Category Archives: sugar

Caffeine

I’m addicted.

I admit it.  I’m addicted to caffeine.

I find that I increasingly need caffeine.  It’s become an absolute necessity.  I drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee from about 8 a.m. till about 4 or 5 p.m. Why?  Because I like it.  And because it helps me stay awake when I need to be.

First, a little bit about my relationship to caffeine. 

I remember how my mother drank coffee all day long.  Once I asked her if I could taste it.  I figured that it had to be delicious or she wouldn’t drink so much of it.  So when she said I could taste it, I took a sip.  Yuck!  It tasted terrible.

I didn’t try coffee again until my first year of college, when I discovered that it was drinkable if I put enough milk and sugar in it.  I decided to try it when late-night studying began to take its toll.  I found I’d doze off in class the minute the professor turned off the lights and showed slides on a screen at the front of the classroom.  But I discovered that if I had some caffeine in my breakfast coffee, I could stay awake.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that consuming caffeine is a necessity.  Especially before sitting in a theater, when (as in college classrooms) the lights are dimmed and I need to stay conscious to enjoy a film, a play, a concert, a ballet performance, or an opera.  Although the pandemic has cramped my style, suspending my theater-going, for example, I’ve continued to rely on caffeine while I read or watch TV at home.

Now let’s look at some of the science behind caffeine.  I won’t bore you with the wonkiest stuff, but you probably want to know something about it.

I found this info in the March 2021 issue of Nutrition Action, a monthly newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), my go-to source for honest reporting on healthy food choices and the like.  Here’s a summary of the most useful info:

How does caffeine work?  It blocks adenosine receptors in the brain.  Huh?  What’s adenosine?

Adenosine is a natural sedative.  When it builds up, you feel drowsy.  But when caffeine blocks it, you don’t.

But watch out:  You can build up a tolerance to caffeine.  What happens is this:  The more caffeine you consume, the more adenosine receptors your brain makes.  So you need even more caffeine to block those extra receptors and keep you alert.

But how much is too much?  The FDA says that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams a day.  This is roughly the amount in two large cups of coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  But the amount of caffeine in your home-brewed coffee can vary.  And caffeine’s impact on people varies.

So you need to judge the impact it has on you.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, or too much coffee makes you feel jittery, you probably need to cut back on how much you imbibe, and pay attention to when you’re imbibing.

You can try to break up with coffee, as famed author Michael Pollan has.  He reports “sleeping like a teenager” and waking “feeling actually refreshed.”  But that experience may not work for everyone.

One study asked 66 young caffeine users–who were having trouble sleeping–to go “cold turkey.”  But during the a week with no caffeine, they spent no more time asleep and took no less time to fall asleep than before. 

Still, it’s probably wise to avoid caffeine right before bed.  Studies show that people generally take longer to fall asleep and get less deep sleep when they have caffeine right before bedtime.

Coffee consumption has shown some real benefits.  A lower risk of type 2 diabetes, for one thing.  Better exercise-performance for another.  (Although few studies have looked at the exercise-boosting effect in older adults, one study of 19 Brits aged 61 to 79 showed that they performed better in a battery of physical tests after they consumed caffeine.)  Finally, studies have shown that people who consume more caffeine have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

I get my caffeine in a variety of sources, including coffee, tea, and cola drinks. I also happily consume coffee candy (my favorite is Caffe Rio, available at Trader Joe’s) and coffee ice cream.  I also heartily recommend the cappuccino gelato at my local gelato shop.  But let’s face it:  a cup of coffee packs the most punch.

The recent advent of cold brew coffee allows coffee-drinkers to get their caffeine in a less acidic form.  According to one source, cold brew is over 67 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee because the coffee grounds aren’t exposed to high temperatures.  Result:  cold brew appeals to some of us because it’s sweeter, smoother, and less bitter. (But don’t confuse it with iced coffee, which has the same acidity as regular hot coffee.  The ice can dilute it, however.)  I’ve tried cold brew and like it.  I keep a bottle of it in my fridge and frequently drink some.  But it’s much pricier than my home brew, at least for now.

