Direct & “Indirect” Food Additives: Issues Or Non-Issues?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement on food additives — the direct food additives like nitrates, and indirect ones, like plastic containers that come into contact with food. Their bottom line is that the FDA’s regulatory process doesn’t properly vet food additives and cannot assure us that all of these 10,000 “chemicals” [emphasis mine] are 100% safe.

I like the AAP – really I do – but in this case I wonder if they’re presenting a balanced view of the total body of science on food additives. For example, the statement references studies where additives are “linked” to conditions like impaired thyroid function and immune responses to vaccines, even increased risk for obesity. Yet, many of the referenced studies also admit that such “link” may not be one of cause-and-effect. Moreover, numerous studies not referenced validate the safety of these additives. Getting approval of a new food additive just isn’t easy – nor should it be.

Is ANYTHING 100% Safe?

Not likely, and that includes prescribed medications, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them when necessary. It would be easy to get suspicious of everything we eat: Are healthy foods like beans 100% safe for everyone?

It’s more useful to me and my patients to put this issue perspective, and to that end I think the AAP statement could have done that better. We DO have the most advanced food delivery system in the world and our FDA is a guide post for similar organizations in other countries.

The AAP’s issue with nitrates is one I don’t get, for example. Nitrates and “processed meats” are buzz words, true. But a food label saying “no nitrates added” doesn’t mean the meat has no nitrates. Celery powder is often a substitute, because celery is a source of natural nitrate, along with green beans, carrots, spinach and collards. Of course, celery powder is also a “food additive.”

If someone is eating processed meat frequently, I’d be more concerned with what it’s replacing in the diet, rather than nitrates per se. Let’s balance the diet and the nitrates become a non-issue.

The Big Picture

As a pediatric nutritionist for over 30 years, I’d love it if we lived in a world without a need for anything “additive”. But we don’t, and in some cases that’s a good thing. After all, food additives have provided some of the best public health interventions. I’m glad I don’t have to see children with neural tube defects anymore, now that folic acid – a food additive – is added to enriched grains. My own mother remembers her grandmother having a goiter and to this day she will only use iodized salt. No fancy sea salt, not even Kosher salt, for her. “You never had to see anyone with a goiter,” she says.

The AAP calls for the FDA to re-examine the regulatory process for approval of food additives, including those additives on the “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe) list. They also note that low-income children are at increased risk, as higher consumers of packaged foods.

Food Additives & Food Budgets

As for affordability, I like that the AAP recommends practitioners “develop a list of low-cost sources of fruits and vegetables.” I’ve worked my entire career with low income patients and helping patients stretch their food dollars goes hand-in-hand with good medical nutrition therapy. Nothing is nutritious until people eat it.

I don’t have the luxury of telling parents that their family’s health is at risk until the feds beef up their regulatory process. I also think there’s a lot that you can do at ANY income level to reduce exposure to additives. The AAP does give some recommendations in the interim, but frankly, they’re the same ones I’ve been giving to my patients on for years, just for general health:

• Make fresh fruits and veggies a big priority in the home eating environment. (Uh, it helps if parents eat them, too, and in front of the kids).

• When microwaving food, put it onto a plate or in a glass container instead of plastic. It just saves worrying about whether the container is microwave-safe to begin with. Also, no plastic wrap when microwaving. Too hot and the stuff melts. Ick.

• Forget the dishwasher for plastic containers. Just wash them by hand. Done.
Finally, if you’re doing these things anyway, then you’re also already minimizing your exposure to food additives. Then the feds can take all the time they want. You’re doing your job and that’s plenty safe.

 

 

 

Dark Chocolate: Does More = Less for BMI & Waist?

Readers of this column know I’m a lover of good dark chocolate. I make no secret of my interest in finding out all that’s good about the stuff. Here’s the latest:

This recent meta-analysis looked at the effects of eating dark chocolate on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Why I Like This Study

• It included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) only. That means “cause-and-effect” results of an intervention. Large population studies can’t do that (no matter what the headlines imply).

