Beyond Bulking Up on Bugs: Are Insects a Sustainable Solution for Future Protein Needs?

By Michelle Pearson

Eating insects is nothing new. Cultures across centuries have incorporated these creatures in dishes across the globe. As evidenced by early foraging tools and in examining the chemical composition of feces, bugs contributed to improving diet quality during human evolution. Insects are staples in Asian, Australian, African, and South American cuisine. Insects can be consumed live as well as cooked, often roasted, boiled, or fried. In fact, these creatures are a rich source of nutrition. High in fiber, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals, bugs are a nutrient powerhouse, especially high in zinc and iron. In the Amazon, insects contribute as much as 70% of the population’s dietary protein needs. Perhaps bugs will be the new vegetarian alternative. There is quite a bit of buzz as to whether or not bugs will be the sustainable protein source of the future.

Of course, many Americans take issue with the idea: there certainly is an “ick” factor present in our culture. We tend to be more squeamish about foods. Just look at the way meat is prepared: prepackaged indiscernible cuts of pink flesh completely devoid of evidence from the creatures whence they came. Yet, what many people do not know is that they have already eaten insects. Being so ubiquitous, bugs are an unavoidable contaminant. The FDA has created standards: 60 insect bits for every 3.5 ounces of chocolate and 5 fruit flies for every cup of juice. Bugs are simply part of the food system. It has been estimated that Americans consume about 1 pound of insects a year! Thus, acceptability of insect protein may change with knowledge and preparation; people may be more likely to try insect protein ground up into protein bars or baked goods. Substituting whey protein for an insect version may feel just fine for some. However, reducing the “ick” factor may not be the main issue at play.

Fried_insects_for_sale_in_Cambodia.jpg

Fried insects in Cambodia; photo by Steve Baragona

Is insect protein nutritious and sustainable?

The types of proteins found in insects are comparable to animals in nutrition quality and digestibility. Some species of bugs are more nutritious than others, such as crickets and meal worms, and, as with any food, the method of cooking will also impact nutritional content. Less known is the impact on the environment when raising mass amounts of insects. For example, insects already feed a significant population of animals, contributing 70% of food for all land birds in the world and 40% for all fish.

What would increasing insect populations do to these animals or, for that matter, to any aspect of the ecosystem? Many insects are already cultivated on a mass scale for pest control and for feeding pet birds and reptiles. It has been found that insects can be raised on waste product and other low substrates that could feed livestock or human populations. However, one study conducted by Lundy and Parrella found that crickets produced at a large scale required grain feeding to reach necessary protein yield, making them no more sustainable than chickens. When crickets are raised in their natural habitat at a small scale, protein yields are high, and the insects have a very low impact on the environment. Currently, insect diets are supported in regions of the world that are either less population dense, or more integrated, allowing insects to have a symbiotic relationship with the environment and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. In general, the nutritional content of insects is highly variable, depending on the season, population, species, and geographic area. For insects to be sustainable on a mass scale, it will be a challenge to incorporate them into a balanced environment, essentially dedicating large areas of land to creating a new ecosystem.

More research is needed to determine the environmental impact of mass produced insects, as well as ways to maximize protein content. Looking beyond bugs, other sustainable sources of protein should be considered such as red algae. Sources currently being incorporated into American diets include single cell protein, soy protein, and fish protein concentrate. As with anything else, insects cannot solve the problem alone. Sustainable protein sources may require a patchwork of various sources to provide future populations with necessary nutritional needs.

What would an insect food movement look like?

Many passionate people are utilizing insects as a way to improve issues in the food system. The FAO has reported on the future prospects of insect consumption, while independent groups of enthusiasts are promoting insect culture in hopes of a bug-friendly future. Little Herds based out of Austin, Texas is dedicated to educating communities to the benefits of eating insects, while startups like Crickers and Chirps use cricket flour to create sustainable food products. Insects are also being utilized to address malnutrition. Aspire, also from Austin, Texas, seeks to promote the farming and consumption of insects to help malnourished populations, utilizing palmweevel larvae that are naturally high in iron to reduce anemia in Ghana. Austin is even host to an annual insect eating contest, complete with cooking demonstrations and local artists.

Despite the passion of these groups, the movement is not without its challenges. Other than sustainability or novelty, there is no real intrigue or hook for consumer buy-in. Insect foods need a brand. The ick factor may be the biggest hurdle, but good research and developed methodology is another. For one, transforming bugs into generally accepted food products like chips can mess with the flavor profile. Though crickets are considered to have a mild, nutty flavor; once they are ground into a powder, the flavor becomes a potent tribute to wet dog food. Though highly innovative, the “wet dog food” flavor likely won’t win over the hearts and taste bugs of foodies. Having no clear FDA regulation also poses a challenge for developing insect supply chains. Funders are reluctant to invest in an industry without knowing the regulations that will be placed on it in the future.

Lack of corporate backing is part of what gives the insect movement its charm. It is an underdog movement (pun intended). So far, public desire rather than big business has pushed the industry. It has started on the back of crowd funding with start up companies putting out protein bars and crackers. If an insect movement is to gain momentum, it will be up to us as consumers. If you would like to see a change, vote with your dollar, support the startups, and spread the word.

Michelle Pearson is a second-year Master’s student studying Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition.

Healthy Diet, Healthy Smile?

by Katelyn Castro

“Take care of your teeth when you get older because this is not fun,” the man said to me, pointing to his mouth. I was standing beside him at the Tufts Emergency Dental Clinic while the dentist explained his treatment options: a root canal or a tooth extraction. Despite the man’s best efforts to hold onto his tough persona with his leather jacket and tattooed crossed arms, I couldn’t help but notice his teary eyes as he sat in excruciating pain. Considering a root canal would cost him over a thousand dollars out-of-pocket, he settled for a tooth extraction, leaving him with 8 missing teeth at the age of 36.

I never realized the serious consequences of poor dental hygiene until I spent some quality time with dentists and dental students during my three-week dietetic rotation at the Tufts University Dental School of Medicine. Sometimes we take for granted all that our teeth do for us. Without them, we probably would not be able speak clearly, enjoy food, or even smile without receiving a funny look from someone. I don’t know about you, but I would like to keep my teeth as long as possible, please!

If you have ever been to the dentist, you’re probably familiar with the common dental hygiene recommendations: brush twice a day, floss at least once a day, and visit the dentist every six months. But beyond these basics, eating habits also play an important role in oral health. Sure, soda and candy may be the famous offenders causing cavities, but the research linking diet and oral health is much more extensive than this.

How Do Cavities Form?

In case your dentist hasn’t given you a lecture recently, let’s start with a quick science lesson on cavities. Like probiotics in the digestive tract, some bacteria in the mouth are considered “good bacteria” because they aid in digestion and protect teeth and gums. However, some strains of bacteria in the mouth are “bad bacteria.” These are the main culprits contributing to cavities. Whenever we eat a food or drink containing carbohydrates, they are broken down into sugars, which bad bacteria in the mouth feed on, creating acid as a by-product. In the dental world, this reaction is commonly known as an “acid-attack,” beginning within 20 seconds of eating or drinking carbohydrates and lasting up to 20 minutes. The acids can erode enamel, the tooth’s hard outer layer, dissolving minerals in a process called demineralization.

Repeated cycles of “acid-attacks” can spread tooth decay from the hard outer enamel into the softer dentin layer, with severe cases affecting roots and sensitive nerves. Cavities progressing to these later stages can be extremely painful, increasing sensitivity to hot and cold foods, and eventually leading to tooth loss.

Fortunately, saliva naturally fights tooth decay by helping to wash away food and replenish teeth with calcium and phosphorus in a process known as remineralization. Flossing, brushing, and using fluoridated toothpaste also protect against cavities by clearing plaque, making the mouth less acidic, and adding fluoride back to teeth.

 

However, some eating habits can counteract the cavity-protective efforts of saliva, flossing, and brushing. Certain eating habits can contribute to tooth decay by promoting bacterial growth and the tooth decay process. Other food choices may prevent against decay and even reverse the process through remineralization. Although a healthy diet generally parallels healthy teeth, you may be surprised to find that even some healthy food choices could harm your teeth if you’re not careful.

Here are some steps you can take to make sure your eating habits are also keeping your pearly whites healthy:

1. Steer clear of sticky, starchy, and sugary snacks.

Believe it or not, starchy foods like potato chips or pretzels can be just as harmful to your teeth as sweets. These starchy foods are easily broken down into sugar in the mouth, leading to the same decay process as sweets. Sticky foods like lollipops, caramels, hard candies, and even dried fruits are the worst culprits because they not only promote bacterial growth but also adhere to teeth more, causing greater acid damage.

Nutritionally, most sticky, starchy, and sugary snacks have one common characteristic: they are filled with refined carbohydrates. These types of carbohydrates are stripped of important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them less optimal than whole grains. Refined grains are also more rapidly absorbed in the blood, which can cause blood sugar spikes, increase appetite, and promote inflammation overtime, according to research. While dried fruits are higher in fiber than refined grains, they’re also a concentrated source of sugar, which may be harmful for teeth and overall health if consumed in excess.

Examples of sticky, starchy, sugary snacks to limit:

  • Hard candies, gummies, taffies, cookies, cake, raisins, and other dried fruit
  • Crackers, white bread, white pasta, potato chips, pretzels
  • Soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks

2. Be mindful of when you’re eating carbohydrate-rich foods.                                                                                                                         

According to a review of observational studies, the frequency of sugar intake was found to be more strongly associated with cavities than the quantity of sugar consumed. While this research does not suggest that binging on sweets and other carbohydrate-rich foods is the solution, the findings call attention to the potential effect of the frequency of carbohydrate-rich foods on oral health. Frequent snacking or grazing gives bacteria greater opportunities to feast on carbohydrates and gives acid more time to erode and demineralize teeth. Repeated acid attacks make it harder for saliva to do its job of neutralizing the mouth’s acidic environment and restoring important minerals in teeth. Enjoying your favorite carbohydrate-rich foods as part of a meal cannot only lower risk of cavities, but also make you more mindful and satisfied than grazing mindlessly on snacks or drinks throughout the day.

Here are some ways to keep snacking on carbohydrate-rich foods to a minimum:

  • Drink sweetened drinks (coffee, tea, juice) with meals, instead of sipping over a few hours
  • Eat your favorite starchy snacks (chips, pretzels, crackers) with meals, not between meals
  • Enjoy in your sugary cravings (cookies, cake, ice-cream) right after dinner, not late at night
  • Consider lower carbohydrate options for snacking (see below)

3. Opt for dairy and other healthy protein sources.

Unlike carbohydrates, protein and fat do not break down into sugars so they don’t promote bacterial growth or tooth decay. While dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt have some natural sugars called lactose, they are also great sources of protein, calcium, and Vitamin D. With the synergistic role of calcium and vitamin D in bone health, dairy has been found in studies to have a protective effect on cavities through remineralization.

If you’re not a fan of dairy, don’t fret! Fish, poultry, eggs, beans, and edamame are also examples of healthy proteins that may help to strengthen and remineralize teeth because of their high phosphorus levels. Nuts and seeds can also be protective against cavities, providing another source of fiber, vitamin D, and calcium. The crunchiness of nuts and seeds can also stimulate saliva when chewing, naturally cleansing the mouth and flushing away food debris.

