Wednesday, January 31, 2007

McDonald's Cuts Trans-Fat

First this month it was Starbuck's (reported NPR), then Crisco (see my post here), now McDonald's is dropping trans-fat, reports the Chicago Sun-Times.

Competitors like KFC, Taco Bell and Wendy's already began phasing out trans-fat, which boosts bad cholesterol.

Whereas it took Starbucks two years to put together a plan for cutting trans-fat, reported NPR, McDonald's took four years. What does Starbuck's have to worry about anyway? Well, one of their cranberry-orange scones has 7g of trans-fat, about as much as a large order of McDonald's fries.

But damn, they taste good. And that's part of the reason it took McDonald's so long to figure out a phase-out plan for the ferocious fat. Let's face it, McDonald's fries are perhaps McDonald's most popular menu item. Can you blame the $22 billion dollar, 13,700 restaurant-strong company for making sure it got the new fry oil formula right? According to the Sun-Times report, McDonald's tested 18 varieties and 50 different blends of oils.

The end result? We'll have to wait and see. And though McDonald's shares closed up 30 cents on the news, it should be noted that McDonald's move from trans-fat hurt sales in Denmark. In a
podcast interview with BusinessWeek reporter Michael Arndt, who wrote this week's cover story on McDonald's, I learned that sales of McDonald's fries dropped after it switched from trans-fat, and never recovered.

But I wouldn't worry about the fast food giant. Read the BusinessWeek story, McDonald's is on the rebound after years of sagging sales.

Some interesting McDonald's facts from the BusinessWeek podcast:
  • 25 million Americans visit McDonald's every day
  • Over the course of a year, almost every American visits a McDonald's every year
  • McDonald's owns half of the hamburger market (three-times Burger King or Wendy's)
  • More chicken is sold by McDonald's than KFC
  • The double cheeseburger is the best selling menu item

Healthlines: January 31, 2007

"She used to rub it on his chest and body every night" because lavender, in alternative medicine circles, is supposed to have healing properties.."
Scented oils linked to breast growth in boys (Reuters)

I've heard of alcoholics drinking hair spray -- and of course, mouthwash -- to get drunk, but hand sanitizer? Believe me, it's stupider than it sounds…
U.S. doctors warn of poisoning from hand gels (CNN)

More bad news for people living close to busy freeways… especially women…
and once again, I realize this seems obvious, but if you tell people this kind of thing without pointing to a specific study, they call you a paranoid maniac, or a liar, or whatever…
Air Pollution Linked to Heart Deaths (WebMD)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An Important Difference: Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fats

Okay, since I’m sure most of you didn't read the Michael Pollan article I referenced yesterday (and I don't blame you… it's huge), I thought I'd dig in on one of the many issues he brought up: the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

You already knew omega-3s were good for you (though I bet you don't know why), but did you know there were omega-6s? If so, do you know if they're good or bad for you? Well, like most things too much omega-6 is bad. How bad? According to Pollan, "too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3."

Here's why…

First of all, both omega-3s and omega-6s come from plants. (Yes, while we usually think of omega-3s as fish-based --and fish are a great source of omega-3 -- fish get the stuff from algae.) However, omega-3s (which are found in plant leaves) and 6s (found in plant seeds) play very different roles in plants. One promotes the fluidity of cell membranes, for example, the other makes cell walls rigid.

More generally…

Omega-3s, says Pollan, "appear to play an important role in neurological development and processing, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose and the calming of inflammation… think of omega-3s as fleet and flexible."

"Omega-6s," on the other hand, "are involved in fat storage, the rigidity of cell walls, clotting and the inflammation response." In other words, think of omega-6s as "sturdy and slow."

The bad news is that America's intake of omega-3s has declined as the calories we get from plants have shifted from leaves to seeds (grains) over the years. This change has occurred because grains "can be stored for long periods" and "function as commodities," notes Pollan. Also, modern food processing practice favors omega-6s, which are more stable (last longer on the shelves before spoiling).