• The studies in this meta-analysis all had to investigate cocoa’s or dark chocolate’s (DC) effect on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference .

• DC had to be specifically prescribed and compared with a placebo group that did not consume cocoa or DC

• Neatness counted. The authors of this meta-analysis looked only at studies with adults. No animals.

First the bad news: Glass half empty?

There was no significant effect of dark chocolate/cocoa supplementation on BMI, weight, or waist circumference. Bummer. Some studies found a difference, some did not, but when you pool all the studies together and treat them as one huge study, which is what a meta-analysis does, no significant difference in these parameters could be found.

If you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, this sounds bad, but it really isn’t. DC hasn’t traditionally been known to be a weight-loss aide. Then again, read on…

Saving the best for last…

In studies that lasted longer, 4 to 8 weeks, and that included at least 30 grams of dark chocolate daily:

• There was a significant reduction in BMI and body weight.

• Waist circumference was reduced but only in doses of 45-60 grams daily.

Personally, 30-60 grams of dark chocolate daily would not pose difficulty for me, especially if I knew it would help my waist circumference. It’s means budgeting in about 150-300 calories, but it’s nice to know that there might be justification for moving dark chocolate from the “once-in-a-while treat” to “healthful way to spend discretionary calories.” If it motivates you to get on the treadmill for 30 minutes daily, so you can balance out that extra ounce of DC, so much the better. Hey, #Commitmentiseverything 😉

Here are a few of my latest fave bars.  They’re pricey, but good chocolate isn’t for gulping.  Learning to savor our food just adds to the enjoyment.

Lean Red Meat in a Mediterranean Diet? Oh, Yes You Can!

This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner., on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a member of the Beef Expert Bureau.

In my previous EdibleRx column, I discussed the PREDIMED study, a 2013 landmark multi-center trial that showed how following a Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, but that was recently retracted due to flawed methodology. The re-analyzed and republished data showed good, but less dramatic results, than when first published.

Among the hallmarks of a traditional Med diet, one that the typical Greek farmer ate, are the inclusion of olive oil as the preferred fat in cooking, lots of fish, fruits, vegetables, and minimal red meat. Oh, and the glass of red wine.
Red meat? That Mediterranean farmer didn’t eat much because not much was available. Cows were expensive and sheep worked better on the arid land, plus they gave wool and milk to make feta. All based on pragmatism, not fashion. Red meat (usually lamb) was a celebratory dish. My Greek grandfather loved roasting the lamb heads at Easter (knock it, but farmers waste nothing).

Better Med With Red

A new study asks the question: What would happen to cardiovascular risk factors if you ate a Med diet but compensated/replaced some (up to 18 oz/week) of the poultry with lean red meat, keeping consumption of fish, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), nuts, and the rest of the Med diet the same?

This study, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has some credibility.  It’s small, but well done, and it’s a “cross-over” design, so that every participant followed both the Med diet limited in red meat and the Med diet that included red meat (i.e. Med-Red) for 5 weeks each, with about a month in between each phase.
Following both Mediterranean-style diets produced lower total cholesterol levels, but here’s the difference:

• The Med-Red diet lowered total cholesterol significantly more than the Med diet limited in red meat.

• The Med-Red diet lowered LDL-cholesterol, but the Med diet limited in red meat did not.

Blood pressure improved in both groups, regardless of red meat intake. HDL-cholesterol, glucose levels, and insulin were similar and unchanged for both groups.

Revised Results = New Questions

• Is the advice to reduce red meat intake in a Med diet misguided?

• What about lean forms of deli meat (beef and pork)?

