Archive for September, 2010

The Latest Taste─Meet Umami

Can you name the senses of taste?  Sure, we know sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Even before taste buds were discovered in the 19th century, the idea of four tastes prevailed.

Auguste Escoffier, the renowned Paris chef, created meals with flavors beyond the four recognized tastes. His creations yielded a distinctive sensory experience that evolved from his liberal use of veal stock.

Meanwhile, a chemist in Japan, Kikunae Ikeda, savored a classic Japanese soup made from seaweed. He sensed a different flavor─not common to the four well-known tastes. Ikeda identified this same uniqueness in tomatoes, asparagus, cheese, and meat. He reported to the Chemical Society of Tokyo that this unusual taste came from glutamic acid, an amino acid. Ikeda called it umami, the Japanese word for yummy or delicious. That, said Ikeda, is the fifth taste.

Ikeda isolated glutamic acid crystals (glutamate) and created the seasoning monosodium glutamate (MSG) that tends to balance or enhance other flavors. In 1958 the US Food and Drug Administration(FDA) declared MSG as a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredient. People intolerant to MSG may develop Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a composite of symptom—asthma, headache, nausea, and others—after eating Chinese or other foods high in MSG. The FDA maintains that the body metabolizes natural glutamate and crystallized MSG the same.

By the end of the 20th century, scientists began to seriously consider the findings of Escoffier and Ikeda. Just as the tongue has receptors for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, receptors exist for glutamate. Scientists named this new taste umami in honor of Ikeda.

Scientists continue to investigate possible links of this fifth taste to feelings of fullness, appetite regulation, body weight, and eating behavior. As food connoisseurs around the world enjoy the rich, delicious flavor of umami in food, future research may identify additional benefits of our fifth taste.

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The Food and Mood Connection

Can food make a difference in mood or help fight depression? In a British study, those who ate whole foods compared to those who consumed fried foods, desserts, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products were less likely to feel depressed. Some researchers believe certain nutrients and foods can lift spirits out of the doldrums.  Most likely, effects of the whole-food diet resulted from foods high in antioxidants and other nutrients known to affect depression.      

  • Antioxidants. Antioxidants defend the body against various attacks and neutralize the effect of free radicals, those unstable substances within cells that can cause cell damage, disease progression, and aging. Antioxidants have been associated with lower risks of depression. Nutrients with antioxidant properties include 1) vitamin C, abundant in citrus, strawberries, cantaloupe, and other fruits and cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower), 2) vitamin E, most plentiful in vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts, and 3) beta-carotene, found in dark green and deep yellow fruits and vegetables.  
  • Omega-3-fatty acids. The American Psychiatric Association recommends fish high in omega-3 fatty acids to combat depression. Foods high in these fatty acids include salmon, sardine, and mackerel.
  • Folate. A deficiency of folate or folic acid has been linked to depression. This B-vitamin impacts serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with moods and mental status. Dark green vegetables provide rich sources of folate.
  • Carbohydrates. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that people placed on low-carbohydrate diets for a year had more depression, anxiety, and anger than those put on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that included grains, fruits, and beans. Researchers believed the higher carbohydrate diet increased production of serotonin and improved mood.
  • Protein.  When each daily meal includes protein, blood levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that eventually turns to serotonin, increase.  

While specific nutrients impact mood, so do certain foods. Researchers tell us what women already knew. As little as 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate reduces stress hormones. This small amount, however, has 235 calories that may cause stress for the weight conscious.  Some scientists refute the antidepressant properties of chocolate. While chocolate may or may not help depression, most can attest to the improved mood while enjoying the smooth, velvety decadence of dark chocolate.

 Source: Ana Mantica, “Mood Boosting Foods,” EatingWell. March/April 2010.

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Should you take calcium, vitamin D, or a combination of the two? Physicians often advise women to take supplements to manage or prevent osteoporosis. Additional calcium, however, only slightly decreases risks for fractures.

 Studies have suggested higher calcium intake from supplements protects against vascular disease. More recent research, however, indicates that vascular disease worsens and deaths increase, especially among those with kidney and heart disease. A study published in a 2010 British Medical Journal reported higher incidences of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) when participants took increased amounts of calcium without added vitamin D. Results with vitamin D remained unknown.  Five similar studies reported results when participants with a mean age of forty took 500 milligrams of calcium per day or a placebo. For those given calcium, cardiovascular problems increased by about thirty percent regardless of age, sex, or type of calcium supplement. These risks occurred in less than five years.

