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Consumer Reports’ health and safety experts answer your common—and not so common—questions about food, nutrition, and healthy eating.
This week’s questions:
Have a food- or nutrition-related question you’d like us to answer? Ask us here.
Q: Will immune-boosting drinks protect me from COVID-19?
A: Skip the pricey tonics packed with vitamin C or other compounds that manufacturers say will ward off sickness.
Eating whole foods known to support the immune system is a better bet, says Cindy Dallow, PhD, a registered dietitian in Greeley, Colo. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids should provide the range of nutrients you need to stay healthy. Try to get plenty of sleep and regular exercise, she says, and take steps to reduce stress.
Q: Can drinking diet soda instead of regular help with weight loss?
A: Not according to a 2017 review of 37 studies, which found that artificial sweeteners didn’t lead to significant weight loss. In some of the studies, people gained weight. Sugar-sweetened and “diet” drinks may hike the risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease, research suggests.
To kick a soda habit, switch to water and unsweetened tea and coffee over two weeks, says Nancy Farrell Allen, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Q: I throw out a lot of food that’s gone bad or is past the use-by date. How can I waste less?
A: A recent study found that American households toss 32 percent of the food they buy each year.
To cut down on your food waste, try shopping with a grocery list, using frozen fruits and vegetables, buying food in smaller amounts, storing bread in the freezer, and seeking out individually wrapped portions of items like cheese and yogurt.
Move older food toward the front of the fridge, says Alice Henneman, MS, RDN, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also suggests “shopping your fridge” before going to the store—you might already have what you need.
Q: Are homemade baked goods healthier than store-bought?
A: They can be.
Cakes, cookies, muffins, and pies you whip up from scratch won’t contain the preservatives and other additives typically used to improve the taste, texture, and color of many commercial baked goods, says Andrea Ovard, RDN, a Utah hospital dietitian who also has a private practice. They may also be lower in sodium and sugar.
Plus, “homemade is usually better because you can control what’s going into them,” she says. You may be able to upgrade recipes nutritionally by, say, using nonfat milk instead of whole to reduce saturated fat or swapping some oil for Greek yogurt to cut calories.
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The information offered by Consumer Reports in On Your Mind should not substitute for professional or medical advice. Readers should always consult a physician or another professional for treatment and advice.
More Food and Nutrition Q&As
Q: How can I make sure I’m getting enough protein at breakfast?
A: Many typical breakfast foods, such as buttered toast, provide little protein, says Lauri Wright, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Older adults should aim for 20 grams at their first daily meal—the amount in about 6 ounces of plain, low-fat Greek yogurt; a two-egg omelet with an ounce of mozzarella cheese; or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on two pieces of whole-wheat toast.
Q: Should I scrub or peel fruit and veggies to get rid of pesticides?
A: Peeling can help remove some pesticides, but fruit and vegetable skins are often packed with nutrients. Plus, some pesticides are absorbed through a plant’s roots and can’t be removed by peeling or washing.
That said, washing can remove some pesticides. To clean, gently rub the produce under running water or use a brush for tougher-skinned fruits and vegetables, such as squash, says James Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. Drying it afterward with a paper towel helps remove some bacteria, too.
A study found that a 12-minute soak in a mixture of baking soda and water may remove even more pesticide residue, but it was tested only with apples. Another option is buying organic fruit and vegetables, Rogers says, although you’ll still need to wash them.
Q: What are ultraprocessed foods, and is it okay to eat them?
A: Sugar-sweetened drinks, sugary cereals, packaged baked goods, chips, certain energy bars, and some heat-and-eat meals fall under the umbrella of ultraprocessed foods. “They can pack a lot of calories, sodium, and sugars with little or no fiber, good fats, lean protein, or the nutrients you find in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts,” says Lisa Young, PhD, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Recent studies suggest that ultraprocessed foods may hike the risk of some cancers, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. So stick with whole and minimally processed food as much as possible.
Q: How long will restaurant leftovers last in my refrigerator?
A: Cooked meat, poultry, pizza, and soup will keep up to four days; lunch meats and salads (like tuna) up to five if you get them into the fridge within 2 hours of being served (1 hour if food was outside in temps over 90° F). Reheat leftovers to at least 165° F and bring soups, sauces, and gravy to a boil before eating.
Editor’s Note: These Q&As also appeared in previously published issues of the Consumer Reports On Health newsletter.
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