Vitamin K2: What Is It, Where Is It, What Does It Do, and Do I Need It?

by Emily Finnan, RD

10 years ago, vitamin K2 was largely unheard of. Today, it’s a top Google search term, the subject of numerous books, and over 500 supplements are sold on Amazon. In part, due to a growing number of vitamin K2 supporters who champion it as a necessity for bone and heart health. However, 76 years after its discovery, it seems we still have more questions than answers about this important nutrient.

What is it?

Vitamin K2 isn’t a new nutrient; it’s simply a form of vitamin K. Vitamin K is a term for a group of essential

compounds that all contain the chemical structure methyl-1,4-napthoquinone.  This group can be further divided into vitamin K1, K2 and K3. Vitamin K2, or menaquinones, is a term for several compounds named MK-4 through MK-13.

Where is it?

Vitamin K2 is predominantly made by bacteria. It’s found in fermented foods and animal products.

MK-7 and MK-4 are the two most talked about and studied forms of vitamin K2. MK-7 is the form found in Natto, a Japanese fermented soy product. MK-4 is the form found in animal products. Additionally, your body likely makes MK-4 from vitamin K1 eaten. The other “MKs” are made by different strains of bacteria found in fermented foods or in your gastrointestinal tracts. It’s debated, but likely a minimal amount of vitamin K from the gut is actually absorbed and used by your body.

Vitamin K1, or phylloquinone, is made by plants. It’s found in a variety of vegetables, some fruits, and vegetable oils. Leafy greens are an especially good source. 90% of the vitamin K we eat is in this form.

Vitamin K3, or menadione, is a synthetic precursor of vitamin K. It isn’t recommend for humans, but it is used in animal feed.

What about grass-fed?

Blogs that tout the benefits of vitamin K2 likely recommend grass-fed animal products as the premier source. Grass does contain vitamin K1. But a cow’s primary source of vitamin K comes from large colonies of K2-producing bacteria that live in their ruminant stomachs. Conventionally raised livestock are frequently given antibiotics, which can diminish gut bacteria. However, livestock feed is typically fortified with vitamin K3, which the animal directly converts o MK-4.

MK-4 is present in conventionally-raised dairy, beef, poultry, and other animal-based foods. A study conducted in the Netherlands, found no substantial difference in MK-4 content between wild, free-range, and “intensively raised” meat, dairy, and eggs. Currently, there isn’t evidence to support grass-fed animals as a superior source of MK-4.

What does it do?

All forms of vitamin K help carboxylate (add extra acid groups) to certain proteins, which helps the proteins’ function. Un-carboxylated vitamin K-dependent proteins are those that vitamin K has not acted on.

Vitamin K & blood clotting

This is vitamin K’s most studied role. Vitamin K is essential for proper blood clotting. A person with a severe vitamin K deficiency, which is rare, will have clotting problems.

Vitamin K & bone

Vitamin K carboxylates the bone protein, osteocalcin, allowing it to act on bone. This has led to the hypothesis that a high level of un-carboxylated osteocalcin is an indicator of vitamin K insufficiency and poor bone health. Vitamin K2 and K1 have been shown to increase osteocalcin carboxylation. Additionally, researchers have found both inside bone.

Two large Japanese observational studies, totaling almost 3,000 people, found positive associations between dietary MK-7 and increased bone mineral density. However, observational trials can’t determine causation. People who eat more vitamin K, might have a healthier diet and lifestyle; especially because vitamin K is found in typically healthful foods.

Randomized controlled trials (RCT) can help determine causation. 11 RCTs have been conducted with 15 to 45 milligram (or 15,000 to 45,000 micrograms) MK-4 supplements. The majority do report that the MK-4 supplement group had a positive result in at least one marker of bone health.  In Japan, where most of these trials were conducted, MK-4 supplements are routinely used as part of osteoporosis treatment. Of note, these doses of vitamin K are much higher than you can obtain from food. Vitamin K is therefore being used as a medication, not as a dietary factor.

RCTs and observational trials conducted using vitamin K1 are inconclusive.

Vitamin K & vascular calcification

Vitamin K may have a role in preventing vascular calcification, a major risk factor for heart disease. This is through vitamin K’s carboxylation of matrix Gla-protein (MGP). It’s not fully understood, but un-carboxylated MGP may increase vascular calcification.  Vitamin K1 and MK-4 both reduce un-carboxylated MGP.

Only one observational, cohort study has shown a positive association between total dietary vitamin K2 intake and reduced vascular calcification. Observational studies using vitamin K1 intake show no effect.  An RCT, conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), found that vitamin K1 supplementation did slow progression of calcification in those with pre-existing coronary artery calcification.

