Nine Confusing Foods: the facts about gluten, coffee, more

Is it okay to eat canned tuna or drink coffee? Should everyone run screaming from gluten? There’s lots of confusion in the food world these days—and lots of conflicting answers and opinions. If your food choices have in you a pickle, you need straightforward facts and advice. Here, we examine the 9 most confusing foods, and the bottom line on each.

1. Gluten. Ever since books like Wheat Belly and South Beach Diet Gluten Solution hit the market, gluten has become the hapless scapegoat of the food world. For people who have problems with gluten, it’s with good reason: a sensitivity to gluten from wheat, rye and barley can cause everything from headaches to dramatic digestive issues. But what about those who tolerate gluten? Should they still be cautious, even in the absence of symptoms?

The bottom line: If you suffer from gluten sensitivity, you should avoid it in all forms. If you tolerate gluten just fine, it’s still wise to proceed with caution. Modern wheat and other forms of gluten are different from what our ancestors ate, and the advent of packaged and processed foods means gluten is more prevalent than ever in our food supply. To avoid developing gluten sensitivity in the future, vary your grain sources, favor gluten-free grains like brown rice or quinoa, and minimize processed foods.

2. Coffee. Our favorite hot beverage has been blamed for everything from heartburn and headaches to adrenal burnout; caffeinated coffee is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that can disrupt sleep, increase stress, and upset cortisol balance. Even decaf coffee is highly acidic and can cause gastric distress and acid/alkaline imbalances in the body. At the same time, coffee contains many antioxidants, and studies show it actually protects the liver. Drinking coffee also protects against Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, and both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee reduce the risk of diabetes and increase lifespan.

The bottom line:  If you tolerate caffeine, sleep like a baby and don’t have a problem with stomach upset, there’s no reason to avoid coffee. But because caffeine is highly addictive, most people increase their consumption over time—so try to keep your caffeine intake to less than 200 mg a day, about the amount in a large, strong-brewed coffee. If you’re just fine with caffeine but have a sensitive stomach, try switching to black tea; it’s even higher in antioxidants than coffee, and creates a less acid environment in the body.

3. Seafood. It’s high in protein, low in fat, and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and studies link seafood consumption to decreased risk of heart disease and prostate cancer. But today’s fish has some serious problems. If it came from the ocean, it’s probably contaminated with mercury. If it came from a farm, it’s likely laced with  pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), manmade chemicals that are linked with behavioral problems in children, neurotoxicity and possibly cancer.  Canned tuna, salmon and other fish may also contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a dangerous endocrine-disrupting chemical, from the can’s lining.

And while many studies suggest the benefits of eating seafood—including reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases—outweigh the risk of exposure to mercury and other toxins, there’s also the problem of overfishing and pollution; estimates say if trends continue, we’ll run out of wild caught fish in less than 35 years.

The bottom line: Eating fish once a week is probably reasonable, with caveats: avoid large, predator fish like tuna and swordfish to minimize mercury exposure, and skip the skin, since it’s a main storage area for toxins. In terms of environmental impact, farmed fish reduces the risk of depleting wild populations, but carries serious environmental concerns of its own. Before you buy, visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector page (edf.org) for safe seafood updates. 

4. Agave. Once the golden child of the alternative sweetener world, agave’s reputation has been tarnished of late. It’s low on the glycemic index but high in fructose, which has been associated with weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes. Additionally, excess fructose consumption has been linked with with an increased risk of fatty liver disease; unlike other sugars, fructose is metabolized by the liver. Over time, this can lead to fatty deposits in the liver. And because agave is converted into triglycerides, it can increase the risk of heart disease.

The bottom line: agave’s not the worst thing you can eat, but it’s not a health food. If you eat processed foods, check labels; many “natural” snacks and raw packaged foods are heavily sweetened with it. And while an occasional squirt of agave in your tea won’t hurt you, less-processed sweeteners like honey, or lower-glycemic ones like coconut sugar, are better alternatives. Or consider stevia; it’s backed by dozens of studies and thousands of years of historic use, doesn’t upset blood sugar, and may even balance glucose levels.

5. Soy. So many aspersions have been cast on this once-healthy food, that it’s hard to tell what to believe. The pros: soy is high in protein and fiber, low in fat, and contains phytoestrogens that, according to some studies, can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer. The cons: most soy grown in the United States is contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the phytoestrogens in soy can also stimulate the growth of certain kinds of cancer. It’s hard to digest, and many people are either sensitive or downright allergic to it.

The bottom line:  a little organic soy won’t hurt you, unless you’re allergic or sensitive to it, but it’s best eaten in fermented forms (tempeh, miso, tamari) or whole (edamame). Avoid highly processed soy foods like soy milk, soy cheese and isolated soy protein in drinks and bars.

6. Meat. Unless your’e vegan, you’ve probably struggled with the question of how much meat to eat. Lean meat is high in protein, essential nutrients and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that protects against caner and obesity; popular Paleo diets say its essential to athletic performance and longevity and promote heavy consumption, as much as 1 or 2 pounds a day. But years of studies consistently show that the longest-living populations eat less meat, not more, and we know the risks of saturated fat and added hormones and antibiotics in conventional meat. And from an environmental standpoint, a diet high in meat just isn’t sustainable.

The bottom line: If you do eat meat, always choose organic and grass-fed or pastured varieties; they’re free of antibiotics, added hormones, nitrates and other harmful additives. Grass-fed meat is lower in saturated fat and calories than grain-fed varieties, and has higher levels of CLA and omega-3 fats. Eat meat in small amounts—2 to 4 ounces—and no more than once a day for most people. And avoid frying, grilling or overcooking it, to lessen the formation of carcinogenic compounds.

7. Peanuts. For those of us who adore peanut butter, recent controversies are troubling indeed. Peanuts are high in protein and rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but they’re a common allergen and are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Even organic peanuts have their problems; they’re susceptible to aspergillus, an invisible mold that produces highly carcinogenic compounds called aflatoxins. Because organic peanuts aren’t sprayed with fungicides, they’re even more likely to have aflatoxins than conventional varieties.

The bottom line: If you do eat peanuts, buy them from a store that has a high bulk bin turnover (aflatoxins develop mainly during storage) or buy vacuum-packed varieties, to lessen the amount of exposure the nuts have had to air. Some peanut butters test their products for toxins; Once Again Nut Butter tests each batch for both aflatoxins and salmonella.

8. Nightshades. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, goji berries, belladonna and pansies are members of the solanaceae family. Known as nightshades, some of them are high in a compound called solanine that can aggravate inflammation in sensitive people—generally, those with arthritis, gout and other joint problems. It’s also said that nightshades can aggravate everything from migraines to multiple sclerosis. But while solanine is irritating to sensitive people, not all nightshades contain appreciable amounts; it’s most prevalent in potatoes with green areas, unripe tomatoes and green bell peppers. (Sweet potatoes are from an entirely different family, and have no solanine.) And because some of the healthiest foods (like tomatoes and red peppers) are considered nightshades, it’s hard to justify eliminating them from most diets.

The bottom line: If you have arthritis, joint pain or a chronic inflammatory condition, try cutting nightshades out of your diet for a week to ten days, and assess how you feel. If your symptoms improve, you may be sensitive to solanine. If you don’t suffer from any of these, you can probably eat tomatoes, peppers and other nightshades freely; just be cautious with white potatoes.