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Posts Tagged: nutrition

Karina Diaz Rios promotes healthy eating among people vulnerable to food insecurity

This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has continued to work to safeguard abundant and healthy food for all Californians, promote healthy people and communities, build skills needed in the workforce and help to develop an inclusive and equitable society. For insights into how the pandemic is affecting life in California and UC ANR's programs in these areas, UC's research magazine, California Agriculture, spoke with UC Cooperative Extension specialist Karina Díaz Rios about nutrition. Below is the edited conversation.

California Agriculture: How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting food security for people in California?

Karina Díaz Rios, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist
Karina Díaz Rios: This may sound counter intuitive because of the type and size of the agricultural activity in California, but access to nutritious food was an issue in many communities in California even before the pandemic hit. According to the latest reports from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 10% of California households are food insecure, which means that they have inconsistent or limited access to enough food for an active, healthy life. If you compare these numbers with the national food insecurity rate, which is about 12%, you would think that California is not in particularly bad shape. However, there's another story to tell. In particular segments of the population in the state, food insecurity is really a big issue, with some communities being affected at a rate as high as 40%, in the case of low income Californians, or around 25% in some counties in the San Joaquin Valley. The public health catastrophe we're dealing with right now has exacerbated these disparities. Distressing estimates indicate California has seen the largest increase in food insecurity during the pandemic, with Los Angeles County being at the very top across the nation. This means communities already affected by food insecurity are now even more prone to suffer the consequences of not having access to a quality diet — consequences such as malnutrition and a concomitant worsening of health.

California Agriculture: So the pandemic is affecting people's ability to get enough food to eat. Is it also affecting their ability to eat healthy food?

Karina Díaz Rios: Food-insecure people tend to spend more of their food money at convenience stores, where
prices are often higher than the larger grocery stores and the variety and quality are usually lower. This means that the overall quality of the diet of food insecure households is about 5% to 10% lower than households that are food secure. That doesn't sound like much, but the average diet quality of folks in the United States is already suboptimal — around 60 out of 100. If 100 is the highest-quality diet, 60 is not much more than halfway there. So a reduction of 5% to 10% is really consequential. The issue is not that food-insecure people make bad choices. In buying certain kinds of food instead of others, people are making the right choices based on their circumstances. Shopping in convenience stores might be the logical action when time or other resources, like transportation or income, are limited — and when planning meals maybe isn't realistic because of lack of practice or other competing priorities. It's difficult to plan when your income is unstable.

California Agriculture: How does all this affect the work that you do?

Karina Díaz Rios: This is an area where there are challenges, but also opportunities. The Cooperative Extension army of nutrition educators is very well suited to help overcome some of the obstacles that the pandemic has posed for accessing resources, whether in-kind resources like food assistance or educational resources. They know their communities. They can identify the needs in their communities and help address them more easily than people who are not in such good touch with the community. Another extremely good thing about our Cooperative Extension system in California is that people are very creative. We have people who can come up with solutions in a heartbeat and implement them.

California Agriculture: Lots of children around the state won't be returning to school in the fall, at least at first. What effect does remote education, as opposed to in-school education, have on the food security issues that you cover?

Karina Díaz Rios: A large number of low-income students who qualify for food assistance and school meal programs are not going to get those meals if they don't go to school. There are efforts in several school districts to make sure that low-income children are actually receiving these meals. These efforts are particularly key right now, but it takes a great deal of planning and resources to make it happen. But also, these school meals only represent, at best, two-thirds of the daily caloric needs for children who get breakfast and lunch from school. So they can still be on a caloric deficit if they don't have enough food at home, which again, is more likely to be the case because of the pandemic.

California Agriculture: Do you foresee that the coronavirus is going to cause any long-lasting changes in the realm of nutrition? Or, after a vaccine is developed, do you imagine that things will more or less go back to the way they were?

Karina Díaz Rios: I am concerned that the people most affected by higher food insecurity due to the pandemic are going to be children. A lack of nutrients, even for a limited time, can affect children's ability to grow and thrive. So I just hope that these days are not going to have a lasting impact on these children — but it's a possibility.

Posted on Monday, September 28, 2020 at 10:19 AM

Kids still drink milk when chocolate milk is pulled from the menu

Schools across the nation are removing chocolate milk from their meal programs to reduce students' intake of added sugar.

Some people are concerned the new policy will lead to a decrease in students' milk consumption and, specifically, reduce the essential nutrients that milk provides, such as calcium, protein and vitamin D. They also fear the policy could lead to an increase in milk waste. However, results from a study conducted by UC Nutrition Policy Institute may alleviate these concerns.

Taking chocolate milk out of schools results in a significant reduction in added sugar consumption. (Photo: Bob Nichols, USDA).

While the study found that the number of students who selected milk during lunch dropped by about 14% in the year the chocolate milk was removed, there was a no significant difference in the proportion of milk wasted before and after policy implementation. Milk consumption declined by about 1 ounce per student post policy implementation, resulting in a small but statistically insignificant decrease in the average amount of calcium, protein, or vitamin D consumed from milk.

