New food trends may be dysfunctional

dysfunctional food trendsAs our obesity epidemic gets worse and the general health of Americans continues to decline, people are always searching for new food trends to make us thinner, happier and smarter.

The leading contenders for the next new thing are functional foods. Frankly, these are simply processed foods with added dietary supplements to make you more likely to purchase them compared to the competition on the same shelf. Of course, this means the functional food can’t be too much more expensive than its competitor (and ideally the same price) without affecting the taste of the product. As an afterthought, it might even have some health benefit for you.

Frankly, there are only two functional foods that have been truly successful over the years. The first is Gatorade. Originally developed to reduce minerals lost during exercise, the original Gatorade tasted terrible. So they simply added some sugar to make it taste better and called it a sports drink. Gatorade is basically a Coke or a Pepsi with minerals, but you feel better about yourself when you guzzle down those carbohydrates. The other commercial success was Tropicana Orange Juice with Calcium. The makers of Tropicana didn’t ask you to pay a premium for this functional food since it was exactly the same price as Tropicana Orange Juice without calcium. That’s why the sales of this functional food dramatically increased. Who doesn’t want something extra (and it might even be healthy) for free?

It’s been a long time since any new functional foods tried to break into the market. The two most recent have been POM and Activia yogurt. POM contains polyphenols from the pomegranate seed. That’s good because polyphenols are excellent anti-oxidants and potentially good anti-inflammatory chemicals. But like the minerals in Gatorade, they taste terrible. So when you purchase a bottle of POM, what you are getting is a mass of added sugar. I guarantee you that the intake of these polyphenols in POM is not worth the extra sugar.

Another “new” source of polyphenols we hear about comes from chocolate, which is now being promoted as the new super-fruit (1). Like all polyphenols, the polyphenols found in chocolate are intensely bitter. That’s why no one likes to eat unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate even though it is polyphenol-rich. But if you add a lot of sugar to it, then it tastes great. In fact, it’s a candy bar. Again like most functional foods, these polyphenol functional foods represent one step forward in that you are consuming more polyphenols, but two steps backwards for consuming too much sugar.

Tasting bad is something that has really prevented yogurt sales from taking off in America. The solution was simple. Add more sweetness, usually in the form of fruit plus extra sugar. Finally, natural yogurt became acceptable. But to turn it into a functional food, Dannon decided to add more probiotics to its already sugar-sweetened yogurt and call it Activia, promoting it to help soothe an angry digestive system. In December 2010 the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and hit Dannon with a $21-million fine for false advertising (2). Not only were the levels of probiotics in Activia too low to be of any health benefit, but Dannon was also making drug-claims on a food to boot. Not surprisingly, the FTC is also after POM for similar misleading claims (3). Darned those regulators. They take all the fun out of marketing functional foods.

The list goes on and on. Whether it is vitamin waters, or micro-encapsulated fish oil, vitamin D, etc., trying to put bad-tasting nutritional supplements that have some proven benefits into foods and charge the consumer a higher price is never going to work. To prevent the poor taste, you have to microencapsulate the supplement to make it sound high-tech, (they call it nanotechnology) and this costs a lot of money. Adding the bad-tasting nutritional supplement without the microencapsulation to a food makes it taste worse (unless you are adding a lot of sugar at the same time, of course eroding all the potential health benefits of the supplement). Finally, the consumer will only buy this new functional food if it is the same price as what they usually purchase.

So what’s the next new thing in functional foods? In my opinion, it is returning to the concept of cooking for yourself in your own kitchen using food ingredients you buy on the periphery of the supermarket, and then taking the nutritional supplements that have proven efficacy (like fish oil and polyphenols) at the therapeutic level to produce real health benefits. Now you have real functional foods that finally work at a lower cost than you would pay for in the supermarket.

Now, that’s a radical new food trend that just might work.


1. Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst JW, Payne MJ, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Cacao seeds are a ‘super fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chem Central J 5:5 (2011)

2. Horovitz B. “Dannon’s Activia, DanActive health claims draw $21M fine.” USA Today. December 15, 2010

3. Wyatt E. “Regulators Call Health Claims in Pom Juice Ads Deceptive.” New York Times. September 27, 2010

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

What’s the story on chocolate?

chocolate and polyphenolsChocolate is big business, generating about $50 billion in annual worldwide sales. But is it good medicine? Before I get to that answer, let me give you some background on the manufacturing of chocolate.

The first use of chocolate appears to be about 3,000 years ago in Central Mexico to produce an intensely bitter drink called xocolatl. Today, we still get the raw material for chocolate from the seeds of the cocoa tree. However, now they are fermented and roasted prior to extracting the raw cocoa beans from their pods. The raw cocoa mass is then ground and heated to produce what is called chocolate liquor.

