It happens every year, new (or re-invented) food trends emerge that set the pace for much of the culinary discussion until they meet the fate of last year’s must have menu item and disappear back into obscurity…or they don’t. Sometimes when a new food trend is actually based on sound nutritional fact, tastes good and is accepted even by our family’s pickiest eaters, it finds a permanent place in the annals of family dinners adding variety and flavor to what can become the humdrum world of family meal planning. And then sometimes, despite the lack of nutrient-rich, dietitian-approved qualities a food trend has to offer, our fondness for and fascination with it sticks and we add another nutritional loser to our list of must haves, even when we should know better.
Well-Being decided to take a look at just a few of the foods and dietary trends that have made their way into mainstream meals in the last few years – some that are good, some that are bad, and some that you might call “cosmetically challenged.”
Pulses First, we are happy to see that pulses have taken a front-row seat at the table. Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family, like beans, lentils and peas that grow in pods and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They include varieties like chickpeas, black-eye peas, green peas, kidney beans, and black beans, are a cheap, low-fat source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and they count towards the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. If you haven’t already made pulses a staple on your list of favorite go to foods, now is the time. Fall is a great time to cook up a nourishing pot of beans on a chilly night. Give peas a chance.
Sprouted Foods If you have problems digesting some foods like beans, sprouted foods could be the answer. These activated foods sprung onto the food scene promising to help those with sensitivities to high-fiber foods. Thanks to sprouting – a process where seeds are activated, their enzymes are turned on, and their hard-to-digest fibers are broken down. For those who aren’t able to eat beans, nuts, or bread, here is your chance.
Root Vegetables Once considered the wallflowers of the veggie world, root vegetables like beets, carrots, onions, garlic, parsnips, radishes, sweet potatoes and turnips, started their journey back to the forefront a few years ago, and thanks to the popularity of farmer’s markets, have become more accessible than ever. That’s a good thing because as excellent sources of folate and antioxidants they pack a powerful nutritional punch, and add color and variety to your plate. These versatile veggies are great to add to stews or soups, to pair with greens and are delicious roasted. Cooking them actually boosts their antioxidant levels and overall nutritional value even more. Try adding some zucchini and yellow squash to your roasting pan of root vegetables and you have a colorful, nutrient rich side that the whole family will enjoy.
Nut-based Products After years of getting a bad rap, good fats are taking their place among the foods that are a recommended part of a healthy diet, and as the result nut and healthy fat-based products have been expanding the nut butter and dairy aisles. Among these new products are cashew, hazelnut, and coconut milk, as well as alternative yogurt, ice cream and coffee creamer options. No longer are smooth or crunchy peanut butter the only choices on the shelves. Now you can reach for sun butter, hazelnut, cashew and other nut types. Because of this trend, you no longer have to search out boutique type markets and grocers that only carry so called “health food” options – you can find them right in your neighborhood grocery store. With the expanding market for these nut-based products, we have dozens of new options for including healthy nuts and seeds in our daily diet.
Probiotic and Fermented Foods More than 10 years ago, the buzz about probiotics began to fill the food industry echo chambers with vague claims of regulating the digestive system or strengthening the body’s defenses – and so began the discussion. After years of scientific study, probiotics and prebiotics have taken their rightful place in American’s quest for healthy eating. And we aren’t limited to Greek yogurt or expensive supplements to get our daily dose of probiotics, fermented foods – from sauerkraut and kimchi to dark chocolate, kefir, and even sour pickles – are rich in probiotics and are growing in popularity.
Eating Clean Finally, a trend that will never go out of fashion – eating clean. Eating clean is simply the practice of basing our diet on whole foods and avoiding processed and refined foods. Think about what we ate before food became an industry, when the food that made it to our dinner table was basically what we could grow ourselves. Whole foods are foods that haven’t been tampered with, in the lab or the manufacturing plant, they are foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed and free-range meats, low fat dairy products, unsalted nuts, and seeds. The clean eating revolution dovetails perfectly into the farm to table movement, encouraging us to eat fresh and local and get back in touch with the food we eat and the farmers and producers who grow it, or better yet, grow it ourselves. Now, that’s an eating trend that we can live with.
