Forgive them if they melt in your hand

December 2, 2009

I am not one to be tempted by my kids’ Halloween loot, nor am I courted by the impulsively placed candy bar display at Target. But I have to admit how I love digging my hand into a giant bag of cold M&Ms.

When I was growing up, my mom always had a bowl set out on a random accent table in a festive serving bowl to coordinate with the seasons. Orange and brown ones in October; the red, pink and white ones in February. I love to mix them with popcorn, with cashews or peanuts or raisins, or eat a handful plain with a just-opened can of Diet Coke.

So imagine my sarcastic gasp of excitement — coupled with some eye-rolling disbelief — with the news that blue M&Ms may save lives.

The story is here, and it’s this: Medical researchers discovered that when they injected  “Brilliant Blue”  into rats suffering spinal cord injuries, the rats were able to walk again.  According to science, the compound that comprises the FDA-approved blue food dye (which chemists know as BBG) works to thwart Adenosine triphosphate, a powerful current that surges to the spinal cord immediately after an injury occurs. If the BBG is injected into the victims’ bloodstream right after the injury, their prognosis improves dramatically and they may be able to walk again, researchers concluded from the rat tests.


I can’t help but wonder if the scientist who decided to try this experiment shared my love of M&Ms; how else would this idea have come to the research docket? Incidentally, the blue variety was introduced in 1995, when the public chose this color over purple and pink as a replacement for the rather dull tan M&M.

So in eating my M&Ms, I’m consuming a powerful chemical that can likewise battle evil inside my body. Seems somewhat artificial, doesn’t it?


Another gum, this one starts as broccoli slime

February 14, 2009

The world is lacking a few good “x” words. The exception is my pantry: it seems that half of my food labels contain a mysterious ingredient called xanthan gum. It’s in salad dressings, granola bars, ice cream and bread.

Like Ester Gum (see previous entry), it provoked me to wonder: is this a newfound Bubblelicious?

If only it were that simple.

The name xanthan gum comes from xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria. It is the same bacteria that causes black rot to form on your broccoli.


These bacteria form a kind of slime that acts as a thickener. Food researchers somehow thought to combine the bacteria with corn sugar; the result was a magic thickening agent they called xanthan gum.


* In salad dressings, xanthan gum helps the liquid cling to the lettuce. It also helps prevent oil separation and suspend solid particles, like spices.

* In egg substitutes, it replaces the thickness of the yolk.

* In ice cream and other frozen foods, it helps create texture.

* In gluten-free baked goods, it helps give dough or batter the stickiness that’s missing with the absence of wheat.

Xanthan gum is used as a binder in toothpaste and in oil drilling (to thicken the drilling mud). You can buy it, as a powder, in the baking section of most grocery stores. It is nontoxic and supposedly safe, though some people develop an allergy or sensitivity to xanthan gum (with symptoms being migraine headaches, skin itchiness or diarrhea).

All that is not good in our poultry

February 12, 2009

What’s in our chicken? We already know about arsenic (often mixed into chicken feed), disease-resistant antibiotics, salmonella and E. coli and now this: Campylobacter, a bacteria that can destroy a person’s digestive system.

Check out this story about a woman who 14 years ago ate bacteria-laden chicken (which she now remembers as being a little “pink”.)  Today, 14 years later, she can eat hardly anything and receives nutrients via IV while she sleeps.

The article, reported in Self magazine, details the procedures that govern the chicken farmers and processors. Scary how lenient the rules have grown.

The big surprise came at the end of the report. It seems some of the safest chicken might be on the menu at your nearest fast food restaurant. That’s because the restaurant chains perform their own testing for harmful bacteria in the chicken and wait for the results before it is used in production.

Nuggets, anyone?

Mercury found in high-fructose corn syrup

January 30, 2009

As if we needed another reason to avoid the questionable food ingredient lovingly referred to as HFCS, a study reported in The Washington Post this week shows evidence of mercury in its production.

An excerpt:

“Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Given how much high-fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply,” the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Dr. David Wallinga, a co-author of both studies, said in a prepared statement.

High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener found in most cereals, granola bars, crackers, packaged muffins, frozen waffles and breads, just to name a few of the convenience foods we eat every day. In fact, unless your pre-packaged food is certified organic, chances are it contains the HFCS.

Eating my berries and whey

January 23, 2009

I’m not necessarily proud to admit my favorite part of that unavoidable place I call “the gym” is the smoothie menu inside its café. Although I always sneak a generous sip of the kids’ peanut butter-banana smoothie, I mostly opt for the berry protein shake. It is frozen berries, a banana, orange juice and a scoop of whey powder.

Yes, whey powder.

Go ahead and call me Little Miss Muffet. But then read on while I dissect what’s inside the big blue can.

Whey is a milk protein. According to Dairy Management Inc., whey is the liquid that remains after the making of cheese. Whey is pasteurized and, for purposes of my smoothie, transformed into powder inside a kind of drying tower.

While often touted by bodybuilders as a muscle-builder and praised by fitness fiends as a tool for weight loss, whey also has these benefits to overall health.

