Archive for the ‘Nutrition’ Category

Essential Oils & A Love Letter to DHA

Posted on: May 5th, 2016 by chewingnoises

The fact that not all fats are bad isn’t anything new, but it’s certainly marking the mainstream conversation more and more lately. I still remember when my mom used to give me a spoon full of cod oil emulsion every day as she insisted that her mom did the same when she was little. So while the concept isn’t novel, it has changed a lot since then.

So, how did fat become the villain? The fat-free and trans fat explosion of the 80’s (and beyond) were probably behind the damage done to the reputation of essential fatty acids. Eventually, researchers turned to the properties of unsaturated oils and by the early 90’s, the concept of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 (oil nomenclature) infiltrated the discussions. In early 2000’s, the FDA established that trans fats needed to be labeled by 2006. This was a great move health-wise, as it forced food companies to reduce their trans fat use. Now the FDA has set a 2018 deadline for food companies to eliminate trans fat from their products entirely.

Major strides like this bring fat into the headlines, along with the growing acceptance of good fats in our diets. And for good reason – our body needs essential fats or essential fatty acids (to be more precise) to function, grow, and recover. But our body can’t produce them. In other words, if they are not part of your diet, it will gradually lead to detrimental health effects.

Let’s break it down. The essential components of fat are Linoleic acid (LA) a.k.a omega-6 and Alpha linolenic acid (LNA) a.k.a. omega-3. Bad news? These can’t be synthesized in your body so you need to get them from food. They were initially associated with a number of health benefits like: (1) anti-inflammatory properties; (2) lower triglycerides and cholesterol; and (3) decrease thrombosis and platelet aggregation. So, initial research showed benefits mainly in reducing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. However, later research indicated that not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal and that the longer chain versions are much more important than their precursor ALA. These longer chain versions are mainly two crucial ones: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and, even more importantly, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

DHA and EPA have been used to solve numerous conditions like treating heart disease, asthma, cancer, painful menstrual periods, hayfever, lung diseases, systemic lupus erythematosus, and certain kidney diseases, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, psoriasis, Raynaud’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, bipolar disorder, certain inflammations of the digestive system (ulcerative colitis) and preventing migraine headaches in teenagers. To name a few…

However, the most impressive observation is that they are critical building blocks of our nervous system, and that includes our brains, eyes and nerve tissues. So, they play a central role in brain health to the extent that there’s a positive association with DHA levels and brain sizes, reduction of small strokes, and better cognitive assessments. DHA is also connected to brain cells’ growth, protection for existing cells, cell connectivity, and anti-inflammatory action. The latter is very relevant as inflammation is associated with neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Now we know that these essential oils are critical for our long-term wellbeing. So, where do we find them? Look to flaxseeds, walnuts, and in smaller quantities, beans, vegetables and whole grains. You’ll often hear about fish being a good source of EPA and DHA, which is true, but research is coming out that getting omega-3s from plant sources reaps a range of benefits.

No matter how you choose to get your fatty acids, the standard recommendation is to consume 500mg of EPA and DHA per day. That said, some studies recommend as high as 800 to 1000mg (0.8 to 1g) of DHA a day. One quick note about ALA supplements – some studies show an increased risk of bleeding if you’re already taking blood-thinning medication so talk to your doctors before you start any kind of supplementation routine.

The bottom line is that we have to find a way to systematically and consistently add these oils into our diet for our long-term benefit. Ever since I learned about DHA over a decade ago, I have made sure to add DHA supplements into my diet and my family’s. I’ve also felt compelled to suggest it to every pregnant woman that I have ever met since that they need to supplement their diets with DHA. I even gave my expecting sister-in-law a 9-month supply. The best gift the baby could get, in my opinion, because essential fatty acids are critical for the baby’s fetal growth and brain development. The baby needs it and the mom needs to have it readily available. And it does not stop there – mom and baby (and dad, for that matter) will have to find sustainable sources of DHA for the remainder of their lives.

