UC Food Blog
I have two active young sons. They get plenty of exercise. Their diets, however, can be a challenge. They have different tastes – one could eat breakfast items all day; the other could eat dinner items all day. One likes sugary sweet foods; the other likes salty, fatty foods. My wife is a great cook who makes balanced, nutritious meals, but it’s not easy pleasing everybody. There is one thing we all can agree on: We love fruit.
We can eat fruit throughout the day. It might go with breakfast, with lunch, as a snack or mixed in with a salad at dinner. I think my kids like fruit not only because we make it available and encourage them to eat it, but because they have sampled fresh fruit at farmers markets, watched it grow in our backyard and harvested it themselves at U-pick farms.
The federal government’s new MyPlate nutrition guidelines emphasize fruits and vegetables – they’re half the plate. But it’s not enough to try to force-feed your children canned carrots. Food can be fun. Giving kids a hands-on experience with fresh fruit can help them appreciate its importance. I’m no dietitian, but as a parent, I offer three tips for helping children to eat more fruits (and vegetables).
- Go to a farmers market. California has more farmers markets than any other state in the country. Find one near you at www.cafarmersmarkets.com. At a farmers market, the food and the farmers are the stars. You can sample the goods. You can ask a farmer questions. You can learn about the difference between a blood orange and a Cara Cara orange. It’s an event, but a short one. And the price is moderate.
- Grow your own produce. We’ve had mixed results with this one. Tomatoes came out great one year, were poached by animals another. We have a couple of fruit trees in our yard, but they don’t get much sun and the fruit isn’t sweet. We have had success with herbs, though, and find that our sons will munch on a mint leaf or point out the plants to friends and family. On a recent visit to their aunt and uncle’s house, they picked giant lemons and enjoyed homemade lemonade. No matter how small the effort, it shows children the life cycle of a plant, the anticipation of healthy food and, hopefully, the payoff of plentiful produce for a low cost.
- Visit a U-pick farm. We get an early start to summer by visiting U-pick farms in Brentwood. One son prefers cherries; the other prefers strawberries. Between the two, we have a daylong excursion that provides a weeklong supply of delicious bite-sized fruit for a reasonable price. Brentwood’s cherry season typically lasts from May to June. You can still find peaches, strawberries and other crops there in July. We also went apple picking in September in Sonoma County. U-picking is part of the broader field of agritourism, which also can include farm stands, tours, fairs and festivals. The University of California maintains a statewide agricultural tourism directory at http://calagtour.org. Check it out and may your efforts be fruitful.
Can what we eat help fix what ails us? Research increasingly suggests the answer is “yes.” Many foods contain biofactors — biologically active compounds — that may prevent and treat illnesses including asthma, diabetes and heart disease, according to new studies from the UC Davis Center for Health and Nutrition Research (CHNR).
The upcoming July-September California Agriculture journal (to be posted by July 11) reports UC research into plant compounds (phytochemicals) that can help prevent or treat disease. The findings stem from pilot projects at the center, as well as other UC research. Articles focus on how micronutrients, biofactors and phytochemicals (plant compounds) can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Phytochemicals and health. Epidemiological studies link particular diets to less risk of chronic diseases. Notably, the traditional Mediterranean diet — mostly vegetables, fruits and whole grains, with moderate amounts of nuts, olive oil and red wine — is associated with lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. However, it has yet to be firmly established that specific phytochemicals in our diets can protect against diseases. Nutritionists therefore advise eating a wide variety of plant-based foods rather than taking supplements.
Mitochondrial nutrients and aging. The Mediterranean diet is rich in plant compounds that boost mitochondria (organelles in our cells that convert glucose and other nutrients into energy) and so are known as mitochondrial nutrients. When mitochondria are scarce or have genetic defects that keep them from working properly, this can generate toxic metabolites and damaging free radicals.
“Mitochondria are central to aging,” says UC Irvine aging expert Edward Sharman. “Improving their function may modulate or delay the onset of diseases related to aging, such as type 2 diabetes and age-related macular degeneration.” Mitochondrial dysfunction also plays a key role in chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.
A new essential nutrient? Another promising mitochondrial nutrient is pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), which was first found in nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria and is now known to be ubiquitous.
“We’re exposed to PQQ all the time at low levels,” says CHNR co-director Robert Rucker, a UC Davis nutrition professor. “It can be derived from amino acids found in stellar dust, and stellar dust is what the earth is made of.”
