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Food Myths Vs Facts

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Misconceptions about food are aplenty. There is no clue as to how many of them originated. Some are specific to particular regions whereas others are universal. They confuse us so much that at times they prevent us from practicing what is right and at others they push us to do what is wrong.  It is vital to differentiate fact from fiction to lead a healthy life. This article is an attempt to demystify some common food myths that prevail among people.

1) Cucumbers slithered over by snakes turn bitter

This is just folklore.

The bitterness in some cucumbers is due to a substance called cucurbitacin. A high nitrogen and aminoacid content of the cucumber leaves promote nitrogen metabolism, thereby favouring enzymatic synthesis of cucurbitacin. This induces bitterness in the leaves and fruits. It is also interesting to know that stressful growing conditions (high temperatures, wide temperature swings, too little water, uneven watering practices, low soil fertility and low soil pH) trigger a higher concentration of cucurbitacin in cucumbers and may be responsible for the offensive taste. Over mature or improperly stored cucumbers may also develop a mild bitterness. Spare the poor snakes, for they have no connection whatsoever with the bitterness of cucumbers.

2) Garlic is a potent galactogogue 

This is another old wives’ tale.

Garlic does not contain any active component that makes it a potent galactogogue. Studies have shown that consumption of garlic by lactating mother imparts its flavour to breast milk and significantly increases the time the infant remained attached to the breast and suckled. They further showed that though there may be an insignificant increase in the ingestion of milk by the baby, it may be limited by the quantity available.  They also reported that this effect may wear off with frequent intake of garlic by the nursing mother. 

3) Do not drink water during exercise

This shocking advice is concocted by few people. They justify it by saying that water bloats the stomach and hinders performance. This may happen in all probability, if a large volume of water is guzzled down. If only they understood that dehydration could produce worse effects on performance and health, they would not pass such careless statements.

It is essential to rehydrate our body sensibly, in fact before, during and after exercise.  About 2-3 hrs before the training session drink about 400-600 ml of water; during the session take either 150-350 ml every 15-20 min or sips of water at 10 min gap (American College of Sports Medicine Recommendation); post-session drink water adequately to replenish that lost through sweating. Weighing yourself pre and post session is usually suggested to gauge water loss from the body (1/2 kg loss is approximately equal to 750 ml of water). Again it is not advisable to gulp down the whole quantity at once, but drink it slowly and stretch it across a time period, may be ½ hr.

4) Eating potatoes will make a person fat

Potato is more often portrayed as the culprit behind obesity. Potato bears the brunt of all accusations because of its starch content and high glycemic index. 

It is noteworthy that besides starch, potato is also a good source of vitamins C and B6, potassium, folate, copper and manganese. Apart from flavonoids and carotenoids blood pressure reducing substances kukoamines are also present in it. A simple potato salad may be healthy; retaining the skin in some preparations may bestow upon us the benefits of the fibre in it. But on the contrary, if we prefer to treat our palates with potato chips, French fries or any fatty potato preparation, then we may definitely have to pay in terms of a few extra kilos gained on our body. In reality, the consumption of potatoes in itself is not the issue, but the form in which they are eaten is.

The glycemic index (GI – it is the capacity of a food to raise the blood glucose level) of potato holds good for a pure potato meal but changes when eaten in combination with other foods. It would be wise to eat it along with other low GI foods. Moreover the glycemic load (GL) of a particular meal is what matters than GI of individual foods. GL of a meal is the sum of GL of all foods in a meal. GL of a food is obtained by multiplying its GI with grams of carbs in it and then dividing the resultant by 100.  So portion control is another aspect of this issue. Cut down on the load when the index is high. Do not binge on potatoes. Use them in the right form, right quantity and in conjunction with other vegetables to stay healthy.

 It is time we stopped playing the blame game and improved our eating habits instead.

5) Olive oil is good for health and so you can add it generously in your diet

We have to do away with this idle fancy in order to safeguard our health.

The chief reason for categorising olive oil as good is because it is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyphenols. But that does not mean it provides lesser calories per gram. Just like all oils it also contributes 9 calories/g (no matter whether it is virgin, extra virgin or organic olive oil) and so we may have to exercise the same kind of caution as with any other oil while using it. Moreover, to derive the beneficial effects of olive oil, we have to substitute and not supplement the saturated, hydrogenated or trans fats that we have been using with it.

So, which of these myths have you come across? If you know other food myths – some that absolutely lack veracity but are still followed because they were passed on to us by our forefathers and others that are so strongly propagated by quacks, take time to share them here.


Bean, A., 2009. Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition, sixth ed., A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London, pp.85-100.

Briggs, G., Freeman, K.R., Yaffe, J.S., 2011. Drugs in Pregnancy and Lactation: A Reference Guide to Fetal and Neonatal Risk, ninth ed., Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, Philadelphia, p.639.

Dr.Gita Arjun, 2009. Passport to a Healthy Pregnancy, Westland Ltd., India, p.160.

Rinzler, C.A., 2009. The New Complete book of Food: A Nutritional, Medical and Culinary Guide, second ed., Facts on File Inc., New York, pp.315-317.

Stress Struck Cucumbers Turn Bitter


Stress Struck Cucumbers Turn Bitter

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Cucumbers (Image via Wikipedia)

The crunchy, water-laden cucumbers are hot favourites to beat the heat during summer. But it is a pity that at times our taste buds are disgusted with the bitterness in some of them that we do not hesitate to spit them out immediately.  The miscreant behind the bitterness is a compound called cucurbitacin. This compound is found mainly in the leaves, stems and roots of the plant. It spreads to the fruits occasionally and to a lesser degree. It does not accumulate evenly within each cucumber and can vary in concentration from one fruit to another. It is prevalent to a greater extent in the stem end rather than the blossom end of the fruit and also in the green peel.

Wild cucumbers contain relatively large concentrations of this compound and are unfit for consumption whereas commercially cultivated varieties contain such low concentrations that it does not affect the taste.

Studies have shown that cucumber leaves with a high total Nitrogen as well as amino acid content promote Nitrogen metabolism which in turn favours enzymatic synthesis of curcurbitacin, thus inducing bitterness into the leaves and fruits.

It is also interesting to know that stress triggers a higher concentration of cucurbitacin in cucumbers and turns them bitter. High temperatures, wide temperature swings, too little water, uneven watering practices (too wet followed by too dry), low soil fertility and low soil pH are possible stress factors. Over mature or improperly stored cucumbers may also develop a mild bitterness.

Cutting the ends of the cucumber and peeling the skin may help in reducing the bitterness. Salting the cucumber slices and draining off the juice that is exuded also helps in removing the bitterness. This works on the principle of osmosis. But some fruits may remain bitter all the way through, no matter what you do and they should be discarded. It all depends on the extent of stress to which they have been exposed.

To save yourself from the embarrassment of serving a bitter coleslaw or salad, always taste a little portion of the peeled cuke, ensure it is devoid of bitterness and then incorporate it into your preparation :-).

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