Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Another reason to avoid sugar these days...

Now that your house is stocked with chocolate and other tasty Halloween treats, some not-so-sweet news has surfaced. Experts are claiming that too much sugar can make your skin dull and wrinkled.
At blame is a natural process that's known as glycation, in which the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products or AGEs. The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you develop. Adding to the bad news, AGEs leave you more vulnerable to sun damage - which is nother major cause of skin aging. According to a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, these sugar-related skin effects may start at about age 35 and increase rapidly after that.

The good news is, there are several ways to counteract this, such as cutting back on sugar sweets, wearing sunscreen and eating more antioxidant-rich fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

If you haven't yet bought Halloween candy, here are a few sugar-free suggestions to help avoid those wrinkles.

Andes Sugar-Free Creme De Menthe Thins

Russell Stover Sugar-Free Pecan Delights

Hershey's Sugar Free Candy

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Trick or Treat!

As someone who recently turned (gulp!) 30, I've been over the whole "trick or treat" scene for quite some time. Sure, I still like to whip together a cheap costume and go out with friends to celebrate, but as far as buying candy to give away - or dressing up the apartment with spooky holiday decorations - ehhh, not so much.
This year, however, I'll be taking a group of kids trick-or-treating...and honestly, I think I'm just as excited about the big day as they are. I mentor for a Muslim family, teaching them English and about U.S. culture. So what better way to fully introduce them to American society than to help them pick out crazy costumes and take candy from strangers? I'm just hoping they set aside some of that sweet trick or treat stash for me. I'll even take the candy (as long as it's wrapped!) that looks as though a "crazed madman tampered with it." Yes, I'm a child of the '80s and vaguely remember all the Halloween candy scares of that era, most of which percolated after the infamous Tylenol poisonings. Yeah, yeah...Sorry Mom. I know I kept handing you all that candy to taste-test for me back on Halloween of 1982. But I digress.
Anyway, it looks like I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for the upcoming Halloween. According to the National Retail Federation, consumer Halloween-related spending will surpass $5 billion this year - with more than 60 percent of respondents planning to celebrate in some way. In addition to the kids, one-third of adults are expected to dress up, while one-in-ten celebrants also plan to buy costumes for their pets. However, judging by some of the Halloween pet get-ups I've seen (see above), it's no wonder dogs sometimes bite their owners.

Here are a few more fun facts, courtesy of National Confectioners Association, to help get you into the Halloween spirit.

* The celebration of Halloween started in the U.S. as an autumn harvest festival. In pioneer days, some Americans celebrated Halloween with corn-popping parties, taffy pulls and hayrides.
* In the late nineteenth century, with the large influx of Irish immigrants into the U.S., Halloween became associated with ghosts, goblins and witches.
* Jack-o-lanterns are an Irish tradition. In Ireland, oversized rutabagas, turnips and potatoes were hollowed-out, carved into faces and illuminated with candles to be used as lanterns during Halloween celebrations.
* The word “witch” comes from the Old Saxon word “wica”, meaning “wise one.” The earliest witches were respected dealers in charms and medicinal herbs and tellers of fortunes.
* The pumpkin originated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago. It is one of America’s oldest known vegetables. Pumpkins generally weigh from 15-to-30 pounds, although some weigh as much as 200 pounds. The majority of pumpkins are orange, but they also can be white or yellow. They are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene and potassium, and their seeds provide protein and iron.
* 93 percent of children will go trick-or-treating.
* Bite-sized chocolate candies are the post popular type to be included in Halloween activities (76 percent), followed by bite-sized non-chocolate candies (30 percent).
* Kids say their favorite treats to receive when trick-or-treating are candy and gum, while their least favorite is fruit and salty snacks like chips.
* Ninety percent of parents admit to sneaking goodies from their kids' Halloween trick-or-treat bags.
* More than 35 million pounds of candy corn will be produced this year. That equates to nearly 9 billion pieces — enough to circle the moon nearly 4 times if laid end-to-end.

