Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fortifying Nutrients?

After some recent bloodwork, my doctor told me that I was a little low on iron (broken down into component parts, I was a little low on red blood cells, hemoglobin, and hematocrit). In order to prevent further anemia, she encouraged me to increase my iron consumption, and perhaps to take an iron supplement. Because I'm a vegetarian, it's a bit harder to get high levels of iron, so I've been researching good whole food sources (and am happy to write more about that in a separate post if folks are interested!).

Among the recommendations I found, many sources pointed to eating Cream of Wheat for breakfast, perhaps with blackstrap molasses and dried apricots (both high sources of iron in their own right) mixed in.
I grew up eating what we called, in Russian, mannaya kasha, which is traditionally a semolina flour porridge. But we ate what was available in small town Arkansas: Malt-o-Meal, or its equivalent Cream of Wheat. This was a favorite soothing dish, especially when I was sick, and my Mama would always let me drop in the raisins in a smiley-face pattern before mixing them all in.

So, the idea of eating Cream of Wheat to bulk up my iron levels seemed totally fine, familiar even. When I found it in the store, however, I was a little taken aback. My eyes instantly zoomed in to the little yellow panel at the top right of the box:


"Excellent Source of Iron & Calcium"

Sounds pretty good, right?

The only problem is, in all my research about high-iron foods, I discovered that calcium actually inhibits the absorption of iron. And because iron from non-animal sources is of the non-heme variety and already harder to absorb, pairing iron and calcium is a big no-no. In fact, most recommendations suggest separating high-iron food intake from high-calcium food intake by a few hours. WebMD, for example, recommends: "To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods."

So, what is Cream of Wheat doing putting both lots of iron AND lots of calcium in the same food? Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of the iron fortification?

It occurred to me that this is an example where nutritional fortification might have far more to do with advertising purposes than with actual nutritional improvement. Most consumers don't have a lot of information about how nutrition really works (and perhaps most scientists don't either!), so wouldn't know that mixing iron and calcium is a bad idea. They might just know that both iron and calcium are good to have in their diets. So that little yellow icon (and the corresponding nutrition facts on the side or back of the box) would just shout a generic, "This is healthy! Eat it and feed it to your kids!" The nuance is unimportant. The way these nutrients actually interact in your body is unimportant. The important part is that nutritional fortification sells.

Or is there a more benign explanation? What do you think?!

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As a bonus, some cool historical photos of Cream of Wheat ads from the early twentieth century here. Like this:


Monday, August 19, 2013

Urb Garden at the Madison Children's Museum


My new employer, and one of the hippest places in town, the Madison Children's Museum, just opened their newest exhibit: the "Urb Garden."

This new space is a small deck that overlooks the back parking lot, but it packs a big punch. One of goals of the exhibit is to display a variety of urban gardening techniques, to show what's possible in an urban space (the middle of a parking lot!) without a lot of square footage. Many of these ideas can be replicated in any backyard or even balcony. And they're fun for kids!

Here's the whole deck, just off of North Hamilton St. on the Capitol Square in Madison (looking at the people on the left gives a sense of scale):


Besides being visually striking, the deck is chock full of cool activities and awesome details that really make it come to life.

There's the seating area with wooden stumps for chairs and window boxes (left photo), the solar oven and chalkboard and thermometer (middle photo), and the vertical gardens (right photo):


There's the Aquaponics system, in which "fish and plants grow together!"--installed with the help of the UW Office of Sustainability (more information on the partnership here):


There's the vermicomposting setup. The caption reads: "Worms! These worms eat food scraps and turn them into the healthiest soil around":


There's the exciting music-making setup made of old tools, and the chickens (borrowed from the Museum's equally-cool space, the Rooftop Ramble):


And one of my favorite little quirky details, there are the tiny mementos and doodads stuck into the mortar of the central structure's walls! I was around the day they were completing this wall, and if only I'd had a suitable knick-knack on me, I could've been a permanent part of the exhibit. Bummer.


On the whole, this is an inspiring new space that is totally worth a visit, with kids or without. Like so many of the Children's Museum spaces, the Urb Garden manages to offer enrichment and education to kids of all ages while still making it fun, accessible, adventurous. The sustainability lessons are woven into the patchwork of all that goes on here, and permeate the experience of the Museum.

Check it out!

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And lots of links to coverage of the Urb Garden's opening: