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How-to Guide for Dietitians: Review the Science

Nutrition is a tricky business. Everyone eats, and everyone has an opinion about what the best diet is, or which foods or beverages you should or shouldn’t eat. On top of this there’s the dietary supplement market – a multimillion dollar industry that’s poorly regulated.

Chew the Facts® stands for science. I’m passionate about helping consumers distinguish facts from myth. With daily headlines focusing on soundbites from the latest dietary study, even health professionals can be misled or get confused. 

Every study isn’t a good study, nor a conclusive one. I had the chance to interview Kevin Klatt about how to review the science. Kevin is a PhD Candidate in Molecular Nutrition at Cornell University, Division of Nutritional Sciences. Here’s what Klatt had to say about how to decipher the meaningful research from everything else.

What resources should dietitians use when validating research or nutrition topics in the news?

Nutrition topics in the news are often subject to ‘single study syndrome’ – the results get heavily publicized and spiced up, but are not placed into the context of the greater body of evidence. I think that its key for RD/RDNs to immediately ask themselves, “What do we know and how does this new research fit into what we knew before”. Apart from the occasional landmark trial, such as the recent peanut allergy prevention trial (the LEAP trial), few studies wildly transform our knowledge on a topic. Going to the Academy’s Evidence Analysis Library, the USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s database and Cochrane’s Library are great places to start when finding out what we (think we) know about a topic and contextualizing new research. In addition to these, there are many websites/blogs which get ‘fast takes’ from experts (sites such as the Science Media Centre and Health News Review are two examples) which RD/RDNs might consider in their analysis. 

What questions should dietitians be asking when reading research studies?

I ask myself a few core things when reading research studies:

  • What type of study is this? Where does it fall in the evidence hierarchy (e.g. meta analyses, trials, observational, animals/cells, etc)? Is the evidence causal and what level of bias is in the study?
  • What hypothesis is being tested and was it preregistered? Pre-registry is important for ensuring that authors are reporting on what they designed the study to assess; studies which aren’t preregistered or are reporting on un-registered outcomes exhibit a higher risk of providing false positive/biased findings (See here).
  • What outcomes were measured? How meaningful are these (both scientifically and to your patient/client)? 
  • What is the most ideal study design to answer this question? Did the authors of this paper employ that design? 
  • What conclusions can we draw from this study, given its strengths and limitations? 
  • How does this research fit into the greater body of evidence surrounding this topic? I often do that by identifying systematic reviews and meta analyses, as well as some narrative reviews by experts in the field, regarding the issue. 
  • The last but most important thing that I ask myself is: “Is this something that patients/clients would find meaningful/valuable?”. 

Increasingly, we’re seeing more systematic looks at the evidence, and the news is reporting on systematic reviews and meta-analyses. This is generally a good thing, because it reduces bias in the assessment of the literature, relative to more narrative reviews written by experts. Understanding how to interpret systematic reviews and meta-analyses is critical. Some tools for assessing the quality of this kind of research are the Cochrane Handbook and the AMSTAR quality assessment tool

Where is the best place to find the best nutrition research?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Society of Nutrition journals are go-to reads for RD/RDNs. Relevant trials and cohort analyses are often published in specialty journals and there might be some additional trials which are published within these (e.g. American Heart Association journals for Cardiology focused RD/RDNs). Members of these societies will have access to these journals. The UAB Obesity and Energetics Offerings is additional resource; they do a great weekly roundup of research in the field that I highly recommend following:

The National Academies of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) also regularly puts out reports related to nutrition and health. These reports provide a wealth of information and are often the basis of public policy – and they are freely accessible! I’m a huge advocate for going back and reading old NAM/IOM reports and keeping up with the news – it’ll give you the most well rounded perspective on evidence-based nutrition.

For those without a university library subscription services, probably the best place to find emerging nutrition research is through social media – a number of groups/pages on Facebook and accounts on twitter post and discuss current research, and kind folks may even email you a pdf of the paper! Nutrition & Dietetics is so broad and interdisciplinary; social media can definitely help find others in your research niche. 

Lastly, podcasts are fast becoming a great place to hear about research. Individual science podcasts often discuss research, and many journals have started to do podcasts with authors. There’s a ton of podcasts to explore but I’d specifically recommend the Sage Nutrition and Dietetics podcasts for updates from Nutrition in Clinical Practice and the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.



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How Do You Like Them Apples?

I had the pleasure of touring some of the apple orchards of Washington State in September upon invitation from Arctic Apples. Just when you think you know enough about farming, you realize there’s always more to learn. I was absolutely blown away about “where apples come from”. [The travel for the trip was covered by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, but the opinions I share here are my own].

One of my favorite lines in the film Good Will Hunting is when Will gets the girl’s phone number and throws it into his rival’s faces, stating

“Do you like apples?…Well how do you like dem apples?”

Soon, there will be a new apple in town. It tastes great, and won’t brown. The first question that many people ask is “Why would we need a non-browning apple?” So let me start there…

Have you ever cut into a perfect looking apple to see that it’s brown and soft inside? Have you ever sliced a bunch of apples for a fruit tray, and even though you squeezed lemon juice on them, some of them still turn brown? Would you like to chop apples into your salads without them turning brown? Have you ever spent time packing lunches for your children in the morning, only to find the bag of sliced apples come home uneaten at the end of the day?

Arctic Apples® won’t do that. Having a non-browning apple on the market will not only curb food waste, but it opens up opportunities for new recipes utilizing apples. Apples are great sources of fiber, vitamins C, and potassium.

  • Fewer apples wasted (currently about 40% of apples grown are wasted)
  • Less water and fuel
  • Higher quality apples reduces loss

Apple Farming

You may have an apple tree in your yard, like I do. Or you may even visit a local orchard. I grew up with several fruit trees in my back yard as a child – cherries, peaches, plums, pears, and apples. They were trees. The peach trees were small, but the cherry, apple and pear trees were pretty big.

Washington state boasts the largest apple production in the country. Apples are Washington’s largest agricultural grown product.

During this tour, we got to see the whole process of growing apples on large-scale apple farms. If you’ve ever visited a winery, these apple trees look more like grape vines – strung on a trellis, bearing many apples, from a fairly small trunk. They are not big trees at all.

Root orchard.

Modern apple farming involves using rootstock and grafting techniques.

Each stem will provide the root for the apple tree. This root is no particular apple until the variety is grafted onto it. Some rootstock dates back to the late 1800s!

Some apple farmers specialize in just rootstock. Hundreds of rootstock acres are planted and sold to other apple farmers who grow apple varieties, using grafting or chipping techniques. Farmers use different grafting techniques in which a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree.

This “chip” will be inserted into the rootstock stem to create the desired variety of apple.

Another type of grafting is “budding”, in which a single bud or “chip” is inserted into a stock. All modern commercially grown apple trees are grown by grafting, rather than by planting seeds.

Why Arctic Apples®?

The fact is, people don’t like eating brown apples, and an apple farmer and scientist by the name of Neal Carter figured out a way to keep apples from browning by silencing the enzyme that causes browning. When an apple is bruised or cut, an enzyme called PPO (polyphenol oxidase) is triggered and causes oxidative browning. The non-browning apples have all of the same nutrition as regular Golden Delicious apples, but won’t brown when bitten, sliced or bruised.

Neal and Louisa Carter sought to address the stagnant apple consumption in North America by providing a new way to consume apples: Pre-sliced.

Less than two percent of apples are currently sold as fresh slices, and Arctic apples will change that statistic, without using preservatives. Their hope is that ready-to-eat sliced apples will increase apple consumption in more Americans, just as carrot consumption increased with the introduction of “baby carrots” sold ready-to-eat in bags.

At this time Arctic Apples® will only be delivered to certain undisclosed markets. There are currently two varieties: Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. They’ll be delivered to market pre-sliced in a zippered bag (similar to how some grapes are packaged).

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Does Antibiotics Use on the Farm Impact the Food on Your Plate?

I am working with the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council through September 2017. This post includes a link to a blog that was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own. 