From this study, the answer would be “yes” to the first question, but the second cannot yet be answered because it hasn’t yet been tested. It’s possible that processed, lean deli meats (beef and pork) may be able to be included with similar results to the Med-Red diet. “To be continued…”

Interestingly, when I looked at the revised PREDIMED data, specifically the questionnaire that scored the adherence to the Med and control diets, at the 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year follow-up marks, there were no differences in consumption of red or processed meats between the Med diet groups and the control groups, even though the Med diet groups had a lower risk of stroke. Maybe it’s not the red meat that makes the difference here.

Limitations? ALL studies have them. This study was smaller and didn’t last as long as the PREDIMED study, which had a 5-year follow-up.

The study was funded partially by the Beef Checkoff and the Pork Checkoff, but before you make pre-judgements, it was also funded by the National Institute of Health’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue University and NIH’s Institute of Health’s Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, all reputable organizations. Regardless, the funding organizations had “no role in the design or conduct of the study; collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or writing of the manuscript.” The study was fully peer-reviewed.

Cut-To-The-Chase Recommendations

• Stop worrying about “red meat” and focus more on leanness and freshness (i.e. unprocessed).

• Beef in particular has a lot to offer nutritionally, especially nutrients like zinc and iron, but also conjugated linoleic acid, B-vitamins, and more.

• Keep meat lean, keep portions real (4 or 5 ounces are enough, downing a 12-oz. portion doesn’t prove masculinity and your body can’t use all that protein at one meal anyway. Good news is that this study showed you can enjoy up to 18 ounces of lean red meat per week as part of this eating pattern and still see a positive impact on heart health)

• Make sure you have it with plenty of veggies and some whole grains, dressed with a drizzle of EVOO.

If you want a great lean beef recipe I made, check out my recipe for an easy, lean, tasty pot roast here, or for many more check out Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner and this infographic on the Med Diet. The site is loaded with great, heart-healthy recipes.

Is the Med Diet a Dead Diet? No – Despite Retractions

But the Mediterranean diet did get a kick in the keester. The New England Journal of Medicine just published a retraction of the 2013 PREDIMED study because of flaws discovered in the randomization methodology. Basically, it found that about a fifth of the 7447 trial subjects weren’t randomized properly, which could have allowed bias to creep into the data.

PREDIMED was a study on the Mediterranean diet and its impact on cardiovascular disease, specifically heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular-related death. The study was intended to go on for 7 years but was stopped after about 4 years because the results were so dramatic that it was considered unethical to prevent the participants on the control diet from benefitting from the Med diet.

Subjects were supposed to have been randomly assigned to one of three groups:

• Instruction on the Med diet and provided free extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO);

• Instruction on the Med diet and provided free nuts (about 30 grams daily of a mix of almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts);

• General advice on a low-fat diet. After 3 years, this group would also have additional dietary instruction.

Where did things go awry?

For about a fifth of the 7447 participants, randomization didn’t happen. They point out several ways the randomization failed for these participants, and these failures didn’t seem intentional or malicious. Probably due to site technicians who were poorly trained, poorly supervised, or sites that just weren’t run efficiently.

The authors completely re-analyzed the results of the study and published them here.

Did the corrected analysis change the results?

Yes. The results are still good, but not as dramatic. The Med Diet with either nuts or EVOO showed benefits only for reducing the risk of stroke, but not heart attack or other cardiovascular event.

We shouldn’t dismiss the Med diet though.  Although the PREDIMED study had flaws, other Med diet studies have shown positive results.

What holds true about the Med diet

• It’s simple and sustainable.

• It uses easily obtainable foods.

• It doesn’t require major dietary changes, yet still has at least some cardiovascular benefits.

As a clinician who has spent years helping people change their eating behaviors, a diet with these attributes hits the tri-fecta.

Where the Med diet could improve

A 14-item questionnaire was used in the PREDIMED study to determine a “MedDiet Score” of adherence to the diet. Some of the questions are a bit odd, if not troubling:

• Why are homemade pastries OK but “commercial bakery” items discouraged?

