolong health in old age.

Via Pixabay/Divily

Previous studies on animals with short lifespans — such as worms, mice, and flies — have shown that reducing calorie intake might slow down metabolism and prolong life. However, demonstrating this effect on humans and other animals with long lifespans has proven quite difficult.

Researchers studied some of the people who participated in the multi-center trial CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy), sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health. Scientists observed the effects of restricting calories for 2 years on metabolism in over 200 healthy, non-fat adult participants.

“The CALERIE trial has been important in addressing the question of whether the pace of aging can be altered in humans,” says Rozalyn Anderson, who studies aging at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She leads one of two large, independent studies on calorie restriction in rhesus monkeys. “This new report provides the most robust evidence to date that everything we have learnt in other animals can be applied to ourselves.”

The latest paper, which was published on March 22nd in the journal Cell Metabolism, monitored 53 CALERIE participants recruited at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Researchers were able to track how the participants used energy with unprecedented precision thanks to state-of-the-art metabolic chambers —  small, hotel-like sealed rooms that measure oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations every 60 seconds. Researchers calculated the ratio between the two gases and then analyzed occupants’ urinary nitrogen, indicating whether the occupant is burning fat, carbohydrate or protein.

Participants, with ages between 21 and 50, were randomly separated into two groups: the 34 people in the experimental group reduced their calorie consumption by an average of 15%, while the 19 people in the control group ate as usual. Next, researchers tested the participants annually to record overall metabolism and biological markers of aging, including damage associated with oxygen free radicals released during metabolism. At the end of the trial, participants spent 24 hours in the metabolic chamber.

Researchers discovered that the people who had dieted used energy much more efficiently while sleeping than the control group. Their base metabolism had essentially slowed down. In consequence, people in the experimental group lost an average of 9 kilos individually. All other measurements showed a reduced metabolic rate and fewer signs of aging.

“The Rolls-Royce of a human longevity study would carry on for many decades to see if people do actually live longer,” says Pennington physiologist Leanne Redman, the lead author of the latest study.

Low-calorie diets have previously been shown to extend life in different species, such as the short lifespan worm Caenorhabditis elegans, and in the fly Drosophila melanogaster. Following studies also revealed that mice with restricted diets can live up to 65% longer than mice allowed to eat freely. In addition, studies on monkeys suggest longer survival and reduced signs of aging.

Redman wants to repeat the study combining moderate calorie restriction with a diet rich in antioxidants to monitor oxidative stress, or with a drug such as resveratrol, which mimics key aspects of calorie restriction.

If researchers demonstrate the causality between caloric reduction and longer lives in humans, could you stick to such a diet?

In Victorian Britain, poor rural areas had the best diet and health

It seems counterintuitive but in the 19th century, the poor were better off than the rich, health and diet wise. A new study found that these rural societies enjoyed a more traditional lifestyle where high-quality foods were obtained locally and were overall better off than their richer, urban counterparts.

The Poultry Cross, Salisbury — a painting by Louise Rayner.

We often talk about eating like “the good old days” and most of the time, that’s just us using rose-colored glasses. We tend to idealize and romanticize days long gone and forget about all the bad things. However, this study shows that at least in some instances, doing things the good old way is truly rewarding.

The study’s author, Dr. Peter Greaves, of the Leicester Cancer Research Centre, examined the impact of regional diets in Victorian Britain, comparing it to available health and mortality data. The diets of the poor consisted mostly of cheap foodstuffs such as potatoes, vegetables, whole grains, milk, and fish — which also happen to be quite healthy. Modern healthy diets also incorporate many of these elements, as Greaves explains:

“The fact that these better-fed regions of Britain also showed lower mortality rates is entirely consistent with recent studies that have shown a decreased risk of death following improvement towards a higher Mediterranean dietary standard.”

