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Dig in! 10 nutrition myths debunked

Some nutrition myths bounce around on crazy e-mail chain letters and pop up on goofy evening news reports. Others fuel the sale of rip-off diet books. Some are so accepted they seem hardwired into our brains. Take deep-fried foods, for example. They’re universally bad for you, right? Well, no. When we challenged ourselves to explore whether fried foods could be made healthy, we discovered that, when done properly under conditions any home cook can mimic, fried foods don’t have to be forever banished from a healthy diet.

The exercise inspired us to take on some other ingrained nutrition misconceptions. We talked with leading nutrition researchers, chefs, and food scientists and did some sleuthing of our own to debunk 10 myths so you can enjoy many once-forbidden foods without that old familiar twinge of guilt. Ready to dig in?

Myth No. 1: Added sugar is always bad for you.Truth: You can use the sweet stuff to ensure that sugar calories are far from “empty” calories.

Sugar is essential in the kitchen. Consider all that it does for baking, creating a tender cake crumb and ensuring crisp cookies. Then there’s its role in creating airy meringue or soft-textured ice cream. Keep in mind that other sweeteners like “natural” honey are basically refined sugar anyway — and they are all metabolized by your body the same way, as four calories per gram. Sugar also balances the flavors in healthy foods that might not taste so great on their own. “Add a little bit of sugar to help boost your intake of nutrient-rich foods by making them tastier,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, author of the “All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.” A wee bit of sugar to balance a too-tart tomato sauce is a good thing; so is a teaspoon of honey on a tart grapefruit half or in plain yogurt. Don’t go overboard, of course. Most health experts suggest that added sugar supply no more than 10 percent of your total calories — about 200 in a 2,000-calorie diet.

Myth-buster recipe: Pink grapefruit sorbet (made with, yes, sugar) In this refreshing palate cleanser, the sugar tames the tartness of grapefruit juice. It could not be simpler to prepare. A serving delivers about two-thirds of your RDA for vitamin C, and only 145 calories.

3 cups fresh pink grapefruit Juice (about 4 grapefruits), divided 3⁄4 cup sugar

1. Combine 1⁄2 cup grapefruit juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until sugar dissolves, stirring frequently.

2. Combine the sugar mixture and the remaining 21⁄2 cups grapefruit juice in a medium bowl; cover and refrigerate until chilled.

3. Pour mixture into the freezer can of an ice-cream freezer, and freeze the mixture according to manufacturer’s instructions. Spoon the sorbet into a freezer-safe container; cover and freeze for 1 hour or until the sorbet is firm. Yield: 6 servings (serving size: 2⁄3 cup).

CALORIES 145; FAT 0.1g (sat 0g, mono 0g, poly 0g); PROTEIN 0.6g; CARB 36.4g; FIBER 0.1g; CHOL 0mg; IRON 0.3mg; SODIUM 1mg; CALC 11mg

Myth No. 2: Eating eggs raises your cholesterol levels. Truth: Dietary cholesterol found in eggs has little to do with the amount of cholesterol in your body.

The confusion can be boiled down to semantics: The same word, "cholesterol," is used to describe two different things. Dietary cholesterol — the fat-like molecules in animal-based foods like eggs — doesn’t greatly affect the amount of cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. Your body makes its own cholesterol, so it doesn’t need much of the kind you eat. Instead, what fuels your body’s cholesterol-making machine is certain saturated and trans fats. Eggs contain relatively small amounts of saturated fat. One large egg contains about 1.5 grams saturated fat, a fraction of the amount in the tablespoon of butter many cooks use to cook that egg in. In healthy people, “the research with eggs has never shown any link of egg consumption with blood lipids or with risk of heart disease,” says Don Layman, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cutting eggs out of your diet is a bad idea; they're a rich source of 13 vitamins and minerals.