Author: Stefan Bucher, Senior Director of Food Science

Nootropics: The Hype, Breakdown and Bottom Line

Posted on: April 22nd, 2016 by chewingnoises

We’re in a culture that glorifies busy and champions all nighters. At the same time, there’s a growing obsession with biohacking, and that’s where nootropics come in. Pills that could make you think, sleep, and perform better? Our verdict’s still out but it’s about time we all paid attention to nootropics. They aren’t going anywhere.

First, let’s address the obvious – what exactly is a nootropic? According to good old Wikipedia, a nootropic is a “drug, supplement, or other substance that improves cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Hill explained, “In a modern context we think of nootropics as something used not to treat any mental condition or pathology directly, but instead to provide support to peak function, protect against long term risk, and provide daily boost.”

His explanation also nods to the (often ignored) difference between nootropics and ‘smart drugs,’ which are prescribed medications or off label drugs used mostly to treat a mental or cognitive disorder. According to Dr. Hill, nootropics don’t include drugs like Adderall or modafinil, and they’re supposed to drive consistent mental flow without the crashes or addiction you might feel from caffeine or other harsher stimulants. On the flip side, many people consider smart drugs as simply one type of nootropic and it’s the category that’s most often abused.

Semantics aside, how do they work? Well, it’s complicated because nootropics covers such a wide range of supplements that all work a bit differently. Also, most people mix and match them to create what’s called a stack. To understand how they work we need to start with a bit of neuroscience. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit nerve signals from one nerve cell to the other, and they bind to receptors; together the neurotransmitter and receptor make up a system, and there are a bunch of different systems in our brains.

A nootropic specifically targets and boosts the efficiency of certain systems. For example, glutamate has a big role in maintaining brain health and it’s converted into GABA, a neurotransmitter that’s shown to positively impact our moods. Racetams and Ampakines, two nootropic categories, are believed to stimulate this receptor site and increasing glutamate is supposed to improve memory and learning.

So why are you hearing so much about nootropics now? Well, look to Silicon Valley and the startup nation needing that extra boost to fuel 18-hour workdays. Nootrobox is one of the nootropics startups hailing from Silicon Valley, and it clearly caters to the startup community with products called RISE, SPRINT and YAWN – all meant to “enhance mental state.” To get specific – SPRINT is a combination of Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, L-theanine, Glucuronolactone, Inositol, and caffeine, and each ingredient apparently has some cognition benefit. Here’s the full explanation of the stack if you’re curious.

Bottom line? Nootropics are sold as dietary supplements so the FDA doesn’t regulate them. Meaning there’s a higher risk in getting ripped off or experiencing adverse side effects, even though champions claim that by definition nootropics shouldn’t have any. You’ll find every variety of opinion but our take is that there isn’t enough evidence yet. We also had trouble finding studies or real data from well-known, reputable sources. Most searches go directly to nootropics vendors or niche, cultish startup forums. Until there’s more concrete evidence backing their safety and efficacy, there’s always coffee.

Illustration: Matt Brown

Coconut Oil Conundrum

Posted on: April 6th, 2016 by chewingnoises

Coconut oil – healthy choice, miracle ingredient, or just another saturated fat? Join the club, the debate’s been unfolding for years. Let’s break it down.

The Dirt

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat making it the most concentrated food source of sat fat out there. To put it into context, even butter is only about 64%. Saturated fat raises total cholesterol levels in the blood, which we know increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. That’s why you hear health advocates preach consuming unsaturated fats like olive and canola oils instead as these fats actually lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the blood.

The Praise

Despite the rage against saturated fat, people seem to freak for all things coconut. Some attribute this to the Dr. Oz Effect. He regularly features coconut oil on his show and claims it has ‘super powers’ with more than 100 uses. The health halo comes from lauric acid (LA), a predominant fatty acid in coconut oil. Lauric acid raises HDL as well as LDL cholesterol and has shown anti inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It’s a medium chain triglyceride so the liver can readily metabolize it, meaning it can be immediately burned for energy, whereas long chain triglycerides are more apt to be stored as fat.

