Optimal Nutrition

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What's the main purpose of electrolytes?

Dear Reader,

Electrolytes are vital to one's health and survival. They are positively and negatively charged particles (ions) that are formed when mineral or other salts dissolve and separate (dissociate) in water. Since electrolytes carry a charge, they can conduct electrical current in water, which itself in its pure form is a poor conductor of electricity. This characteristic of electrolytes is important because the current enables electrolytes to regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body, which includes keeping water from floating freely across cell membranes.

Basically, cells need to be bathed in fluids — inside and out. To control fluid passage across cell membranes, cells regulate the movement of electrolytes into and out of them, which causes water to follow the charged particles around wherever they go. These actions help maintain a state of fluid balance. This is also how electrolytes transport nutrients into cells and wastes out of them. The difference in electrical balance inside and outside of cells also allows for transmission of nerve impulses, contraction or relaxation of muscles, blood pressure control, and proper gland functioning. In addition, the presence of electrolytes determines the acidity or pH of some fluids, especially blood.

As you can see, our bodies have developed mechanisms to keep electrolytes within specific ranges. If one loses large amounts of fluids quickly, however, electrolytes may become unbalanced. This imbalance can occur through vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, serious burns, or wounds. In these cases, water and electrolytes need to be replaced. Life-threatening conditions may result if the losses are severe.

A well balanced diet usually supplies an adequate amount of electrolytes. The major ones are sodium, potassium, and chloride; others include calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, to name a few. Most Americans get plenty of sodium and chloride from what they eat. Including five or more daily servings of fruits and veggies will provide sufficient potassium. Sports drinks containing these substances are usually only recommended for endurance events lasting over an hour.

Alice

Timed-release dietary supplements

Dear Reader,

It's easy to become confused with the whole array of dietary supplements on the shelves nowadays. One form may claim superiority in advertisements, but how are you to know for sure which ones are right for you?

First of all, vitamins and minerals are needed in our bodies in relatively small amounts. Vitamins may be present in our blood, organs, or other tissues. Although each micronutrient (scientific term for vitamins and minerals) has a specific function, here's a brief overview by category:

  • Water-soluble vitamins (all the B vitamins and vitamin C) and many minerals act as co-enzymes, meaning they aid in chemical reactions in the body. Excessive amounts don't make reactions occur faster or more efficiently than adequate or recommended amounts. Plus, too much of one mineral may actually inhibit the absorption and effectiveness of another.
  • Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A,D, E, and K) are involved in specific roles of maintenance and repair of body cells and tissues. Unlike water-soluble vitamins, extra amounts of fat-soluble vitamins are not excreted, so over-saturation of these may lead to toxicity.
  • Minerals have a variety of functions, ranging from water and acid-base balance, to bone structure and co-enzyme activity, as mentioned before.

As long as you consume a sufficient vitamins and minerals, a constant influx is not necessary, and may also be harmful. For example, timed-release niacin is not recommended because it can cause liver damage. Timed-release iron supplements are ineffective because the point of release in the intestinal tract does not absorb this mineral efficiently. Some timed-release supplements contain coatings that prevent the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. As you can see, timed-release nutritionals are certainly not worth the extra money manufacturers often charge for them. Besides, Mother Nature has already provided us with a way to time release our nutrients... by getting them from a variety of foods, eaten at various times throughout the day.

To get to your last question, you are among quite a number of men and women who have expressed concern over whether their multi-vitamin "works" or "doesn't work"; that is not really the point of these supplements. Their purpose is to help certain people fill in nutritional gaps when they are unable to eat enough food or obtain adequate vitamins and minerals from their diet. Multi-vitamins also might be recommended for some vegetarians, dieters, and others who have food allergies, intolerances, or other problems associated with eating particular foods. A supplement may benefit the elderly, too, because sometimes older people can't absorb nutrients as well as they did in their youth. Remember, the meaning of a dietary supplement is to add to a diet, not to take the place of food!

Alice

Are yams an adequate alternative to hormone replacement therapy?

Dear Ana,

Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and Mexican yam have been marketed as alternatives to synthetic progesterone (not estrogen), which is a hormone taken by some women during menopause. These yams contain diosgenin, a plant substance that has a chemical structure similar to progesterone. In the laboratory, diosgenin can be converted to progesterone by using specific reagents and enzymes to carry out a series of chemical reactions. This transformation can only be performed in a lab — the same process does not occur in the human body. As a result, it's actually misleading for a manufacturer to term a wild yam supplement as "natural progesterone" because it is not progesterone, nor does it have any impact on a woman's hormone levels. Since diosgenin doesn't have hormonal activity itself, creams containing this substance are not effective.

In the United States, what is commonly referred to as a "yam" is actually a variety of sweet potato (ipomoea batatas). Yams are similar in shape to sweet potatoes, but are drier and starchier in taste, and are rougher and scalier in texture. Sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, and some B vitamins. Predominantly grown in the Caribbean and Africa, yams are a good source of potassium, but contain no beta-carotene, and have lower levels of B vitamins, vitamin C, and folic acid than sweet potatoes. Eating sweet potatoes or yams will provide nutrients, but, as they contain neither progesterone nor estrogen, they won't affect a woman's hormonal balance.

Alice

Fiber supplements — safe to use every day?

Dear Regular,

Some of the fiber supplements (available in powder and pill forms) you are referring to are designed to help alleviate constipation, and are to be used for a limited time only. That's because if a person has chronic constipation, the cause needs to be determined. Other products can be used as supplements, as long as there are no underlying medical issues, such as chronic constipation. Two steps to determine how you use supplements are 1) read the labels carefully to find a fiber product that can be used daily, and 2) speak with your health care provider to determine if you should be taking a daily supplement.

For people who experience constipation or other irregularity with their bowel movements, some causes may be: 

  • inadequate fiber consumption
  • lack of exercise
  • insufficient fluid intake
  • change in one's daily routine
  • ignoring the urge to move one's bowels
  • certain diseases
  • some medications

Luckily for you and anyone who needs more fiber, fruits and vegetables aren't the only good sources for getting more fiber into your diet. Here are some fiber boosting tips:

  • Have a higher fiber cereal for breakfast — try to select one that contains at least 5 grams per serving.
  • Add beans to salad, or dine on a cup of chili for lunch. Each ½ cup of beans contains 3 to 4 grams of fiber.
  • Choose whole wheat bread, which has 2 grams of fiber per slice.
  • Munch on berries (one serving = ½ cup), pears (1 medium with skin), and oranges (1 medium). If you eat just two servings of these a day, you'll add 7 to 8 grams of fiber.
  • Snack on popcorn (go for air-popped). You get 1 gram of fiber per cup (equal to about 2 to 3 handfuls).
  • Have a baked potato, which has almost 4 grams of fiber.
  • Chomp on a medium carrot, which can add 2 grams of fiber.

Part of the benefit of getting fiber through food is that you will also take in the abundant vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that are present — you'll get lots of important nutrients, such as vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc; also in these foods are disease fighting plant chemicals, such as anthocyanins, alpha and beta-carotene, isoflavonoids, and phytosterols, among others.

If you do take a fiber supplement, you'll want to be careful because too much fiber can bind important minerals, such as calcium, iron, and magnesium, decreasing their absorption by the body. If you have more questions about your use of supplements, it would be a great idea to ask you health care provider, who knows your medical history and can recommend the best source of fiber for you. If you're a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Wishing you continued regularity,

Alice

Helping a friend to eat healthier

Dear In a quandary,

Your friend definitely isn't alone, but in order for her to change her behaviors or ingrained patterns, she needs to acknowledge that a problem exists, or see a benefit from making a change. Because food and eating habits are such a personal aspect of our lives, it can be a sensitive area of discussion. To answer your first question, diets that are high in fat, sodium, and calories, and low in fruits, veggies, calcium, and other nutrients, may contribute to the development of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis, among others. If this factor is a concern to your friend, she may consider changing her patterns. However, if she is healthy now, the thought of developing any of these conditions in the far off future may not be motivation enough for her in the present time to change habits with which she's been comfortable.