Fast Food and Supersizing For the last two decades, Americans have turned to fast food more and more as the pace of everyday life seems to get faster and faster and families find less and less time to shop and cook. While the whole food, clean eating trend is encouraging, opposing forces in the food industry, larger portion sizes, all-you-can-eat offers, and the ever-growing super-sized meal, are working against our better angels and our waistlines are the proof. To begin with, both our plates and our portion sizes have expanded. We are simply putting more on our plates than ever before. Add to that the allure of supersized meals, bottomless baskets of fries, never-ending dinner bars and you get the picture. Three of the most effective ways to turn the tide of “bigger is better,” and maintain a healthy weight are: 1) watching portion sizes whether eating at home or eating out; 2) eating a diet of whole grains, healthy fats, low-fat dairy, lean meats, poultry and fish, and five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day; and 3) avoiding sugary drinks.
Gluten-Free For between one and three million Americans, a gluten-free diet is crucial to prevent the serious effects of celiac disease – an immune reaction to gluten that damages the small intestine. There are probably another 18 million Americans who have lesser forms of gluten sensitivity that cause intestinal discomfort but no damage. However, for the vast majority of people who have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon in the last few years, it is not a necessity, but dietary choice often based on questionable media reports and clever marketing campaigns designed to sell “gluten-free” products, not reliable nutritional facts. For those who still want to try the gluten-free path, the simplest way is by eating naturally gluten-free whole foods such as, lean meats, nuts and seeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Fruit Juice and Smoothies It’s hard to imagine an innocent box of fruit juice or a fruit smoothie as an archenemy of dietary health. They certainly are not the worst nutritional offenders, but they do bear watching because they often are a source of excess sugar that we don’t even think about. While we have reduced the number of calories we consume in soft drinks, the fruit juice that we often choose as a healthy replacement can be hiding just as much sugar as the sodas we gave up. If we want to make sure we are getting enough servings of fruit per day, eating it instead of drinking it as juice or blended in a smoothie is a healthier choice. In the line up of dietary delinquents, fruit juice and fruit smoothies are not the worst. But, it is important for us to remember that sugar is sugar, whether it has been processed and added to the food we eat and drink, or if it occurs naturally in fruit, it still contains the same calories and too much of it has the same effect on weight gain.
Over-Caffeinating Caffeine can give us a boost in the morning or pick us up when we are dragging in the afternoon. It can even get us through a late night at the office or cramming for an exam, but its overuse can be dangerous, even deadly. This spring a U.S. teenager died because he consumed too many high-caffeine drinks in a short space of time. Doctors said the 16-year-old died from a “caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia, even though he had no underlying heart condition. Prior to the event he had drunk a latte from McDonald’s, a large Mountain Dew and a highly caffeinated energy drink in just under two hours.
According to caffeineinformer.com, a McDonald’s latte has 142 milligrams of caffeine, a 20-ounce Mountain Dew has 90mg, and a 16-ounce energy drink can have as much as 240mg. While the FDA says caffeine consumption of up to 400mg a day or about four or five coffees over the course of the day is believed to be safe for adults, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and teenagers. And certainly, consuming large quantities of caffeine over a short period of time increases the risk at any age.
Rejecting the Imperfect An estimated six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year in the U.S., with some of those fruits and vegetables tossed away only because they were ugly, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. This means a large portion of the produce grown for human consumption is rejected by grocery stores and goes uneaten simply because it isn’t perfect.
We’ve been taught to never judge a book by its cover and the same lesson should be applied to our attitude toward food. A “cosmetically challenged” piece of produce can still be transformed into a gorgeous meal. Who cares what a vegetable looks like before it is tossed into a savory stew or scrambled into an omelet? And, less than perfect apples are just as yummy baked into a pie.
Instead of rejecting imperfect fruits and veggies, join the growing trend to embrace the ugly by encouraging your neighborhood farmers market or grocer to sell less than perfect produce or to donate it to local food banks and soup kitchens. Imagine the mouths that could be fed and the food that could be saved from going the way of the landfill, only because it wasn’t pretty enough.