Another piece of advice - if you do decorate the house, I suggest you avoid including yourself as a prop. YouTube shows that idea has backfired spectacularly on more than one occasion.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Devilish Dee-Lite

Although I often joke that I'm a frozen dinner kinda gal, I'm actually a pretty solid cook when I find (or take) the time to whip things up. So in honor of a friend's birthday this weekend, I decided to roll up my sleeves and make her favorite - Black Forest Cake. This is a popular dessert from Germany that features several layers of chocolate cake sandwiched by whipped cream and cherries. In other words, it's about a bazillion calories. Okay, okay. So I exaggerate. It's more like 700 calories, 89 carbs and nearly 34 grams of fat per serving. Sheesh. Either way, this isn't great news for a group of people trying to cut back on calories. So because the birthday girl - and everyone else in our circle of friends these days - wanted to avoid the additional pounds, I went the low-sugar route on this recipe. And wow! It turned out perfectly and earned high marks from all the revelers.

A quick shout out to SparkPeople and Pillsbury for assistance on this particular "Black Forest Cake Lite" recipe. I started off with Pillsbury's Moist Supreme Reduced Sugar Devils Food Cake mix. Sweetened with Splenda, this new mix boasts 50 percent less sugar than the regular version. And let me tell ya, you couldn't taste the difference. By the way, for those interested, Pillsbury also has a reduced-sugar yellow cake mix, along with vanilla and chocolate frostings.

So add this to your list of low-sugar recipes. Feel free to add frosting, but we found that because the cake was already so sweet, a dab of Cool Whip worked great as a topping.

1 box Pillsbury Moist Supreme Reduced Sugar Devil's Food Cake
1 can Lucky Leaf Lite Cherry Pie Filling
1 can Diet Cherry Coke
Cool Whip Lite

1. Blend the cake mix and soda in a bowl for at least one minute until fully mixed.
2. Fold in cherry pie filling.
3. Pour into cake pan and bake according to box directions.
4. Cool and serve.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pushing Daisies...and sugar-free pies

There are very few television shows I would bother racing home to see these days. Barring The Office and Lost (I can NOT wait until the new season starts!), it seems most shows have either gotten ridiculously lame (Grey's Anatomy, anyone?) or fall into the slop pile of crappy reality programming. That being said, can I tell you how much I adore Pushing Daisies?
If you haven't seen it yet, tune in next Wednesday night. You can also watch the previously-aired episodes on-line.
Long story short, Pushing Daisies is a "forensic fairy tale" featuring Ned, an introvert piemaker with the ability to revive the dead - a gift that has its share of complications. Ned - joined by his once-dead childhood sweetheart, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles and snarky private investigator pal, Emerson Cod - capitalizes on this gift and resuscitates murder victims long enough to solve the mystery of their death and collect any outstanding rewards.
So what is so fabulous about this strange show? First off, it's a visual masterpiece, popping with rich colors and quirky, imaginative sets. It also has a magical, whimsical undertone. The production team seems to have drawn inspiration from films like Amelie, Big Fish and Lemony Snicket.
Another bonus? The phenomenal cast. I just love me some Chi McBride, who is outstanding as the cranky, vest-knitting Emerson. And Kristen Chenoweth is a hoot playing the lovelorn Olive Snook, Ned's vertically-challenged neighbor/employee. In addition to the musical Ms. Chenoweth, there are several other Broadway veterans gracing the screen. Tony Award winner Raul Esparza is a traveling homeopathic antidepressant salesman who frequents Ned's shop, while Swoozie Kurtz and Ellen Greene ( Audrey!) play Chuck's eccentric aunts, former synchronized swimmers who hate leaving the house. I hope a musical number is coming up soon that features the lot of them!
Anyhoo, the only downside to the show is I've been craving a whole lot of sweet treats lately - which I blame entirely on the array of delectable desserts on display at The Pie Hole, Ned's humorously-named restaurant. So far, I've spotted pear pie, strawberry pie, apple pie, rhubarb pie and pecan pie. Yum!
In honor of the show - as well as an advance to National Boston Cream Pie Day next Wednesday - here are a few low-calorie recipes from www.splenda.com to get you through the long weekend.

Chocolate Cream Pie
Strawberry Pie
Coconut Cream Pie
Black Bottom Pecan Pie

And, in case you're interested, here's an extended preview of the first episode of Pushing Daisies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Truthiness and justice for all!

