- Cheese, carbs, gluten — none of these things are inherently bad.
It seems like there are so many rules about what you can and can’t or should and shouldn’t eat.
Nutrition doesn’t have to be so complicated. Plenty of foods that people think of as unhealthy really aren’t that bad, and can even be good for you.
As a general rule, food – real food, with as little processing or packaging as possible – is not bad for you. You can eat too much of many foods, especially foods that aren’t vegetables, and most of us could improve our diets by eating more plant-based foods.
But that doesn’t mean eating carbs or fatty foods are off-limits. Many foods that have been demonized, like those containing gluten or dairy, can be important parts of a healthy diet for most people.
Here’s what the science actually says about ingredients like salt, caffeine, and fat – and why you shouldn’t worry about eating them, as long as it’s in moderation.
Let’s get straight to the good stuff — cheese can be part of a healthy diet.
Sure, cheese is often packed with saturated fat. It can be full of sodium too, and shouldn’t make up the majority of your plate. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat one of the most delightful foods on the planet.
Cheese is nutrient-packed. It’s also a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, and healthy fatty acids that may lower diabetes risk. As a fermented food, it may help boost levels of good gut bacteria that are essential for health. Studies also indicate that cheese intake seems to be associated with a lower risk for heart disease and it may even lower levels of bad cholesterol, though more research is needed.
Eggs are excellent sources of protein and won’t raise your cholesterol.
- Wikimedia Commons
Eggs are fantastic sources of protein and they are full of other nutrients, including choline, a nutrient that’s essential for brain development.
But eggs are also full of cholesterol, which for many years led researchers to encourage people to limit egg intake. Fortunately, that dietary recommendation has changed.
It turns out that for the vast majority of people, dietary cholesterol (from foods you eat) doesn’t really have much of an effect on blood cholesterol.
Coffee — and caffeine in general — may provide significant health benefits and reduce cancer and liver disease risk.
You’ll often hear people say that they’re trying to limit themselves to one cup of coffee a day or to cut it out entirely.
But when you look at the health benefits associated with coffee consumption, you might wonder why. A significant body of research shows that drinking coffee is associated with a longer life. People who drink more coffee tend to have lower risk for heart disease, various cancers, liver conditions, and degenerative brain diseases.
It’s possible to overdo it with caffeine, as too much at once can trigger anxiety or even be deadly. People usually need to consume it in a concentrated form to get that much into their bodies. But caffeine itself, even from non-coffee sources, is also associated with good health.
High-fat foods have long been demonized, but there’s more and more recognition that they are essential.
More and more research shows that eating fat – the nutrient – doesn’t necessarily cause body fat to increase.
We need fat to survive, especially healthy fats like those found in eggs, olive oil, and avocados. High-fat diets are not necessarily associated with heart disease, according to large reviews of research. And eating enough fat can help fuel activity and keeps you full for longer, leading to healthier food consumption overall.
Pasta and other carbs shouldn’t necessarily be discarded either.
- Marina Burrascano/Shutterstock
As the pendulum has swung away from demonizing fat, people have started to consider carbs the enemy. But carbs, especially whole grain carbs, have long been part of a healthy human diet.
As with most foods, the key is moderation. A recent long-term study found that people who got around 50% of their calories from carbs tended to live longest. Eating too many or too few carbohydrates were both associated with a higher risk of death.
There is some concern that particularly processed carbs (like those in candy or cookies) that are absorbed quickly may raise blood sugar in a dangerous way. But whole grain carbs and carbs from plants are essential sources of energy. Just don’t forget to eat vegetables with your pasta.
During the years of fat avoidance, skim milk took off, but there are good reasons to opt for whole milk.
- Reuters/Ho New
Whole milk is a fantastic source of calcium, protein, fat, vitamin D, and other nutrients. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that dairy fat doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on cardiovascular disease or death rates.
Plus, research indicates that high-fat dairy consumption tends to be connected to a lower risk for obesity.