New sources have popped up.  One may be bottled water.  In the bargain bin at a local supermarket, I once came across a bottle of Sparking Avitae, whose label states that it’s caffeine plus water and natural fruit flavors.  It claims to have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” thereby giving you “instant go with added fizz.” According to the manufacturer, it includes “natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans.”  I’m not sure this product is still available.  Possibly something like it is.  My original purchase is stashed in my fridge, but I’ve never tried it.

Even newer:  I recently spied an ad for a cosmetic product called “Eyes Open Caffeine and Peptide Eye Cream.”   Yes, eye cream.  This one claims to be “supercharged with caffeine,” adding that it can “reduce the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.”  Does it work?  Who knows?  I’d guess that it probably works just about as well as any other eye cream.  Dermatologists generally tell their patients not to expect very much from any of them, no matter their price or their claims. 

To sum up, I confess that I ally with Abbie Hoffman, the “Chicago 7” trial defendant.  When the prosecutor asked him whether he was addicted to any drug, Abbie said “Yes.”  Which one?  “Caffeine.”   [Please see Post #9 in my blog series, “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” published on 4/20/21, where I noted this amusing bit of testimony.]

My favorite coffee mug says it all:  Its vintage photo features a stylish woman in glamorous riding gear, holding the reins of her horse, saying “You can lead a horse to water…but I could use a triple expresso.”

And let’s not forget my sticky-note pad featuring a stylishly-coiffed woman, circa 1928, drinking what’s clearly a cup of coffee.  She boldly announces:  “Given enough coffee, I could rule the world.”  

Well, maybe coffee-drinkers like me should actually try to rule the world.  We might do a better job than most of those who’ve been in charge.

Okay.  I’m addicted.  And my path ahead is clear. 

I’ll continue to reap the benefits of caffeine while at the same time I steer away from any potentially harmful impact.

Maybe you’d like to join me on this path?

Eating Dessert Can Help You Eat Better? Seriously?

I just celebrated my birthday with a scrumptious meal at a charming San Francisco restaurant. Sharing a fabulous candle-topped dessert with my companion was a slam-dunk way to end a perfect meal in a splendid restaurant.

Should I regret consuming that delicious dessert?

The answer, happily, is no.  I should have no regrets about eating my birthday surprise, and a recent study backs me up.

According to this study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied and reported in a recent issue of TIME magazine, having an occasional dessert may actually be a useful tool to help you eat better.

Here’s what happened:  More than 130 university students and staff were offered a choice of two desserts and asked to make their choice at the start of the lunch line in a campus cafeteria.  The study found that those who made the “decadent” selection—lemon cheesecake—chose healthier meals and consumed fewer calories overall than those who picked fresh fruit.  Simply selecting it first was enough to influence the rest of their order.

Almost 70 percent of those who picked the cheesecake went on to choose a healthier main dish and side dish, while only about a third of those selecting fruit made the healthier choice.  The cheesecake-choosers also ate about 250 fewer total calories during their meal compared with the fruit-choosers.

Study co-author Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, concluded that choosing something healthy first can give us a “license” to choose something less healthy later.  But if you turn that notion around and choose something more “decadent” early on, “then this license [to choose high-calorie food] has already expired.”  In other words, making a calorie-laden choice at the beginning of the meal seems to steer people toward healthier choices later.

No one is suggesting that we all indulge in dessert on an everyday basis.  For many of us, the pursuit of good health leads us to avoid sugary desserts and choose fresh fruit instead.  But Reimann believes that choosing dessert strategically can pay off.  He advises us to be “mindful and conscious about the different choices you make.”

Will I order lemon cheesecake, a chocolate brownie, or a spectacular ice-cream concoction for dessert at my next meal?  Probably not.  But I am going to keep the Arizona research in mind.

You should, too.  Beginning your meal with the knowledge that it could end with a calorie-laden dessert just might prompt you to select a super-healthy salad for your entrée, adding crunchy green veggies on the side.