One thing is for sure — criticizing and nagging don't work! So, what can you do? First of all, you can suggest spending time together doing some sort of activity. If you can get your friend moving, she may become interested in eating more healthfully. Try to disguise exercise into a fun pursuit. Some ideas include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Swimming
  • Hiking
  • Bike riding
  • Flying a kite
  • Playing Frisbee
  • ice skating
  • Borrowing a dog to bring to the park (or bringing your own) and playing ball

Another tact you can try is to determine something that is important to her, and show her that eating better can help improve the matter. While many people aren't motivated by diseases they can't relate to or that seem intangible, immediate concerns can hold more relevance. For example, skin problems, low energy levels, or stomach discomfort can promote a greater incentive or inclination to change. If she complains about any of these conditions, some appropriate suggestions could include drinking more water than diet soda, substituting a juicy piece of fruit for the chips, or heading over to an enticing salad bar rather than making a quick trip for fast food. Considering and implementing any changes or new patterns are only part of the challenge; maintenance is also key, and can be easier to follow-through when done together with a peer than by one's self. Your can demonstrate your support by bringing over some farm fresh apples, cooking a healthy meal together, going to lunch together at an eatery where healthy choices are available, walking together regularly during lunch breaks, etc.

Remember, gentle suggestions are better received than harsh criticism. Advice that begins with "You should..." may fall on deaf ears. Instead you can try to initiate a discussion, saying something like, "You know, I just read an article that said drinking water is important for keeping skin healthy... and I'm drinking more water as a result." Having a conversation about this subject may get your friend to think, and perhaps try, to take steps leading to healthier patterns of eating and activity. Then again, she may decide not to pursue anything at this time. If this is the case, you can express your concern to your friend, and let her know that if she would ever like to pursue healthier eating habits you are ready to support her. In the mean time, remember why you're friends in the first place and enjoy your time together!

Alice

November 7, 2008

21262

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking...

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking a healthier version of pizza or lasagne or some other food she might recogize. Or take her out for a healthy but filling meal at a good quality restaurant (Italian is often good for this). By doing this the aim is to lead by example: show her that healthy food tastes great, fills you up and can contribute to a fun meal, as well as being good for you. Then she will see that living a healthy lifestyle needn't be torture, in fact it is something that a lot of people (chefs, gourmet food lovers, etc.) deliberately seek! Good Luck!

Good vs. bad fats

Dear Curious,

The "good fat/bad fat" you've heard about refers to fat's potential to cause disease. All fats have the same amount of calories, but they vary in their chemical compositions and effects on health. Fats are made of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The saturation refers to whether all the available spaces on the carbon chain are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing. The three forms of fat found in nature are:

Saturated Fats
These fats have all of their carbon atoms filled (saturated) with hydrogen. Saturated fat is primarily found in high-fat cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole and 2 percent dairy products, butter, cheese, and tropical oils: coconut, palm, and palm kernel. Our body needs a small amount (about 20 grams) of saturated fat each day, but the typical American diet usually exceeds that amount. Too much saturated fat may cause a person's bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise and may also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. You can look for the amount of saturated fats in a serving of food on the nutrition label, under the heading "Saturated Fat" below the larger heading of "Total Fat."

Monounsaturated Fats
These fats have one space missing a hydrogen atom, instead containing a double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and in most nuts and nut butters. This type of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. When a person substitutes monounsaturated fat for saturated fat, it helps to lower the bad cholesterol and protects the good cholesterol (HDL) from going down. The amount of monosaturated fats (and polyunsaturated fats, see below) is not listed separately on the food label, but it can be calculated by subtracting the saturated and trans fats (see below) from the total fat.

Polyunsaturated Fats
These fats have more than one hydrogen atom missing in the carbon chain and therefore contain more than one double bond. The two major categories of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 means there is a double bond in the third space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are extremely healthful in that they protect against sudden death from heart attack. They can also help people lower their triglycerides. Omega-3s are used by the body to produce hormone-like substances with anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and rainbow trout, among others. Canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain some Omega-3s.