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Bacteria become antibiotic resistant when the antibiotic kills sensitive bacteria, leaving behind antibiotic-resistant bacteria. You’ve likely heard news about this issue, whether in the context of human overuse of antibiotics or use in animals.

“It isn’t just a Midwest United States issue, it’s an international issue,” says Brad Greenway, a South Dakota pig farmer and member of the National Pork Board’s Antibiotic Task Force.

I recently discussed animal antibiotic use with Brad, who says farmers recognize the need to stay on top of this global issue. Antibiotic resistance is an issue that encompasses animal health and human health. Brad reports that antibiotics are highly monitored and only used when needed.

Your Children See the Pediatrician, Farm Animals See the Veterinarian

If you have children, you know that going to the pediatrician forcheck-ups and vaccines are important. Consumers may not realize that just as you work with your pediatrician, livestock farmers work closely with veterinarians on a regular basis. Since antibiotics can only be used when medically necessary, farmers are in weekly contact with the vets who monitor and advise farmers all of the time.

Are Antibiotic Residues Left in Our Food?

No. Vets advise farmers about withdrawal times as well as the type and dose of medicine. This withdrawal is highly monitored and assures there is no residue left in the meat we consume. There’s no trace of antibiotic is left in the animal when it goes to market.

What are Farmers Doing About Antibiotic Resistance

Me holding a healthy piglet from South Dakota University’s research barn.

The number one goal is to use antibiotics only when necessary. To meet this goal, he recommends that farmers have a strong relationship with their vet. Along with their vet, a farmer can continually evaluate animals that may be under stress when weaned or transported.

Every antibiotic, whether an injectable or oral antibiotic given in feed or water, requires a prescription from a veterinarian. Antibiotics that are medically important to human illness cannot be used to promote growth in animals either.

Farmers employ standards in the use and documentation of antibiotics:

  • Communication with the veterinarian: Farmers stay in touch with their vet, who determines any need to treat the whole barn to prevent illness or else experience losses
  • Document everything: Farmers document the type, dose, duration, and withdrawal periods when antibiotics are used.
  • Follow withdrawal schedules.
  • Improve documentation tools: Brad is concerned about proper use of antibiotics and looks for better tools that farmers can use to document and track antibiotic use. Currently, antibiotic use is documented based on sales. Farmers and vets are working on developing new tools that could better document use per animal, per pound.

Just as you want to keep your family safe and healthy, farmers want to keep their animals safe and healthy so they can get food onto your table, and their own. Responsible use of antibiotics is in everyone’s best interest.

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Food Safety from Farm to Fork

I am working with the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council through September 2017. This post includes a link to a blog that was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own. 

When you think about food safety you may think of employee hand washing practices in restaurants or other food service areas. Or maybe food recalls also come to mind.

You may be very surprised to learn that farmers continuously consider food safety measures too. Careful food safety measures are taken on the farm, in food delivery and processing, storage and handling. The food safety measures you practice in your kitchen are similar to the standardized safety measures used on the farm. Farmers have standards of practice just like any other industry, and continuously evaluate their practices to ensure the health and safety of their animals and to deliver a safe food product. 

How Farmers Maintain a Safe and Healthy Environment on the Farm

Brad Greenway is a South Dakota pig farmer and reports that livestock farmers are always focused on several key areas to be sure food is safe from farm to plate. Biosecurity is one of them.

Biosecurity on the farm refers to management practices that are designed to minimize or prevent infectious bacteria and diseases making their way onto a farm. This includes managing or limiting the number of people and vehicles that are on the farm, cleaning barns and equipment, immunizing animals, and monitoring and maintaining the environment where the animals live.

Brad is also a member of the National Pork Board’s Antibiotic Task Force and says farmers recognize the need to stay on top of this issue.  For instance, on his farm, he highly monitors the use of antibiotics among his pigs and only uses them when needed.

“If one or a few piglets seem listless or sick, they are treated with the right antibiotic, at the right time, in the right dose,” says Brad. “This is simply the right thing to do.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is a world-wide issue of concern which encompasses the health care industry, health care workers, individuals, policy makers, and the agricultural sector. Farmers are highly aware that antibiotic resistance is a hot topic.

