Nutritional choices, Food Dialogues contemplates consumers options
Washington D.C. – “Everyday consumers encounter food terms such as organic, conventional, locally grown, fresh, natural and processed,” said Carolyn O’Neil, moderator for the Food Dialogues discussion and nutrition advisor to BestFoodFacts.org, “Those terms can sometimes be tough to understand exactly what they mean when making food purchasing decisions.”
The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) held a Food Dialogues panel discussion about “Nutrition: Who is shaping America’s eating habits?” This event was hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and aired on the internet on Feb. 21.
The panelists for the Food Dialogue discussion included Roger Clemens, Janey Thornton, Bob Haselwood, Dennis Derryck, Craig Rowles and Barbara Ruhs.
America’s food choices
USFRA represents more than 80 of the top farmer- and rancher-led organizations in agriculture. They work together to listen to and answer America’s questions on how food is grown and raised through events like livestream webinars and online events at FoodDialogues.com.
“The more consumers know about food and nutrition the more they will eat,” stated O’Neil. “Knowledge and education is so important.”
“There are so many things impacting on the dietary habits people have in the U.S.,” said Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmaceutical sciences and associate director of University of Southern California of Pharmacy.
“Every member of the family is busy and constantly on the go,” said Thornton, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services with the USDA. “That has a huge impact on what and how we are eating.”
America’s consumers are worried about a lot of issues when it comes to their food. Approximately 69 percent of people are concerned about keeping healthy foods affordable and accessible.
“We live in a country that has one of the most affordable and safest food supplies,” explained Barbara Ruhs, supermarket health and nutrition expert. “Often I think consumers forget about that and hopefully we will be able to reinforce that.”
Other issues consumers are worried about are food safety, humane treatment of farm animals, sustainability and access to accurate information to make healthy food choices.
“We have this vision that fresh food and produce is the pinnacle of nutrition,” stated Ruhs. “When we think about some of the processing of our food in our country where tomatoes are picked and put into cans within hours – that’s optimal nutrition right there.”
“We need to get that information out to consumers that processed foods are not really nutritionally inferior,” she added.
Thornton discussed that there has been so much hype in the media about processed foods that Americans wonder what is in their food. Using words consumers understand, instead of chemical terms, is a better alternative.
“It’s not the actual processing that concerns people, it’s not knowing what else is in this food,” explained Thornton.
Organic versus non-organic
Studies have been conducted that there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally raised products.
Ruhs explained it is a nutritional disservice to consumers when they are led to believe that organic is better, and a lot of times families may be unable to afford organic, so they forgo buying produce altogether.
“Eat produce, whether it’s in a can, frozen, dried or fresh,” said Ruhs. “It’s more about getting the optimal nutrition than splitting the hairs between this produce or that.”
Cafeterias in school districts are now starting to serve locally grown food to their students, and the definition of what is considered local is up to the school district to determine.
Some definitions used include the radius from the school to the farm, and others have used a time measure away from the school.
“School districts are trying to get foods that have been harvested at the last minute, so kids can identify with them at their peak of ripeness,” said Thornton. “This also economically supports local farms.”
“People who can connect with their food and understand more about it are much more likely to consume that food – particularly in schools,” added Thornton.
Different soil types
While there is no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food, there have been studies that show foods grown in different types of soils in different regions have different nutritional benefits.
“The soil really makes a difference in the composition of our food supply,” said Clemens. “The type of cultivar also makes a difference.”
Produce grown in the south is low in selenium because the soil is deficient in selenium, for example.
Selenium is good for heart protection and prevention of diabetes.
The issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is becoming more prevalent on consumers minds and in grocery stores.
“The bottom line is that all foods that we consume everyday have been genetically modified through years of consumption and planting,” explained Clemens.
Modifications that have helped crops include drought resistance, increased yields, pest and weed resistance and variety creation.
“If we are not using the latest and greatest technology for our food supply, we are going to be in big trouble,” said Ruhs. “We need to rebrand GMOs.”
“It’s back to the idea that we need to increase communication to help people understand what is actually put in their foods,” said Thornton.