Health Myths

Yu Shing Ting
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Friday - April 09, 2005
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Do you transfer food from styrofoam plates or packages to paper plates or glassware before putting it in the microwave in fear of transmitting chemicals into your food?

Do you limit your intake of Asian food in fear of the use of MSG but don’t even know what MSG is?

Most people choose their foods and activities based on what it’ll do to their body.

Well, here are some thoughts on some of the most common health-related myths.

No MSG. We see it on food packages and signs in restaurants. But what is it and is it really bad for you?

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and is a sodium salt of glutamic acid that is found in nearly all foods.

Some people call it the fifth sense, as it’s a flavor enhancer that gives a savory, brothlike or meaty taste.

It’s also blamed for what’s called the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because MSG is commonly used in Asian foods, especially Chinese cuisine. There are also reports that the first complaints of adverse reactions from MSG were made after consumption of a Chinese meal.

However, the Food and Drug Administration believes that MSG is a safe food ingredient for the general population. The agency does require MSG to be declared on the label of any food to which it is added and be identified as “monosodium glutamate.”

While MSG is considered safe, there are cases where people may be susceptible to it.

“Several years ago, I was involved in a case study with a little boy who ended up with recurring seizures and epilepsy,” says Anne Shovic, a professor at the University of Hawaii Food Science and Human Nutrition department. “He was starting to eat table food and that was when his seizures began. He was then diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

“Then his mother noticed that when she fed her son certain foods he had more seizures than other times, so they ended up removing MSG from his diet. And MSG is found in all kinds of snack products, so when she removed it his seizures stopped. It was really amazing. So, in this particular case it was not Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, just sensitivity to MSG.”

Styrofoam and food. I personally don’t use styrofoam in the microwave because I’ve been told that it could release chemicals into my food. Well, I may have been overreacting.

“Heating up food in styrofoam in the microwave is considered safe,” says Shovic, who is also a registered dietitian. “At this point in time, all studies suggest that it’s safe, and currently it’s used throughout the U.S.”

The FDA suggests that when heating food in the microwave, use microwavable glass or ceramics.

There has also been concern about using plastic containers and plastic wrap in the microwave. But consumers should be relieved to know that the FDA carefully reviews the substances used to make plastics designed for food use.

“It’s true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food,” says Edward Machuga, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns about the particular chemical.”

Not all plastic containers are microwave safe, so be sure to double check first. And discard containers that hold prepared microwavable meals after you use them because they are meant for one-time use.

Also, when using plastic wrap, try to not have the plastic touch the food.

Soaking up your vitamin D is important, but be
careful not to burn

Sun and skin cancer. Yes, sun exposure can cause skin cancer. But getting appropriate sunlight is actually good for you — and important.

The primary benefit of sunlight is the formation of vitamin D in your body. The key is to gradually increase your sun time until you are able to have normal sun exposure with little risk of skin cancer. And never get burned!

“I was in Montana working in a clinic when a physician called in with two little boys who were deprived of vitamin D, so he was giving them cod liver oil,” says Shovic. “They were not in the sun for nine months of the year. Everyone needs sunlight. And people with darker skin need a few extra minutes than people with lighter skin. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be direct sunlight, it can be indirectly.”

Vitamin D helps with many different functions of the human body, and is particularly important for bone growth.

“Here in Hawaii we have no trouble getting enough sunlight,” adds Shovic. “Also, many of our milk products are fortified with vitamin D.”

Carbohydrates are bad for you. Or so you thought. At one point it seemed like every other person in this country was on a low-carb diet. Well, the craze seems to have dropped, and some health experts are celebrating.

“The bottom line is that we need at least half of our calories from carbohydrates,” explains Shovic. “Our brain can only use carbohydrates as a source of fuel. So, if you don’t have enough carbs you’ll feel terrible, especially if you’re an athlete. Also, if you don’t have enough carbs, and if you’re depriving yourself with less calories, your brain still needs carbohydrates, so it’ll start breaking down muscle tissue and you don’t want that.”

Shovic says that low-carb diets aren’t healthy because you’re limiting your fruits, whole grains and vegetables. And eating too much of anything, not just carbs, can lead to obesity.

“Every gram of carbohydrates is 4 calories, every gram of fat is 9 calories, every gram of protein is 4 calories, and every gram of alcohol is 7 calories,” explains Shovic. “So actually, one carbohydrate shares the same amount of calories as protein and less than half as fat. And carbs tend to fill you up faster.”

So, grab your Chinese leftovers from the refrigerator, heat them up on a styrofoam plate, add a scoop of rice from the rice pot, lie in the sun and enjoy!

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