Life Extension Magazine®

Issue: Jun 1998

Life Extension Magazine June 1998

Snacking is the Great American Pastime, but it might not be good for us. Nutritionists say that those goodies, when selected properly, can be part of a well-balanced diet.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, on January 2021.

Treats That Keep You Healthy

Snacking is the Great American Pastime. Perhaps that's why we're beset with so many diet-based ills, and a plague of obesity. But nutritionists say that those goodies, when selected properly, can be part of a well-balanced diet.
By Twig Mowatt

image These days, health food stores, supermarkets and even the convenience store on the corner are offering an array of snacks that bill themselves as nutritious ways to satisfy even the most discerning sweet tooth. Protein bars, energy bars, low-fat or no-fat cookies, bars and fudge, all are enough to make eating sweets as salubrious as taking vitamins.

But are these alternatives really that good for you? Dr. Kenneth Absher, a nutritionist who also happens to be an optometrist, and who's writing a book about healing vision problems through diet, doesn't think the collection of snacks now on the market offer the consumer much more than unappetizing taste, plenty of sugar, and a chance to gain weight.

"Everyone has a claim to make about their food," says Absher. "It's either high energy-read high in carbohydrates that will make you fat if you aren't a serious athlete-or low-fat/no-fat that tastes crummy and has very little food value." He's not alone. Nutritionists agree that these snacks aren't always what they're cracked up to be.

"Low or no-fat [snacks] tend to have more sugar because they have to get the appetizing taste from somewhere else if they don't have fat," says Brenda Tillotson, a nutritionist who practices in New Hampshire. "And energy bars have a lot of carbohydrates, but you want to be sure they aren't full of sugar, too.

"Athletes use them for quick energy, but they are not a supplement for a meal. They don't replace vegetables." Nutritionist and author Joyce Daoust notes that desserts and snacks can be a part of a well-balanced diet, but that the desserts and snacks themselves have to be well-balanced in order to do their job.

"We believe that eating 40 percent of total calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fat is the healthiest way to eat, and that includes desserts and snacks," says Daoust, who along with her husband Gene is author of the book 40-30-30 Fat Burning Nutrition.

Absher himself has attempted to develop a cookie that does, indeed, offer good nutrition along with yummy taste, and that may in fact replace vegetables. Absher's Yummie Patch cookie is high in natural fiber, essential amino acids and fatty acids, and packed with vitamins, vegetable protein and the phytonutrients found in vegetables. (The cookie is available through the Life Extension Foundation.) Its name, Yummie Patch, is meant to conjure up all the natural good things that might be found in a well-tended garden patch, notes Absher.

In fact, Yummie Patch is a veritable smorgasbord of healthful ingredients, many of which can be found separately in other food products, but aren't frequently bundled together in one item. The end result is a well-balanced food that, when eaten regularly, can lower blood sugar levels, block fat metabolism and promote the burning of fat, Absher notes. And the good news is that accessing these healthful benefits is easier than ever because the cookie has another important attribute-it tastes good.

"If it doesn't taste good, no one is going to eat it," says Absher. "We found our original try had an aftertaste. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, either. We just showed [the new one] at a national cookie convention where we handed out thousands of samples. People would walk away, read the ingredients, and turn right around to come back and tell us how good it tastes...considering what's in it."

Perfecting that taste turned out to be a three-year project. Absher took the original product back to the kitchen, where he and his wife, Darlene, began churning out hundreds of batches of cookies, each time changing them slightly by omitting a single ingredient to see how the end product would be affected. They found that by removing the MTC oils they could eliminate the cookie's sometimes unpleasant aftertaste. A dash of extract of rosemary was found to naturally prolong its freshness. They added 500 mg of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), and 500 mg of chitosan, increased the level of good fat without increasing total fat, and added a new combination of phytonutrients. Four flavors were developed, including peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip and fruit surprise.

With the taste issue resolved, no one is likely to realize that every time they eat a Yummie Patch cookie, they are ingesting the same level of phytonutrients as virtually a full serving of vegetables. "That's one of the biggest stories about the cookies," says Absher. "Because now you have a vegetable that tastes like a cookie."

