February 2012 Issue

Surprising Nutrition Facts on Foods

No internet misinformation or hype here. EN brings you some surprising nutrition facts from our panel of experts.

These days we’re on nutrition information overload—food and diet news is everywhere, from magazines to talk shows to websites. To find valid nutrition information, look for reputable magazines and websites with articles written by credible nutrition experts, such as registered dietitians, who carry the professional suffix “R.D.” behind their names. Be cautious of consumer websites that have products to sell (websites ending with “.com”); instead use reliable websites, such as government organizations (websites ending with “.gov”), universities (websites ending with “.edu”), and evidence-based health organizations (websites ending with “.org”).

Steer clear of misinformation. As the Internet becomes a more popular source of nutrition information, you need to be more vigilant about how reliable the diet advice is. “There is less editorial oversight when it comes to the content found on websites and blogs, which leaves room for the spread of misinformation about nutrition and health,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Jeannie Gazzinga-Moloo, Ph.D., R.D. 

EN consulted with our panel of nutrition experts to bring you truth on some common nutrition misperceptions.
1. A gluten-free diet is not a weight loss diet, reports Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D., dietitian for an Arizona-based supermarket chain. Gluten-free foods aren’t always nutrient-rich, calorie-wise choices, and there’s no evidence a gluten-free diet offers any weight loss—or health—benefits, unless you have a confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy.

2. You can get good sources of vitamin C in surprising places, like potatoes. According to Sylvia Geiger, M.S., R.D., a Vermont-based nutrition consultant, most people link vitamin C with citrus, but potatoes are also high, containing 48 percent DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day) in one large potato. You can also get more than 10 percent DV from these vegetables: asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, peas, peppers, pumpkin, radishes, squash, and tomatoes.

3. Sardines and herring are high in omega-3s, too. Sure, salmon is a well-recognized source of omega-3 fatty acids, but there are much smaller fish to fry when it comes to omega-3 content. According to Geiger, sardines and herring are not only rich in omega-3s, they also contain vitamin D and calcium (if eaten with their soft bones.)

4. Organic foods aren’t necessarily healthy, reports Lisa Sisson, M.M., R.D., assistant professor, Grand Valley State University, Michigan. The organic label means that the food meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for organic production, that is, without most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and genetically engineered ingredients. But this doesn’t mean that organic jelly beans are any less a junk food than regular jelly beans.

5. Herbs and spices are good sources of antioxidants, according to Ruhs. Many people associate antioxidants with foods like berries, nuts and tomatoes, but herbs and spices also are concentrated sources of these compounds. Include them in your every-day recipes to significantly increase your intake of disease-protective antioxidants. 

6. Low-fat does not always equal healthy. Geiger reports that many people believe low-fat snacks such as pretzels are one of the healthiest choices. But pretzels are made mostly of white flour, topped with crystals of salt; you’re better off eating nutrient-rich snacks like nuts, fruit or yogurt.

7. Lots of surprising foods, such as bread and cereal, can be high in sodium. Ruhs reports that people may know that processed foods, such as snack foods, canned soups, and cold cuts, can be high in sodium, but they may not be aware that other foods also are. Bread can contain up to 400 milligrams (mg,) ready-to-eat cereals up to 230 mg, and salsa up to 310 mg per serving.

8. Sugar does not produce ADD in kids. You can’t blame sugar on every disorder under the sun, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), says Sisson; there’s simply no scientific evidence to support it. But it’s true that you should watch your sugar intake, because eating too much has been linked with weight gain, obesity and metabolic disorders. The American Heart Association recommends cutting down to no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons for men. 

9. Eggs don’t raise cholesterol levels as much as saturated fat does. Eggs are a nutrient-rich protein source that also furnishes the important eye health nutrient, lutein. There’s more scientific evidence pointing to saturated fats, found in animal and dairy foods, such as hamburgers and whole milk, as the culprit behind higher blood cholesterol than for eggs. “Eggs get a bad rap,” says Joy Blakeslee, R.D., a Seattle-based culinary and nutrition communications expert. “The fact that eggs raise heart disease risk is disputable.”

10. Popcorn is a whole grain. Call upon this crunchy, low-calorie, satisfying snack as an ideal way to rack up one of your three daily suggested servings of whole grains, recommends Sisson. Just remember that if you choose popcorns that contain large amounts of added saturated or trans fats—or worse yet, dive into movie popcorn—you’ll quickly diminish the benefits of eating more whole grains. 

11. Processed foods provide more salt than the salt shaker. Geiger reports that people often focus on shunning the salt shaker at the table, but only 10 percent of our salt intake comes from this source—the lion’s share is from prepared and processed foods, such as restaurant meals, canned soups, processed meats, and side dish mixes.

12. Fresh produce is not always best. Preserved fruits and veggies— canned, frozen, or dried—can be just as healthy as fresh, according to Deanna Segrave-Daly, R.D., L.D.N, a nutrition communications expert based in Philadelphia. Compared with off-season fresh produce that’s picked green and shipped for long distances, preserved fruits and vegetables (but without added sugar or salt) can be a better choice.

13. Greek yogurt does not contain as much calcium as regular yogurt. The country’s going through a Greek yogurt craze, but Geiger reports you might be surprised to know that, while it’s higher in protein, a six-ounce carton of Greek yogurt contains only 20 percent DV of calcium, compared with 50 percent DV of calcium in traditional yogurt (depending on the brand.) Although Greek yogurt, which goes through a straining process that produces a thick, tangy yogurt, is a healthy, whole food, this may be a concern if you’re relying on it to furnish your daily calcium requirement.

14. Fruits and veggies can contribute to your daily fluid intake. It’s important to drink enough water every day, but did you know you’re “drinking water” in every bite of produce? Some are particularly high sources, according to Blakeslee. Apricots, berries, cantaloupe, oranges, peaches, pineapple, watermelon, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, and lettuce consist of at least 85 percent water.

15. Farm-raised fish can be an eco-friendly choice, according to Segrave-Daly. With demand for omega-3 rich seafood on the rise, some experts believe that sustainable aquaculture—the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish and crustaceans done in an environmentally sustainable fashion, may be a practical step in feeding the world’s population.

—Sharon Palmer, R.D.