Healthlines: January 30, 2007

Not much of a gambler myself, but my grandfather is. A new study suggests this may have to do with how he and I process negative information…
Older people take bad news in their stride: study (Reuters)

Uh-oh, another study showing reducing calories is just as effective as exercise in taking off pounds… and what kind of message does this send to the lazy masses? More bad news: "Research adds to evidence that adding muscle mass does not boost metabolism"…
Diet, exercise take off equal pounds, study finds (CNN)

I've heard from women that the (birth control) pill can cause acne to flare out of control, reduce sex drive and put on pounds. The NY Times looked at the latter, and "the claim" doesn't seem to have any scientific basis…
The Claim: The Pill Can Make You Put On Weight (NY Times)

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Bundle of Confusion for Decades of Health Obsession

As more and more information about food, the nutrients in food and the way food is prepared come out each day in newspapers, the nightly news and blogs like this, it's no wonder that Americans are increasingly more confused about what they should be eating. And that's the subject of a lengthy, but very rewarding piece at the New York Times by Michael Pollan (author of "The Omnivore's Dilema").

In nine words, here's Pollan's simple eating guide: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

And those are just the first nine words in the piece. After that, it goes off into about 12 pages that I would bet less than 5 percent of the people that start this piece actually finish. And that's too bad because a lot of the most interesting stuff comes near the end. For example, this…

"No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health."

Where have nutritionists gone wrong? One big misstep is their study of single nutrients in food. "People don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain," explains Pollan.

Furthermore, "As soon as you remove these useful molecules [nutrients] from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers."

Another problem: many nutrition studies are based on questionnaires that participants fill out themselves. The problem? People don't always tell the truth.

Consider this: America produces 3,900 food calories per person each day. However, Americans only admit to eating an average of 2,000. What's happening to the rest? "Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it," noted Pollan. Once again, the rest? People are either A) unaware of how much they're actually eating or they're B) lying.

Are scientists the only ones to blame for our confusion about what to eat? Of course not. There are many culprits:
"The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's the Deal with Water Ionizers?

You've probably seen the ads for water ionizers; or maybe someone you know actually owns one, and they've given you an earful on why they spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to buy the thing. But do they actually do anything? That's the question asked in this week's "Healthy Skeptic" column at the LA Times.

According to vendors, water ionizers make water easier for you body to absorb, less acidic and packed with antioxidants. The idea is that A) your tap water is really hard for your body to absorb because the water molecules that make it up are clustered, B) your body is seething with harmful acids, and C) ionized water is a good way to get antioxidants.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Scientists that spoke with the times explained that, A) while water may be "clustered," it falls apart pretty easily, B) nothing you eat or drink can control the body's pH balance (acidity), and C) so-called antioxidants in ionized water (negative ions) bind with positive ions long before they reach your body's cells. The best way to get antioxidants into your system is by consuming antioxidant molecules like Vitamin E and beta carotene.

Does this mean ionized water is completely useless? Of course not! It's pretty good at quenching thirst.

Healthlines: January 25, 2007

Okay, the better idea here would be: go to the parents of an obese child, ask them if they realize their kid is fat, and then if they answer "no", well, I wonder if they're fit to be parents…
UK schools "must tell parents" if children are obese (Scientific American)

It's official now, trans fats have officially joined the same category as MSG, DDT and Agent Orange…
Crisco drops trans fats from shortening formula (MSNBC via HealthBolt)

This is one of those things that seems like a no brainer. But if you were to say it before reading this study, some people would say you were paranoid…
Traffic pollution can stunt lung development-study (Reuters)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Flour Can be an Explosive Too!

Okay, I realize I'm swerving completely off the mission of this blog at this point, but I found this interesting, so I figure you would too. Flour. You know it, love it and can't make bread without it. But did you know that, like nondairy creamer, it becomes explosive when "hanging in the air as dust?" This according to a writeup at howstuffworks.com.

