Fish, Potatoes, and Protein Made of Larvae
A round-up of recent studies and their revelations about the food we eat, or in some cases, the food we don’t eat.
You know folks, I spend a lot of time scouring the scientific databases, looking for the most protein dense, omega-3 fatty acid-laden, polyphenolically diverse mélange of studies that comprise the spicy jambalaya that are my regular articles, but sometimes, sometimes, I like to fire up my Samsung 36-inch gas cooktop with 22K BTU dual-power burners, strip down to my Eddie Bean red flannel shorts, heat up a cast iron skillet, throw in a can of pinto beans, mix in some diced potatoes, scrambled eggs, Trinidad scorpion peppers, beaver taint, and fermented pine needles and sauté them in a pint of Jack Daniels and cigar ashes to make the lumberjack slumgullion of nutrition and science news that comprise my feature, Science Snacks. (Take that, Late Night with Stephen Colbert.)
In other words, the following bits of nutrition news probably don’t deserve or need regular full-length articles but are still useful to know. So there.
1. Mankind Screws Up Yet Another Food Source
Pretty soon, the only thing that will be safe to eat is mashed yeast. I say this because yet another presumably healthy food has been found to be profoundly contaminated.
You ever hear of PFAS? It stands for polyfluoroalkyl substances, of which there are about 4,000 different types in use. They’re chemicals that are found in a whole mess of different consumer, commercial, and industrial products that invariably leech into the soil, the water, and ultimately, food.
Unfortunately, PFAS molecules contain carbon-fluorine bonds that aren’t crow-barred apart by normal processes. In other words, they’re considered to be “forever chemicals.” Once they’re in the soil, water, or air, they pretty much stay there, chemical squatters that can’t be swayed by reason, bacteria, time, or weather.
Here’s where it gets personal to us human types: A recent analysis of government reports derived from more than 500 samples of freshwater fish (fish living in streams, rivers, and lakes across the U.S.) showed that they’re contaminated with these PFAS.
Yeah, big deal, you say. Everything’s contaminated with something. But this ain’t your grandaddy’s or father’s contamination; this is make you glow in the dark, turn your pee into chemical exfoliant contamination.
These samples had levels of PFAS almost 300 times higher than fish from other sources, including the ocean and farm-raised. There’s more. The chief “species” of PFAS found in these fish (comprising 74% of the total) was found to be perflurooctanesulfonic acid, aka PFOS, which are known to be particularly harmful to human health, possibly leading to cancer (what else?) and/or damage to the cardiovascular and reproductive systems.
While PFAS have found their way into almost all waterways, the Great Lakes seem to harbor the heaviest concentration. That’s because they’re big, their periphery is dotted with lots of industry, and because their waters empty into the ocean much more slowly than other bodies of water.
It’s so bad that just eating one freshwater fish a year can measurably increase PFAS levels in your body, or so says David Andrews, one of the authors of the paper.
The current administration has implemented some steps to restrict further PFAS contamination, but as I said, the stuff that’s already out there is “forever.” So, say goodbye to trout, bass, catfish, walleye, pike, pickerel, or whatever you and your pa pull into your rowboat or you and your ma haul back from the local market because just one meal of caught fish a year is enough to give you a jolt of PFOS.
If you must eat freshwater fish, try to opt for farm-raised, which, counterintuitively, seem to have fewer PFAS and PFOS than fish living wild. Oh, and while salmon are part-time freshwater fish, they apparently have far less PFOS/PFAS contamination.
2. Beg the Potato for Forgiveness
Given that I just ruined a food source for you, it’s only fair that I resurrect one that’s generally been shunned by healthy eaters, or at least waist-line-conscious eaters – the potato.
The tubers have long been a pariah because of their high glycemic index and the notion that they were a less-healthy plant food, but a new study compared their dietary effects to those of beans. Now, beans are kind of the glamour boy/girl of the blood sugar world, so pitting potatoes against them was thought to be like the president of the Star Trek club competing in a race against the quarterback of the football team.
But the researchers believed in the potato from the get-go:
“We hypothesized that there would be equivalence between the potato and bean diet, and this hypothesis proved to be correct,” explained John Kirwan, the senior investigator in the study.
Specifically, the researchers randomized 36 adults between the ages of 18 and 60 with insulin resistance and subjected them to 8 weeks of a low energy-density diet high in either potatoes or beans.
Both diets led to a reduction in body weight without affecting appetite or requiring calorie restriction, thus dispelling the myth that introducing a small amount of potato into your diet is going to have negative metabolic outcomes.
Of course, this small amount of potato shouldn’t be in the form of French fries, tater tots, or one that’s baked and comes with all the fixins.
