TAG: "Nutrition"

Milk protein comparison unveils nutritional gems for developing babies


UC Davis findings will provide better understanding of human breast-milk composition.

The study revealed the first comprehensive macaque milk proteome and newly identified 524 human milk proteins. (Photo by UC Davis)

By Andy Fell, UC Davis

Human babies appear to need more of a nutritional boost from breast-milk proteins than do infants of one of their closest primate relatives, suggests a study comparing human milk with the milk of rhesus macaque monkeys.

The research team, led by the University of California, Davis, came to this conclusion after developing a new technique for comparing the proteome — all detectable proteins — of human milk with the proteome of the rhesus macaque monkey.

The researchers expect the findings will provide a better understanding of human breast-milk composition and identify fundamental nutrients that should be included in infant formula.

The study, which revealed the first comprehensive macaque milk proteome and newly identified 524 human milk proteins, is reported online in the Journal of Proteome Research.

“Human milk provides a recipe for human nutrition during the neonatal period,” said principal investigator Danielle Lemay, a nutritional biologist at the UC Davis Genome Center. “But because so much remains to be understood about milk’s molecular composition, we developed a new technique for analyzing milk proteomics that overcomes earlier barriers,” she said.

Using this new method, Lemay and colleagues identified 1,606 proteins in human milk and 518 proteins in rhesus macaque milk. These included 88 milk proteins that were common to both species, but at different levels. Ninety-three percent of those shared proteins were more abundant in human milk than in macaque milk.

For example, the researchers found that human milk contained significantly higher levels of milk proteins that help in digestion of fat-like compounds; slow protein digestion; and potentially increase the absorption of iron, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.

“The higher levels of these proteins in human milk are consistent with the well-established perspective that human babies, compared to other primate infants, are born at a slightly earlier stage of development and require higher levels of specific proteins that will nurture them as they mature,” Lemay said.

She noted that these proteins found at higher levels in human milk include specific proteins that are enriched in human brain tissues, suggesting that they may be involved in neurodevelopment.

“Proteins that appear to have neurodevelopmental significance for human babies will be key targets for future research focused on enhancing infant formula,” Lemay said.

Other researchers on the study were first author Kristen L. Beck, Darren Weber, Brett S. Phinney, Jennifer T. Smilowitz, Bo Lönnerdal and Ian Korf, all of UC Davis; and Katie Hinde of Harvard University.

Funding for the study was provided in part by the California National Primate Research Center (NIH P51RR000169) and the UC Davis Biotechnology Program (NIH T32-GM008799).

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Necklace and smartphone app can help people track food intake


UCLA-developed app could help battle obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

WearSens rests loosely above the sternum and uses highly sensitive sensors to capture vibrations from the action of swallowing.

By Bill Kisliuk, UCLA

A sophisticated necklace developed by researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science can monitor food and drink intake, which could help wearers track and improve their dietary habits.

The inventors of the WearSens device say it could help battle obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other problems related to nutrition.

Majid Sarrafzadeh, a distinguished professor of computer science and co-director of UCLA’s Wireless Health Institute, led a team that created the device and an algorithm that translates data from the necklace, and tested it on 30 people who ate a variety of foods.

The researchers found that WearSens can differentiate between solids and liquids with 87 percent accuracy, between hot drinks and room-temperature drinks with 90 percent accuracy, and between food items with different textures with 80 percent accuracy. Researchers say those figures will improve as users calibrate the device based on their eating habits.

The research was published online by the IEEE Sensors Journal.

“Today, many people try to track their food intake with journals, but this is often not effective or convenient,” Sarrafzadeh said. “This technology allows individuals and health care professionals to monitor intake with greater accuracy and more immediacy.”

WearSens rests loosely above the sternum and uses highly sensitive piezoelectric sensors to capture vibrations from the action of swallowing. Piezoelectric sensors produce voltage based on the mechanical stress — or movement or pressure — that is applied to them.

When the wearer eats or drinks, skin and muscle motion from the lower trachea trigger the sensors, and the necklace transmits the signals to a smartphone, where the UCLA-developed algorithm converts the data into information about the food or beverage. The phone displays data about the volume of food or liquid consumed and can offer advice or analysis; for example, that the wearer is eating more than in previous days or that the person should drink more water.

With the WearSens device, the sensor information is translated using a spectrogram, which offers a visual representation of vibrations picked up by the sensors. Spectrograms are often used in speech therapy and seismology, among other applications.