Do I need it?

The optimum level of vitamin K in the diet is unclear. The adequate intake (AI) of vitamin K, for men 19 years and older, is 120 micrograms (mcg). This was based simply on the amount of vitamin K healthy people eat. The AI doesn’t specify targets of vitamin K1 versus K2. It’s been suggested that the amount of vitamin K needed to prevent clotting problems is less than 10 mcg per day; but at least 1,000 mcg per is needed for optimum bone density.

Below is a table of vitamin K content in various foods. The Vitamin K1 data is predominately from the USDA Nutrient Database. Vitamin K2 data was obtained from three individual studies: here, here, and here.

vitaminktable

*unknown fat-content

Many books and health blogs (here, here, here, and here) claim that the US population is widely deficient  in vitamin K2, which they report is specifically essential for bone and vascular health. However, there is a lot more we need learn about vitamin K2. Do vitamin K2 and K1 actually have different functions in our body? If we can make vitamin K2 from K1, does it even matter how much K2 we eat? We don’t know what a sufficient level of vitamin K2 is, let alone a deficient level, or even the best biomarker of K2 status. Furthermore, if 1,000 mcg is the true optimum intake then it seems it would be much easier to reach this level by focusing on vitamin K1 sources rather than K2- you’d need to eat 7 pounds of blue cheese or 300 eggs a day to reach 1,000 mcg!

The good news is that a varied diet that includes variety of vegetables, leafy greens, as well as meats and dairy can supply a person with well over the AI of vitamin K. There is also no known harm of taking high-dose vitamin K supplements. My advice: eat a varied diet that includes servings of vitamin K-rich vegetables and fermented foods. These foods are great for other reasons too– high in other important micronutrients and fermented foods contain beneficial probiotics. If you’re thinking about taking a vitamin K2 supplement, talk to your doctor as vitamin K does interact with some medications.

Emily Finnan is a dietitian and finishing her first year in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition master’s program.  She’ll be getting acquainted with vitamin K this summer, completing a practicum in the HNRCA’s vitamin K laboratory.

Fenugreek Speaks!

by Nusheen Orandi

You may think you’ve never heard of this legume, especially since it sounds like an ancient language or something. But its supplement form hit health food stores and is becoming an area of interest in nutrition research. You might even see it in grocery stores “superfood” exclamations soon. What makes people with diabetes or high cholesterol look to fenugreek for help?

What Is Fenugreek?

Common in the diet of Iran, Egypt, and Nepal, people use both the leaves and seeds of fenugreek in cooking, making it a unique and sustainable item. Fenugreek has a variety of uses, including:

  • Integration into spices: many contain fenugreek in its powdered form to add flavor to stews, sauces, and curries.
  • Seeds are eaten whole or added to many dishes as a legume.
  • Integral part of pita bread: Egyptian cuisine mixes the seeds with maize to make the bread.
  • As a  mircrogreen or herb: they add flavor to Persian stews and Indian curries.

Nutritionally, fenugreek  is a rich source of protein (23-26%), carbohydrates (58%), fiber, calcium, iron, beta-carotene, and other healthful phytochemicals that make it a valuable component to these diets. In fact phytochemicals, natural chemical compounds in plants, found in fenugreek captured the attention of nutrition science research.

Fenugreek for Diabetes

Apparently fenugreek adds healthful advantages to many diets, but why would people with diabetes try eating more of it? Research shows that eating fenugreek might lower blood sugar. Because the seeds contain mucilaginous fiber (a type of soluble fiber) and steroidal sapogenin (steroid compounds in plants), fenugreek might benefit people with diabetes to control their blood sugar. Ancient Chinese and Indian cultures used fenugreek medicinally as an anti-diabetic therapeutic treatment, just by soaking it in hot water and eating it.

Helping High Cholesterol

For the same reasons that suggest lowering blood sugar, fenugreek might also lower blood cholesterol. Although scientific evidence conflicts, a particular study demonstrated how fenugreek could lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”), as seen in many rat studies. However, limited human studies support this finding. Other studies attribute this cholesterol-lowering effect to flavenoids (a type of phytochemical) abundant in fenugreek seeds, specifically naringenin. One study found that fenugreek decreased triglycerides and cholesterol in patients with coronary artery disease

Another Antioxidant

Studies on fenugreek extracts demonstrated that the phenolic compounds in fenugreek, especially the seeds, give it potential as a good antioxidant source. This could explain why fenugreek neighbors other herbal supplements in health food stores.