Meanwhile, the rich Victorians would have access to daily meat and dairy, and even though they had access to a larger variety of foods, they also had much more access to unhealthy foods. The study didn’t analyze this in particular, but sugar was also a big problem in Victorian times: during Victorian times, sugar consumption increased dramatically, leading to tooth decay and many associated problems. Poorer people didn’t have this problem.

“The rural diet was often better for the poor in more isolated areas because of payment in kind, notably in grain, potatoes, meat, milk or small patches of land to grow vegetables or to keep animals.”

The English breakfast is a staple of British cuisine — though not a particularly healthy one. Here, it includes scrambled eggs, sausage, black pudding, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, and half a tomato. Image credits: Theorb / Wikipedia.

Researchers paid a special interest to deaths from pulmonary tuberculosis, which is typically associated with worse nutrition. All in all, not only did these rural communities have a lower mortality rate, but they also had fewer deaths from pulmonary diseases, indicating that they were significantly better fed.

The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign, from 20 June 1837, until 1901. Thanks to the absolute supremacy of the Britannic Navy, it was a period of peace between the world’s great powers (Pax Britannica). It was also a period of economic, colonial, and industrial expansion, and the latter part of the Victorian era was characterized by massive urbanization in Britain. This urbanization brought massive social changes, and the health superiority of the rural areas was short-lived. Living in urban areas simply brought too many advantages — such as better health services, better living standards, and access to imported food — for a simple diet to overcome.

The rural societies were doomed to fall behind sooner or later.

“Unfortunately, these societies were in the process of disappearing under the pressure of urbanisation, commercial farming and migration. Such changes in Victorian society were forerunners of the dietary delocalisation that has occurred across the world, which has often led to a deterioration of diversity of locall produced food and reduced the quality of diet for poor rural populations.”

Dr. Greaves added:

“Conversely, in much of rapidly urbanising Britain in the mid-19th century, improvements in living conditions, better transport links and access to a greater variety of imported foods eventually led to improved life expectancy for many of the urban poor.”

It’s not the first study to praise the diets of Victorian-age people. In 2002, in the same journal, Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham published a series of three papers (here, here, and here) where they analyzed Victorian diets in great detail. Their papers showed the urban mid-Victorians, including the working classes, ate a notably good diet, including significant amounts of vegetables and fruit, which enabled a life expectancy matching that of today. So if the urban Victorians ate pretty good diets, and the rural ones ate even better, perhaps we ought to look back and learn a thing or two from them.

The study was published in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open

Strong link found between ultra-processed foods and cancer

Ultra-processed foods, such as pre-made cakes, fizzy drinks, or nuggets, may be associated with a higher risk of cancer, a new study concludes.

 

Unhealthy processed snacks. Image credits: National Cancer Institute.

Generally speaking, processed foods tend to be bad for you. They’re often sweeter, richer in calories, and lower in healthy nutrients than their counterparts. There’s no strict definition for ultra-processed foods, though they typically involve a large number of additives (such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, flavors and processing aids), but little or no whole foods. A new study has found another reason to avoid these processed foods: they might be linked to cancer.

French researchers at the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité analyzed the diets of around 105,000 people for an average of five years. Participants were split into four equal groups, depending on how much processed foods they had in their diet.

Researchers found a correlation between ultra-processed foods and cancer — the more processed foods people ate, the higher the cancer risk, for all groups. When the proportion of ultra-processed foods increased by 10%, the risk of overall cancer increased by 12%, with the risk of breast cancer alone increasing by 11%. This is particularly worrying since previous studies have found that people are eating more and more processed foods. Americans get 61% of their calories from highly processed foods. Within this study, 18% of the people’s diet was ultra-processed.

Researchers note that the findings need to be replicated in different populations, but they also raise a red flag — if we start eating more and more processed foods, the burden of cancer will likely increase accordingly.

“If confirmed in other populations and settings, these results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.”

Overall cancer risk according to quarters of proportion of ultra-processed food in diet. Image credits: Fiolet et al / BMJ.