 

A new book you may want to know about

There’s one thing we can all agree on:  Trying to stay healthy.

That’s why you may want to know about a new book, Killer diseases, modern-day epidemics:  Keys to stopping heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity in their tracks, by Swarna Moldanado, PhD, MPH, and Alex Moldanado, MD.

In this extraordinary book, the authors have pulled together an invaluable compendium of both evidence and advice on how to stop the “killer diseases” they call “modern-day epidemics.”

First, using their accumulated wisdom and experience in public health, nursing science, and family medical practice, Swarna and Alex Moldanado offer the reader a wide array of scientific evidence.  Next, they present their well-thought-out conclusions on how this evidence supports their theories of how to combat the killer diseases that plague us today.

Their most compelling conclusion:  Lifestyle choices have an overwhelming impact on our health.  So although some individuals may suffer from diseases that are unavoidable, evidence points to the tremendous importance of lifestyle choices.

Specifically, the authors note that evidence “points to the fact that some of the most lethal cancers are attributable to lifestyle choices.”  Choosing to smoke tobacco or consume alcohol in excess are examples of the sort of risky lifestyle choices that can lead to this killer disease.

Similarly, cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the heart and blood vessels–share many common risk factors.  Clear evidence demonstrates that eating an unhealthy diet, a diet that includes too many saturated fats—fatty meats, baked goods, and certain dairy products—is a critical factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. The increasing size of food portions in our diet is another risk factor many people may not be aware of.

On the other hand, most of us are aware of the dangers of physical inactivity.  But knowledge of these dangers is not enough.  Many of us must change our lifestyle choices.  Those of us in sedentary careers, for example, must become much more physically active than our lifestyles lend themselves to.

Yes, the basics of this information appear frequently in the media.  But the Moldanados reveal a great deal of scientific evidence you might not know about.

Even more importantly, in Chapter 8, “Making and Keeping the Right Lifestyle Choices,” the authors step up to the plate in a big way.  Here they clearly and forcefully state their specific recommendations for succeeding in the fight against killer diseases.

Following these recommendations could lead all of us to a healthier and brighter outcome.

Kudos to the authors for collecting an enormous volume of evidence, clearly presenting it to us, and concluding with their invaluable recommendations.

No more excuses!  Let’s resolve to follow their advice and move in the right direction to help ensure our good health.

 

 

 

 

P.S. re Sugar

Sugar has been the focus of two of my previous posts, the October 2015 post on chewing sugar-free gum to avoid tooth decay (“Chew on This”) and a more general indictment of sugar in October 2014 (“Gimme a Little Sugar”).

I now have a P.S. to add to those.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the FDA has endorsed a proposed revision to the Nutrition Facts label that appears on about 700,000 packaged food items. The new label will give consumers more information about the sugar hidden in their food.

Here’s the proposed change: labels will specify the amount of “added sugars” in a product. In other words, it will highlight the sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in the product’s other ingredients. It will also include the percentage of an adult’s recommended daily intake of sugar this added sugar represents. Significantly, it will caution consumers to “AVOID TOO MUCH” of these added sugars.

The US calls this “a win for science” because it validates the strong scientific evidence that consuming too much sugar contributes to diseases affecting millions of Americans. It’s a major win because scientists were up against both the sugar lobby and the powerful packaged-food industry’s lobbyists, all of whom fought against the proposed change.

It’s also a win for public health because “Americans remain remarkably uninformed about the health dangers of excessive sugar intake” and even about how much sugar they’re already consuming. The average is more than 19 teaspoons of sugar every day! And an estimated 74 percent of all packaged foods—including many presumably non-sweet products like soups, salad dressings, and crackers—contain added sugar.

The UCS will continue to fight for the proposed change in hopes that the new label is finalized soon.

This info appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Catalyst, a UCS publication.

Chew on this

During the holiday season–spanning Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the December holidays–most of us worry about our consumption of sugary candy and desserts.