Future Research

Fenugreek research also surrounds topics like breast milk production, gastrointestinal therapeutic treatments, weight loss, and atherosclerosis prevention, however significant results remain to be seen.

So give fenugreek a go, by adding flavor to this simple red lentil soup.

Nusheen Orandi is a first-year student from California in the Nutrition Communication program with a concentration in Agriculture, Food and Environment, She likes to spend her time tea-shop hunting, tensely watching the Tottenham Hotspurs, and cooking and eating with friends and family.

Probiotics: What Do These Bacteria Do?

by Nusheen Orandi

When I’m shopping in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, I stand in front of the yogurt section for a while. When did it get so huge? Greek, Icelandic, Kefir, whole milk, low-fat, non-fat, goat’s milk, and coconut milk are all options. What’s making yogurt so popular? Well, its probiotic nature is one of its claims to fame.

What does probiotic mean?

“Probiotic” describes anything that stimulates the growth of microorganisms in large enough numbers to enhance health. With food, this involves bacteria and yeast that ferment products we love, like beer, yogurt, and cheese. With health, the primary interest lies with gut microflora. Gut microflora affects health and digestion in a number of ways including food intolerances, food allergies, and other forms of gastrointestinal discomfort. This not only sparks nutrition research interests but food industry interests as well, who try to market the “functional foods” that could enhance health.

What makes yogurt so special?

The making of yogurt involves probiotic bacteria. Starter cultures begin the process of fermenting hot pasteurized milk to make yogurt. These starter cultures are bacteria not found in the intestinal tract that include Streptococcus thermophilus and L. delbrueckii ssp. Bulgaricus. However, other bacteria used in yogurt-making are found in the intestinal tract, such as members of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. Because these bacteria are also found in the intestinal tract, they are known as “dietary adjuncts.” The bacteria in yogurt produce lactic acid, which reacts with milk protein to give it the creamy texture and tart taste. These bacteria’s ability to be produced in high amounts, withstand long shelf life, and benefit human health give yogurt’s its probiotic reputation.

What are the health benefits of probiotics?

Should we eat another bowl of yogurt or a second pint of Guinness? Microbiology experts think so. Scientific evidence points to many health benefits including anti-microbial activity, anti-diarrheal function, enhanced immune function, and improved lactose intolerance and gastrointestinal function.

Anti-microbial activity

Probiotic bacteria produce organic acids that suppress the multiplication of pathogenic bacteria like E.coli and salmonella, which can make us sick. The increased acidity of the intestinal tract enables this function.

Lactose Intolerance

People who experience discomfort from dairy products due to lactose intolerance can sometimes tolerate yogurt due to the probiotic bacteria. People with lactose intolerance lack sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase in their intestine. Without enough lactase, people inadequately digest the milk sugar. The probiotic bacteria in yogurt contain an enzyme called b-D-galactosidase that partially digests the lactose in yogurt, making it easier for lactose intolerant people to eat yogurt comfortably.  Research also suggests that probiotic bacteria can enhance lactase activity.

Anti-diarrheal Function

Pathogenic bacteria and antibiotic use can cause diarrhea. Probiotic bacteria compete with diarrhea- causing pathogenic bacteria on epithelial cells in your intestine, which reduces the likelihood of diarrhea. Probiotic bacteria especially help people required to take a lot of antibiotics. The antibiotics reduce the amount of “good” microorganisms in your intestine, which can causes diarrhea symptoms. Probiotics help re-colonize the intestine with these “good” bacteria to improve intestinal movement. Hospitalized people who take a variety of medications may benefit from certain probiotic bacteria.

If probiotic bacteria are so good, should we add more to foods?

Because of the noted benefits of probiotic bacteria, debate surrounds the idea of adding more probiotic bacteria in addition to the ones found in traditionally made yogurt and other fermented products. One example is Activia brand yogurt. Probiotic bacteria are available in powders, capsules, and tablets. However the type, amount, and ratio of added probiotic bacteria remain unclear. Clinical trials raised discussion about whether probiotic bacteria given to infants could decrease food allergies later in life. However, further studies provided inconclusive evidence.

Probiotic bacteria not only help make the food we love, but help our bodies know what to do with it! Although those with dietary restrictions or illness may benefit from added probiotic bacteria, the probiotic bacteria found in our foods may be enough to give the rest of us the potential benefits. It just gives us another reason to maintain a well-balanced diet.

Nusheen Orandi is a first-year student from California in the Nutrition Communication program and likes to spend her time tea-shop hunting, tensely watching the Tottenham Hotspurs, and cooking and eating with friends and family.