However, not everyone is convinced by this study. It’s not that anyone’s saying that processed foods are good for you, but there are still a few points of debate. For instance, it’s not exactly clear what an ultra-processed food really is. In this study, researchers defined them as “mass produced packaged breads and buns; sweet or savosamry packaged snacks; industrialised confectionery and desserts; sodas and sweetened drinks; meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets, and other reconstituted meat products.” They also included instant noodles and frozen ready meals in the list. But Tom Sanders, head of the diabetes and nutritional sciences division at King’s College London, says that including “mass-produced” in the definition of ultra-processed foods seems arbitrary and unnecessary.

While on average, mass-produced foods tend to be less healthy, there’s no underlying reason why this is always the case. Conversely, there’s no reason why a small production batch is necessarily healthier. Taking a simple example, let’s say you have two breads — one that was mass produced and sold in the millions, and another that is produced by a local, artisanal bakery. Chemically and nutritionally, they could be the same bread but by the study’s definition, one might be ultra processed and the other might not.

Furthermore, the more pressing issue is that of causality. Essentially, this study has found a correlation, but there’s nothing to suggest that the processed foods themselves are causing the cancer. Even if they are, we don’t really know if they’re causing it directly.

Processed foods are known to affect your body in a number of ways, and that can have cascading effects. For instance, they make you fatter, and being fatter makes you more likely to suffer from cancer. Is there a separate mechanism through which they’re linked to cancer, or is it just because of the extra pounds? That remains to be answered.

Prof Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said:

“It’s already known that eating a lot of these foods can lead to weight gain, and being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of cancer, so it’s hard to disentangle the effects of diet and weight.”

However, there’s still a clear takeaway. There’s another study in an already impressive pile that says you should be careful not to eat too much processed food.

Journal Reference: Thibault Fiolet et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohorthttps://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k322

Meat substitutes in Europe have grown by 451% in the past four years

Europeans are reportedly enjoying legumes more and more, and are increasingly looking for alternatives to meat.

A display of legumes. Image credits: CSIRO. The most common legumes include alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils, lupin bean, mesquite, carob, soybeans, peanuts and tamarind.

A new report carried out by researchers working in the TRansition paths to sUstainable legume based systems in Europe (TRUE) found that products containing grain legumes such as beans, lentils or soybeans have registered an increase of 39 % in Europe. The growth wasn’t uniform across the continent, with Western Europe contributing to most of the growth.

“The most active region was the United Kingdom, with a share of 19 % of total new legume-inclusive product launches in Europe, followed by France (14 %) and Germany (13 %),” João Ferreira, a student at Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP), explained.

Products that worked as meat alternatives were by far the most popular sector, boasting a growth of 451%. Researchers also reported an increase of 196% for vegan products and of 73 % for gluten-free products.

You probably wouldn’t be able to tell that this burger is actually vegetarian. Image credits: Ewan Munro.

“The product subcategories with the highest increment were Meat Substitutes, with an amazing growth rate of 451%, Pasta, with an increase of 295%, and Bean-based Snacks, growing by 128 %,” says Carla Teixeira, lead author of the report.

It’s not just the quantity of products that hit the market, but also the diversity — researchers quantified that exactly 27,058 new legume products were placed on the markets worldwide. Ethical consumerism is becoming a growing concern for many consumers who want to improve their health while also reducing their environmental impact. As a result, the market is adapting, offering more (and presumably, tastier) alternatives to meat.

Consumer preference also shifted: although green beans were still the legume most often processed as of mid-2017, their overall share decreased by 23% compared to 2013. Meanwhile, chickpeas increased by 47% and lentils by 8%.

These are encouraging trends. Legumes are more filling than meat, better for your waist and the planet. Consuming legumes is associated with a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease, while being cheaper and requiring far less energy and water than meat. Even without giving up meat, adding more legumes to your diet is one of the healthiest thing you can do.

Image credits: European Environmental Agency. Data only covers until 2013.