Myth-buster recipe: Huevos revueltos Now that we’ve cleared that up (the cholesterol you eat doesn’t affect the cholesterol in your blood), you can enjoy eggs for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, guilt-free. Leave all the seeds in the jalapeño if you want a spicier kick.

2 teaspoons canola oil 1 jalapeño pepper 3⁄4 cup thinly sliced green onions 2 garlic cloves, minced 1 3⁄4 cups chopped plum tomatoes 1⁄2 teaspoon salt 6 large eggs, lightly beaten 1⁄2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeño peppers 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro 8 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed 4 lime wedges (optional) Hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco, optional)

1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cut jalapeño in half lengthwise; discard seeds from one half and leave seeds in remaining half. Mince both jalapeño halves. Add jalapeño, green onions, and garlic to pan; sauté 3 minutes or until tender. Add tomatoes and salt; cook 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring frequently.

2. Add eggs; cook 3 minutes or until soft-scrambled, stirring constantly. Sprinkle evenly with cheese and cilantro. Serve with tortillas, lime wedges, and hot sauce, if desired. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: 2⁄3 cup egg mixture and 2 tortillas).

CALORIES 289; FAT 14.1g (sat 4.5g, mono 4.3g, poly 2.4g); PROTEIN 15.6g; CARB 25.3g; FIBER 3.4g; CHOL 285mg; IRON 1.9mg; SODIUM 503mg; CALC 156mg

Myth No. 3: All saturated fats raise blood cholesterol. Truth: New research shows that some saturated fats don't.

Just when we’d all gotten comfortable with the idea that there are good-for-you mono- and polyunsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil and walnuts), along comes new research calling into question the one principle most health professionals thought was sacrosanct: All saturated fat is bad. Researchers have long known that there are many kinds of saturated fats; the main ones are lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acid. What’s interesting is that they are handled differently by the body when consumed. Stearic acid, a type of saturated fat found naturally in cocoa, dairy products, meats, and poultry, as well as palm and coconut oils, has attracted the most scientific interest because it appears to act similarly to monounsaturated fat in that it does not raise harmful LDL cholesterol but boosts beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. This is not a license to eat freely of anything containing stearic acid, of course: ribeye steak, for example, has some, but also has a high proportion of the other saturated fats that raise LDL — one of many contributors to heart disease risk. But there are foods, like coconut and chocolate, that contain what may eventually be called the “good” saturated fat — and so the moderate consumption of these is healthier than once thought. We say moderate, though, because foods rich in any type of fat tend to be dense in calories, as well.

Myth-buster recipe: Toasted coconut chocolate chunk cookies Given that both chocolate and coconut are not as “bad” as once thought, and given that they taste mighty good together, we baked up a batch of these toasty, chocolaty treats to celebrate. Like all sweets with few other nutrients, though, they are treats — perfectly healthy every once in a while.

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut 4.5 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 cup) 1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda 1⁄8 teaspoon salt 3⁄4 cup packed brown sugar 1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, softened 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 large egg 2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.

2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.

3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.

4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks. Yield: 25 servings (serving size: 1 cookie).

CALORIES 88; FAT 3.8g (sat 2.5g, mono 0.6g, poly 0.1g); PROTEIN 1g; CARB 13g; FIBER 0.4g; CHOL 12mg; IRON 0.6mg; SODIUM 38mg; CALC 15mg

Myth No. 4: The only heart-friendly alcohol is red wine.Truth: Beer, wine and liquors all confer the same health benefits.

The so-called French Paradox elevated red wine to health-food status when researchers thought it was the antioxidants in the drink that protected the foie gras- and cheese-loving French from heart disease. More recent research, however, has shown that antioxidants aren’t the answer after all. Alcohol — the ethanol itself — raises levels of protective high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or good cholesterol), which help protect against plaque buildup in the arteries and reduce clotting factors that contribute to heart attack and stroke, according to Eric Rimm, ScD, associate professor of nutrition at the School of Public Health at Harvard University. Any kind of beverage that contains alcohol, when consumed in moderation (and that means one to two drinks a day), helps reduce heart disease risk.