“The breakthroughs are in the design of the necklace, which is simple and does not interfere with daily activity, and in identifying statistical measures that distinguish food intake based on spectrogram images generated from piezoelectric sensor signals,” said Nabil Alshurafa, a graduate student researcher at UCLA who is a co-inventor of the device and the first author of the research.

The study’s other authors are co-inventor Haik Kalantarian, a graduate student researcher; Shruti Sarin and Behnam Shahbazi, also graduate student researchers; Jason Liu, who was a UCLA graduate student at the time he worked on the research; and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Pourhomayoun.

The team is continuing to refine the algorithms and the necklace’s design. The researchers hope WearSens will be available to the public later this year.

The technology is available for licensing via the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property and Industry-Sponsored Research, which facilitates the conversion of UCLA research to benefit the public.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Student projects dig deep into campus, community food issues


UCLA expands gardens, films documentaries as part of UC Global Food Initiative fellowships.

UCLA student Ian Davies (in the foreground) is working with three other students to install two new campus community gardens. Their project was funded by the UC Global Food Initiative, which was announced by UC President Janet Napolitano during a visit to UCLA last July.

By Rebecca Kendall, UCLA

Vanessa Moreno knows what it’s like to feed a family on a tight budget. The fourth-year international development studies major watched her own mother, a single parent, do it when she was temporarily unemployed. Moreno is now chronicling on video the story of a single mother of five as she struggles to meet the same challenge.

Fellow UCLA senior Sanna Alas, a human biology and society major, knows the value that urban gardening can bring to a community. She is helping students at Jordan High School in Watts tell their story through film as they turn an abandoned plot of land into a community garden for their school.

Alas and Moreno, who started these projects in the fall quarter when they were taking a class on filmmaking for social change, are now expanding their documentaries, thanks to a $2,500 fellowship that each student received from the UC Global Food Initiative Student Fellowship Program.

“This fellowship supports our project beyond the classroom,” said Alas. “We want to build upon it, make it bigger and include the voices of more people.”

The University of California Global Food Initiative, launched in July 2014, is a systemwide commitment to harness UC resources to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world’s population by 2025. Moreno and Alas are two of 16 UCLA undergraduate and graduate students to receive funding from this initiative to support four projects.

Other funded UCLA ventures include a research project to evaluate the impact and sustainability of farmer hubs in California that sell to large institutions — such as school districts and universities — and the creation of two new student-run vegetable gardens at UCLA that will be used to educate others about the benefits of a campus garden. A raised bed garden is scheduled to be built at Hershey Hall this winter, with an amphitheater garden to be installed at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center in the spring.

Additionally, matching funds for two of these projects — the documentary being produced by Moreno’s group and the community garden project — were provided by the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, which is funded by generous support from Jane and Terry Semel.

“I want to congratulate the inaugural class of Global Food Initiative student fellows,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a statement. “These are outstanding students who are passionate about this important global topic and will be able to make valuable contributions to this initiative through these fellowships. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of their projects.”

As a member of Mentors for Academic and Peer Support, one of 29 organizations operated through the UCLA Community Programs Office, Alas, along with two other UCLA students, is making a short documentary to tell the story of the Jordan High students and that of other urban gardeners in L.A.

“We chose to work on urban gardening because we believe that it strongly connects with current issues regarding health, food access and social justice throughout L.A.,” said Alas.

Alas’ documentary will also feature a weekend gardener at Wattles Farm community garden in Hollywood and a Native-American woman who incorporates her ancestral beliefs into a gardening class she teaches at the Autry Museum’s Southwest Museum. In the next phase of production, Alas plans to allow the Jordan High students to shoot their own footage as they turn neighborhood blight into a neighborhood asset.

“We want to put the camera into the students’ hands and have them take ownership,” Alas said. “We want them to tell the story of their own community.”

Health, food access and social justice are also at the root of the documentary being produced by Moreno and her team of four. The film, which draws attention to the relationship between food advertising and childhood obesity, follows single mother Stefani Gilmore as she tries to feed her family of six nutritionally, using the federal Special Supplement Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Moreno’s team hopes to raise awareness of the issues faced by low-income and single parents and help motivate policymakers tighten up restrictions on advertising that markets food to children.

“I know what it’s like to be constrained monetarily and nutritionally,”` said Moreno. “It surprises me that more people are not aware of the realities faced by people in their own neighborhoods.” It’s not true that poor people eat fast food because they’re lazy and don’t want to cook for themselves, she said.

“They eat fast food because it’s the cheapest thing they can afford, and it’s readily available,” Moreno said. “When you’re working more than 40 hours a week, or not working at all, and taking care of a large family, you don’t have that much time to think about what’s for dinner. You’re just trying to survive.”