Food Safety at the Plate

Just as farmers care about food safety on the farm, you should do so in your kitchen. Keep your kitchen clean and be aware of proper food handling.

  • Check for proper cooking temperatures. Did you know that pork no longer needs to be cooked “well done”? Today’s pork can be safe by cooking to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F. The lower cooking temperatures make for a more delicious, juicy and tender end product too. Use a food thermometer to check doneness.
  • Understand sell-by dates. Food waste is a growing issue, by understanding these use by and sell-by dates, you’ll waste less food and money.
  • Always wash cutting boards in hot soapy water. Avoid “cross contamination” by never using the same knife, utensil or cutting board that you’ve cut meat on for other food (such as vegetable, fruit or bread).
  • Store foods properly. An easy rule is “keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot”. Bacteria begins to grow after about two hours, so if you are serving a buffet or having a picnic, be sure to refrigerator or keep leftovers in coolers at that time.
  • Always wash your hands frequently when handling raw or cooked food.

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Simple Pear Crisp

Who doesn’t love pie? But pie takes a bit more time and skill than a simple fruit crisp.

Instead of going to the trouble of pie crust, adding an oat topping to sliced fruit is a great way to enjoy a dessert that gets a serving of fruit into your day! To make this dessert in even less time, consider adding a peeler to your kitchen gadget cabinet. I love this one. It not only makes peeling and coring quicker, it makes even slices. Plus, the kids may enjoy helping you so it’s perfect for Family Meals Month®!

Adding this fruit crisp to this week’s menu may help your child succeed. Did you know that kids from elementary school to high school who eat meals with their families four times a week or more earn better test scores? Crisps are so easy to throw together and make a healthy dessert. Here’s how to do it.

Make Family Dinner Easy with a Slow Cooker and a Pan

Life can sure get hectic at times. If you’re a parent, then it may be even more hectic. Between work, grocery shopping, after school activities, and homework, evenings are often rushed and late. Getting dinner on the table should be a fun event, and it can be.

The key to creating balanced, easy suppers, is to plan ahead. Using a slow cooker allows you to whip dinner together quickly because you can get the time-consuming part done – your protein. And you can make extra for multiple uses. Vegetables can take a bit of extra prep time too, so chopping vegetables when you buy them, saves time when preparing the actual meal. You can also buy frozen vegetables such as sliced bell peppers with onions (sometimes called fajita mix), cubed butternut squash or frozen shredded potatoes.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Use the slow cooker. There are so many options here.
    • You can add 3 chicken breasts with seasoning and about a cup of water or low sodium chicken broth, cook on low for 5-6 hours. The chicken breasts can be shredded and used in tacos, burrito bowls, salads, or wraps.
    • Add 2-3 peeled, sliced apples, place a 2 pound pork loin, season lightly with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup vegetable stock. Cook 5-6 hours. Serve on hearty rolls for a hot sandwich supper, or add to rice for a one dish meal.

      Slow cooked pork loin sandwich with a side of roasted kale, Brussels Sprouts and sweet potatoes.

  • Roast Vegetables. Not only do roasted vegetables taste amazing, they are so easy. You can make a big batch, and save leftovers for another meal. Just cube a bunch of your favorite vegetables, spread on a lightly greased cookie sheet (I use olive oil), and place in a 400 degree oven for 35 minutes. This week I bought a bag of small Brussels Sprouts, sliced onion, and cubed a few sweet potatoes. I drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
  • Think one-dish meals. Pasta and rice is a simple base to top with vegetables and protein. Skillet meals are easy and quick. I made this “Meatball Fondue” this week, and it was a hit. We added a tossed green salad to complete the meal. I made the meatball mixture ahead and refrigerated, the after work, the whole meal only took 20-30 minutes to put together. If you don’t have time for that, simply substitute frozen meatballs.
  • While they are higher in sodium than making a from-scratch recipe, boxed rice and bean dishes are an easy and nutritious starter to a meal. You can simply add a small lean steak or pork loin, or you can just enjoy a meatless meal of rice and beans, and add some fresh fruit or tossed salad to it.
  • Don’t forget dessert! A simple scoop of ice cream can’t get any easier. And a fruit crisp is pretty quick too. We had some pears from our backyard tree this week, so I used those. Simply spray an 8×8 baking dish with vegetable spray, place 4-6 cups sliced pears (or apples) onto bottom of dish, and add a crumb mixture on top (1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup oats, 1/4 cup flour, 3 TB vegetable oil or butter – mix to combine). Bake for 35 minutes in a 375 oven. 