I'd been meaning to buy a Stewart/Colbert 2008 bumper sticker to show support for my two favorite political satirists. Glad I waited because it appears those stickers will not be valid much longer. Instead, I'll have to look for a Colbert/Colbert sticker - or perhaps one bearing the running-mate names of either Huckabee or Putin.
Yes, it's true. Stephen Colbert, everyone's favorite pseudoconservative blowhard, is running for president...but only in South Carolina...in both the Republican and Democrat primaries.
Accompanied by audience cheers and a cascade of red, white and blue balloons, the Comedy Central pundit announced on Tuesday night's Colbert Report that he is officially entering the 2008 presidential race.
"After nearly 15 minutes of soul searching, I have heard the call," said Colbert. "Nation, I will seek the office of the president of the United States."

Earlier that night, he made a surprise appearance on The Daily Show, arriving on the back of a bicycle piloted by a guy dressed as Uncle Sam. After cracking open a bottle of beer, Colbert told former boss Jon Stewart he was considering a run but would make "an announcement of that decision very soon, preferably on a more prestigious show."

Sadly, Stewart - who I've been crushing on since his early days of comedy on MTV - will not be included on the ticket. Still, I can't wait to see how far this goes. Either way, I'm sure the announcement is in no way related to drumming up publicity for Colbert's new book, "I Am America (And So Can You!)"

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stevia, schmevia....

As far as food goes, I consider myself an equal opportunist, willing to give most anything a fair shot (for proof, read my first-ever blog item mentioning haggis and black and white pudding.) And this culinary open-mindedness is what led me to try out Stevia, after hearing all the hype about the product in recent months.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m perfectly willing to provide an honest opinion, no matter how unpopular it may be. So along that note...I thought Stevia was all sorts of nasty!
For those unfamiliar with the product, Stevia is derived from a South American plant and commonly used as a sweetener in South America and Asia. Although it’s considered a food additive in some countries, like Brazil and Japan, it's only been approved as a dietary supplement in the U.S. and Europe. The FDA requires proof of safety before recognizing a food additive and apparently, they feel Stevia hasn't proven itself yet. Still, despite the lack of an FDA endorsement, Stevia’s popularity has grown in recent years – perhaps because it is the forbidden fruit of the low-calorie sweetener industry, so to speak.
This weekend, I tried two different kinds of Stevia, ruining a few perfectly good cups of coffee and bowls of oatmeal in the process. First I tried the plain Stevia extract in packet form. Not only was it bitter, it also had a slightly metallic, almost plastic taste. Then, I checked out the liquid SweetLeaf English Toffee. Although the unpleasant licorice taste wasn't quite as overwhelming in this format, it was still enough to turn my stomach.
Stevia has up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, but with a slower release and a longer duration. That means the vile after-taste lingers much longer than usual. I’m just happy I borrowed the product from friends, rather than plunking down my own hard-earned money to purchase it.
As with anything, Stevia will have both fans and critics...different strokes for different folks and all. But because of the lousy taste - and the fact that we don't really know yet if Stevia has any health risks or benefits - I'm sticking to Splenda.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Even the troops are counting calories these days

Apparently, some of our nation's soldiers are conscious of their figures.
According to a recent Stars and Stripes article, military stores are preparing to offer two new sugar-free electrolyte replacement tablets - which help replenish water, sweat and minerals lost through sweat. Still confused? Well, picture a sugar-free tablet-form version of Gatorade.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service has reached agreements with military equipment supplier CamelBak and a small, independent company called Nuun to carry the effervescent tablets, which were initially created in 2002 for the endurance athlete market.
Military officials claim the versions low in calories will better serve soldiers for a variety of reasons, which are not all weight-related. Because the tablets don’t contain sugar — which grows fungus if not thoroughly washed out of containers — they are particularly suited for use in portable hydration devices. They are also packaged in sturdy, plastic tubes that fit into cargo pants, eliminating the messy spill that powders can cause.
And then, there's the weight thing. Because some military jobs require troops to stationary for long periods of time, these tablets prove a convenient alternative to enhanced hydration without the concern of packing on sugar-related pounds.
CamelBak's product - the sucralose-sweetened Elixir - was optimized for use in both training and combat. The company tailored each tablet to mix specifically with the exact amount of water in a CamelBak portable hydration bladder. Although currently available only in lemon-lime, company representatives say they will soon be unveiling new flavors.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The skinny on the skinny gene

Ever had one of those friends who rarely hit the gym, eat every little thing in sight and still manage not to gain any weight? No, I'm not talking about folks with secret eating disorders. I'm referring to one of those fortunate people who, despite a more than healthy appetite, never seem to pile on the pounds. Well, apparently it truly is a genetic thing.