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Study taps into healthy drink choices


Low-quality water in rural immigrant communities could be prompting kids to drink sugary beverages.

The water study is part of a five-year project investigating whether community-based intervention can help prevent childhood obesity.

By Jeannette Warnert, ANR

Having established a link between obesity and sugary beverages, doctors and nutritionists recommend that children instead drink plain tap water. In virtually all of the United States and California, tap water is the best drink available for good health.

However, a team of UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis scientists have found that low-quality tap water in some rural immigrant communities could be an obstacle to making this healthy dietary change.

The study was conducted in conjunction with a five-year research and outreach project underway in Firebaugh and San Joaquin, small communities in the San Joaquin Valley with high Mexican-American populations. The researchers are investigating whether a community-based intervention – involving nutrition education, a monthly voucher of $25 to purchase fruit and vegetables, and a physical activity program – can help prevent childhood obesity in Californians of Mexican descent living in low-income rural communities. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and UC Davis were recipients of a $4.8 million National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant to carry out this research.

Twenty-seven mothers in the study shared with the researchers whether they use tap water and gave their perceptions of tap water quality. In addition, the researchers assessed local water quality by the frequency of violations reported by Cal EPA and contaminant-level data from the California Department of Public Health.

Contamination concerns

All 27 mothers said they avoid drinking tap water due to unpleasant taste, dirty or yellow appearance, excessive iron or general “contamination.” Most of the women rely instead on bottled, and to a lesser extent, home filtered water for drinking and cooking.

“This cost is an extra burden for these families, many of whom have limited incomes,” said Lucia Kaiser, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis.

The mothers shared in interviews that at least 38 percent of their children aged 3 to 8 years old drank sugar-sweetened beverages – such as soda, energy drinks, powered drink mixes or fruit punch – more than two or three times per week.

“The children may be drinking sugar-sweetened beverages so frequently because of real or perceived low quality of water coming from their taps,” Kaiser said. “I’m not surprised. One time I was in our Firebaugh office and turned on the tap and the water came out brown. “

Two state-regulated water systems serve the majority of people in Firebaugh and San Joaquin. The rest rely on at least 11 small public or private systems. All of the 13 systems have had monitoring violations in the last 12 years. Two have had reporting violations, indicating that they either did not test for contaminants or did not report their findings.

Seeking solutions

The mothers’ perception that tap water was unappealing or contaminated was confirmed when the researchers took a close look at regulatory analyses reports from previous years. There were low-levels of arsenic detected, which fell above the benchmark for safe drinking water in the U.S. The analyses also detected high levels of manganese and iron, which are considered secondary contaminants and do not have enforceable limits set by the EPA. However, the World Health Organization has set health benchmarks for manganese, which were exceeded in some samples.

“The neurotoxic effects of manganese and chronic exposure to low levels of arsenic warrant further study,” Kaiser said. “Even if it’s not dangerous, the high level of manganese and iron can give the water an off taste.”

Regardless, removing the contaminants may not matter if perceptions and drinkability are not improved. A possible solution is better communication.

“A simple step could be sending easy-to-understand water quality reports to all residents,” Kaiser said. “Sending reports to renters in addition to property owners and in Spanish as well as English will help raise awareness about the safety of local tap water.”

The study was funded in part by the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, which developed a two-page policy brief outlining the research findings. UC Davis doctoral student Caitlin French was the main author. Other contributors, in addition to Kaiser, were postdoctoral researcher Rosa Gomez-Camacho, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor Cathi Lamp and UC Davis nutrition professor Adela de la Torre.

In the policy brief, the authors included some additional suggestions to address the issue:

  • Increase state funds to agencies working to identify who is at risk in order to bring more water systems into compliance
  • Provide subsidies for home water filters
  • Provide subsidies to private well owners in exchange for testing reports
  • Step up outreach to owners of targeted private water systems in known problem areas
  • Provide funding for additional research to inform outreach messages about substituting tap water for sugar-sweetened beverages

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UC leading effort asking USDA to add water to MyPlate


UC nutritional policy leaders join with other experts to promote water as beverage of choice.

The UC Nutrition Policy Institute would like MyPlate to include an icon for water, such as the one shown above.

By Jeannette Warnert, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources

The brightly colored divided plate that lays out the USDA’s model for healthy eating needs one little tweak, says Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute. Don’t take anything away, but add H20.

Ritchie has joined with dozens of nutrition and health professionals around the country to ask that the USDA put water onto MyPlate.