How could something as seemingly harmless as flour be so dangerous? Well, according to howsuffworks.com, flour is made up mostly of starch. Starch is a carb. And carbs are sugar. Sugar burns easily. So if you have a substance made mostly of starch hanging in the air as dust, to the tune of 50 grams per cubic meter, you've got yourself an explosive situation.

For the record, pudding dust is also explosive.

Healthlines: January 24, 2007

"When I put my sponge/scrubber into the microwave, it caught fire, smoked up the house, ruined my microwave, and pissed me off…"
Microwave experiments cause sponge disasters (CNN)

Why? The article does not say, but 30g of fiber compared to 20g per day will cut breast cancer risk in half…
Fibre 'lowers breast cancer risk' (BBC)

A diet of both tomatoes and broccoli fought tumors better than a lycopene supplement (that's the stuff in tomatoes that's supposed to slow tumor growth), HOWEVER, castration worked best…
Tomatoes and broccoli slow prostate tumors in rats (Reuters)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pesticide in Nondairy Creamer?

It's always fun to get under the hood of your favorite foods, isn't it? Well, it's probably not fun, but it is a smart thing to do. This week, our friends at Wired magazine did a "What's Inside" column on powdered nondairy creamer, and as you would expect, there are some big, big surprises. Hell, they wouldn't have run the column if it weren't a shocker, would they?

First of all, powdered nondairy creamer is an explosive! Seriously, according to Wired, when "dispersed in the air like a cloud," nondairy creamer can explode. "Just one spark," they say, is all it takes, and "kaboom!"

If that doesn't worry you, consider that one of the ingredients in nondairy creamer, dipotassium phosphate, is used as a pesticide and serves as a key ingredient in fertilizer.

Are you a vegan? If so, nondairy creamer needs to be crossed off your list of acceptable eats. According to the Wired piece, sodium caseinate, another ingredient in nondairy creamer, "is a protein found in cow's milk."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Prepare for a Surge in Bacteria-laden Foods

You may not have noticed (I didn't), but Dannon has a hit on its hands with the "Activia" line of yogurt products. According to a feature at the New York Times, Activia products boast a live bacteria that aids in regularity. Sales have surpassed $100 million in the United States alone (a sister product has been available in Europe since 1987).

Live bacteria in food products are referred to as "probacteria." And since Dannon's got a winner with Activia, look for more probiotic labels on foods at a grocery store near you. "I know marketers will start looking to put it on everything," one expert told the Times.

Probiotics may help manage allergies, soothe digestive problems, reduce the risk of some cancer, lower blood pressure and cut the duration of your next cold.

Is this just another food fad, the likes of oat bran, low-carb or juicers? Probably. At least, it's too soon to tell. The right tests have not been done on probiotics. Another expert otld the times, "it's early in terms of research."

Healthlines: January 22, 2007

Two minutes in the microwave kills 99 percent of bacteria, viruses, parasites and spores… 10 minutes kills all of 'em…
Microwave zaps germs on sponges, study finds (Scientific American)

Still looking for new ways to live longer? Try committing a felony…
State inmates outlive people on outside (Seattle P-I)

Haven't decided why this is interesting, but it is… one thing is that scientists aren't sure why this is the case… but there has to be a reason this wasn't selected out over the eons of evolutionary history, right?
Daydreaming is brain's default setting, study finds (CNN)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

After 76 Years, Tide Turns in Cancer War

For the second straight year, the National Center for Health Statistics reports cancer deaths have fallen in the United States, reports CNN. Since it takes some time to compile these numbers, the announcement regards 2003 and 2004. The news is particularly exciting because cancer deaths had been on the rise since 1930.

According to CNN, "experts are attributing the success to declines in smoking and to earlier detection and more effective treatment of tumors."

It should be noted, however, that the drops have been slight. In 2003, cancer deaths fell by just 369, which may have been a "statistical fluke," said CNN. But in 2004, the number of deaths slipped by a more convincing 3,014. That's still a drop in the bucket, just .5 percent of the 1,500 people that die each day (550,000 annually) from cancer.