According to a report published last month in Cell Metabolism, a science journal, scientists have officially discovered a "skinny gene." The discovery of this lucky batch of DNA, they say, could help fight human obesity and diabetes.

"This gene is in every organism from worms to humans," says the study’s senior author, Dr. Jonathan Graff, an associate professor of developmental biology and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "We all have it. It's very striking."

Graff and his colleagues had been hunting for a gene that might naturally keep people thin. Eventually, they turned up a promising candidate in a gene that controls fat formation: adipose.

The researchers ran tests on fruit flies, worms and mice and found that the gene meant the difference between fat and skinny. For example, they could make worms fat by deleting the adipose gene, while a single cell in a test tube would transform into fat cells when adipose was deleted. In addition, mice engineered to have efficient versions of the gene were much sleeker than normal counterparts - with only about one-third the body fat.

Obesity experts are thrilled with the results and say it could help lead to a treatment that mimics the gene's weight regulation abilities. Still, they cautioned that such a miracle pill is a long ways-away.

I tend to think it's a little too good to be true. Either way, until scientists prove this gene really does keep people skinny - and that it can successfully be turned into a an obesity cure - I'm inclined to hang onto my gym membership and keep watching my dietary intake.

Monday, October 08, 2007

How d'ya like dem apples?

I went to brunch at a friend's house this weekend and among the many fabulous food items served, I believe my favorite was the caramel candy apples. Yes, I know. I'm still a kid at heart. But as you read in my previous post, I love October. And these gooey treats certainly remind me of fall.
In an effort to make my own sugar-free batch, I was just looking up caramel apple recipes featuring sucralose when I came across this article. Wow. I would have loved to have seen that.
Apparently, celebrity chef Bill Yosses teamed up with the makers of Splenda last year to create the world's largest candied apple. The giant confection - which was unveiled in New York's Bryant Park - measured 15 feet tall with a diameter of 12 feet. There was also a charitable angle to the display, since the 125 crates of apples used to create the "core" of the confection were donated to a food rescue organization following the event.
Here are a couple other fun tidbits about the world's largest candied apple:
* The apple weighed 400 pounds
* More than 10,000 apples, all from New York orchards, were used
* 100 gallons of candy coating were poured
* 800 pounds of SPLENDA® Sugar Blend for Baking were also used, translating to a savings of 1,228,800 total calories
In case you don't believe me, here's a video showing off the goods.

If you'd also like to try the lower-cal version, here is a candied apple recipe replacing sugar with Splenda. I'm including two more sugar-free apple treats to get your week started off right.

Sugar-Free Candy Apples

Caramel Apple Enchilada Sundaes

Hot Apple Cider

Friday, October 05, 2007

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

October is one of my favorite months. I love the changing of the leaves, all things Halloween, the return of the pumpkin spice latte, the slightly cooler weather and the fact that my favorite college and professional football teams are playing again. And, although my beloved Cubs never seem to make it (please beat Arizona this weekend!), I also love watching the World Series every October.
That being said, I went to a corn maze last weekend for the first time in my life - and it was an absolute blast! It was definitely worth the hike to Cleveland, Georgia, a little town in the middle of nowhere that is apparently known for being the birthplace of the cabbage patch kid. Whatever.
Altough the scariest part of the evening was the long drive - as well as the traffic in Cleveland due to a Ricky Skaggs concert? - we all loved exploring the eight-acre maze at night, cutting through rows of corn in an effort to find our way back. There was also a hi-LAR-ious "barn of fear" on the premises, complete with a guy wearing a snake around his neck and another decked out in a Jason mask and bearing a chainsaw. Good times.
The corn maze almost makes up for having to miss my friends' awesome annual "Pumpkin Party" in South Florida.
Anyhoo, in the hopes that the rest of you are as delighted with Autumn as I am, here are a few tasty pumpkin-based recipes courtesy of www.Splenda.com.