Fatty oils can be healthy — and that’s not limited to olive oil.
People tend to recognize that olive oil is healthy at this point, despite having a high fat content – it’s healthy fat, after all.
But other oils that are similarly high in monounsaturated fat that can also be good choices for cooking, including peanut and sesame oil.
Potatoes aren’t always thought of as a health food, but they are full of nutrients.
Potatoes fall under the healthy carb category, and they are packed with healthy components. They’re great sources of potassium and vitamin C, and if you keep the skin on them, they can be good sources of fiber as well.
Butter’s vindication is part of the rethinking of full-fat dairy.
- Shutterstock/margouillat photo
To get away from butter decades ago, people started opting for artificial alternatives full of trans fat, which have turned out to be awful for your health.
As fats – including dairy fats – have been vindicated, it’s become more and more clear that butter isn’t necessarily bad for you. Again, moderation is key.
Even salt isn’t as bad as anti-sodium proponents might have you believe.
Salt makes everything taste better. And it turns out the evidence against seasoning food is far less conclusive than dietary recommendations would have you believe.
A growing body of research indicates that for people who don’t already have high blood pressure, salt consumption doesn’t really seem to have much of an impact on health. There’s even evidence that getting too little sodium might be connected to higher blood pressure, though more data is needed.
Perhaps the most useful thing is to be aware of how much salt we’re eating in the first place. Processed foods that are packed with sodium aren’t healthy for a variety of reasons, and those foods (and restaurant foods) make up 70% of the average person’s sodium intake. Salt added to food being cooked at home and added at the table are only about 10% of average salt intake.
Avoid too much processed food, but don’t feel bad about a sprinkle of salt on your home-cooked potatoes.
For the vast majority of people, gluten is just fine.
- Reuters/Charles Platiau
In recent years, “gluten-free” has become a marketing term attached to all kinds of foods, with gluten-free diets often cited by celebrities and other trend-makers.
But gluten simply refers to a mixture of proteins found in wheat, something humanity has eaten for thousands of years. For the approximately 1% of the world with Celiac disease, it can cause serious problems. A tiny percentage of other people may have some sort of non-Celiac sensitivity, where gluten makes them feel uncomfortable. But for the vast majority of us, gluten is totally fine.
A fortnight ago, there was an antique car gathering in the village. Most of the cars were from before 1940 so there were many interesting vehicles rollicking noisily around the place. Although fascinating, the antique vehicles do not have safety features, no air conditioning, require special blending of liquid lead into their fuels and they break down a lot (a few were already on recovery trailers). So they made me appreciate the security, comfort, efficiency and reliability of modern cars.
Another observation is my dog barks and attacks the television every time he sees another animal on it. While mildly irritating, it does reflect the quality of contemporary video devices – my dog simply cannot distinguish between real animals and images on the television.
These are, of course, analogies to begin a discussion about modern food. Over the years, we have considerably improved food-processing systems and standards to ensure that present-day food is enormously safer for consumption, more wholesome/tasty and certainly much more convenient. And my dog is a metaphor for how we are fooled by foods that are attractive and tasty even though they have little to do with real food and often less with nutrition.
Most sugary snacks and fizzy drinks are examples that spring to mind – but the story gets even stranger when investigating how modern society got hooked on bad nutrition in the first place.
Hooked on food?
After the billions spent by food companies over decades to investigate human food preferences, one would think it easy to conjure up formulations and recipes which people simply cannot resist. After all, the physiological factors which control enjoyment of food are well-known, at least, in the food science world, and seven relevant ones are noted on one of my previous columns.
As an example of how these factors are used, a commonly-used technique is Vanishing Calorific Density (VCD), which is closely linked to taste and texture hedonics. VCD applies to foods that simply melt very quickly in the mouth, like prawn crackers, cheese puffs or similar snacks. It appears that when food disappears very quickly in the mouth, the brain does not register the calories eaten and one can therefore eat a mountain of such food before satiety, regardless of the fat/calories ingested. This is why many snacks have light, crispy, aerated textures.