• Why are “red and processed meats” grouped together? More to the point, why is lean red meat in the same category as fatty, salty sausage?

• There is absolutely no mention at all of dairy foods, milk, yogurt, or cheese, either low-fat or regular? Yogurt and cheese are nutrient-rich and present in a Med Diet, even if not adequately so.

Solution: A “MediterDASHean Diet”

It combines the best of the Med Diet with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Both emphasize lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, but DASH makes up for what’s missing from the Med Diet and the diets of most people: dairy nutrition.

The Med Diet, for all it’s advantages, is low in calcium. Even the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which praises the Med Diet, acknowledges the likely lack of adequate calcium in the Med Diet.

A calcium supplement alone cannot replace the nutrition-rich package in dairy foods.  With a MediterDASHean Diet, you just do the Med diet but include at least 2 servings of dairy foods daily – full-fat, low-fat, or non-fat, whatever your calorie needs allow. Personally, I get three servings and happily so.

The Med diet discourages “red and processed meat” but it’s not clear why. It’s even less clear with a new dynamite study that looks at what happens when a Med Diet swaps out lean poultry for lean beef and pork. It’s my next post, so watch this space!

Photo credits: Penne: Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59899700  Caprese salad: Jessica Rossi, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jesswebb/3797226962

Latest Cheese Chatter: It’s Better For You Than You Thought!

Who doesn’t love cheese? Whether it’s a grilled cheese sandwich, a baked brie with fresh figs and whole grain crackers (drizzled with a little honey, perhaps?), something grated over pasta, or just some cubed cheddar to have with fruit for an afternoon snack, cheese is not only a big favorite, it’s almost a comfort food.
Cheese is often criticized by those who promote healthy eating, and it’s true that about half the fat in cheese is saturated fat. But do we need to forego one of our favorite foods in order to be healthier? More to the point, does all dairy fat BEHAVE the same way in the body? The emerging science would suggest not, with cheese coming out ahead of butter.

Isn’t butter the same type of fat as cheese?

Pretty much, but a recent meta-analysis (a study that combines the results of multiple research studies) showed that cheese lowered LDL-cholesterol (the bad kind), compared to baseline levels, and butter raised it.
That might seem odd, given that cheese and butter both have fat from the same source – milkfat – and thus has the same proportion of saturated and unsaturated fat.

This is where butter and cheese part ways. Cheese seemed to lower LDL-cholesterol, compared to baseline levels, butter raised it. Cheese also lowered HDL-cholesterol but the LDL figure is usually given more weight, with respect to cardiovascular risk.

A more recent study, a single randomized control trial involving 92 men and women, showed that cheese fared better than butter only on these cholesterol metrics, not on other metabolic factors such as blood pressure or fasting glucose levels, and the LDL-effects were more pronounced in subjects with higher baseline LDL levels.What gives?

The reasons for the differences produced by cheese vs. butter are not totally clear. Top theories are:

• The dairy calcium may be binding with fat in the small intestine, reducing fat absorption and thus cholesterol synthesis.

• Cheese’s fermentation may play a role in impairing cholesterol synthesis and reabsorption in the large intestine. A 2011 study postulated that bacteria in the large intestine may bind to bile acids that, in turn, prevent some cholesterol from being absorbed.

• Some of the fat in cheese (and milk, for that matter) is trapped within the casein matrix, perhaps making some of that fat less available to fuel cholesterol synthesis.

Keeping grounded, without grinding

None of these study results is a license to go out and scarf an 8-oz wheel of brie (much as I’d love to). The 2017 study above also looked at how high monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) stacked up against the butter and cheese diets.

Result: The MUFA and PUFA diets produced lower levels of LDL-cholesterol then either butter or cheese. In other words, cheese fares better than butter, but diets higher in MUFA and PUFA fats seemed to lower LDL cholesterol even more.

