Monday, December 30, 2013

Frozen Produce: Get the Facts

Frozen produce gets a pretty bad wrap. I'm not totally sure why, but a recent article from the Wall Street Journal has a few ideas.

Maybe it's the idea that is conjured up when I mention a "frozen dinner"-- something bland, covered in some kind of sauce, and probably fairly salty, chewy meat. Not a lot of color, kind of a greyish-brownish mix of things.

Maybe it's the idea that if I didn't slave away over the stove for hours then it doesn't really "count" as a home-cooked meal, or I'm not taking proper care of my family.

But the reality is -- when you're going for produce, frozen is just as good as fresh. And at times, it can be even better than fresh -- like now, in the dead of winter, when fresh may have spent a fair amount of time in transit before I ever see it in the store. During transit, storage, purchase, and (ultimately) sitting on my counter or in my fridge until I'm ready to use it, my produce is losing nutrients. Some of these nutrients start to break down with exposure to the air (oxygen), or if they get battered and bruised a bit along the way.

And - bonus - especially out of season, these fruits and veggies are often cheaper than fresh.

Now, I know what you're going to say -- but the berries are mushy, and... no thank you. Well, you're right. There is absolutely nothing in this world that can compare to a fresh strawberry at peak season. Certainly not a frozen strawberry on a chilly January day such as this. But there are ways around this. So here you have it -- tips for getting the most out of your frozen fruits and veggies!

- Frozen fruit is great for smoothies! You really can't tell the difference here, I promise. And, bonus, they are already chilly so you don't even need to add ice!
- Looking for some crispness in your veg? Look no further than your skillet. Microwaving frozen veggies (while delicious) may not be what you're after, texturally. So try heating them up in a skillet to help maintain some of the texture.
- Frozen fruit is good for cooking! making compote or jellies for waffles and pancakes can help you use the softer texture of fruits to your advantage. They are also great for home-made pie fillings (easier than you'd think).
- Frozen veggies are great to toss in soups! Many types come without sauce and already chopped into the perfect sized bites for soups.

For the complete WSJ article, please go here.

-- Les, MS RD LD

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An ode to B12

Maybe "ode" isn't the best word, since I'm not much of a singer/song-writer, but I still think today is a good day to talk about B12 -- what it is, what it does, and why we should care.

B12, or Cobalamin as it's called in more science-y circles, is one of the B-complex vitamins. This also includes B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9. They each have alternate names like thiamine (1), riboflavin (2), niacin (3), pantothenic acid (5), pyridoxine (6), biotin (7) and folate (9). It may sound like a lot to remember but here's basically everything you need to know about the B vitamins. Are you ready?

They are all water soluble (meaning the body doesn't really store them very well). They help you break down the food you eat to get energy. So that's why we call them energy vitamins. Energy drinks and little magic "3 o'clock feeling" caffeine-free energy supplements are loaded with B vitamins, and B12 in particular. (In case you're wondering, vitamin C is also water soluble. Vitamins A, D, E & K are all fat soluble).

What's interesting, though, is that if your body doesn't have the energy available, such as a carbohydrate, protein or fat source (i.e. food), then the B vitamins don't get used. And because they are water soluble, the body will flush them away along with the rest of your... fluids. You will literally flush these vitamins down the toilet.

B12 Myth Busted: B12 burns belly fat! Or any kind of fat. Looking at the above, you can understand how someone may make this mistake. B12 is not a calorie-free energy source. In fact, calories are the body's energy source so... no calories, no energy. Makes sense, right?

However, studies have shown that in people who are B12 deficient, weight loss will occur when adequate B12 levels are achieved. This is due to the body being able to more efficiently break down the energy in the food you eat when it has enough of the vitamin available.

So then, how do you know if you are B12 deficient? B12 is produced by animals (but not humans, sadly), and is therefore found in animal products, such as meat fish and dairy. Strict vegetarians may require B12 supplementation, since they won't get it from the diet. Other at-risk groups include people with digestive alternations, such as having had gastric surgery or removal of parts of the intestine that absorb B12.