The most important thing is that you set a goal to sit down and eat dinner as a family more often. Sure, I’d like you to offer a balanced, healthy meal, and try new foods and add more veggies, but start by sitting together. Set the table, use real dishes, use napkins, divvy up the chores, and enjoy a family meal!


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Balanced but Practical Lunches for Teens: What-ever!

With school back in session, it’s lunch packing season. Now that you have a teenager, you know that the days of love notes and cutting sandwiches into fun shapes for your finicky child are over, but lunch still needs to be enticing enough to eat, and still provide the nutrition your teen needs to stay healthy and learn. 

Even though nutrition is still so important during the teen years (they’re still growing), teenagers tend to take a “Whatever!” attitude about, well, everything you recommend. Anyone who has a 13 year old is all too familiar with the “eye-roll”, but once children reach middle school, what others think of them is one of their biggest worries. The eyes at school may even be on their packed lunch.

Lunch time at school is also a social time, a time where kids see what other students eat, exchange snacks, and become part of the lunch room scene. Give them the resources they need, but the struggle into their hands and let them be in charge of lunch.

If your middle or high-schooler is packing a lunch, consider this:

  • Even though they may not think they still need to drink milk, teenagers still do need calcium. The requirement for 13-18 year olds is 1300 milligrams a day. The easiest way to ensure they get it: 4 servings of milk. One serving is the equivalent of 8ounces fluid milk, 8 ounces yogurt, 1/2 cup ricotta, 2 cups cottage cheese, or 1 1/2 ounces cheese. I always encourage milk as a beverage with meals. You can’t force it on them, but you can remind them that calcium supports strong bones and healthy smiles. I often “get scientific” with my kids (if you don’t keep up with your milk, your bones will break when your my age).
  • Variety is important, but lunch periods are often short. Every school (and kid) is different, but be understanding of the amount of time they may have to sit down and eat it. Sometimes convenience items like an applesauce cup over an apple or a protein bar instead of a meal or sandwich, may be easier for a shorter lunch period.
  • Allow your teen to help plan and shop for lunch items. Encourage healthy choices but involve your teen in the choice. Allow a “junky” food by balancing it with a fruit or vegetable. Encourage fruits and vegetables, but let them decide which ones. Let this struggle go.
  • Some kids may choose monotony during the school year. My sons pretty much packed the same lunch every day during the school year (PBJ sandwich, applesauce/banana/grapes or other fruit, chips or a cookie, and milk). Offer a larger variety during the summer, and at dinner time all year. Simple and easy is okay.

[Of course the easiest way to ensure a balanced lunch is to utilize the school lunch program. School Lunch has come a long way and many schools are offering amazing options. The only reason my sons didn’t buy lunch was the time factor.]

Here are some simple packed lunch meal plans. Teens love nothing more than independence, so let them pack whatever, whenever they want, and drop the worries:

Old Fashioned PBJ

  • Peanut butter and strawberry jelly on whole wheat or white bread (don’t go nuts over white bread if that’s what your kids enjoy)
  • A serving of fruit and/or raw carrots or small salad 
  • 8-16 ounces milk
  • 1 ounce bag of chips or 2 cookies

New Age Hipster

  • Roasted chicken wrap
  • Quinoa salad with cranberries
  • 8-16 ounces Almond Milk
  • Baby carrots with hummus

