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On Your Mind: Food and Nutrition Questions

Consumer Reports' health and safety experts answer your common—and not so common—questions about food, nutrition, and healthy eating. This week's questions: Q: I have 2 or 3 drinks most nights. Is that okay? Q: Are canned beans as healthy as dried beans? Q: I think that Frosted Shredded Wheat is healthier than Froot Loops, but I need expert advice. Which one is better for me? See more questions and answers about food and nutrition. Have a food- or nutrition-related question you'd like us to answer? Ask us here. Q: I have 2 or 3 drinks most nights. Is that okay? A: U.S. guidelines advise having no more than one drink a day for women, two for men. But a limit of just one may be better for everyone 65 and older, says Benjamin H. Han , M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine. Older adults are more sensitive to alcohol's effects, which raise the risk of falls and car crashes. Too much alcohol can worsen diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure, and mixing it with sleep or pain drugs and antidepressants can be dangerous. Cut back or get help if drinking interferes with obligations, or if you drink and drive, need more alcohol to feel its effects, or shake or sweat when you don't drink, Han says. Q: Are canned beans as healthy as dried beans? A: There are differences. Canning, cooking, and soaking can change the nutritional content of beans a bit. And canned beans frequently have added salt, which can be a problem if you're watching your sodium. But both are a good source of fiber, protein, and nutrients such as folate and potassium. Canned beans are also ready to eat, while dry beans need to be soaked for hours or even overnight before cooking. If you don't have time for soaking, look for low- or no-sodium varieties of canned beans, or drain and rinse canned beans to reduce the sodium by up to 40 percent. Q: I think that Frosted Shredded Wheat is healthier than Froot Loops, but I need expert advice. Which one is better for me? You're right, Frosted Shredded Wheat is the better pick, even though both cereals are pretty sugary, says Amy Keating RD, a CR nutritionist. Check the label and you'll see both have 12 grams of added sugars per serving. That's three teaspoons, which is about half the amount the American Heart Association says women should have in a day (a third of the amount for men). But sugar doesn't tell the whole story. The shredded wheat is 100 percent whole grain, has 6 grams of fiber per serving, and has less-processed ingredients. Froot Loops is made with some whole grains (corn and oat flours), but also contains white wheat flour and serves up just 2 grams of fiber. Plus it has artificial colors and salt (210 mg sodium), none of which are in the shredded wheat. You can give your bowl of Frosted Shredded Wheat a nutritional upgrade by mixing it half-and-half with regular shredded wheat—you'll still get the sweetness while cutting the added sugars in half. You can then continue to adjust the blend, increasing the amount of regular cereal as your tastebuds adjust to less sugar. Adding a sliced banana, peach/nectarine, or berries would add some sweetness without any added sugars. Submit your questions via: Due to the volume of correspondence we receive, we can’t reply to all submissions. However, we may publish answers to general interest questions in future editions of On Your Mind. The information offered by Consumer Reports in On Your Mind should not substitute for professional or medical advice. Readers should always consult a physician or another professional for treatment and advice. Q: Low-sodium canned soup is so dull. Is it really better for me? Q: Do fiber supplements count toward my daily intake of fiber? Q: Is frozen yogurt as healthy as regular yogurt? Q: Is pork better for me than red meat is? Q: What healthy herbs and veggies can I grow in a container? Q: Is raw pet food safe? Q: Can I get some sun without sunblock to boost my vitamin D? Q: How can I tell what foods have plenty of whole grains? Q: Is sparkling water bad for your teeth, or is it comparable to tap water? Q: Do 'immune boosting' supplements work? Q: Is deli meat healthy if it's uncured or nitrite-free? Q: I'm constantly craving sugar these days. What can I do? Q: I'm taking antibiotics. Do I need probiotic supplements, too? Q: How can I make frozen vegetables taste better? Q: Which cooking oils are the healthiest? Q: Will immune-boosting drinks protect me from COVID-19? Q: Can drinking diet soda instead of regular help with weight loss? Q: I throw out a lot of food that's gone bad. How can I waste less? Q: Are homemade baked goods healthier than store-bought? Q: How can I make sure I’m getting enough protein at breakfast? Q: Should I scrub or peel fruit and veggies to get rid of pesticides? Q: What are ultraprocessed foods, and is it okay to eat them? Q: How long will restaurant leftovers last