Myth No. 5: Adding salt to the pot adds sodium to the food. Truth: Salt added to boiling water may actually make vegetables more nutritious.

New York City launched the National Salt Reduction Initiative early this year to reduce salt levels in packaged and restaurant foods. This is the city that limited trans fats in restaurants and banned smoking, so if history is any indication, the country will follow with public health messages encouraging us to shake our salt-in-everything habits. In general it’s a good initiative; sodium is a potential problem even for non-hypertensive people. But it’s easy to overlook how sodium can actually help in recipes.

“Salt in the cooking water reduces the leaching of nutrients from vegetables into the water,” says Harold McGee, author of “On Food & Cooking.” That means your blanched broccoli, green beans, or asparagus likely retains more nutrients — although there aren’t studies to prove it. “It also speeds up the cooking process so you don’t lose as many nutrients from overcooking.” McGee recommends using about 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of water. The amount of sodium absorbed by the food is minuscule. Remember, the vast majority of sodium in our diets (about 75 percent) comes from processed foods, not fresh vegetables taking a brief dip in salted cooking water.

Myth-buster recipe: Green beans with orange and hazelnuts Salted boiling water helps blanched veggies retain their structure and nutrients and doesn’t add much sodium. Substitute olive oil for hazelnut oil, if it's easier.

1⁄4 cup hazelnuts 1⁄4 cup salt 1 pound green beans, trimmed 1 tablespoon thin orange rind strips 2 teaspoons roasted hazelnut oil 1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.

2. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet. Bake at 350° for 8 minutes; stir once. Turn nuts out onto a towel. Roll up towel; rub off skins. Chop nuts.

3. Combine 2 quarts water and 1⁄4 cup salt in a large saucepan; bring to a boil. Add beans; cook 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain. Place in a serving bowl. Add nuts, rind, oil, and 1⁄8 teaspoon salt; toss well to coat. Yield: 6 servings (serving size: about 2⁄3 cup).

CALORIES 110; FAT 7.5g (sat 0.6g, mono 5.6g, poly 1g); PROTEIN 3.4g; CARB 9.9g; FIBER 4.8g; CHOL 0mg; IRON 1.6mg; SODIUM 81mg; CALC 54mg

Myth No. 6: Fried foods are always too fatty. Truth: Healthy deep-fried food is not an oxymoron.

We did a lot of research in our test kitchen to prove that, done right, fried foods are nutritionally fine. Here’s how frying works: When food is exposed to hot oil, the moisture inside boils and pushes from the interior to the surface and then out into the oil. As moisture leaves, it creates a barrier, minimizing oil absorption into the food — when the frying is done right. Meanwhile, the little oil that does penetrate the food’s surface forms a crisp, tasty crust. To keep foods from soaking up oil (and calories), fry according to recipe instructions. For most foods, 375°F is optimal. Oil temperatures that are too low will increase fat absorption. When we added tempura-coated veggies to cooler-than-optimal oil, the result was greasy and inedible — they absorbed more than 1 cup of oil instead of 1⁄3 cup. Also, overcooked food will soak up oil.

Keep in mind that we’re not giving fast-food fried chicken dinners with French fries a passing grade. Such a meal contains an entire day’s worth of calories and sodium, thanks to large portion sizes, excessive breading, and globs of sauces. But in the hands of a careful home cook, a delicately breaded and fried catfish fillet with a few hush puppies can be a perfectly reasonable — and delicious — dinner.

Myth No. 7: The more fiber you eat, the better. Truth: Not all fibers are equally beneficial. Consider the source.

Yogurt is a dairy food that’s a great source of calcium. But it doesn’t naturally come with fiber. Yet the grocery aisles now boast fiber-supplemented yogurt, along with cereals, energy bars, even water. What’s the deal?