Salad Lover

  • Chopped baby kale with slivered almonds, sliced strawberries, feta cheese (add tuna or leftover grilled chicken)
  • Whole wheat pita pocket
  • 8 ounces milk

Submarine Sammy

  • Crunchy French roll with baked ham, turkey, provolone cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato
  • 1 ounce chips
  • Bunch of green grapes
  • 8-16 ounces chocolate milk

Lunch packing doesn’t have to be fancy or stressful. Just encourage them not to pack a bag of junk, and no skipping! By keeping the healthy lunch ingredients they want in the house, along with brown bags, sandwich and snack sized zipper bags, and your teen can pack his or her own balanced lunch whenever they want (and there will be something in there, thanks to your behind the scenes grocery shopping). When they ask you about what they should pack for lunch, your new motto can be: “Whatever”.

Feel free to share your teen lunch tips or struggles in the comment section.




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Fall into Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits

Summer goes by so quickly and here we are starting a new school year. I find that the rest of the world tends to match the school year schedule, with less work during summer, and then Fall gets busy very quickly.

As this busy season begins, be sure to have your eating habits in check. What have you been working on? Consuming less refined carbohydrates? Less alcohol? More fiber? More dairy?

The best diet is a healthy plan that you can maintain. Not only is the DASH Diet plan something supported by science to lower blood pressure and manage weight, but it’s pretty easy to adopt. A Mediterranean style diet is similar, and also pretty easy and delicious to adhere to. If you’d like some help getting on track, try my coaching services. In the meantime, start working on these goals this fall:

  • Plan a good breakfast, and add some protein to it. Have a batch of hard cooked eggs in the fridge so they are ready to eat. Try a half-cup of cottage cheese or ricotta with some fruit to go along with a slice of whole grain bread. Spread peanut butter onto an English muffin, and enjoy with a latte. Oatmeal makes a great breakfast too.
  • If you have children, make your own lunch when you make theirs. I found that I’d pack a great lunch for my kids, and then not spend any time planning mine (and it’d often end up less balanced).
  • Think more vegetables. When dining out, look for the veggie side dishes to go with your entree.
  • Choose lean meat cuts. Many people think it’s “bad” to include meats such as beef or pork in their diet, and then they feel guilty when they eat them. Don’t feel bad! Just choose lean cuts and smaller portions (5-7 ounces) and go ahead and plan meals with beef or pork through the week. Including some beef in your diet is also an easy way to ensure you’re getting the iron you need.
  • Get your omega-3 fatty acids. Adding salmon, trout, eggs, walnuts or flax seed to your diet ensures you get some of these beneficial fats in.

Salmon over sautéed spinach and a side of penne.

  • Add some dairy. Choose a variety of sources – low fat milk, yogurt, full fat cheeses. Be aware that full fat dairy products are going to be higher in calories, so plan accordingly. Dairy foods have been shown to lower blood pressure and are part of the DASH Diet plan.
  • Don’t categorize foods as good and bad. Pasta is not bad. White bread is not bad. Sugar is not bad. Fat is not bad. Foods just need to be balanced in your diet. Variety and portion control are important. Yes you should try to include some whole grains, but you can still make your child a peanut butter and jelly on white bread if that’s what they like. Just balance that by including some other foods with fiber in your diet.
  • Add some beans to your diet. Beans are so nutritious and a great way to add fiber to your. They are high in B vitamins and provide some protein. Add them to salads and soups, rice, burritos, or chilis.
  • Choose beverages wisely. It’s easy to go overboard with calories when you drink them. Sugary or alcoholic drinks may go down easy, but don’t make you full. Alcoholic drinks also tend to increase appetite. Stick to moderation with alcohol (1 drink a day for women, 2 for men).
  • Move more. Any extra movement you can fit into a day is a good thing. Set small goals. When you’re short on time, accept the idea of a 15 minute walk. As I always say, “some exercise is better than no exercise”.

What are your back to school health and fitness goals? Share in the comment section.

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Does the Non-GMO Label have any Impact on Your Health?

This post includes a link to a blog that was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own.

