Archive for September, 2009

A Crash Course on Organic and Natural Foods

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

organic food imageIf your idea of an organic meal consists of dry tofu and a handful of nuts, then think again. It is no longer a world of unconvincing fake meat and alfalfa sprouts. World-class beef, produce, dairy products, even chocolate and coffee are organically made. Shopping and eating organic is not only good for you, it’s good for the planet. Below is a crash course on organic and natural foods that may have you eating better before you can say “environmentally-friendly free-range chicken”.

If you haven’t noticed the increased quantity and variety of organic foods and organic food stores then it’s a safe bet that you need to get out more. This trend may have you wondering if organic foods are healthier or safer. Are they worth the extra money and how do they taste? And what does “free-range”, “grass-fed”, and “fair-trade” even mean?

To meet the organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture an organic food is one that is grown without pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, herbicides, antibiotics, bioengineering, hormones, or ionizing radiation. Organic animal products come from animals that are fed 100% organic feed products, receive no antibiotics or growth hormones and have access to the outdoors. In addition, for a product to be labeled organic, it requires inspection and approval from a government-approved certifier to ensure that the farmer followed all the rules necessary to meet the USDA’s standards. The certifier also ensures that the farmers use renewable resources that conserve the soil and water. Any company that handles the food in between must be certified organic as well.

According to kidshealth.org in order for foods to be labeled “organic” they can be:

• 100% organic: They’re completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
• Organic: They’re at least 95% organic.
• Made with organic ingredients: The food contains at least 70% organic ingredients but can’t have the organic seal on its package

In contrast, natural foods are minimally processed but don’t have to adhere to the same meticulous standards that organic foods do. Natural foods normally have no artificial ingredients or preservatives and the meat and poultry is also minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients.

The USDA does not officially claim that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than those that are not considered organic. According to WebMD a large scale study conducted by the Consumers Union found that organically grown crops consistently had about one-third as many pesticide residues as conventionally grown crops. Organic foods are also far less likely to contain residues of more than one pesticide. However, experts agree that the best way to safeguard yourself from harmful pesticides is by thoroughly rinsing all fruits and vegetables regardless of if they are organic or not.

Besides lack of harmful pesticides there is another nutritional certainty of eating organic food and that is its freshness. If you want to get the most from your food, eat it while it’s fresh. Nutrients such a vitamin C oxidize over time so the longer your food sits in the refrigerator or the longer it takes to ship to you, the less nutritional benefit it has. Organic farms tend to be smaller operations and sell their products closer to the point of harvest which results in fresher and more flavorable foods.

Regardless of proven nutritional value or health benefits more and more people are becoming fans of organic foods and are buying more and more of it. Sales have risen more than 20% every year in the past decade and the Food Marketing Institute says that more than half of Americans buy organic food at least once a month.

It’s easy to find a well-rounded selection of organic products. Grocery stores offer organic produce, juices, cereals, baby food, dairy products, and more. In addition, many stores are 100% organic or natural. Oftentimes these stores are more expensive than your run of the mill grocery but it’s up to the individual to decide if it’s worth the extra money to ensure organic and natural food.

The Scoop: Caffeine and Your Kids

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

iStock_000004077754XSmallMost adults start off their mornings with a big steamy cup of caffeine- oh I mean coffee- just to get moving. We wouldn’t even think about passing that same steamy cup of coffee to our kids but often times we pass around sodas and other sugary drinks without a moment’s pause. So how exactly does caffeine affect our kids and how much is healthy?

The United States hasn’t developed official guidelines to monitor caffeine intake for our kids but recommends that we keep our kids’ caffeine consumption to a minimum. Canadian guidelines recommend that preschooler get no more than 45 milligrams of caffeine per day. 45 milligrams is equivalent to the caffeine found in an average 12 ounce can of soda or one 1.5 ounce chocolate bar.

Caffeine is officially referred to in the medical community as a drug due to its stimulating effects on the nervous system. Coffee is a stimulant that affects adults and kids similarly. At low levels it can make most people feel alert and more energetic. However, if too much caffeine is consumed by an adult or a child it can cause jitteriness and nervousness, an upset stomach, headaches, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure.

Below is a compilation from kidshealth.org of other reasons it’s a good idea to limit your kid’s caffeine consumption:

• Kids who consume one or more 12-ounce (355-milliliter) sweetened soft drink per day are 60% more likely to be obese.

• Not only do caffeinated beverages contain empty calories (calories that don’t provide any nutrients), but kids who fill up on them don’t get the vitamins and minerals they need from healthy sources, putting them at risk for nutritional deficiencies. In particular, kids who drink too much soda (which usually starts between the third and eighth grades) may miss getting the calcium they need from milk to build strong bones and teeth.

