Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Is a spoonful of sugar the way to get the vegetables to go down?

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When I saw this article: “Sugar, salt or sweeteners may be key to getting children to eat greens” last week in the Nutrition Resource Centre “News in Brief” email I knew that I had to read more. I mean, were the authors really suggesting that we should add sugar to veggies to get infants and toddlers to eat them? Or was this just a case of a misleading or misinterpreted press release? I found a copy of the full article: Mary Poppins was right: Adding small amounts of sugar or salt reduces the bitterness of vegetables and set about reading.

One thing that struck me right away was that this study was done with adults, no infants or toddlers, or children of any age were involved in the research. Adult participants were provided with puréed vegetables (broccoli, kale, and spinach) with varying concentrations of added sugar. They were asked to rate them on various attributes, and most importantly, they were asked to indicate whether or not they liked or disliked each sample. I was surprised that the conclusion would be drawn that adding sugar to green vegetables is a reasonable means to encourage infants to eat them (I’m saying infants because these were puréed veggies and as such are really only suitable for babies just starting to eat solid foods) based on ratings by adults. After all, adults have very different palates than infants and have very different relationships with food that have been shaped over decades. To me it seems inappropriate to conclude that because adults preferred sugar sweetened veggies that infants will as well. The authors themselves also state that, “It should be noted that infants and toddlers are also not merely small adults”. However, they also use the analogy of adults beginning coffee consumption with added sugar and gradually weaning off the sugar as justification for proposing adding sugar to vegetables when the World Health Organization, among many other bodies, is currently encouraging reduced consumption of added sugars.

The second thing I wondered about was precisely how much sugar was added to each serving of vegetables. The news article, and much of the journal article, references 1% and 2% concentrations but what did that translate to in teaspoons or grams? It sounds pretty innocuous, right? 1% or 2% is hardly anything. Well, in actuality the 1% was equivalent to the addition of 1/2 teaspoon per serving and the 2% was equivalent to 1 teaspoon per serving. Not an insignificant amount when you’re talking about toddlers who are generally only consuming a tablespoon or two of a food in a serving. Interestingly, the researchers asked parents how comfortable they would be offering their babies vegetables with added sugar in amounts of 8 calories, 16 calories, 1/2 teaspoon, or 1 teaspoon. The 8 calories = 1/2 teaspoon = 1% concentration. The 16 calories = 1 teaspoon = 2% concentration. Essentially asking: how can we frame this added sugar to make it more palatable to parents who are trying to feed their children healthy diets?

Despite the general conclusion that adding sugar to vegetables may encourage young children to eat them, even the ratings by adults were not overwhelmingly improved by the added sugar. For broccoli and kale purées both 1% and 2% sugar increased overall liking. For spinach the 2% sugar (but not the 1%) increased overall liking. For broccoli and spinach the sugar increased the ratings of liking from disliked to liked. However, for kale, even at the highest sugar level ratings never rose above the midpoint (i.e. neither like nor dislike). So, these adults did not like any of the green vegetables to begin with (at least not in puréed form) but after adding higher quantities of sugar they liked the spinach, and even with the smaller quantity of added sugar they liked the broccoli. But neither amount of sugar was enough to get them to like the kale. Would babies have different initial reactions to these vegetables? Would the addition of sugar cause them to change these reactions? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can say based on the results of this study alone.

Just for fun, I took a look at the funding sources for the study after I finished reading it. Can you guess what one of the funding organizations was? If you guess the Sugar Association you’d be correct. I think this explains a lot because honestly I was a bit baffled as to why anyone would be looking into adding sugar to get babies to eat vegetables and why such tenuous conclusions would be drawn and publicized based on the actual findings. But who other than the Sugar Association would think that we need to encourage babies to eat more sugar?

I think a better analogy than the sugar sweetened coffee for this research would be the argument that chocolate milk is a good way to get kids to drink milk or that baking apples into a pie is a good way to encourage fruit consumption. In some ways it’s even worse because infants are at the mercy of their caregivers when it comes to what foods are offered to them and encouraging a preference for only sweet foods at such a young impressionable age could have long lasting implications for their food choices and health throughout their lives.

 


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It ain’t easy feeding greens

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Last week this article: Don’t Make Children Eat Their Greens caught my eye, mainly because of the headline. Great dietitian click-bait Guardian ;)

The article is actually much better than the headline makes it appear but I still have to throw my two-cents into the ring. As the author concedes (near the end of the article and prior to launching into his own advice) he is not a dietitian. It reminded me of a photo I’d seen on Instagram recently. It was a page from a book with a quote along the lines of “Not everyone who eats imagines themselves to be a dietitian”. Which I’m sure will amuse my fellow RDs because, in my experience, nearly everyone who eats does fancy themselves to be dietitians. While lived experience can certainly be valuable, it’s not exactly the gold standard of scientific evidence. I appreciate that the author incorporated viewpoints from professionals, such as a dietitian and psychologist, but I actually found some of the comments he included from them to be a little odd.