Snacks like potato chips disappear very quickly in the mouth and the brain does not register the calories eaten, regardless of the fat/calories ingested. – Bloomberg
But it does not always work – it is not that simple. Late last century, the US Army had an unusual problem with its food rations for soldiers. Although the meals were designed by food scientists to be supremely tasty, soldiers quickly got tired of their rations and threw them away, risking being short of energy in combat situations.
A mathematician, Howard Moskowitz, investigated this problem and found an odd contradiction with the desirability of very tasty food, which became known as “sensory-specific satiety”. This is the reason people eat comparatively much more bland staples such as bread, potatoes, rice, etc, than great flavoursome food.
Moskowitz determined that big, strong, tasty flavours tend to over-stimulate the brain, which responds by suppressing the desire to eat more of the same food. However, mixing in relatively bland staples tend to mitigate brain over-stimulation due to tasty food, delivering more harmonious sensory signals to the brain. So now you know why you cannot eat satay or sausages (and nothing else) a few days in a row – your brain will simply depress your desire for the same food so much that you will either stop eating or have to change your food.
As an aside, there seems to be an upsurge in people adopting the Carnivore Diet.
The rules of this diet are simple: Eat only meat, fish, eggs only, the fattier the better – and eat no carbohydrates, fruits or vegetables. This regime is a little bizarre as humans evolved as omnivores, so it does not make sense from an evolutionary point of view. However, as with all diet plans, there are various anecdotal claims of the usual wonderful benefits. I mention this diet only because it is related to another point about modern diets later. But overall, I think this diet in the long-term is outlandish, especially in terms of the risks to the human gastrointestinal microbiota, which you can review on this previous post.
But returning to the subject of modern foods, it is interesting to understand what makes a hit consumer food item since we now know it is not only about the best taste. This is where a curious blend of mathematics and food science work together in a rigorous and precise process called “product optimisation”.
At its most basic level, it is a little similar to cooking a few variants of a dish and asking members of your family which one they like the most. But the similarities end there. With product optimisation, several dozen (or more) variations of the dish would be tested across several hundred (or thousands) of potential consumers, delineated by age, sex, background, employment, number of children, housing, income, etc. And then they may be tested again, sometimes several times.
The columnist’s dog simply cannot distinguish between real animals and images on the television as video technology has advanced considerably. – CHRIS CHAN
Preference profiles based on the results of the taste tests would be compiled to derive sensitivity measures against the sample foods; ie, which variants are generally preferred by everyone overall and which ones are preferred specifically by people with, say, higher income or children or in better housing, etc.
The output is usually an extensive document which can accurately profile the preferences of various groups of people. This information is used in many ways.
At the primary level, it is used to determine the “bliss point” of a product, which is the point where consumers will consume the product over and over again. This bliss point may stretch across several variants of the product – in this case, the food producer will choose the lowest-cost option.
For example, during testing of Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, it was found consumers had the same maximum positive reaction to both a particular test drink and a slightly sweeter version that used marginally less (by just microlitres) of the expensive flavouring. Using the cheaper formula saved Cadbury many, many millions without losing any sales.
After that, marketing and psychology skills are applied to determine the best ways to sell the product. If product optimisation determined that older people are the most likely customers, the advertising may be geared to daytime television with matured actors as presenters. The packaging may also use larger, easily-readable fonts, with easy package opening options. For other products, there may be additional tests and analytics for desirability factors such as seasonal, luxury, lifestyle, etc.
In short, the level of detail and preparatory work required is enormous for the launch of a modern consumer food item. And this is why many consumers fall for mass-marketed food products – people would be behaving abnormally if they did not like them.
The next part is about modern food in the home and restaurants.
READ: Part 1 and Part 2
A curious aspect of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is that this syndrome is usually acquired after childhood. It is odd because statistically, adults have a smaller percentage of allergy sufferers than children – one presumes childhood allergens are better tolerated as one grows older and develops a more rounded (or stronger) immune system.
