FNCE 2017 Recap: Favorite New Food Products

Three weeks ago 13K dietitians (including me) descended on Chicago for the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE). It was a crazy couple of days, packed to the brim with educational sessions, social events, and meetings. I came home completely wiped, but buzzing with inspiration and excitement about the future of food. 

View from the Chicago Architectural Foundation River Cruise. I've done this twice now and it's a great way to learn about Chicago. 

View from the Chicago Architectural Foundation River Cruise. I've done this twice now and it's a great way to learn about Chicago. 

One of the best parts of FNCE is exploring the expo floor. Here you can load up a tote bag up with samples, and taste some of the newest healthy products on the market. This year I sampled everything from coconut jerky , to probiotic juices (more on probiotics here), veggie milk, and farmer’s cheese. Below are my favorite nutritious discoveries from the show:

#1: That's It Veggie Bars + Bites

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That’s It’s original line of fruit bars have been one of my go-to travel snacks since I discovered them at Starbucks several years ago. This year the company showcased two new products at FNCE: veggie bars and ‘Bites’.

I love the idea of a savory granola bar, and the That’s It Veggie Bars are one of the better that I’ve seen on the market. These black-bean based bars contain just 5 ingredients, and pack 4g of protein, and 4g of fiber into each 80-90 kcal serving. 

On the other end of the spectrum, That’s It’s new chocolate-covered 'bites' were one of my favorite healthy sweet treat options from the expo. These little bundles of dried fruit and dark chocolate goodness contain 5 real-food ingredients, 6g of fiber and 150 kcal per serving. I’ll be stashing a pouch of these in my bag next time I fly. Who doesn’t love a healthy chocolate treat?

Silky smooth La Colombe draft latte, straight from the tap. 

Silky smooth La Colombe draft latte, straight from the tap. 

Born and raised in Sydney, I take my coffee seriously and La Colombe Draft does not disappoint. La Colombe infuses their low-fat milk and cold-pressed espresso mixture with nitrogen gas, which gives it a silky-smooth texture without adding fat. It’s seriously delicious; an excellent course of calcium and vitamin D; and free of added sugar. Read more about why coffee is good for you here

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Biena is another one of my non-perishable snacking favorites. Whether I am assembling a cheese board or packing for a trip, these crunchy chickpeas are usually featured. At FNCE I tried Biena’s new milk chocolate-covered chickpeas, and I could have devoured the entire sample bowl then and there. I love that they’re sweet, crunchy and made with real food! Thirty five chickpeas provides 140 kcal, 4g of fiber, 4g of protein, and a relatively modest 2.5g of saturated fat-- chocoholics rejoice!


Perhaps one of the bigger changes that I noticed at the expo this year was the proliferation of FODMAP-friendly foods. FODMAPS stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, and a low FODMAP diet is often used to alleviate symptoms in people with IBS. Low FODMAPs is one of the more difficult dietary approaches to follow and can vary in length from weeks to lifelong depending on the results of the initial trial. I was encouraged to see new food products accommodating low FODMAPs, particularly grab-and-go bars which are often a landmine of FODMAP-rich ingredients. Happy Bars are made with real-food ingredients, contain ~200kcal, 3g of fiber and 8-10g of protein per serving, and an easy snacking option for someone trialing low-FODMAPs.

Creamy and delicious Bolthouse Farms pea protein milk. 

Creamy and delicious Bolthouse Farms pea protein milk. 

I tried half a dozen or so non-dairy milk products on the expo floor, including peanut, veggie, and almond milk, but this one was my favorite. With 10g of protein, and 5g of fat per serving, Bolthouse Farms Pea Protein Milk is creamier and more filling than your average non-dairy milk product. It’s fortified with the usual array of vitamin and minerals including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, and phosphorous, and is a solid choice for those of you who struggle with dairy.

Are Lectins Bad For You?

Lectins have been whirring around health circles for a while now, particularly among paleo enthusiasts. They have been dubbed as inflammatory, toxic and a contributing factor to autoimmune disease, obesity and more. But is there any science behind these claims? I took a look.

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What Are Lectins?