Coconut oil is also a popular vegan option for cooking and baking because it remains solid at room temperature. This makes it a great non-animal fat substitute for butter or lard.

The Choice

Now that we’ve discussed the division, let’s cover the varieties available. Simply put there are two types of coconut oil: refined and virgin. Refined is made from copra, or dried sections of the meaty inner lining of the coconut palm. This is typically bleached, deodorized and subject to high processing temps and nasty solvents during extraction. The process will vary slightly depending on the manufacturer. These high temperatures destroy naturally occurring polyphenols. Further, some refined versions extract lauric acid to use in other industries.

On the flip side, virgin coconut oil starts with fresh coconut meat and is extracted with a more gentle process referred to as cold expeller pressing. Both end products look similar, but refined coconut oil lacks flavor and odor while virgin coconut oil maintains a slight coconut flavor and odor.

So where does that leave us? Well, here’s what we know:

1. We need more research to state definitively how coconut oil consumption impacts health.

2. Most academic bodies take the stance that coconut oil should only be consumed in moderation. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “Because it is a saturated fat, use coconut oil in moderation, and buy the kind labeled virgin.

3. If you are going to consume coconut oil make sure it’s virgin.

Author: Ashley Pruett, Assistant Director of Food Science

Why We Need Modernized Home Economics

Posted on: April 1st, 2016 by chewingnoises

When we say home economics, what comes to mind? Sewing machines, Stepford Wives and Betty Crocker? At some point people started to associate home economics with anti-feminism as it implied that a career in the home was the only possible path for women. But removing home ec from school curriculums entirely isn’t doing anything for our future now.

At this year’s ExpoWest, Sam Kass, former White House Chef and Chew Culinary Board member, called for modernized home economics. He argued that teaching children how to cook is transformative because it empowers the younger generation to take health into their own hands. Cooking enables them to manage health and move past barriers like affordability and accessibility.

Our ideal modern home ec class would teach both sexes the traditional skills of sewing and shop but also things like household maintenance, financial literacy, and nutrition. But for the purpose of a blog post that doesn’t become an essay – let’s focus on one component of this fantasy course: cooking. Sure, we’re biased, but we also believe that learning basic cooking skills sets you up for success in so many areas of your life –nutrition, financial responsibility, and a general confidence within your own home.

Let’s look at the facts. One in three American kids and teens are overweight or obese, and obesity levels in children have more than tripled from 1971 to 2011. This is leading to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, low self-esteem, and depression. Meanwhile, millions of children aren’t taught how to eat or cook nutritious foods. Families resort to fast food and gluttonous restaurant meals for price and convenience, while sacrificing their health in exchange.

Yet we know intuitively that we can eat better when we control exactly what we’re putting into our body. You can prepare a grilled chicken breast, roasted vegetables and brown rice in the same time it takes to order delivery. But many of us make it all the way to college without the skills to create a decent meal like this, let alone scramble an egg. So, we go deeper into our pockets and succumb to the next size up in our favorite jeans. It doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine if you learned the basics of nutrition and cooking alongside your grammar and algebra. Empowering, right?

Let’s look to the University of California, Santa Barbara for their pilot “Food, Nutrition and Basic Skills” program as an example. The program’s goal is to fill in the gaps left by a lack of home economics – kitchen skills, meal planning, shopping on a budget, etc. In one lesson, students learn how to make a meal from scratch for the very first time. In another they’re shopping the bulk bins to take the best advantage of weekly sales.

Or we have a nonprofit like Seed Life Skills that provides curriculum tools to classrooms to “get kids cooking, connecting science to real life problems, and engineering sustainable solutions.” Led by Hugh Acheson from Top Chef, Seed Life Skills is teaching basic cooking, financial intelligence, and life skills (think how to understand health insurance forms) to public school students across Atlanta.

We need modern home economics now more than ever as horrifically bad food (not sure most of this food actually makes the definition of food, but for illustrative purposes, we will call it food) is everywhere, kids are getting unhealthier, and parents are working even harder while losing more time to cook for their children. We rely on our school system to teach children everything from addition to physics. It’s about time they also learn how to compose a nutritious, sustainable, and affordable meal.