While Escherichia coli and other common gut bacteria do not make PQQ, the soil bacteria provide it to the plants in our diet. Good sources include fermented soybeans, wine, tea and cocoa.
Animal studies show that PQQ affects health markedly. Rucker and his colleagues found that depriving rats of PQQ compromised their immune systems, and retarded their growth and reproductive rates. In contrast, restoring PQQ to their diets reversed these effects and returned them to good health. Moreover, PQQ stimulated nerve growth and counteracted aging in cultured cells.
Rucker and his colleagues found that, like hydroxytyrosol, PQQ increases the number of mitochondria in cells. “It’s also an extremely good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent,” he says.
Personalized medicine. Understanding what biofactors do in our bodies could ultimately lead to personalized medicine, where nutrition-based treatments are tailored to the particulars of each person’s biochemistry. This individual variation at the biochemical level may help explain the inconsistent outcomes of research on omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation.
“The studies are mixed,” says UC Davis pulmonologist Nicolas Kenyon. “Some have shown little effect and others have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce arthritis and inflammation in blood vessels.”
This genotyping is targeted to DNA sequences associated with asthma and so is not comprehensive.
“Some people are nervous about genome-wide analysis, which is scary because none of us is perfect,” Kenyon says. “But people are more interested when the focus is specific screening that could increase their chances of treatment.”
I recently switched from a small group practice to Kaiser when the rates for my old healthcare plan went up. My first visit to my new doctor was like something out of a happy-healthcare utopia: a farmer’s market out front hawked fresh peaches and plums; bright light streamed through tall windows as I found my way to a well-marked suite; a receptionist cheerily informed me there was no copay for this welcome visit.
The startling site of the industrial-strength scale brought home to me the severity of America’s obesity epidemic, and we are passing this problem on to our children to the extent that the First Lady Michelle Obama and the Surgeon General have both made childhood obesity one of their key public platforms.
The stats keep rolling in:
- One out of three children born in 2000 are projected to become diabetic in their lifetime.
- Heart disease risk factors now occur in one out of six children school-age kids.
Attendees at the Sixth Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference, convening this week in San Diego (June 28-30), will dig deep into the problems … and possible solutions.
Hot topics will include the newly released dietary guidelines: just last month the United States Department of Agriculture retired the pyramid in favor of a plate.
Patricia Crawford, a Cooperative Extension specialist and director of the UC Berkeley-based Atkins Center for Weight and Health (CWH), a co-sponsor of the conference, said the new guidelines are geared more towards obesity prevention, whereas in the past the focus was on making sure there were no nutrition gaps.
“The plate is very similar to one developed by California Cooperative Extension,” said Crawford. “California was an early adopter — along with New York City, the American Cancer Institute, Canada, and others."
Crawford said Cooperative Extension specialists and advisors tailored the plate concept to different ethnic groups.
“We realized early on that that the plate was a valuable teaching tool,” Crawford said.
The conference will also focus on the problem of junk-food advertisements targeting kids.
“Just last month the Federal Trade Commission came out with voluntary guidelines for industry,” said Crawford. "Public health advocates pushed for monitoring to see the degree to which marketing efforts change. This voluntary approach gives the industry a chance to change on their own before it’s mandated.”
Schools are taking the issue seriously, and California has been a leader for many years. Back in 2003 there was an unfunded mandate to replace profit-making junk food with better meals. Nothing happened.
The finding? Surprise: most schools — over 80 percent — made more money when they got rid of those foods.
“It turned out that most money came from snacks. When kids quit buying junk, they moved to buying school meals, subsidized by the school meal program — and the profits came. In 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger signed legislation to limit high-sugar, high-fat snack foods in K-12 schools.
Crawford says more than half the states now have this type of legislation limiting these “competitive foods.”
Other hot topics in San Diego will be:
- Are all calories created equal? Studies say quality matters as much as quantity.
- National policy: Speakers address the Obama administration's unprecedented investment in prevention, and how it can be effective.
- Sugar-loaded beverages: National experts will be talking about newest research on how the sweet stuff is contributing to obesity.
Conference attendees can be inspired by findings that all the work in California is beginning to have an impact.
In a recently published article, the CWH showed that California is slowing the overall rate of childhood obesity. Crawford notes that legislation in 2005 to limit sugars and fats in school lunches correlates directly with the time that rates began to go down. The changes were slight, but significant.
“An individual losing a half pound at Weight Watchers may not be news, but when it comes to populations, a tiny shift indicates a tremendous public health impact,” Crawford said.
However, she notes that the disparities are more pronounced: certain groups are going down, and other high-risk groups rates are going up.
“We are beginning to have some traction, but we need to keep it up,” Crawford said.
In addition to the Atkins Center, the conference is co-sponsored by the California Department of Public Health, the University of California, Berkeley, the California Endowment, and Kaiser Permanente.
There is good news for those who are wild about all things vanilla – from ice cream to candy and even savory foods.
One of the world’s most popular flavors, vanilla comes from vanilla beans, which are grown in Madagascar, Mexico and other tropical regions. Unfortunately, vanilla farmers in these regions struggle to overcome low prices, a fungal disease epidemic, climate stress and environmental deterioration.
Her efforts were recently recognized by the global food company General Mills, which named O’Neill the national winner of the General Mills Sustainability Challenge, a call for universities’ best ideas for reducing waste, encouraging sustainable consumption and using resources responsibly.
The honor comes with $200,000 to support the genomic vanilla research through O’Neill’s Vanilla Sustainability Project in UC Davis’ College of Biological Science.
The researchers aim to improve the genetic basis of the vanilla-bean crop so that vanilla farmers can overcome the problems posed by disease, climate stress, market uncertainties and environmental decline.
There is a lot at stake here because if these farmers abandon vanilla and change to other crops, the tropical forests, where the vanilla vines grow in compatible agroforestry systems, would likely be cut down. That would destabilize the critical habitat of innumerable plants and animals, including precious species of lemurs in northeastern Madagascar, the major vanilla-producing country.
"General Mills' goal is to maintain a strong, sustainable supply of high-quality vanilla beans," said Steve Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills. "That's what this project is all about."
O’Neill’s vanilla research team involves an international group of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in the United States; the French research center CIRAD on Réunion Island; the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar; the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agricolas y Pecuarias /SAGARPA in Mexico; and other international collaborators.
As part of the project, the scientists plan to use cutting-edge genomic sequencing and mapping technologies, in combination with traditional plant-breeding methods, to develop improved and new vanilla varieties that are hardier, more disease-resistant and offer enhanced flavor. A separate element of the project will also advance efforts to promote a more equitable model for sustainable vanilla cultivation with General Mills’ business partners.
There has been much talk about flavored milk in recent months, and much of this debate has been fueled by Jamie Oliver who has a popular television show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, on ABC. His goal is simple: "To revolutionize school lunches to save the health of America’s next generation." Oliver launched a “sugary milk campaign” back in April, 2011. The purpose of the campaign is to ask schools to promote plain white milk instead of flavored milks. According to Oliver’s website, “chocolate milk has the same amount of sugar as a soft drink and just one additional soft drink per day increases a child’s obesity risk by 60 percent and is a major contributor to Type 2 diabetes.”
Well before Oliver emerged on the scene, people have debated the merits of offering flavored milk in the school lunch program. Chocolate (the most common), strawberry, vanilla and other interesting flavors are widely available in districts across the country. The milk provides essential nutrients, but with that comes added sugars that contribute extra calories to the diet – something most American children do not need.
Is there a place for flavored milk on the school lunch tray?
According to the American Dietetic Association, the Dairy Council and other health and nutrition organizations – the answer is yes.
Supporters of flavored milk in schools argue that it provides nine essential nutrients – unlike sodas and other sweetened beverages that offer no nutritional benefit besides extra calories.
According to the American Dietetic Association, leading health and nutrition organizations (including the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, National Hispanic Medical Association, National Medical Association and School Nutrition Association) recognize the role that low-fat or fat free milk (including flavored milk) plays in helping kids achieve daily dairy serving recommendations. According to the ADA, kids will drink more milk when it’s flavored and kids drink less milk (and get fewer nutrients) when flavored milk is taken away.
The Diary Council offers an overview for school nutrition professionals in favor of flavored milk on the lunch tray. The Dairy Council of California argues that we cannot forget flavored milk has both natural sugars (lactose) and added sugar, and the amount of high-fructose corn syrup added to flavored milk is much less than the amount added to sugary beverages like soda or other processed foods. Additionally, some studies suggest that kids who drink flavored milk are less likely to consume soda and other sugary beverages, they consume more nutrients and are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight.
Where does LAUSD, the school district placed at the center of this debate, stand?
The burning question we all want to know the answer to now is, will LAUSD students switch over to low fat or fat free plain milk when chocolate or strawberry milk is no longer available in the fall? The answer will be very interesting and perhaps will put an end to the great flavored milk debate!