On this episode of Kentucky Health, host Dr. Wayne Tuckson welcomes registered dietician Marianne Smith-Edge to discuss how food choices affect health. Smith-Edge, an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and the founder of AgriNutrition Edge, gives advice on what foods taste good and can provide long-term health benefits.
Organic, Natural, or Modified: What to Eat?
Over the past several decades, food options available to consumers have expanded significantly. Many of these newer products are touted as having health benefits, either by being organically produced or being modified in some fashion. Smith-Edge explains that products labeled as “organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture must be grown in soil that did not contain synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides for three years prior to harvest.
“Some individuals sometime think that if (a food is) organic, that there’s never been any spray to reduce insects,” Smith-Edge says. In fact, insecticides are almost always used, she adds, but the ones used on organic foods are natural products that are still monitored during the process.
“So in that case, if you see USDA organic, it is assured – but it’s a production method,” says Smith-Edge. “It doesn’t mean that the food has more nutrient value.”
Some marketers apply the term “natural” to foods but Smith-Edge says that’s a vague description. It is supposed to mean that the food is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients, but there is no standard, USDA-backed regulation of these products.
The “GMO” designation means that the food is genetically modified, Smith-Edge says, which involves changing the makeup of the item by adding or removing a gene that causes a particular characteristic. These changes may be made to improve nutrition, increase shelf life, eradicate disease, or other reasons. The GMO process has been extensively researched and confirmed as safe by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and other organizations, Smith-Edge confirms.
Only 10 fruits and vegetables have any genetic modification, the most common being corn and soybeans. Smith-Edge says that a couple of different kinds of potatoes and apples that have been genetically modified to prevent browning are also on the market.
GMO has “been portrayed as a negative a lot of times, but it really isn’t – it’s actually helped us to reduce pests,” Smith-Edge says. “It’s also helped us reduce disease, and it has improved health effects.”
One guideline for healthy eating that’s emerged in recent years encourages people to focus their food choices in areas along the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s usually where the produce section is and where one can find fresh seafood or poultry. But Smith-Edge says there’s much more to smart shopping than just circling the store.
“Granted, you will get fresh produce but a lot of times you will get snack food and other things,” she says. “When you get inside the perimeter, what do you have? You have all of these beans and grains that are very important, and all of the fruits and vegetables that are canned.”
Fresh Is Great, but Don’t Ignore Canned and Frozen Options
Cell-cultured meat – that is, meat produced in a laboratory from cells taken from an animal – is a new innovation that is still in early stages of research and development, Smith-Edge says. The process originated in Israel, and questions about cell-cultured meat’s nutritional value and how it should be marketed to consumers persist. “We’re not to where it’s scalable at this point,” Smith-Edge concludes.
Conversely, demand for plant-based “meat” has grown substantially over the past decade, Smith-Edge says. While improvements in taste and texture have made plant-based burgers and other offerings more popular, the nutritionist notes that many of these meatless meals are just as unhealthy, often because high fat ingredients and sodium are added to help mimic the taste of the traditional animal product.
“A colleague and I did a review for a peer-reviewed journal about two years ago,” Smith-Edge says. “We compared seven different plant-based (burgers) with a beef burger and found that the saturated fat content was not any different, and in fact in some cases the 90-percent-lean beef burger had less saturated fat.”
A tried-and-true axiom of healthy eating passed down through generations elevates fresh produce above frozen or canned options. Smith-Edge says there are benefits to eating fruits and vegetables grown in one’s own garden or bought at a farmer’s market, such as good flavor and the comfort of knowing the source of the food.
Still, she says that in terms of nutritional value, the gap between fresh produce and frozen or canned is insignificant for most choices. First of all, Smith-Edge points out that fresh produce has a shorter expiration date, and foodstuffs shipped from far-away states during the winter months, for example, may have lost some of their nutritional value by the time they are purchased in Kentucky.
“We have to be mindful that if we buy (fresh produce), that means it usually requires more preparation and a quick turnaround time, and if not, we contribute to the food waste issues,” she says.
Eating fruits or vegetables that have been canned harkens back to the age-old tradition of farmers setting aside part of their summer crops for the winter months, Smith-Edge explains. “From canned green beans to frozen broccoli, the concept is the same – we’re preserving food at its freshness,” she says. “We’ve gone from home to a commercial (industry), but it’s the same thing… and the advantage with canned products is they are shelf-stable. If the electricity goes out, we still have the products.”
Canned produce is also less expensive to buy than fresh in most cases, Smith-Edge adds. “The only downside would be that sometimes the canned products will, because of preservation, have more sodium – but there is a way to reduce that, and that’s by rinsing (food) before you eat it.”
Smith-Edge says that canned tuna and salmon are go-to options for most consumers, and that viewers should consider canned chicken as well. “It makes a great product – I can put a soup together very quickly by pulling a can of chicken, and it’s good quality,” she notes. The nutritionist does recommend that people purchase foods that are canned in water rather than in high-calorie oil or syrup, especially individuals who may have chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Frozen foods have the benefit of being packaged soon after they are picked (vegetables) or caught (fish, for example). “It’s flash-frozen, so therefore it’s going to retain its nutrients,” she explains. “It’s not exposed to any of the elements during transportation that would (affect) its nutritional value.”