Omega-6 fats have a double bond in the sixth space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are found in oils such as corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower. Omega-6 fatty acids are used in hormone-like substances that promote inflammation. Replacing saturated fats with Omega-6 fats may reduce levels of total, bad, and good cholesterol. Many health experts suggest that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids should be 4:1 for optimal health. (Most Americans get 14 - 20:1 — a lot more than needed!) These fats are not listed separately on the food label.

The other type of fat that is found in food, but isn't natural, is:

Hydrogenated Fats (also known as Trans Fats)
These are manufactured by adding hydrogen to a polyunsaturated fat, making it solid at room temperature. However, instead of having the qualities of a polyunsaturated fat, it takes on some of the traits of a saturated fat. In the past, trans fats were widely used in foods as a replacement for saturated fats. Then it was discovered that trans fat was even worse than saturated fat in terms of its effects on health. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, as saturated fat does, it also decreases the level of HDL cholesterol.

Many companies have found ways to eliminate trans fats from their products and all companies are now required to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label. Be aware that products containing half a gram or less of trans fat per serving are allowed to report zero grams of trans fat on the nutrition label. The best way to check for trans fat is to read the ingredients label; if you see the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in front the word oil, the food probably has a small amount of trans fat. This doesn't mean you shouldn't eat the food, but you should limit the amount you eat — a little can add up to a lot. Some foods contain small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats, but these fats, unlike man-made trans fats, probably do not increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions. Moreover, some manufacturers are now replacing trans fat with saturated fats, so be sure to check the nutrition label to keep your total intake of unhealthy fats in check.

Although too much can have negative results, fats are certainly required for good health. Here are some of the positives — fats:

  • carry flavors
  • impart desirable textures — smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
  • give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
  • are needed to absorb and store certain vitamins and plant chemicals
  • can contribute to a person's enjoyment of food
  • are essential building blocks in cell production, maintenance, and repair
  • provide and store energy for the body's use

Bear in mind, though, that the calories from fat can add up fast since they are more concentrated in fat than in protein or carbohydrate. Also, as mentioned above, consuming too much saturated and trans fat may result in negative health consequences in some people. The secret is not to stay to one extreme or another; try to be flexible in your fat intake. What does that mean? Balance your meals and snacks. If you find you have a high fat meal (especially high in saturated fat), make the next one lower in fat. Or, if you choose a higher fat food, complement it with a lower fat one. We don't have to live an "all or nothing" philosophy when it comes to fat.

Alice

Breakfast ideas for thirteen-year-olds, and everyone else

Dear Student & Parent,

Bravo to eating breakfast! It's fairly well known as this point that a healthy breakfast is a great way to start each day — especially when it's made from scratch. Taking into consideration that, just sometimes, younger people are a little picky about what they'll eat, not to mention the energy it can take a groggy chef to whip up something in the A.M., here are a few easy, interesting, and nutritious breakfast recipes:

Creamy Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal (makes two servings):

2 c. skim milk
1 c. rolled oats
1 T. Brown sugar
1 T. Maple syrup
1 apple — peeled, cored, and chopped into cubes

Directions:

  1. In a medium pot, heat the milk over medium heat, almost to a boil.
  2. Add the oatmeal, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until all of the milk is soaked up by the oatmeal.
  3. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, and apple pieces. Stir well and serve.

Berry Parfaits (makes two servings):

2 containers of yogurt (vanilla, lemon, or peach)
2 c. mixed berries: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries
1 c. low fat granola

Directions:

  1. In 2 glasses or plastic cups, add a layer of yogurt to the bottom. Cover with a layer of berries, and then sprinkle on a layer of granola.
  2. Repeat the layers until the glasses or cups are full, ending with a sprinkle of granola.

Egg Scramblers (one serving):

1 or 2 eggs
1 toasted whole wheat pita or toasted English muffin
Optional item(s): mushrooms, peppers, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, onions, salsa, or whatever else you like!

Microwave Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a glass measuring cup and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Cover tightly with a microwave safe plastic wrap.
  3. Microwave at 70 percent: 1 minute for 1 egg; 1-½ minutes for 2 eggs — slightly longer if you add other ingredients, or if you like your eggs more well done.
  4. Spoon into a pita, or onto a toasted English muffin.

