Grocery Tips

Probiotics: How to Find Value + Quality

I'm a huge advocate for taking probiotics to maintain a healthy gut flora.  I suppose for those that eat enough fermented foods (kimchi, kefir, etc.) then you may happily skip taking them, but I prefer knowing that I'm getting at least a good baseline of what I need in supplement form each day.  They question becomes - how to select and buy them?

Vary the Strains

Unless you have a gastrointestinal disorder or irritable bowel disease (in which case, please contact myself or another RDN that can help guide your gut health!), I typically recommend a range of strains instead of just finding one strain on bacteria within the probiotic.  There is no magic number for # of strains that should be involved but the most commonly found ones include L. acidophilus, B. bifidum, S. boulardii, and L casei.

All About the CFU

CFU = Colony Forming Units.  Despite the fact that the recommended minimum levels continue to creep up slowly, I consistently recommend at least 8 billion CFU.  This is a range that is both safe and effective.  Something as low as 1 or 2 billion might not make a huge difference in gut health and 8-20 billion safe for the average, healthy adult.  Sound like too much?  To put it in perspective, therapeutic doses start at about 112 billion and go up from there.

Storage and Resources to Purchase

Keep in a cool, dry place.  The fridge is often the best option!  I keep min in the door which helps me to remember to take it in the morning... 

LabDoor does very thorough value and quality reviews - when in doubt, check here.

In good health, enjoy!

An Improvement for Nutrition Labeling?

Facts Up Front

Ever feel overwhelmed when trying to read and understand a nutrition facts panel?  [Check out Witty Nutrition's take on overcoming that!]  Well things are-a-changing in the nutrition labeling world.  For the better.  A new voluntary initiative by the Grocery Manufacturers Association is trying to edit down the nutrition label and help better relay key nutrient information to the consumer.  The best part is that Registered Dietitians have been involved in the project so as a professional, I feel this Facts Up Front label is doing a good job of relaying the most valuable data to the consumer.

This new label displays per serving:

  • Calories
  • Saturated Fat (those bad fats!)
  • Sodium
  • Sugar
  • And then highlights a few of the most beneficial nutrients in the item (ex. fiber, potassium, calcium, vitamin A)

What do you think?  Will this make grocery shopping easier?  Check out the Facts Up Front website's Interactive Label to learn more!

Hidden Sodium

Killer Salt?

Sodium is one of the largest contributers to hypertension; or high blood pressure.  That's because sodium pulls water into the blood vessels (remember osmolality from science class?) and forces the heart to work much harder to pump the blood throughout the body.  Just a little bit of hypertension can equal a lot of heart damage over, say, 40 or 50 years.  Additionally high blood pressure can cause damage to the blood vessel walls, creating little nicks and pockets that collect residue and form blood clots.  Between these two well-studied mechanisms of consuming too much sodium; salt is one of the leading killers and is involved in the etiology of many chronic diseases.  

Sodium plays a role in and is a risk factor for stroke, heart attack, congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, among others.  Research shows that billions upon billions could be saved for our health care system is Americans cut down on just 1 teaspoon of salt a day.  You read that correctly... just a teaspoon.  

Leading Sources of Hidden Sodium

That said and health risks advertised, what are some of the big salt contributers to the diet that isn't the obvious (hot dogs, canned soup, frozen dinners)?

Cheese - Most cheeses are very high in sodium, for sandwiches shop for low sodium items and save the specialty cheeses for nice occasions.  And yes, I'm sorry this does not preclude pizza.

Tomato sauce - If there is one thing worth learning to make in the kitchen it's a good sauce from tomato paste, water, fresh tomatoes and spices instead of relying on the jarred ones that are packed with sodium.

Ketchup and salad dressing - If you have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors consider buying no salt options.  Otherwise just remember to keep condiments in moderation.

Deli meats - Try to pick up no salt or low salt deli items as these are generally packed with sodium.  There are so many flavorful options to pack onto your sandwich (my current obsessions are thinly sliced cucumbers and green peppers) there's no need for high sodium deli meats.

Hope this all helps!  Happy shopping!

One Giant Leap for Nutrition-kind

Exciting News!

What started off as an "I heard on the news..." from a colleague became wonderful news just yesterday.  It seems that the Chicago Tribune printed an article referencing just the information I was looking for (don't worry, I'll get to it in a moment).  Since I was raised on the advice, "Believe none of what you hear and half of what you read" I was happy to source this information.  