In Europe, the consumption of animal products has slowly declined. Beef and pig consumption has also shifted to poultry, which is also a slight improvement, considering the significantly lower environmental and health toll associated with poultry.

Eating leafy greens every day helps your memory, fights cognitive decline

Want to keep your brain sharp? Eat a lot of greens, researchers suggest.

Leafy greens seem to do wonders for your body and brain. Image via USDA. Photo by Lance Cheung.

As if veggies didn’t have enough benefits to boast, they also prevent the decline of cognitive abilities.

Study author Martha Clare Morris, a professor of nutrition science at Rush Medical College in Chicago and her colleagues, recruited 960 participants of the Memory and Aging Project, aged 58-99 years (average age 81),  not suffering from any type of dementia.

They completed a food frequency questionnaire and based on the results, they were split into five groups.

“My goal every day is to have a big salad,” says Candace Bishop, one of the study participants who ranked highly on the veggie eating scale. “I get those bags of dark, leafy salad mixes.”

The top 20% reported eating an average of 1.3 servings of leafy greens a day, while the bottom fifth ate little or no greens at all. Researchers then proceeded to follow these people for a period of five years, monitoring any potential cognitive decline.

They found that the more greens people ate, the better they were able to maintain their cognitive functions and stay sharp. The correlation carried out for all groups.

Of course, this study established only a correlation, and no causation has been determined. In other words, it might not be the greens themselves that help the brain, but some other, unforeseen element. Researchers adjusted for other factors that might play a role, such as lifestyle, education, and overall health, but there may yet be an unforeseen factor causing the effect. Still, this is consistent with what previous studies reported.

For instance, a 2017 study found that lutein, a carotenoid commonly found in leafy greens and vegetables protects the brain against decay and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Another study that exclusively included women published in 2006 also reports similar conclusions, and a previous effort from the same team suggested that vitamin K plays a key role.

“Our study identified some very novel associations,” said Morris in 2015, before the work was peer-reviewed. “No other studies have looked at vitamin K in relation to change in cognitive abilities over time, and only a limited number of studies have found some association with lutein.” Other studies have linked folate and beta-carotene intake with slower cognitive decline.

Vitamin E and K, lutein, beta-carotene, and folate have all been proposed as the underlying reason for these benefits. However, it may be not one, but rather the whole cocktail of nutrients that does the magic. Morris says more work is needed to establish this.

While the exact mechanism remains an area of active research, it’s becoming increasingly clear that veggies and leafy greens are good for you in a variety of ways.

The study, Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study, was published in  doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815

Win-Win: Eat healthy for yourself but also for the environment

It should come as no surprise to anyone that what we consume has an impact on the environment. But you don’t have to turn vegan or eat only gluten-free products to help the environment. According to a recent study, if people followed the dietary recommendations put forward by their local governments, the strain on the Earth would be considerably lessened.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

If every citizen living in any of the 28 high-income countries included in the study, such as the U.S., Japan, or Germany, followed local dietary recommendations, there would be a 13 to 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions related to food production. What’s more, the amount of land required to grow food would decrease by as much as 17 percent.

To grow food for more than seven billion people, we release 20 to 30 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. A staggering one-third of all ice-free land on Earth is currently being used to grow food.

Win-Win

The Dutch team at Leiden University, led by Paul Behrens, employed the Exiobase database, which compiles information like greenhouse gas emissions, land demand, and fertilizer pollution caused by the production of each type of food across the world. This extensive database also takes into account the cost of the machinery involved in food production, as well as the cost of shipping food all the way from the farmers to a supermarket near you. It was then only a matter of calculating the impact people have on the environment with what they’re currently eating versus the impact they would have, were they to follow the recommended diet.

The analysis takes into account that some foods, depending on where they’re grown, can require more or fewer resources. English tomatoes require more energy than in Spain where it is warmer, for instance.

