Posts filed under ‘Food and Drink’
Thanks to modern refrigeration, we can keep our food fresh longer. The problem is that the cool temperatures of the fridge don’t preserve all foods equally—as much as we’d like to believe it. People tend to throw almost everything into the fridge, assuming that it can only help. In reality, not every food item is the same chemically or physically and some will actually be harmed when refrigerated. In a few cases, foods will degrade faster in the fridge and the best case scenario is often loss of flavor.
Store-bought tomatoes never taste quite the same as tomatoes from the garden or local farm. Luckily, scientists have finally pinpointed the reason. Refrigeration actually turns off genes responsible for producing flavonoids, chemicals that contribute to the flavor of foods. When a tomato is exposed to temperatures below 54 degrees Fahrenheit, these genes begin to shut down permanently. Unfortunately, grocery store tomatoes have generally undergone refrigeration at some point, usually during the shipping process. It might be too late to save them from perpetual blandness but there’s still hope for tomatoes that were home-grown or purchased locally. Don’t store them in the fridge, just leave them on the countertop and they’ll be fine. The lost flavors from refrigeration can at least serve as a motivator for growing your own tomatoes. (more…)
Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world and over 80% of Americans consume some form of the chemical daily—whether it’s from tea, coffee, or soda. Caffeinated drinks have been around for most of written history and they’re probably not going away anytime soon. Most societies embrace at least one form of caffeine and after a while, it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a drug.
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant—a psychoactive drug that causes increased alertness, faster locomotion, and other mental and physical changes. “Psychoactive” tends to be associated with drugs that cause visual hallucinations but it really just means that the chemical affects a person’s mental state. Both caffeine and cannabis are mild psychoactive stimulants; alcohol is a depressant or “downer.” (more…)
The “five second rule” is an unofficial pass to eat food dropped on the floor—provided only a few seconds have elapsed. The general wisdom is that it takes several seconds for bacteria to transfer to the food item, making it safe to eat if picked up quickly. In one survey, 87% of people admitted to eating dropped food at least once. The five second rule was never backed up by science but some researchers have decided to test the idea.
In the first major study, researchers tracked the transfer of common bacteria, including E.coli, to food after it had been dropped. They found that carpet was less likely to transfer bacteria than smooth surfaces. While moist foods could become colonized within seconds, most foods were declared safe. For dry snacks, such as cookies, it could take 30 seconds or longer for bacteria to show up. The researchers decided that the five second rule works—in specific cases. (more…)
A placebo is a sugar pill or similarly ineffective treatment used in medical studies. The placebo acts as a control for comparison when studying the effectiveness of a proposed treatment. Often, patients will notice some improvement in their condition even when taking a placebo. This phenomenon is called the “placebo effect” and recent research is increasing scientists’ understanding of these events.
Deception isn’t necessary
Originally, it was believed that placebos only worked because patients thought they were being treated. In one study, patients with irritable bowel syndrome were treated with placebos. One group was told they were given a placebo with no additional information. The other group was also given placebos but the pills were described as follows:
“Placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”
Both groups showed some improvement but the group given more information had significantly higher global improvement scores. The authors concluded, “Placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS.”
The reverse phenomenon is called the “nocebo effect”
If a patient doesn’t think a treatment will be effective, they may experience a worsening of symptoms. This has been called the “nocebo effect” in medical literature. The effect can also be caused by doctors and other clinical staff. If the doctor feels negatively about a treatment or mentions likely side effects, it may affect the patient’s perception. This can cause an ethical dilemma. Doctors are required to properly inform patients of possible side effects or risks. Emphasizing the negative aspects of a treatment may make it less effective, however. More communication training in medical school may help physicians keep patients informed while also framing treatments in a positive way.
How a placebo is administered may change the effects
Some placebos work better than others and the method of administration can increase or decrease effectiveness. In one study, large placebo pills were found to be more effective than small ones and two doses worked better than a single dose. Sham surgeries and injections tend to elicit a stronger placebo effect than a sugar pill. In one study, a sham surgery was just as effective as an actual arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (a surgery used to treat knee osteoarthritis).