Illustration: Matt Brown

Beyond Açaí: Meet These 5 Superfoods

Posted on: March 8th, 2016 by chewingnoises

Just when you learned how to pronounce açaí, it’s time to move on. Well, not move on but expand. Açaí’s hit the mainstream market and for good reason. Its health benefits hold up and the fruit adds a tropical flair even in the dead of winter. But there are other superfoods worth your dime. Plus, we all want to be that guy who drops something like “camu camu” in the office kitchen when a coworker asks what’s in your smoothie.

One tiny but important detail that’s often missed – for any of these superfoods to make an impact, you need to eat them regularly. If you simply fall in love with a flavor, then more power to you but know that the health claims depend on consumption. A spoonful every now and then won’t justify the price if you’re grabbing them for nutrition alone.


We’ll start you off with something you probably recognize but aren’t quite sure why it’s the rage. First off, anything that also goes by “wolfberry” is worth a second look. Goji berries have a sweet, tart flavor and are usually sold dried in bulk bins or packaged. They boast similar health benefits as açaí – high in antioxidants like vitamin C and a good source of fiber and iron. Like other super foods, you might see the occasional study claiming benefits like enhanced athletic performance or diabetes prevention but their antioxidant properties are unshakable. You could eat them on their own like a raisin, add them to oatmeal and yogurt, or bake them with turkey or pork to lend sweetness for a savory dish.

How much? A ¼ cup serving packs 180% of your recommended daily value of Vitamin A and 30% of Vitamin C.

Camu camu

This one grows in flooded areas of the Amazon rainforest, where its fruits and leaves are used mostly for medicinal purposes (think cold sores, shingles, common cold, etc.) The fruit’s chock full of vitamin C, potassium, serine (an amino acid key for digestion), leucine (another amino acid great for muscle and bone density), and flavonoids that act as antioxidants. The tart flavor can be slightly overpowering but you can find camu camu in powder form that’s perfect, once again, for blending into smoothies.

How much? A teaspoon has 1180% of your recommended daily value for vitamin C. That’ll do.


A popular African fruit, baobab looks like a pale watermelon on a diet and tastes like a pear. This fruit has six times the vitamin C as an orange and twice the calcium as milk, and it’s packed with B vitamins, magnesium, and iron. Athletes love it too thanks to its high electrolyte content.

How much? A tablespoon of powder gives you a third of the fiber you need per day. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on fresh baobab, 100g of its pulp offers 10 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange.


Moving on from fruits, moringa is a plant that grows in West Africa, South America and South Asia, particularly in climates with little water and poor soil. Thanks to its low maintenance and nutritional punch, some think it could be a good tool in fighting malnutrition. Gram per gram, moringa has twice the protein of yogurt, three times the potassium of bananas, four times the calcium of milk, and seven times the vitamin C of oranges. And the taste? The leaves are bitter but the powder tastes more like green tea.

How much? Two tablespoons of moringa leaf powder meet 60% of the recommended daily values for calcium, 84% for iron, 163% for Vitamin A, 226% of Vitamin E, and the list goes on…


You’ll typically find this root vegetable packaged in a powder form, and it’s been said to do everything from boost energy to increase muscle mass. Another fun fact? It’s a relative of the radish family yet somehow smells like butterscotch with a nutty flavor. Most people blend maca into drinks or add it to fruit salads, oatmeal, and raw desserts. If you want to use maca in a cooked food recipe, add it at the end because high heat alters some of the nutrients.

How much? To tap into maca’s benefits, you can start with 1 tablespoon daily and work your way up to 2-3 tablespoons throughout the day.

You might need to go to Whole Foods or your local co-op to find these super foods, but we bet they’ll follow the footsteps of açaí and hit major retailers soon. Also, there’s always the option to order through a natural online grocer like Thrive Market. And if you can’t find these superfoods no matter where you look, there’s always spinach. Now your turn – what other super foods do you know and love?

Illustration: Matt Brown