Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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


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.




It ain’t easy feeding greens

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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Follow Friday: @swaleNY and @space10_journal



Growroom photo by Designmilk on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.


No people to follow today. Just a couple of cool food growing ideas I’ve seen recently.

The first is a “floating food forest” on a barge in NYC. The barge, named Swale, will be stopping in ports along the Husdon throughout the summer. Allowing people to board it to experience it as both an art installation and as an opportunity to score some fresh produce.

The second is a “Growroom“; a spherical structure in which plants are grown along all the walls. The idea originated in Denmark and a team of students at the University of Alberta built the first one in Canada recently. It looks so lush inside and could be a fairly affordable and space economizing way to grow a number of vegetables and herbs.

If you want to build your own growroom, Space 10 (the originators of the concept) have made the plans open source.



Cruciferous crusaders or (not so) superfoods? The truth about veggies & cancer


Did you hear the news? Last week it was announced that there’s no evidence of a link between vegetable and fruit consumption and risk of developing cancer. This proclamation was based on the results of a large-scale analysis of data from cohort studies in Japan.

Before everyone rejoices and throws the contents of their crispers in the compost, opting instead to have ice cream for supper maybe we should take a closer look at the original research.

The first caution I’d make is that this is based on a study of people in Japan. Because the average Japanese diet and lifestyle differs significantly from our North American diet and lifestyle we can’t conclude that results seen in people in Japan will apply to people in Canada or the US, or pretty much any other country.

The second caution, and this is the big one, is that the frequency of consumption of vegetables and fruit used in the study was very different from what’s recommended here. The greatest consumption of veg and fruit recorded in the study was “almost daily”. Compare that to the recommended 8-10 servings per day in Canada’s Food Guide. Stating daily consumption of veg and fruit tells us very little about the true picture of veg and fruit consumption. This categorization allows a person who eats one apple a day (and no other veg or fruit) to be viewed as the same as a person who eats veg and/or fruit at every meal and snack and consumes a wide variety of produce. The method of categorization in this study really only allows us to conclude that at minimal consumption levels, eating vegetables and fruit doesn’t appear to provide protection against cancer when compared to eating vegetables and fruit infrequently (or almost never??). The fact that almost never is even an option makes me wonder about the accuracy of self-reporting and the possibility that people in that group could be more likely to succumb to ailments such as scurvy before cancer would have a chance to get to them.

The third point to mention (although hopefully I don’t need to) is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because this study didn’t find a relationship between the consumption of vegetables and fruit and the development (or prevention) of cancer doesn’t mean that there isn’t a connection between the two. It’s possible that using different parameters might show that a greater consumption of vegetables is linked to a decreased risk of certain types of cancer.

The final point that I think is important to make is that we don’t eat food in order to prevent cancer. Even if this study is showing us that eating vegetables and fruit doesn’t confer protection against cancer upon us (and I’m not even remotely convinced that it does) there are plenty of other good reasons to eat vegetables and fruit. Vegetables and fruit provide us with many vitamins and minerals that are vital to the function of our bodies. They provide us with fibre which is essential for gut health. They provide us with water and energy, which are both necessary for our survival. They also add flavour, colour, and variety to our diets making meals and snacks enjoyable. All this to say that while cookies are delicious they still aren’t a balanced nutritious meal. Vegetables and fruit still have important roles to play in keeping us healthy.


Comparing apples to oranges


Image by Timothy Neesam on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence

A couple of weeks ago I saw someone with “an interest in nutrition” (this according to their bio) attempting to argue with a dietitian on twitter about nutrition. She had posted something about whole grains (I can’t remember exactly what) and he had asserted that vegetables are a better source of fibre than grains and are therefore nutritionally superior. I bit my tongue and restrained my texting fingers as I didn’t want to get into a circular 140 character argument on twitter when I should have been going to bed. Instead I saved my ranting for you. You’re welcome.

I see the argument that vegetables are superior to grains as disingenuous. You remember the saying about comparing apples to oranges, right? Well, there’s a reason for that saying. It makes no sense to compare two things that are very different. Just like comparing apples to oranges is nonsensical, so is comparing vegetables to grains. Sure, some vegetables might have more fibre than some grains. But other vegetables have very little, and other grains have lots. We also don’t eat foods for single nutrients. There are different nutritional benefits to both grains and vegetables.

People often ask me if X vegetable is better than Y. The answer is pretty much always that they’re both good for different reasons. It’s like asking a parent which child they love more. I love all vegetables equally, but differently. Just because one vegetable has more vitamin C in it doesn’t make it better than another vegetable that may have more potassium.

We also don’t eat foods solely for their nutritional composition. Sometimes we actually eat them because they taste good! Eating doesn’t have to only be about what nutrients we can obtain from the food.

Eating isn’t a competition (unless you’re in an eating competition). It’s not an either or proposition. Foods work together to provide us with all of the nutrients we need. That can include both grains and vegetables.