Yummie Patch cookie developer Dr. Kenneth Absher, with wife Darlene "One of the biggest stories about the Yummie Patch cookie is that now you have a vegetable that tastes like a cookie."
Yummie Patch cookie developer Dr. Kenneth Absher, with wife Darlene

Phytonutrients are the anti-cancer compounds found in fruits and vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, for example, contain indole-3-carbinol, a phytochemical that triggers the release of enzymes that help break down estrogen precursors into a harmless form rather than the form linked to breast cancer. Cabbage and broccoli also contain sulforaphane, a phytonutrient that has been shown to stimulate the release of enzymes that attach themselves to cancer-causing substances, and whisk them out of the body.

The National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have said that by eating five servings of vegetables and fruit a day, a person can cut the risk of cancer by more than 50 percent. Most people don't come close to meeting this guideline. Raw vegetables themselves aren't that easy for the system to digest. Usually only half the number of phytonutrients in any serving of raw vegetables ultimately become available for absorption-the other half is quickly flushed out of the body. But concentrated vegetables, those that have the water content removed and are ground to the consistency of powdered sugar, are more digestible. In this form, an estimated 90 to 100 percent of the phytonutrients, and all their cancer-fighting properties, become available for absorption into the body.

The Yummie Patch cookie has 1,000 mg of phytonutrients, including 50 mg of alfalfa juice powder, 25 mg of barley grass powder, 125 mg of beet powder, 150 mg of broccoli powder, 150 mg of cabbage powder, 125 mg of carrot powder, 100 mg of parsley leaf power, 125 mg of tomato powder, 25 mg of peppermint powder and 125 mg of spinach powder, all in a concentrated form.

The cookie also contains 500 mg of hydroxycitric acid (HCA), a natural appetite suppressant related to the acid found in citrus fruits. HCA inhibits the conversion of carbohydrates into fat by channeling some of them into the synthesis and storage of glycogen in the liver and muscles. This process tells the brain that the body is satiated and no more food is needed. The message doesn't come from stimulating the brain itself; it comes more peripherally, from the level of sugar in the bloodstream. Products that directly stimulate the brain to speed up the body's metabolism (making it think it's not hungry) seldom work in the long-term because once the stimulant is removed, the body goes into survival mode, storing up more fat than ever before. Here you get the dieting rebound effect. By contrast, shutting off the HCA has no impact.

There's also 500 mg of chitosan in every Yummie Patch cookie. Chitosan is a polysaccharide fiber with a unique ability to attach itself to fat in the stomach before it is metabolized. Chitosan can do this because it possesses a positive ionic charge that makes it a natural magnet for neutral or negatively charged lipids, fats and bile acids. By trapping the fat, chitosan prevents it from being absorbed into the bloodstream.

Nutritionist Tillotson calls chitosan a good way to eliminate fat, but recommends drinking ample amounts of water to get the most out of its elimination properties. Absher recommends drinking between 8 and 16 ounces of water with every Yummie Patch cookie. Though the cookie is technically not a meal replacement, he says by complimenting it with some fresh fruit or a small pasta dish, the consumer can end up feeling satisfied.

The cookie may be a good way for children to eat their vegetables-provided they eat it properly, which means no more than three a day and not back-to-back. But Absher says it wasn't really designed for kids.

"It's not something that should be eaten five or six times a day as a snack," he says. "It's highly concentrated and must be consumed accordingly. We designed it for an adult who doesn't want to eat big meals, but wants to use it as a supplement to good food."

It's not by accident that the Yummie Patch doesn't fall into the low-fat range. Depending upon the flavor, one cookie has anywhere from 4.5 to 7 grams of fat. But we now know that a certain amount of the right kind of fat is crucial to good health. Fat not only helps food taste good, but can be a health-promoting benefit if it's the "good kind." Such fats come from cold-pressed canola oil and flax seeds, both of which provide unprocessed oil, such as olive oil, only better because they have less saturated fat. Another good idea is for healthy snack foods to obtain most of their sweetness from real fruit juices. Check the labels for this particular ingredient. "Crystalline fructose in place of sugar better controls blood sugar levels," says Daoust.

A small amount of whole sugar cane juice-not to be confused with refined cane sugar-can also help. This mineral-rich juice has not lost any of its nutritional value and actually helps the body to metabolize sugar.