in my refrigerator? Q: Low-sodium canned soup is so dull. Is it really better for me? A: If you're trying to cut the salt in your diet, choosing lower-sodium or no-salt-added canned soup can make a big difference. And there's a lot you can do to improve the taste, texture, and nutrition. "Add your own herbs and spices for flavor, along with as many fresh, frozen, or sodium-free canned vegetables as you like," suggests Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, "plus beans or chopped poultry, meat, or tofu from last night's dinner for a protein boost." Q: Do fiber supplements count toward my daily intake of fiber? A: Yes. You can count the grams of fiber in these toward your daily goal of 21 grams for women over age 50 and 30 grams for men of that age, says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But getting your fill of fiber from fruits, veggies, and whole grains is best. "When you eat naturally high-fiber foods, you also increase your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—added benefits that don't come from a fiber supplement," Hultin explains. For instance, fiber found in produce and whole grains may help your "good" gut bacteria to flourish. Q: Is frozen yogurt as healthy as regular yogurt? A: Frozen yogurt with a "Live & Active Cultures" seal may have the same beneficial bacteria found in regular yogurt. But the amounts in frozen yogurt with this seal can be 10 times lower than in regular yogurt, and fro-yo is sometimes lower in calcium and protein, too. Both frozen and regular yogurt can have different amounts of calories and sugar per serving, so watch out for added sugars if you're looking for a healthier choice, whether frozen or not. Q: Is pork better for me than red meat is? A: Pork, like beef, lamb, and veal, is a red meat. And a higher intake of red and processed meat is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colorectal cancer. So it's wise to limit red meat to a couple of 3- to 4-ounce weekly servings, says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, co-author of "Food & Fitness After 50" (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2018). (Some experts say up to four weekly servings is okay.) Some pork cuts, such as tenderloin and loin chops, are leaner than others, so go for those when you eat pork. Q: What healthy herbs and veggies can I grow in a container? A: Fresh-picked vegetables may have more nutrients than those that are canned or frozen, or that travel long distances to the supermarket. If you have a spot on your deck, patio, or balcony that gets 3 to 6 hours of daily sun, you can grow leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard, and herbs like basil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme. (You can also grow herbs on a sunny windowsill.) For good drainage, use commercial potting soil in your containers, says Jeana Myers, PhD, a horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wake County. You can also try growing peppers or a tomato variety bred for container gardening. These need at least 6 to 8 hours of sun daily. Q: Is raw pet food safe? A: Raw pet food—which may contain raw organ or muscle meat and bone, unpasteurized milk, uncooked egg, and uncooked fruits, grains, and veggies—has been growing in popularity. But the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most veterinarians and veterinary organizations, caution against it. Uncooked ingredients could be a source of harmful bacteria and other pathogens that can make pets and people sick. A 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research reports that dogs fed raw food shed 23 times more salmonella organisms in their feces than other dogs. This can pose a risk to you when you're cleaning up after pets. Your pet can also transfer bacteria by licking your face after eating, scratching you after they step in their feces, or possibly even during petting. And if you don't follow proper food safety practices, you can infect yourself, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. "Since you're not eating the pet food, you may not think you have to take the same care to wash your hands or the utensils you use," he says. "But you can easily get sick if you touch your mouth after being in contact with contaminated food, surfaces, or utensils." In addition to frozen or fresh raw meat or meat and vegetable blends, raw items for pets may come in freeze-dried and dehydrated forms (such as rawhide chews, pig ears, and similar treats). For now, the FDA says, it's safest to avoid a raw diet for your pet. For more on raw pet food, read "Should You Feed Your Pet Raw Food?" Q: Can I get some sun without sunblock to boost my vitamin D? A: The American Cancer Society and other groups warn against that because exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet B rays also raises skin cancer risk, especially for aging skin. You need about 600 IU of vitamin D per day before age 70 and 800 IU after. You can