Microalgae: Do They Have a Place in Your Diet or Should They Be Left in the Pond?

by Julia Sementelli

If you have an Instagram account, chances are you’ve seen a slew of blue-green smoothies pop up on your feed. That vibrant color comes from adding some form of powdered algae to the smoothie. High in antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein, microalgae are the latest superfood to take over the nutrition world. The most popular types of algae include chlorella, spirulina, Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), Blue Majik…the list goes on. Microalgae are claimed to boost your energy, decrease stress, and reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease. The question, of course, is whether these microalgae have any science-based health benefits beyond the nutrients they provide. I’ve asked consumers, health food companies, and nutrition experts to weigh in on whether algae should be added to your daily regimen or if they’re better off as fish food.

What are algae?  And why are we eating them?

Microalgae are very small photosynthetic plants rich in chlorophyll, which is where the green comes from (hello flashbacks to high school biology class). According to research, algae types differ in the nutrients they provide but all share one characteristic: they are high in antioxidants.  (See “Get To Know Your Blue-Green Algae” in the sidebar to learn more about individual microalgae). While some microalgae have been on the market for years, they have just recently risen to fame in the nutrition world as social media, blogs, and magazines advertise the purported benefits. One microalga in particular, spirulina, has received a significant amount of attention.  Companies have jumped on the microalgae bandwagon by adding spirulina to their products and even selling it in pure form. Abby Schulman, vegan and nutrition enthusiast, says that her fascination with superfood culture generally led to hearing about microalgae, in particular spirulina.  “It is sort of billed as this amazing nutrient-dense secret pill,” she states. “I was actually concerned about my iron levels and nutrition generally when I first started using it, since it was right when I transitioned to veganism. It felt like a good way of packing in some vitamins was to try the spirulina.” As a vegan who eats a diet rich in fresh produce, Abby states that adding spirulina to her diet is “ a more shelf stable way of getting in greens at the level I eat them than having to buy huge tubs of greens all the time.”

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Photo credit: Julia Sementelli

Microalgae’s time in the sun

 Blue-green microalgae have become a nutritional celebrity thanks to their prevalence in popular health food spots across the United States. Juice Generation, a national juice and smoothie chain, has jumped on the algae bandwagon by selling products that tout its supposed benefits. Products range from “Holy Water,” which contains Blue Majik, tulsi, coconut water, and pineapple, to concentrated shots of E3Live. These products claim to boost energy, enhance focus, and balance blood sugar. However, research to support these claims is lacking.

Infographic credit: Julia Sementelli

Infographic credit: Julia Sementelli

Health food businesses that use social media and blogs to advertise their products have also played a significant role in making microalgae famous. Sun Potion, an online medicinal plants and superfoods company, sells a slew of supplements, including chlorella. Sky Serge, Sun Potion spokesperson, is a big proponent of the power of chlorella. “Sun Potion chlorella is a single-celled green algae that is different than others, and is grown indoors and processed using an advanced sound frequency technology to crack the cell wall, making its many nutrients available for us to enjoy,” she explains. She says that she enjoys consuming chlorella in a glass of spring water each morning. “I have personally felt its detoxification benefits and have noticed healthier skin, better digestion and overall, a better wellbeing. Whether I am drinking it in my water in the morning or adding it to a salad dressing, I try and want to consume it every day!”

To further bolster Sun Potion’s belief in the power of its chlorella, founder, Scott Linde claims that chlorella “contains all eight essential amino acids, which could allow a person to live solely on chlorella and clean drinking water.” Not surprisingly, he too consumes chlorella daily. “Upon waking in the morning, I enjoy an eight ounce glass of water with a teaspoon of chlorella mixed in,” he says. “This simple action can punctuate the start of a great day. The body is slightly dehydrated after sleep, meaning the nutrients from the chlorella are absorbed almost immediately into the blood stream.” When asked about the nutrition benefits of chlorella, Linde claims that drinking chlorella offers much more than just antioxidants. “It helps to oxygenate the blood, waking up the brain; nourish the organs; aid in healthy elimination; and assist the body in moving toxins out of the system.” Not only have Serge and Linde experienced excellent results, but their customers have as well. “At Sun Potion, we have actually had customers tell us that they have forgotten to make their coffee in the morning because they were feeling so good from their morning chlorella ritual. This is perfect example of potent nutrition and best quality plant materials helping to saturate the body with positive influence, leading to looking, feeling, and operating at one’s best.”

The good, the bad, and the blue-green

Although many health claims about microalgae, such as increasing energy and regulating blood sugar, are not supported by science, research has shown some promising, more realistic benefits. A 2013 study showed that adding 3600 milligrams per day of chlorella to the diets of 38 chronic smokers for six weeks helped to improve their antioxidant status and reduce their risk of developing cancer. Another study found that daily intake of 5 grams of chlorella reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels in patients with high cholesterol. Research has even found that supplementing chlorella can improve the symptoms of depression, when used in conjunction with antidepressant therapy. Still, many of these studies are the first of their kind and more evidence is needed regarding the long-term effects on cholesterol, cancer prevention, and depression, in addition to other conditions microalgae are claimed to help to alleviate.

While the supposed benefits of microalgae typically receive all of the attention, microalgae also have their own list of caveats. According to New York City-based registered dietitian, Willow Jarosh, “Some people can have allergic reactions to both spirulina and chlorella, so take that into consideration when trying. In addition, spirulina can accumulate heavy metals from contaminated waters.” She also states that microalgae can actually be too high in certain nutrients. “If you have high iron levels, have gone through menopause, or are a man, be aware of the high iron levels in microalgae—especially if you use them regularly.”

