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Taurine not essential for humans
By Dr. Ed Blonz | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/10/2008 12:02 AM

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Q. I am a cat owner and know that taurine is essential for cats. I keep seeing it in energy drinks and wanted an explanation.

R.G., Chicago

A. Taurine is one of the amino acid building blocks of protein. You are correct that it is needed by cats; however, it's not an essential amino acid for healthy human adults because the body can make all that it needs on its own. There is evidence that high levels of taurine may be helpful for people suffering from congestive heart failure. In sports drinks, it is the caffeine that provides the kick, so it is unclear what taurine adds aside from curb appeal, especially given the small amounts present.

Q. Can you explain to me why food labels can say nonfat but then sometimes have upward of 20 grams of sugar? How can I be sure I'm being healthy when, say, my Red Vines say that one serving is 140 calories, no fat, and yet has 16 grams of sugar? Sugar just becomes fat anyway, right?

A.S., Davis, Calif.

A. The body has a constant need for energy, but we eat only a few times per day. Most of the time, we eat quite a bit more than we need at that moment. The human machine has a finely tuned ability to put excess calories away until needed. We store energy as fat, the most concentrated form we have. (If we stored excess energy as carbohydrate or protein, it would take up more than twice the space.)

This efficient mechanism turns all sources of excess energy into fat, but there is another system designed to get the fat out into the blood stream to fuel bodily processes as needed. Food labels deal with what is in the food, not what happens once it is in the body. Besides, much depends on the context. If you had your Red Vines during a 15-minute bike ride, hardly any of it would end up as fat.

Q. Isn't there a big difference between soybean oil and palm oil? A national cracker manufacturer (Nabisco Triscuit) lists in its ingredients soybean and/or palm oil. I believe that there is significant nutritional difference between these two oils. Isn't this deceptive listing? Why are they allowed to use the red-heart seal on their product if one oil is questionable? Should we stop using this product?

M.P., San Diego, Calif.

A. The red-heart seal on the product relates to the fact that Triscuits are made from whole-wheat flour, and they are low in saturated fat. The ingredient statement indicates that it contains soy and/or palm oil; there is nothing deceptive here.

The Nutrition Facts panel on the package displays what one serving contains in terms of total fat, saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. It also lists protein, cholesterol, sodium, potassium and dietary fiber. This will be the same no matter what combination of soy and/or palm is used.

Your concern about palm oil is misplaced. Palm oil is about 49 percent saturated, 37 percent monounsaturated and 10 percent polyunsaturated.

Although from the same plant, it is quite different from palm kernel oil, which is 82 percent saturated 11 percent monounsaturated and 2 percent polyunsaturated.)

If you enjoy the product, the either/or label is no reason to stop consuming it.

• Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and the author. Write him at "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Newspaper Enterprise Association, 200 Madison Ave., or Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.