February 3, 2014


And just like that, it's February! I can't possibly be the only one who is thinking: how did that happen? Last I posted here was November, for goodness sake! Phew. I will spare you the normal excuses. Busy time, holidays, etc, etc.

What I'd like to share today is a little bit of public gratitude. I also know I'm not the only one to get caught up in the day to day and forget about the bigger picture. I've taken a few days away at the coast in England, and there is nothing like a sunny day at the beach (even in the dead of winter) to make you thankful for where you are and what you have. Fueled by the sun (sun!), fresh sea air, and the ever powerful facelessness of the computer screen, I'm going out in the realm of public displays of affection - not a particularly comfortable place for me. Welcome to the sappy zone! But nonetheless, here I go.

When I think about how few people graduate college, yet alone higher degrees, I blush with embarrassment at how privileged my life is. If it weren't for the constant and unwavering support of two very special people in my life, I wouldn't be here in this uber privileged position of studying for my PhD in one of the greatest cities in the world. I am the luckiest girl the world, and am overwhelmed by your generosity and love.

I am thankful for the course my life has taken, the experiences I've had, and the people who've led me to where I am today. Sitting in a little beach cottage on the southeastern coast of England, I find myself overpowered by this surreal feeling, asking myself: 'how did I end up here'? I'd like to think that the answer is that I was always meant to be here in this place at this time. It's just another step in my path of life.

In this time of droughts and floods and polar vortexes, I am oh so thankful for the warmth and protection of a roof over my head, warm heating, and good food to fill my belly. If things keep going the way they're going -- if you just take the one example of California, one of the major food producing regions of the US,  in a severe drought -- we may look back at this time and recall with longing the abundance we had.

I'm also thankful for the changes I see happening in my area of work and passion, and the amazing people who make them happen. San Francisco is putting a soda tax on the ballot. Mexico has adopted one. A campaign has been started in the UK to reduce sugar consumption. Farmers markets and local foods are growing in demand. We are finally paying attention to the food we are eating, where it comes from and what it does to our bodies. It is a thrill to work in this field at this time.

They say in life it is the little things that matter. Little things like discovering the amazingness that is the HobNob, enjoying the beauty of nature and human life, petting two darling puppies on the beach today. I don't dare call it a new year's resolution -- given it is February and that I really despise new years resolutions -- but I hope to cultivate the practice of gratitude more and more. I have a lot to be thankful for.

And now back to regularly scheduled programming...

November 12, 2013

Food ads in the Tube: the case of a2 milk

Tube stations provide a lot of inspiration for me, with their litany of ads all around. This one caught my eye because it’s something new to me.

It's called a2 Milk - "Great tasting British cows' milk with only the natural A2 milk protein, from specially selected cows that naturally produce a2 milk. Try a2 Milk today and see if you FEEL THE DIFFERENCE."

What I find most interesting is that never once do they try to explain what A2 milk protein actually is. Just that it is "natural", comes from cows and supposedly helps with milk digestion. Of course, that level of information is just not good enough for me. (It's also a perfect example of what Michael Pollan describes as "nutritionism"). I had to do some digging.

According to the a2 website:
“Most cows’ milk contains different types of protein, of which one group is known as caseins. The main types of the beta-casein fraction are A2 and A1. All natural a2 Milk comes from specially selected British dairy cows that produce milk containing only the A2 protein. A1 Protein digests differently to A2 protein and has been linked to discomfort after drinking milk. Some people may, in fact, be reacting to this specific A1 protein, rather than lactose or other general milk proteins, as is often assumed. Hence we believe a2 is the natural answer to a question of A1 milk protein intolerance.”
Hmm, interesting. So my next (skeptical) questions were: what is the evidence of this A1 milk protein intolerance, and can it really be so widespread to warrant blanket marketing on the Tube?

Their website tries to address the evidence question, but I’m afraid it’s rather weak (see the FAQs). The study they use to back up their statistics did not actually look at A1 milk intolerance but at milk hypersensitivity in general, and was a cross-sectional study of 400 or so young adults (27 years old) in Finland using self-reported data of milk intolerance. The authors of the study recognized their limitations and the potential that their subjects could have had undiagnosed lactose intolerance instead of milk hypersensitivity.Its not a study that I would feel comfortable generalizing to other populations even if it had actually looked at A1 milk intolerance (which it didn't).