For the very first time in history (I can very confidently say that), total sales of whole wheat bread surpassed white bread last month (July 2010).  Marketing and health messages regarding whole grain products are truly getting through!  I am genuinely excited to see the numbers move after seeing years of explanation and health marketing regarding the characteristics and benefits of whole grain/100% whole wheat products.  In the 52 week period leading up to July, the Nielsen Company recorded that wheat bread sales increased 0.6% to $2.6 billion while white bread sales dropped 7% to $2.5 billion.  While white bread still surpasses wheat bread in sales volume, it shows that some consumers are putting their buying power in the basket of of the health conscious.  Now that's a trend I like to see!


What do you think of this shift in public health?  Do you focus on trying to buy whole grain products?!

Nighttime Sweet Tooth?

Sweets to End the Day

Find yourself battling that craving late in the day?  Many people find that having that something sweet to end the day brings a sort of closure to their food that day.  If you find yourself in this predicament here are some tips to help you make more healthful and balanced choices.  

Photo courtesy of Dr. Oetzel Foods.

  • Pick up whipped yogurt in your favorite flavors and freeze them.  These will have less calories, and more vitamins than your regular ice cream.  Plus it makes for a fun experiment.
  • Fruits have natural sugars in them.  When you purchase fruits cut them up and place them in the fridge so that when you feel a craving for something sweet coming, reaching for the fruit is just as easy as reaching for other snacks.
  • Three words: Sugar free jello
  • Combine fat free vanilla yogurt, a little bit of peanut butter, and some brown sugar.  Now you have delicious dip for apple slices.
  • Enjoy some dark chocolate.  70% cacao or greater provide antioxidant health benefits but remember that it's still chocolate!
  • Hard candy (sugar free or otherwise) provide already portioned options for a lasting sweet bite.  


Hope these tips help!  What other solutions do you find work for you?

The Next Big Mover and Shaker

It's All About the Salt

First it was trans fats, then it was calorie labeling, and now the next big hot topic to emerge in the world of nutrition is sodium consumption.  That's right, table salt.  That innocent one half of a pair that sit on most dinner tables.  But it's not that salt shaker's fault!  75-80% of the sodium we consume is in the form of processed foods.  The remainder comes from salt added to our diets due to cooking or added at the dinner table.  

Image courtesy of the American Heart Association

While the salt shaker may be a bad habit for some, it doesn't seem to be the true contributer to our nation-wide problem.  Sodium both increases palatability and shelf life, so we've seen it slowly creep into a lot of our food supply more and more...  Not to mention the fact that it's a lot cheaper than using traditional spices for the food companies.

I don't want to place the blame on the food companies though.  It has been the collective effort of consumer demand, food technology, globalization of the food economy, and their need to meet the bottom line that has driven this trend.  

Why Salt?

Salt is becoming a buzz issue because when we have an excess of sodium in our bodies it causes our hearts to have to work harder to get the blood through our system.  This leads to increased blood pressure, which is directly related to heart disease and stroke.  Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death in the United States.  They account for millions of deaths, billions of health care dollars spent, and countless co-morbidities (such as diabetes or glaucoma).  Sodium consumption is a public health problem that is beginning to emerge as an option to combat these chronic diseases.

Photo courtesy of ODP.NSRI

The National Sodium Reduction Initiative is a program that is in it's very beginning phases.  New York City has taken the reins on this issue and partnered with many governments and organizations across the nation.  They are in the beginning phases of assessing the right approach, but look to reduce sodium intake in New Yorkers by 20% over the next five years.  This will be done by partnering with the food industry and working to change the environment of options available to New Yorkers.  While the NSRI is initiative is voluntary (so too were trans fats and menu calorie posting once), the focus is to help food companies reduce sodium across product lines instead of focusing on any given percentage in all foods.  


The top foods that contribute sodium to the diet include sauces (check out the labels of the tomato and teriyaki sauces you find yourself purchasing), canned goods, condiments, soups, prepared mixes, and frozen meals or meal replacement options.  

I encourage you to check out the sodium level on some of the foods you're eating!  Are you surprised to read this?  Not surprised?  Do you have any opinion on how we best proceed to solve this problem across the country? 

Please feel free to share.