Cut-To-The-Chase Tip: Keep eating cheese. It’s loaded with great protein, calcium, and other nutrients and it’s delicious. Keep it to an ounce or two, and pair it with good company, like fruit, vegetables, and whole-grains. For cooking, favor olive or canola oil instead of butter. Healthy eating is NEVER about deprivation, obsession, or perfection. It’s about balance.

A Great Food I Can’t Believe Is Popular — & 1 More That Should Be

My previous EdibleRx post was about great foods that nutritionists are surprised became popular.

My contribution to this conversation? HUMMUS.

Now it’s so common there are hummus-themed restaurants and it’s a standard item om many school lunch menus throughout the US. It has so many variations it’s overwhelming what’s been done to such a humble food.

But growing up, I wouldn’t even eat hummus in front of friends. High “ick” factor to skeptical kids who’d never seen or tasted it. Tell them it’s loaded with garbanzo beans and tahini (another alien food) and you’ve sealed the deal – grimace and all.

Back then, hummus wasn’t sold in supermarkets. We always made it and I still do. I like my family’s very humble hummus recipe — more like a “non-recipe” as you’ll see at the end of this column. My mother served it at adult parties, (“Diane’s weird dip thing”) instead of the universal onion dip.

I love that hummus is now mainstream, although my family and I howl when thinking of how the food culture was far less open-minded than it is today.

Culinary authorities may debate how “proper” hummus is made. Spare me – it’s loaded with great ingredients: beans, seeds, lemon juice, garlic, and whatever other flavors you like. Delicious, nutritious peasant food.

Family “Non-Recipe”

Hummus in the Middle East is like pasta sauce for Italians – every family has their own. Ours is very humble and simple:

• We use less tahini, more garbanzo beans. Why? Best guess is that my ancestors were really poor. Tahini costs more than the garbanzos, so it was used sparingly.

• Ours has more lemon juice. We like the flavor tartness.

• Some grit is good, not pureed too finely.

Spices like cumin or cayenne pepper add a nice flavor and kick, so does smoked paprika. You can even swap out the garbanzos for other varieties: fava beans, edamame, white beans are all good. Here our version, but you’re free to tweak and make it your own:

• 1 15-oz. can of garbanzo beans (or use 2 cups cooked). Save the liquid (now this is even called “aquafaba”)

• 2 or 3 Tbl. tahini

• Juice of one large lemon

• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

• Garnish options: Extra-virgin olive oil, parsley, paprika

Combine beans, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic in a food processor and pulse a few seconds, just to mix it up. Slowly add some bean liquid (you won’t need all of it) until it’s mostly smooth but still has a little grit, as in the photo. Taste and add salt if needed. If serving later, cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent drying. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the EVOO and parsley. Sprinkle with paprika if you like.

What Food SHOULD Be More Popular?

Cottage cheese. Hold on – it’s more than something to eat with a canned peach. Toby Amidor, a National Dairy Council ambassador and author of the best-selling The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, calls cottage cheese, “One of the most underappreciated foods that is brimming with nutrition.”

One half cup of low-fat cottage cheese is loaded with 16 grams of protein — as much as in 2-ounces of cooked chicken – but only has 90 calories and 1 gram of fat.

“With all that protein, that ½ cup of cottage cheese, can help keep you feeling full because protein takes longer to digest,” Amidor says. She likes it not only for snacking, she recommends “blending it into a creamy, thick consistency and add protein to smoothies, dips, soups, and other such foods.”

Guys, cottage cheese isn’t “girl food.” It’s a high-powered protein supplement — in fact, it’s a great replacement for protein powder. I go bold and eat it topped with sriracha or salsa.

5 Foods Even Nutritionists Can’t Believe Are Popular

Ever wonder what nutritionists talk about when they get together? Inevitably, talk turns to food, but not what you might expect.

We may be familiar with the latest research and science, but we’re people, too, and we can yak it up with the best of them. I asked several top-notch registered dietitian/nutritionists (RDNs) to react to the statement: “I can’t believe that food ever became popular”. Here’s what they said:

Kale’in Me!