How Does a Ketogenic Diet Affect YOU? Part 3: C-Reactive Protein: A Marker of Inflammation

by Katie Mark

The latest craze surrounding the ketogenic diet has us further investigating whether or not a high-fat/low-carbohydrate lifestyle might be an appropriate dietary approach for some people. In this 3-part series (click here for part 1 and part 2), we’re evaluating how the ketogenic diet affects biomarkers.

The ketogenic diet is a very low-carbohydrate (<10% of total calories), moderate protein and high-fat (>70% of total calories) diet. After at least two weeks of keto-adaptation, the body’s energy source switches from glucose to fat.

In part one of “How Does a Ketogenic Diet Affect YOU?” we found studies suggesting that nutritional ketosis lowers fasting glucose and insulin levels and possibly increases insulin sensitivity. In part two, we investigated the impact of ketosis on cortisol. We found that a high-fat, carbohydrate-restricted diet may increase certain forms of cortisol, but blood cortisol levels are only half the story. Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between ketosis and an increase in certain forms of cortisol: the active form (cortisol), the inactive form (cortisone) and metabolites of cortisol from enzymatic breakdown.

Now let’s evaluate how the ketogenic diet affects C-reactive protein (CRP).

Increased CRP: Is there a need to worry?

C-Reactive Protein

C-Reactive Protein Model

CRP is considered a marker of inflammation. The liver makes CRP when inflammation in the body is present. High levels of CRP are influenced by genetics, high stress, exposure to environmental toxins and a sedentary lifestyle. Diet can also impact CRP levels, especially diets high in refined and processed foods.

There are two blood tests to measure CRP. The non-specific test indicates acute CRP levels that result from general inflammation in the body. The more sensitive measure is the highly sensitive CRP (hs-CRP) test, which accurately measures basal levels of CRP by measuring inflammation in blood vessels. The hs-CRP test is the accepted measure to determine the risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Higher CRP levels signify a higher risk for developing CVD and abdominal obesity. Weight loss is known to decrease markers of inflammation such as CRP.

It is believed that a high saturated fat and very low carbohydrate diet (VLCARB) increases the risk for CVD. A study published in Nutrition Metabolism (London) compared a VLCARB diet to two low saturated fat, high carbohydrate diets to determine their effect on body composition and CVD risk. The isocaloric (similar calorie composition) diets were: very low fat (CHO:fat:protein; %SF 70:10:20), high unsaturated fat (50:30:20; 6%) and VLCARB (4:61:35, 20%). The study concluded that weight loss resulted in a reduction of CRP regardless of the dietary macronutrient composition. Yet, it is uncertain whether or not the macronutrient composition of a diet influences inflammation.

A study published in The Journal of American College of Nutrition found an increase in CRP in overweight women who followed a short-term low carbohydrate, high-fat weight loss diet. The study reported that an increase in CRP might have resulted from the oxidative stress caused by this type of diet.

Another study published in Obesity (Silver Spring) looked into the inflammatory response caused by a high-fat, low-carbohydrate weight loss diet (HF) by randomly assigning 19 overweight men and women to either an antioxidant (AS) or placebo (P) supplement. The objective was to see if the antioxidants vitamins C and E could decrease the inflammation reported in a HF diet.

CRP decreased 32% in the AS group and increased 50% for the P group; however, this was statistically insignificant. The HF diet did not decrease CRP within the short-term 7-day study even though other markers of inflammation decreased.

The study could not confirm if oxidative stress was causing the inflammation. It was concluded that further research is needed to determine the different CRP responses over the long term, especially while using antioxidant supplements. This is important considering most fruits and vegetables, which are low in fat, contain antioxidants.

The Verdict

A ketogenic diet may increase CRP levels, but weight loss reduces CRP levels. The reason for the increase in CRP is unclear. One plausible explanation is that low intakes of magnesium, vitamin C and other nutrients while on a ketogenic diet may lead to this effect. When magnesium is low, CRP increases. It has been reported that increased vitamin C intake may reduce high CRP levels.

An imbalance between anti-inflammatory fats (omega-3 fatty acids) and pro-inflammatory fats (omega-6 fatty acids) is another possible explanation. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils primarily contain the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Eating less grain-fed meats and chicken and more grass-fed meats and free-range chicken is also important to consider. Grain-fed animals have higher omega-6s whereas grass-fed animals have higher omega-3s. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and important for normal body functions, including regulating blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. Omega-3s are also suggested to protect against heart disease.

An elevated CRP level is never a good thing. If you are opting for a ketogenic diet, increasing magnesium and vitamin C intake as well as choosing grass-fed products may reduce CRP levels.

