Should you avoid white vegetables?

Last Saturday I was at a rural Georgia Farm Festival and I bought a bag of potatoes from a local farmer (photo of my purchase to the left). As I carried the 5-pound bag to my car, a stranger approached me wagging her finger at me. She said, “You shouldn’t eat those. I stopped eating potatoes years ago because white vegetables are horrible and you might as well pour sugar down your throat.”  I was stunned by her comment on many levels. First, when did it become acceptable for a stranger to give out nutrition advice? Second, she was just plain wrong.

A recent paper (executive summary available for free at http://advances.nutrition.org/content/4/3/318S.full.pdf) published a roundtable discussion convened on the campus of Purdue with leading nutrition experts. The topic of the roundtable and the summary was, “White vegetables: A forgotten sources of nutrients.”  As nutritionists, we often tell our clients to choose a colorful diet but maybe we should have emphasized that white vegetables are healthy, too, and certainly are not devoid of nutrients. One of the experts cited in the paper reminded us that white vegetables contain important nutrients like vitamins C and D, potassium, calcium, and dietary fiber, and color is not an accurate indicator of these nutrients. In addition to potatoes, other white vegetables include onions, cauliflower, mushrooms, and turnips and if we only used color as a guide to choosing our veggies we would miss some key nutrients.

Only 2-3% of Americans get the recommended intake of potassium and potatoes are one of our best sources of this important mineral. Higher potassium intakes are associated with lower blood pressure and the DASH diet, a meal plan designed to lower blood pressure, contains many potassium-rich foods, including potatoes. Potatoes are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium; a healthy combination.

Potatoes are also a good source of dietary fiber and not just in the skin. The flesh of the potato has soluble fiber, the kind of fiber that helps to lower blood cholesterol levels.

As for the comment that potatoes=sugar, well, that is a reference to the glycemic index; a measure of how a fixed amount of a carbohydrate in a food affects blood sugar. Potatoes have a higher glycemic index than other vegetables but that doesn’t mean they are the same as eating sugar. Most of use eat potatoes as part of a meal and the other foods in the meal can alter or lower the glycemic response of a single food.

I am going to prepare my potatoes by roasting them with a drizzle of olive oil and dried rosemary for a delicious side dish. Oh, and by the way, I saw the woman who admonished me later on at the festival eating hot dogs and, you guessed it, a bag of potato chips!

Spice it up

Lately, I’ve been in a food rut; going back to the same recipes time and time again. Then I read an article in the summer issue of the American Institute for Cancer Research (available at aicr.org under publications tab Science Now) called The Spices of Cancer Protection. Herbs and spices have long been known to have plant compounds called phytochemicals similar to those found in fruits and vegetables. Scientists have been trying to unlock the cancer protective effects of phytochemicals and they are discovering that certain spices have potent anti-cancer effects; well, at least in the lab. It is too early to swallow tablespoons of  the stuff out of your spice rack, but it is never too early to learn how to use these spices in cooking for many reasons. Using spices can help you replace sodium, impart flavor without fat, and wake up your palate to new flavors.

The spices being studied for cancer protection include allspice, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and black pepper. Garlic, although not a spice, is also included as we tend to use garlic as a seasoning (unless you trying to ward off vampires and then it becomes costume jewelry.)  The ways in which spices fight cancer are many and range from repairing DNA, reducing inflammation, regulating hormones, and altering cancer cell metabolism. Not all spices have the same effects so for now it is a good idea to include a wide variety of spices in your diet.

But, getting back to my food rut…how to overcome it? That is where a cool online tool from McCormick comes in (I have no relationship with the company and learned about it at a presentation at The Culinary Institute of America). McCormick has launched “Flavor Print” (accessed from McCormick website at mccormick.com/flavor print) an online tool based on sensory science that “reads your palate” to discover your personal flavor print. I started by rating foods that I liked; a thumbs up or thumbs down task. I rated everything from my like or dislike of hoppy beer (dislike), arugula (like), and pfeffernuse cookies (dislike). After rating a bunch of foods, my flavor print appeared. Turns out, I’m cheesey, garlic and onionish, and coffee and chocolatey. Next, I rated by cooking preferences (I’ve never deep-fried but I love to grill) and went to the recipe section to find matches to my flavor print. Based on my palate, I found several mouth- watering recipes like Slow Cooker Italian Beef (89% match), Almond and Date Bulgar Salad with Sofrito (88% match), and Grilled Chicken and Blueberry Pasta Salad (88% match). Fair warning, this online exercise will make your hungry!

I think this tool could break me out of my food rut and help me include more cancer-fighting spices in my diet. My 80-something year old mother-in-law will be spending some time with me and as many seniors do, she complains she has little appetite. I think the first thing we’ll do is her Flavor Print and then head to the grocery store!