Another natural sweetener comes from FOS, found naturally in foods such as bananas, onions, garlic, artichokes and asparagus (as well as Absher's Yummie Patch cookie). With less than half the calories of table sugar, FOS has much of the same benefits as a fiber. But FOS is unique in that it actually promotes the growth of "good" bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. FOS sugars are linked together in such a way that the human digestive system cannot break them down. Because of this they pass untouched into the large intestine, and it's here that they are metabolized by the beneficial bacteria, the ones with the key to breaking the FOS molecular binding code. Through this process, they starve the bad bacteria and feed the good ones.

It helps, too, that there's plenty of protein in your snack or dessert. Proteins differ from fats and carbohydrates in that, in addition to carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, they also are composed of nitrogen. Nitrogen allows the formation of amino acids, the source of protein's special powers. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which cannot be produced by the body itself but must be supplied from food. These are called essential amino acids.

"There are many delicious dessert recipes available which also include high-quality whey protein powder," notes author Joyce Daoust. "The protein and fat in the desserts slow down the rate at which the carbohydrates enter your bloodstream. This keeps your blood sugar level stable for a long period of time."

Fiber also is important to healthy snack foods because it feeds the friendly bacteria in the colon, which speeds up elimination and detoxification of the bowel. Studies have shown that increasing dietary fiber reduces the incidence of colon and rectal cancer, as well as diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

"The average person should have about 20 to 35 grams of dietary fiber per day," says pediatric nutritionist Lucille Beseler, a consultant for Miami Children's Hospital Dan Marino Center, in Weston, Fla. "Some examples of snacks high in fiber include dried fruits, low-fat whole grain crackers, popcorn, low-fat granola bars, oat bran pretzels and rice cakes, which come in a variety of flavors."

Tasty Desserts
with Nutritional Wallop

Most of us think of dessert as a guilty pleasure-something we should avoid, but often find too tempting to resist. But dessert can be a valuable part of a balanced diet, says Steve Levine, chef with two heart health programs at Broward General Medical Center, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., including a program by Dr. Dean Ornish that was recently featured in Newsweek magazine.

"Most of us know we shouldn't be dipping into the Haagen-Dazs or eating a box of fat-free cookies every night," says Levine. "But not everyone recognizes that dessert can actually contribute important nutrients, while giving us the sweet taste we crave."

Many of Levine's recipes include fresh fruit, which provides vitamins and fiber. Other recipes incorporate whole grains or polenta, contributing dietary fiber and carbohydrates in a tasty pudding form. A Levine custard, made of non-fat milk and Eggbeaters (or other cholesterol-free egg replacement product) is rich in calcium and protein. And silken tofu, available in health food stores, can be used to make a protein-rich, tasty flan or pudding, Levine notes.

Levine says that modifying your recipes in simple ways can help make them healthier. His tips include:

  • Replacing the fat in a recipe with applesauce (using a quarter cup of applesauce for every half cup of oil or butter called for), or with prune-based fat replacement products available at health food stores.
  • Using skim milk to replace milk or cream in recipes.
  • Using fat-free yogurt (drained) to create a creamy sauce to mix with fresh fruit or pour over a low-fat cake. To sweeten the yogurt, add maple syrup or honey.
Here are two of Levine's dessert recipes. More healthy dessert recipes, including fruit sorbets, puddings and sauces, are available by calling the North Broward Hospital District Healthline at 1-800-528-4888.

Banana Bread Pudding with Maple Glaze
1 loaf fresh sliced, fat-free white bread, torn into pieces
4 cups skim milk
4 cups egg substitute
1 cup light brown sugar
8 very ripe bananas, sliced
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup raisins
1/4 cup maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, then combine the first six ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Transfer pudding into a processor and process until smooth. Add raisins. Transfer pudding into a rectangular pan lightly sprayed with non-stick spray. Bake for one hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Brush with maple syrup to give a glaze.

Crème Anglais (Vanilla Custard Sauce)
2 cups skim milk
2 cups egg substitute
1/4 cup and two tablespoons sugar

In a heavy saucepan, combine skim milk, egg substitute and 1/4 cup sugar. Over medium high heat, stir constantly with a wooden spoon until sauce thickens (about 10 minutes). Pour custard through strainer into a small bowl set in a larger bowl filled with ice. Stir in vanilla extract and sprinkle with remaining sugar (this will keep a skin from forming). Serve with fruit or cake. Sauce will last three days in the refrigerator.