Incorporating more lean proteins and healthy fats into your diet could not only improve oral health but also bone and heart health. Choosing dairy and healthy protein sources as snacks (i.e., string cheese, yogurt) can help to offset the potential negative effects of carbohydrates on decay while also creating a more balanced plate.

Examples of dairy and healthy protein foods to include to your meals and snacks:

  • Dairy: string cheese, yogurt, milk, fortified soy milk or almond milk
  • Lean proteins: eggs, chicken, turkey, salmon, sardines, tuna, beans, edamame, tofu
  • Healthy fats: almonds, peanuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, avocado

4. Snack on fruits and veggies.

Like nuts, high-fiber fruits and vegetables can cleanse teeth and stimulate the flow of saliva. Although fruits contain natural sugars called fructose, they are also high in fiber and water, providing a less concentrated source of sugar, which makes them a superior snack choice for your teeth and overall health. Fruits and vegetables also have an array of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, and calcium, which collectively help to heal gums and strengthen teeth.

High-fiber fruits and vegetables to enjoy:

  • Apples, watermelon, strawberries, pears, plums, peaches, kiwis
  • Carrots, celery, cucumbers, broccoli, leafy greens, bell peppers

5. Don’t Let Acid Wear Away Your Teeth.

In addition to the acid produced from carbohydrate digestion, acidic foods and drinks also lower the pH of the mouth, demineralizing tooth enamel directly. When acidic foods and drinks are also high in sugar, their effect on oral health and overall health can be even more concerning.

However, the frequency of acidic foods can also make a difference. As the famous Stephan Curve demonstrates, the more time your mouth stays in an acidic state, the more harm acid can do to teeth. So, if you can’t break your relationship with Diet Coke, wine, or lemon-infused water, try sipping these drinks at meals instead of throughout the day. Also, try using a straw so teeth are less exposed to the acid and rinse your mouth out with water after having acidic foods or drinks.

Acidic foods and drinks to limit:

  • Soda (regular and diet), sports drinks, fruit juices and drinks, wine, beer
  • Flavored water, fruit-infused water (i.e., lemon, lime), seltzer water, tonic water, and other carbonated beverages
  • Lemons, limes, fried foods, high-fat meats, condiments (vinegar, soy sauce, mayonnaise)

6. Water Can Do Wonders for Your Teeth.

Drinking enough water throughout the day may the simplest, yet most important step you can take to prevent cavities. Sipping on water after meals and at snacks helps to wash away bacteria and neutralize the pH in the mouth. Since people with diabetes or people taking certain medications can experience dry mouth, a condition called xerostomia, drinking plenty of water can be especially important to reduce risk of tooth decay. Fluoridated water provides extra protection because the fluoride strengthens teeth by reversing demineralization. According to the American Dental Association, fluoride in community water systems (tap water) prevents at least 25% of tooth decay in children and adults. In fact, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention has identified community water fluoridation as one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Wondering if your tap water is fluoridated? You can check the fluoride levels of tap water in your community using this website.

Tips to get your fluoride fix:

  • Drink fluoridated tap water if available in your community, instead of bottled water
  • Filter tap water if concerned with contaminants in community water system (most commonly used water filters like Brita will not remove fluoride through filtering)
  • Use fluoride toothpaste and/or mouthwash
  • Consider talking to your dentist about taking a prescription strength fluoride toothpaste if you’re at risk of tooth decay

Bottom Line

Fortunately, most healthy foods are also healthy for your teeth. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, lean proteins, nuts, and seeds all make up part of a healthy diet, while also supporting healthy teeth. However, being mindful of how frequently your sipping and snacking on carbohydrate-rich foods and acidic foods and drinks may keep you from getting cavities in the future. Of course, brushing, flossing, and visiting the dentist regularly are also high on the list of priorities for good oral hygiene. While these healthy habits may seem trivial at a young age, let’s all learn from the poor man I met with 8 missing teeth at the age of 36; take care of your teeth now so that you can smile, eat, and enjoy food later in life.

Katelyn Castro is a first-year student in the DI/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. She is a food science geek who loves experimenting with new food combinations in the kitchen.

Protein and Peppers: The Positives of Part-time Paleo

by Melissa Hudec

The year is 2014. I’m about to cook my Paleo breakfast, made up of foods that my ancestors would have eaten. And just as my hunter-gatherer ancestors did thousands of years ago, I pull out my $400 Kitchen Aid, fire up my gas stove, and whip up some “Paleo” pancakes. I mean, I used 100% pure maple syrup and nut flour, so it falls within the Paleo rules, right?

paleoPyramid350.gifFast forward to 2016. Technically, I’ve been an (unsuccessful) practicing Paleo for a couple years, filling in the gaps of my hunter-gather diet with Greek yogurt, whole-wheat bread, and the occasional good beer (totally worth it). So, while I personally haven’t chosen to follow this extremely clean eating lifestyle to the T (I found it hard to work into my busy, social routine), I still follow many of Paleo’s core tenants and will faithfully argue in its favor as a scientifically-backed way to improve a range of health disparities.

Before I go into that, however, here’s a quick recap of the Paleo diet for those who need a refresher. Paleo really isn’t a diet, but rather a full lifestyle change; and a pretty hefty initial change at that. Those who wish for miraculous weight loss or the option of mindlessly eating pre-packaged meals need not apply. Paleo requires commitment, focus, and a lot of planning.

Founded by the notion that humans live and perform at their best when eating unprocessed and whole foods, Paleo centers around vegetables, meat, healthy fats, and some fruit and nuts. Most convenience foods do not fit the bill. Nor do fast foods, sugary drinks, candy, bagels, etc. Basically, if it grew from the ground or eats stuff that grows on the ground, then it’s Paleo. Not all followers insist on the “caveman” origins of Paleo however. I often have to remind critics of that.

