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Nutrition Questions

More Nutrition Questions Answered

Our dietitians are in session, answering YOUR nutrition questions. We receive hundreds of questions, via email, snail mail, and Facebook every month, and Kathy Kitchens Downie, RD and Nutrition Editor for Cooking Light, tackles a few a month in the pages of the magazine. Here, find all those question-answer sessions and more. Kathy is joined by Nutrition Editor, Holley Grainger, MS, RD, in answering even more of your nutrition queries.

Send questions to, via, or to Cooking Light, P.O. Box 1748, Birmingham, AL 35209. We want to hear from you!

Nutrition Labels

“Hidden” Sugars

Question: "I try to watch 'hidden' sugar intake and wonder why you don't list sugar in your recipes' nutrition numbers." —Cathi Poston, via e-mail

Answer: Most nutrition analysis programs, like the one we use for our recipes, only evaluate total sugars, which include natural ones (like the sugar found in fruit, for example) plus added ones (like, well, sugar). It's the same scenario on a food package's Nutrition Facts Panel, where sugar is sugar, regardless of the source. Your best bet for avoiding added sugars (and extra calories): Check the ingredient list. Look for sugary stuff like syrup, sugar, dextrose, honey, or fructose. The lower sugar is on the ingredient list, the less added to a product. The same goes for recipes; those with syrup, honey, or added sugars will obviously contain additional calories from those carbs.

See more information on sugar.

Decaf Green Tea

Decaf Green Tea

Question: "Do I still get the health benefits of green tea if I drink decaffeinated types?" —Jennifer T. Enson, via e-mail

Answer: Despite the marketing hype, the jury's still out on any health benefits gained from drinking green tea--whether caffeinated or not. One of the tea's compounds, ECGC (or epigallocatechin gallate), has received the most attention from the beverage industry and nutrition research as a powerful antioxidant. Several studies, some through the National Institutes of Health, are in progress to better understand the potential benefits. For now, only preliminary findings have linked green tea to delaying or preventing the growth of certain cancers, slowing weight gain, and lowering blood pressure. Fewer results are available for decaffeinated green teas, but the beverage's likely benefits come from the antioxidants and not the caffeine.

See more: Find out how drinking tea can benefit your beauty routine.

Lean Ground Beef

Lean Ground Beef vs. Regular

Question: "Is there a significant difference in fat or calories for cooked and drained lean ground beef compared to cooked and drained regular ground beef?" —Beth Trinh, via e-mail

Answer: Yes. Start with a leaner cut of beef, and you'll have less fat rendered and less fat in your cooked portion. About five percent of the weight of lean ground beef is from pure fat; the remaining 95 percent of weight is lean beef. By contrast, regular ground beef contains 20 percent fat by weight. A 3-ounce (cooked) portion of lean ground beef contains about 164 calories and 2.9 grams of saturated fat. That's about 70 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat less than similarly prepared and portioned regular ground beef.

See more: Our favorite use for lean ground beef—Burgers!

Heating Olive Oil

Photo: Robin Broadbent/

Heating Olive Oil

Question: "I've heard that parts of olive oil turn into trans fats when heated. Is this true?"—Sheila Nazarro, via e-mail

Answer: I'm not sure how that rumor got started, but I can emphatically tell you this: Olive oil does not develop harmful artificial trans fats when heated to higher temperatures, like those used for sautéing or pan-frying. You need a chemistry lab—not a sauté pan—to alter the formation of a chain of fatty acids like those in oil. (To turn a fatty acid trans, extra hydrogen atoms must be added, which causes molecules on the chain of fatty acids to flip from one side to the other.) Olive oil—or any pure, nonhydrogenated vegetable oil—is an ideal, healthy medium for sautéing aromatics, roasting vegetables, or using in a spice rub for meats.

Watch: Nutrition Essentials on Healthy Fats


Smart Snacking

Question: "Are pretzels really a healthy snack?" —Karla S., via e-mail

Answer: Compared to a piece of fruit and handful of nuts, or cheese and whole-grain crackers, no. Compared to a trans-fat-filled, high-caloric snack cake with "crème" filling and frosting, pretzels are nutritional manna, especially if you're at a vending machine, where pretzels may be the lesser of many evils. The biggest rub is that a 1-ounce serving of pretzels has 110 calories and 450 milligrams sodium (about one-fifth of your daily allotment!). Choose low-salt or unsalted multigrain and whole grain versions for the biggest nutrition boost.

Find our Taste Test winners for the best pretzels.

Woman Running

Coconut Oil as Metabolism Booster?

Question: "What's your take on the ability of coconut oil to help boost metabolism and fight diseases?"—Leslie Scofield, via e-mail

Answer: The "eat this to rev metabolism" talk has never played out in the science world. Sorry to burst your bubble, but exercise and increased muscle mass are the best ways to significantly jump-start your body's calorie-burning gauge. No single food will fight diseases. Your best bet is to rely on a variety of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and quality sources of protein for prevention of many chronic conditions. A little coconut oil every now and then probably isn't that harmful, but canola oil, with its pleasantly neutral flavor, works better in a variety of recipes and applications.

See more: Find exercise tips and techniques to rev your metabolism the good old-fashioned way in our Ultimate Move Finder.

Poly-saturated Fats

Minimum Fat Requirements

Question: "Is there a minimum amount of fat intake the body needs to function properly?"—Cara Wolfe, via e-mail

Answer: Scientists couldn't safely conduct a study to determine the smallest amount of fat on which people can survive. But there isn't much need to: Dietary fats supply nutrients you can only obtain from food—namely the omega-3 and omega-6 fats; they make fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K available to your body; they promote fullness; and they are a concentrated source of energy. Make unsaturated fats, such as those from vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, fish, and avocados, your go-to sources.

See more: The Facts on Fats and Fat: Fact or Fable

Nut Allergies

Nut Allergies

Question: "I have a tree nut allergy and must avoid most nuts. What other snacks provide filling protein?"—Tatiana Williams, via e-mail

Answer: If legumes aren't a problem and you need a crunchy snack fix, reach for edamame, soynuts, or peanuts. One ounce of unsalted peanuts offers a good amount of protein for a snack, and they're less likely to have been processed with tree nuts than the salted or flavored options. A piece of string cheese is also a good choice. Swirl a little honey into an 8-ounce container of fat-free Greek yogurt for a massive 20 grams of protein, allergy-free.

See more of our snacking strategies.

Vitamin D-Fortified Mushrooms

Vitamin D-Fortified Mushrooms

Question: "Do mushrooms fortified with vitamin D retain the nutrient when cooked?" —Barb Gulbrandson, via e-mail

Answer: It's amazing what food science achieves when using its powers for good, like turning nutritional zeroes into heroes. With a flash of harmless UV rays, low-nutrient mushrooms become a vitamin D powerhouse. We checked the USDA Nutrient Database and found that cooking slightly affects content: 2 ounces of UV-treated grilled portobellos supply about 319 IU of vitamin D, two-thirds of your daily needs. (The same amount of UV-treated fresh mushrooms contains 261 IU, about half of your needs for the day.) Such UV-treated mushrooms are available across the nation—check labels for vitamin D content.

See more on mushrooms.

Vitamin D-Fortified Mushrooms

Whey Protein…worth the effort?

Question: "Is it worth having whey protein on hand to drink on days I don't get enough protein?" —Tiffany Panko, via e-mail

Answer: I would rather eat some peanut butter or cheese for a protein fix on hectic days, but there isn't anything wrong with a protein supplement if you don't mind the taste and expense. (Just don't go overboard. Mixing in this concentrated source of protein into a homemade smoothie is enough; no need to sprinkle it over everything you eat or drink.) Check out to see how much you need. An average 125-pound woman needs only about 5 ounces of protein a day, according to, which equals 1 large egg, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, and 3 ounces chicken.

See more on how to get more protein into your diet.

