Virtue or Vice?
A closer look at five controversial foods
Butter used to be good. Then it was bad. And now it's better than bad but not really very good. Confused? You're not alone. Science seems to one day crown a King of the Supermarket and discredit it the next. Blame the news media's constant hunger for the next big thing, or blame the American appetite for contrarianism (chocolate is good for you!). But some of the explanation can be found in the nature of science itself, which by necessity tends to take small snapshots. The bigger picture takes longer to come into view.
Part of the reason for the back-and-forth is that a single study usually isn't definitive; there's rarely time or money to investigate every potential contributor to a particular health condition. Researcher No. 1 may discover that butter's high saturated fat level raises cholesterol, making margarine a better choice. But Researcher No. 2 later finds that margarine's high trans fat content can do even more harm. Researcher No. 3 then studies a new wave of low– or no–trans fat margarines, and reports that these products are healthier for the heart than butter after all. To complicate things more, each of these studies may be replicated multiple times: Another scientist may alter a study's design, add another factor into the equation, or simply test the same theory on a different set of people.
But before you throw up your hands in frustration, remember that most health care professionals stress moderation: Many foods, including the ones you'll find on the following pages, have beneficial health effects if eaten in modest amounts; and most foods are at least not harmful when eaten occasionally, if you can make them work in terms of your particular dietary needs. At the same time, pretty much anything in excess is a bad idea. (Brussels sprouts are wonderful little veggies, with no fat, little carbohydrate, and loads of nutrients, but more than a couple of servings at one go? Your digestive system might not be too happy with you.)
To bypass some of the culinary guesswork, we've investigated five foods with high-profile and conflicting health claims to find out what science really has to say about them—and how you can healthfully indulge.
Pro: Dark chocolate (sorry, milk and white don't count here) contains antioxidants that researchers say may be beneficial for your health. Studies have suggested that chocolate may improve brain function, reduce blood pressure, diminish the risk of heart attacks, and lower cholesterol.
Con: "Chocolate is not a low-calorie food, and it does have fat in it," says Catherine Champagne, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition and chronic diseases and chief of nutritional epidemiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University.
What that means for you: Don't start eating chocolate bars just to get those health benefits, says Champagne. You can get the same protective benefits from antioxidant-rich fruits, like raspberries or blueberries, without the risk to your weight. That said, chocoholics can still enjoy the treat, once you figure out what amount works in your diet, and stick to just that much. "A little goes a long way," says Champagne.
The best bite: You're only eating a little chocolate, so make it count. Pick a bar with a 70 to 80 percent cocoa content, says Jacques Torres, famed chocolatier and owner of the eponymous New York City chocolate shop. Since a chocolate's country of origin plays a big role in a bar's taste, Torres suggests trying chocolate from countries that produce first-rate beans, like Venezuela, Trinidad, and Mexico. Another mark of quality chocolate is a short list of ingredients (pick brands that use only cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar, and vanilla). Not sure if you purchased a good piece? "The chocolate's supposed to be shiny, not white," Torres says. "You're supposed to hear a snap [when you break a piece off]. You should smell vanilla, chocolate, maybe a little bit of citrus."
Pro: Recent research suggests your daily cup of coffee may reduce the risk of liver cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and gallstones. According to Rob van Dam, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, the findings are promising but inconclusive
Con: The caffeine in coffee is responsible for the jittery feeling you experience after downing too many venti mochas (and the withdrawal headache you get if you skip a daily dose). It may also cause elevated post-meal blood glucose levels. In addition, the stimulant has been linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well. And if you're hooked on specialty coffee beverages laced with syrup and topped with whipped cream, that's a whole lot of carbs and fat, too.
What that means for you: According to van Dam, caffeine's effect on blood pressure is short-lived. And while coffee contains a component called cafestol that raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, it is removed from espresso and other filtered coffees and not present in instant coffee. (Nonfiltered coffee, like that made using a French press, still has it.) The blood glucose connection is real, says van Dam, but you can prevent it by switching to decaf. If you don't function without a regular cup of joe, monitor your blood glucose levels to determine how coffee affects you. Most people can enjoy coffee in moderation (about 300 to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, the equivalent of three or four cups of coffee).