Being a Friedman Masters student, I often find myself engaged in conversation with a Paleo critic or skeptic who contends that eating this way is just a fad, is too meat-heavy, or is “dangerously restrictive.” Again, I fully disclose that I found 100% Paleo to be too difficult for my current lifestyle, but I remind the naysayers that by incorporating at least a part of the Paleo guidelines into your lifestyle can have a huge impact on one’s health, according to many dietitians and many people who haurl.jpgve eaten this way. Alene Baronian, MS, RDN, founder of Eat 2 Perform, said in a blog post that although 100% Paleo can be hard to sustain in the long term, “eating more Paleo-like would be beneficial to a large population of the U.S. We need to eat more whole foods and eliminate all the processed items going into our bodies and following a Paleo way of eating assists with doing that.”

Therefore, in regards to what a “Paleo way of eating” actually is, pancakes made from densely caloric nut flour doused in pure maple syrup is absolutely not the point of Paleo (sorry, 2014 self).

In fact, I had the opportunity to have some first-hand lessons on this topic myself. The creator of the popular book, The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, happens to have been the professor of my Evolutionary Basis for Health and Fitness class at Colorado State University. In that class, we discussed the myriad of ways Paleo-style eating is preferable to the “Western Diet.” We discussed how dark leafy vegetables can be a preferable calcium source to dairy, in addition to their high content of Vitamin K and other bone-building nutrients. It’s also not that uncommon for many people to stay away from dairy for cultural or intolerance reasons, and they manage just fine. We learned that eating grass-fed beef is typically lower in calories and higher in vitamins than feedlot beef. Therefore making just these two diet changes, for example, can positively impact your health without requiring you to alter your entire diet forever.

In all honesty, I shouldn’t have to explain or justify what I choose to eat to anyone (nor should you). But for me, the positives of including Paleo-type foods have outweighed the occasional negative criticism I receive. And really, if my part-time Paleo eating motives are simply to include more whole foods, more nutritious vegetables, and less refined sugars, how can anyone argue against that?

Melissa Hudec is a graduating Nutrition Communications Masters student pursuing a job in public relations in Boston. She can’t wait to share her knowledge about Paleo with a new cohort.

 

Perfect Pairings: Food Combinations with a Nutritional Boost

by Katelyn Castro

Pooh and Piglet, Batman and Robin, Nemo and Dory. These classic duos bring out the best in one another. They’re good characters on their own, but they’re just naturally better together, complementing each other’s personalities.

Surprisingly, the same holds true for some food pairs. Combining certain foods may not only taste better, but it may also provide greater nutritional benefits than when eaten separately. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients in foods can interact synergistically to enhance their absorption and utilization in the body, allowing you to get the most health benefits from your food.

The concept of food synergy has been studied for several years, but researchers continue to uncover nutrient combinations that work together to impact health and risk of disease. Here are five pairs of nutrients proven to have synergistic effects, providing the greatest health benefits when eaten together:

  1. Iron + Vitamin C = More Energy

While iron has many functions in the body, one of its most essential roles is the synthesis of hemoglobin, which helps deliver oxygen to muscles and other tissues in our body. When we don’t get enough iron from food, the first signs of deficiency can leave you feeling tired and weak. No one wants to feel this way!

But, meeting your iron needs isn’t as simple as reading a food label because iron is absorbed and utilized in the body differently depending on the food source. Approximately 16% of iron is absorbed from animal sources (heme iron: oysters, liver, chicken), only about 8% of iron is absorbed from plant sources (non-heme iron: grains, beans, leafy greens), according to research. The differences in iron absorption can be of concern to vegetarians, who may need up to two times the recommended iron.

Enter Vitamin C: Studies have found that when Vitamin C is combined with non-heme iron, a compound forms that makes iron more easily absorbed in the body. If you’re a vegetarian or eat mostly plant-based foods, adding as little as 25 milligrams of vitamin C to your meals could double the amount of iron absorbed in your body.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Calcium + Vitamin D = Strong Bones and Teeth

Calcium is known for its bone-strengthening benefits but without enough Vitamin D, calcium cannot be absorbed or used efficiently in the body. Unfortunately, over 40% of adults in the U.S. are Vitamin D deficient, according to research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

While 10 minutes of direct sunlight each day is all you need in the summer to get enough Vitamin D, the sun’s rays are not strong enough to meet your Vitamin D needs during the winter months. Instead, incorporate Vitamin D-rich foods into your meals and with calcium-rich foods so that calcium can be absorbed and utilized adequately in the body. While some calcium-rich foods are already fortified with Vitamin D (milk, orange juice, yogurt), other calcium-rich foods need to be combined with Vitamin D sources to enhance calcium absorption.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Fat Soluble Vitamins (A, D, E, K) + Unsaturated Fat = Healthy Heart, Skin, and Eyes

One of the reasons we need healthy, unsaturated fat in our diet is to enhance absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Vitamin A supports healthy skin maintenance; Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption and hormone synthesis; Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant and promotes eye and heart health; and Vitamin K improves bone and heart health.

Eating foods rich in Vitamin A (carrots, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes), Vitamin D (fish, yogurt, milk), Vitamin E (nuts, seeds, avocadoes, leafy greens) and Vitamin K (leafy greens, Brussels sprouts) with unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado) can significantly enhance the absorption of the vitamins and their health benefits.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Herb and Wine Marinades + Meat = Cancer Protection

When meats are cooked at high temperatures during grilling, broiling, or frying, the amino acids and creatine in meats can react to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Since HCAs and PAHs have been linked to cancer growth and damage DNA in laboratory studies, preparations methods that reduce these potentially harmful substances from being produced are recommended.