generally get that from vitamin D-rich and fortified foods; more isn’t beneficial. Your doctor will advise if you need a supplement, but just 15 minutes of sun may be enough, too. Q: How can I tell what foods have plenty of whole grains? A: Check the ingredients list on bread, breakfast cereal, pasta, crackers, and other grain products. At a minimum, you want a whole grain (like whole oats, whole-wheat flour, whole-grain corn, whole-grain brown rice, or whole rye) as the first ingredient. A 100 percent whole-grain claim or a Whole Grain Stamp label is best because it indicates that all of a product’s grain is whole. Q: Is sparkling water bad for your teeth, or is it comparable to tap water? A: Fizzy drinks such as carbonated plain seltzer, club soda, and unflavored sparkling water are a sugar- and calorie-free way to hydrate, though club soda has a little added sodium. These drinks can be slightly acidic, but sodas and fruit juices—as well as other beverages that contain flavor enhancers such as citric acid—are much more acidic and damaging to tooth enamel. Moderation is key, and fluoridated tap water is still best for your teeth. Q: Do ‘immune boosting’ supplements work? A: Supplements whose labels promise stronger immunity may have ingredients that include vitamin C and zinc, among other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C and zinc are important for the immune system, but most healthy adults without a deficiency should focus on a healthy diet, says Simin Nikbin Meydani, PhD, lead scientist for the Nutritional Immunology Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Get 1 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1 to 2 cups of fruit each day, and about 8 mg of zinc (11 mg for men) found in foods like beef, poultry, crabs, oysters, fortified cereal, nuts, whole grains, dairy, and legumes. Q: Is deli meat healthy if it’s uncured or nitrite-free? A: Most cold cuts are processed meats. Eating them regularly, even in small portions, can increase your risk of cancer and has been linked to heart disease and diabetes. The culprits could be added nitrites and nitrates used in processing. And the words “uncured” and “nitrite-free” on a label don’t necessarily mean the meat is uncured or that no nitrites were added, says Charlotte Vallaeys, MS, Consumer Reports’ senior policy analyst for food and nutrition. “The USDA allows these claims to appear on processed meat if it was cured with nitrites derived from celery or other vegetables,” she says. In 2019 CR’s testing of uncured and nitrite-free deli meats found nitrite levels similar to those in meats cured with synthetic nitrites. “Our advice is to eat little, if any, processed meat,” Vallaeys says. Q: I'm constantly craving sugar these days. What can I do? A: Try a treat schedule. Have a small sweet (such as one or two cookies, a scoop of ice cream, or a square of chocolate) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for example, and fruit and vegetable snacks the rest of the time, says Angel Planells, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If treats feel paltry, try adding fruit. “You get the best of both worlds, a sweet taste plus high-quality nutrition,” he says. Q: I’m taking antibiotics. Do I need probiotic supplements, too? A: Supplements with probiotics such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or Saccharomyces boulardii have been touted to reduce the likelihood of diarrhea, which can sometimes be a side effect of antibiotics. But studies have found that probiotic supplements don’t necessarily help and may slow recovery from diarrhea. A largely plant-based diet while you’re taking antibiotics might be a better idea, says Emeran A. Mayer, MD, co-director of CURE: Digestive Diseases Research Center at UCLA. And get a variety of fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, he says. Q: How can I make frozen vegetables taste better? A: Bump up their taste and texture by tossing still-frozen veggies with vegetable oil, your favorite seasonings, and a pinch of salt, then roasting. This will crisp up the edges and give the veggies more flavor, says Jen Bruning, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can also stir-fry or briefly steam veggies, then top with a low-sodium sauce or seasonings, or add them to soups, casseroles, chili, or baked pasta dishes. Consider newer options such as cauliflower “rice” and spiralized zucchini or butternut squash. Q: Which cooking oils are the healthiest? A: You probably know olive oil is a good choice, but there are others. The American Heart Association recommends choosing oils with less than 4 grams of saturated fat—which can contribute to heart disease—per tablespoon. In addition to olive oil, these include avocado, canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Limit coconut oil, which has 11 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. “If you like coconut oil, use it in moderation, once in a while,” says Isabel Maples, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Note: All oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon, so use small amounts. Q: Will immune-boosting drinks protect me from COVID-19? A: Skip the pricey tonics packed with vitamin C or other compounds that manufacturers say will ward off sickness. Eating whole foods known to support the immune system is a better bet, says Cindy Dallow, PhD, a registered dietitian in Greeley, Colo. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids should provide the range of nutrients you need to stay healthy. Try to get plenty of sleep and regular exercise, she says, and take steps to reduce stress. Q: Can drinking diet soda instead of regular help with weight loss? A: Not according to a 2017 review of 37 studies, which found that artificial sweeteners didn't lead to significant weight loss. In some of the studies, people gained weight. Sugar-sweetened and “diet” drinks may hike the risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease, research suggests. To kick a soda habit, switch to water and unsweetened tea and coffee over two weeks, says Nancy Farrell Allen, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Q: I throw out a lot of food that’s gone bad or is past the use-by date. How can I waste less? A: A recent study found that American households toss 32 percent of the food they buy each year. To cut down on your food waste, try shopping with a grocery list, using frozen fruits and vegetables, buying food in smaller amounts, storing bread in the freezer, and seeking out individually wrapped portions of items like cheese and yogurt. Move older food toward the front of the fridge, says Alice Henneman, RDN, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also suggests “shopping your fridge” before going to the store—you might already have what you need. Q: Are homemade baked goods healthier than store-bought? A: They can be. Cakes, cookies, muffins, and pies you whip up from scratch won't contain the preservatives and other additives typically used to improve the taste, texture, and color of many commercial baked goods, says Andrea Ovard, RDN, a Utah hospital dietitian who also has a private practice. They may also be lower in sodium and sugar. Plus, “homemade is usually better because you can control what’s going into them,” she says. You may be able to upgrade recipes nutritionally by, say, using nonfat milk instead of whole to reduce saturated fat, or swapping some oil for Greek yogurt to cut calories. Q: How can I make sure I’m getting enough protein at breakfast? A: Many typical breakfast foods, such as buttered toast, provide little protein, says Lauri Wright, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Older adults should aim for 20 grams at their first daily meal, the amount in about 6 ounces of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt; a two-egg omelet with an ounce of mozzarella cheese; or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on two pieces of whole-wheat toast. Q: Should I scrub or peel fruit and veggies to get rid of pesticides? A: Peeling can help remove some pesticides, but fruit and vegetable skins are often packed with nutrients. Plus, some pesticides are absorbed through a plant’s roots and can’t be removed by peeling or washing. That said, washing can remove some pesticides. To clean, gently rub the produce under running water or use a brush for tougher-skinned fruits and vegetables such as squash, says James Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. Drying it afterward with a paper towel helps remove some bacteria, too. A study found that a 12-minute soak in a mixture of baking soda and water may remove even more pesticide residue, but it was tested only with apples. Another option is buying organic fruit and vegetables, Rogers says, although you’ll still need to wash them. Q: What are ultraprocessed foods, and is it okay to eat them? A: Sugar-sweetened drinks, sugary cereals, packaged baked goods, chips, certain energy bars, and some heat-and-eat meals fall under the umbrella of ultraprocessed foods. “They can pack a lot of calories, sodium, and sugars with little or no fiber, good fats, lean protein, or the nutrients you find in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts,” says Lisa Young, PhD, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Recent studies suggest that ultraprocessed foods may hike the risk of some cancers, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. So stick with whole and minimally processed food as much as possible. Q: How long will restaurant leftovers last in my refrigerator? A: Cooked meat, poultry, pizza, and soup will keep up to four days; lunch meats and salads (like tuna) up to five if you get them into the fridge within 2 hours of being served (1 hour if food was outside in temps over 90° F). Reheat leftovers to at least 165° F, and bring soups, sauces, and gravy to a boil before eating.

Reference : Consumer Reports