So what’s the verdict?

While there is certainly a lot of hype surrounding microalgae in the media, from companies that sell products containing them to preliminary supporting research, when it comes to recommending adding chlorella to your daily diet, experts are hesitant.

According to Jarosh, “There are some really major health claims, with very little scientific evidence/research to back up the claims, for both chlorella and spirulina.” As the co-owner of a nutrition consulting business, C&J Nutrition, she finds that her clients are frequently asking her about her thoughts on microalgae. “We’re always reluctant to recommend taking something when the long-term safety is unknown,” Jarosh says. “And since there’s not much research in humans to provide strong reasons to take these supplements (yet!), and the long-term research is also lacking, we’d recommend not using either on a regular basis.”

Microalgae are packed with antioxidants and those are always a good addition to your daily eats. Although the colors of microalgae appear supernatural and their effects often advertised as having the ability to give you superpowers, research is currently inadequate to say whether microalgae have more benefits than other antioxidant-rich foods. If you do decide to try it based on its antioxidant content, make sure that it does not replace other fruits and vegetables in your diet. Remember: Whole foods are always better than a powder.

Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change student and registered dietitian.  Follow her on Instagram at @julia.the.rd.eats








What’s the Deal with Vitamin D?

by Katelyn Castro

There is always one nutrient that seems to linger in the media for a while. Lately, vitamin D has been the lucky winner! Considering that over 40% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), it’s worth taking a closer look at vitamin D.

Depression, cancer, heart disease, and type 1 diabetes are some of the many health conditions that have been linked to vitamin D deficiency. While it is too soon to point to vitamin D as a cure-all, this vitamin may be more important for our health than previously thought—especially during the winter months in New England!

Why is Vitamin D Important?

Vitamin D is most often known for its role in bone health, increasing calcium absorption and helping with bone mineralization alongside calcium and phosphorus. Historically, rickets in children and osteoporosis and bone fractures in adults have been the most common signs of vitamin D deficiency.

As a fat-soluble vitamin and a hormone, vitamin D is also involved in many other important metabolic processes. Did you know vitamin D activates over one thousand genes in the human genome? For example, vitamin D is needed for protein transcription within skeletal muscle, which may explain why vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor athletic performance. Vitamin D also regulates blood pressure by suppressing renin gene expression, supporting the possible relationship between vitamin D deficiency and risk of heart disease. Additionally, vitamin D status may alter immunity due to its role in cytokine production. Studies have found that vitamin D deficiency is associated with upper respiratory tract infections. While more research is needed to explore these connections, these findings continue to suggest that vitamin D plays an integral role in bone, muscle, cardiac, and immune health.

Where Do You Get Vitamin D?

Only a few foods are natural sources of vitamin D, including eggs and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Instead, vitamin D-fortified foods like dairy products, juices, and breakfast cereals make up the majority of Americans’ vitamin D intake.

Sun exposure, on the other hand, can be the greatest source of vitamin D for some people–hence vitamin D’s nickname, the “sunshine vitamin.” Unlike any other vitamin, vitamin D can be synthesized in the body when the sun’s ultraviolet B rays reach the skin and convert cholesterol into a Vitamin D3, the precursor for vitamin D. Then, Vitamin D3 diffuses through the skin into the blood, where it is transported to the liver and kidneys and converted into vitamin D’s active form, 25(OH)D.

Research has found that exposing arms, legs, and face to the sun for 15 to 30 minutes twice a week provides about 1000 international units of vitamin D (equal to about 10 cups of milk!). Despite this robust source of vitamin D, deficiency is surprisingly common in the U.S.

Who is at Risk of Vitamin D Deficiency?

Many circumstances can alter vitamin D synthesis and absorption, increasing risk of vitamin D deficiency. Some of the factors that have been found to impact vitamin D status include the following:

  • Season: According to research, during the months of November to February, people living more than 37 degrees latitude north or south produce little or no vitamin D from the sun due of the angle of ultraviolet B sunrays. While vitamin D is stored in fat tissue and can be released into the blood when needed, our stores typically only last one to two months.
  • Limited Sun Exposure: Vitamin D synthesis can also be blocked when sunscreen is applied correctly or when long robes or head coverings are worn for religious reasons. For example, sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 8 decreased vitamin D synthesis in skin by about 95% in one study.
  • Skin Color: People with darker skin pigmentation have also been found in research to have lower levels of vitamin D due to decreased synthesis. This is supported by the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among certain ethnicities, with 82% African Americans and 69% Hispanics found to be vitamin D deficient according to NHANES.
  • Weight: Studies also suggest that overweight and obese people may have higher Vitamin D requirements. Since they have more body fat and since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D is more widely distributed in fat tissue, making it less bioavailable. As a result, more vitamin D may be needed for it to reach the blood stream for distribution in the body.
  • Age: Older adults have been found to have lower levels of the vitamin D, likely due to both decreased sun exposure and inefficient synthesis. One study found that 70 year-olds had about 25% of the vitamin D precursor compared to young adults, which decreased vitamin D synthesis in the skin by 75%.
  • Fat Malabsorption: When any gastrointestinal disorder or other health condition impairs fat absorption (i.e. liver disease, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, or Crohn’s disease), vitamin D is also poorly absorbed and utilized since Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin.