Fiber is a fad-food component right now, and food manufacturers are isolating specific types of fiber and adding them to packaged foods to take advantage. But the science isn’t entirely clear yet: Just as we’re learning more about different types of fat and their functions (see Myth No. 3), research is helping us understand how complex fiber is as well. Gone are the days of just two types of fiber: water-soluble (the kind found in oats, fruits, and legumes) and insoluble (the kind found in whole grains, nuts, and seeds). We now know that different fibers have different functions (wheat bran helps move foods along; oat bran lowers cholesterol; inulin supports healthy gut bacteria, etc.).

Some experts are skeptical that the so-called faux-fiber foods offer the same beneficial effect as naturally fiber-rich ones. “Foods fortified with fiber will not provide all the inherent goodness of whole foods like whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits,” says Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Fact is, most processed foods lack a bevy of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. So while it's true that only half of us eat the fiber we need for good health, added fiber doesn’t get us off the hook.

Meanwhile, nutritional watchdog organizations are campaigning to prohibit the inclusion of added fibers in the total fiber count that’s listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods.

Myth-buster recipe: Wheat berry salad with raisins and pistachios Eating fiber-rich whole foods is the best way to gain this essential component of your diet. Whole-grain wheat berries are chewy, mild, and packed with fiber. Prep all the ingredients while the grain cooks.

1 cup uncooked wheat berries (hard winter wheat) 3⁄4 teaspoon salt, divided 3 tablespoons shelled pistachios 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 2 teaspoons honey 1⁄2 teaspoon ground coriander 1⁄2 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger 1⁄2 cup golden raisins 1⁄4 cup thinly sliced green onions 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro 1⁄2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled goat cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.

2. Place wheat berries and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Cover with water to 2 inches above wheat berries, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 1 hour or until tender. Drain.

3. Place pistachios on a baking sheet. Bake at 350° for 8 minutes, stirring once. Cool slightly, and chop.

4. Combine oil, juice, honey, coriander, ginger, and remaining 1⁄4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add hot wheat berries and raisins; stir well to combine. Let stand for 20 minutes or until cooled to room temperature.

5. Add nuts, 1⁄4 cup green onions, and cilantro to wheat berry mixture. Transfer to a serving bowl, and sprinkle with goat cheese. Yield: 6 servings (serving size: about 1⁄2 cup).

CALORIES 240; FAT 8.9g (sat 2.3g, mono 4.8g, poly 1.3g); PROTEIN 7.2g; CARB 36.8g; FIBER 5g; CHOL 4mg; IRON 0.7mg; SODIUM 284mg; CALC 28mg

Myth No. 8: You should always remove chicken skin before eating. Truth: You can enjoy a skin-on chicken breast without blowing your sat-fat budget.

Half the pleasure of eating roast chicken comes from the gloriously crisp, brown skin that seems to melt in your mouth. Yet the skinless, boneless chicken breast — one of the more boring protein sources on Earth — became the health-conscious cook’s gold standard somewhere along the way. Fortunately, the long-standing command to strip poultry of its skin before eating doesn’t hold up under a nutritional microscope. A 12-ounce bone-in, skin-on chicken breast half contains just 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 50 calories more than its similarly portioned skinless counterpart. What’s more, 55 percent of the fat in the chicken skin is monounsaturated — the heart-healthy kind you want more of, says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RD, Program Director for Strategic Initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Tuesday night’s chicken dinner just got a lot more interesting — and appetizing.

Myth-buster recipe: Oregano and lime roasted chicken breasts A chicken breast will always be lean — skinned or not. If you’re tired of plain skinless, boneless chicken breasts, splurge on the skin-on option from time to time.

