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Every time I read a magazine or walk down the aisles of the supermarket, I see packages, advertisements, or promotions trying to lure unsuspecting consumers into living a better life. I looked into a few of these latest health pitches in order to uncover whether the claims meet our expectations.Hershey's Reserve
Hershey's has finally responded to the research and media hype about the health benefits of dark chocolate by developing Hershey's Reserve. This chocolate comes in a variety of styles; however, I was most captivated by the fancy tin container at the checkout line at my supermarket. Each tin includes six truffles -- they're available in 65 percent cacao (dark chocolate) and 35 percent cacao (milk chocolate). Each candy is almost 50 calories. And yes, eating chocolate does have health benefits. According to Teresa Moore, PhD, RD, a professor at the Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, "Cacao contains polyphenols [potent plant-based compounds also found in tea, red wine, and some fruits and vegetables] that may act as antioxidants, which may help reduce LDL [low-density lipoprotein -- the bad stuff] cholesterol oxidation and modulate platelet activity, both of which contribute to cardiovascular disease."
"Cacao also contains biogenic amines that may help enhance feelings of well-being, methylxanthines such as caffeine that act as stimulants, and anandamide, which helps give feelings of heightened euphoria," Moore adds. Keep in mind that even with all these health benefits the idea is not to add the chocolate to your diet, but to use it as a replacement for a less healthy food. For instance, if you typically eat a bag of Skittles or have a Snickers bar, you would be better off having chocolate with a high cacao content. "The higher the cacao content in chocolate, the higher the amount of the pharmacologic chemicals in the chocolate," says Moore.
Bottom line: Kudos to Hershey's for promoting a healthier chocolate, but don't forget that this is still candy and should be eaten occasionally, not daily. Plus, it has plenty of added sugar and 2.5 grams of saturated fat for just one bite-size truffle.
Recently, all cereals, even the ones that are basically morning candy, seem to have some sort of health claim. The latest? The campaign for Post Shredded Wheat, Raisin Bran, Grape-Nuts Original, and Grape-Nuts Trail Mix Crunch, claiming that these cereals will prevent you from getting hungry. According to Elisa Zied, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Feed Your Family Right!, the focus on fiber is a good thing. "You can feel fuller, work toward meeting your daily fiber needs (which many of us do not meet), and incorporate more whole grains (again, most of us do not meet the dietary guidelines calling for three servings of whole grains a day), and this can help you in your weight-management efforts."
However, according to Judith Wurtman, PhD, author of The Serotonin Power Diet (Rodale, 2006), "Fiber does slow down stomach emptying, but for decades the use of fiber-rich cookies, candies, drinks, etc., have been promoted as helping weight loss. If that were really true, everyone who drinks Metamucil would be thin. Is that the case?"
Not only that, but many of these cereals are high in calories and have significant amounts of added sugar. "For example, 1 cup of Post's Honey Nut Shredded Wheat contains 190 calories and 12 grams of sugar (it has a reasonable amount of fiber for a cereal: 4 grams); the second and third ingredients on the label are sugar and honey, which makes this a high-sugar food," says Zied. Still others have even more added sugar.
Zied prefers a cereal that's flakier or puffier, and therefore less caloric. She also recommends no more than about 8 grams of added sugar and prefers even less. "I don't mind when there's a little extra sugar to taste a bit better and make it more appealing to consumers so long as the fiber amount is 5 or more grams" she says.
Bottom line: Pushing fiber and 100 percent whole grains is good, but the extra sugar is not so good. Your best bet from this batch is Post Shredded Wheat Cereal Original, which has no added sugar, no sodium, and about 6 grams of fiber, or Post Original Shredded Wheat 'n Bran, which has only 1 gram of added sugar, no sodium, and 8 grams of fiber.
A colleague of mine started buying this by the case at Costco (a "superstore") because he was convinced it was helping him shed pounds. I didn't want to burst his bubble, because sometimes a placebo effect can work. However, I wondered if the claim was accurate. We know that naturally occurring protein (including whey protein from milk) can reduce hunger. "There's been a lot of promising research on the weight-management benefits of incorporating whey protein into your diet when you're also exercising," says Zied.
But what about this drink, which has 50 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of protein per serving? According to Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, "There is currently no evidence to suggest that drinking protein- and fiber-enhanced water will curb your appetite." And Zied adds, "The added sugar -- 6 grams here -- which provides half the calories, makes this essentially sugar water. And while it has a few vitamins and minerals, which probably can't hurt, in general, I'm not sure this protein water is going to reduce hunger or fill you up too much unless it's paired with real food and more calories. Also, the drink contains phosphoric acid, which in excess can deplete bones of calcium and promote fractures and bone loss if you fill up on too many of these and don't get ample daily calcium from dairy sources such as milk."
Bottom line: It shouldn't be a water replacement, but if you're going to have a snack -- yes, a snack -- this could be an okay choice because of the 5 grams of whey protein and the 5 grams of fiber.
According to Zied, "We need B vitamins and the minerals zinc and magnesium. But we get all these from a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes all the key food groups -- low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and vegetable oils. I question whether we need to get these vitamins and minerals from glorified beverages such as Diet Coke Plus." In fact, most experts recommend getting key vitamins and minerals from food, because the food provides a lot more -- there is some unknown magical combination that works better when nutrients are gained from food, rather than from supplementation.
What about the taste? According to John Craven, editor-in-chief of the online beverage business magazine BevNET.com, "This doesn't taste like Diet Coke, perhaps because it uses a different artificial sweetener blend. So it's not really Diet Coke Plus vitamins and minerals. It's more like Diet Coke Reformulated." (Diet Coke is sweetened with aspartame, and Diet Coke Plus uses a combination of acesulfame potassium and aspartame.)
Bottom line: If you're already drinking Diet Coke, this is probably an okay alternative, and if you happen to be drinking regular Coke, this is a much better choice. But it's not worth adding it to your diet if you're just looking for a vitamin supplement.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of The Diet Detective's Calorie Bargain Bible (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and founder of DietDetective.com, the health and fitness network. Copyright 2007 by Charles Stuart Platkin.
Reprinted with permission from www.dietdetective.com, July 2007.