The chocolate milk removal policy did result in a significant reduction in added sugar consumption from milk, by an average of 3.1 grams per student. These results suggest that a school meal chocolate milk removal policy may reduce middle and high school students' added sugar intake without compromising intake of essential nutrients nor increasing milk waste.

The study was conducted by NPI affiliated researchers Hannah Thompson and Esther Park from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health in collaboration with NPI researchers Lorrene Ritchie and Wendi Gosliner, and Kristine Madsen from the Berkeley Food Institute and UC Berkeley School of Public Health. The study was published online on August 27, 2020 in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. The full study is available online.

Posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 at 11:43 AM
Focus Area Tags: Food

Healthy vending grows in popularity on UC campuses

Raw hunger or thirst usually draws people to buy snacks from vending machines. Healthy options, calorie counts and reminders help consumers make good-sense decisions when they slip in coins or a credit card, according to research by a working group organized under UC's Global Food Initiative and led by the UC Nutrition Policy Institute.

The working group set out to develop guidelines for food service providers at all 10 UC campuses and other UC facilities in stocking and promoting healthy options in their vending machines. They also created a toolkit with step-by-step guidance in making the switch, including everything from early meetings with students, food service and vendors to anticipating and preparing for barriers to implementation.

Healthy options, calorie counts and reminders help consumers make good-sense decisions when buying food or beverages from vending machines.

As part of the project, the Nutrition Policy Institute evaluated data from six UC campuses that show healthy vending options are growing in popularity, which eases concerns about a potential reduction in profit by making vending healthier.

“In 2005, California began introducing policies limiting junk food in vending machines and student stores on K-12 campuses,” said Janice Kao, a researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute and chair of the working group. “Today's college students are used to having healthy snack options in schools. Customer resistance that some vendors talk about isn't necessarily the case anymore.”

Two UC campuses – UCLA and UC San Francisco – have been early adopters in making healthy vending machine choices available. According to the evaluation, the two locations achieved the goal of having 70% of their beverage vending products fit the “healthy” description. Other UC campuses are working on adding healthy options – with a wide variation in implementation and definition of “healthy.”

The Global Food Initiative working group recommends a higher standard for “healthy” snacks than some campuses and vendors. The key difference is the decision that an item can only be considered “healthy” if the first ingredient is a fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy, protein or whole grain.

“This guideline means some granola bars cannot be considered a healthy snack,” Kao said.

Even so, the evaluation results showed improvement in the sales of healthy products.

“Campuses that have actively worked on healthy vending saw greater sales of healthy snacks and drinks,” Kao said. “We want to learn from those experiences and develop systemwide standards to provide consistency. With everyone following the same guidelines, there is potential to take advantage of systemwide food procurement economies of scale and contribute to meeting UC's sustainability goals.”

The NPI evaluation compared the greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional vending and healthy vending. A dramatic difference emerged when comparing candy bar ingredients and healthy snack bar ingredients. Greenhouse gas emissions of candy bar ingredients were estimated to be more than twice as high as healthy snack bar ingredients.

Posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 at 1:39 PM
Focus Area Tags: Food

Study finds 82 percent of avocado oil rancid or mixed with other oils

Avocados hang on a tree at UC South Coast Research & Extension Center. “Consumers seeking the health benefits of avocado oil deserve to get what they think they are buying,” says Selina Wang.

Consumer demand is rising for all things avocado, including oil made from the fruit. Avocado oil is a great source of vitamins, minerals and the type of fats associated with reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. But according to new research from food science experts at the University of California, Davis, the vast majority of avocado oil sold in the U.S. is of poor quality, mislabeled or adulterated with other oils.

In the country's first extensive study of commercial avocado oil quality and purity, UC Davis researchers report that at least 82% of test samples were either stale before expiration date or mixed with other oils. In three cases, bottles labeled as “pure” or “extra virgin” avocado oil contained near 100 percent soybean oil, an oil commonly used in processed foods that's much less expensive to produce.

“I was surprised some of the samples didn’t contain any avocado oil,” said Wang.
“I was surprised some of the samples didn't contain any avocado oil,” said Selina Wang, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, who led the study recently published in the journal Food Control.“Most people who buy avocado oil are interested in the health benefits, as well as the mild, fresh flavor, and are willing to pay more for the product. But because there are no standards to determine if an avocado oil is of the quality and purity advertised, no one is regulating false or misleading labels. These findings highlight the urgent need for standards to protect consumers and establish a level playing field to support the continuing growth of the avocado oil industry.”

Testing domestic and imported brands  

Wang and Hilary Green, a Ph.D. candidate in Wang's lab, analyzed various chemical parameters of 22 domestic and imported avocado oil samples, which included all the brands they could find in local stores and online. Wang and Green received a $25,000 grant from Dipasa USA, part of the Dipasa Group, a sesame-seed and avocado-oil processor and supplier based in Mexico.

“In addition to testing commercial brands, we also bought avocados and extracted our own oil in the lab, so we would know, chemically, what pure avocado oil looks like,” Wang said.

Test samples included oils of various prices, some labeled extra virgin or refined. Virgin oil is supposed to be extracted from fresh fruit using only mechanical means, and refined oil is processed with heat or chemicals to remove any flaws.