Katie Mark is a first year Nutrition Communication/Master of Public Health student who enjoys road cycling and traveling.

How Does a Ketogenic Diet Affect YOU? Part 2: A Deep Look Into Cortisol

by Katie Mark

Recent high hopes for high-fat diets have us further evaluating the ketogenic diet for a wider population. In this three-part series, we’re examining how the ketogenic diet affects biomarkers. Part 1 of this series investigated what ketosis does for fasting glucose and insulin. In Part 2, we look at how a ketogenic diet may affect cortisol levels.

High-fat…high cortisol…high stress?

Cortisol is considered the “stress hormone,” and it influences blood sugar levels, blood pressure, immune response, and stress response. Chronically elevated levels of circulating cortisol can hinder cognitive performance, disrupt sleep, impede immune function, increase abdominal fat, and cause blood sugar imbalances.

Studies have found that cortisol levels increase on a ketogenic diet, but some say the relationship between ketosis and high cortisol needs to be made clearer. First, chronically elevated cortisol correlates with metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms such as high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels that increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

It seems possible that ketogenic diets may cause metabolic syndrome because higher cortisol levels suggest the onset of metabolic syndrome. However, this isn’t the whole picture: It’s also possible that there are multiple forms of cortisol, and their measurements mean different things.

Cortisol is measured in bodily fluids, including urine, saliva, and blood. Multiple forms of cortisol are measured from these samples: cortisone (the inactive form), free cortisol (the active form), and metabolites of cortisone and cortisol resulting from enzyme activity. Equally important, these levels of cortisol biomarkers can vary depending on the time of day.

A holistic understanding of cortisol metabolism relies on looking at the enzymes 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD) and 11β-HSD1 (a subtype of 11β-HSD). 11β-HSD1 is found in every cell, but the highest amounts are found deep within fat cells. In fact, it does not matter if a person’s blood cortisol level is low, medium, or high because a highly active 11β-HSD1 will generate a high amount of cortisol inside cells.

Here is a breakdown of cortisol metabolism:

  • Production: 11β-HSD converts cortisol (active) to cortisone (inactive)
  • Regeneration: 11β-HSD1 converts cortisone to cortisol
  • Clearance: Other enzymes help metabolize cortisone and cortisol into metabolites

The cortisol profile of metabolic syndrome, which the ketogenic diet reverses, consists of:

  • High cortisol production
  • High cortisol clearance rates
  • High 11β-HSD1 expression in adipocytes and low 11β-HSD1 expression in the liver (the location that determines where and when cortisol is regenerated)

Now, let’s see how a 24-hour urine proxy is used for detecting cortisol. This proxy results in a less-than-clear picture because cortisol levels are affected by production, regeneration, and clearance. For instance, if clearance decreased or if regeneration increased, cortisol levels could go up if production stayed the same or lowered. This is analogous to simply measuring someone’s total cholesterol without observing LDL and HDL.

Take home message: levels may appear similar when there is a big difference in cortisol metabolism.

One study, published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, used 17 obese men and randomly assigned them to an ad libitum (eat as much as you want) high fat-low carbohydrate (HF-LC) diet (66% fat, 4% carbohydrate) or moderate fat-moderate carbohydrate (MF-MC) diet (35% fat, 35% carbohydrate) for four weeks.

The study found a reversal of the previously described metabolic syndrome cortisol profile for only the HF-LC group: blood cortisol increased, clearance decreased and regeneration increased (due to an increase in 11β-HSD1 activity in the liver). According to the researchers, the ketogenic diet improved the cortisol profile because it was different from the cortisol profile seen in metabolic syndrome.

Furthermore, even though the MF-MC group lost a similar amount of weight, there was no change in 11β-HSD1 activity. This increase in 11β-HSD1 activity in the HF-LC group was independent of the differences in energy intake and weight loss because the same effect was seen in the controls.

A final component to note is that obesity is associated with high cortisol. However, the connection between obesity and elevated serum levels of cortisol has not always been a consistent connection.

Some people with high stress and lots of abdominal fat had normal or low levels of cortisol in their blood. Usually, chronically elevated levels of cortisol leads to increased adiposity; yet, there have been cases of people with high stress and high cortisol, but no obesity. And as we saw in “The Basics of the Ketogenic Diet,” the ketogenic diet has demonstrated effectiveness as a weight loss tool.

What’s the verdict?

We see that diet, especially a carbohydrate-restricted one such as the ketogenic diet, may increase certain forms of cortisol. But blood cortisol levels are only half the story—cortisol levels inside cells illustrate the other half. Also, cortisol will vary depending on the time of day, with levels highest in the morning. Caffeine, stress, and exercise can also increase cortisol levels.