High Fiber Foods

“High Fiber” in Processed Foods

Question: "I see highly processed foods touted as high in fiber, when the fiber would likely be destroyed in processing. What's going on?"—Orc Jones, via e-mail

Answer: While the fiber counts look impressive on a food label, so-called isolated fibers, like inulin or oat bran, have not been under the research microscope long enough to determine if they are as effective as their whole, intact counterparts. I would wait until nutrition science can determine a health benefit of these "fibers" before spending money on them. Your best bet: Obtain fiber from whole, unprocessed foods.

See more: Meet Your Fiber Needs and Fiber Fundamentals

Brown Rice

Basmati vs. Brown Rice

Question: "What is the nutritional difference between basmati and brown rice?"—Cooking Light reader, via e-mail

Answer: Brown rice is a nutritional rock star in the rice family. Fragrant white basmati rice is delicious but less nutritious. That's because brown rice and other colorful rices are considered whole grain; white basmati isn't because it has gone through processing, which strips away some of the whole-grain goodness. Even though brown rice doesn't contain much fiber, it still provides the nutritional trifecta of a whole grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm, which supply good-for-you nutrients. Whole-grain brown basmati, by the way, is a tasty choice.

See more: All About Rice

Daily Iron Needs

Daily Iron Needs

Question: "How do I make sure I'm getting the most iron from foods?"—Sherry E., via e-mail

Answer: If you're healthy, your body's need for iron will be the main influence in how well it's absorbed. But you can stack the nutritional deck if you're worried you're not getting enough, which is about 18mg a day for adult women. Iron from meats, poultry, and fish are absorbed better than iron from plants or iron-enriched and -fortified foods (like breakfast cereals). Consume a well-rounded diet with a good source of vitamin C—like citrus segments or broccoli—at each meal to up the iron ante.

See More: The Nutrients Women Need Most


Bee Pollen Supplements

Photo: Fuse/Getty Images

Bee Pollen Supplements

Question: “How safe and effective is bee pollen? I’ve seen research on the Internet saying a little provides many nutrients.”—J. Robertson, via e-mail

Answer: Manufacturers of dietary supplements aren’t obligated to prove their product’s safety or effectiveness, thanks to the FDA’s handling of such products. According to FDA regulations, though, companies cannot make claims about curing, diagnosing, or treating diseases or conditions. A quick search at three branches of the National Institutes of Health didn’t reveal any specifics on the nutrient content of bee pollen. Another trusted source for information on herbals and supplements says research hasn’t yet teased out health benefits linked to bee pollen, but keep your healthcare provider informed if you take bee pollen.

Kosher Salt and Iodine

Photo: Tom Collicott/Masterfile

Kosher Salt and Iodine

Question: “I use kosher salt in my cooking. Will my family get sufficient iodine from a little added table salt? What about the salt in convenience products?” —B. Risch, via e-mail

Answer: Kosher salt does not contain any iodine, a critical mineral that supports hormone function and metabolism. But don’t fear—you’d have to live in a food desert to have an iodine-deficient diet. Coarse-grained sea salt, table salt, and seafood contain the nutrient. (A 6-ounce portion of salt-water fish supplies more than 4 times your daily need of 150 micrograms). Many commercial products made with salt (frozen bread dough, for example), eggs, and dairy products are other sources. Also plants can contain the mineral, thanks to iodine-rich soil, so eating a variety of vegetables can contribute to your intakes, too.

See more: Switching to kosher salt can help you lower your overall sodium intake.

Heart-Healthy Foods

Selenium Risks

Question: “I recently read that selenium supplements cause cholesterol numbers to increase? Do you have any information on this?”—Carolyn, via e-mail

Answer: This antioxidant mineral is needed in small amounts. So far, there’s just not enough information yet about selenium supplements and its effect on heart disease. (However, large studies so far have found alarming results for men taking the mineral supplement: not only did supplement takers in the study not have less prostate risk, but their diabetes risk was higher.) If you don’t have a condition that requires nutrient supplementation, choose food for your nutrients. Besides the fact that it tastes better, you’re likely gaining fiber, minerals, vitamins, and a host of other compounds that may bolster health.

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