According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, marinating meats in wine for two hours prior to cooking could significantly reduce HCAs. In addition, a study from Kansas State University found that rubbing rosemary onto meats before grilling might reduce HCA levels by up to 100%. Other herbs such as garlic, basil, mint, sage, and oregano could offer similar benefits, according to researchers. The protective benefit of adding herbs and wine to meat marinades is likely attributed to their high antioxidant content, which can block HCAs from forming during heating.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Prebiotics + Probiotics = Healthy Digestion and Immunity

Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible food components that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, and whole-wheat foods are some of the top sources of prebiotics.

In contrast, probiotics are the healthy bacteria or live cultures that help to change the intestinal bacteria and balance gut flora. Sources of probiotics range from dairy foods such as yogurt and kefir to sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and soy beverages.

Research is beginning to identify the important synergistic relationship between prebiotics and probiotics in which prebiotics feed the probiotics. A recent study suggests that combining prebiotic and probiotic foods in the diet may boost immunity and gastro-intestinal health by increasing the production of antibodies and other immune-fighting cells and promoting mucous production and intestinal integrity.

Food Pairings to Try:

Katelyn Castro is a first-year student in the DI/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. She is a food science geek who loves experimenting with new food combinations in the kitchen.

Expired Milk, or Is It? Whimsical Expiration Dates and Real Life Food Waste

by Ally Gallop, RD, CDE

Every year in the United States roughly 40 percent of the food and beverages produced go to waste. Not only are perfectly fine items being trashed, households are losing on average $1,560 to $2,275 annually! In 2013, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the National Resources Defense Council co-published a comprehensive report outlining American food waste secondary to arbitrarily set food and beverage expiration dates. Three years later, the FLPC released a brief video appealing to the masses on the same topic. So do you know what the expiration dates on your foods really mean?

First off, entertain yourself with John Oliver’s take on food waste:

Now that you’re primed on the topic, complete this pop quiz on expiration dates and food waste:

  1. How many days after milk pasteurization occurs may pasteurized milk safely be consumed?
    a. Only up until the date stamped onto the container
    b. Regardless of the stamped date, 17-20 days
    c. Regardless of the stamped date, 21-24 days
  1. A food or beverage’s date label is determined by each U.S. state. What are these dates generally based on?
    a. Optimal food quality and freshness
    b. Strict food safety guidelines
    c. A specific number of days after packaging
  1. If food waste was a country, how would it rank as a global carbon-emitter?
    a. The worst
    b. The second worst
    c. The third worst

Why milk?

Ninety percent of Americans admit to throwing out foods and beverages past their date, thinking the items are unsafe for consumption. Ultimately, an estimated 160 billion pounds of food are thrown out annually.

Speaking to the FLPC, milk was chosen for their consumer video for the very reason that milk is a familiar grocery item. Milk waste is also visually impactful: Watching gallons of milk being poured down the drain due to arbitrary expiration dates is unsettling. But that’s the point. Rather than spit out facts or fill endless pages of text, the FLPC aimed to create a short video swiftly outlining why food waste and its associated laws are a problem, all by using a relatable product: milk.

Expiration, best-by, sell-by dates, etc.: Who decides?

The variety of dates that exist on food labels is left to the discretion of individual states. Expiration dates are not federally regulated. In Massachusetts, and with a few food exceptions, only packaged perishable or semi-perishable foods require dates.

The FLPC’s video is based in Montana, chosen for its strict “sell-by date:” Twelve days after milk is pasteurized, sales and donations of the milk are prohibited—any milk at grocery stores or any other establishment must be discarded. Yet other states allow for milk to be sold 21 to 28 days!

Montana’s prohibited laws are misguided likely due to the fear and misinformation that old milk makes people sick. But the science doesn’t support this. Here’s really why milk curdles, sours, and smells:

  • Curdled milk: Over time, milk becomes more acidic allowing proteins like casein to clump together.
  • Sour milk: The milk’s ever present and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria ferments lactose.
  • Smelly milk: This is caused by microbes entering the milk when the container is repeatedly opened and duplicating at room temperature, bacteria breaking down milk proteins and butterfat, and molds that act on lactic acid and proteins.

However, drinking past-its-prime milk won’t induce a foodborne illness! Since milk is pasteurized, it does not contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli commonly responsible for illness.

The future in food expiration date labels

Current date labels are more often related to the product’s sensory quality than its safety for human consumption. Yet if dates were extended then less milk in the U.S. would likely be produced and sold, which would be bad for dairy farmers and a state’s gross domestic product. This is reason enough for the federal government to step in with an all-encompassing regulation.

Ideally, the FLPC envisions federally mandated expiration dates be supported by scientific research. Consistency in labeling would be ideal for consumer understanding and education campaigns. The FLPC proposes only two unambiguous labels to be present on foods and beverages:

  1. “Best if used by” (optional): Indicates best quality before the date and to use best judgment thereafter.
  2. “Expires on:” For items requiring a safety-based label (e.g., deli meats).

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) added political support last month by introducing legislation standardizing date labeling and those that are based on science.

Current consumer food trends are towards increased demand for fresh foods, which likely doesn’t include past-date milk. However, the FLPC does suggest providing financial incentives or discounted milk for product sold after the “best if used by” date. Or, retailers could choose to donate the product.

By now you’re likely dying to know the answers to the initial pop quiz. Here you go!

  1. C – see FLPC Op-Ed
  2. A – see FLPC fact sheet
  3. C – see Mother Jones

Learn more about the FLPC’s current initiatives

EXPIRED? FLPC food waste website and direct link to the video.

Facebook: Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

Ally Gallop, RD, CDE is a second-year nutrition communication and behavior change student focusing in U.S. food and nutrition policy. She ignores expiration dates in favor of the smell test.