 Vitamin D deficiency can be especially concerning because symptoms like bone pain and muscle weakness may go undetected in the early stages of deficiency. Although physicians do not routinely check vitamin D levels, those at risk of deficiency may benefit from a serum 25(OH)D test. This is a simple test used to measure the level of vitamin D circulating in blood, with levels less 20 nanograms per milliliter commonly used to diagnose deficiency. However, some organizations like the Endocrine Society argue that levels greater than 30 nanograms per milliliter should be recommended for optimal bone and muscle metabolism.

How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?

Similar to vitamin D serum levels, no ideal vitamin D intake has been well established since many factors contribute to vitamin D status. The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends 600 to 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily for adults, assuming minimal sun exposure. On the other hand, the National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends larger doses of 1000 to 1200 IU daily for adults to support adequate bone health. Although vitamin D toxicity is rare, an upper level of 4000 IU has been set by the Institute of Medicine since extremely high levels can lead to calcium buildup, and could cause poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and kidney problems.

With limited amounts of vitamin D provided from food, even fortified foods, diet alone is usually inadequate to meet vitamin D needs. For example, you would need to drink about 8 cups of milk every day to reach 800 IU of vitamin D from diet alone! While sun exposure can supplement food intake to meet vitamin D needs, many Americans still fall short of their needs due the factors outlined above.

For the 40% of Americans who have been found to be vitamin D deficient, vitamin D supplementation can be an effective and safe way to meet needs. Whether you’re an avid sunscreen-user or living here in New England during these fall and winter months, a daily vitamin D supplement can ensure that vitamin D stores are adequate. Multivitamins typically provide 400 IU of vitamin D, but a separate vitamin D supplement (D2 or D3) with 800 or 1000 IU may be needed to meet daily intake recommendations.

Katelyn Castro is a second-year student in the Dietetic Internship/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. During the summer, she enjoys soaking up the sun if only for an excuse to get her daily dose of Vitamin D. During the winter, you can find her trekking through the snow, bundled up like the boy in A Christmas Story, and contemplating whether she needs a D supplement.



Timing of your Meals–Does it Matter?

by Yifan Xia

How would you feel if you were told to not have dinner for the rest of your life? Skipping dinner every day might sound shocking to most of us, but it was once a very common practice in ancient China in the Han Dynasty. In fact, even today Buddhism and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) promote this practice as a healthier choice than eating three meals per day. But does this practice have roots in science? Of course, controversy exists around this topic, but one thing that we can be certain of today is that the timing of our meals can have a much greater impact on our health than we originally thought.

Researchers investigating the circadian system (internal biological clock) have started looking at the effects of mealtime on our health. Surprisingly, preliminary evidence seems to support the claims of Buddhism and TCM, indicating that eating meals earlier in the day might help promote weight loss and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

What are circadian rhythms and the circadian system?

Circadian rhythms are changes in the body that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle in response to external cues such as light and darkness. Our circadian system, or internal biological clock, drives circadian rhythms and prepares us to function according to a 24-hour daily cycle, both physically and mentally.

Why do they matter to our health?

Our internal biological clock is involved in almost every aspect of our daily lives: it influences our sleep-and-wake cycle, determines when we feel most energetic or calm, and when we want to eat.

These days people don’t always rely on their biological clocks to tell them when to eat, and there are many distractions in the environment that can influence mealtime. We typically think how many calories we eat—and what we eat—are the major contributors to our weight and health, but researchers have found that eating at inappropriate times can disrupt the internal biological clock, harm metabolism, and increase the risk of obesity and chronic disease.

What does the research say?

Although currently the body of research evidence for this area is relatively small, there are several human studies worth highlighting. One randomized, open-label, parallel-arm study, conducted by Jakubowicz, D., et al and published in 2013, compared effects of two isocaloric weight loss diets on 93 obese/overweight women with metabolic syndrome. After 12 weeks, the group with higher caloric intake during breakfast showed greater weight loss and waist circumference reduction, as well as significantly greater decrease in fasting glucose and insulin level, than the group with higher caloric intake during dinner. Another study published in the same year with 420 participants noted that a 20-week weight-loss treatment was significantly more effective for early lunch eaters than late lunch eaters. In 2015, a randomized, cross-over trial, conducted in 32 women and published in International Journal of Obesity, showed that late eating pattern resulted in a significant decrease in pre-meal resting-energy expenditure, lower pre-meal utilization of carbohydrates, and decreased glucose tolerance, confirming the differential effects of meal timing on metabolic health. However, few studies were identified reporting negative findings, probably due to the fact that this is an emerging field and more research is needed to establish a solid relationship.

 So when should we eat? Is there a perfect mealtime schedule for everyone?

“There are so many factors that influence which meal schedules may be suitable for an individual (including biological and environmental) that I cannot give a universal recommendation,” says Gregory Potter, a PhD candidate in the Leeds Institute for Genetics, Health and Therapeutics (LIGHT) laboratory at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and lead author on the lab’s recent paper reviewing evidence of nutrition and the circadian systems, published in The British Journal of Nutrition in 2016. Potter also comments that regular mealtime seems to be more important than sticking to the same schedule as everyone else: “There is evidence that consistent meal patterns are likely to be superior to variable ones and, with everything else kept constant, it does appear that consuming a higher proportion of daily energy intake earlier in the waking day may lead to a lower energy balance and therefore body mass.”

Aleix Ribas-Latre, a PhD candidate at the Center for Metabolic and Degenerative Diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center and lead author on another review paper investigating the interdependence of nutrient metabolism and the circadian systems, published in Molecular Metabolism in 2016, also agrees: “To find the appropriate meal time has to be something totally personalized, although [it] should not present [too] much difference.” Aleix especially noted that people who are born with a tendency to rise late, eat late, and go to bed late (“night owls” versus “early birds”) are more likely to be at risk for metabolic disease.