The best brew: According to Nicolas Capes, sales manager of the Philadelphia coffee purveyor La Colombe, getting the best home brew requires that you start with a clean machine, use fresh water, and grind your own beans instead of buying pre-ground coffee. "Buy a really small amount of coffee," he says of the key to getting the finest cup. "You should buy whatever you need for a week."
Pro: Eggs headlined the all-American breakfast until their high level of dietary cholesterol was linked to high blood cholesterol levels. Recently, though, scientists have learned that people's cholesterol levels have more to do with the saturated and trans fats they eat than with the cholesterol present in foods themselves—and that's led to somewhat of an egg revival. In fact, researchers from a British university found that in a study of overweight people who didn't have high cholesterol, those who ate two eggs daily had no higher cholesterol levels than people who ate no eggs.
Con: Harvard School of Public Health researchers discovered that people with diabetes are more affected by eggs' cholesterol levels than those without the disease.
What that means for you: While twice-daily consumption may not be a good idea if you have diabetes, Louisiana State's Champagne says that eating about three eggs a week is reasonable. Van Dam notes: "It's a good source of many nutrients and protein. If you don't have problems with your cholesterol, I don't see a problem with egg consumption." If you have high cholesterol, speak with your doctor about including eggs in your diet. (You'll probably want to avoid high-fat, high-salt ham-and-cheese omelettes.)
The best egg: "You compare apples to oranges if you compare a store-bought, commercially raised egg and your local farm-raised eggs," says Jason Kramer, owner of Yonder Way Farm in Brenham, Texas. Hens like his, those that roam free over pastures and eat a mixture of organic feed and grass, are healthier and produce richer, tastier eggs with orange-yellow yolks. Can't find farm eggs? At least remember to keep store-bought ones no longer than 2 weeks in the fridge for maximum freshness.
Pro: Potatoes are high in potassium—a medium-sized spud has nearly twice as much as a medium banana—and a recent study found this mineral may prevent high blood pressure. Other studies suggest potatoes may lower blood pressure and, when eaten cold, improve immune function. Plus, they are naturally low in calories (about 110 in your average spud), contain some fiber, and have no fat, cholesterol, or sodium.
Con: This veggie has gotten a bad reputation for its carbohydrate content (26 grams per medium potato) and glycemic index, but more trouble comes when you figure in the toppings. "Once you start adding to it, you're talking about increasing the calorie content and possibly fat content," says Champagne. Spuds baked and stuffed with cheese, bacon bits, and sour cream have little health benefit—same with those that are mashed and beaten with butter and cream or deep fried into french fries or chips.
What that means for you: According to Champagne, there's no need to completely swear off potatoes if you love them, but you shouldn't make them your go-to side. When you do indulge, skip fatty fillings and opt for toppings like broccoli or salsa. Or try a healthier version: Sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index and are packed with nutrients.
The best bite: According to William Bohl, PhD, extension professor and educator at the University of Idaho, for your potatoes to last, you need to store them properly. A basement is an ideal location because it's dark and cool—two requirements for keeping potatoes fresh. If you don't have a basement, Bohl suggests buying in smaller quantities since temperatures that are too warm will make the potatoes go bad quickly. And too-cold temps (like in your refrigerator) will turn a potato's starch to sugar, altering the spud's quality.
Pro: There's been an explosion of scientific studies linking the antioxidants (particularly one known as resveratrol) in red wine to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, and improved insulin sensitivity. Other studies have said the drink may fight tooth decay, support the immune system, and cut the risk of dementia. Though Harvard's findings are all promising, says van Dam, there just haven't been that many studies on red wine's antioxidant effects in humans. But he does say that "alcohol consumption can have beneficial cardiovascular effects and can have cardiovascular benefits in people with diabetes."
Con: Alcohol can lower blood glucose levels and interact with diabetes medications, so talk with your doctor about preventing hypoglycemia. And of course, anyone with a history of alcoholism should not drink wine.
What that means for you: If you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, go ahead—but in moderation (that's one glass for women and two glasses for men per night).
The best sip: What most people notice first in red wine is the tannin. "That gives it astringency or a bite," says Hoke Harden, a board member with the Society of Wine Educators. If you're new to wine, or to reds in particular, start with low-tannin reds like Beaujolais, pinot noir, Chianti, and Syrah. All wine should be stored out of direct sunlight and away from vibrations or extreme temperatures. Once it's opened, a bottle should last between 3 and 5 days, says Harden.