How to Grab the Right Drink and Properly Hydrate for Exercise

by Katie Mark

I used to force myself to hydrate during training, and I learned (the hard way) that hydration is crucial to an athlete’s optimal performance. As a tennis player, road cyclist, and recreational boxer, I’ve found a major difference in my ability to sustain endurance and intensity during workouts when properly hydrated. There’s nothing worse than quitting a marathon, getting dropped on a ride, or stopping practice because of dehydration. Why? Because you can prevent it. 

When I competitively played tennis in hot and humid Miami, dehydration constantly hit me during tournaments and practice, especially while practicing six hours during a summer day. In my Bike w Waterearly days of road cycling, I used to get dropped on rides because I was too busy in the back of the group struggling with the consequences of dehydration.

For years I had trouble staying hydrated, which always led to cramping and fatigue. I work out two hours per day when I’m in Boston (high intensity interval training and boxing). When I’m in Miami, I do three hours per day of tennis and/or road cycling. There’s no excuse for me not to properly hydrate, especially since I am an athlete and my career focus is sports nutrition.

Proper hydration controls body temperature, and electrolyte and fluid balance – so staying hydrated requires replacement of electrolytes—not just fluid. Dehydration results when fluids lost by the body through sweat or urine are not replaced, which leads to hypohydration. This leads to greater heat storage in the body, which lowers the ability to tolerate outside heat.

Dehydration tackles athletes even when they think they are hydrated. Yet, it’s preventable. Keep in mind, sports have different—and specific—hydration protocols. Below is general guidance on how to properly hydrate and choose the right fluid for sport performance. Even if you don’t road cycle 50 miles a day or run marathons, you can still soak up the details below and apply them to your workouts.

Detect Dehydration to Avoid the Consequences

The severity of impaired sport performance increases as the severity of dehydration increases. For dehydration to negatively affect sport performance, it takes as little as 2% loss in body weight (~1.4 kg, or 3 lb, in a 68 kg, or 150 lb, athlete). A loss larger than 2% leads to an increased risk for nausea, vomiting, and other GI problems. Dehydration during high-intensity or anaerobic activities can lead to 3-5% loss in body weight. Therefore, hydration during these activities is even more critical.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness and lightheadedness
  • Decreased urination
  • Dry mouth
  • Chills and lack of sweat

Consequences of dehydration include a reduction of:

  • Sweat rate
  • Blood volume, which thickens blood
  • Skin blood flow
  • Heat loss

And an increase in:

  • Body temperature
  • Rate of muscle glycogen use
  • Difficulty oxygenating the body

Hydration Strategies

Optimal performance starts with proper hydration before exercise. This is especially important for hot and humid environments and exercise lasting longer than 30-60 minutes. Pre-, during and post-exercise tactics are outlined below:

Days Before Competition:

  • Drink an extra cup or two of fluid. This can help make up for any potential shortcomings during pre-competition training.
  • Increase sodium intake. Extra sodium in water will help increase fluid uptake in the blood. This can be done by adding electrolytes to your drink or putting a little bit of salt on your food.
  • Calculate your sweat rate. This is important to determine the amount you should be drinking during training. Sweat rates, depending on intensity, duration, fitness level and environmental conditions, can range between 0.3-2.4 L/hr. Knowing the amount of fluid you need to drink will keep comfortable for optimal performance. Drinking too much during competition may lead to GI distress. Here’s how to calculate your sweat rate to personalize your fluid replacement plan:
  1. Right before training. Empty your bladder, and weigh yourself with little to no clothing.
  2. After training. Wipe off extra sweat on your body and weight yourself again.
  3. Calculate your new weight. Subtract the after exercise weight from the before exercise weight. The new weight reflects your weight change during training (change in weight = sweat loss – fluid intake). This is primarily water loss as opposed to fat loss.
  4. Convert to ounces. Multiply the new weight (in pounds) by 16.
  5. Calculate the total amount of fluid. Add the amount of fluid (ounces) you drank during training to what you calculated as your change in weight.
  6. Divide by number of hours you trained. If you trained for two hours then take the number from step 5 and divide it by 2. This gives you the amount of ounces of fluid you need to replace per hour, or sweat rate.
  7. Monitor this sweat loss. Your sweat rate is the amount of fluid you need to consume during training and competitions.

Calculate Sweat Rate Graphic

Pre-Exercise or Competition:

  • Check urine color. Clear to pale-yellow colored urine is good hydration status. This is a basic—yet helpful—indicator of hydration because urine color can be affected by riboflavin (B vitamin), vitamin C, and some medications.
  • Drink 2-4 hours before. Drink 5-10 ml/kg of body weight, or 2-4 ml/lb before exercise.

During Exercise or Competition:

  • Prepare your water bottle. Options for fluids are discussed below so make sure your bottle is ready.
  • Make your fluid cold. Cold beverages can help reduce your body temperature, which helps in hot and humid conditions.
  • Follow your sweat rate. Calculate this (described above) during your training sessions.
  • Grab your water bottle before you get thirsty. Thirst indicates that you need to drink and not that you are dehydrated.
  • Drink the suggested amount. If you don’t know your sweat rate, drink 6-12 oz (150-350 mL) every 15-20 minutes. Keep in mind, the amount will vary depending on the:
    1. Intensity of the sport
    2. Environmental conditions
    3. Amount of fluid you can handle
  • Listen to your body. The body does an exceptional job maintaining fluid balance. That’s why you drink when you’re thirsty. Follow your body’s message to drink.
  • Pinch your skin. This is not a 100% reliable method, but it still helps to detect hydration. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand using your pointer finger and thumb. Hold for a few seconds. If your skin takes a bit of time to return to normal position then you need to drink more.
  • Check urine color. Make sure urine is a pale color. If it looks dark like apple juice then drink up.
  • Sense dry mouth. A dry mouth is one of the first signs of dehydration. Grab the water bottle!

