Week of June 8, 2009
Contact: Mya Nelson, (202) 328-7744

Nutrition Wise
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: When recipes list optional toppings or flavorings, are they included in nutritional information listed?

A: Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, you should assume that nutritional information such as calorie, fat, carbohydrate and sodium does not include any ingredients listed as optional. When the optional ingredients are extra herbs or spices, these add natural plant compounds called phytochemicals and they usually don’t change the calories or nutrients in the dish. Of course, if you are using a large amount of a chopped herb, more like a leafy green than a seasoning, it could significantly increase the amount of vitamin C or other nutrients. Toppings like grated cheese, sour cream and nuts, can add significant amounts of calories and nutrients. Part of the reason these aren’t included in nutritional analysis is that often no amount is listed. Grated Parmesan adds less than 15 calories for someone who adds just a couple teaspoons to their serving, yet it can add about 90 for the cheese lover who adds four tablespoons. Likewise, when a recipe lists “salt and pepper to taste,” realize that the sodium content you see does not reflect any added salt.

Q: Is polenta a whole grain?

A: Most of the polenta you see in restaurants or stores – whether dry or cooked – is not a whole grain. It’s made from degerminated corn meal, a refined grain. You can find dry whole-grain polenta in some gourmet or health foods stores, or sold over the Internet. For a less expensive option you can also make your own polenta with basic whole-grain cornmeal – get the coarser grind if you have a choice – that will have the added fiber and nutrients of whole grains. One common method is to cook one cup of dry whole-grain cornmeal with three cups of water. This will give you three cups of cooked polenta. For optimal taste and a creamy texture, allow the cornmeal to cook for 25 or 30 minutes by keeping the temperature low and adding water as needed. It will thicken when cooled. Once sliced, it makes a great whole-grain base for a variety of toppings, from traditional tomato pasta sauce to sautéed spinach and vegetarian chili.

Q: I keep hearing that wild blueberries are a top source of antioxidants. Do I need to eat wild blueberries to get the most health benefits rather than the conventional blueberries that are easy to find?

A: Some research does suggest that wild blueberries score even higher for antioxidant power than the larger cultivated blueberries we are used to seeing in produce aisles and farmers’ markets. However, “regular” blueberries are still among the top food sources high in antioxidants, so don’t feel you have to choose. Frozen wild blueberries can be found year-round in larger grocery stores and specialty markets, making it easy to grab one handful at a time to add to cereal, yogurt, muffins or salads. They may be about fifty percent more expensive than standard frozen cultivated blueberries however, so if a higher price means you will eat fifty percent less, then you’re probably no better off. You may also see wild blueberries canned in heavy syrup but the disadvantages of the extra calories and sugar offsets many of the nutrition benefits. Whatever your choice, enjoy blueberries for taste and nutrition. And remember that research suggests the greatest health benefits probably come from eating a wide variety of produce.

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