“We don’t have all the answers to overcoming obesity, but the research on sugar-sweetened beverages is very clear,” Ritchie said. “When you drink beverages like soda, sports drinks or punch, the sugar gets absorbed very rapidly and the body doesn’t recognize the calories. The result is excess calories and weight gain.”

The USDA introduced MyPlate in 2011 to reflect the message of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Federal law requires that the guidelines be reviewed, updated and published every five years.

“USDA officials say that, in order to change MyPlate, there must be more information in the dietary guidelines about water,” Ritchie said. “We are working through the public comment process to ask the advisory board to promote water as the beverage of choice.”

The ultimate goal – a new water icon on MyPlate – is important because of its high visibility. MyPlate is found on elementary school classroom walls and cereal boxes, at community gardens, and the grocery store produce aisle.

In preparing for a visit with USDA officials at their Washington, D.C., headquarters, Christina Hecht, UC Nutrition Policy Institute coordinator, asked UC Cooperative Extension specialists in California for input on MyPlate. Their enthusiasm was unanimous.

“They see MyPlate as the face of the dietary guidelines and are very supportive of using the image as a teaching tool,” Hecht said. “They also supported the idea of adding a symbol for water.”

She shared the California educators’ thoughts on MyPlate with her USDA contacts. “When they get a story from the field, it really matters to them,” Hecht said.

Ritchie and her colleagues around the country submitted a “Best of Science” letter to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee imploring them to strengthen the language for drinking water.

“Current research indicates that children, in particular, are subject to ‘voluntary dehydration’ from low intake of plain water,” the letter says. “Between 2005 and 2010, more than a quarter of children aged 4 to 13 years old in the U.S. did not have a drink of plain water on two consecutive days.”

Instead, they are drinking sugary beverages. National surveys in the early 2000s found that, on any given day, 84 percent of 2- to 5-year-old children drank sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, sports drinks and fruit punch. The calories amounted to 11 percent of the children’s total energy intake.

Since the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were issued, knowledge about the magnitude of risk and extent of adverse effects from sugar-sweetened beverages has increased. The Best of Science letter outlines for the advisory board many of the proven consequences of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in America:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages – including sodas, juice drinks, pre-sweetened tea and coffee drinks, and fortified or energy drinks – are among the top sources of calories for children and adolescents.
  • Between the late 1960s and early 2000s the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages doubled.
  • While the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men, the average U.S. consumption is 17 teaspoons per day.
  • Low-income populations have higher intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages and Latino children drink more of them than white children.
  • Cardiovascular disease, present in more than one-third of American adults, is now understood to be exacerbated by the inflammatory effects of excess sugar consumption.
  • Excess sugar consumption is a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a precursor to diabetes.

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Cloudy water, even if it is safe, affects rural immigrants’ health


UC Davis researchers examine connection between water quality, childhood obesity.

Cloudy tap water may have a greater effect for California’s rural immigrants than merely leaving behind a bad taste, according to a new policy brief released by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis.

Researchers looked at the connection between water quality and childhood obesity in two poor immigrant communities in California’s Central Valley — San Joaquin and Firebaugh. Poor-quality tap water, or even a perception that the water is bad, combined with environmental factors such as lack of access to healthy foods and nutrition education, likely contribute to health disparities in these communities, the study finds.

“If the tap water that comes out looks dirty or has a poor taste, they’re not going to have a lot more confidence in the drinking system here,” said Lucia Kaiser, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis and the study’s co-principal investigator. “The immigrant populations in these communities come from Mexico, where they may have experienced unsafe drinking water in rural areas,” she said.

Kaiser interviewed 27 mothers from these communities after giving a class on the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages. Most of the women reported relying on purchased and, to a lesser extent, home-filtered water for drinking and cooking. Kaiser said that the additional cost represents an extra burden on these low-income families.

“In these communities, more than a third can’t afford to put enough food on their table, and now they have to buy drinking water, too. Every expense really matters,” said Kaiser.

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54 UC students awarded Global Food Initiative fellowships


$2,500 fellowships, selected by UC campuses, will fund student-generated research.

The University of California announced today (Dec. 9) that 54 UC students have been awarded UC Global Food Initiative fellowships, funding projects that will address issues ranging from community gardens and food pantries to urban agriculture and food waste.

All 10 UC campuses plus UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are participating in the UC President’s Global Food Initiative Student Fellowship Program. The $2,500 fellowships to undergraduate and graduate students, selected by the campuses, will fund student-generated research, related projects or internships that focus on food issues. Also, plans are being developed for student fellows to convene in spring 2015.

“I want to congratulate the inaugural class of Global Food Initiative student fellows,” UC President Janet Napolitano said. “These are outstanding students who are passionate about this important global topic and will be able to make valuable contributions to this initiative through these fellowships. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of their projects.”

Napolitano, together with UC’s 10 chancellors, launched the Global Food Initiative in July in an effort to help put UC’s campuses, the state and the world on a pathway to sustainably and nutritiously feed themselves. The fellowships will support the work of the initiative’s early action teams and the initiative’s overall efforts to address food security, health and sustainability.

Fellowship projects will examine urban agriculture, sustainable campus landscapes, agricultural waste streams and biological pest control, among other topics. Some projects will enhance experiential learning, such as constructing new vegetable gardens. Others will support food pantries. Yet other projects will document research through films and social media.

The bulk of the fellowship funding comes from the UC President’s Initiative Fund, with several campuses augmenting the funding to support additional student fellowships. At UCLA, funding for the student fellowship program was supplemented by a matched donation from Jane and Terry Semel.

In addition to the initial 54 student fellowships, further fellowships will be supported at UC Davis by a private donation from Craig McNamara, president and owner of walnut-producing Sierra Orchards, and his wife, Julie; and at UC Berkeley by donations from Joy Sterling, CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards, and Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project. UC continues to reach out to the community for financial support of the fellowship program.

The initial student fellows and their projects include:

UC Berkeley

  • Kate Kaplan, experiential learning
  • Miranda Everitt, leveraging research for policy change
  • Vanessa Taylor, food pantries and food security

UC Davis

  • Ryan Dowdy, food system sustainability: converting food waste into electricity
  • Sophie Sapp Moore, food security for the Papaye Peasant Movement in Haiti
  • Jessica West, pest management of the spotted wing drosophila

UC Irvine

  • Victoria Lowerson Bredow, inclusive food systems: immigrants, indigeneity and innovation
  • Alexander Fung, food pantry initiative
  • Sally Geislar, local food access and advocacy: cultivating town and gown synergies
  • Crystal Hickerson, grow your own food campaign
  • Ankita Raturi, modeling the environmental impact of agricultural systems

UCLA

  • Sheela Bhongir, Kayee Liu, Vanessa Moreno and Robert Penna, “A Recipe for Change”: a short documentary film about the effects of food marketing in early childhood obesity
  • Sanna Alas, Phoebe Lai and Claudia Varney, “Down to Earth: Stories of Urban Gardeners in Los Angeles,” an ethnographic documentary film about Los Angeles County residents who grow food in community gardens
  • Hayley Ashbaugh, Lucie Dzongang, Adrienne Greer, Logan Hitchcock and Lindsey Jagoe, evaluation of impact and sustainability of farmer hubs selling to large institutions
  • Ian Davies, Kaylie Edgar, Steven Eggert and Ashley Lopez, curricula/food literacy garden project — constructing two new vegetable gardens

UC Merced

  • Hoaithi Dang, hydroponic farming
  • Erendira Estrada, evaluating the effects of a mobile grocery in addressing the lack of access to fresh foods in rural communities
  • Rebecca Quinte, sustainable agriculture in Central Valley food crops
  • Megan Schill, prions and food safety
  • Emily Wilson, endophytes and sustainable agriculture
  • Andrew Zumkehr, farmland mapping project

UC Riverside

  • Dietlinde Heilmayr, community gardens
  • Darrin Lin, California Agriculture and Food Enterprise website development
  • Daniel Lopez, on-campus food pantry

UC San Diego

  • Jancy Benavides, urban agriculture on brownfields
  • Hayden Galante, sustainable campus landscapes
  • Jane Kang, improving food and water security through urban ecology and participatory design
  • Danielle Ramirez, urban agriculture and civic engagement

UC San Francisco

  • Jacob Benjamin Mirsky, exploring patient perspectives on food insecurity to optimize the San Francisco General Hospital Therapeutic Food Pantry
  • Jonathan Schor, reinterpreting nutritional facts: a tool to inform consumer choices in the short term and food policy in the long term

UC Santa Barbara

  • Kathryn Parkinson and Emilie Wood, post-consumer food waste reduction
  • Rachel Rouse, food security and accessibility

UC Santa Cruz

  • Alyssa Billys, experiential learning and agroecological production
  • Joanna Ory, food equity and California Higher Education Food Summit engagement support
  • Crystal Owings, California Higher Education Food Summit planning support and planning to establish the Swipes program at UC Santa Cruz

Agriculture and Natural Resources

  • Jacqueline Chang, UC Berkeley, hunger survey of UC students
  • Kevi Mace-Hill, UC Berkeley, graduate student preparedness for Cooperative Extension
  • Samantha Smith, UC Davis, scientist interviews

Berkeley Lab

  • Kripa Akila Jagannathan, UC Berkeley, alignment of climate model outputs to farmers’ information needs
  • Michelle Stitzer, UC Davis, genomic annotations of maize
  • Gus Tolley, UC Davis, effects of prolonged drought on hydrologic conditions

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University of California Office of the President
(510) 987-9200

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2 UCSF-led programs receive funding to tackle S.F. health issues


Hellman Foundation supports fruit and vegetable voucher program, kids’ oral health program.

A woman shops for fresh produce at UCSF Parnassus' farmers market.

By Leland Kim, UC San Francisco

Two UC San Francisco-sponsored programs beat out more than 80 others to win major funding to help advance meaningful solutions to local health issues in San Francisco.

The Hellman Foundation announced the award of the first Hellman Collaborative Change Initiative grants to the EatSF Fruit and Vegetable Voucher Program and the Children’s Oral Health Collaborative. Each program will receive $400,000 — coupled with strategic support from the Hellman Foundation — to strengthen their partnerships and support their efforts to improve lives in San Francisco.

The EatSF Fruit and Vegetable Voucher Program is creating a San Francisco where underserved communities can enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables from their local market.

Diets low in fresh fruits and vegetables are associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers.  But many low-income families simply do not have access to these vitally important foods. By creating a citywide network where vouchers are redeemable at local vendors for fresh fruits and vegetables, EatSF is improving nutrition for San Franciscans most in need.

“In 2012, it is estimated that San Francisco’s underserved population had to scramble to afford 67.8 million meals. That is appalling in a city that is as wealthy as ours,” said Hilary Seligman, M.D., an associate professor in the UCSF School of Medicine, who is leading the EatSF Fruit and Vegetable Voucher Program. “We are committed to finding strategies that allow all members of our community to eat the healthy foods that prevent the development of chronic disease.”

The Children’s Oral Health Collaborative is committed to eradicating health disparities in childhood tooth decay, with the aim of making San Francisco cavity-free. The program is co-led by UCSF’s Lisa Chung, D.D.S., M.P.H., and San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Margaret Fisher, R.D.H.A.P.

Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease. In San Francisco, emergency department visits for preventable dental problems are higher than that for asthma and diabetes combined, and untreated tooth decay is two to three times more common for children of color.

“Our success is due to many dedicated partners, some individuals who have spent much of their careers to combat tooth decay, a pervasive health problem that all too often goes unacknowledged and untreated in children,” said Chung, an associate professor in the UCSF School of Dentistry’s Department of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences.

“Our collaboration recently formed thanks to the coordination and strong support from UCSF SF HIP (San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership) and SF DPH (San Francisco Department of Public Health), and funding from the Metta Fund. We hope this support from Hellman will bring greater awareness to the problem, our work to address it, and more partners to join us in our efforts.”

In choosing from an impressive array of active collaborations, the Hellman Foundation focused on cross-sector partnerships that had strong leadership, targeted a significant San Francisco challenge, and had the potential to make a real difference.

To learn more about the EatSF Fruit and Vegetable Voucher, please email eatsfvoucher@gmail.com. To get more information about the Children’s Oral Health Collaborative, please read its strategic plan.

Established in 2011, the Hellman Foundation finds and supports the creative change-makers improving the lives and livelihoods for all who call the San Francisco Bay Area home. For more information, visit its website.

Editor’s note: Content from the Hellman Foundation was used in this story.

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Study: Even those who know better find junk food irresistible


UC Davis findings could be important in shaping healthy eating campaigns.

Credit: iStock

By Jeffrey Day, UC Davis

People who know that certain foods are bad for them still respond positively when confronted by a picture of a burger, fries and soda, according to a University of California, Davis, study.

In the study, participants who self-reported they were nutritionally knowledgeable, but who didn’t have healthy eating habits, reacted more positively to images of “junk food” than images of healthy food. The positive response was followed by a negative one, but the former often won out.

“They know the consequences of eating unhealthy foods,” said the study’s author, Narine Yegiyan, an assistant professor of communication. “They are almost there in terms of willingness to give them up, but they are biologically struggling with it.”

She said the findings are important in shaping healthy eating campaigns aimed at these people who are prime candidates for eating behavior change.