Post-Exercise or Competition:

  • Replace your fluid deficit. You will continue to lose fluid even after exercise. Over two to six hours, replace about 150% of the fluid you lost because a larger volume of fluid is needed for the continued sweat losses and urine losses after exercise. Generally, replace 16-24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost. If you have a hard time doing this, an easy tactic/reminder is to drink fluids with your recovery meals.
  • Do not restrict sodium. Athletes usually have large sodium losses during exercise so sodium intake should not be restricted.
  • Plan for next practice or competition. If you felt dehydrated, go back to the drawing board. Revaluate the amount of fluid you need.

Note on over-hydration: there is no benefit to drinking more than what you need. Over-hydration is especially seen in recreational athletes because they may believe that they need to drink more when their exercise intensity and sweat rate are not that as high as competitive athletes. Drinking more than needed could dilute important electrolytes necessary for cell communication, nerve pulses, and muscle contraction. Drinking more can also increase urination and leave you feeling bloated.

Water’s Best Friend: Electrolytes

Electrolytes are critical for cell communication, nerve impulses and muscle contraction. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are important electrolytes. For instance, the body needs to maintain 135-145 mmol/l of sodium in the blood for optimal body function. This is why drinking too much water should be avoided because dilution can lead to sodium depletion, or hyponatremia. Urination increases with the more you drink, and this causes additional sodium excretion. Even if this is mild, it can lead to fatigue, headaches and confusion.

Exercise at a high intensity—at least 70% of your max heart rate—or for greater than 90 minutes calls for electrolyte replacement. Read on for options on how to replace electrolytes.

How to Pick the Right Fluid

Plain Water

Plain water is the best choice in majority of exercise conditions. Sports drinks provide carbohydrate and electrolytes, but are only intended for those exercising more than 90 minutes and/or at a high intensity. In contrast, water is ideal for those who are just doing short duration and/or low intensity (i.e., the elliptical) exercise. The carbohydrate (simple sugar) only adds unnecessary calories.

Sports Drinks

Research suggests that sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade can help sport performance. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates (6-8% of solution), water, and electrolytes. Avoid sports drinks with high fructose corn syrup or sugar alcohols because these ingredients can lead to upset stomach.

Consider your sport and intensity to determine if the extra carbohydrates from sports drinks is necessary because it’s added sugar. If you are worried about added calories, but you want the flavor of a sports drink, you can dilute the sports drink with water. If you use a sports drink, avoid drinking one that you’ve never used before on the day of competition. Make sure the drink is tolerable to your stomach during a few training sessions.

Electrolyte Sources

Some alternatives for electrolyte sources are coconut water, water-enhancing electrolyte tablets (i.e., Nuun), or fruit-infused water. Coconut water comes from the fluid inside the coconut—which is different from coconut milk—and it’s a natural way to replenish electrolytes, especially potassium and magnesium. There are sweetened and unsweetened versions—so no sugar, artificial sweeteners, or dyes that sports drinks contain. Water-enhancing electrolytes will give you the electrolytes you need without the sugar. Simply adding fruit or citrus (i.e., berries and lemon slices) can also do the trick.

A large sweat sodium loss calls for replacing sodium during exercise. Do this by using electrolyte tablets or adding salt to your beverage. Sodium should be replaced if:Electrolytes Graphic

  • Athlete has a high sweat rate (>1.2 L/hr)
  • “Salty sweat” is present. Signs to look for include sweat stings the eyes, sweat tastes salty and white streaks on your face, skin or clothes
  • Exercise is longer than 2 hours

Note on the electrolytes that not all products have the same amount of electrolytes. A tablet of Nuun may have more magnesium than the amount found in coconut water. You may need to use multiple electrolyte tablets depending on the intensity of your exercise.

You need to compare products. Look at serving size and the electrolytes you’re getting for that serving size. For instance, I know my diet lacks magnesium, and I will not drink a sports drink (even if I’m riding 50 or 100 miles). I searched for electrolyte sources that have the highest amount of magnesium per serving. And I found electrolyte tablets were the best option for my exercise conditions and my personal preferences and needs. I add more tablets to my water bottle depending on the intensity and duration of training.

Bottom line: If you’re a gym rat exercising at low or moderate intensity or for less than 90 minutes then skip the sports drink. For those exercising at a higher intensity and/or for at least 90 minutes, consider if the added calories from sugar are unnecessary based on your training session or competition. Skipping the sports drink means you need to consider alternatives for electrolyte sources so you can sustain optimal performance.

Katie Mark is a second year MS Nutrition Communication and Master of Public Health candidate. She carries tubes of electrolyte tablets in her cycling jersey pocket and a dollar for Cuban coffee.

Aqua… Advantage?

by Alexandra Simas

Fish are a fabulous source of many nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. Growing popular demand has strained the limits of commercial fishing. Farmed fish help meet the growing need, but this system still has a significant environmental impact. Working towards the goal of increasing aquaculture efficiency, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty has created the AquaAdvantage® salmon, the first genetically-modified (GM) animal approved by the FDA for sale and consumption.

What makes AquaAdvantage® salmon different?

These GM salmon grow rapidly and reach consumption size far faster than their non-GM Atlantic salmon counterparts. This increased growth is a result of inserting a modified Chinook salmon growth hormone gene, which produces a protein very similar to the Atlantic salmon’s orthologous protein, into the Atlantic salmon.

aquavantage-salmon

A GMO salmon in the background compared to non-GMO salmon in foreground.  From AquaBounty

The key difference lies in the promotor, which controls timing and quantity of growth hormone production. The endogenous salmon promotor regulates growth in a seasonal manner i.e. the salmon grow more when the environment is conducive to growth. Conversely, the Chinook gene is inserted along with a promoter from an eel, the ocean pout. In the pout this promoter regulates the production of an antifreeze protein. Since this protein prevents the eel from freezing in its sub-zero natural habitat, it’s important to produce it at constant levels every day of the year. AquaBounty takes advantage of this perpetual green light to ensure their GM salmon are pumped full of growth hormone every day of the year.