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins believed to help plants ward off harmful bacteria. Essentially, they help plants stay disease-free just like some of our immune defenses protect us. Our bodies cannot digest lectins and consuming large amounts of raw lectins can lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Cellular and animal studies indicate that lectins may trigger an immune response [1,2].


Where Are Lectins Found?

Lectins are found in food such as beans, wheat, soy, tomatoes, nuts, potatoes and bananas. However, the lectin content of these foods is largely destroyed with cooking, and reduced with sprouting and fermentation.


Research On Lectins

Few studies indicate that the lectins are strongly implicated in ill health in humans. Eating raw kidney beans has been linked with gastro symptoms, but when was the last time anyone did that? Personally, I prefer my beans cooked.

Yes, some cell and animal studies indicate that lectins may be inflammatory, activate the immune system and damage the gut mucosa but the evidence in humans in sparse [1,2]. Many things in our environment stimulate the immune system and it isn’t always bad. On the contrary, some lectins are being investigated as novel therapies for cancer, and viral illnesses [3,4].


Should You Avoid Lectins?

Unless you have a particularly bothersome reaction to grains, legumes, and other lectin-containing foods, there’s no need to go lectin-free. In fact, if you remove lectins from your diet you may miss out on important nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and potassium. Furthermore, studies suggest that consuming a wide range of whole grains, legumes and vegetables may help ward off diabetes, prevent some forms of cancer, and maintain a healthy weight [5,6].


[1] Do dietary lectins cause disease? : The evidence is suggestive—and raises interesting possibilities for treatment David L J Freed BMJ. 1999 Apr 17; 318(7190): 1023–1024.PMCID: PMC1115436

[2] The Dietary Intake of Wheat and other Cereal Grains and Their Role in Inflammation. Karin de Punder, Leo Pruimboom. Nutrients. 2013 Mar; 5(3): 771–787. Published online 2013 Mar 12. doi: 10.3390/nu5030771. PMCID: PMC3705319

[3] Plant Lectins as Medical Tools against Digestive System Cancers. Laura Elena Estrada-Martínez, Ulisses Moreno-Celis, Ricardo Cervantes-Jiménez, Roberto Augusto Ferriz-Martínez, Alejandro Blanco-Labra, Teresa García-Gasca. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Jul; 18(7): 1403. Published online 2017 Jul 3. doi: 10.3390/ijms18071403.

[4] Anti-tumor and anti-viral activities of Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (GNA)-related lectins. Wu L, Bao JK. Glycoconj J. 2013 Apr;30(3):269-79. doi: 10.1007/s10719-012-9440-z. Epub 2012 Aug 15. Review. PMID:2289311.

[5] Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together: Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains—Summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. Satya S. Jonnalagadda, Lisa Harnack, Rui Hai Liu, Nicola McKeown, Chris Seal, Simin Liu, George C. Fahey. J Nutr. 2011 May; 141(5): 1011S–1022S. Published online 2011 Mar 30. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.132944. PMCID: PMC3078018.

[6] Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. Monica L. Bertoia, Kenneth J. Mukamal, Leah E. Cahill, Tao Hou, David S. Ludwig, Dariush Mozaffarian, Walter C. Willett, Frank B. Hu, Eric B. Rimm. PLoS Med. 2015 Sep; 12(9): e1001878. Published online 2015 Sep 22. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001878. Correction in: PLoS Med. 2016 Jan; 13(1): e1001956.

How Genetic Testing Changed The Way That I Eat

Recently I took my first nutritional genetics test through Nutrigenomix in Canada. I’d been toying with the idea of getting tested for a while, but finally bit the bullet after I taking a 5-week course on nutritional genetics through Monash University in Melbourne. Here’s what I learned about myself and how it’s changed the way that I eat.  

My first encounter with nutritional genetics was in 2012 at the International Congress of Dietetics in Sydney. Back then only a handful of researchers and super-sleuth dietitians knew what nutritional genetics was. I remember listening to a lecture given by Sylvia Escott-Stump, former President of the Nutrition and Dietetics Academy, and thinking to myself ‘This is cool.’.

Since then there has been tons of progress in the field but nutritional genetics still remains relatively new in nutrition practice. It’s a hot topic of conversation amongst dietitians in other countries (like Australia and Canada) however there’s less chatter about it in the US. Yes, it's complicated but there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that nutritional genetic testing provides valuable insight. 