Ultimately, further research is needed to better understand the connections as to why cortisol increases on a ketogenic diet and if cortisol levels are more affected by other variables, such as the activity of the 11β-HSD1 enzyme.

Katie Mark is a first year Nutrition Communication student from Miami, Florida. Due to Boston’s Snowpocalypse, she does not foresee herself living in Boston in the future, so she will return to South Beach following graduation.

How to Become an Expert Gum Taster: My Experience as a Sensory Scientist at Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company

by Disha Gandhi

Warning: the following article requires active participation. Please have 1-2 pieces of gum at your side prior to reading.

The multibillion-dollar food industry provides us with all of the calories and food products we desire. But who within the food industry conceptualizes the vast variety of foods available? Who develops the recipes, evaluates consumer response, and assesses the quality? Food scientists, that’s who.

Prior to working as a food sensory scientist at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, I completed my undergraduate degree in Food Science at the University of Illinois. In fact, most graduates within my program went on to work throughout the food industry. But when we learn about optimal nutrition at the Friedman School, the food industry, creating products for profit, is often positioned as at odds with a healthy diet.

We learn about reducing sodium intake, avoiding processed foods, and returning to the way our grandparents ate. It may seem like food scientists are the monsters that invented and feed the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Though we can argue that this notion seems pretty reasonable, food scientists and their industries do exist and we need them for many reasons.

Believe it or not, the guy who invented gum, William Wrigley Jr., was a food scientist back in 1891. Without his invention the person pushed up against you on a very crowded train would probably have very nasty breath. So in honor of Wrigley, let’s have some fun! Grab those pieces of gum and work through the following:

In answering these four simple questions, base your responses on the following 9-point hedonic scale test:

1-Dislike Extremely
2-Dislike Very Much
3-Dislike Moderately
4-Dislike Slightly
5-Neither Like nor Dislike
6-Like Slightly
7-Like Moderately
8-Like Very Much
9-Like Extremely

Question #1. On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Question #2: On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the flavor of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Question #3: On a scale of 1-9, please evaluate the overall liking of the texture of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Question #4: Continue chewing the gum for roughly five minutes. Please evaluate the overall liking of the flavor intensity of the gum:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Congratulations! You just completed a mini consumer sensory test questionnaire. During my year at Wrigley, my group conducted a number of consumer tests on various Wrigley and Mars products such as Orbit Gum, 5 Gum, Skittles, Starbursts, Snickers Ice Cream Bars, Uncle Ben’s Rice Products, amongst others. We evaluated consumers’ preferences on different scales similar to the one you just completed. Thereafter, we delivered the results to Wrigley’s head sensory scientists who were better able to make decisions regarding their formulations, eventually deciding whether or not the tested product should be released into the market.

Now that you’re aware of how sensory testing occurs, here’s some insight into what I did as a food scientist:

What was a really cool product I worked on?
I definitely have to say that it would be Dove chocolate-covered gum. I had never thought that gum could be covered in chocolate! Not only did the food scientists create gum with a chocolate coating around it, they also created raspberry, chai, and strawberry coated gum. Some formulations tasted very well, while some were vomit-inducing. This product was released to select Dunkin Donuts around the Chicago area. I worked on this product in its early stages, so it might be a while before it gets released nationwide, if at all.

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What was so great about this job?
When you work in research and development, you tend to know a lot of information about the projects that pertain to your team. I was lucky with my position because I was exposed to a whole variety of products that both Wrigley and Mars produced including products from around the world, such as Chinese jasmine flavored mints

My team did not only do consumer acceptance tests, we also did qualitative descriptive analysis. So how does this work?
First, here is a list of basic tastes, flavors, and textures:

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 8.29.05 PM

Now, let’s go back to that piece of gum you were/are chewing. Or, if you have another piece handy then start chewing it.

Now ask yourself: after about 30 seconds of chewing the gum, what were the range of flavors you experienced and at what intensity would you rate these flavors on a scale of 0-15? 0 represents no flavor intensity and 15 represents a very high intensity. How about after a minute? What about 12 minutes?

Qualitative descriptive analysis is performed by panelists who evaluate the basic tastes, flavors, and textures each on a scale of 0-15. What was really interesting about these panelists is how they were equally calibrated regarding gum and candy. For instance, a sweetness rating of five represents the sweetness level of 50 grams of sugar in 1L of water. They were given this reference sample daily to ensure their internal calibration was set. Panelists then were able to evaluate the sweetness of a piece gum or candy by referring back to their reference sample. For your general knowledge, the sweetness of a piece of gum starts at an intensity of about 8-9 and as time progresses it lowers to about a 2. So, in the exercise earlier, if you rated the sweetness of your gum at about 8-9, you are already on your way to becoming an expert gum taster! Scientists looked for consistency in the panelists’ ratings of each flavor attribute in order for them to discern the flavor profile of their product. This knowledge helped them decide for example, if a different type of sweetener in Orbit Spearmint Gum made a difference when compared to the control product.