“It’s superb that we have this information,” Behrens said. “You can trace the impact of any consumption across the world.”

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Summary 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” footer=”2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, health.gov.”]

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern throughout your life. All food and beverage choices matter. Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium (salt) intake. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.
  4.  Consider cultural and personal preferences when shifting to healthier food and beverages to make the transition easier to accomplish and maintain.
  5. Support other people’s healthy eating patterns. Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work to whole communities.

[/panel]

Behrens and colleagues computed the energy and resources required for the diets of people living in 39 countries, as well as for the dietary recommendations put out by governments in those countries.

When the diets were calculated, the researchers were careful to keep the calorie counts of both diets the same, only altering the percentage of different food groups that people actually eat. Ultimately, Behrens found that people living in the world’s 28 wealthiest countries could significantly lower their environmental impact if they chose to follow their government’s dietary recommendations.

“In general, meat is worse than other types of food because every time something eats something else, you get a loss of energy,” Behrens said. “Eating any animal is going to have more of an impact compared to other food groups.”

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Key Dietary Recommendations from US Gov.” footer=”2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, health.gov.”]

Maintain a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.

A healthy eating pattern includes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups — dark green, red, and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium

Key Recommendations that are quantitative are provided for several components of the diet that should be limited. These components are of particular public health concern in the United States, and the specified limits can help individuals achieve healthy eating patterns within calorie limits:

  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
  • Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium
  • If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation — up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men — and only by adults of legal drinking age.

In tandem with the recommendations above, Americans of all ages — children, adolescents, adults, and older adults — should meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans to help promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Americans should aim to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. The relationship between diet and physical activity contributes to calorie balance and body weight management. As such, the Dietary Guidelines includes a Key Recommendation to

  • Meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.[/panel]

When you think about it, eating healthily is a win-win situation because not don’t only keep yourself healthy — but also the environment. However, rarely, if ever, is this point raised during awareness campaigns.

“Dietary recommendations can be a great way to talk about human health and the health of the environment,” Behrens said. “The main point is you can win both ways.”

If you’re interested, use this link for the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Scientific reference: Paul Behrens et al. Evaluating the environmental impacts of dietary recommendations, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1711889114

Mammoth Chunks.

Modern humans might’ve killed off the Neanderthals by eating all the mammoth

The diets of early modern humans weren’t as diverse as previously believed, researchers from the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum. In fact, they shared much of the menu with earlier Neanderthal populations — and competition for food might be what eventually drove these earlier human species extinct.

Mammoth Chunks.

Image via Todayilearned.

The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are believed to have reached Europe some 43,000 years ago. They weren’t the first ones here, however. So they spent some 3,000 years or so steadily displacing and/or dating the local Neanderthals into extinction.

A big part of why they were able to do so is believed to come down to chow: modern humans, the theory goes, had much more varied diets. They’d eat stuff like fish and other seafood, for example, while the locals didn’t. Over time, this wider range of food gave them greater food security, more resilience to changes in flora and fauna, and greater access to nutrients and energy — so they could outbreed the Neanderthals, populate areas these couldn’t find enough food in, and gradually displaced them by relying on their greater adaptability.

“Many studies examine the question of what led to this displacement — one hypothesis postulates that the diet of the anatomically modern humans was more diverse and flexible and often included fish,” says paper co-author Prof. Dr. Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen.

But that may not have been the case, an international team led by researchers from the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, reports. Their work suggests that modern humans’ diets weren’t more flexible than that of Neanderthals. Just like them, early Homo sapiens diets revolved around mammoth meat and plants, the team finding no evidence for fish consumption. If the two human species’ diets overlapped as much as the research suggests, it’s likely we didn’t out-adapt Neanderthals — we simply out-ate them into extinction.

The Chowdown

To see if this theory holds water, the team studied the oldest known modern man fossils, recovered from the Buran Kaya caves on the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine. They were looking for chemical fingerprints left over from the stuff these populations ate, trying to piece together what early sapiens populations would have on the menu.