According to the RD source for the article, “The human body is very clever and can adapt over generations. It can use what resources it has available”. Which is all well and fine but really has no bearing on feeding children in the here and now. Adapting over generations is not the same as adapting over one’s own lifespan. I can personally decide that I’m going to forego certain essential nutrients and expect that my body will just adapt. Without a source of vitamin C, for example, I would invariably eventually develop scurvy.

The other issue I take with the article comes from a seemingly throw-away comment. The author’s (adult) daughter says that she refused to eat peas (and other green vegetables) growing up because “they don’t taste good”. To which the author writes “They don’t”. And this is an issue that the author misses in much of his advice. That issue is role modelling behaviour. Children learn by watching and if they are watching parents who don’t eat or show displeasure with certain foods they’re quite likely to adopt similar attitudes themselves. I can’t help but wonder, if the author’s attitude was more positive toward peas if his daughter might have developed a more favourable attitude toward them as well.

Much of the other advice in the article is spot-on based on current recommendations. Food should not be used as a reward or punishment, mealtimes should not become battlegrounds, caregivers should respect children’s appetites. It’s unfortunate that the headline gives the impression that vegetables are an unnecessary part of a healthy diet. While I’m sure that many meatetarians would be overjoyed with this stance, it’s not really the point of the article, nor is it the correct message. While not nearly as catchy of click-baity, a more accurate headline would be something like “Give Your Children Nutritious Meals and Snacks and Allow Them to Decide How Much to Eat”.


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Grocery store lessons: Catelli “SuperGreens” pasta

I was getting some groceries last week when I saw a new product in the pasta aisle. Catelli SuperGreens”.

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Immediately I said, “I feel a blog post coming on!”.

Remember that vegetable bread? Total scam, right? And, according to my sources, pretty revolting to boot. Well, this pasta is no different (at least in the scam regard, I presume it tastes much like regular pasta).

How did Catelli get the vegetables in the pasta? Well, they added some vegetable powders (spinach, zucchini, broccoli, parsley, and kale). Super! Green! Hold-up though, before you decide your plate of pasta counts as your vegetables for the day think about how that compares to actual vegetables. Well, because of the processing that the veggies have undergone to become powders, and because the quantities added are likely negligible, there’s no comparing the two. You’re not getting any of the vitamins and minerals that you would by eating any of those actual vegetables.

I was curious how this “SuperGreens” pasta would compare to regular pasta. Catelli didn’t seem to have a plain old pasta option in the same format so I opted to look at their “Smart” pasta which is just regular pasta with added fibre.

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As you can see, nutritionally the “SuperGreens” is nearly identical to the “Smart” pasta. In fact, the “Smart” pasta may be slightly better from a nutritional standpoint as it’s got more B vitamins, more fibre, and less sodium (although these differences are fairly minuscule).

If you like this new “SuperGreens” pasta, there’s nothing wrong with eating it. Just know that it doesn’t contribute to your vegetable servings. There’s nothing “super” about this, except maybe the marketing tactic. There’s nothing green about it either, except maybe the cash Catelli will be pulling in from the ridiculous representation of this product. You know what goes great with pasta though? A vegetable-rich sauce.

 


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Greens vs Grains

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Yes, I can get behind the statement that “we can all benefit from more veggies in our diet”. After that, I diverge from this weekly nutrition challenge. I don’t think that replacing grains with greens makes nutritional sense. Maybe if all of your grains are refined baked goods. Otherwise, there are nutrients in both grains and greens and replacing all of your grains with vegetables isn’t necessarily a nutritional win.

Grains tend to provide more fibre than vegetables. They’re also a good source of B vitamins and minerals such as iron and magnesium. The fibre in grains can help promote digestive health, lower LDL, and feeds the probiotics in our intestines. The gut microbiota is a fascinating emerging area of research. There seems to be many relationships between the bacteria living in our digestive tracts and other aspects of our health. Fibre also contributes to satiety. Sure, greens have lower caloric density than grains but they also don’t keep you feeling full.

Greens provide you with plenty of other nutrients. It doesn’t have to be an either or situation. I don’t understand why so many people want to attach guilt to specific foods or food groups. Grains and greens can both co-exist in a healthy balanced diet. Yes, even some refined grains.

In my mind, challenging people to eliminate food groups is not a sensible or sustainable challenge. But what do I know, I’m just a dietitian; not a “strength coach, nutritional expert and practitioner of Chinese medicine”. And greens for grains is pretty catchy. I guess catchy is more important than realistic, sound nutrition advice.