It seems that a2 Milk is an import from Australia (according to ever credible source of The Daily Mail), and its spokesperson is quoted in The Mail saying:
“‘While a2 Milk isn’t suitable for people who have been diagnosed with milk allergies or lactose intolerance, it’s a great option for those who suffer from an A1 milk protein intolerance,’ said Ms Bibby.”
Yet she offers no advice on how you are to find out if you have an A1 milk protein intolerance.

I am suspicious – and certainly don’t feel this product is appropriate for mass marketing in the Tube.
For one, I feel that people who might have trouble digesting milk (which is entirely possible; I’m not refuting that) are going to now self-diagnose as A1 milk protein intolerant and therefore feel they must only by this special a2 Milk (The Mail says it costs £1.99 for 2 liters).

Secondly, I’d like to see better evidence that switching to a2 Milk helps relieve milk indigestion, preferably in a trial that does not rely on self-reported data of indigestion (because what one person defines as indigestion could be considered perfectly fine digestion by another person). I’d also like to see how this milk stacks up against other milk substitutes (e.g. rice, soy, oat, almond, etc.) in relieving the symptoms of milk intolerance.

I did a very brief (and not at all comprehensive) Pubmed search for a2 milk proteins and found a small trial looking at chronic functional constipation in children. Their conclusion was:
“The results of Trial 1 demonstrate an association between CFC and cow's milk consumption but Trial 2 failed to show an effect from type of casein. Some other component in cow's milk common to both A1 and A2 milk may be causing a problem in these susceptible children.”
So, not exactly conclusive that switching to only a2 milk proteins would provide benefit. Granted this was a small trial looking at a very specific condition and I would need to look into this issue further before making any firm statements. But I am willing to say that the folks at a2 Milk would be wise to look critically at the evidence behind their product and then make that evidence publicly available. Especially if they want to be doing widespread advertising on the Tube.

I saw another version of this ad in another station this morning. 

Two ladies were standing in front of it looking puzzeld. They saw me take a picture of it and struck up a conversation. I explained who I was and why I was taking the picture - and the woman looked at me and said "that makes me feel better because you are confirming my suspicions. The ad doesn't tell you what a2 proteins are or why they're needed!" So I need to say a thank you to that lady for giving me hope that we are starting to become more critical of the information around us! 

November 5, 2013

The power of the bribe: thoughts on being a PhD student

Thoughts on doing a PhD -- from the perspective of one month in....

#1 The real cost of a PhD is not the tuition, it's what you end up paying yourself in bribes. Bribing is a very real technique for motivation. Either to get something done or to reward myself when its done. It's all a game of self-imposed deadlines and bribes. Although perhaps I should find a healthier bribe than a glass of wine :) In this case I probably should have waited until I was done reading - productivity and wine don't really mix.

#2 When you have a funding application due, expect that you will get sick. Or something else will happen to completely derail you. This is me now. Funding application open on my desktop, tissues strewed across my desk, hoping and praying that some magic fairy elf comes along and types the words on the screen for me. (Meanwhile I'm writing this blog post...you'll see why in point #3). This, of course also relates back to point #1. Perhaps if I had been better at bribing myself this application would actually have been done last week when it was supposed to have been done. So, you see, it all leads back to the bribes. 
#3 You will never have been better at 'productive procrastination' in your life. I don't want to write, okay I'll read this very interesting paper that has nothing to do with my research. Cool.Or I'll write rather less productive blog posts, either way really.

#4 Repeat after me: "I read that somewhere, but now I can't remember where." You will say this a lot, most likely in supervision meetings.

#5 A loosey-goosey schedule is great. Full stop.

#6 As is having the time to learn as much as you possibly can about a topic you love. Although I think I'm having a love/hate relationship with this point right now. Do I really need to know everything? That seems like an enormous waste of precious brain resources.

#7 As evidenced by point #6, get ready to play a lot of what I call 'brain ping-pong' which goes something like this: Oh, that's cool I want to study that, oh no I don't, oh yes I do, oh no I don't. You get the point.

#8 Make best friends with your computer and your desk chair. You're going to be spending an extraordinary amount of time there.

