On Nutrition

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I belong to an eating club, and we are all senior citizens interested in living a long life. Years ago, we had discussed how palm oil is a dietary no-no, but I would like to find out about hearts of palm. I enjoyed them when at a party during the holidays, and I now use them in salads quite frequently. I realize that they are part of the palm and I had mentioned this at the club. We debated the benefits and potential dangers of this at the meeting, and I said that I would find out more. This question is my attempt to provide the needed information. -- S.T., Chicago

DEAR S.T.: I like the concept of your healthful eating club. Hearts of palm come from the palm plant, but not from the oil-containing portion. A one-third cup serving of hearts of palm contains less than a half-gram of fat, 14 calories, 207 mg of sodium, 1.5 mg of iron and 1 gram of dietary fiber together with manganese and smaller amounts of vitamin C, folate and other nutrients. But why do you classify palm oil as a no-no? This undeserved reputation originated from the misplaced branding of palm oil and all other tropical oils as foods to avoid at all cost. These foods can play a minor role in any well-balanced diet.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am 81 years old and have been a vegetarian for over 25 years. I was advised by my doctor to go on a diet that is low in sugar and fat. The only sugar I had been eating was from fresh fruit. I purchased some “no sugar” low-fat ice cream. There are three grams of sugar per half cup. The carton reads “sugar alcohol seven grams per half cup.” What is “sugar alcohol,” and is this anything of concern? -- S.M., San Diego, California

DEAR S.M.: The term “alcohol” refers to a particular chemical structure, and while there are many different alcohols in nature, a reference to alcohol in food or drink usually refers to the compound known as “ethyl alcohol.” There is an exception to this, however, and that is the sugar alcohol. This is a family of carbohydrates that contain an “alcohol” structure, but you won’t need an ID to buy them. The sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol. They contain fewer calories per gram than other carbohydrates, and they are not absorbed as quickly. As a result, sugar alcohols don’t raise the blood sugar level as rapidly as other sugars, making them useful as a sugar substitute for diabetics and others looking to limit their sugar intake.

Our bodies metabolize sugar alcohols differently than other carbohydrates, and one beneficial aspect of this is they do not feed the acid-producing bacteria that live in our mouth. As such, sugar alcohols do not contribute to tooth decay. They are not considered “sugars” for food labeling purposes and don’t have to be declared on the food label, but they can be listed if desired. The FDA allows food sweetened only with sugar alcohols to be labeled “sugar free.” While they have their benefits, be careful not to overdo it. Sugar alcohols can cause abdominal gas and cramping, especially when consumed on an empty stomach.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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