Now, onto the juicy stuff. What did I learn from getting tested?


The Test

Firstly, a little background on the test I took. Nutrigenomix looks at 45 genes via saliva sample. I took the sports version which means that some of the genes analysed are specifically related to nutrition for sports performance. I chose Nutrigenomix because it’s developed by some of the leading researchers in nutritional genetics.  



My Results

Nutrigenomix gives you a bucket load of information back. Some nutrition-gene relationships are stronger and more substantiated than others, but the most interesting findings for me were:


Vitamin D.

I have written about being low in Vitamin D before but I don’t have the genetic variants that predispose me to reduced vitamin D binding capacity or activation, so there’s no need for me to go bonkers on my vitamin D dose when my levels return to normal.


Vitamin B12. 

I have a genetic variant that affects vitamin B12 absorption and transport, and has been linked with lower circulating levels of vitamin B12. This means that going vegetarian is probably not the best choice for me and if I ever choose to go exclusively plant-based I will need to supplement vitamin B12 and/or be vigilant about consuming B12-fortified foods. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal-derived foods.



Folate metabolism is partly controlled by a gene called MTHFR. I have variants of this gene which mean that I don’t convert folate into its active form as readily as others. In other words, I need to include more folate-rich foods in my diet to achieve adequacy.  Folate is important for cell division, and DNA replication, and not getting enough of it can have fairly serious consequences, particularly early-on in pregnancy. My MTHFR genotype has also been linked with cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disease, and cancer risk when folate intake is low however the findings are inconsistent [1]. There’s definitely more to come on this one. For now, lots of leafy greens for me!



I am genetically pre-dispositioned to be a slow caffeine metabolizer. That means that above roughly 200mg of caffeine per day (2-3 espresso shots, or 2 cups of coffee), my risk of high blood pressure, and heart attack goes up. Furthermore, I am less likely to see the endurance performance benefits of caffeine than a fast metabolizer. Does that mean I am cutting out coffee? Absolutely not. However, I will be switching to decaf after my morning cappuccino.


Gluten sensitivity.

No surprises here. According to the Nutrigenomix algorithm which looks at 6 different genes involved in gluten intolerance my risk is ‘medium’. About 20% of people have a ‘medium’ risk profile, and another 10% are considered high risk. This explains why gluten and I often have a tenuous relationship.



This one caught me by surprise. I am pretty liberal with the salt shaker, and have seldom noticed ill-effects. However, I have a variant of the ACE gene that makes me more likely to experience blood pressure changes with excess sodium intake.  



Before you run off and spit into a tube like I did, there are a few things to keep in mind about nutritional genetic testing: 


It’s not a standalone tool for evaluating the best dietary approaches for someone.

It’s just one piece of the total nutrition picture. Diet history, weight changes, medical history, social context, other lab results, medications, etc are still important factors for determining the right eating pattern for you. 


It provides insight into genetic predisposition, not gene expression.

Just because you have the genes for gluten-sensitivity doesn’t mean that you currently react to gluten and just haven’t noticed it, or you are definitely going to wind up gluten-sensitive in the future. Nutritional genetic testing indicates that you are at higher risk for certain nutrition-related conditions, and some nutrition-gene relationships are stronger than others. 


Some risks can be mitigated with a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet. 

Sure, I may metabolize folate and vitamin B12 less efficiently than others but that doesn’t mean that I need to supplement. In many cases--especially if there’s no evidence of deficiency--adequacy can still be achieved with wholesome, nutrient dense foods.


Final Thoughts...

After going through the nutritional genetic testing process I find myself wanting to try more biometric services. I've never thought of myself as a 'biohacker' but it’s been really interesting to learn more about what I am made of! While I haven’t made any dramatic changes to my diet since I got my results back, I feel increasingly empowered to eat meat and seafood for B12, keep an eye on my folate intake, limit gluten, and switch to decaf coffee after my morning caffeine hit. Over the course of a lifetime, those little changes can be really meaningful!


[1] Homocysteine and MTHFR Mutations. Moll S, Varga EA. Circulation. 2015 Jul 7;132(1):e6-9. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.013311. Review. No abstract available.