Number one response. “How the heck did that heinous weed become everyone’s darling?” asked Amy Myrdal Miller, of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting. Yes, Amy knows kale is nutritious. She hates it anyway.

Keri Gans doesn’t mind kale, but adds, “I never understood why kale became so popular mainly because, for myself, and many others I know, it’s rather bitter tasting. And with other nutritious leafy greens available – hello spinach – it just makes me wonder.”

‘flower Power

As much as Myrdal Miller hates kale, “I’m delighted so many chefs and consumers have embraced and totally fallen in love with cauliflower, my favorite vegetable.”

Indeed, chefs have become some of this cruciferous superfood’s biggest fans. “Who ever thought cauliflower would rise to the status of being nestled into a pizza crust?” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read it Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table. “Cauliflower pizza is on fire on Instagram and in foodies’ kitchens everywhere, especially since Paleo and Keto diets have also risen in popularity.” She noted though, that although a cauliflower pizza crusts add nutritional value, “they’re not necessarily lower in calories. I add egg, cheese, herbs and nuts to create my crust.”

Toby Amidor, author of best-selling The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, agreed, noting that she loved how loaded it is with nutrients like vitamin C and K, numerous B-vitamins, and fiber, and has anti-cancer properties. “However, I’m not always a fan of its flavor especially when served raw like in a salad. I was surprised when it gained popularity as a meat replacer (such as in cauliflower “steak”) and grain replacer (such as riced cauliflower or cauliflower risotto).” That baffled me also. Great as cauliflower is, it’s low in protein, so swapping out some lean beef for cauliflower requires some other protein source for the meal. I love roasting the colored varieties – they’re gorgeous, edible art.

Kombucha: #Thisbrewmaynotbebestforyou

According to Leslie Bonci, owner of ActiveEatingAdvice.com trying to make this fermented, probiotic drink at home, “could be a food safety concern. “Why not eat fermented vegetables like kimchi to get more fiber, and yogurt or kefir for protein?”

Taking a pinto for a spin

Robyn Flipse, of TheEverydayRD.com, said, “The humble bean gets my top vote as the nutrient-rich food most deserving its new-found popularity!” While not fond of their “less appetizing nomenclature, ‘pulses’” or the confusing “legumes”, she’s glad more consumers and chefs are taking their “pulse” at mealtimes now.

Flipse loves that beans are now known as much for being “culinary chameleons that can be blended into almost any recipe, available all year round with a long shelf life in cans or bags and easy to prepare” as for their traditional budget-friendly advantages. Abundant research has clearly documented, “how much nutritional value they add to any dietary pattern or simple meal.”

Chia Whiz, It’s Popular

How did chia seeds go from holiday joke gift to being a treasured ingredient in smoothies and oatmeal?  Bonci is a huge fan of chia (and of rhyming). One of her Bonci-bites: “We-a love chia! We feed the need with this seed! Fiber and omega-3, make chia good for me!”  She’s right – chia is a nutrient powerhouse and, like many seeds, it’s versatile.  Chia makes far better as a food than a “pet”!

Next post: What food’s popularity absolutely blows my mind (in a good way)?  What other food SHOULD be popular but isn’t (yet)?

 

Eat The “Dirty Dozen” Fruits & Veggies & Be Healthier For It

It’s that time of year again – spring – when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes it’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. It’s also when I’m reminded that fear sells and facts are more boring (but more essential!).

Many fruits and veggies on this list are popular favorites:

1. Strawberries                                 7. Cherries
2. Spinach                                          8. Pears
3. Nectarines                                     9. Tomatoes
4. Apples                                           10. Celery
5. Grapes                                           11. Potatoes
6. Peaches                                         12. Sweet Bell Peppers

This list always gets a ton of media attention (probably why the EWG keeps issuing it) but it fails miserably at giving context, and that’s unconscionable for an issue that’s so important.

