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updated: 9/24/2013 11:45 AM

Key to healthy eating is knowing where food comes from

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  • Research shows when kids become involved in food preparation or growing food, they are more likely to try fruits and vegetables.

    Research shows when kids become involved in food preparation or growing food, they are more likely to try fruits and vegetables.
    Courtesy of Iowa State University


You wanted to know

At Frederick Nerge Elementary in Roselle, Maureen Petricca's sixth-grade class wanted to know about healthy foods. Students asked, "What would you select as the healthiest food in the whole world?"

"Variety is the spice of life and we're still working on it," said Ruth Litchfield, associate professor, Iowa State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and an Extension nutrition specialist.

When asked about the world's healthiest food, she replied, "I don't think there's one food, because every food item contributes different properties that add up to good health as a whole. No single food can sustain us."

Healthy foods sizzle on the hot list of top trends, spurred on by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, which combines fresh, healthy food with exercise to promote healthy habits for kids. What's tough to swallow is that most people aren't eating what's good for them.

"We're not doing a good job of eating our fruits and vegetables," Litchfield said. "We're letting other foods take up more of our plates."

According the Centers for Disease Control, healthy eating means eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. One big problem, Litchfield said, is some consumers don't know where produce comes from and how it gets to the table. People bypass foods when they don't know much about them.

"We've made the food supply so available and economical, compared to other countries, that there's less motivation to go out there and find the healthiest foods," Litchfield said.

"The USDA is encouraging school lunch programs to make it easier for schools to teach kids about farming and how food is grown. Kids who are engaged in growing food or food preparation in a kitchen setting will be more likely to try the food because they were involved in the process," she added.

Litchfield and colleagues added gardening, cooking skills and food preparation to the Madrid, Iowa, 4-H summer camp, calling it "Immersion in Wellness," and surveyed campers to find out what might jump start appetites for healthy foods.

Healthy meals were made available at camp and these food items found their way onto camp store shelves.

Litchfield and experts at Iowa State University designed the program to give campers the tools to better understand what our grandparents knew when they were kids -- eat in moderation, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and play outside as much as possible. Campers brought home basil and tomato plants to reinforce lessons learned about healthy lifestyles.

Nuts, berries, beans, eggs, wild salmon and grass-fed beef are the healthiest foods. Litchfield explained that these foods need to be eaten in combination to provide the biggest health boost.

What's Litchfield's favorite? "Cherry tomatoes right from the garden. They taste like candy."

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