Throughout the course of my 30-year nutrition career, one thing has remained constant: nutrition misinformation. I’ve turned my current communications career into a fact-finding mission by working with the food industry to help consumers understand what’s in their food, the safety of those ingredients, and how to appropriately balance diet and lifestyle. My goal is to help consumers relax and enjoy eating for good health!

What is the Non-GMO Label Doing for You?

Recently there’s been quite a bit of buzz about the non-GMO label. Some feel that labeling should be mandatory because consumers “have a right to know what’s in their food”. Rightly so, (ingredient labels should suffice) but my concern is that the simplicity of a non-GMO front-of-package label may mislead the consumer to assume that:

  1. There is a non-GMO equivalent of that product [there are ten GMO crops available on the US market: soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes]
  2. That a non-GMO product is better than a GMO equivalent

Some consumers also equate “Non-GMO” with environmentally friendly. In reality, this technology can actually save resources. GMO technology helps farmers to maintain soil, reduce pesticide use, increase production, and conserve resources. Sounds pretty environmentally sustainable, right?

These “No” messages don’t equal “healthy”. Don’t feel guilty about having a snack!

What can you actually do for an improved diet?

Eating well is a little bit more complicated than simply avoiding an ingredient. Since GMOs have been shown to be safe, there’s no reason to avoid them. Instead, there are many other things you can work on to improve your diet:

  • Eat more Vegetables: Choose fresh, frozen or canned. If you are looking to reduce sodium, fresh or frozen is best, but some canned vegetables have low sodium options.
  • Choose Fruit: Choose fresh, canned or dried. Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and vitamins and minerals.
  • Add legumes and beans: These nutrition powerhouses provide vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as protein.
  • Choose lean beef, pork and poultry: Provide the protein you need daily, as well as essential minerals including iron and zinc. Enjoy these foods along with a side of veggies.
  • Add dairy foods: Milk provides calcium, protein, potassium, vitamin D, and phosphorous. Research shows that including dairy in a balanced diet can help with weight control and blood pressure.
  • Use a moderate amount of fat: Include heart-healthy fats such as canola oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, soybean or other liquid vegetable oils. Also, adding nuts, seeds, or avocado to snacks and salads is another way to add healthy fat to your diet. While coconut oil was recently in the news, it should only be consumed in small amounts. Your total fat intake should be moderate, and you should focus on choosing liquid oils in cooking, but using small amounts.
  • Fiber-rich grains: Such as barley, oats, bran cereals are essential for digestive health.

Healthy eating is a life long challenge. Set goals to eat a balanced diet with lots of variety. Add more vegetable dishes into your diet, choose lean meats most often, include low fat dairy regularly, try new whole grain dishes, and enjoy treats in moderation.

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This Little Piggy Went to Market

I had the opportunity to visit the lovely city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and local area farms recently for a farm immersion trip sponsored by the National Pork Council. While my travel expenses were paid, I was not paid to write this post, but wanted to share what I learned.

A litter of piglets resting with their siblings

There seems to be all sorts of dietary disconnect going on in America these days. There are gluten-free dieters, Paleo diet worshippers, Vegans, Pescatarians, and everything in between. People are fussy about their food and have very strong opinions about “what you should eat”. While health can be sustained enjoying a plant-focused diet that includes meat products, many vegetarians or vegans push their dietary choices onto others by creating ugly images of farming.

The Dichotomy of Animal Welfare and BBQ

So you want good BBQ, but you don’t want any animal harmed? “Animal welfare” comes up often in consumer surveys as a concern. I think the idea may have started when Chipotle ran animated commercials showcasing poor animal farming conditions (the cartoon version), perpetuating the notion that “factory farms” are “cruel”.

Over the past six years I’ve visited several real farms, and have had the opportunity to meet several farmers and their families. I also live in a rural area, and we know several families who run farms. All of these people are genuine and hard-working. They take offense to the rumors flying around about “factory farms”, poor treatment of animals, and lack of concern for the environment. This is their business, their livelihood, their family heritage. In actuality “factory farms” are large farms where animals are humanely raised for food; and 97% of pig farms are family-owned.