Because this group initially responds positively to junk food images, healthy eating messages must be carefully crafted to prevent a “boomerang effect,” she said.

“Showing a picture of chips and saying ‘these are bad for you’ may just make them grab a bag of chips,” she said. “Encouraging them to eat healthy food like broccoli and carrots would be more effective. If images of junk food are going to be used they need to be accompanied by a very strong message stating why this is bad for you.”

Otherwise such images may “transfer into an increased desire to consume the unhealthy product,” the study states.

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Is life in America hazardous to immigrants’ health?


Over time, the health status of immigrant groups tends to decline.

By Dan Gordon, UCLA

America is a nation of immigrants drawn from all parts of the world by the promise of freedom and a good life. But a substantial body of evidence suggests that for the newly arrived, life in the United States can be hazardous to their well-being.

When they get here, immigrants are on average healthier than their native-born American counterparts. But the longer they stay, the worse they fare on measures such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and mental health.

Faculty at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health are working on identifying factors contributing to the declining health status of immigrant groups that’s occurring over time and through the generations.

Part of it has to do with an unfamiliarity with U.S. society and its complicated health care system. Many immigrants lack health insurance. But Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, a professor at the Fielding School who focuses on the delivery of care that appropriately considers a patient’s culture, notes that it’s more than just cost.

“If someone is new to this country, doesn’t speak the language and has to learn to navigate our system, it’s like plopping us in the middle of Siberia and expecting us to figure out what we need,” she said.

For example, many immigrants across the educational and cultural spectrum hold beliefs about disease and how the body works that diverge from the biomedical model practiced in the U.S., Kagawa-Singer added, and many health care practitioners are uneducated on those differences.

“When you have problems in both health literacy among patients and cultural competence among practitioners, you get this ‘perfect storm’ of people who will not be able to utilize the health care system even when it’s offered,” said Kagawa-Singer.

Since 2000, Kagawa-Singer has headed the Los Angeles site of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training, the first federally funded cancer prevention and control research initiative focusing on Asian Americans. In lectures and short courses on cultural competence, Kagawa-Singer advises health professionals to demonstrate their trustworthiness and compassion.

“It’s not the health problem you’re treating, it’s the person,” she said. “When patients recognize you’re making the effort and respecting their dignity, they’re going to be much more forgiving and willing to teach and learn.” The challenge, she noted, is that the U.S. health care system is designed for short encounters, despite the fact that it may take longer to get to know and understand patients from different backgrounds.

Adopting the American diet

Public health experts have postulated that immigrants decline in health as they assimilate and adopt the health habits of their new communities — including high-fat diets and processed foods, along with reduced physical activity. To some extent, though, that equation has changed with globalization of the food supply, said May C. Wang, a Fielding School professor who focuses on early childhood obesity.

“Most low-income countries now have access to the processed foods we’ve been eating for the past few decades,” Wang noted. But even when immigrants’ tastes are similar to those of non-immigrants, immigrants with minimal financial means face considerable challenges to eating well. “Education alone doesn’t work in a community that doesn’t have the ability to access healthy food,” Wang said. “And in the very poorest communities, trying to change the environment by placing healthier foods where people live, work and go to school is challenging.”

The problem is compounded for immigrant groups, she explained, because they tend to have fewer social ties, are constricted by language barriers and often lack the know-how to pursue resources that could help them.

Wang works closely with the Public Health Foundation Enterprises Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, the largest local WIC agency in the country. It serves 300,000-plus families a year, the vast majority of them non-English-speaking immigrants. The overall childhood obesity rate has plateaued or declined in the U.S. in recent years, Wang noted, but the obesity rate among the mostly immigrant Latino children remains substantially higher than for other groups. Among the low-income, preschool-aged Latino children enrolled in L.A. County’s WIC program in 2011, nearly 22 percent were obese.

To better understand the impact of various strategies to improve diet and reduce early childhood obesity, said Wang, “We are examining the social and physical environments in which immigrants live and how these affect their ability to put into practice nutrition knowledge they acquire from participation in the WIC program.”

The work aligns with the University of California Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness the resources of all 10 UC campuses to address a critical issue of our time: How to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach eight billion by 2025.

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Online tool helps parents, pediatricians assess newborn weight loss


Study shows some newborns lose weight much faster than previously recognized.

Valerie Flaherman, UC San Francisco

By Juliana Bunim, UC San Francisco

Using weights obtained from over 100,000 Northern California babies, a new study is the first to detail the weight loss patterns of exclusively breastfed newborns.  The results show that some breastfed babies lose weight faster and for a longer period than was previously recognized.