We should worry. Sugar not only adds calories but it also can lead to other health problems. For one thing, sugar clearly leads to problems with our teeth. It’s well established that the bacteria in our mouths combines with sugar to create an acid that causes tooth decay.

There’s a useful remedy for the tooth problem. No, not the one that immediately comes to mind.

Sure, you can brush your teeth right after consuming sugar-loaded food and drink. But how many of us do it?

Until something else comes along (and it inevitably will, thanks to researchers like the ones I noted in my blog post “Beavers? Seriously?” last March), here’s one thing you can try: chewing sugar-free gum.

In October, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how chewing gum can help reduce tooth decay. It quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association–a family dentist in Fremont, California, Dr. Ruchi Sahota–on the virtues of sugar-free gum. According to Dr. Sahota, chewing gum after eating stimulates saliva, and that can prevent cavities.

Why? Naturally occurring saliva helps to neutralize the mouth by reducing the acids produced by bacteria in food, and those acids are what ultimately cause cavities. Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce the amount of the bacteria-happy acid. In 2007, the ADA began including chewing gum in its Seal of Approval program. But only sugarless gums can qualify (other gums contain the kinds of sugars used as food by bacteria).

Sugar-free gums typically use artificial sweeteners, most of which are created in a lab, and there’s been some discussion of whether they are safe. But concerns about their being carcinogenic have been dismissed by the FDA for lack of clear evidence.

Some dentists promote chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that usually derives from wood fiber. Studies have shown that it adds mineral to tooth enamel, and one study showed that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria that stick to teeth.

But recent analysis concluded that there was insufficient evidence that xylitol can help prevent cavities. So Dr. Sahota told the Journal that the research “isn’t conclusive enough” to promote gums with xylitol over other sugar-free gums.

Although some dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for at least 20 minutes to get the full anti-bacterial effect, Dr. Sahota disagrees. She advises moderation, cautioning people “not to overchew,” which can be hard on the jaw and tooth enamel.

Regarding candy, Dr. S. recommends avoiding sticky or hard candies because they’re the worst cavity-causing villains. Chocolate is much better for your teeth because it washes away more easily than other candies. Yay, chocolate!

As an inveterate gum-chewer, I’m happy to learn that all those sticks of sugar-free gum I chew can help me avoid tooth decay.

But “candy is candy.” So although chewing gum may help forestall the worst effects of coating our teeth with sugar, we need to remember that a toothbrush will do an even better job of scouring all that sugar off our teeth.

Enjoy those sugary holiday treats. But don’t forget to keep some sugar-free gum handy to pop in your mouth when you’re done. Even rinsing your mouth with water ought to help. And at bedtime, if not before, head for your trusty Sonicare or Oral-B.

Once your teeth are properly scoured, you can drift off to sleep, those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.

 

Beavers? Seriously?

Here’s a piece of news to chew on. A recent study of beavers’ teeth may lead to decay-resistant teeth for humans.

Although beavers never brush their teeth, and they certainly don’t drink fluoridated water, their teeth are protected from tooth decay by the iron that’s part of the tooth’s chemical structure.

If you looked at a beaver’s teeth, you’d notice that their iron-rich coating gives the teeth a reddish-brown or orange color. Apparently orange is the new white.

Researchers found that the pigmented enamel on beavers’ teeth is both harder and more resistant to acid than human tooth enamel, even when treated with fluoride. This discovery could lead to a better understanding of human tooth decay, as well as improvements in current fluoride treatment.

Tooth decay in humans is a major public health problem, even in this era of fluoride treatments. The American Dental Association estimates that dental care in this country costs $111 billion a year, and much of it is spent on cavities and other tooth-decay issues. According to the World Health Organization, up to 90 percent of children and nearly 100 percent of adults worldwide have or have had cavities.

The research team, led by Derk Joester, an engineering and materials science professor at Northwestern University, discovered that small amounts of an “amorphous solid” rich in iron and magnesium are what make rodent teeth resistant to acid. “[We’ve made a] big step forward in understanding the composition and structure of enamel—the tooth’s protective outer layer…,” said Joester.