Fifteen of the samples were oxidized before the expiration date. Oil loses its flavor and health benefits when it oxidizes, which happens over time and when exposed to too much light, heat or air. Six samples were mixed with large amounts of other oils, including sunflower, safflower and soybean oil.

Only two brands produced samples that were pure and non-oxidized. Those were Chosen Foods and Marianne's Avocado Oil, both refined avocado oils made in Mexico. Among the virgin grades, CalPure produced in California was pure and fresher than the other samples in the same grade.

A push for standards

Ensuring quality is important for consumers, retailers, producers and people throughout the avocado oil industry. Retailers want to sell quality products, shoppers want to get their money's worth and honest producers want to keep fraudulent and low-quality oil out of the marketplace.

But since avocado oil is relatively new on the scene, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet adopted “standards of identity,” which are basic food standards designed to protect consumers from being cheated by inferior products or confused by misleading labels. Over the last 80 years, the FDA has issued standards of identity for hundreds of products, like whiskey, chocolate, juices and mayonnaise. Without standards, the FDA has no means to regulate avocado oil quality and authenticity.

Avocado oil isn't the only product without enforceable standards. Honey, spices and ground coffee are other common examples. Foods that fetch a higher price are especially ripe for manipulating, especially when adulterations can be too subtle to detect outside a lab.

Wang is working to develop faster, better and cheaper chemical methods to detect adulteration so bulk buyers can test avocado oil before selling it. She is also evaluating more samples, performing shelf-life studies to see how time and storage affects quality, and encouraging FDA officials to establish reasonable standards for avocado oil.

Wang has experience collaborating with industry and the FDA. Ten years ago, she analyzed the quality and purity of extra virgin olive oil and discovered that most of what was being sold in the U.S. was actually a much lower grade. Her research sparked a cascade of responses that led California to establish one of the world's most stringent standards for different grades of olive oil. The FDA is working with importers and domestic producers to develop standards of identity for olive oil.

“Consumers seeking the health benefits of avocado oil deserve to get what they think they are buying,” Wang said. “Working together with the industry, we can establish standards and make sure customers are getting high-quality, authentic avocado oil and the companies are competing on a level playing field.”

Tips for consumers

  • The flavor of virgin avocado oil can differ by varieties and region. In general, authentic, fresh, virgin avocado oil tastes grassy, buttery and a little bit like mushrooms.
  • Virgin avocado oil should be green in color, whereas refined avocado oil is light yellow and almost clear due to pigments removed during refining.
  • Even good oil becomes rancid with time. It's important to purchase a reasonable size that can be finished before the oil oxidizes. Store the oil away from light and heat. A cool, dark cabinet is a good choice, rather than next to the stove.  
  • How do you know if the oil is rancid? It starts to smell stale, sort of like play dough.
  • When possible, choose an oil that's closest to the harvest/production time to ensure maximum freshness. The “best before date” is not always a reliable indicator of quality.
Posted on Monday, June 15, 2020 at 5:38 PM
Tags: Avocado (2), food safety (43), nutrition (127), Selina Wang (1)
Focus Area Tags: Food

California heroes continue to provide nutritious food to students

Now more than ever, California is full of heroes:  front-line workers in our hospitals, farm fields and essential businesses. And even though schools are closed, they are full of heroes, too: teachers implementing distance learning and kitchen workers who have stepped up to the heroic task of providing meals for children in their communities, despite the challenges that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic.

School nutrition professionals continue to provide nutritious food that meets dietary standards, the kitchens provide employment, and the hungry students provide a multi-million dollar market for California's agricultural products.

North Monterey County Unified School District weekly meal kit distribution has allowed them to safely provide nutritious meals to their students and the youth in their community during the school closures.

Researchers at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources's Nutrition Policy Institute received an email earlier this spring with a subject line that simply said, “HELP!!!” Local community groups had learned that some Central Valley school districts would not be providing meals over spring break. Even though that might not be cause for alarm some years, this year it would hurt. In the eight-week period between March 14 and May 14, 2020, the California Employment Development Department processed 4.7 million unemployment benefit claims – nearly seven times more claims than over a two-month period at the height of the 2008 recession. EDD estimates that California unemployment reached nearly 25% by mid-May. 

That is why school meals are more important than ever. 

On receiving the request for HELP!!!, the Nutrition Policy Institute teamed with a Stanford pediatrician to distill critical information from USDA and the California Department of Education. Connecting with child nutrition professionals throughout the state, they gleaned tips and best practices, and added COVID-19-specific resources from the Community of Practice convened by LunchAssist and the Center for Ecoliteracy. The team produced informational flyers targeted to California school district officials and food service directors:

The resources provide explanations and resources for operating school meal programs during non-instructional periods through either the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) or the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

There is no time to lose. Click here to make sure your local school district's food services division is taking advantage of the many strategies that can support children's nutrition this summer.

Food sacks prepared for drive-by pick up by families in the North Monterey County Unified School District.
Posted on Monday, June 8, 2020 at 3:54 PM
Focus Area Tags: Food

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