Chocolate, wine grab the headlines

466095583With Valentine’s Day approaching, I am wondering about the so-called health benefits of chocolate and wine. I hear a lot about that this time of year, but I’m skeptical. Is there any truth to the hype?

Actually, there is evidence that compounds in chocolate, wine and other foods have properties that may help fight against a wide range of diseases. But if you use that as an excuse to overindulge, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

These compounds, called flavonoids, are produced by plants.  It’s important to know that there are many different kinds of flavonoids.

The latest headlines on flavonoids and health focused on diabetes. A study published in theJournal of Nutrition combed through data from nearly 2,000 women in the United Kingdom who had completed a food questionnaire, which researchers examined for evidence of consumption of two types of flavonoids, anthocyanins and flavones. The women were also tested for blood glucose, insulin resistance and inflammation, which, when chronic, is associated with diabetes, as well as cancer, depression, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

The women with the highest consumption of flavones and anthocyanins had lower risks of insulin resistance and inflammation, and better blood sugar regulation.

Interestingly, media stories that covered the study claimed that chocolate was among the foods offering these benefits. It’s true that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains flavonoids, but it isn’t a good source of either anthocyanins or flavones. While those flavonoids might be helpful, it’s important to note that chocolate was not examined in this particular study.

Although both flavones and anthocyanins are contained in many plant-based foods, flavones are found primarily in herbs and vegetables such as parsley, thyme, oregano, chili peppers, celery and citrus peel, and anthocyanins are found primarily in berries, red grapes, wine, red cabbage, and other red- or blue-colored fruits and vegetables.

The best guidance? Enjoy your chocolate and wine, but only in moderation, since these foods are also high in calories and sugar. Put your main focus on including a wide range of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods in your diet to get benefits related to flavones, anthocyanins and related compounds.

Make food donations count

119820672I helped during a recent food drive, and I saw some of the donated items were past their expiration date. Is that OK? Are they safe?

They may or may not be safe, but it depends on the food bank on whether they accept food items with expired dates. It’s always best to check with the organization for its guidelines.

One of the challenges is that dates on food items often aren’t true expiration dates, at least in regards to food safety. Although there are no federal standards for these terms:

  • “Sell by” indicates how long the manufacturer recommends that the product be displayed for sale at retail. This does not include any time that the product might be in your home.
  • “Best by” or “use by” indicates when the product should be consumed for best flavor or quality.

Last fall, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a comprehensive, 64-page report on how a lack of standardization on food label dates — and the confusion that results — contributes to the waste of 160 billion pounds of food each year in the U.S. (See the report at The authors did the math, and said redistributing (instead of pitching) just 30 percent of the food that’s wasted in America every year could completely eliminate U.S. food insecurity.

Still, food pantries must ensure that the food they distribute is safe to consume. Many of their clients include the elderly, young children, pregnant women or those battling a chronic illness — the very populations who are most at-risk from food-borne illness. It’s smart for a food pantry to be extra cautious about foods past their prime.

If you’re making donations during a food drive, find out what the organization is in most need of. Different food pantries target different populations, so their needs could vary. Commonly requested items include:

  • Chili with beans.
  • Canned fruit (in their own juice or light syrup) and canned vegetables.
  • Canned tuna, chicken or other meats.
  • Soup (with vegetables).
  • Peanut butter.
  • Toiletries.

Be careful when donating foods in glass containers, as they might break before they get to the pantry.

Also, consider donating cash. Through agreements with retailers and wholesalers, a food bank can purchase items much more cheaply than consumers can, so a monetary donation is likely to have a bigger impact than a large box of food items.

Drink up: Choose water first for thirst

78163959None of my kids drink a lot of water. Should I encourage them to drink more? 

Yes, fill up that water glass and encourage kids to drink up.

Just like it does with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, the Institute of Medicine offers recommendations for daily adequate intake of water. Research suggests that most children and adolescents aren’t getting enough.

