Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Breakfast of Champions

What on earth does extruded mean? From what I can tell, it refers to the process by which already processed grain mush is forced through various machines at extremely high pressure in order to form the stars and flakes and puffs which make up the bulk of cold cereal varieties.

Well and good. What does that have to do with health and nutrition? I am going to attempt to answer this via a circuitous route. I am going to use corn as an example.

Corn meal
Total Fat 1 g
Sodium 10 mg
Total Carbohydrates 23 g (2 of which are sugars)
Protein 2 g

Corn Flakes
Total Fat o mg
Sodium 200 mg
Total Carbohydrates 24g (2 g of which are sugars)
Protein 2 g

According to these basic facts, corn flakes except for the sodium, is pretty comparable to corn meal. In the name of efficiency, isn't the time saved a fair compromise? Corn meal has to be prepared: mush, corn bread, tortillas, etc. Carbs are carbs, right. Proteins are proteins. And so on. I've heard many people say that if the components are the same, why does it make a difference whether the food item is processed or not. Or whether it is artificial or not.

Not being a chemist or biophysicist, I've never had a good answer to these questions. I still don't know much. It's very easy in the field of health, to be drawn into a "he said, she said" situation. Probably we all know how it feels to be using data to support an argument and have someone else come with data that seems to be equally valid, but from an opposing viewpoint. Instinctually, I guess, I'm more of a natural is better person.

We still eat cold cereal. Not every morning, but much more often than I'd like. As homeschool mom, I can handle teaching the food pyramid and the pop-nutrition facts. And I do introduce those ideas. Mostly while doing food prep or sitting at the table during and after meals. But it somehow seems so inadequate when there are so many ideas of health out there. And since those same Department of Health and pop-nutrition maxims change constantly, I hesitate to teach them as "nutrition facts."

So in the name of giving my kids a better explanation of why I don't like to feed them like breakfast cereal, here's what I've learned.

First off is the idea of processed grains. Often this means the grain has it's various components removed, to make the final product more stable, palatable, visually appealing and/or more readily shaped into whatever. Components like the bran, the germ, the seed coat are removed. During this step, many nutrients are lost. Things like vitamins and nutrients, essential fatty acids, fiber, and the enzymes that help us digest the proteins and carbs. Some of these, in an artificial form, are later added back in. Then, see, it can be called fortified.

Often times, the next step is adding chemicals to bleach and further stabalyze what's left of the grain.

Then finally the extruding process. Once all the necessary nutrients are stripped, what's left? Can it hurt us? From what I understand, this process changes the chemical shape of the proteins. These proteins are much harder on our system. Especially the organs of the endocrine system, the kidneys and pancreas. Some go so far as to use the word toxic to describe these new proteins.

What got me thinking about this was a reference in a reader comment to one of the blogs I sometimes read, Kelly the Kitchen Kop. The topic of the post was breakfast cereals and why they are bad for us. Two different commenters mentioned a study in which three groups of laboratory rats were fed as follows. One group got water, one group got cold cereal and water, one group got the box the cereal had come in and water.

According to these commenters, the group that got the box lived longer than the group that got the cereal. I don't know about the validity of these studies. A person can find a study to say just about anything. But I got a kick out one of Kelly's commenters, "So, if you’re going to have cereal, make sure to have a piece of the box as well."

Somewhere I think I saw that MythBusters did an episode on this. I can't find anything that says how it turned out. For those of you who might be fans of Jamie and Adam and company, I did find someone mention that the unaired portion included lots of blowing up the, uh, control group.

I found another reference to what I think is the same study at Nourished Magazine. The author, Sally Fallon is well respected within the alternative health and nutrition arena. She also cites another similar study.
One group received plain whole wheat, water and synthetic vitamins and minerals. A second group received puffed wheat (an extruded cereal), water and the same nutrient solution. A third set was given only water. A fourth set was given nothing but water and chemical nutrients.

The rats that received the whole wheat lived over a year on this diet. The rats that got nothing but water and vitamins lived about two months. The animals on water alone lived about a month. But the company’s own laboratory study showed that the rats given the vitamins, water and all the puffed wheat they wanted died within two weeks—they died before the rats that got no food at all. It wasn’t a matter of the rats dying of malnutrition. Autopsy revealed dysfunction of the pancreas, liver and kidneys and degeneration of the nerves of the spine, all signs of insulin shock.

For more on extruded cereals and also health in general from the above Ms Fallon, see the Weston A. Price Foundation web site. Ms Fallon organized this foundation to promote her ideas on metabolism, slow foods, and wellness in general. She is, I think, a biophysicist. Some may find Ms Fallons writing acerbic, but even so, there is information there for the gleaning.

Sally Fallon has published, along with Mary Enig, Nourishing Traditions, which is a very comprehensive "Nutrition 101." In it, Fallon introduces the readers to what she considers the most dangerous myths in popular nutrition regarding the various components of our diets, for instance, fats, dairy products, grains, meats, etc. She also gives what she considers better alternatives. In the second half, Fallon includes recipe suggestions using the alternative ideas.

Ms. Fallon has also published a book called Eat Fat, Lose Fat, that highlights the metabolic problems that are rampant today in large part because of, in her opinion,adherence to a heart healthy lowfat diet. She gives menu and lifestyle suggestions for three categories of readers, those who want to lose a significant amount of weight, those who could lose a bit, and those who just want to make lifestyle choices to include healthier fats.

Getting back to my kids and their desire for breakfast cereal. They always kind of get a glazed expression on their face when I try to teach them about the differing health ideas out there. But they were totally engaged when I read to them the anecdotes of the laboratory rats.

1 comment:

A Stafford said...

I must say that I'm not a breakfast cereal eater. It doesn't hold me in the morning and I crave protein. However, the kids are a big fan of cereal and I, too, have been trying to figure out a better way but am too lazy to do anything about it. I've made oatmeal bars/cookies that I've let them have for breakfast feeling that they're probably healthier than the cereal--but that's probably not a good example. I prefer an english muffin, egg, hash browns, vanilla yogurt w/fruit and maybe some canadian bacon myself.

However, I sometimes like cereal for an afternoon snack (probably because I used to enjoy a bowl when I got off the bus after school as an afternoon snack and it's comfort food to me?) and am very thankful for generic cereals that aren't whole grain that extrude all the germ and healthy things out of corn-based cereals so I can enjoy them! (Intolerant to corn)

Thanks for the post!