Valuable exposure to sensory science, working with a variety of people, and now knowing almost everything there is to know about gum (except how it’s formulated) made working for Wrigley a wonderful learning experience.

Though Disha Gandhi thinks that sensory science is neat and vital for a company’s well being, her heart lies in food and nutrition. Hence, why she’s studying towards a MSc in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition at the Friedman School. In her free time she loves to read food blogs and explore restaurants in Boston.

Bulletproof Coffee: the Breakfast of Champions?

by Ally Gallop, BSc, RD, CDE

Imagine waking up in the morning to a breakfast of butter, oil, and coffee. Better known as Bulletproof Coffee, it’s the new rage in the diet world. With proponents noting marked improvements in alertness, hunger suppression, and weight loss, bulletproof coffee and its creator are altering the morning routine. But navigating through these claims, the science doesn’t align.

After a trip to Tibet in 2004, Silicon Valley businessman Dave Asprey tasted Tibetan Yak Butter Tea: a concoction of brewed tea, salt, and yak butter. Upon returning to the U.S., Asprey devised his own version. Now marketed as bulletproof coffee (or BPC), it pairs well with his newly released book The Bulletproof Diet. Advocates for BPC include U.S. Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, Divergent actor Shailene Woodley, and singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. BPC is said to be creamier than a latte, prevent hunger before lunch, increase alertness, and be loaded with vitamins A, E, and K2 alongside omega-3 fatty acids. Yet the most enticing reason in opting for this drink is because it seemingly causes weight loss without having to exercise.

The recipe for BPC is simple. In a blender combine many of Asprey’s own products:629px-Bulletproof_Coffee_Starter_Kit

  • At least 2 tablespoons of unsalted grass-fed butter,
  • 1-2 tablespoons of Brain Octane™ Oil, and
  • Bulletproof® Upgraded™ brewed coffee beans.

Keep in mind, BPC is meant as a breakfast replacement. So let’s compare the BPC nutritional content to that of a typical breakfast: two scrambled eggs, an apple, black coffee, and a slice of whole grain toast with a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Typical Breakfast BPC *Unable to find specific nutrient data for grass-fed butter and omega-3 content.**The USDA Foods List only lists information for vitamin K1.
Calories (calories) 491 461
Total Fat (g) 23 51
Saturated Fat (g) 4 43
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (mg) < 1 n/a*
Total Carbohydrates (g) 48 0
Total Fiber (g) 10.4 0
Protein (g) 24 0
Vitamin A (IU) 803 400
Vitamin E (mg) 1.88 0.4
Vitamin K1 (μg) 9.5 0.8
Vitamin K2 (μg) n/a** n/a**
Caffeine (mg) 142 142

Starting the day off with a high-fat brew that shuns hunger and enhances alertness sounds like a great idea. Losing weight is easier when your stomach isn’t grumbling. High-fat BPC in the gut slows the rate of stomach emptying, suppresses ghrelin (the “eat more” hormone), and reduces the amount of calories consumed at subsequent snacks and meals. Since fat takes the longest to leave the stomach and be digested, even in its liquid form, Asprey’s claim makes some sense.

But Asprey’s claims regarding omega-3s and vitamins A, E, and K2 are cloudier. The amount of these nutrients in grass-fed versus conventionally grain-fed beef is higher. Yet only 60% of studies found a statistically significant difference. Further, no research exists on the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in butter- all the research comparing omega-3 contents is in types of beef, not dairy.

Recently, I contacted Kerrygold, a popular brand of grass-fed butter, and asked them to elaborate on the omega-3 content their product. They responded by saying that they have no research on omega-3’s present in butter. While grass-fed dairy may be a wiser nutritional source, there is currently no research that supports Asprey’s supposition that it has more omega-3s.

The caffeine content of BPC is likely the source of increased alertness drinkers report. It’s also possible that if the coffee truly does have a higher omega-3 content, those omega-3s could give the brain extra power.

Asprey’s line of Bulletproof® Upgraded™ coffee beans are touted as being free of mycotoxins (i.e., mold), which he claims are pervasive components of every other coffee on the market. However, coffee producers like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have long known about these mycotoxins. That’s why coffee beans are wet-processed, which means that the beans are washed to eliminate the mold. So the upgraded brew is no better than the rest.