For school-age children, expert panels generally recommend daily water intake of about 4 cups for children 4-8 years old, 7-8 cups for youth ages 9-13, and 8-11 cups for those 14-18 years old. It’s recommended that children consume this quantity of water daily in liquid form (water, unflavored lowfat milk, and 100 percent fruit juices). For teens, that translates into drinking enough water to fill a 2-liter bottle.

It should be noted that in addition to the daily recommended amounts of water from beverages, there are additional recommendations for water that’s contained in food (particularly fruits and vegetables). But, even considering all water sources, the average intake for children and adolescents falls short.

Young people who drink more water gain a boatload of benefits. First, higher water consumption can help in the battle against childhood obesity. One study found that plain drinking water accounted for only 33 percent of total water intake among adolescents, with the remaining intake consisting primarily of beverages that contained excess calories. Choosing plain water more often — “water first for thirst” — would likely decrease the amount of sugary beverages children drink. And that can be significant: A 2001 study in The Lancetfound that for every 12-ounce sugary soda a child consumed each day, the odds that he or she would become obese over the next 18 months increased by 60 percent.

In addition, drinking tap water is cheap and usually provides fluoride to reduce cavities. Also, if the water comes from a mineral-rich source — normally groundwater rather than spring water — it can be a small but significant source of some minerals.

Public health authorities suggest parents can help children increase water consumption by:

  • Offering water first when your children say they are thirsty.
  • Having only water and other unsweetened beverages available or within your child’s reach
  • Modeling the behavior — drink more water yourself.
  • Checking your children’s school policies on allowing children to visit the water fountain often or bring bottled water into the classroom.
  • Dressing it up — add slices of lemon, lime or cucumber to water to add interest and variety.

Peanut butter a hearty choice

105547259Is peanut butter as good for you as peanuts are? And are peanuts as healthful as other nuts? 

Yes, peanut butter appears to offer the same health benefits that peanuts do. And peanuts, which are technically legumes, give you the same health benefits as true tree nuts, such as almonds and walnuts.

Several studies have shown that people who regularly eat nuts, including peanuts, or peanut butter are less likely to suffer from heart disease or type 2 diabetes compared with people who don’t eat nuts or nut butters. Although the possibility exists that people who eat nuts are different from those who don’t — perhaps they exercise more or have other healthy habits – nutrition experts believe that regular consumption of nuts can make a difference.

Likewise, some studies indicate that dieters who eat peanuts or peanut butter are more successful at weight loss than those who avoid them. This could be due to their high fat and protein content, which makes them more filling compared to high-carbohydrate foods.

But as with any kind of nuts and nut butters, moderation is key. A serving of peanut butter, as listed on Nutrition Facts labels, is two tablespoons. The next time you make a sandwich, measure that amount before you spread it on your bread. Do you typically use more? If so, try cutting back.

In the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, two tablespoons of peanut butter or an ounce of nuts (about 28 peanuts) gives you the equivalent of 2 ounces of dietary protein. The guidelines recommend that most people eat about 5 to 6 ounces of protein a day. Knowing those numbers shows how easy it is go overboard with nuts and nut butters if you don’t measure to know how much you’re consuming.

A few nutty things to keep in mind:

  • An ounce of peanuts contains about 165 calories. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain about 190 calories. Though high in fat, both have more unsaturated (healthy) fat than saturated fat. Similarly, both can be high in sodium when salted, but its effects on blood pressure are somewhat moderated by the generous amount of potassium in peanuts.
  • Compare Nutrition Facts labels before choosing reduced-fat peanut butter. It normally has nearly as many calories as regular peanut butter, and has more sugar — something almost everyone should cut back on.
  • Peanut butter may contain very small amounts of unhealthy trans fats because of the use of partially hydrogenated oil to make the peanut butter smoother. However, many brands are now processed using fully hydrogenated oils, which don’t contain trans fats.