The investigators have captured their findings in an online tool that is the first of its kind to help pediatricians determine whether exclusively breastfed newborns have lost too much weight in the first days of life. The research is published today (Dec. 1) in the journal Pediatrics.

Women do not immediately produce high volumes of breast milk in the first days after childbirth. Instead, mothers at first secrete small amounts of colostrum, which contains high concentrations of nutrients and antibodies for the baby. During this period, almost all babies experience some initial weight loss, which can cause concern from new parents and sometimes even pediatricians.

According to the researchers, most newborns tolerate this initial period of weight loss. However, some do develop complications such as dehydration and hyperbilirubinemia – jaundice caused by too much bilirubin in the blood – which are the two most common causes of newborn hospital readmission. Mothers sometimes believe this weight loss means their baby is not getting enough breast milk, leading them to supplement their baby with infant formula, a practice pediatricians hope to avoid when possible.

The Newborn Weight Tool, or Newt, was developed using a sample of hourly birth weights from more than 100,000 breastfed newborns at Northern California Kaiser Permanente hospitals between 2009 and 2013. The tool plots a baby’s weight percentile at any given time in the first few days following birth and compares it with the large sample of newborns.

Until now, there was no graphical depiction or “growth chart” of early weight loss for exclusively breastfed newborns to help inform mothers visually of how normal it is for babies to lose weight, but now mothers and pediatric health care providers have a tool to demonstrate normal weight loss patterns. An individual mother can see how her newborn compares with these normal patterns, which in most cases will be reassuring.

“For parents who are concerned about their newborn’s weight loss, they can be shown how their baby compares to the study sample, and whether they fall into a dangerous zone,” said Valerie Flaherman, M.D., a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco and lead author of the study. “It also provides a tool for pediatricians to determine which babies are at high risk, addressing a major clinical gap because there are no current criteria for newborn weight loss.”

Newt was developed by the study’s senior author, Ian Paul, M.D., professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine and pediatrician at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and Eric Schaefer, M.S., a statistician at Penn State College of Medicine, along with researchers at UCSF and Kaiser Permanente.

The tool is available for free, and health care providers can bookmark it on their computers, smartphones and tablet devices. It was designed for health care professionals to share the information with parents similar to the way growth charts are used now.

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Bitter food but good medicine from cucumbers


UC Davis research could have applications in treating cancer, developing other food crops.

High-tech genomics and traditional Chinese medicine come together as researchers identify the genes responsible for the intense bitter taste of wild cucumbers. Taming this bitterness made cucumber, pumpkin and their relatives into popular foods, but the same compounds also have potential to treat cancer and diabetes.

“You don’t eat wild cucumber, unless you want to use it as a purgative,” said William Lucas, professor of plant biology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author on the paper published Nov. 28 in the journal Science.

That bitter flavor in wild cucurbits — the family that includes cucumber, pumpkin, melon, watermelon and squash — is due to compounds called cucurbitacins. The bitter taste protects wild plants against predators.

The fruit and leaves of wild cucurbits have been used in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, as emetics and purgatives and to treat liver disease. More recently, researchers have shown that cucurbitacins can kill or suppress growth of cancer cells.

Bitterness is known to be controlled by two genetic traits, “Bi” which confers bitterness on the whole plant, and “Bt,” which leads to bitter fruit. In the new work, Lucas, Sanwen Huang at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and colleagues employed the latest in DNA sequencing technology to identify the exact changes in DNA associated with bitterness.

They also tasted a great many cucumbers. “Luckily this is an easy trait to test for,” Lucas said. “You just chomp on a cucumber leaf of fruit and your tongue gives you the readout!”

They were able to identify nine genes involved in making cucurbitacin and show that the trait can be traced to two transcription factors that switch on these nine genes, in either leaves or the fruit, to produce cucurbitacin.

The new research shows how domestication tweaked cucumber genetics to make the fruit more edible. Understanding that process might open up approaches to developing other food crops based on plants that are naturally either inedible or poor in nutrition, Lucas said.

It could also make it much easier to produce cucurbitacins in large enough quantities to use in clinical trials and potentially in medicine, Lucas said. For example the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, originally derived from traditional Chinese medicine, is now being produced either as a precursor molecule in yeast or through synthetic biology systems.

Other collaborators on the study included researchers at the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Beijing; Agricultural Genomics Institute, Shenzhen, China; Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing; Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha; Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Changsha; Wuhan University, Wuhan; Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; Nihon University, Tokyo, Japan; and Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.

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