When Food Becomes Weird: More Fascinating Facts

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Last week, we examined some unusual facts about food. Because food is so fascinating, there’s never a shortage of things to say about it. And while some foods may seem downright “weird,” other foods may be a little deceptive — for example, a healthy food that actually isn’t so healthy. As I can attest, that’s the beauty and the frustration of being a dietitian! Let’s look at some more food “weirdness” this week.

Durian — the world’s smelliest fruit
“Hell on the outside and heaven on the inside” is the saying in Southeast Asia that aptly describes this fruit. Durian is a spiny, football-sized fruit weighing about 7 pounds that is custard-like on the inside, but that has a rather revolting, pungent smell that would give dirty gym socks a run for their money. The odor of this fruit is so offensive to many that it’s banned in certain parts of Asia.

Durian trees are pollinated by bats and the fruit has a very short shelf life, making it a rare, exotic treat. When purchasing durian, should you ever find yourself in that position, choose one that is mildly fragrant — that way, you can be sure you’re getting a ripe one. If you can get past the spiny exterior and rotten cheese-like smell, you apparently will be in for a treat, as some describe the inner flesh as tasting like crème brulee. Nutrition-wise, be prepared for the high calories and its effect on your blood glucose levels: One cup of durian fruit has 357 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 66 grams of carbohydrate. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin C.

Sodium — cutting back is harmful
An article written by Gary Taubes in The New York Times last year raised yet another nutrition controversy, this time about sodium. In this piece, Taubes stated that studies have not proven that eating too much sodium is harmful (in other words, that it leads to high blood pressure and stroke). He went further to point out that slashing sodium may actually do more harm than good. Does that mean that the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Heart Association have been wrong all along? Hardly.

Taubes based his statement on two studies that were meta-analyses (which look at several studies to derive hypotheses or conclusions). The meta-analyses were somewhat flawed in that one of them reviewed studies that only lasted a few weeks, while the other included a study of people with heart failure who were salt- and fluid-depleted to begin with.

Taubes’ argument that eating less salt can be dangerous was based, in part, on a study that reported that people who ate less salt had a higher risk of heart disease. But why did they eat less salt? Were they ill to begin with? Was sodium intake underestimated in the subjects? And what about all the other studies that have been previously done showing that a high sodium intake leads to higher rates of high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease? Should those studies be discounted? In my opinion, no.

Mercury — something fishy is up!
For many years now, pregnant and nursing women and young children have been advised to limit their intake of certain types of fish due to their mercury content. Mercury can harm the nervous system of an unborn child and young children. High-mercury fish include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, and the advice has been to avoid these fish altogether. As far as tuna goes, albacore has more mercury than other types of tuna, so that should be limited to 6 ounces per week.

However, last week, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that fish only accounts for 7% of the mercury in the body. The researchers found that, after fish, the foods (or beverages, actually) that are highest in mercury are herbal teas and alcohol (specifically, wine). They concluded that eating fish during pregnancy is unlikely to contribute much to the body’s mercury levels, and that eating fish has so many nutrient and health benefits for both the mother and the child that it doesn’t really make sense to limit fish. Drinking herbal teas and wine during pregnancy, on the other hand, may not be such a good idea. However, this is just one study, so if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it’s important to discuss your intake of fish and other foods with your obstetrician or dietitian.

Saturated fat — a help or a harm?
No doubt it’s been drilled into your brain that a diet high in saturated fat can raise your risk of heart disease. This premise is based on data from the Seven Countries Study conducted in the 1950’s, which stated that a diet high in saturated fat is linked to higher rates of heart disease. Saturated fat is found in solid fats at room temperature, such as vegetable shortening, butter, cheese, and the fat around a piece of steak. But not everyone has jumped on the “saturated fat is bad” bandwagon, and some researchers are challenging the notion that all saturated fat is harmful.

Other factors may play a role, such as the quality of the saturated fat (grass-fed beef, for example) and lifestyle factors. Some studies have failed to establish a connection between a high saturated fat intake and heart disease. And we also know that some saturated fatty acids, like stearic acid (found in beef and chocolate) aren’t so bad, while trans fats are pretty nasty (they raise LDL [“bad”] cholesterol and lower HDL [“good”] cholesterol; they also make blood “stickier” and seem to induce inflammation).

So herein lies the danger of assuming that all fats are bad. We know they’re not but we also need more information, particularly about saturated fat, to make wise decisions about what we choose to eat. Stay tuned.

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