 Some clinicians recommended patients with osteoporosis avoid additional calcium unless managed with other therapies. But, they emphasized the need for more research to determine the effect of calcium when used with other treatments. Dr. John Schindler of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center maintained that risks from added calcium outweighed benefits, especially among older people.

Should you cease taking calcium? Like much research in the field of medicine and nutrition, the verdict seems to be pending. Researchers emphasized consulting your doctor to determine if you should continue taking calcium supplements. Schindler noted that consuming foods high in calcium might be sufficient to ward off risks of osteoporosis. Excellent food source of calcium include: milk, milk products, figs, apricots, sardines, and other foods.

Source:  Fran Lowry. From Heartwire, “Calcium Supplements Boost Heart-Attack Risk: Meta-Analysis.” http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle 726859

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Pears—Gift of the Gods

Though the pears pictured do not have a textur...

Image via Wikipedia


After hot humid days with temperatures soaring over three digits, a cool front ushered in Labor Day Weekend. The welcomed coolness shifted thoughts from luscious green salads and fresh summer produce to fall fruits and cool-weather vegetables. Peaches bowed to the juicy sweet and grainy texture of pears, once called the “gift of the gods.” While pears may be available at different times, I think of those seasonal varieties from August through October.        

Over 3,000 varieties of pears exist worldwide. Better known varieties in the United States include Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, D’Anjou, and Seckel, each with distinct flavors. Pears, cousins to apples and quince, are members of the rose family. They provide rich sources of fiber and good sources of Vitamin C.       

Kieffer pears, abundant in the south, lack the mellow sweetness of the Bartlett but are excellent for canning and preserves. It’s those pears that remind me of summer’s end. Nostalgic thoughts drift toward canning pear preserves to use in Christmas fruitcakes. Pear honey, a recipe from my husband’s family, is always a hit with hot biscuits or toast and great over plain yogurt. Although often altered from the original recipe, the quality of this heavenly concoction seems unaffected by slight changes in proportions and methods. 

With pears in season, try your own adaptation. Then, enjoy the fruits of your labor. 

 Pear Honey 

    8              cups finely chopped pears 

    5              cups granulated sugar 

    1              (20 ounce) #2 cans crushed pineapple in syrup 

Cook chopped pears and sugar in a large saucepan for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Add pineapple. Cook 15 minutes or until slightly thickened. Pour into hot sterilized canning jars and seal. Place jars into a deep saucepan or water-bath canner. Cover with hot water. Bring water to a boil and process for ten minutes. Carefully remove hot jars and allow them to cool before storing. 

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School lunch programs have become more than school lunch. Many schools provide afternoon snacks. They design programs to give children a nutritional boost in a structured and supervised environment that is safe, fun, and educational.

Not all schools participate in the afternoon snack program. For those that do, snacks must meet standard requirements. Children receive at least two servings of the following four components:

  • Milk
  • Meat or meat substitute such as peanut butter
  • Fruit or vegetable or full-strength fruit or vegetable juice
  • Whole grain or enriched bread or cereal

When after-school programs aren’t available and your child requires afternoon care from others, send a healthful snack to curb  hunger between lunch and dinner. Excellent choices include fruits or snack bars high in nutrients and low in sugar and fat.

Good eating habits, including snacks, formed in younger years pay dividends in better health in later years.

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The hustle and bustle to get school supplies, new clothes, and adapt to schedule changes may cause parents to neglect the importance of their child’s school lunch. Each day more than fifty-five percent of America’s children choose a lunch provided by the school. Forty percent of those children admit the significant role their friends play in whether or not they eat that school lunch.

Parents, however, also influence choices and serve as role models. The foods parents eat will more likely appeal to their children. Thus, parents’ attitudes and practices make a difference. The following tips adapted from recommendations by the American Dietetic Association help assure your child will eat healthier at school.

  • Encourage healthy eating by speaking positively about school lunches and workers.
  • Post a copy of the school menu on your refrigerator and ask the school for nutritional information about it. Your interest shows concern for your child’s health.
  • Discuss the menu with your child and teach which selections are healthier. Children don’t automatically know which foods are best for them. They need help in making wise choices and understanding the importance of a healthy diet.
  • Meet the school foodservice staff. If possible, occasionally visit the school and have breakfast or lunch with your younger child. Your involvement demonstrates care about your child’s environment and the foods available when away from you.
  • For those days when the school serves favorite foods of hamburgers, tacos, or pizza, encourage your child to add a salad, fruit, and/or yogurt or milk.

As you plan for another school year, don’t forget healthy food choices. Good nutrition is an important part of learning.

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