Stovetop Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a bowl and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Pour egg mixture into a non-stick pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until eggs are cooked through, not runny.
  3. Spoon into a pita or onto a toasted English muffin.

Banana Smoothie (makes one serving):

1 banana cut into 1-inch chunks (works great if already frozen)
½ c. yogurt
½ c. milk or soy milk
2 T. honey or jam
¼ t. vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Put all of the ingredients into a blender. Mix until all of the fruit is pureed.
  2. Pour into a glass, and drink immediately.

You can freeze this beverage overnight, then toss it into a blender, and pour it back in the plastic cup you froze it in. If you run out of time in the morning, you can bring your smoothie with you on the way to school.

Regardless of what you make, consider involving your breakfast companion in both the decision process and making the breakfast. This way you can both enjoy some time together and a nutrient-filled morning. Eat up!

Alice

Fruits and vegetables that can protect against cancer

Dear Jill,

You're right in thinking that some foods could help improve health or protect against disease. Some of these disease-fighting substances in food are vitamins and minerals, but another diverse group of plant chemicals are called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals, many of which are antioxidants, impart distinct flavors, aromas, and pigments to foods. For example, one enormous class of antioxidants, flavonoids, includes a group called allyl sulfides, which are found in garlic, onions, and shallots. It's believed that allyl sulfides may help produce a detoxification enzyme that protects against carcinogens. Other antioxidants are detectable by their colors — vividly colored fruits and veggies are rich sources of beneficial plant chemicals. For example, anthocyanins are antioxidants that lend the deep red, blue, and purple hues to raspberries, blueberries, eggplant, and red cabbage.

So how do antioxidants work? They are believed to protect cells from "free radicals," which are harmful oxygen molecules. Free radicals may cause damage to cells, possibly resulting in cancer. Smoking, air pollution, infection, and excessive sunlight can all increase production of free radicals, although they are also formed from normal bodily functions. Antioxidants may help prevent the formation of carcinogens (cancer causing substances), block the actions of carcinogens, and/or suppress cancer development. Most of these actions have yet to be proven in humans; however, foods containing antioxidants (mostly plants) contain many other healthy components.

The following table lists various classes of antioxidants and other phytochemicals, some of their rich food sources, and how they are believed to work:

Substance

Food Sources

Possible Action(s)

Vitamin C

citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, leafy vegetables, strawberries, potatoes

Inhibits nitrosamine formation, a potentially dangerous carcinogen

Carotenoids

apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, corn, cantaloupe

Numerous anti-cancer functions

D-limonene

citrus fruits

May detoxify cancer promoters

Lycopene

cooked tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit

A class of carotenoids that's protective against prostate and possibly other cancers

Anthocyanins

blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, cherries, red peppers, eggplant, red cabbage

Antioxidant cell protection; may help prevent binding of carcinogens to DNA

Allyl sulfides

garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, scallions

Various anti-carcinogen functions

Monoterpenes

parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, peppers, mint, basil, citrus fruits

Aid protective enzyme activity

Flavonoids

parsley, carrots, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, soybeans, berries

Block receptor sites for hormones that promote cancer

Indoles

cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale

Stimulate production of enzymes that break down cancer causing agents

Phenolic acids

parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, citrus fruits, whole grains, berries

Antioxidant properties; inhibit nitrosamine formation and help form protective enzymes

Catechins

green tea, berries

Antioxidants linked to lower rates of gastrointestinal cancer

As you can see, a wide variety of fruits and veggies fall into one or more of the categories named above. Of note, the benefit from phytochemicals comes from eating the food, not in taking pills or supplements. Fruits and veggies contain a variety of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, as well as fiber — these cannot be replicated in a pill form. In addition, excessive amounts of certain vitamins or other compounds found in some supplements have the potential to cause harm.

For tips on how to pack plenty of fruits and vegetables into your diet, check out The Get Balanced! Guide to Healthier Eating. This tool that has been developed specifically for Columbia students. You may also want to check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archives.