Do we have to eat three meals a day?

How many meals do you usually have? In fact, how much food makes a meal and how much is a snack? There is no universal definition, which makes these difficult questions to answer.

“To maintain a healthy attitude towards food, I think it is important to avoid being too rigid with eating habits … I do think consistency is important as more variable eating patterns may have adverse effects on metabolism,” says Potter. “Although there is evidence that time-of-day-restricted feeding (where food availability is restricted to but a few hours each day) has many beneficial effects on health in other animals such as mice, it is as yet unclear if this is true in humans. I’d also add that periodic fasting (going for one 24 hour period each week without energy containing foods and drinks) can confer health benefits for many individuals,” Potter comments.

[See Hannah Meier’s recent article on intermittent fasting for more.]

Based on their research, Ribais-Latre and his lab have a different opinion. “We should eat something every 3-4 hours (without counting 8 hours at night). Many people complain about that but then consume a huge percentage of calories during lunch or even worse at night, because they are very hungry. Eating a healthy snack prevents us [from] eating too [many] calories at once.” He suggests what he considers a healthier mealtime schedule:

–          6:00 am  Breakfast (30% total calories)

–          9:30 am  Healthy snack (10%)

–          1:00 pm  Lunch (35%)

–          4:30 pm  Healthy snack (10%)

–          8:00 pm  Dinner (15%)

What if you are a shift worker or your work requires you to travel across time zones a lot? Ribais-Latre’s advice is “not to impair more their lifestyle… at least it would be great if they are able to do exercise, eat healthy, sleep a good amount of hours.”

What does Traditional Chinese Medicine say?

There are historical reasons behind the no-dinner practice in ancient China in the Han Dynasty. First, food was not always available. Second, electricity hadn’t been invented, so people usually rested after sunset and they didn’t need much energy at what we now consider “dinner time.”

However, there are also health reasons behind this practice. In TCM theory, our internal clock has an intimate relationship with our organs. Each organ has its “time” for optimal performance, and we can reap many health benefits by following this clock. For example, TCM considers 1:00 am – 3:00 am the time of “Liver”. The theory says that is when the body should be in deep sleep so that the liver can help to rid toxins from our body and make fresh blood. Disruption at this time, such as staying up until 2:00 am, might affect the liver’s ability to dispel toxins, leading to many health problems, according to the theory.

Many Western researchers do not seem to be familiar with the TCM theory. When asked about the practice of skipping dinner, Potter comments, “I think that skipping dinner can be a perfectly healthy practice in some circumstances; in others, however, it may be ill advised if, for example, the individual subsequently has difficulty achieving consolidated sleep.”

On the flip side, Ribais-Latre says that “skipping a meal is not good at all. We should not eat more calories than those we need to [live], and in addition, the quality of these calories should be high… If you can split those calories [to] 5 times a day instead of three, I think this is healthier.”

Even though there is no universal agreement on mealtime, the tradition of “skipping dinner” did come back into style several years ago in China as a healthier way of losing weight, and was quite popular among Chinese college women. Yan, a sophomore from Shanghai and a friend of mine, said that she tried the method for six months but is now back to the three-meal pattern. “The first couple of days were tough, but after that, it was much easier and I felt my body was cleaner and lighter… I did lose weight, but that’s not the main goal anymore… I got up early every day feeling energetic. Maybe it’s because I only ate some fruits in the afternoon, I usually felt sleepy early and went to bed early, which made it easier to get up early the next day with enough sleep… I’m eating three meals now, but only small portions at dinner, and I think I will continue this practice for my health.”

So what’s the take-away?

Mealtime does seem to matter. But exactly how, why, and what we can do to improve our health remains a mystery. Researchers are now looking into the concept of “chrono-nutritional therapy,” or using mealtime planning to help people with obesity or other chronic diseases. When we resolve this mystery, the question of “When do you eat?” will not just be small talk, but perhaps a key to better health.

Yifan Xia is a second-year student studying Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change. She loves reading, traveling, street dancing, trying out new restaurants with friends in Boston, and watching Japanese animations.



Can I Eat An Engineered Apple, Please?

by Delphine Van Roosebeke

The days of throwing your half-eaten apple away because it turned brown are over. Shiny non-browning apples are about to hit the consumer market in a few months. And this time, it’s not a fairy tale. Read on.

Cartoon from Pinterest

Cartoon from Pinterest

In 1812, the German Grimm Brothers created the shiny red apple in Snow White, featuring it as the symbol of evil given to Snow White by the witch on behalf of the jealous queen. The story was told to children to teach them not to trust strangers. Two hundred years later, it is the shiny green Arctic® Apple that brings people together to tell stories. This time, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a Canadian agriculture biotech company that creates new varieties of apples, has replaced the jealous queen. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t get poisoned as Snow White did, but you may be surprised by sliced apples that won’t brown for two weeks.

What are non-browning apples?

No matter how you slice, bruise or bite your apple, every apple turns brown eventually. When the apple’s flesh is cut, the oxygen in the air interacts with chemicals in the flesh of the apple. An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, or PPO, makes melanin, an iron-containing compound that gives apple cells a brown tinge. The same type of ‘oxidative’ browning happens in the browning of tea, coffee and mushrooms. Within five minutes of slicing, browning can alter an apple’s taste and make it less aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t mean the apple is old or rotten.