This chocolate liquid is exceptionally bitter because it is rich in polyphenols. This is what you get when you buy unsweetened baker’s chocolate. Keep in mind that even with the extreme bitterness of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, the total polyphenol content is only about 5 percent of the total mass (the rest is cocoa butter). This means that purified chocolate polyphenols are about 20 times bitterer than the taste of unsweetened baker’s chocolate.

The chocolate liquor can also be further refined. The most common way is to remove the fat portion (i.e., cocoa butter) from the chocolate liquor by simple pressing. What remains is the cocoa powder that retains all of the polyphenols but in a dry form that can be ground to a powder. The isolated cocoa butter is the base for making white chocolate. Although it is free of any of the beneficial polyphenols, it still retains the excellent mouth feel of the cocoa butter. Add some extra sugar, and it is a great-tasting snack that has absolutely no health benefits.

You can always add more sugar to the cocoa liquor to sweeten the chocolate taste. That’s the ”dark chocolate” that dominates the market today. Of course in the process, you dilute out the polyphenols, which give chocolate all of its health benefits, not to mention increasing calories and increasing insulin levels because of the added sugar. That’s why eating dark chocolate will not help you lose weight. When you add more sugar and milk to the dark chocolate, the bitter taste (and the health benefits) is even reduced further. Now you have a milk chocolate candy bar.

Now what about the health benefits of the chocolate polyphenols before you start diluting them out with added sugar? Here the research data are clear. If you consume enough chocolate polyphenols, you will reduce blood pressure (1). This is probably due to the increase of nitric oxide production and its beneficial effects on relaxing the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels (2). How much is enough? Over a two-week period about 500 mg of polyphenols per day (this is the amount found in a typical 100-gram bar of unsweetened baker’s chocolate) can significantly reduce blood pressure by about 4 mm Hg (3). If you are willing to consume smaller amounts of very dark chocolate (providing 30 mg of polyphenols per day) for a much longer period of time, there is an improvement in endothelial cell relaxation, but without a reduction of blood pressure (4). Therefore, the blood pressure benefits of chocolate consumption appear to be dose-related. There is also evidence of chocolate polyphenols having some anti-inflammatory properties (5).

Considering these benefits, should chocolate be considered a “super fruit”? To answer that question, a recent publication compared the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) values of unsweetened cocoa to similar-size servings of other fruit powders from “super fruits,” such as blueberries, pomegranate and acai berries (6). The ORAC value is a measure of the ability of the dried fruit to quench free radicals. The cocoa powder had a significantly higher ORAC value per serving than the other fruit powders. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the typical cocoa powder in the supermarket has been treated with alkali (i.e. Dutch-treated) to remove much of the bitterness of the polyphenols and in the process remove most of their health benefits (6).

So if you want the health benefits of chocolate, just make it bitter (i.e. unsweetened baker’s chocolate) and eat a lot of it (about 100 grams per day). You won’t lose any weight, but your blood pressure will come down a bit. Now if you want some real anti-inflammatory benefits, eat the chocolate, take 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA and follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Now you have a far more powerful dietary approach for reducing cellular inflammation and its clinical consequences, such as elevated blood pressure.


1. Ried K, Sullivan T, Fakler P, Frank OR, and Stocks NP. “Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis.” BMC Med 8:39 (2010)

2. Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, and Schomig E. “Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial.” JAMA 298: 49-60 (2007)

3. Grassi D, Lippi C, Necozione S, Desideri G, and Ferri C. “Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons.” Am J Clin Nutr 81: 611-614 (2005)

4. Engler MB, Engler MM, Chen CY, Malloy MJ, Browne A, Chiu EY, Kwak HK, Milbury P, Paul SM,Blumberg J, and Mietus-Snyder ML. “Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults.” J Am Coll Nutr 23: 197-204 (2004)

5. Selmi C, Cocchi CA, Lanfredini M, Keen CL, and Gershwin ME. “Chocolate at heart: The anti-inflammatory impact of cocoa flavanols.” Mol Nutr Food Res 52:1340-8 (2008)

6. Crozier SJ, Preston MG, Hurst JW, Payne JM, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Caco seeds are a super fruit,” Chemistry Central Journal 5:5 (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Pass the polyphenols

Considering that virtually nothing was written about the health benefits of polyphenols before 1995, it continues to amaze me the amount of health benefits this group of nutrients generates. This is primarily due to our growing understanding of how these phytochemicals interact with the most primitive parts of our immune system that have been conserved through millions of years of evolution.