B12 requires activation in both the mouth and stomach to be sufficiently absorbed. Additionally, since B12 is found in animal protein sources, stomach acid is important to help break everything apart so the body can get access to the B12.

What's the lesson here? B12 is a pretty phenomenal vitamin. In addition to its role in metabolism and breakdown of energy sources, it is also plays a part in cardiovascular and neurological health & function. B12 is a pretty cool vitamin.

-- Les, MS RD LD

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beyond the Basics of Sodium

We hear a lot about Sodium. It's all over, really. Sodium takes credit in popular media for increasing blood pressure and causing fluid retention. It also takes credit for enhancing flavor (especially in processed foods). As a result, when sodium is conspicuously absent from these foods, they are advertised with a big shiny label that says "No Sodium Added!" or "Low-Sodium!".

But what does it actually do?

In terms of taste, yes, it makes things taste salty, but it also enhances the flavor of sweet things and can add depth to savory foods. So removing salt from a food doesn't just keep it from being salty, it may also completely change the flavor profile.

In the body, sodium is pretty important, and it does a lot of things. Yes, that includes influencing blood pressure (in some people, but not everyone) and can cause fluid retention. 

But why? And how?

Well, as it happens....

Sodium and water get along just beautifully. Specifically, NaCl (sodium [Na] chloride [Cl]) really likes to be around water. Have you ever put salt on an avocado? Or noticed the way a salad will wilt if you leave salad dressing on the leaves for too long? Sodium actually pulls water to come with it. Chemists will call this "osmolality" but really it just means sodium and water love to hang out.

As it happens, this is pretty important in human physiology. Humans are somewhere between 60-80% water (we are born closer to 80% and dry out as we age). That's a LOT of water to keep in the right place. Sodium helps us do that. In the case of water retention, all it means is your body will hang on to a bit of that water until it has time to flush out the excess sodium. Excess water can influence blood pressure for some people (meaning your blood has more water in it, which means more pressure by your heart to pump, thus higher blood pressure). This can also be the case for people with difficulty maintaining sodium balance, such as those with renal disorders.

Sodium is also important in nerve transmission, and it moves frequently in-and-out of the cells to help maintain water balance and electrical current.

So, in essence, what does this all mean? Sodium is pretty important! We have requirements for Sodium each day, and for the most part, the body can take care of a little fluctuation in one direction or another. In general, the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 2300 mg daily of sodium. Naturally, certain conditions, such as blood pressure, kidney issues and diabetes, will have other recommendations for sodium intake. Be sure to ask your physician about your specific needs before you make any changes in your own diet or exercise routines.

The more you know!

-- Les, MS RD LD

Monday, December 2, 2013

Caffeine: Yes No and In Between

The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine released a study this week examining the effects of caffeine on sleep. Specifically -- are timing and dose important?

If you must know -- yes, timing and dose matter -- but first I want to just explore what caffeine is.

Caffeine, at it's most basic, is a nervous stimulant. That is to say, it stimulates the nervous system, getting all of your neurons firing and excited. For some people this could be a jittery effect, others may feel more alert, and some others may not even notice a difference (I would direct you to read more about the study below). Tolerance to caffeine can occur over time. This means that you are more likely to notice the impact of caffeine if you do not regularly drink coffee and then one day have a rather large dose.

The study, (you can read the abstract here) examined a few different doses (0, 400 or 600mg), at a few different times - either at bedtime, three hours before bed, or six hours before bed. They found that yes, indeed, consumption of caffeine -- even six hours before bed -- can impact your sleep. In fact, the participants that had 400mg of caffeine (equivalent to about 2-3 cups of coffee) six hours before bed lost an hour of sleep! What's more -- subjectively, the participants didn't even seem to notice that they had lost that precious hour!

The study itself was small, only 12 participants, and very short term, only 4 days, but the findings are interesting, and certainly grounds for thought (excuse the pun), especially if you enjoy a cup of coffee on your way home from work or with your dessert.

What's the take-away here? Caffeine can impact your wakefulness and sleep cycles, even if you don't notice it. So if you choose to do so, make sure you have plenty of time before bed, lest you disturb your sleep cycle.

For a press release about the study, please see the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website at

- Les, MS RD LD