But what really stands out about BPC? How about its fat content: the brew fulfills 23% of both your daily total caloric and fat intake. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends 25-35% of daily total calories should come from fat. BPC fulfills that quota on its own. The Canadian Society of Intestinal Research also reminds us how fat is a stimulant for the intestines. Higher intakes may result in abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and floating stools. But that’s never advertised.

Being so high in calories, how can BPC help weight loss? If, like with any diet, fewer calories are consumed, then weight loss may occur. Asprey’s book recommends following a low-carbohydrate diet as to induce ketosis. And food restriction generally leads to weight loss.

In an interview with Runner’s World, University of California Davis’ director of sports nutrition Liz Applegate debunks Asprey’s idea behind Brain Octane™ oil, which is made of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Asprey believes that the oil increases the body’s ability to burn calories because it is processed differently than other fats. Unlike long-chain triglycerides, MCTs pass directly from the gut into the bloodstream and are immediately available to be burned for energy. However, Applegate notes that there is no scientific evidence to support MCTs’ ability to increase metabolism and promote weight loss. If consumed in amounts that surpass the body’s immediate needs, MCTs will still be converted to and stored as fat.

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Breakfast of Champions?

Ultimately, this article wouldn’t be complete without attempting BPC myself. I found it odd watching butter dissolve into my morning cup. The oil slick on top was definitely unsettling. Using coconut oil and regular coffee in place of Asprey’s oil and beans, the concoction was creamy with a subtle hint of coconut. My hunger was suppressed the rest of the day, cravings for carbs were reduced, and I was able to forgo my mid-morning snack. In comparison to my normal routine of breakfast and a snack, I likely saved 120 calories. But due to an injury, I was unable to exercise. Would this daily pattern of high-fat BPC power me through morning exercise sessions?

Should YOU add BPC to your diet?

The typical breakfast provides protein and fiber, long having been touted as essentials for their hunger-suppressing properties. But choose BPC, and neither exist. The idea is you can’t have both food and BPC.

For those who already eat breakfast, replacing it with BPC on a short-term basis or intermittently could be all right. The BPC’s calories are appropriate for a morning meal. Caloric intake may even be less, depending on what one would normally eat. However, the habit of drinking coffee alongside breakfast may return, thereby increasing total calories consumed. In a recent article, Chris Gayomali, a journalist for Fast Company, tried BPC for two weeks. By the end, he was adding toast in addition to his BPC. After two weeks he ditched BPC completely because he missed eating solids.

Diet trends tend to fail due to deprivation. Given that all other meals and snacks consumed throughout the day remain constant, having BPC and food in the morning could lead to weight gain since it is so high in calories.

If you’re adamant about BPC, doing so every-other-day and ensuring intake of higher fiber and protein foods is advised. That way you can indulge while still limiting saturated fat intakes, promoting gut health with fiber, and sparing protein. Following the IOM guidelines, you wouldn’t require any additional fat on a BPC day. On those days opt for vegetable-dishes, lean protein, and unsaturated fats, like those from nuts, plant oils, and avocados.

For those who don’t typically eat breakfast, adding almost 500 calories of BPC in addition to your usual food consumption could lead to significant weight gain.

So what’s the final consensus?

When it comes to Bulletproof Coffee, the science is lacking. Egregious claims that the oil supplies “fast energy for the brain,” “reduces brain fog,” and is responsible for “rebalancing…yeast in the gut” are stated on Asprey’s website. Yet they lack any footnotes for supporting literature.

We also can’t look at foods in isolation. Rather, the whole diet matters. Asprey’s BPC argument focuses on the nutrients in two items: butter and oil. Humans are encouraged to seek variety in the foods we eat. The typical breakfast I detailed above already contains all of the nutrients advertised as part of BPC and more. If for an entire month one were to replace their breakfast with solely BPC they would be missing out on vital nutrients that variety would fulfill.

Like any other diet, BPC is supposedly “universal.” It’s meant to meet the needs of all of its followers. For me, I felt full. Others may be starving after just a couple hours.

And ultimately, Dave Asprey is a businessman. His empire includes a line of pricey oil and coffee beans in addition to travel mugs, T-shirts, and anti-aging skin creams. With a booming business plan, book, and BPC shops in the works, Asprey is raking it in when you drink his breakfast of champions.

Ally Gallop, BSc, RD is a Certified Diabetes Educator and is studying towards an MS/MPH focusing in health communication and epidemiology. She continues to drink black coffee alongside her high-fiber and scrambled egg breakfast.

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