Placebos can be considered a viable treatment
Placebos are so effective in certain cases that some researchers have begun to recommend them as treatments. In an analysis of 130 placebo studies, one research team concluded that while placebos don’t work for many diseases, they were effective for pain. Placebos successfully treated pain in 27 different studies of various sample sizes.
Interestingly, placebos can also help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. There have been multiple studies but one in particular stands out. Patients showed significant improvement when they were treated using deep brain stimulation, a technique that involves stimulating the brain with electrical impulses. The treatment was only effective when patients were also given a placebo and told that it was an “antiparkinsonian drug”. Patients who didn’t receive a placebo showed little to no improvement. A similar experiment was later conducted with identical results.
The placebo effect is still poorly understood and the use of a placebo can raise ethical concerns. Placebos may help treat pain, for example, but informed consent prevents a doctor from prescribing sugar pills. At the very least, placebo research provides insights into how expectation and perception can affect the outcome of medical treatments.
By Erica Geiger
The United States dietary supplements industry is huge, bringing in over $20 billion in sales every year. Since 2004, the industry has seen rapid growth every single year. More than 80% of adults buy supplements annually. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, doesn’t regulate these products the same way they regulate food and medications. This has resulted in mislabeled supplements, outrageous claims, and one study found that many natural supplements didn’t even contain the products they advertised. The FDA does have rules in place but it’s mostly up to the individual companies to regulate their own products.
With the lack of FDA regulation, companies can make all sorts of claims about their supplements. Unfortunately, not many of these claims are backed up by actual science. A common claim is that certain supplements can improve memory and learning. While it’s true that there are practices and substances capable of affecting memory functions, they’re not quite what you’d expect.
Ginkgo is commonly touted as a memory enhancer. Tablets, capsules, and tinctures are available at most stores, with marketing claims such as “Improves Memory” and “Enhances Mental Alertness”. Actual science says otherwise. In a large 2012 study, researchers found absolutely no difference between ginkgo and a placebo during both learning and memory exercises. Ginkgo also had no effect on mental attention. The authors concluded, “We report that G. biloba had no ascertainable positive effects on a range of targeted cognitive functions in healthy individuals.”
While ginkgo might not help you on that next exam, there are a few other things you can try without spending money on supplements.
If you’re trying to remember something or learn a new skill, exercise might be better than any supplement on the market. In a very recent study, a group of human volunteers were taught picture-location associations and then quizzed to get a baseline score. Some participants exercised right after the recall test, some exercised four hours later, and the last group didn’t exercise at all. 48 hours later, all participants were retested. The researchers found that the delayed exercise group performed better than average. There was no significant difference between the other groups. The group that exercised four hours after learning also had increased activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning. Other studies had already linked exercise to improved memory but this one showed that it works best if you wait a few hours first.
There have been many studies on how music affects memory and learning. Results have been mixed but it appears that classical music, at the very least, can have positive effects on working memory for adults. In a 2007 study, researchers tested adults using working memory tasks. Working memory is what you use, for example, when trying to memorize a definition. In the study, one group listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another group listened to white noise, and a third group worked in silence. Participants who had listened to Vivaldi performed significantly better on memory tests. Music may not work for every type of learning but it’s at least worth a shot when trying to memorize something for a test. Note that current studies have generally used classical music (Vivaldi is actually the standard for these types of experiments), it’s unknown how other types of music affect memory.
Most people assume that proper sleep makes it easier to learn (and it’s true). Something that not everyone knows, however, is that sleep is actually critical for memory formation. While we sleep, memories we’ve formed during the day are strengthened. In past studies, a good night’s sleep was found to significantly improve performance in various tasks, including beating video game levels and learning to play new songs on the piano. During REM sleep, your brain is active and works with your memories, often linking them to previous ones. This partially explains why studying the day of the exam, even if you slept fine, isn’t as useful as studying the night before.
