Nutrition News: Defining "Natural," Healthy Kids' Meals, Calorie Counts in Question, and a Coconut Oil Warning

Michael Pollan mulls the meaning of "natural," a menu switcheroo helps kids eat healthier, nut calorie counts are not all they’re cracked up to be, and coconut oil is not heart-healthy.
It’s only "natural."

What is “natural”? Food writer and thinker Michael Pollan, in a New York Times Magazine essay, mulls the specious use of the word on labels for everything from cheese puffs to chicken nuggets — and the Food and Drug Administration's reluctance to clearly define the word and therefore open the way for the legal system to adjudicate claims of its misuse. Pollan argues that the FDA may be right to demur, because the word “natural” itself has come to mean nothing, at least if we define it as something that hasn’t been altered by humanity. Still, Pollan says, we can rely on our common sense. "It’s not hard to say which of two things is 'more natural' than the other: cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? Chicken or chicken nuggets? G.M.O.s or heirloom seeds?” he writes. “The most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.” Naturally.

Would you like berries with that?

Getting kids to eat healthier in restaurants may be as simple as changing the menu. That’s the takeaway from a recent study published in the journal Obesity. The researchers found that after chain restaurant the Silver Diner revised its children’s menu to automatically include healthy options, like strawberries, vegetables and side salads, with orders — and making options like fries, sodas and lemonade available only upon request — orders for healthier foods shot up from 3 percent to 46 percent for all kids' menu orders. Plus, after the change, 70 percent of all orders included at least one healthy side, as opposed to 26 percent before. "Our study showed that healthier children's menu options were ordered a lot more often when those options were more prevalent and prominent on kids' menus," said lead author Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, of Tufts University.

Get the nutty news about calorie counts.

The method generally used to calculate how many calories are in the foods we eat may be off by as much as 25 percent, especially when it comes to proteins, nuts and high-fiber foods, some nutritionists now maintain. The calorie content of processed foods, however, may be more accurate, The New York Times reports. “ The amount of calories a person gets from protein and fiber are overstated,” Geoffrey Livesey, a nutrition consultant to the United Nations, told the Times. The method fails to factor in the calories that are lost during digestion or not fully digested. Nuts, for instance, are difficult to digest, so we may not take in all of the calories. Almonds, now listed as about 160 calories per serving, may really be about 120 calories — a discrepancy that is just nuts.

Put the lime in the saturated fat?

Coconut oil has been a hot topic of discussion lately, thanks to recent reports that it can reduce the caloric content of rice. But the Duluth News Tribune has offered a reminder that coconut oil fell out of favor back in 1994 when the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported that the amount of saturated fat in a large movie theater popcorn made with coconut oil (70 percent of concessions were using it) was comparable to six Big Macs — and that was before any butter was poured on. “ It has the highest amount of saturated fat of all oils,” one local registered dietician told the paper, adding that coconut oil is not as heart-healthy as some other oils, such as olive oil or canola oil. While those monounsaturated fats raise only HDL (“good") cholesterol levels, coconut oil raises both HDL and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which could up the risk for heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Yikes.

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