Three new studies add to this growing knowledge. In the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was reported that eating one serving a week of blueberries could reduce the risk of developing hypertension by 10 percent (1). Since a serving size of fruit is defined as ½ cup, that serving size contains about 65 grams of blueberries. Put that into more precise molecular terms, this serving size would provide about 4,000 ORAC units or about the same amount of ORAC units as a glass of wine. The researchers speculated that there was a subclass of polyphenols (which includes delphinidins) that appear to be responsible for most of the effects. So if eating one serving of blueberries (½ cup) once a week is good for reducing the risk of hypertension, guess what the benefits of eating 1 cup of blueberries every day might be? The answer is probably a lot.

Speaking of red wine, in the second study in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications researchers found that giving high levels of isolated polyphenols from red wine demonstrated that exercise endurance in older rats could be significantly enhanced. Very good news for old folks like me. They hypothesized the effects may be directly related to “turning on” genes that increase the production of anti-oxidant enzymes (2). The only catch is that the amount of red wine polyphenols required to reach these benefits would equate to drinking about 20-30 glasses of red wine per day.

The final study in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrates that cherry juice rich in polyphenols reduces muscle damage induced by intensive exercise in trained athletes. This reduction in muscle damage was correlated with decreased levels of inflammatory cytokines (3). The reduction of cytokine expression is one of the known anti-inflammatory benefits of increased polyphenol intake.

Three pretty diverse studies, yet it makes perfect sense if you understand how polyphenols work. Polyphenols inhibit the overproduction of inflammatory compounds made by the most ancient part of the immune system that we share with plants. The only trick is taking enough of these polyphenols. To get about 8,000 ORAC units every day requires eating about a cup of blueberries (lots of carbohydrates) or two glasses of red wine (lots of alcohol), or half a bar of very dark chocolate (lots of fat) or 0.3 g of highly purified polyphenol powder in a small capsule (with no carbohydrates, no alcohol, and no saturated fat). And if you are taking extra high purity omega-3 oil, exercising harder, or have an inflammatory disease, you will probably need even more polyphenols. It doesn’t matter where the polyphenols come from as long as you get enough. That’s why you eat lots of colorful carbohydrates on an anti inflammatory diet.


  1. Cassidy A, O’Reilly EJ, Kay C, Sampson L, Franz M, Forman J, Curhan G, and Rimm EB. “Habitual intake of flavonoid subclasses and incident hypertension in adults.” Am J Clin Nutr 93: 338-347 (2011)
  2. Dal-Ros S, Zoll J, Lang AL, Auger C, Keller N, Bronner C, Geny B, Schini-Kerth VB. “Chronic intake of red wine polyphenols by young rats prevents aging-induced endothelial dysfunction and decline in physical performance: Role of NADPH oxidase.” Biochem Biophys Res Commun 404: 743-749 (2011)
  3. Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, and Mileva KN. “Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise”. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43: online ahead of print doi: 10.1249/MSS.obo13e31820e5adc (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Like you needed a reason to eat chocolate …

You couldn’t walk into a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreen’s over the past few weeks without getting bombarded with the pastel colors of Easter eggs and chocolate candy displays. Come the day after Easter all this candy will be on sale, and even if you don’t celebrate Easter, you might be apt to pick some up on your next trip in. It doesn’t take much for us to justify indulging in our favorite treats. When a research study comes along promoting the benefits of green tea, red wine, or even chocolate, people automatically use it as an excuse to jump on the bandwagon and indulge more.

A recent study published in the European Heart Journal may make you inclined to run out and take advantage of these Easter sales (1), but proceed with caution. The study looked at 19,357 individuals over eight years who were free of myocardial infarction, stroke, not taking anti-hypertensive medications and their dietary intake of chocolate. What they found was that individuals who consumed chocolate had a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes, which they believed was due to the effects of the chocolate on lowering blood pressure (1).

How much chocolate were they consuming exactly? About one small square a week. The authors believe that a group of polyphenols, called flavonols found in cocoa, may be what lowered people’s blood pressure (2). Unfortunately, you won’t be able to find much of this group of flavonols among the Easter candy selections. Generally the more flavonols, the more bitter the chocolate, so the darker the better.

Just remember chocolate is a calorically dense food and high in saturated fat, so if you do consume, consume in moderation!

1. Buijsse B, C Weikert, D Drogan, M Bergmann, H Boeing. Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults. Eur Heart J March 30, 2010.
2. Chocolate ‘can cut blood pressure and help heart’. Available at: Accessed: March 30, 2010.

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.