When Food Becomes Weird: From Arsenic to Insects

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The title of this week’s posting is weird, isn’t it? What’s so weird about food, anyway? As it turns out, a lot. Quite often, we learn bizarre “facts” about food and nutrition from the media, whether on the nightly news or in the daily newspaper. So I thought I’d explore some of this weird dietary information and help sort out whether it’s fact or fallacy.

Arsenic in rice?
It’s hard to imagine that a grain that is a staple for two-thirds of the world’s population and that has been feeding humans for thousands of years contains arsenic. Americans eat, on average, 25 pound of rice per person per year; compare that to the Chinese, who eat about 210 pounds per year. Most of you are somewhat familiar with arsenic — it’s a chemical that occurs naturally in the environment and one that can’t be destroyed. Inorganic arsenic can be found in soil due to industrial processes, such as burning wood or fuel, or from pesticides. And it’s toxic (remember murder stories of people who have been poisoned by arsenic?), increasing the risk for cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and neurological problems.

Last year, Consumer Reports tested more than 60 brands of rice (brown, white, organic) and rice products and found “significant levels” of arsenic in almost every product tested. Brown rice had higher levels than white rice, and rice grown in the south central US had higher levels than rice grown elsewhere. The FDA jumped on the bandwagon and tested 1300 samples of rice, but they determined that the amount of arsenic in the rice was too low to cause immediate or short-term health problems. And if rice truly were a problem, we’d probably be seeing more health effects from it.

While it’s nearly impossible to control naturally occurring arsenic, it IS possible to control amounts that occur from industrial processes. The FDA is planning to do further study and then decide on a course of action. In the meantime, should you stop eating rice? No. But it’s advisable to vary what you eat — switch up your grains by trying quinoa, bulgur, or barley, for example. And it’s not a bad idea to watch your portion size, too!

Get your protein — from bugs?
If you have diabetes, you probably have heard how it’s wise to eat protein at each of your meals, how protein has less effect on blood glucose levels compared to carbohydrate, and how getting enough protein is important to maintain lean body mass if you’re trying to lose weight. But eating more protein comes at a cost, especially if it’s animal protein. Raising livestock to feed everyone is expensive and impacts the environment. Some protein sources, like beef and pork, come with a hefty amount of saturated fat. And animal protein adds to the weekly grocery bill, too.

Here’s a solution, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: Why not munch on the more than 1900 varieties of edible bugs that are flying, crawling, and slithering around? Maybe the better question is: Why not? Insects are packed with protein, healthy fat, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, too. If you eat insects, you’re practicing what is called entomophagy. And you’re doing the environment a favor, too: No need for bug spray — control the insect level naturally by eating them!

You might think this all sounds, well, “icky,” but keep in mind that two billion people worldwide eat bugs on a regular basis. Most of us don’t. But we could. Beetles are very high in protein. Bees taste like peanuts and wasps have a pine nut flavor. Ants are low in carbohydrate. Stinkbugs have an apple-like flavor and they happen to have analgesic properties (pop a stinkbug instead of an aspirin for that headache!). Bugs and rice for dinner, anyone?

Eating fruit can prevent diabetes?
If you have a loved one or a friend who is at risk for diabetes, you can help them out by advising them to eat more fruit. What? Isn’t fruit full of carbohydrate? Yes. But a large study has found that eating three servings per week of whole fruits — particularlry blueberries, grapes, raisins, apples, or pears — can lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes by anywhere from 7% to 26%.

This study was done by looking at data of 187,000 people. Almost 13,000 of them developed Type 2 diabetes. Of course, this study was conducted by looking at questionnaires that the participants completed. Still, it’s interesting. Also, the researchers found that people who drank fruit juice were more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes (we already knew this). Were there flaws in this study? Probably. But the take-home point is that eating whole fruit (not juice) is good for us and, as we’ve learned, may help protect against one of the most significant health issues we face today.

More next week!

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