The fight's nowhere close to being over, but it seems like we've learned some of the enemies weaknesses.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How water kills

Okay, I'll admit that I thought it was pretty unbelievable that a contestant on a radio show died from drinking too much water. I'd say I was A) shocked that the person sacrificed their life for a $250 game console and B) that it was too much water that killed her.

How is this possible? Well,
according to Wikipedia, too much water in your body causes the concentration in of sodium in your blood to plummet (a condition called hyponatremia). When this happens, your body's cells begin to absorb too much fluid. And this is bad for a number of reasons. One, the cells can't function right when they're bloated with fluid. Two, they can rupture (a process called cytolysis).

When all this bloating and rupturing occurs, cells in the central nervous system and brain are the first to go.

So how much water is too much? If you're on a low salt diet, all it takes is half-a-gallon to get water poisoning. If you're on a normal diet, you can stand three-quarters of a gallon. From what I read at Wikipedia a healthy body can handle about a quart of water per hour. But I wouldn't test it to find out.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Green Tea for Bad Breath?

Okay so it's not-such-new info that green tea helps with bad breath. And it's probably debatable. But Slovenian researchers seem to have isolated the reason why green tea can help fight halitosis, reports ScienceDaily. According to the scientists, the catechins in green tea can "inhibit essential bacterial enzyme DNA gyrase." As you might imagine, this is a bad thing for bacteria.

So who cares? According to the report, "this finding may be used to develop even more potent antibacterial compounds."

By the way, catechins are powerful antioxidants that can do many things from fighting arthritis to cancer (
see entry on catechins in wikipedia).

Interesting proverb noted in the ScienceDaily piece: "Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Doctors' Handwriting Kills Thousands

It's true. According to a report at TIME.com, seven thousand people die each year due to "doctors sloppy handwriting." You know what they're talking about; it's the illegible scribbling on prescription slips that's supposed to connect needy people with the right type and dosage of medications. Unfortunately, out of the 3.2 billion prescriptions written every year, 1.5 million end up harming people; and of that, seven thousand are killed.

These troubling numbers come as a group called the National e-prescribing Patient Safety Initiative (NEPSI) pushes to get doctors to scrap the pads and pick up digital prescription-writing solutions. The group includes partners like Dell, Google and Aetna.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Which Juice is Healthier: Pulp or no pulp?

A good friend of mine and I are always bickering about which is better, juice with pulp or no pulp. She prefers the pulp-free stuff, but I love it packed with pulp--so much that I have to chew it. Well, I'm proud to say that I'm the healthier one. According to a Polish study reported by Reuters, "pulpy, non-clarified" apple juice contains four-times the antioxidants as the clear stuff.

Retailers like clear juice because it has a longer shelf life. Consumers, on the other hand… well, I don't know why anyone prefers the clear stuff. I think they're nuts. And now I have a scientific reason to prove it.

However, at the end of the day, the best way to get your antioxidants is by skipping the juice all together and going straight to the apple. "It is better to eat whole apples with skins than drink the juice to get the most antioxidants," one researcher told Reuters.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gum Shows Promise for Weight Loss

File this under, "too good to be true." Scientists at the UK's Imperial College are working on a gum that can "emulate the body's natural signals for feeling full," reports the Guardian Unlimited. These clever researchers have found the magic formula that fools your body into thinking it's full by flooding your system with something your body thinks is a hormone usually released after a meal.

The faux-hormone (which mimics pancreatic polypeptide, or PP) may also be injected or given as a nasal spray. But I for one like the gum idea better. Easier to market, and so much more fun to do at parties, wouldn't you agree?

