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Hispanic Foods Get Nutritional Thumbs-up

Mexican cheeses, teas do more than tantalize your tastebuds, studies find

WEDNESDAY, March 16, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Hispanic fare may not seem like health food, but new studies suggest that two south-of-the-border delicacies do more than stimulate your tastebuds.

U.S. researchers report that Hispanic cheese is as nutritional as American standbys such as cheddar and Monterey Jack. And on the beverage side, scientists found that Hispanic herbal teas may actually be better for you than green tea.

The scientists released their findings March 15 during a day-long symposium on the chemical makeup and flavor of Hispanic food at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.

On the dairy front, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists reported that they've sifted through the chemical makeup of several types of Hispanic cheese that are becoming more popular in the United States.

"You have this expanding Hispanic population in the United States, and they prefer a certain kind of food they grew up with," said Michael Tunick, research chemist with the USDA. "But much of it hasn't been researched at all."

Tunick and his colleagues are looking at several types of Mexican cheeses, including cotija, which is similar in texture to parmesan cheese, and asadero and queso quesadilla, which are more like mozzarella. There are also soft cheeses like queso blanco and queso fresco, which don't have American equivalents, Tunick said. They're made fresh and must be eaten within a week or two.

"The protein and calcium levels are all pretty high," Tunick said. "They're all nutritious just like other cheeses -- they're something else that's going to be good for you."

There aren't any federal standards in the United States classifying the Hispanic cheeses, Tunick said. "Anybody can market any kind of Hispanic cheese under any name they want," he said.

But research by Tunick and his colleagues may lead to new regulations like those that specify the makeup of common cheeses in this country, he said. The rules would allow the Hispanic cheeses to be served in federally funded school lunches, he said.

Some of the cheeses are made of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, and there have been reports of contamination. But cheese distributed by reputable companies should be safe, he said.

However, not all cheeses from Mexico are safe. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene warned Tuesday that several types of cheese imported from Mexico, particularly queso fresco, might be contaminated with Mycobacterium bovis, which causes tuberculosis.

One baby has died and dozens of New Yorkers contracted tuberculosis between 2001 and 2004 by eating cheese made from raw milk that was contaminated with bacteria, city and federal officials said Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to consumers against eating "any unripened raw-milk soft cheeses from Mexico, Nicaragua or Honduras," the newspaper reported.

The FDA said the contaminated cheeses pose heightened health risks, particularly to pregnant women, newborns, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

In another study presented at the chemical society meeting, U.S. researchers found that a kind of Hispanic tea known as mate is especially high in antioxidants, which help the body protect itself from the negative effects of oxygen.

Hispanic herbal teas are becoming more popular in American coffeehouses, said study co-author Elvira de Mejia, an assistant professor of food and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In many countries, people drink these types of teas instead of lemonade," she said.

She and her colleagues looked at all three types of Hispanic herbal tea -- -- ardisia, roselle (hibiscus) and mate -- and found that mate tea in particular appears to offer strong health benefits. Some mate brands were higher in antioxidants than green tea, which is well-known for its medicinal powers.

De Mejia recommended that people who wish to drink tea for their health consume three to four cups a day. "The general message is that it's better to drink tea than Coke or any other soft drink," she said.

Not all of the news about Hispanic food at the meeting dealt with health. A team of researchers from the International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. reported that it has uncovered some of the secrets of the fabled margarita. They analyzed the flavor "components" of tequila, lime and orange, and found that margaritas created from the three ingredients are a "very complex" blend of flavor compounds.

The researchers said they hope to use the study to improve the taste of margaritas and produce new food products based on its flavor.

More information

To learn more about antioxidants, visit the National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Michael Tunick, Ph.D., research chemist, Eastern Regional Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wyndmoor, Pa.; Elvira de Mejia, Ph.D., assistant professor, food and nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; March 15, 2005, presentations, American Chemical Society annual meeting, San Diego
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