It might be suggested that NCGS is akin to lactose intolerance, which develops after the body stops producing the enzyme lactase. The difference is the human body is innately unable to produce the enzymes to digest many complex carbohydrates at any age – it needs bacteria in the human gastrointestinal microbiota (HGM) to do this, and one supposes adults have a larger range of bacterial fauna than children.
To be clear, humans do produce enzymes to digest some common carbohydrates, especially starches (made up of amylose and amylopectin) and sugars – but most other carbohydrates need digestive help from the HGM. This is why FODMAPs may be allergens behind NCGS if the HGM is defective in some way. FODMAP stands for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols, and are varieties of carbohydrates which humans cannot digest natively via enzymes – and they are often found in food where gluten is present, and also in foods where there is no gluten.
Old wheat vs new wheat?
As modern wheat is a hybrid derived from various grasses, it is worth determining if some change in wheat genes is a cause of NCGS. This was investigated by the University of Reading in 2017. Analysis of various ancient strains established differences in various compounds compared to modern wheat, in particular carotenoid lutein, a colourant mostly bred out of modern wheat (as people prefer white wheat flour). There were also minor differences in plant phytochemicals and dietary fibre content. Curiously, the profiles of FODMAPs are remarkably similar in both ancient and modern wheats. So if FODMAPs are a root cause of NCGS, then people have been suffering for thousands of years.
One mildly interesting outcome is there seems a lesser reaction to FODMAPs from a strain of khorasan wheat called kamut (also known as “mummy wheat” as it allegedly came from wheat grains found in Egyptian tombs). Symptoms of NCGS and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) appear to be reduced with kamut wheat, and analysis of faecal samples suggested that kamut wheat has a different impact on HGM than normal bread wheat. However, the studies were on small groups and therefore not conclusive – also complicating matters is the fact that nutrition profiles of kamut grown in various countries have wide differences which may or may not be significant.
Gluten, FODMAPs and baking
Next was a look into the impact of modern processing of wheat flour, especially in commercial bakeries and food processing plants. Research in 2015 in Britain suggests that bread gluten becomes less digestible after baking (possibly due to structural changes) – in particular, baked gluten is even more indigestible in people deficient in producing the enzyme amylase (used for digesting amylose).
Furthermore, a 2014 Flinders University study researched the impact of baking on two major prebiotics in bread wheat flour: arabinoxylans (AX) and fructans – prebiotics are non-digestible food compounds which feed the HGM, and are also FODMAPs.
The study found slight variations in AX content after various stages of baking – which implies AX is not hugely affected by processing. More interesting is the impact on fructans; in particular, the use of yeast to ferment and leaven bread flour before baking can reduce fructan content in bread by 60% (though it is important to also note the baseline content and types of fructans vary widely depending on the source of the flour).
This is significant because most commercial bakeries do not proof (ferment with yeast) breads as it takes too long – instead they often use chemicals (eg. sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium phosphate, etc) to raise bread quickly in commercial ovens, and therefore the fructan content is significantly higher than for leavened breads.
Fructans are oligosaccharides (complex sugars consisting of polymers or chains of fructose-based molecules). There are several categories of fructans, delineated by different hydroxyl (radical –OH) bonds in their structure and the most well-known types are inulin and levan. They are interesting because a 2017 study at Oslo University claimed that fructans is a possible cause of NCGS. Although the study was small, it was a well-done double-blind exercise, though it is odd that the test fructans (inulin derived from chicory roots) are also sold as prebiotics to promote HGM health.
When test subjects did not know what they were eating, 22% reported intestinal issues with gluten while 46% reported the LEAST problems when ingesting gluten. With fructans, 41% recorded issues, almost double the number for subjects troubled by gluten. Moreover, the study suggested that issues with fructans may be dose-dependent – doubling the amount of fructans normally eaten provoked negative reactions which were absent with less consumption.