To prevent this oxidative browning, Okanagan developed proprietary technologies to engineer genetically modified (GM) apples. The apples, called Arctic® Apples, produce reduced amounts of PPO. To achieve this, small gene fragments, called silencing RNAs, were injected into the apple seeds using bacteria. Such an insertion with gene fragments is a red flag for the apple cell, as it resembles the first step of viral attack. As a response, it chops up every sequence of DNA that looks like the suspicious fragment, and thus the PPO gene gets decimated. Because the PPO production is reduced to less than 10% compared to regular apples, the Arctic® Apple, even when sliced, will stay clear of browning for about two weeks. That’s roughly the same extended life span as apple slices from McDonald’s and Burger King, which use lemon juice and calcium ascorbate to prevent browning. Indeed, lemon juice and calcium ascorbate have a similar cosmetic effect to the silencing fragments inserted into the Arctic® Apples.

A regular apple, on the left, shows brown spots, while an Arctic® Apple has a clearer appearance. Photo by Okanagan Specialty Fruits

A regular apple, on the left, shows brown spots, while an Arctic® Apple has a clearer appearance. Photo by Okanagan Specialty Fruits

 Why do we need non-browning apples?

Is the world waiting for a non-browning apple or is this just another ‘we-can, so-we-do-it’ product that eventually may threaten the ecosystem or our bodies? Well, according to Okanagan, very few fresh-cut apples are available on fruit plates, in salads, in cafeterias, or on airplanes, primarily due to the browning issue. Anti-browning treatments are costly and often add an off-taste, the company says. But these treatments are not needed for Arctic® Apples, which is why Okanagan hopes to get their apples available in more places. Consumer research has suggested that apple products, such as bagged apple slices, are the number one produce item that customers would like to see more packaged versions of. Since apple slices are arguably easier to eat than whole fruits, this innovation could propel apple sales. Indeed, the simple convenience of baby carrots doubled carrot consumption, and Okanagan is endeavoring to achieve the same results with apples.

Another argument for bringing engineered non-browning apples to the consumer market is the reduction of food waste. According to the company, apples are among the most wasted foods on the planet, with around 30 to 40 percent of the apples produced never being consumed because of superficial bruising and browning. Given that 52 percent of fresh produce goes to waste in the U.S. alone, consumption of non-browning apples, such as the Artic® Apple, may be one small step in the right direction to shrink this enormous mountain of food waste.

When will you be able to eat them?
Cartoon from Pinterest

Cartoon from Pinterest

Non-browning apples have gotten the green light to get on the market, as both the USDA and FDA approved Arctic® Apples for consumption. According to Okanagan, the first commercial Arctic® Apple orchards were planted in 2015, but it takes a few years for newly-planted apple trees to produce much fruit. They expect small test market quantities from the 2016 harvest, followed by a gradual commercial launch starting in 2017 with increasing availability each year thereafter. The first two varieties that will be available to consumers will be the Arctic® Granny and the Arctic® Golden. Currently, Arctic® Fuji is next in line with others planned to follow!

Although Neil Carter, the president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has expressed in the New York Times that the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, they will not explicitly label their apples as GMO. Unlike other genetically engineered crops, Arctic® Apples do not contain foreign DNA but silencing RNAs to reduce the expression of the PPO gene. Therefore, Arctic® Apples are not effectively captured by the current regulatory structure on GMO labeling. According to the company, the label Arctic® is sufficient to create transparency and let the consumers decide whether they want GM apples that don’t brown.

Food for thought on non-browning apples

Despite the millions of dollars and more than 20 years of research that went into the development of non-browning apples, not everyone welcomes the new shiny green Arctic® Apples from Canada. Since we already have hybrid ‘low browning’ varieties, such as the Cortland apple, and successful preservative treatments, some people wonder whether we really need a genetically engineered apple that doesn’t brown. In fact, with the advent of the non-browning apple, the food industry has departed from the premise that GM foods are meant to increase productivity. Indeed, the Arctic® Apple is one of the few GM products that is developed to improve the product cosmetically, to match the media-driven image of a perfect apple rather than improving the crop’s yield or nutritional performance. However, despite the maintenance of a fresher look, the preservability of non-browning apples is similar to conventional apples as Arctic® Apples will eventually still brown due to the rotting process by bacteria and fungi.

Given that PPO is involved in the plant’s defense mechanism, it has been speculated that the mutation in non-browning apples could make the plant more susceptible to insect and microbial pest damage, thus increasing farmers’ reliance on pesticides. Although more pesticides might be needed to maintain productivity of the crops, if non-browning apples actually do reduce food waste, growing fewer acres of non-browning apples may be adequate to meet the market demand. Also, the primary market of the Arctic® Apple is sliced apples, which is a subset of all apples consumed. However, as sliced non-browning apples find their way into more products, demand could increase from, say, parents wanting to use these apples as a convenient and healthy snack in their picky eater’s lunch box. This may eventually drive the need for increased production. Given these market dynamics, the cost-benefit of non-browning apples for the society is elusive and it remains to be seen to what extent the Arctic® Apple puts a burden on the natural environment.

Delphine Van Roosebeke is a rising Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition graduate with a background in biochemical engineering. When she is not thinking about dark Belgian chocolate, she’s eating it! Delphine has a crush on nutrients and the magic they perform in our body, and loves to share her knowledge with anyone who wants to hear it in a fun and approachable way! 



Lessons From the Anti-Fat Movement: Why Waging a War Against Sugar is Not the Answer

by Micaela Young

Blaming sugar for the obesity epidemic is tempting, but making it a target of public and policy concern may create unwarranted fear and an increased demand for sugar-free and sugar substitute products, steering us down an all too familiar—and perhaps even unhealthier—road.

