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YOU CAN’T MAKE A NUTRITIONAL SILK PURSE OUT OF A SOW’S EAR

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QUESTION - I'm puzzled by the general condemnation of so-called "junk food." If I eat three good meals a day, what is wrong with eating junk foods in between?

ANSWER - To give you a complete answer, we'd have to know precisely how you define both "three good meals a day" and "junk food." As to meals, do you simply mean that you are getting a full supply of essential nutrients, or do you go beyond that somewhat narrow definition and follow current recommendations for promoting health?In other words, are your meals low in fat, especially saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar? Do they provide generous amounts of complex carbohydrates and fiber from a variety of sources? And finally, are you at a desirable weight? We hope the answer to all these is yes.

Now let's turn to "junk food," a widely used term for which there is no consistent definition. Yes, it's true that once you've met the Recommended Dietary Allowances for all essential nutrients there is no evidence that getting more either from food or supplements is of any value. Thus, it would be difficult to argue against empty calories on those grounds.

Still, inappropriate choices of snacks can turn a prudent diet into something less. In many of the items you probably consider junk foods, a high percentage of the calories are likely to come from fat. Many are also quite salty. And adding handfuls of nutrients to foods whose primary ingredients are fat and sugar does not magically transform them into wise choices, well within a prudent diet.

In other words, you can't make a nutritional silk purse out of a sow's ear. It is those foods in particular which we feel should not be consumed as snacks on a regular basis.

QUESTION - What causes gallbladder attacks? What is the current thinking about dietary treatment?

ANSWER - The function of the gallbladder is to concentrate bile, produced in the liver, and store it until it's needed for digestion. As dietary fats move into the small intestine, their arrival stimulates the production of a hormone called cholecystokinin. This hormone is carried back to the gallbladder, causing it to contract and release the bile. The bile travels to the small intestine, where it emulsifies the fat.

Cholesterol, bile salts, pigments and other substances can precipitate out of bile to form gallstones, but why they do remains unclear. The presence of gallstones does not, by itself, cause symptoms or an "attack." That usually results from the combination of an infection on top of a gallbladder partly or completely blocked by gallstones.

In some cases, when that happens, the individual cannot tolerate foods or liquids, and must be fed intravenously. Once the acute phase has subsided, however, and surgery is ruled out, most people can resume a reasonably normal diet.

Dietary advice is fairly general, focusing on helping the individual avoid symptoms. The rather rigid low-fat diet once prescribed routinely is not always necessary. Some people are intolerant of fats or certain specific other foods, and clearly do well to avoid them. Foods that commonly cause symptoms include some of the strongly flavored vegetables, legumes, melons and berries. Of course, those who are overweight should try to reduce.

QUESTION - I have read conflicting information about whether excess sugar consumption is associated with heart disease. Is it?

ANSWER - That question has been examined from different perspectives, and no relationship has emerged. One approach is to compare sugar consumption data and coronary death rates among countries. Where that has been done, nolink has been found. Another is to compare sugar consumption among individuals who have heart disease with those who are healthy. Again, these studies have failed to show a relationship.

So while sugar has little to recommend it nutritionally, and is clearly linked to tooth decay, it does not appear to affect the development of heart disease.

QUESTION - Please give me an update on regulations regarding the use of sulfites in food.

ANSWER - The practice of adding sulfites to raw produce, except potatoes, was prohibited in 1986 to protect sulfite-sensitive individuals at risk of life-threatening responses to the additive. It could continue to be used in a number of processed foods. But as of January 1987, manufacturers had to declare it on the label of packaged items that contained at least 10 parts per million, the smallest amount that could be detected at the time the ruling was made.

This means that the list of ingredients for a wide range of products, including dried fruit and juices, canned and dehydrated vegetables, gelatin, dry-soup mixes, baked goods, teas, processed seafoods, condiments and relishes, and jams and jellies, all may contain sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium bisulfite, or potassium metabisulfite.

Further, a regulation effective January, 1988, requires that all the labels on beer and wines be labeled "contains sulfites." However, since this regulation is quite recent, beer cans that have been around a couple of years might not have that information, even if sulfites were used in preparing it. As for wine, labeling or no, sulfites are used in several steps on the route from vine to bottle.

It is estimated that there are no more than 100,000 sulfite-sensitive individuals in this country. Nonetheless, if you are among them, you should keep in mind the several situations where sulfites are not clearly identified. Dried fruit, purchased in bulk, and fresh shrimp may contain sulfites. So, too, may foods made with pre-cut and processed potato products.

Unless potato dishes are known to have been made from raw, fresh potatoes, the safest course for the sulfite-sensitive is to avoid them.

QUESTION - I have occasionally seen something called annato extract on ingredients lists. Can you tell me what it is?

ANSWER - Annato extract is a natural food coloring derived from the brick-red seeds of the annato tree, native to tropical America. The extract contains a compound, bixin. It is from the same family of compounds, the carotenoids, that are responsible for the yellow and orange hue of many fruits and vegetables and which the body converts to vitamin A.

Annato extract has been used as a coloring for centuries. The Spanish found the Mexicans reddening their chocolate beverages with it during the 16th century. And annato extract has been used to color hard cheeses for over 200 years. It is sometimes added to cream to deepen the yellow hue of butter, to color margarine, and to lend a yellow tint to frozen desserts.

-1989, Washington Post Writers Group