Researchers included Jill D. Pasteris, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She calls their findings a great example of “the structural-chemical novelty [we’re] still discovering in natural, biomineralized materials” like teeth and bone.

Looking at the teeth of beavers and other rodents, the researchers used powerful technology to map the enamel’s structure, atom by atom. They subjected the teeth to acid and took images before and after. The journal Science published this unprecedented imaging study of tooth enamel in February.

Some of the details of the research are pretty technical, but you really should give a dam about the results. Although a beaver’s teeth are chemically different from our teeth, they’re not structurally different, and the results of the study may lead to stronger tooth enamel and better fluoride treatments.

This news is especially encouraging in light of what we’ve just learned about the sugar industry. The industry has for years covered up proof that reducing sugar-consumption prevents tooth decay. The San Francisco Examiner reports that researchers at UC San Francisco have found documents revealing how the industry worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to avoid condemning sugar, trying instead to develop alternatives (like a vaccine to prevent tooth decay).

Buried in an archive of industry documents discovered at the University of Illinois was a startling document. It showed that a sugar-industry group acknowledged as early as 1950 that sugar causes tooth decay. But, according to the UCSF researchers, Dr. Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt, the sugar industry influenced NIH to steer scientists toward developing alternative approaches to tooth decay instead of focusing on the damage done by sugar consumption. (The study is published this month in the scientific journal PLOS Medicine.)

Does this remind you of the tobacco industry and its efforts to suppress scientific evidence that smoking leads to cancer and other illnesses?

The damage caused by sugar is finally getting attention from scientists, and efforts to cut back on its consumption are gaining ground. Last November, voters in Berkeley imposed a tax on sugary drinks, and a majority of San Francisco voters approved a soda tax (it didn’t become law because it required two-thirds to pass). [My blog post, “Gimme a Little Sugar,” published on 10/2/14, focuses on the damage done by sugary drinks and by sugar in general.]

Three SF supervisors have just renewed their efforts to restrict the consumption of sugary drinks in San Francisco. But even if efforts like these succeed, we’ll still face the problem of tooth decay for years to come. So paying attention to beavers’ teeth may prove helpful.

Let’s snatch victory from the jaws of tooth decay. If we start by Leaving it to Beavers, our descendants may someday sport decay-resistant teeth just like theirs.

Gimme a Little Sugar

As human beings, we’re all programmed to like things that taste sweet. As a June 2012 article in the Journal of Nutrition pointed out, human desire for sweet taste spans all ages, races, and cultures. This may begin with breast milk, universally acknowledged as tasting sweet.

So it’s not surprising that most of us pursue food and drink that taste sweet. The problem today is the low cost and ready availability of sweeteners in our food supply. These have led us to consume more sugar, contributing to the current obesity epidemic.

In San Francisco, voters will decide in November whether the city can levy a “soda tax” of 2-cents-an-ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages. If the measure (Proposition E) passes, SF will become the first city in the nation to impose such a tax. Similar proposals have been defeated elsewhere, but if Prop. E passes, other communities will probably follow suit, so watch what happens in SF.

Prop. E almost didn’t make it onto the ballot. According to Heather Knight at the SF Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee argued it would be a distraction on a lengthy ballot including other important issues, but it squeaked through the SF Board of Supervisors. It needs, however, more than a majority of voters in November to pass. It has to get two-thirds of the vote because it directs revenue to a specific purpose. This purpose is extremely worthwhile: programs benefiting children’s nutrition and physical education via the public schools, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Public Health Department, and nonprofit organizations.

The SF City Controller’s Office has provided key statistics in this fight. Right now, SF guzzles about 3 billion ounces of soda and other sugary beverages every year, but the city’s chief economist estimates that the tax could reduce consumption as much as 31 percent, and revenue generated by the tax could amount to as much as $54 million a year.

Besides the Board of Supervisors, the measure is supported by the SF school board, a host of PTAs, the teachers union, several medical groups, and local food banks like Project Open Hand, which provides healthy meals to seniors and the critically ill.