#9 The UK system sounds really great. You are just supposed to get down to business on your research project, none of that silly coursework business and be out in 3 years. Until of course you get here and then you have to get down to business on your research project. A few laid-back courses sound great right about now!

#10 Everybody told you it would be like this, but until you experience it yourself you don't really get it. However like so many things in life, I'm hoping (dare I say expecting?) it to be worth it in in the end!

October 29, 2013

Luxury Yogurt: Health Halo in Action!

I realize that I approach the grocery store in an entirely different manner than most people, but one of my less strange habits is that I'm always on the look out for new and interesting things.

Being in a new country with new grocery stores is particularly fun. I inevitably waste a significant amount of time wandering the aisles and inspecting their products.

This one caught my eye right away. Luxury Yogurt.

I first thought, hmm, luxury: what does that mean?

Then I quickly realized: luxury means 'not very good for you'. In this case it also means 'not really a yogurt at all.'

If you look at the ingredients for this product, you'll see it's made with WHIPPING CREAM! Indicator number one that something strange is going on here. No milk in sight, only its rich, calorie-dense big brother cream.

Issue number 2: there are not actually any 'live and active cultures' in this "yogurt". Cultures are the defining feature of a yogurt. The cultures convert some of the sugars in the milk to lactic acid, giving yogurt its characteristic acidic tang and thickened texture. No cultures, no yogurt.

So basically, this is a pudding made with heavy cream, a little lemon juice to give it the slight tang of normal yogurt and thickeners (cornflour, pectin) to give it the right consistency.

As a result of that heavy cream (and sugar), this little ditty has close to 200 calories! 
Of course, I had to try it (all in the name of science and advocacy!). It was quite tasty, but definitely not a yogurt.

If you ask me, this most definitely falls under the dessert category. It is 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' hiding in the yogurt department. It is a dessert that's exploiting the 'halo of health' coming from its yogurt neighbors. I'm not sure the modifier "luxury" will do anything to stop people from thinking 'oh its a yogurt, so its healthy'.

Watch out for the health halo!

October 18, 2013

Food Environment - London Style

Whats a girl like me to do in a new "home" city? Document the food environment, of course!

I am temporarily making London my home while I'm working on a PhD (I'm studying the food environment - of course), and have been snapping photos of some very interesting things here. I'll be sharing them from time to time.

First up, this ad from a food giant to remain unnamed (you can read it in the photo) makes my blood boil when I see it, which is all the time.
I took this at a bus stop the other day (if you look closely you can see my reflection in the glass), which is rather appropriate with the ad trying to convince me that I could be eating their lovely product on the bench I was standing in front of. (It actually looks pretty unappetizing, but that's another topic)

Besides the 'eat anywhere, for cheap' message that is so blatant here, if you look down at the bottom, you'll see they're positioning this product as a 'new meal' called "breakfast snack."

Now, I know what breakfast is, and I know what a snack is, but what exactly is a "breakfast snack"? From what I can reason this product is not intended to be eaten as your breakfast, but in addition to you breakfast. So you could eat a 'normal' breakfast at home and then stop by to pick this up at 9am on your way to work or school for a little "breakfast snack."

Creation of new meal times is not unique to this food company - another famously created "the 4th meal" designed to be eaten after your dinner. Nor are these advertising tactics new - they are all over in most cities I've been in. And perhaps that's what I find most depressing: they are so ubiquitous. The way I see it, when taken as a sum they are bound to change the eating habits of at least some (speaking very conservatively).

Eat whenever you want, wherever you want, whatever you want and in whatever quantity. This is where we are. If you are trying to eat healthfully at relatively moderate times/places, you're fighting an uphill battle.

It's a battle that includes ignoring this type of ad, encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and enjoy your "breakfast snack" (an essential meal, don't you know) while you're waiting for the bus.

There's more to come from London!

June 11, 2013

Everybody wins when public health and good deals overlap

The other week I was heading into my neighborhood grocery store, and ran smack into a great in-store vegetable promotion.