Buran Kaya.

Image credits Dorothée G. Drucker et al., 2017.

“In the course of this study, we examined the finds of early humans in the context of the local fauna,” explains Dr. Dorothée Drucker, co-author and biogeologist from Tübingen University. “Until now, all analyses of the diet of early modern humans were based on isolated discoveries; therefore, they are very difficult to interpret.”

To reconstruct the ancient dinner tables, the team measured the percentages of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes (same chemical element but with extra neutrons, making them heavier and distinguishable) in the bones of ancient humans and animals they might’ve hunted — such as antelopes (Saiga tatarica), red deer (Cervus elaphus), horse (Equus sp), hare (Lepus sp), and mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). Furthermore, as “all the selected specimens provided well-preserved collagen” the team looked at the nitrogen-15 content in this amino acid to allow them to trace the origin and proportion of nitrogen isotopes in the food.

The team reports that early modern humans incorporated a lot of plants in their diets, and they represented a significantly higher percentage of their overall food intake compared to Neanderthals. On the other hand, mammoths seem to have been the mainstay source of meat for both species, putting them in direct competition for food.

“Our results reveal a very high proportion of the nitrogen isotope 15N in early modern humans,” Bocherens adds. “However, contrary to our previous assumptions, these do not originate from the consumption of fish products, but primarily from mammoths.”

“Fish remains are missing in the site despite systematic sieving of the sediment during the excavations,” the paper notes.

In the end, this competition might have ended well for the Neanderthals. But it did for us so yay to that!

The paper “Isotopic analyses suggest mammoth and plant in the diet of the oldest anatomically modern humans from far southeast Europe” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Not all plant-based diets are the same when it comes to heart health

Plant based diets are often recommended to reduce the risk of health disease, but things might not be so straightforward, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

Just so we get this out of the way: a plant based diet doesn’t mean you’re a vegetarian. The use of the phrase has changed over time and may still vary depending on context — people might associate it with vegetarianism or even veganism, but in this context, it does what it says on the label: it’s a diet mostly based on plants, featuring low intake of animal products.

“We specifically studied diets that were higher in intake of plant foods, and lower in intake of animal foods. The diets we studied were not vegan or vegetarian diets in which some or all animal foods are completely excluded. Hence, this study cannot address the question of coronary heart disease risk associated with not eating meat or other animal foods at all,” lead author Ambika Satija, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston clarified for ZME Science.

In this sense, over 4 billion people live primarily on a plant-based diet, and that’s actually very good news for the environment, as eating meat is dramatically unsustainable, but that’s a story for a different time. Satija and her colleagues found that shifting to a plant based diet does reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases — but only if you eat the right things.

People who ate vegetables, beans, and whole grains did, in fact, enjoy a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease. But people who were on a less healthy — but still plant based — diet didn’t fare better. Actually, diets heavy in pasta, bread, potatoes, and sweets were just as bad or worse than their counterparts with more animal products. In other words, not all plant-based diets are the same.

In total, she analyzed 166,000 women and 43,259 men, based on three studies that began in the 1980s and 1990s. The participants responded to a follow-up questionnaire every two years for over two decades on lifestyle, health behaviors, and medical history. Participants with underlying conditions were excluded from the study.

Overall, plant based diets did reduce the coronary risk disease. However, previous studies just draw the final line, failing to consider the differences between different types of plant diets.

Ambika Satija showed that it’s not all about eating plants — it matters a lot what plants you eat. Image credits: Harvard T Chan.

“When we examined the associations of the three food categories with heart disease risk, we found that healthy plant foods were associated with lower risk, whereas less healthy plant foods and animal foods were associated with higher risk,” said Satija. “It’s apparent that there is a wide variation in the nutritional quality of plant foods, making it crucial to take into consideration the quality of foods in a plant-based diet.”