The increased growth means AquaAdvantage® salmon are full-grown within 18 months rather than 2 years for conventional farmed salmon or 3 for wild, allowing greater food production and/or reducing environmental impact.

Next step, take over the world?

A common concern with genetically modified organisms is their interaction with the environment and native species. AquaBounty is confident its precautions will prevent their salmon from escaping to natural salmon habitats, by growing salmon in tanks on land (though this does not mean the tanks can’t be near rivers or lakes). In the case that their salmon do reach the ocean, all salmon raised will be both female and sterile.

The sterility is achieved by making the fish triploid. This means they possess two copies of each maternal chromosome and one copy of each paternal, for a total of three copies of each. Fish, like humans, are naturally diploid, possessing only one copy of each chromosome from each parent. Triploid animals do occur rarely in nature, but are usually sterile. Producing female, triploid fish populations via temperature shocks, high pressures, or chemical treatments is already an established practice (with 99% accuracy), employed by companies such as Troutlodge to supply “trophy trout” for sport fishing with minimal impact on native populations. A key point here is that a small population of diploid i.e. fertile salmon must always be raised to breed the next generation.

One concern about GM organisms is that they may be more fit than their conventional counterparts, giving them an unfair advantage if they escape containment. In a review published earlier this year, Robert H. Devlin, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, headed a team that sought to elucidate the potential environmental impact of escaped GM salmon. They did this by reviewing over eighty studies on fish genetically modified through the addition of growth hormone transgenes. They concluded that GM fish are usually created from strains closely related to their wild counterparts, and therefore are quite capable of interbreeding should fertile fish escape. However, the differences between GM and wild fish do not necessarily confer advantage. The increased growth comes at the cost of other functions, such as immune function and swimming ability.

On the other hand, Fredrik Sundström, an ecologist at Uppsala University in Sweden and another author on this study, contends that “it’s very difficult to predict any ecological consequences before these fish are actually in nature, when it’s kind of too late to do anything about it.” Will they dominate due to their size, or will their phenotypic tradeoffs ensure they die off without having much impact on the native ecosystem?

Like all livestock, farmed fish are more prone to disease and infection because of their close living quarters. Any farmed fish escapees spread pathogens among the wild population. If GM salmon escape and outcompete wild-type salmon due to their large size, they could spread the pathogens more widely. Furthermore, even if the escapees are sterile, the competition could effectively reduce the wild population by starving out the wild salmon.

Are GM salmon more likely to cause allergies?

Fish is a common allergenic food, and genetic modification can affect protein production. Could AquaAdvantage® salmon be more allergenic than other salmon? The FDA found that AquaAdvantage® triploid allergenicity was no different from non-GM, wild caught salmon. However, caveats include a sample size of just six fish per group, and that only wild caught salmon were used as controls, in contrast to many of the other tests performed, such as fatty acid profile, where farmed salmon were included. Since these salmon are farmed, farmed salmon are a better control. Returning to the breeding diploid population mentioned above, GM diploid salmon possessed higher allergenic potency in one test, while other tests performed were flawed and could not be used according to the FDA. They concluded that “insufficient data and information were available from which to draw a conclusion regarding possible additional allergenic risk posed by diploid [GM] salmon.”

How do I know if I’m eating GM salmon?

You wouldn’t unless the vendor volunteers that information, since there are no laws requiring labelling of GM foods. But what vendor is going to choose to tell you?

No matter how thorough testing of new products is, innovation is always accompanied by a certain amount of risk in the unknown. History is filled with novel policies or inventions, like DDT and Agent Orange, chlorofluorocarbons, or BPA, that seemed wonderful at the time, and based on the cutting edge scientific research of that day they were deemed safe. But as new scientific knowledge was discovered they were found to be extremely harmful. The thing is, we can only test and look for markers or effects we already know exist. Additionally, as time passes studies with longer time points can be performed by independent bodies.

Genetically modified products may prove to be completely harmless in the long run, but we don’t know what the future will hold. The FDA has determined that since the GM salmon are not materially different from their conventional counterparts (they may be bigger, but they have the same nutrient profile) they don’t require labelling. But what if tomorrow a researcher discovers a new marker that is biologically relevant to those consuming it and is substantially different between GM and conventional?

In the meantime, many groups are demanding mandatory labeling. Mandatory labelling would not prevent the sale or purchase of the GM products. While some consumers without strong opinions might gravitate towards a non-GM product if offered a choice between the two, thus reducing sales of GM products, the fact that a company would sell more product if they didn’t have to give consumers more information about it hardly seems a compelling reason to not require labelling. Mandatory labelling wouldn’t harm any consumers, and it would only help consumers make better decisions.

The bottom line:

Genetic modification has incredible potential to improve our lives, diets, and environment. However, we still have much to learn about the biological effects of both genetic modification and traditional breeding, and a lack of evidence against something is not necessarily equivalent to evidence in favor of something. In the case of AquaAdvantage® salmon, my primary desire is, as usual, to see more independent studies with longer-term outcomes (and sample sizes greater than six!). Beyond that, my major concerns at this point are more about the effects of farming on things like nutrient profile and pollutant levels than about their genetic modification, though due to their reduced immune function, I would be even more concerned about the rates of antibiotic usage on GM salmon than conventionally farmed salmon.

Alexandra Simas is a second-year PhD student in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition.

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