The Dirty Dozen

Mmmm... Those Pesticides are Quite Delicious

I think it's pretty common knowledge nowadays that all of our fruits and veggies are grown with pesticides and chemicals so that they are protected as they grow (often yielding more crop for the farmer).  On top of that our fruits and veggies may often be genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or genetically altered to grow to very large proportions.  Ever been amazed by the size of certain fruit and veggies?  It must be something in the water... 

Pesticides have become a very salacious component to the organics debate.  What fruits and veggies are most affected by these chemicals and which are not?  Well next time you're shopping for fruits and veggies bring this list with you and you'll know where to spend your organic dollars and where you can stick to conventionally grown foods.

The Dirty Dozen

These are the foods that have been researched to have the most pesticides on them that don't wash off.  Try to buy these as organics and if you buy conventional try to wash them very thoroughly.  

  • PeachImage courtesy of a Sampeson Blog
  • Apple
  • Bell Pepper
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Grapes
  • Carrot
  • Pear

The Clean Fifteen

These food are the lowest in pesticides.  But you should still wash them (where applicable)!

  • Onion
  • Avocado
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Papaya
  • Watermelon
  • Broccoli
  • Tomato
  • Sweet Potato

Hope this helps next time you're questioning the value of organics in the grocery store!  There's even an iPhone application put out by the Environment Working Group so you always have the information on the go.  And remember, for farmer's markets and CSAs just ask about growing practices.  

Happy Shopping!


Understanding Fats and Oils

The Basics

Understanding the world of fats and oils requires diving into a complex world.  People often find it daunting to determine exactly what's best and the glamorized media headlines with minimal data can be cause for confusion.  Here I hope to introduce a few of the basic terms, as well as to point out some things to look for so that shopping can become easier!   Photo courtesy of Turtle Dragon Herb and Tea

Fats, or lipids, come in solid or liquid form and are insoluble in water and are 9 calories per gram.  All fats have some combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but it is the proportion of these that determine whether the whole is considered "saturated" or "unsaturated".  

Fats are essential to our system, as they help us break down and transport certain vitamins, make up the essential fatty acids that our body can't make on its own, maintain healthy skin and hair, and help regulate blood cholesterol levels, among other things.  It is their remarkable ability to store energy that has made them a modern day enemy.

Breaking it Down

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA) - Increase HDL, Decrease LDL

     Some examples: olive oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, olives, avocado, almond butter

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) - Decrease HDL, Decrease LDL

     Some examples: sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oils (vegetable oils)

Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA) - Increase/Maintain HDL, Increase LDL

     Some examples: full fat animal products (butter, dairy, meats), some processed foods

Trans Fats - Decrease HDL, Increase LDL

     Some examples: hydrogenated vegetable oils, rumen of cow/sheep

That's great but what does it all mean?  Well these four categories of fats are actually based on the various ways in which fats and oils regulate blood cholesterol.  HDLs are high-density lipoproteins, the "good" type of cholesterol because they transport excess cholesterol from the blood to the liver (where it is then removed from the body).  LDLs are low-density lipoproteins, the "bad" type of cholesterol because they are the primary transporters of cholesterol and can contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries.  

All in all... HDL good, LDL bad, which means MUFA good and Trans Fats bad.  

Some General Tips

It's important to first be armed with this knowledge on how fats and cholesterol works together since both play an important role in heart health.  The take home message is not to shift to eating only foods with MUFA, not only would that be very difficult to enjoy, but remember that fats are healthy for your system in moderation.  Instead focus on these tips:

  • Try to keep caloric intake of fats and oils at about 25-30% of total calories in the diet.  This means not exceeding 50g for 1500 calorie intake, 60 g for 1800 cal, 66 g for 2000 cal, and 83 for 2500 cal.
  • Read the labels of the foods you're buying!  Learn about whether saturated fat or trans fats are in these foods.  Especially look out for processed foods since we tend to think less about those at the time of purchase.
  • Since olive oil is made from a fruit, it is sensitive to air, heat, and light so store it in a dark glass or opaque container in a cool place.  If it has gone bad it will have a buttery flavor.
  • A lot of the spreadable butters now have a better composition than plain old butter so for toast or a baked potato try something like Olivio or Smart Balance.  Every small step helps.

All in All

Well that was a lot of information on fats and oils!  And only the tip of the iceberg...  I hope you can sit back and digest this information until we delve further into the topic.  Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns!