ALL ABOUT FOOD: We're on the food science merry-go-round

It seems that everything good is bad again and vice versa. It’s very hard to know what’s healthy these days as we are constantly bombarded with contradictory “scientific” studies about the food we eat. Have you given up butter, chocolate and red wine? It turns out to be a bad idea. On the other hand, delicious and ubiquitous balsamic vinegar now carries a lead warning, and it seems that beautiful summer peaches absorb the most pesticides.

We want to give you an update, but we cannot promise that it won’t be out of date by the time you read this.

Let’s begin with butter. All natural, creamy butter was a staple in everybody’s diet until margarine appeared on the scene — cheaper and supposedly healthier because it was made from vegetable oil rather than animal fat. After World War II, people were using more margarine than butter and feeling virtuous about it.

Then came the trans-fat exposé and everybody switched to fake butters like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” Unlike margarine, these products do not contain trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. So then, people switched to the faux butters and once again felt virtuous.

Alas, recent scientific evidence has called into question the method of turning these vegetable oil products into solid form. The big word for this is interesterification. In margarine, a hydrogen atom is added to the molecular fat chain, whereas with interesterification the fatty acid molecule is scrambled.

This chemical cookery has recently come into question because of a university study published in Nutrition and Metabolism that found these manipulated fats actually “…do more to lower HDL (good cholesterol), depress insulin and raise blood sugar than highly saturated palm oil, which was one of the tropical oils driven out of the food supply by the pro-margarine campaign.”

There’s more research to be done, but in the meantime, many people are advocating that we just go back to butter but use it judiciously.

Michael Pollan, award-winning food writer, in his new book, “In Defense of Food,” says, “Don’t eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.”

So which would you rather have, a baby aspirin or a piece of dark chocolate? Baby aspirin has been touted as a healthful addition to a daily regimen.

However, recent studies found that cocoa has the same anti-clotting effect as aspirin. Cocoa in rich dark chocolate has been making inroads into the health market for its anti-oxidant and flavonoid content and it also may reduce the danger of deep vein thrombosis when flying.

Scientists at John Hopkins University School of Medicine say that a few squares of 72% dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of a heart attack by almost 50% in some cases. Of course, two or more chocolate bars a day might very well have the opposite effect. Trader Joe’s in Crystal Cove has a very good quality, 17-ounce Belgian chocolate bar that’s reasonably priced (located above the ice cream section).

Eating chocolate makes people happy. This we know, but did you know that chocolate contains tryptophan, which triggers the release of seratonin, the “feel-good” neuro-transmitter? Chocolate also generates the feeling of attraction and raises your excitement level due to phenylethylamine, which activates the brain’s pleasure center; scientifically affirming that chocolate is the perfect Valentine’s Day gift.

Red wine achieved healthful status some years ago but again, moderation is the key. Recently, mice have been drinking wine and living longer. Well, they haven’t actually been drinking booze, they’ve been dosed with resveratrol, the magic ingredient in the stems and seeds of grapes.

It seems to slow the aging process — in mice anyway. However, the dosage would be the equivalent of 35 bottles a day for humans. Considering that there are many other resveratrol-like compounds in red wine and that mice have a higher metabolic rate, a mere four, five-ounce glasses “starts getting close.” However, more research needs to be done on these happy mice.

Since sugar is too fattening and your body can only process one tablespoon an hour, enter artificial sweeteners.

First, they were the dieter’s friend, and now they are everybody’s enemy. Finally, there is something new on the market that may be a solution to the sugar conundrum. Although stevia, a plant, has been around for a while in many different products, like most artificial sweeteners, it has a bitter aftertaste.

The new product, Sweetleaf, is 100% natural, has no carbs, no calories and does not raise your glycemic index, unlike artificial sweeteners. It is the only stevia product to receive approval as healthful by the FDA. You can get it downtown at Whole Foods Market in the “whole body” section in the center of the store.

Now for the bad news — our beloved balsamic vinegar contains lead, and the highest concentrations are found in the Modena style, the dark rich vinegar considered to be the best and favorite of gourmet cooks and restaurants. Lead warnings are being posted everywhere.

The good news is that the average person would need to consume one to two cups of balsamic vinegar per day to reach the minimum danger threshold. However, as with mercury, pregnant women, the elderly and children should probably limit their intake.

Last but not least, is the issue of pesticides in fruits and vegetables. A guide is available, which you may access at They have tested 44 different commonly eaten varieties, which were thoroughly washed before testing.

While washing and rinsing may reduce levels of some pesticides, it does not eliminate them. Peeling also reduces exposure but valuable nutrients are lost. The best plan is to eat a varied diet, wash all produce and choose organic whenever possible.

Among the worst offenders are: peaches, apples, sweet bells, strawberries, cherries and lettuce. Some of the safest are: onions, avocados, asparagus, bananas, broccoli and cabbage. Our Farmer’s Market has many organic or pesticide free vendors.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at

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