Want a side of results with your delightful helping of sci-fi weight loss fantasy? In a study by the Imperial College researchers, subjects were given a dose of PP. According to the Guardian, "the effect was statistically significant, reducing the amount of food eaten by 15 percent to 25 percent."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

More on the Fascinating Link Between Bacteria & Metabolism

Last August, you may recall a post I did about a study that flipped my way of thinking about the way our bodies process energy. According to the research, reported by the NY Times, microbes in your gut have a surprising influence on your body's ability to breakdown and absorb fat.

Well, new research from the Washington School of Medicine in St Louis,
reported by the LA Times, explains the relationship between bacteria and metabolism in more detail.

In the Washington School study, researchers tested mice and found that:
  • Certain bacteria breakdown complex sugars into a form that can be easily absorbed by your intestines (a bad thing if you're trying to loose weight).
  • The bacteria also suppresses a hormone that normally tells rodent bodies not to store too many calories as fat.
  • Unfortunately, the same bacteria also suppresses hormones that tell bodies to burn more fat.

"The net effect is that the bacteria not only make more calories available to the body, they encourage the body to store that energy as fat and keep the fat on," reported the Times.
So I'm sure you're wondering, when will a drug be available that gets rid of this bacteria? No time soon. And if it does come around, it probably won't help you loose weight. According to the Times report, "it is unlikely that any manipulation of bacterial levels or composition could produce weight loss, experts said." The good news? "Drugs that block this [bacteria-encouraged] activity might."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Why Buy Organic Food?

If you're buying organic food for health reasons, there's not a whole lot of scientific evidence to support you. In fact, according to a report at the BBC, UK environment secretary David Miliband said this week that there's no "conclusive evidence either way" when it comes to the health advantages of organics.

Of course, there are other advantages. For example, the lack of pesticides in organic farming is easier on the environment, and consequently, the creatures living therein (like you, me and our four, six or eight-legged friends).

Miliband's remarks came in response to a "Soil Association" estimate that £1.6 billion worth of organic food was sold in the UK this year, an increase of 30 percent.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Foggy Connection Between Education and Health

Would you believe that staying in school longer could help you live longer? Well, it can and it can't, according to an article at the New York Times.

In the piece, Times writer Gina Kolata speaks with health experts from the RAND Corporation, the National Institute on Aging, the City University of New York and others, all of which agree that greater education is somehow linked to longer lives. Where it gets murky is how education affects lifespan.

Could education somehow alter your body's chemistry, genetic makeup of state of mind in such a way that you live longer? Nah. But education can lead to other factors, like wealth, that are linked to longevity as well. Wealth, of course, usually leads to better access to health care, which naturally leads to a longer life.

But wait, there's more. Economics professor Adriana Lleras-Muney, who wrote a "prize-winning" paper on the connection between education and lifespan, suggested to the Times that discipline acquired through schooling may play a role.

"As a group, less educated people are less able to plan for the future and to delay gratification. If true, that may, for example, explain the differences in smoking rates between more educated people and less educated ones," read the Times.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Salt, Iodine and a Nation's Smarts

In the United States, we take iodized salt for granted. But had you ever wondered why there's iodine in your salt? For starters, "iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation," reported the New York Times in a feature on the subject.

Iodine deficiencies are also suspected of causing "disabling" goiters, cretinism, dwarfism and lowering I.Q. According to the Times, "Even moderate deficiency, especially in pregnant women and infants, lowers intelligence by 10 to 15 I.Q. points, shaving incalculable potential off a nation’s development."

Despite the know dangers, 2 billion people around the globe are iodine deficient. But it's not because of cost.

"Putting iodine in salt, public health experts say, may be the simplest and most cost-effective health measure in the world. Each ton of salt needs about two ounces of potassium iodate, which costs about $1.15," reported the Times.

Efforts to iodize the world's salt have show good results. For example, between 1999 and 2006, the percentage of households using iodized salt in Kazakhstan jumped from 24 to 94 percent. Because of the change, "the United Nations is expected to certify [Kazakhstan] officially free of iodine deficiency disorders."

Globally, households using iodized salt has more than doubled from 25 to 66 percent since 1990.

Pound360 Archive

About Me

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.