As a practicing clinician of some 33 years, what concerns me most about this list is that it can put already confused consumers off of eating produce. It’s exactly what shouldn’t happen, but research suggests it’s exactly what DOES happen. This study – not industry-funded, please note – found that:

“Messages naming specific FV with pesticides shifted participants toward

‘less likely’ to purchase any type of FV regardless whether organically or conventionally grown.”

Exactly what no responsible health professional wants.  The amount of solid, scientific evidence indicating the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables is overwhelming and indisputable.  That research – all of it – was carried out with conventionally grown produce.

Pesticide Residues: Perspective & Context

The issue of pesticide residues has been scrutinized by the feds for ages. The EPA is extremely conservative in setting allowed levels of pesticides. Indeed, many countries follow our lead on this.
Strawberries were ranked #1 on the Dirty Dozen list. Yet, EPA has found that a typical 3½-oz portion of strawberries had maximum residues that were about 1/100th of allowed levels.

Cutting to the chase: You’d have to eat about 22 pounds of strawberries daily – for life – to reach the EPA threshold levels.

Another perspective: Take two Olympic-sized swimming pools, both bone-dry. You throw a drop of water into pool A and 100 drops of water into pool B. You can accurately say:

• Pool B actually has 100 times more water than pool A.

Now, in context:

• You won’t drown in either pool.
• You won’t even get wet in either pool.

Organic ≠ Pesticide-Free

Reality bites: pesticides are allowed on organic crops.  If you like eating organic and can afford it, go for it, but know it’s still not pesticide-free — and that’s OK.  Some other facts about organic that most people don’t know:

• There are several HUNDRED “natural” pesticides that USDA approves for organic farming.

• Even some synthetic pesticides are allowed on organic crops. Check the feds’ complete list here.

• Pesticide residues on organic crops aren’t monitored as thoroughly as they are on conventionally grown crops. The National Organic Standards Board has 15 people. Only one is a scientist.

ALL produce deserves cheers, not fears. So read the Dirty Dozen list if you like. When you know the facts, you won’t worry. You’ll do what I do: yawn — and grab an apple.

MORE: Want to know if corn is a vegetable? Do Beans count as veggies, too?  Want about canned/dried/frozen fruit?  I have you covered.  Get the answers here.

Growing Up With Cacao Trees in the Backyard?

Maribel Lieberman did, so it’s no wonder she went on to found MarieBelle Chocolate and Cacao Market by MarieBelle in New York. We were both guests together on the show “Nutrition and Exercise” on Doctor Radio, (Channel 110 on SiriusXM), and she agreed to chat with me later to tell more of her story.

Born in Honduras, Maribel said “It was usual to have cacao trees in the backyard, so yes, I grew up with cacao trees.”. Those trees weren’t a direct line to chocolate making however. “My mother was a very passionate seamstress and my idea was to become a designer and continue with my mother’s tradition.” This led her to come to New York’s Parson’s School of Art and Design, intent on becoming a fashion designer.

“When I arrived in New York, I was absolutely in love with the city and its culture,” and finding herself mesmerized by all the different food cultures that have always been part of the city. “This is when I started experimenting cooking with unfamiliar ingredients,” and how she learned to combine them into unique flavors.  As her interests evolved from fashion into food, she bought lots of cookbooks, learning to be a chef.  Maribel eventually started a catering company, maintaining it for 5 years.

It’s during this period that she learned a lot about chocolate. “I experimented making truffles and really loved it,” but combining and fusing different flavors with chocolate is what fascinated her even more.

Bean-to-Bar with Women Farmers

The vast majority of the cacao Lieberman uses comes from Hondouras, “although sometimes from Nicaragua or El Salvador, also.” Most of her cacao beans are Trinitario variety — a hybrid of the more common Forastero and the uber-delicate Criollo beans.  She travels to Honduras several times a year. “I have a relationship with the growers, most of them are women farmers, I have about 60 women that I buy cacao from,” but from other farmers as well. “I work very closely with the Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola.  The non-profit FHIA provides her with a wealth of knowledge about cacao, and “they help me pick the best quality bean.”