Sugar Frankenstein JPG

It wasn’t too long ago that industry grabbed onto another contentious nutrition target during the anti-fat movement, profiting largely from a new host of fat-free and reduced-fat products, many of them packed with refined carbohydrates and sugar. In the 1980s, medical and nutrition science had not advanced enough to know that the link between total dietary fat and heart disease was far from clear. The first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980 demonized fat and, as a consequence, sparked a wave of food industry innovation that grew to replace unwanted fats with refined carbohydrates and sugar. A probable catalyst for the U.S. obesity epidemic, this industry reformulation is a potential promoter of heart disease and diabetes, as suggested by several well-designed studies examining the consequences of a low-fat, highly-refined carbohydrate diet published over the last six years from top-tier journals: including the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Annals of Internal Medicine and Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

Earlier on, however, nutrition scientists had an inkling that not all dietary fat was created equal. Specifically, replacing trans fats and saturated fats with monounsatured and polyunsatured fats was more effective at reducing the risk of heart disease than reducing overall fat intake, as revealed in a 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. While there will always be debate and uncertainty, the health benefits of consuming certain dietary fats have gained a positive view in the scientific community, as reflected in the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

While this shift in thinking may be viewed as a gross misconception by the science community—having such a negative impact on public health—what is important to remember is that science is a dynamic, ever-revolving door. New evidence can change scientific thinking rapidly, calling important “facts” into question, but public opinion and consumer purchasing habits are much harder to change.

Today, history may be repeating itself, with a plethora of anti-sugar campaigns and policy movements following the flood of new research linking sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes prevalence, and heart disease. It turns out that sugar is a tricky beast to target, so public health advocates have gone after sugar-sweetened beverages. This is not a fool’s errand, however, because drinking your sugar seems to pile on the pounds, according to a randomized trial from the New England Journal of Medicine and a meta-analysis from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In addition, added sugars are now thought to contribute to chronic disease risk and increased mortality, according to a 2015 study co-authored by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Researchers estimated that sugar-sweetened beverages were responsible for 6,450 deaths from cancer, 45,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease, and 133,000 deaths from diabetes world-wide.

The public has caught on to this buzz around the negative effects of sugar consumption, and following suit are the usual suspects: the food industry (the wide-eyed consumer will notice new sugar-free and granulated sugar substitutes creeping onto grocery store shelves) and nutrition propaganda (anyone care to join me on Food Babe’s 7-day sugar detox?).

Policy makers have even jumped on the anti-sugar bandwagon, including former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, who in 2012 fought to ban the sale of sweetened drinks of more than 16 ounces. While Bloomberg’s proposal ended in a court decision denying his ban from going into effect, these types of efforts still continue.

Even though the concerns over added sugar consumption are warranted given current scientific consensus, the ambiguity around what these types of prohibitions on added sugars will do come from many factions: anti-hunger groups, scientists, and the soda-guzzling consumer who fears for his rights. One scientist against the banning and taxing of foods with high amounts of added sugars is Brian Wansink, the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, because he fears the unintended consequences. His reasons are just; in 2006, his lab conducted a study that linked low-fat labeled foods to misconceptions about the healthfulness of the products. On average, participants underestimated the calories in “low-fat” M&Ms and other foods by almost 50%, and, surprisingly, overweight individuals ate 60 more calories than normal-weight participants when presented with low-fat labeled foods.

In 2014, Wansink’s lab conducted a similar study on the implications of a soda tax after noticing more sugar-free foods on the market, and an increased effort to ban or tax sugar-sweetened beverages in certain locales. The results concluded consumers often made unhealthy substitutions for sodas. The main replacement? Beer and other high-calorie drinks. Not exactly the swap public health advocates were hoping for.

It is evident that something must be done to ease this public health concern, but the solution that will yield its intended results has not yet become apparent. The food industry uses current nutrition science to bring patchwork, processed foods to life, which can work monstrously against public health efforts. The important thing to remember is that, as stated in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines key recommendations, a healthy eating pattern limits added sugars (sorry, palm sugar) to 10% of calories per day—not including sugars from whole foods and fruits.

“It is clear that many Americans are consuming far too much sugar,” said Jeanne Goldberg, PhD, professor of nutrition and director of the graduate program in Nutrition Communication at the Friedman School. “But the best way to figure out if you are one of these people is to take a moment to figure out just how much you are getting, from your first bowl of frosted covered cereal in the morning to your last cup of tea. If this is over 12 teaspoons (about 50 grams) of added sugar—including the sugar in your frosted cupcake, not the sugar in your sugar snap peas—then you may need to cut back.”

Therefore, before we grab our torches and pitchforks and march toward Sugar’s house, let’s take a step back and think about the long-term implications of our well-intended actions. We would not want to steer the public towards an unhealthier eating pattern that, for example, includes more processed “sugar-free” foods with even more refined carbohydrates…

Micaela Young, CPT is a first year nutrition communication and behavior change student focusing in Agriculture, Food and Environment. She would trade you frosted cupcakes and breakfast cereal for chips and salsa any day.

Non-Chain Restaurants Tip the Scales

by Marissa Donovan

New research out of the Friedman School and the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) shows chain restaurants aren’t the only ones serving up excessive portions to diners.

While fast food and chain restaurants (defined as 20 or more locations) are often demonized for pumping out huge portions, it turns out they aren’t the only “bad guys.” Small, local restaurants pack a similar punch when it comes to calories served, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

William A. Masters, Ph. D, study co-author and professor of economics at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explains that although the issue of oversized restaurant portions has been apparent for some time now, it has never been formally studied. But now, there is a clear motivation to do so.