3. What’s Better, Whey, Casein, or Beetle Larva Protein?
It wasn’t a prediction worthy of Nostradamus, but I’ve long anticipated the day where we’ll be getting a good deal of our protein from insects and the French company Ynsect is on the verge of making it a reality.
(See what they company did? By replacing the “I” in insect with a “Y”, they de-stigmatized the term/name. You could do the same thing by turning “Incest” into “Yncest”. Okay, maybe not.)
The company is currently processing billions of Tenebrio Molitor beetle larvae at their pilot factory in Dole in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region of France. The end product is a meal that can be turned into burgers, cereal bars, sausages, “nuggets,” and, yes, protein powders.
The dried insects are more than 50% protein and contain ample amounts of fiber and fats as well. Supposedly, if you add a little sugar, the larvae taste just like real meat, or at least like Arby’s.
These mealworms are also considerate of the environment. Their production takes 98% less land and emits 40 times less carbon than raising beef, as well as 40 times less water than raising pork.
Ynsect is planning to open 15 such factories by 2030, eventually building a global network that includes “nurseries” and slaughterhouses. In anticipation of this transition to eating insect proteins, the European Union has already approved them for human consumption.
4. Comfort Food is a Real Thing
Remember the last time you were stressed out? First, you lost the Peterson account at work. Later, you went to the dentist for a routine check-up but ended up having a couple of root canals. Afterward, you stopped at a bar on the way home to dull the pain, and when you told the bartender to surprise you, he showed you a naked picture of your wife. (Thank you, Rodney Dangerfield.)
Man, that was stressful. If you didn’t end up drinking yourself into a stupor, you quite likely soothed your emotional turmoil with some mac and cheese, some ice cream, or a pallet of Oreos.
Foods like that are often referred to as “comfort food,” but it turns out there’s a physiological reason for seeking out junk like that when exposed to stress.
A team of researchers exposed 54 Australians (ages 18 to 49) to what’s known as the Cold Pressor Test (CPT), which is where the subject’s hand or feet are plunked into ice water, usually for a minute, but for this study an excruciating three minutes.
The researchers then measured the participants’ cortisol levels at 20-, 35-, and 65-minutes post-CPT. While waiting for their next spit test, the 54 Australians filled out a questionnaire (the Australian Eating Survey Food Frequency Questionnaire) detailing their dietary intake over the previous six months.
After analyzing the results, the researchers made the following observation:
“As the consumption of saturated fat and sugar rose, individuals had lower post-stressor cortisol levels, a smaller rate of increase in cortisol 20 and 35 minutes after the CPT, a lower cortisol peak, and an overall weaker quadratic effect.”
You don’t need to know what a quadratic effect is, but you do need to know that cortisol is the “stress hormone” that, when present in above baseline values, causes anxiety and depression, weight gain, heart disease, and problems with digestion, along with making it difficult to put on muscle.
But the experiment showed that having a diet rich in sugar and fat, particularly sugar, curtailed the jump in cortisol levels. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that stressed-out people would instinctively be drawn towards “bad” foods, as they have inhibitory effects on the stress-response hormonal network.
One particular observation made by the snooty Aussie researchers, more of a footnote really, was that in the U.S., sugar intake accounts for approximately 14% of total dietary energy, which is about 4 or 5% higher than the threshold advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). That, in the Aussies’ estimation, “…suggests that the average US citizen would experience a cortisol response to the CPT that is approximately 18% lower compared to someone adhering to WHO guidelines.”
That means Americans have, because of their dietary excesses, created for themselves a kind of chubby “armor” that helps protect them against stress, so the next time you think about dissing McDonald’s, Burger King, Ho-Hos, Krispy Kreme, or their like, show a little goddam respect – they’re what keeps America chill.
Okay, maybe not.
- Barbo N et al. Locally caught freshwater fish across the United States are likely a significant source of exposure to PFOS and other perfluorinated compounds. Environ Res. 2022 Dec 27;115165. PubMed.
- Rubello CJ et al. Low-Energy Dense Potato- and Bean-Based Diets Reduce Body Weight and Insulin Resistance: A Randomized, Feeding, Equivalence Trial. J Med Food. 2022 Dec;25(12):1155-1163. PubMed.
- Beetleburgers could soon reach mass production – helping to feed the world. Study Finds. January 14, 2023.
- Di Polito N et al. Real-World Intake of Dietary Sugars is Associated with Reduced Cortisol Reactivity Following an Acute Physiological Stressor. Nutrients. 2023 Jan 1;15(1):209. PubMed.