Now who in the world would oppose such a proposal? That’s easy: the American Beverage Association (the ABA). It seems that Big Soda is spending big bucks to diminish the possibility of passage. For one thing, it has enlisted opponents who argue that the tax will fall disproportionately on poor people. Most of the tax would be passed on to consumers, raising the retail price between 22 and 36 percent, and conservative SF Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders noted that less-educated and poor populations allocate a “larger proportion of their spending on sugar-sweetened beverages than other groups.” She also noted that the SF supervisors who voted against putting the tax on the ballot are “people of color who represent neighborhoods with many minority voters.” (Heather Knight recently reported that at least one of them has decided to endorse it.)

But aren’t these less-educated and less affluent residents the same people who have traditionally spent more on tobacco products than better-educated, more affluent groups? Yet in 2010 SF banned the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies, big-box stores, and grocery stores in the city. Many other communities have followed SF’s lead, and earlier this year pharmacy chain CVS banned their sale in its stores nationwide. Determined smokers, who need to find tobacco and pay more for it, seem to be getting along just fine.

The latest news makes clear how big a stake Big Soda has in defeating Prop. E. According to Heather Knight’s most recent update, a DC public affairs firm has already received almost a million dollars from the campaign to defeat Prop. E funded by the ABA. The firm produces the noisy commercials blaring on TV and radio in a number of languages. This is the same firm that defeated efforts to curtail consumption of sugary soda in NYC and two small cities in California, and it has already spent $800,000 to defeat a proposed soda tax in Berkeley. A spokeswoman for Yes on E notes that opponents will “stop at nothing to protect their profits…” and predicts they will spend much more before the November election.

My go-to source on all things nutrition-related is Nutrition Action (NA), a newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). NA has recently made clear how detrimental sugar-sweetened sodas can be. In July/August 2014, it quoted Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health: “The data are pretty compelling that we should basically cut out sugar-sweetened beverages.”

JoAnn Manson, director of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, noted “strong evidence [these] beverages lead to weight gain because people [don’t tend to] compensate for liquid calories by reducing calories elsewhere.” But weight gain isn’t the only result. Manson and others tracked about 75,000 nurses and 39,000 health professionals for 22 years and found that those who drank a sugary soft drink at least once a day had about a 30 percent higher risk of diabetes than those who drank one less than once a month.” According to other researchers, including Kimber Stanhope at UC Davis, studies show that a high level of fructose (found in sweeteners like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) impairs insulin sensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes.

In September 2014, NA lobbed even more ammunition at sugary beverages, reporting a study showing that sugar-sweetened sodas may raise the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease that causes painful, chronic inflammation of the joints. Researchers who tracked 186,900 women for over 20 years found that those who consumed at least one sugary soda per day had a 63 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with the most common kind of RA than those who consumed less than one per month. Diet-soda drinkers had no higher risk of RA.

Big Soda is beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. Roberto Ferdman reported in the Washington Post in September that the ABA has agreed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper/Snapple to cut the calories in their beverages by 20 percent. How? By promoting smaller portions, as well as zero and low-calorie offerings. Ferdman noted one reason for this concession: soda consumption has been declining in the U.S. for over a decade. But soda is still a big part of the American diet, and 20 percent less sugar isn’t a whole lot.

Ferdman quotes Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director, who urges the industry to go further than the proposed voluntary measures and drop its opposition to taxes and warning labels on sugary drinks: “We need much bigger and faster reductions [in sugar consumption] to adequately protect the public’s health. Those taxes could further reduce calories in America’s beverage mix even more quickly, and would raise needed revenue for the prevention and treatment of soda-related diseases.”

We all love to consume things that taste sweet. But let’s set some limits. Sugar-laden drinks like regular Coke and Pepsi? No one needs more than one a day, and kids don’t need any. Let’s impose reasonable taxes, add warning labels, and make sure we get our calories in far more nutritious ways.

Sure, gimme a little sugar. But just a little is more than enough.