“With menu labeling comes the possibility of actually controlling portion sizes, so it’s finally worthwhile to measure and publish the data. Measuring something is a key first step towards improving it,” he said.

Researchers at Friedman as well as the HNRCA measured the calorie content of both chain and non-chain dinner entrées in 123 restaurants across Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, AR. The study focused on the most popular meals (with accompanying sides) from each of the restaurants, finding that a whopping 92 percent of meals, from chain and non-chain eateries, exceeded energy requirements for a single meal, which was benchmarked as 570 calories.

On average, a non-chain restaurant meal packed in 1,205 calories—more than half the daily requirement for women (2,000 calories) and almost half of men’s daily requirement (2,500 calories). In other words, based on these average calorie requirements, one restaurant meal was actually calorically equivalent to two full meals for average female diners (or 2.6 meals for women who need only 1,500 calories a day!).

What’s more? This striking number does not include appetizers, drinks, or dessert—which can contribute hundreds of additional calories. And the total calories in these non-chain restaurant meals were similar to the amounts measured in fast food and chain restaurants, which are commonly criticized for their role in promoting obesity.

Researchers measured dinner entrée calorie content in many different cuisines including American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese. American, Italian and Chinese fare had the highest average energy density, reaching 1,495 calories per meal. Compared to American cuisine, Greek, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Thai entrées delivered fewer calories.

There is sometimes a perception that smaller, local, mom-and-pop type restaurants are “healthier” than their well-known chain restaurant colleagues, but this study shows that this just isn’t true. It seems that eating out at restaurants in general promotes overeating, regardless of the ubiquity of the restaurant. The portions served at restaurants may even unintentionally inform portions at subsequent home-cooked meals, further exacerbating the problem.

While this study paints a grim picture for eating out, there are changes that can be made—both on a consumer level and policy level to combat this problem.

The researchers propose extending menu calorie labeling legislation to include all restaurants, not just large chains. As the rule stands, chain restaurants with 20 or more locations are required to provide calorie information on menus, with mandatory compliance by the end of 2016. While this legislation is great for diners at chain restaurants, it only affects about 50 percent of all restaurants/food outlets. Admittedly, enacting a regulation such as this at smaller restaurants is easier said than done.

“Like so many policy problems, there’s no one magic bullet. Making restaurant meals healthier will involve a lot of local steps, like municipal ordinances and state laws,” explained Masters. “There is also room for many voluntary steps by individuals, including food writers and restaurant reviewers as well as restaurants, groups and associations.”

Another idea proposed by the study authors is offering scaled down entrée choices at restaurants. Giving diners the option of half or third portions at adjusted prices would allow them to keep their portions in check before being tempted by a full plate of food. Until then, restaurant diners can take matters into their own hands and ask for half (or more) of their meal to be boxed to take home before they begin eating.

“Making the decision [to take half home] early gives power to your far-sighted self. The key is to make these decisions before you’re hungry, and especially before your appetite is revved up by an oversized dish,” said Masters.

Though, he admits that it’s very difficult to actually follow this advice, mainly because packing up and taking food home is such an awkward step.

“In practice, I think it’s much smarter just to choose menu items that will come in small enough sizes for you to be comfortable eating the whole thing. Use your far-sighted self to identify restaurants that offer delicious foods in portions suitable for your body size and activity level, then praise them for it on Yelp and Tripadvisor,” he said.

Don’t be fooled by the healthy façade of smaller, local restaurants—their dishes can also be calorie-laden. But you don’t have to give up dining out all together if you plan ahead and take steps to eat smaller portions.

Masters is confident that the problem of excessively large portion sizes can be solved.

“A first step is to realize that it is a problem, to measure what’s served and think carefully about what customers really want,” he said.

Marissa Donovan is a registered dietitian and second-year student in the MS Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change program with a focus in US Food and Nutrition Policy at Friedman. She loves hiking, traveling, finding new restaurants, and, of course, Netflix.

Should Athletes Juice It Up With Beetroot Juice?

by Katie Mark

Lettuce begin our workout at a higher beet. I’m not just talking about the new Beyoncé song, but the beetroot that comes from the beet plant. Beet it with the juicing cleanses, and juice up your water with beetroot (BR) juice.

The beetroot and dietary nitrates

The beetroot vegetable is the taproot part of a beet plant. It is a rich source of dietary inorganic nitrates that serve as the active ingredient to the health benefits. Once consumed, the nitrates mix with bacteria in our saliva to be converted into nitrites. Traveling to the stomach, some of the nitrite converts to nitric oxide (NO). The nitrite that is not converted is then circulated and stored in our blood. Nitrites can convert to NO during low oxygen availability, which usually occurs during exercise in skeletal muscle.

NO is a commonly occurring compound in the body, and BR juice adds to these levels. NO dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow to lower blood pressure.

What are the purported benefits of beetroot juice?

Scientists have exercised their love of beetroot juice in various experiments. In numerous small studies containing mostly men and high-level athletes, those consuming BR juice experienced slightly enhanced performance.

Benefits of BR juice include:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Enhancing exercise capacity, in certain situations
  • Lowering the amount of O2 your muscles need for submaximal and maximal exercise
  • Delaying the decline in cognitive function
  • Fighting inflammation
  • Detoxification
  • Providing nutrients and fiber

Beetroot juice and sport performance: What the science says

BR juice acts as an ergogenic aid, which is any substance that enhances athletic performance. Due to the production of NO, BR juice reduces the oxygen cost of exercise, lowers blood pressure, and keeps an athlete focused during exercise. Let’s take a look at some studies.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology used eight healthy men to evaluate the effects of BR juice on blood pressure and the oxygen cost of exercise. The men had 500 ml/day of BR juice or placebo for 6 consecutive days. Moderate- and high-intensity exercise tests were completed on the final 3 days. They found that systolic blood pressured decreased by about 8 mmHg. The time to exhaustion increased by 16% with BR juice supplementation.