To optimize your antioxidant intake, you can include at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day. If you're already doing this, why not aim for even more? Researchers have found that five to nine servings per day are most beneficial. Set your sights on variety, too. To obtain the benefits of these plant compounds, try to vary your selections from day to day, and from week to week. Include red, yellow, green, orange, blue, purple, brown, and white fruits and veggies, and enjoy a colorful (and healthful) eating plan!

Alice

Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Baffled Over Butter,

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also forms something known as trans fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. (Both butter and margarine end up containing the same amount of total fat.)

Margarines made from hydrogenated oil usually appear in a solid stick form, similar to how butter is sold. Other kinds of margarines on the market today are made from non-hydrogenated oil, making them softer in texture and lower in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat. These soft margarines, which are commonly packaged in tubs and known as "soft-tub margarines," replace the hydrogenation process with small amounts of modified palm kernel and palm oil in order to make it softer and easier to spread.

Unlike margarine, butter isn't made from vegetable oil. Instead, butter is prepared from cream, contains saturated fat, and, because it's made from an animal source, also has cholesterol. Both saturated fat and cholesterol raise unhealthy cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Margarine is manufactured from vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, or safflower oil, among others. Since margarine is based on plant sources, it doesn't contain cholesterol.

Because margarines don't contain cholesterol and are now made without trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that soft margarine can be used instead of butter in recipes. Choose a margarine that contains less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, no trans fat, and has liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.

If all this chat about fat has made you curious (or confused), check out Good vs. bad fats and "Good" and "bad" cholesterol in Alice!'s archives for more information.

Alice

Is decaffeinated coffee safe to drink?

Dear Curious,

In order for coffee to qualify as decaffeinated, it must have at least 97 percent of its caffeine removed. What does that chock up to? An eight-ounce cup of decaf coffee would have no more than 5 or fewer milligrams of caffeine (compared to the range of 40 - 180 mg. typically found in one eight-ounce cup of brewed, dripped, or percolated java). Your concern over the safety of decaffeinated coffee probably stems from solvents used in the past.

Today, most processors use safe methods to remove caffeine. A few different techniques are available, and understanding them may help allay your concerns about coffee contaminants. Coffee beans are decaffeinated by softening the beans with water and using a substance to extract the caffeine. Water alone cannot be used because it strips away too much of the flavor. The goal is to extract the caffeine with minimal loss of flavor. Substances used to remove the caffeine may directly or indirectly come in contact with the beans, and so the processes are referred to as direct or indirect decaffeination.

In one process, coffee beans are soaked in water to soften them and dissolve the caffeine. The water containing the caffeine (and the flavor from the beans) is treated with a solvent, heated to remove the solvent and caffeine, and then returned to the beans. The flavors in the water are reabsorbed by the beans, which are then dried. This process is referred to as "indirect decaffeination," because the beans never touch the solvent themselves. The most widely used solvent today is ethyl acetate, a substance found in many fruits. When your coffee label states that the beans are "naturally decaffeinated," it is referring to this process, specifically using ethyl acetate. Although it doesn't sound like a natural process, it can be labeled as such because the solvent occurs in nature. Other solvents have been used, some of which have been shown to be harmful. One, methylene chloride, has been alleged to cause cancer in humans and therefore is not often used. Back in the 1970s, another solvent, trichloroethylene, was found to be carcinogenic and is no longer used.

Another indirect method soaks the beans in water to soften them and remove the caffeine, and then runs the liquid through activated charcoal or carbon filters to decaffeinate it. The flavor containing fluid is then returned to the beans to be dried. This charcoal or carbon process is often called "Swiss water process" (developed by a Swiss company). If your coffee is labeled naturally decaffeinated or Swiss water processed, you can be assured that no harmful chemicals are used. If you are uncertain, you can ask or call your coffee processor to learn about the method used.

A direct decaffeination process involves the use of carbon dioxide as a solvent. The coffee beans are soaked in compressed CO2, which removes 97 percent of the caffeine. The solvent containing the extracted caffeine evaporates when the beans return to room temperature.

So go ahead and enjoy that Cup of Joe — caffeine free!

Alice

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