Maribel’s shop offers about 50 different flavors of chocolates and truffles. Spices figure prominently in her ganache chocolates, with the cardamom flavor being one of her favorites.  For me, a couple of her ganache truffles and a cappuccino make an excellent  dessert.  Not high in calories either (given their size, figure about 70 calories per truffle), and just enough indulgence.  With the cap (I’ll take a decaf, thanks, and I know I’m in the minority here) supplying some protein and dairy nutrition, it’s one way to make dessert or an afternoon snack really work.

Sugar-free chocolate her way 

She also entered the sugar-free market, sweetening her 70% bar is only with organic whole milk powder. “I think it works well” and I agree. It has the creaminess of milk chocolate, but the intensity you’d expect from a 70% bar.  Added sugar? Zero.  Protein?  Yes — a little over 5 grams in a 40-gram portion (about 170 calories).  She’s currently developing one sweetened only with raspberries and blueberries.

Her ganache chocolates have unique airbrush designs on them. Some are her husband’s designs, other are the work of her in-house designer. All are whimsical and have their own explanations that come with the “paperwork” in each box sold.  She’s obviously figured out that people eat with their eyes, too.  Smart.

Does all the “business” of cacao make her less interested in eating it? Not a chance. “I eat cacao every day,” she said happily. “Sometimes when I travel and didn’t bring any with me, I end up buying it at the local store.”

Chocolate fans, I’d say she’s “one of us.”

“MY MISTAKE” BROWN IRISH SODA BREAD TURNED OUT DELICIOUSLY!

I love Cook’s Illustrated and their recipe for “Brown Irish Soda Bread” looked great.  Their primary focus is on taste, not nutrition, but this recipe caught my eye. It’s loaded with whole wheat flour but has added bran and wheat germ. By mistake, I ended up adding a about ¾ cup of wheat germ instead of the called-for ¼ cup and less wheat bran, as it was all I had. I deliberately reduced the salt from the original one teaspoon, figuring there would be enough sodium in the baking soda and baking powder (and I don’t like too-salty bread).

Bonus: it’s just dry ingredients and buttermilk – no eggs or added fat. I mixed the dry ingredients the night before to save time in the morning.

My Mistake

I kept wondering why I had to add more buttermilk to get it to the needed consistency.  By the time I figured out my mistake, there was no going back, so I went with it and hoped for the best. And I got a delicious soda bread, not too salty-tasting, either. Just right.

No wedges for this bread, it holds up to slicing. Tastes hearty but not too heavy, and it goes well with most cheeses – I paired it with a firm goat cheese from our local farmer’s market, but a good cheddar or Stilton would also be fine (and probably more authentic!).  Cheese brings complementary flavor to this bread, but also more protein and calcium than butter.  With fresh fruit it made a nice whole-grain breakfast.

“My Mistake” Brown Irish Soda Bread

• 2 cups whole wheat flour                    • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
• 1 cup all-purpose flour                        • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
• ¾ cup wheat bran                                • ¾ teaspoon salt
• ¾ cup wheat germ                               • 2¼ cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375⁰. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan. Whisk together all the dry ingredients into a medium bowl. Gradually add the buttermilk and mix until it’s one mass. Transfer it to a smooth counter and form it into a round that fits into your cake pan. The surface will be “craggy” but no worries. With a serrated knife, cut a “cross” on the tip, about half an inch deep.

Into the oven for about 40-45 minutes. It’s supposed to reach 185⁰ internally, but mine never quite made it. If the surface is browned, it’s probably done (mine was). Invert it onto a wire rack and then invert again so it’s “right-side-up.” Cool it for a good hour before slicing. It’s awesome.