• Drinking too many sweetened caffeinated drinks could lead to dental cavities (or caries) from the high sugar content and the erosion of tooth enamel from acidity. Not convinced that sodas can wreak that much havoc on kids’ teeth? Consider this: One 12-ounce (355-milliliter) non-diet, carbonated soft drink contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar (49 milliliters) and 150 calories.

• Caffeine is a diuretic that causes the body to eliminate water (through urinating), which may contribute to dehydration. Whether the amount of caffeine in beverages is enough to actually cause dehydration is not clear, however. It may depend on whether the person drinking the beverage is used to caffeine and how much caffeine was consumed that day. To be on the safe side, it’s wise to avoid excessive caffeine consumption in hot weather, when kids need to replace water lost through perspiration.

• Abruptly stopping caffeine may cause withdrawal symptoms (headaches, muscle aches, temporary depression, and irritability), especially for those who are used to consuming a lot.

• Caffeine can aggravate heart problems or nervous disorders, and some kids may not be aware that they’re at risk.

• One thing that caffeine doesn’t do is stunt growth. Although scientists once worried that caffeine could hinder growth, this isn’t supported by research.

According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration kids can be exposed to caffeine in any of the following forms: coffee, tea, chocolate, coffee ice cream, frozen yogurt, pain relievers and other over-the-counter medicines. The best way to cut caffeine from your child’s diet is to eliminate soda. Instead of serving your kids soda try to stick with water, milk, flavored seltzer or 100% fruit juice. It’s alright to serve the occasional soda or tea, just try to make it non-caffeinated. It’s OK to let your kids indulge in a piece of chocolate cake at birthday parties or a cup of tasty hot cocoa on a cold day- these treats don’t pack enough of a caffeine punch to be harmful. As with everything, moderation is the key to keeping your kids’ caffeine consumption under control.

The HPV Vaccine Dilemma

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

HPVTo vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question. Following a period of much hype and speculation, in June 2006 The Food and Drug Administration approved Merck’s human papillomavirus or HPV vaccine, otherwise known as Gardisil for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. A myriad of health professional groups including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended the vaccine which also helps prevent cervical cancer. However, despite all efforts statistics show that only two out of every 10 women in the approved age groups have gotten the vaccine and now a new debate is popping up around the country regarding whether school systems should require girls and young women to get the HPV vaccine.

But let’s start at the beginning. HPV or human papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections on the planet- as many as 80 percent of women will be exposed to HPV at some point in time in their lives. According to Newsweek the virus usually causes no symptoms, is harmless and goes away on its own. However, certain varieties of HPV (there are about 100 altogether) are particularly aggressive. Two varieties- HPV 16 and 18- cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Caught early, the disease can be treated with surgery and chemotherapy. If untreated, it can be painful and fairly gruesome. Until the Pap smear was introduced in the 1940’s, cervical cancer was the No. 1 cancer killer among women. Since then routine screenings have made enormous strides in radically decreasing the number of cases in the United States. But the disease is far from eradicated. It’s still the second most common cancer in women and according to the 2003 World Cancer Report every year, half a million women are diagnosed with the cancer and close to 250,000 die from it.

The vaccination referred to as Gardasil, manufactured by Merck, protects against the two aggressive strains of HPV- strains 16 and 18- that lead to cervical cancer. In clinical trials involving about 21,000 women, the vaccine showed notable results- nearly 100 percent protection from HPV 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. Gardisil also protects against 90 percent of genital warts in men and women which are caused by another HPV strain. It also appears to prevent lesions that could lead to vaginal and vulvar cancers.

To be most effective it must be administered to girls before they are sexually active and it’s not beneficial for women that already have HPV. It’s been approved for those as young as 9 years old. And it is now up to individual states to determine if immunization should be required in school. But many religious and conservative groups that advocate abstinence oppose mandatory HPV vaccinations. Other reasons that may explain the low number of people being immunized also include the high cost and inconvenience- it typically costs $360 for three shots taken over six months, a lack of awareness regarding HPV and cervical cancer, the low number of regular physician visits among the age group (females age 9-26), and parent’s unease over immunizing their kids against a disease contracted through sexual activity.

It’s essential that vaccinations among tweens increase so that they are immunized before they may be exposed to the virus. Currently, health officials are trying to target tweens with the concept of an “adolescent platform” of vaccinations that includes Gardasil. Preferably, preteens would get immunizations including the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (or MCV4), the tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine (or Tdap) and the HPV vaccine.

At this juncture it’s still too early to tell if or when immunity may wane and whether women will need to get booster shots later in life. But according to Newsweek, levels of the antibody to HPV appear to stay high for at least five years. Even if another dose is needed later in life, health officials are confident that multiple doses of the HPV vaccine are safe. Dr. Amanda Dempsey of the University of Michigan explains, “It’s not biologically possible to get HPV from the vaccine, which contains no live or killed virus and no virus like particles.” The most common side effect has been pain at the injection site.