Let’s say you have an important exam coming up. You listened to classical music while studying, exercised a few hours later, and got a great night’s sleep. Getting a good breakfast will at least help your mental alertness and you can potentially sneak in one last memory enhancer–cinnamon. Cinnamon, which you probably already have at home, is more likely to help your memory than any of the expensive supplements at health food stores. In a recent study, mice that consumed cinnamon showed improved memory and learning ability. Specifically, the researchers were able to convert “poor learners” (mice that had performed badly on memory tests) to “good learners” by giving them a small daily dose of ground cinnamon. Cinnamon contains a compound called sodium benzoate that stimulates neurons in the hippocampus, improving memory and learning. The study hasn’t been replicated with humans yet but hey, there’s more evidence of cinnamon helping your memory than gingko and ginseng!
Photo: Sam Mugraby, Photos8.com
While walking through the grocery store, you may notice labels such as “Natural”, “Organic”, and “Free Range”. Many consumers are willing to pay extra for products with these claims. In one poll, 63% of respondents strongly preferred foods with the “Natural” label. Not all of these labels have legal definitions, however, and some are completely unregulated.
In order to be labelled as organic, food must meet guidelines defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The product must not contain any artificial additives, including preservatives and synthetic pesticides. Many organic foods are made without genetically modified ingredients but this is not required by law. There’s no scientific evidence showing that organic foods are inherently healthier but some consumers may be willing to pay extra in order to avoid synthetic chemicals.
Free Range/Free Roaming
This is a label you might see on egg cartons. For most people, the term “Free Range” brings to mind happy chickens foraging in lush, green meadows. In reality, the producer just needs to show that the poultry has been allowed outdoor access. The law doesn’t actually state how large the area needs to be and there are no minimum time requirements. A farm could offer an outside area of just a few square feet, only accessible for a few minutes, and still be eligible for the “Free Range” label. Rather than paying extra for “Free Range” eggs, consider checking out a local farm where you’ll be able to verify how the hens are actually kept.
At first glance, this doesn’t sound any different from the “Free Range” label. The major difference is that “Cage-free” doesn’t specify that the poultry had any outdoor access, only that they weren’t kept in cages. Often, these “Cage-free” chickens are loose in large buildings. These buildings are so crowded that it’s not unusual for chickens to get severely injured, leading some to question whether or not this environment is actually better for the animals. This is another case where it’s better to find out how a particular farm raises their poultry if animal welfare is your concern.
This is an odd one, recently popping up on lots of egg cartons. Some people associate vegetarianism with health foods, figuring that eggs with this label must be healthier or higher quality. While this label does certify that the hens were fed a vegetarian diet, there’s very little benefit to picking these over other eggs. Chickens are actually omnivores so a diet of corn and soy doesn’t make them any healthier (if anything, it has the opposite effect). This label does mean that the hens weren’t fed meat by-products, including other chicken parts. However, that practice is already rare and not something the average consumer needs to worry about.
This is a label used exclusively for beef products. In the past, it meant that the cattle had been fed a diet of grass as opposed to grains such as corn. Unfortunately, the USDA revoked their definition earlier this year. Using the label still requires USDA approval but there are no longer any specific requirements or regulations.
This is a rare case of a label meaning exactly what it says. In order to label meat as “No Antibiotics” or “Antibiotic Free”, the producer needs to provide documentation showing that the animals weren’t treated with any antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is becoming more of a problem these days so it’s not a bad idea to look for this label when sourcing meat products.
No Hormones/Hormone Free
In order to use this label, the producer needs to provide proof that the animals were raised without the use of added hormones. The problem is that you’ll see this label everywhere when it’s only really relevant for beef products. The use of added hormones in pork and poultry is completely illegal in the United States, making the label pointless for those products. Companies using this label are relying on customers being unaware of these laws.
This is probably one of the most common labels you’ll see in the grocery store. It also means absolutely nothing. There is no legal definition for “Natural”, including “Made with Natural Ingredients”, “100% Natural”, and “All Natural”. Any company can label their food as being natural. Don’t bother paying extra for “Natural” foods until a legal definition is established.
In short, it’s good to read food labels but make sure you know what you’re getting. Most of these labels are used for marketing purposes and not all of them are defined or regulated.