In every case, the farms I’ve visited have been cared for and sustained for generations. The owners of the land care properly for their animals, and preserve their land. They use advancing technologies to help them manage soil, water, crops and animals.

Sure you may be thinking, “well of course the farms you visited were nice”, and this is true. No organization is going to send you into a “messy office” to showcase an example of their work. I’m sure there are poorly run farms, and irresponsible farmers, just as there are irresponsible people in every profession. But overall, I can’t imagine too many having the desire to take on so much work and responsibility, for so little money, unless they were truly passionate about farming, devoted to the land, and cared about their animal livestock.

The Science of Farming and the Tour

There are several universities around the country that have animal science schools and South Dakota State University is one of them. It’s a beautiful campus with top notch Animal Science and Nutrition Science departments.

We had the opportunity to visit the Swine Education and Research Center where we heard from Russ Daly (Veterinarian and Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department), Dr. Erin Cortus (coordinator of the Environmental Training Program for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), Dr. Bob Thaler (PhD in Swine Nutrition and the South Dakota Extension Swine Specialist), and Dr Kendra Kattelman (dietitian and Director of Dietetics SDSU).

The Swine Life

We have four backyard chickens. They’re kept in a small coop (a chicken tractor which gives them fresh grass every day when it’s moved). They seem to like being close to each other and are healthy egg-layers. Pigs don’t seem to mind being close to each other either. When people become worried about “animals being penned up” or in close quarters, they likely don’t consider all of the details as farmers do. First of all, these pigs are being raised for food. This is a business that ultimately sends a product to market for its customers.

What animal science facilities continually do is work on ways to keep animals safe and healthy so they can produce the best pork products in the most efficient manner. Care for the environment and the animal are top concerns, and amazing systems have been created to ensure progress.

For instance, let’s look at manure management. As larger livestock operations are in place to meet demands, the total number of livestock has remained relatively unchanged; but, more livestock are kept in confinement (to both keep them at consistent, comfortable temperatures, safe, control disease, and manage manure). Dr. Erin Cortus is an expert in air quality and manure management (yes, there’s a science for that!). Manure analysis and soil analysis data is done so that nitrogen levels meet but do not exceed the crop’s needs.

“Manure management is about minimizing risks and losses. Through responsible management practices, we can retain more of the manure nutrients for use by the crop (replacing inorganic fertilizers), rather than losing the nutrients to the air and surrounding environment”, says Cortus

Scientists like Dr. Cortus are very interested in the emissions that result from raising agricultural animals, and are continually working to analyze systems and reduce emissions. Manure is analyzed for content which can tell the scientist how well the pig is eating and digesting, and also helps them with soil management. The manure is collected from an underground storage system that allows the manure to pass through grates in the stalls and pens. The collected manure is “harvested” every six months, when it’s vacuumed out of the barns, and into holding tanks so it can be used for fertilizer.

Happy Pigs

Some people have a utopian vision of animals roaming free in the fields, but this isn’t necessarily ideal when it comes to raising high quality protein. Housing pigs indoors allows the farmer to create a safe environment for the animals, control temperatures and air quality, and make them more comfortable.

Equipment that regulates barn temperatures and air quality. During various developmental stages, pigs prefer different temperatures and conditions.

Keeping pregnant sows in pens also keeps them secure and allows the farmer to monitor their calories and health.

Gestation Crates keep sows safe. When in large groups, dominant sows will become aggressive, and could injure other sows.

Mama pig hydrating

When the pregnant sow is ready to give birth, they are moved to farrow pens, Piglets are born (or farrowed), in farrow pens designed to keep the mama pig comfortable and fed without the risk of harming the piglets (by sitting or stepping on them).

Farrow stall

Bottom Line

Here’s the deal. To supply pork products to supermarkets and restaurants everywhere, you have to raise and harvest pigs. While there’s also some public misconception about what’s best for the animal being raised, farmers take animal welfare concerns seriously, and are becoming more and more transparent.

There’s a logical, evidence-supported reason for every farming practice. The next time you hear something negative about farming or agriculture, ask a farmer your questions.



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