Satija also added that instead of thinking in terms such as “vegetarian” or “plant based,” it’s important to consider the quality of the food. Eating plants doesn’t necessarily make you healthier, but eating the right one certainly does.

“It is important to think in terms of the quality of plant foods consumed in the diet (whether we call the diet “plant-based” or “vegetarian”), with a focus on higher quality plant foods, such as whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, etc.”

Journal Reference: Ambika Satija, Shilpa N. Bhupathiraju, Donna Spiegelman, Stephanie E. Chiuve, JoAnn E. Manson, Walter Willett, Kathryn M. Rexrode, Eric B. Rimm, Frank B. Hu — Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. AdultsDOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047

Diet soda might actually make you fatter, new study suggests

If you thought no-sugar drinks are OK for you… think again.

Both sugar and sugarless drinks have been proven to be bad for you (Pixabay).

Worldwide, the industry of sugary drinks has reached an impressive scale. Coca Cola alone claims to sell 1.9 billion servings every single day. The world seems to run on soda… but the world is also paying a price. There’s plenty of health concerns regarding soft drinks, most of them concerning the amount of sugar found in such drinks. But producers — crafty people — found a solution: sugarless drinks. It was perfect! People gobbled it up, sales went up, and the world seemed to love these sugarless alternatives. But not all was good.

These drinks also needed to be sweet, and so artificial sweeteners came to be. Nonnutritive sweeteners such as Aspartame, Cyclamates, or Stevia, contain very little or no calories because they are not completely absorbed by your digestive system. Your body just takes them in and then spews them out. However, we don’t really know how good or bad these artificial sweeteners are for you.

“Nonnutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and stevioside, are widely consumed, yet their long-term health impact is uncertain,” the study reads. “We synthesized evidence from prospective studies to determine whether routine consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners was associated with long-term adverse cardiometabolic effects.”

In fact, several studies showed that these artificial sweeteners really aren’t good for you — but the main appeal remained. No sugar equals fewer calories, and therefore you don’t get weight. Fewer calories, fewer pounds. Seems pretty straightforward, except it might not be true.

An international team led by Meghan Azad, a researcher at the University of Manitoba, reviewed dozens of studies about these sweeteners, looking for underlying trends. They found that not only were people who drank a lot of such drinks at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease but also had a higher body mass index.

“Evidence from randomized controlled trials does not clearly support the intended benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners for weight management, and observational data suggest that routine intake of nonnutritive sweeteners may be associated with increased BMI and cardiometabolic risk,” researchers noted in the study.

Of course, this is just a correlation at this point and no cause-effect mechanism has been established. It could be that there is an external factor causing both things, or the causality might actually run the other way: it might be that people who are getting fatter tend to drink more. But for now, if you’re into such products, you should definitely keep an eye on your consumption.

This isn’t the first time scientists have revealed the negative impact of artificial sweeteners. A study in the April 20, 2017, issue of Stroke examined how soft drink choices might affect the brain. It found that people who reported drinking at least one artificially sweetened soda a day compared with less than one a week were approximately twice as likely to have a stroke. Another 2012 study detected a slightly higher risk of stroke in people who drank more than one soda per day, regardless of whether it contained sugar or not. The bottom line is, soda is pretty bad for you — whether or not it contains sugar.

Journal Reference: Meghan B. Azad et al — Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.161390

The story about the “breatharian” couple not eating any food, living from the “universe energy” is bogus — and people bought it

In recent days, a story about a couple not eating any sort of food for nine years has gone pretty viral. For some reason, people bought it, and now we have to explain why it’s absolutely absurd and “breatharianism” is utter garbage. Let’s take it from the top.

I don’t need food bro, the universe feeds me

via GIPHY

Seriously, that’s the core idea of a new-age belief (which in this case, as in most others, translates into dangerous pseudoscience) called breatharianism. Breatharians believe that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival and that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the vital life force in Hinduism. The sun is the main source of prana, so basically — you just live off of solar energy.