A double-blind, randomized, crossover study recently published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology used 16 male athletes (rugby, hockey and football players) to drink BR juice for 7 days. On day 7, all participants completed an intermittent sprint test. They were also given cognitive tasks designed to test how accurately and how fast they made decisions. Each participant completed these tasks after taking a nitrate-rich beetroot juice shot (400 mg of nitrates per shot) and a placebo version with the nitrate removed. Researchers found that the nitrate-rich version saw an improvement in both sprint performance (3.5%) and speed of making decisions (3%) without negatively affecting decision accuracy.

Another double-blind, randomized crossover study explored BR juice and its effects on muscle efficiency and intense intermittent (stop and go) exercise. Fourteen male athletes drank 490 mL of nitrate-rich BR juice and nitrate-depleted placebo juice over 30 hours before an intermittent recovery test. Performance was 4.2% better with BR juice. The nitrite concentration decreased by 20% with the placebo compared to 54% with the BR juice. The researchers suggested that nitrate supplementation could promote nitric oxide production and improve performance, which may be due to muscles being able to take up more glucose or better maintenance of exciting muscles during contraction.

Limitations: These results demonstrate tiny improvements in people who are already trained. However, these small improvements may actually be important for competitive athletes for which a few minutes can make or break winning a race or beating their own time on a time trial. Preventing the decline in decision-making is important for team sports like soccer and football. Continue on to evaluate if you’re an athlete who could benefit from BR juice.

Are you an athlete who could benefit from BR juice?

Just because you’re an athlete or you workout everyday doesn’t mean that BR juice is the drink for you. Intensity and duration of the sport as well as the fitness of the athlete is critical to evaluating whether or not it is ergogenic for the athlete.

Nitrates could affect athletes who do more stop and go exercise (i.e., sprints, high-intensity interval training, etc.) seen in team sports. Those who are endurance athletes may not benefit as much. Yet, the effect of BR juice on prolonged endurance exercise has not been studied as much.

Also, in low-intensity endurance exercise, the muscles are usually sufficiently oxygenated that there is little need for nitric oxide to help increase blood flow and oxygenate our muscles more.

Deets on Beets


The range of nitrate intake for the health benefits is 300-600 mL. For instance, Beet-It makes concentrated BR juice in 70 mL shots, which is about 300 mL of beet juice. The concentration is to help avoid digestive problems that may arise. Some athletes use around 500 mL of BR, or two shots. However, a higher intake of nitrates does not translate to better sport performance.


An acute (2-3 hours before exercise) or a short-term (at least 3 days) protocol can be used. Short-term strategies can help the performance of high-intensity exercise (taken a few days before). Acute supplementation and sport performance lacks consistent results because of differences in health, diet, age, fitness and sport of the athlete. However, it can still be taken 2-3 hours before exercise.


  • Red stool and urine. The carotene in beets give it that beautiful color, but as the carotenes travel through the gut unabsorbed they may end up adding a red hue to the stool and urine. This discoloration is harmless. Just be prepared!
  • Upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea. Some people may experience upset stomach, diarrhea and nausea. This is why BR juice manufacturers concentrate their shots of BR juice.
  • Dietary oxalates. It is suggested that those with kidney stones should avoid BR juice because it contains oxalates. If you currently have or have a history of kidney stones then speak to a registered dietitian. There’s a bit of conflicting research on which foods increase formation of kidney stones in at-risk people.

Beetroot juice or the entire beetroot: Does it matter? 

The roots of the beetroot are usually eaten boiled, roasted or raw. They can either be eaten alone or with any salad vegetable.

Research from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics investigated if eating beetroot could improve endurance exercise performance in 11 fit men and women. All participants ate baked beetroot (200 g containing >500 mg nitrate) before a 5-km time trial on a treadmill. In a separate trial, each participant had cranberry relish (as the placebo) before the time trial. The study found that the average running speed was faster after eating beetroot. There was a 5% increase in speed during the last 1.1 miles of the run. It was concluded that eating beetroot ~60 minutes before exercise may improve running performance in healthy adults.

If you decide to take BR juice powder, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions, especially the timing. Most powders require intake ~30-60 minutes before exercise since they’re concentrated shots. One-teaspoon of BR powder is about three beets.

Beetroot juice is promising

BR juice demonstrates that there’s a performance benefit from eating vegetables. These benefits may usher in either a few days leading up to exercise (if you’re “nitrate loading”) or 2-3 hours before exercise (acute supplementation). BR juice lowers blood pressure and may improve sprint performance and mitigate the decline in decision-making that can occur in some sports. Whole BRs are a good alternative to concentrated “shots” of BR juice (if you’re trying to save money or want to take advantage of beets in your recipes).

The great thing about BR juice is that it doesn’t come in a man-made pill to help sport performance. It’s actually food. So try a BR juice shot before your next intense training session or competition. With BR juice, you can’t beet unleashing the power of food.

Katie Mark is a second year MS/MPH student and avid road cyclist. She will ride 100 miles for the Best Buddies Challenge in May and 185 miles over two days for the Pan-Mass Challenge in August. She will take shots of beetroot juice before both rides.