Candied Walnut-Topped Pumpkin Pie
Harvest Pumpkin-Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bars

As extra incentive to get into the holiday spirit, I'm adding a short clip of a fabulous, family-friendly Halloween movie.

By the way, anyone out there have some ideas for a creative Halloween costume this year? I'm fresh out!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Childhood obesity battle includes cutting calorie intake

According to a new study published in this month's issue of "Pediatrics," overweight children can prevent further weight gain simply by walking another 2,000 steps a day and reducing their calorie intake by 100.

The study - which was conducted by the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center - featured 216 families with at least one overweight child. Families were placed in either a lifestyle intervention group or a control group. Those in the intervention group walked 2,000 more steps each day and eliminated 100 calories a day from their diet, primarily by replacing sugar with Splenda and consuming beverages sweetened with sucralose. The control group, however, was only asked to monitor their diet and exercise levels. The subjects were then tracked over six months. Results showed that children in the intervention group maintained or reduced their BMI-for-age at a better rate than those in the self-monitoring group.

"With just two simple steps, overweight children in these families were able to achieve positive results," said Dr. James O. Hill, co-founder of America On the Move Foundation and professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. "Our results give parents ammunition to deliver a realistic and tangible way for the whole family to live healthier."

According to health statistics, one-third of all children in the United States are either overweight or dangerously close to becoming so. This is apparently the first time clinical evidence has shown that overweight children can effectively prevent excess weight gain by making small changes to their lifestyle. Researchers are hoping this news can help counter America's obesity crisis.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Let's hug it out!

Well, thank goodness our educators are finally starting to address the important issues…like hugging.
Yes, you heard me right. Apparently, excessive hugging rates up there with violence, drugs and failing grades.
A suburban Chicago school has become the latest to ban student hugging inside the building. Victoria Sharts, principal of Oak Park's Percy Julian Middle School, says rampant hugging has created traffic jams in the hallway and made kids late for class. The newly-established hug-free zone is apparently a small part of a comprehensive discipline and anti-bullying plan. Sharts claims that while hugs are supposed to be handshakes from the heart, they don't always seem so innocent.
"Too long, too close, and usually between boys and girls," Sharts said.
Say what? Boys and girls? Hugging? Oh no! Next thing you know, dogs and cats will be living together...it'll be mass hysteria folks!
Sadly, Julian Middle isn't the only school where "public displays of affection" have become the hot topic. Over the last two years, schools from Des Moines to Cornwall, England, have asked students to cut back on hugging, hand holding and even high-fives. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a middle school student was threatened with detention after he put his arm around his girlfriend's shoulder.
"I think it's kind of like if you let the camel put his head in the tent, next thing you know, the camel's going to be inside the tent," said Principal David Hadley of Fossil Hill Middle School in North Texas, another school on the no-hug bandwagon.
Not sure what that means, but I'm guessing it's fear that some hugs could lead to sexual harassment. Anyone seen the classic 80s flick, "Footloose" with Kevin Bacon? Me thinks these schools might soon ban rock music and dancing because, well, it could possibly lead to sinful behavior!
Whatever their reasoning, I feel the hug-ban is ridiculous and draconian. It seems like administrators are so scared about potential lawsuits that they're trying to create this perfect world for children - free of anything that could ever prove threatening or hurtful.
When I was a kid, we used to play dodgeball and musical chairs and playground tag. Many of those games - including duck-duck-goose - are now considered aggressive and unwholesome and even emotionally damaging to children. As a result, kids today often do "team-building" exercises in P.E. How will children ever learn to handle life in the real world if they never experience real-life issues like failure?
Schools are supposed to be an environment for both academic and social education. And hugging is a normal form of expression. Sure, some kids might hug others for more sexual reasons, but banning it altogether won't fix the problem. And if teachers and administrators are truly more concerned about the tardiness factor, why not use punishments like detention to prevent kids from loitering? That seems a better way to discourage this type of behavior than banning healthy social interaction between children.
I guess all those school resource officers can now devote their time to policing physical contact rather than keeping an eye on drugs or criminal activity within the student body.
On a happier note, check out the "Free Hugs Campaign," which started with one man and has since spread around the globe.