Everyone loves a good deal. But the 'deals' at the front of the store are usually really not great for your health. Normally it's pyramids of sugary drinks and mountains of chips and cookies waiting for you at the store entrance.
But this time, I was so pleasantly surprised I actually stopped to take a picture. (And promptly got in trouble for taking pictures, so I'm only sharing the one which has no 'store identifying information'). And, of course, I bought what was on sale - along with everyone else who was shopping that day. Seriously, this produce was flying off the shelf!
So what did I get for the great price of 4.95?
  • 1 kg onions
  • 1kg carrots
  • 1kg potatoes
  • 1kg tomatoes
  • 500g peppers
  • 2 cucumbers
  • AND a lovely new reusable grocery bag to put it all in
  • AND 5 of the 6 items were local (from Belgium or the Netherlands)
Now that's what I call a good deal. Its a win-win-win-win. A win for the local farmers, a win for the grocery store, and a win for my wallet, and a win for my health.
I did the math, and if you count the potatoes as a vegetable this is enough veggies for two people to eat the recommended daily minimum of 400g of vegetables for six days, at a cost of 0.41 cents per person per day. Now, I think we should actually put the potatoes in a 'starch' category and aim for more than 400g per day. But even if you bump it up to 700g per day and leave off the potatoes, it will still last two people 2.85 days, at a cost of 0.87 cents per person per day.
I don't know how this promotion was made possible, or if it was subsidized by the store, but it is definitely a great example of how consumers will buy (and hopefully consume) vegetables when they are at the right price. My fellow shoppers were practically scrambling to get to these veggies.
Public health in action: my idea of a great Saturday at the grocery store!

April 8, 2013

Forget the boneless chicken, look at these kids meals!

Fried chicken in a bucket isn't portable or convenient enough? KFC thinks not.

From the LA Times:

"Trying to tear meat off a chicken skeleton is an annoyance for many Americans, especially younger ones. So KFC, in what it’s calling a “game changer” of a move, is ditching the bones.
The Kentucky-based chicken chain is rolling out its Original Recipe Boneless options on April 14 as it attempts to draw back patrons seeking more portable, convenient foods." 
Also, can anyone tell me what exactly 'nugget-esque' is?
"The company has rolled out items such as its nugget-esque Bites, Dip’ems and the Li’l Bucket Kids Meals."

Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics hit the nail on the head with this Tweet:
In reading the LA Times article, the 'Li'l Bucket Kids Meal' caught my eye, so I did some digging. This is what we should be paying attention to, not the boneless chicken gimick.

First, the slogan: 'food. fun. laughter!'.... I have no comment.

In the picture, it looks okay as far as fast food kids meals go. It has the grilled chicken*, and the green beans are a nice addition. But I'd rather do without the Capri Sun. And I'm really not a big of a fan of the squeeze pack apple sauce -- is it too much to ask that kids eat with a utensil? Or, better yet, why not a REAL apple?

However, if you scroll down a bit on the page, you can see some of the other options for this kids meal.


Positives: what look like small portion sizes; milk; green beans; and a half-positive for the apple sauce

Negatives: sugary-additive filled capri-sun, fried foods, mac n' cheese and mashed potatoes with gravy

I did some digging into the nutrition facts about this 'bucket' and analyzed two of the alternative combinations: the one with the highest calories, and one with the "best" choices nutritionally.

Option One
Option  Two
Chicken Little
570 calories
1450 mg sodium
26 g sugar
Grilled drumstick
285 calories
705 mg sodium
26 g sugar
Mac n’ Cheese
Green beans
Capri Sun
1% milk
Apple Sauce
Apple sauce

What is really alarming about Option One up there is the sodium. 1450mg of sodium for a child is WAY too high. Who am I kidding: Its too high for an adult!

The calories on Option Two are great**, and the sodium is lower***. The sugars work out to be the same in both, due to the naturally occuring sugar in milk. But make no mistake, the nutrients from milk far outweigh the complete lack of them in Capri Sun.

Now, my question is: how many children actually order the 'bucket' with the grilled chicken, green beans, and milk? Probably not many.

There doesn't appear to be a default choice, meaning what you would get if you didn't specify any choices. Would be great if the default was the relatively healthier option.

What do you think? Are these kids meals a step in the right direction, or still not good enough?

*Still quite high in sodium, though, so not a complete green light
** Remember this is for a kid who has lower calorie needs than you or I -- children ages 4-8 need about 1200 calories for the whole day, more if they are active
***Although still higher than I would like for a young kid