There are some considerations. The fructans used in the study were derived from chicory roots – which are different from fructans in wheat and other foods. The same fructans used are also sold commercially as prebiotic supplements to promote HGM health – presumably there are not many people reacting negatively to such supplements or else it would not be a business.
The gluten is based on the 19 most allergenic gliadins (out of around 890 types of known gliadins) – these proteins are 33-mer peptides, and as such not all the gliadins in a normal diet are covered.
It should therefore be noted that not all combinations of fructan and gluten compounds in normal diets were tested.
As an aside, durum wheat (found in good spaghetti and pasta) lacks the gene to produce 33-mer peptides so if you have a reaction to bread wheats, you might try eating some pasta instead to see if it helps.
In 1965, Bronstein’s research into the digestion of wheat gliadins indicated the resulting acidic peptides are a cause of coeliac disease (CD) as sufferers lack an enzyme to digest such peptides, which then circulate around the digestive tract. In response, the body produces antibodies to counter these peptides which are perceived as foreign pathogens. Later in 2000, Fassano showed that intestines also increase production of zonulin in such situations – this protein loosens the tight cellular linkages in the intestines, causing “leaky gut syndrome” where digestive substances permeate into the blood stream, provoking more severe reactions.
Then a 2015 US paper researched the effect of pre-digested wheat gliadins on intestinal tissues extracted from people with CD, NCGS and controls with no gluten sensitivity. The outcome was sobering – ALL tissue samples demonstrated increased permeability reactions to pre-digested gliadins. In addition, it was found that the controls produced significantly more of a protein called cytokine IL-10, which is an anti-inflammatory factor.
It should be noted that tests on tissue extracts with chemically pre-digested gliadins may not accurately reflect conditions in the body. Or it can be suggested gliadins in wheat gluten consistently provoke intestinal inflammatory issues and people who produce enough cytokine IL-10 do not feel the effects of such inflammation.
The probability that humans are reacting to chemical food additives used in modern processed foods also cannot be ignored. This is a long complex subject, covered in the six-part series, “How to count on food”.
If you’re not confused by now, you’re not paying attention
A summary is now in order.
Gluten (especially wheat gliadins) and FODMAPs are broad, complex groups of food substances which vary widely in quantity and types. Due to idiosyncratic differences in humans, it is difficult to pin-point exactly which compound or combinations in one or both groups cause NCGS.
FODMAPs are indigestible food compounds which need the HGM to help with digestion. As they can promote fermentation in the gut, some FODMAPs are associated with gas and distended bellies. They are not necessarily bad – but they do need a compatible, robust HGM to process them.
Ironically, a lot of commercial gluten-free food is bulked up with FODMAPs and often contain industrially-processed oils and added sugars – in short, gluten-free foods are not always inherently healthy.
Fructans are fructose-based FODMAPs which can trigger NCGS, though the reasons why are not known – maybe it is related to HGM. Fructan content varies widely by source and also by certain food processing steps, such as yeast fermentation.
Gliadins in bread wheat gluten, particularly 33-mer peptides, have been linked with intestinal permeability.
Food additives can trigger NCGS, though relevant impact analysis data is currently not available due to the wide range of additives in modern food processing.
Back to Taiwan
Based on the above, my incident in Taiwan in Part 1 of this series was likely due to over-consuming wheat flour in noodles and buns, pushing gliadin and FODMAP consumption past levels which overwhelmed the body’s anti-inflammatory response.
The same issue may apply for commercial breads using unleavened dough with high fructan content and textured with industrial additives.
Subjectively, although problems develop after consuming certain compounds (eg. gliadins, FODMAPs, additives) past a tolerance threshold, it does not mean I have NCGS – in the same way getting drunk does not mean an alcohol allergy.
So if you still consider NCGS a problem issue, you now have all the (currently known) facts before deciding to pay premium prices for gluten-free foods.