• Whey aids in blood sugar regulation. A 2005 study documented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that adding whey to a high-carb meal helps people with diabetes prevent spikes in blood sugar.

• Whey is an antioxidant. Studies have shown breast cancer patients were able to withstand a more concentrated schedule of chemotherapy treatments because ingesting whey proteins enhanced their immune systems.

Whey protein is reportedly safe in moderation (after all, it is advertised as a key ingredient in some baby formulas).

I’m sold: Today I bought a can of 365 Everyday Value Whey Protein Powder at Whole Foods Market. I chose the natural vanilla flavor (it comes in chocolate, too). The can was $11.99 and includes a few recipes. Tomorrow I’ll try this one:

Whey Protein Breakfast Blast

¾ cup frozen blueberries

½ banana

3 T protein powder

½ cup skim milk

2 t honey

3 ice cubes

1 T ground flaxseed

In a blender, combine berries, banana, powder, milk and honey by pulsing a few times. Add ice cubes and blend until smooth. Pour into a 16-ounce glass and sprinkle with ground flaxseed.

See for information from the U.S. Whey Protein Research Consortium.


The chalk in my cereal bowl

January 15, 2009

When I gathered with the playgroup mamas at Whole Foods Market for a lesson on kids and healthy eating, I expected some tips on convincing my children to try new things (and secretly hoped the nutrition expert leading the seminar would announce a newfound benefit of Cheetos).

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the food lady’s warnings about microwaving our kids’ food (depletes all nutrients, she announced), cooking with olive oil (causes cancer, she warned) and in general not feeding them enough protein (serve chicken breast for breakfast, she suggested with a smile).

Those statements can be disputed (or confirmed) in future posts. But one random statement that stuck with this neurotic mama was her description of calcium carbonate, an ingredient I’ve noticed on everything from Cheerios to crackers to frozen foods. Calcium carbonate, this nutrition guru told us, is nothing but chalk.

Chalk in my cereal bowl?


Calcium carbonate is a common food additive derived from a chemical compound. It is extracted from rocks worldwide and can also be made from marble. Snail shells and egg shells are calcium carbonate. Besides common blackboard chalk it is used to make:

* Latex gloves.
* Paint.
* Cement.
* Oil-drilling fluids.
* Baby diapers.
* Glossy paper.
* Toothpaste.

I’m no scientist, but it scares me to see a chemical ingredient used in things like paint also used in my food. I guess I see the word “calcium” on my food label and think of Brooke Shields and her milk mustache and envision my kids with teeth and bones of steel. But studies show that calcium carbonate contains only a small amount of calcium that the body can absorb; plant-derived calcium (i.e. broccoli) is much more beneficial.

In the environment, calcium carbonate is used to neutralize the acidic conditions in soil and water. So what is it doing to the insides of our bodies?

I’ll keep looking for answers. But for now, maybe the next time my daughter licks the chalkboard of her art easel, I can tell myself she is at least getting her calcium.

My daughter drank pine tree sap

November 7, 2008

In my house, there is no drink left behind.

I’m convinced my children are somehow innately unable to sip. When presented with anything thirst-quenching they chug. And chug. The ravenous way they attack and covet their glass has incited a now-predicted response from their grandfather.

“Take a breath!” he tells my daughter while she downs a sippy cup of orange juice in one giant gulp. “Take a breath!” he warns my son as he guzzles a chocolate milk or bottle of water.

(He, their grandpa, has drinking oddities of his own. But that’s another day’s story.)

My point now is that my children like their drinks, and I am careful to offer them healthy choices — usually skim milk or water. This morning, as a treat among treats, I offered Caroline a lemonade. In about the same amount of time it took her to meticulously unwrap the straw and stick it into the top of the small yellow box, she had finished the drink.

But, wait. What did she just drink?

The short list of ingredients on the side of the Joe’s Kids Vitamin C Fortified Lemonade include filtered water, sugar and lemon juice. But then there was this, dropped like a footnote among seemingly natural ingredients: Ester Gum.

Ester Gum? I couldn’t help but wonder: Who is Ester? And how digestible is her gum?

I googled. Here is what I found.

Ester gum is a food additive that is used as a stabilizer — which I think is what allows the lemon juice to swim suspended in the water, rather than sink to the bottom of the box.

Ester gum comes from the resin, or sap, of a pine tree. As I understand it, a process called “esterification” turns the sap into a water-soluble chemical. It is colorless. And odorless. According to five minutes of basic chemistry research, it is nontoxic.

You might find ester gum listed on your own carton of lemonade or orange juice. But here is where it gets scary: ester gum is also commonly used in making paints, varnishes and lacquer.


So was this ester gum meant for my daughter’s lemonade box, or for the pale pink latex paint I was about to lather on her bedroom headboard? I can’t be sure.

All I know is this: in a world of artificial this and genetically modified that, I try to do the right thing and offer my children natural foods. Is pine tree sap natural? Maybe, though the process that puts it inside the Trader Joe’s lemonade box certainly is not.

What did you just drink?