Chicken: 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano 2 teaspoons grated lime rind 1 teaspoon ground cumin 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves (about 3 pounds) 2 teaspoons olive oil 1⁄2 teaspoon salt

Sauce: 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin 1 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth 1 tablespoon tequila 1⁄2 teaspoon lime juice

1. To prepare chicken, combine first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Loosen skin from breast halves

by inserting fingers, gently pushing between skin and meat. Rub the oregano mixture evenly under loosened skin of each breast half. Arrange chicken breasts in a shallow dish; cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

2. Preheat oven to 375° F.

3. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt. Add chicken to pan, skin side down; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn chicken over, and transfer to oven. Bake at 375° for 25 minutes or until chicken is done. Remove chicken from pan, reserving 1 1⁄2 tablespoons drippings; set chicken aside, and keep warm.

4. To prepare sauce, heat reserved drippings in pan over medium-high heat. Add flour and 1⁄4 teaspoon cumin to pan, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add chicken broth, 1 tablespoon tequila, and lime juice, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Bring to a boil, and cook until reduced to about 2⁄3 cup (about 2 minutes), stirring occasionally. Serve with chicken. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: 1 breast half and about 21⁄2 tablespoons sauce).

CALORIES 446; FAT 18.8g (sat 4.9g, mono 8.1g, poly 3.8g); PROTEIN 60.2g; CARB 2.9g; FIBER 0.7g; CHOL 167mg; IRON 2.6mg; SODIUM 534mg; CALC 46mg

Myth No. 9: Organic foods are more nutritious than conventional.
Truth: There are many good reasons to choose organic, but nutrition isn’t one of them.

If you buy organic because you believe that sustainable farming supports the health of the soil, the work of small farmers, or the well-being of livestock, that’s all good. And you may find it more tasty. However, it’s not accurate to also promote organic as inherently more nutritious. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine provided the most comprehensive review of organic foods to date, including some 50 years of organic research. Their conclusion: No significant nutritional difference exists between conventional and organic crops and livestock. A good radish by any other name is still a radish. There is, of course, still the issue of trace amounts of pesticides or herbicides — wash conventional produce carefully.

Myth-buster recipe: Quick skillet asparagus Extra-virgin olive oil adds great flavor to this simple dish, and sautéing with it doesn’t burn away the oil’s healthful antioxidants.

4 teaspoons Extra-virgin olive oil 1 pound medium asparagus spears, trimmed 1⁄2 teaspoon grated lemon rind 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 1⁄4 teaspoon salt

1. Heat a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add -asparagus to pan; cook 3 minutes or until asparagus is crisp-tender and browned, stirring frequently. Transfer to a serving platter. Add rind, juice, and salt, tossing to coat. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: about 3 ounces).

CALORIES 71; FAT 4.7g (sat 0.7g, mono 3.3g, poly 0.7g); PROTEIN 2.5g; CARB 5g; FIBER 2.5g; CHOL 0mg; IRON 0.4mg; SODIUM 148mg; CALC 25mg

Myth No. 10: Cooking olive oil destroys its health benefits. Truth: Even delicate extra-virgin oils can take the heat without sacrificing nutrition.

This one has been kicking around ever since olive oil became a “good” fat: Cook with premium versions and you heat away the healthful properties. It simply isn’t true.

First of all, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats aren’t unfavorably altered by heat. They survive a sauté intact. Now, research from Italy and Spain is showing that other plant-based compounds — the elements that likely give olive oils their complex flavor profiles as well as other healthful properties — can also stand up to standard cooking procedures. They’re surprisingly stable, as long as the oil isn’t heated past its smoking point, which for extra-virgin olive oil is pretty high — about 405°F. (Canola oil’s smoke point is 400°F.)

How you store the oil is more important. Fats and phytonutrients stay stable for up to two years in unopened opaque bottles stored at room temperature and away from light. Heat, light, and air drastically affect stability. Store in a room-temp cupboard, and use within six months.

Julie Upton, MS, RD, is a San Francisco–based food and nutrition writer. Jackie Mills, MS, RD, is a New York City–based recipe developer and frequent Cooking Light contributor. For more articles like this, visit CookingLight.com.

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