However, since last time I checked humans are not plants and they don’t do photosynthesis, that just doesn’t make any sense. Evey single animal needs to eat food and drink water. Sure, some eat more and some eat less, but sooner or later, everyone needs to eat. That’s just a hard reality and has nothing to do with spirituality.

Take the case of a famous breatharian, Israeli Ray Maor. He was challenged to live in a small villa without any food and under constant surveillance. After eight days, he was still in good spirits (which I’ll grant, is impressive), but he lost 17 lbs (7.7 kg) of weight! That makes a lot of sense since it’s generally believed that the longest people can go without food is three weeks, but your body will be extremely taxed.

Another notable example is that of Australia’s Jasmuheen (born Ellen Greve), who claims to live only on a cup of tea and a biscuit every few days. She took a supervised test in 1999, and after four days without any food or water, she was extremely dehydrated and required medical intervention. She claimed this happened because she was near a road and had to “breathe bad air.” She used the same excuse when the experiment was carried out in the middle of nowhere. That also makes sense, since the most you can live without water is around one week.

So then why are people believing that this couple made it without any food for nine years?

The story

It all started with a British tabloid called The Sun, which in typical tabloid fashion — high on capitalization and low on fact checking — published the story about two people: Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello, husband and wife, who just don’t eat. Here’s an excerpt from that piece of journalistic gem.

A “BREATHARIAN” mum-and-dad of two have barely eaten for nine years as they live off “the universe’s energy”.

Husband and wife Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello believe food and water is not necessary and that humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe.

Camila and Akahi — who have a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter together — have survived on little else besides a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just 3 times per week since 2008.

And Camila even practised a Breatharian PREGNANCY — not eating anything during the entire nine months that she carried her first child.

Now, if I was being kind, I’d say that the Sun is not the most respectable publication. If I was being nasty, I’d say they’re a bunch of manky nut muppets who don’t have the slightest respect for facts and for their audience. You can draw your line wherever you want, but this is not just The Sun doing their usual pseudojournalism thing — the story was soon picked up by an impressive number of outlets, including Yahoo, The Sun, The New York Post, The Independent, The Daily Mail, and Metro. This is the real story — that so many outlets covered this story, and so many people actually believed it. The Independent’s story was shared approximately 37,000 times. The Daily Mail’s was shared about 24,000 times.

As it turns out, the couple made up the story themselves and sold it to a content creation company called News Dog Media, who after “two long Skype interviews,” purchased their story and re-sold it to outlets such as The Sun or Daily Mail. But why would the couple do it?

Image via Wikipedia.

Well, it’s win-win for them. Not only do they sell their story for a lot of money, but they also get to promote their business.

“In their eight-day programs and four-week online video courses, which cost from around $200 for a video course to more than $1,700 for an eight-day session in San Francisco, the couple claims they teach people to “increment the energy” they receive through conscious breathing techniques and other exercises,” the NY post reads. That’s quite a lot of money for literally nothing.

A post-truth world

Image credits: planeta / Flickr.

This is another example of the so-called post-truth world. Truth doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Nothing really matters, as long as it’s framed in a story that people can believe. The couple later clarified their situation, saying that they do eat, just “not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” and mostly fruits and vegetable broth. But the ship had long sailed, and the story, in its various forms, was already shared and read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

In the real world, breatharianism is nothing but dangerous quackery, which can lead to or exacerbate eating disorders. You need appropriate food for your body to function properly, and if you’re looking for some form of spiritual enlightenment, this is definitely not the way. This is why this story is not only absurd and insulting, but it’s also dangerous.

“You need protein to build muscle and you need fat to support your nervous system and for heart health, and you need carbohydrates to keep your energy up and to feed your brain,” said Liz Sanders, a registered dietician nutritionist and the director of research and partnerships at the nonprofit International Food Information Council. The occasional apple or veggie broth just won’t cut it, she says.