Category Archives: Nutrition

Next Time You’re in a Nuclear Meltdown, You Might Want to Eat Some Broccoli

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The Silkwood Shower of the future might be a plate of vegetables.

November 4, 2013

Willy Blackmore

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, LA Weekly, and elsewhere.
Broccoli May Protect People From Radiation Sickness
(Living in Monrovia/ Flickr)

When Hollywood eventually gets around to cannibalizing Silkwood, the Meryl Streep-starring 1983 film about corporate malfeasance at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma, a vegetable may end up playing a role in the infamous shower scene.

Instead of having Streep’s character abraded with a stiff brush after radiation exposure, a new version of the Mike Nichols movie might show the leading lady locked in a room full of broccoli, eating plate after plate of the cruciferous vegetable.

That’s if the initial research published last month by a group of scientists from Georgetown University Medical Center proves to be as applicable to humans as it is to mice. The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that broccoli, long championed for its cancer-fighting properties, may be uniquely equipped to help prevent and treat radiation sickness.

The Silkwood shower-like chemical hiding within the vegetable, a radioprotector, is known as diindolylmethane (DIM), which blocks healthy cells from irradiation. According to the report, the chemical “protected rodents against lethal doses of total body irradiation . . . whether DIM dosing was initiated before or up to 24 hours after radiation.”

The survival rate was 40 percent for mice who were given an initial dose of the radioprotector within 4 hours, and 30 percent for those who received their first DIM after 24 hours.

The research points to another application outside of an accidental radiation exposure context that could change the way cancer is treated. While the DIM protects healthy cells, it leaves cancerous cells unprotected, leaving them to fry. It’s conceivable that giving cancer patients DIM (or just a whole ton of broccoli?) could help with “preventing or mitigating late normal tissue damage to partial body radiation exposures” during chemotherapy. Professor Michael Fenech, who studies nutrigenomics, told the Australian website News.com.au that the study hinted that DIM could “allow higher doses of radiation to be used to increase the certainty that the cancer is eliminated.”

If broccoli’s growing array of health benefits—it’s also been credited with, to varying degrees, protecting heart vessels, decreasing the risk of bladder cancer, fighting arthritis and helping prevent skin cancer—hasn’t convinced you to move from the President George Bush-led camp of devoted haters and become its champion, a la President Barack Obama, then try cooking it this way.

Even if you don’t like it, you might be better prepared to weather the nuclear fallout.

How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

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How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

The food industry doesn’t want you to have simplified food labels—so they’re using every trick in the book to keep you uninformed.
March 21, 2013
How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

Is that a food label or hieroglyphics? (Photo: Getty Images). 

There’s a kind of turf war going on over the real estate that is the front of the box of your breakfast cereal. And your snack crackers. And your candy bars. Really, over what you see when you first look at pretty much any packaged food head on.
 
If (like me) you’re a get-in-and-get-out sort of supermarket shopper, you may not have even noticed the neat little labels that have started appearing on the front of lots of foods. They seem utterly benign, taking nutrition info that’s typically relegated to the back or side of the package and bringing it up front: how many calories per serving, say, how much saturated fat, sodium and sugar—maybe how much calcium, iron or fiber, too.
 
But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
 
Despite calls by public health advocates and nutrition experts for more consumer-friendly labels (in the face of an American obesity epidemic where lots of people seem to think Froot Loops constitute a serving of fruit), the Food and Drug Administration has been moving at a snail’s pace toward regulation of “front-of-package” (FOP) labels.

Both Mark Bittman and Marion Nestle (a.k.a. perpetual thorns in the side of big food makers) have called for radical new labeling, with Bittman proposing a super easy-to-read label last fall in The New York Times that would, in a glance, communicate to consumers how nutritious a product is, as well as how natural and its social/environmental impact. The label is color coded like a traffic light: red, yellow, green. (No real guessing about the meaning of those colors.)
 
And, you know, the likelihood of food makers going for Bittman’s scheme is about the same as Cap’n Crunch being named to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
 
A couple years ago, the Institutes of Medicine recommended that the FDA allow just four items on FOP labels: calories, saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugars. Then the food industry jumped in with its own “Facts Up Front” labeling plan.
 
You still get the four, but food makers then can add whatever they think you might like to hear, too. You pause because you see a product has, say, 500 mg of sodium per serving—but then you look to the right and see it has 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, so you toss it in your cart.
 
Critics of these relatively new labels say they confuse consumers—and now, it seems, it’s not just what the labels say that might be arguably deceptive. It’s what color they are.
 
Remember Bittman’s red, yellow and green proposal. Easy to understand, right? But what if there were no red or yellow. What if everything was just good, “all-natural,” “green-means-go” green?
 
As The Atlantic reports, Cornell researcher Jonathon Schuldt put FOP labels to the test. He asked a group of almost a hundred students to imagine themselves hungry and standing in line in the grocery store, then showed them one of two pictures of a candy bar. The images were the same, except the FOP calorie label (which said the candy bar was 250 calories) was colored either red or green.
 
We like to think we’re smart enough to outwit those wily marketers, but the joke may be on us, as Schuldt’s simple test reveals. Participants in the study were more likely to think the candy bar—the same darn candy bar—with the green label was healthier than the one with the red label.
 
Schuldt devised a similar experiment online, asking participants to rate how much they took the idea of healthiness into account when deciding what food to buy, then showing them candy bars with either green or white nutrition labels. Participants who had said healthiness was important to them ranked the candy bars with white labels as less healthy—but not the green-labeled candy bars.
 
Kermit was wrong: It may be too easy being green.

Redesigning the Nutrition Label

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Redesigning the Nutrition Label: Here’s One Scientist’s Clever Proposal

Nutrition labels can be a little like art galleries, or condoms. We know where they are. We’re happy they’re there. But too many of us don’t bother using them.

So, we’re hoping you can help us change that. This is the last week for sending in ideas for redesigning the nutrition label, the mandated, standardized guide to the calories, fats, and sugars in packaged foods, that, as Fast Company’s Suzanne LaBarre put it, “has got the visual charm of a Microsoft spreadsheet and the readability of Beowulf.”

Our friends at News21 have helped us put together a talented team of judges, including Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In 2009, Jacobson proposed the above design tweaks to the current Nutrition Facts label. His subtle adjustments (PDF) point out just a few of the shortcomings of the current label—and highlight how changes to the label might make it more effective at changing the way we eat.

Rethink the Food Label is an ongoing collaboration with GOOD and News21. For more about the project, click here. Image via (PDF) CSPI.