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Cooking Lessons: Eat Better, Feel Better

Jason Boyett
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

When most people enter a grocery store, they view it as a place to, well, fill up a cart with food. Brenda Garcia sees the grocery store as a laboratory. A registered dietitian, she’s the Health and Wellness Manager for United Supermarkets, which includes 95 stores across Texas. Locally, that includes seven stores under the United brand, along with three Market Street locations and the Amigo’s at 112 N. University Ave.

“When people visit with a dietitian or a doctor, it’s like they’re in a classroom setting. They’re learning,” she explains. The physician might diagnose them with Celiac disease and tell them to avoid gluten. Or a doctor might suggest a low-carb diet as a way to manage diabetes, or advise healthier eating as part of a weight-loss plan. In these situations, the role of the physician is to be an educator. Then he or she sends the patient off into the real world.

“So they come to the [grocery] store and it’s hands-on. It’s like they’re in the lab,” Garcia says. “They’re lost. ‘Where do I start? How do I do this?’ It’s overwhelming to them.”

That’s one major reason her job exists: to provide a service for those guests who aren’t quite sure where to start when it comes to healthy eating. In each of its locations, United posts in-store “health tags” – with labels including “Whole Grain” or “Heart Healthy” – that help customers identify foods that align with their health conditions or health goals. “This helps to narrow things down,” she says. “With everything going on in the world, lots of people have really started to focus on their health, to have their immune systems functioning optimally.”

In this issue, Garcia supplies a few healthy recipes that combine key nutrients with seasonally available foods. During the fall months, seasonal shopping means more than just looking for pumpkin-spice flavoring. “Pay attention to our ads,” she explains. “Our ads will show what is most seasonal and best-tasting in the moment.”

United’s health tags aren’t applied to fresh produce, though. Fruits and vegetables are almost always healthy choices. The real confusion comes from prepackaged foods with hard-to-understand nutritional labels and hefty ingredient lists. Part of Garcia’s job is helping customers use the Nutrition Facts label to make informed decisions.

To start, she says simpler labels are often the best ones. “It should be understandable. The shorter the better. You want it to be as simple and close to the whole food as possible,” she says. We asked her to walk us through a few ingredients of which grocery shoppers should remain mindful.

Avoid Added Sugars

Garcia often finds herself recommending that customers pay attention to added sugar, which is now listed on food labels. When the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved a new Nutrition Facts label earlier in 2020, it made “Added Sugars” a required category. Not all shoppers are aware of it, but Garcia appreciates the inclusion. “When you think of added sugars, we’re referring to refined, processed sugars,” she says. “Obviously you want to keep that to a minimum. The lower that number the better.”

As a general rule of thumb, every 4 grams of added sugar in a serving is the equivalent of a teaspoon of table sugar. Often, it’s in the form of high fructose corn syrup, a concentrated, processed sugar added in the food manufacturing process – typically in baked goods or snack foods – that can be detrimental to health if consumed in high quantities.

Garcia contrasts this with naturally occurring sugars found in fruit or dairy products. “A lot of people wouldn’t eat yogurt or dairy previously because they felt there was too much sugar in there. Dairy products have a naturally occurring sugar [called] lactose. But it’s not added sugar,” she says.

The body turns added sugars and naturally occurring sugars into carbohydrates. But because lactose occurs naturally, it is usually accompanied by other nutrients. Not so for high fructose corn syrup. This sweetener is derived from corn starch and separated into individual molecules, so it exists purely as a sugar – and that offers very few health benefits. Meanwhile, sugars found in fruits, vegetables and some dairy products are much better for you. “Should you eat the whole corn, you’re going to have some fiber in there and some niacin, which is a B vitamin. You’re going to have some nutrition in there.”

Avoid Trans Fats

“There’s so much information out there right now on good fats versus bad fats,” Garcia says. “This we know consistently: that trans fats, especially in large amounts, are harmful to our bodies.” Artificial trans fats often are present in industrial food products or processed foods made with a hydrogenated fat, which results when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils. “It was used as a preservation method to prevent it from going rancid or spoiling,” she says.

For years, restaurants and fast-food outlets relied on trans fats to deep-fry foods, but as the research showed negative health effects of trans fats, manufacturers began to limit their use. “We definitely want to stay away from those,” Garcia says.

But what about other fats?

“We used to just say ‘saturated fats are all bad and you can’t have them,’ but now we’re studying the different types of saturated fat,” she says. As a result, dietary recommendations are beginning to evolve – as in the case of coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat. While saturated fat can raise bad cholesterol (LDL), it may also have some benefits. As an example, Garcia points to coconut oil. “Coconut oil and coconut fat used to be known as a ‘no-go,’ one of the most saturated fats you can have,” she says. But coconut oil also contains MCTs (medium chain triglycerides), which your body can absorb better and which may have benefits as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Once again, Garcia calls attention to the whole picture. The best kinds of fats are those consumed in nutrient-dense foods, which also contain protein. Just practice moderation. “Any time you go crazy consuming large amounts of something – even if it’s a vitamin – if it’s more than what your body needs, there’s always the possibility for adverse effects. The same goes with fats,” she says.

Whole Grains

Pay attention to whether the packaging on a product says it is “made with whole grains” versus “contains whole grains,” suggests Garcia. The former is much better for you in terms of fiber content. “I see a lot of frustration and misguided information about the difference,” she says. Products can still be made with processed flour and say they contain whole grains. “Regular, all-purpose flour comes from wheat, so when something is made with all-purpose flour, it can still be a processed flour.” These refined flours start with whole grains but are processed in order remove the wheat germ. This may enhance the flavor, but the wheat germ and bran are the source of valuable nutrients, including fiber.

Look at the ingredient list and pay attention to the fiber content, Garcia says. “It will say ‘whole-wheat flour,’ not just ‘flour,’” she says. Any time a product is labeled with the “Fiber” health tag at United stores, it must contain at least 2.5 grams of dietary fiber per serving.

Apart from the “Dietitian’s Top Pick” label – which are products hand-picked by Garcia and her colleagues – United’s health-tagged products are identified and vetted by a third party and have to meet certain standards. For instance, low-sodium picks must contain no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. Protein picks provide at least 20% of the daily value for protein per serving.

“The idea is so you don’t have to stop and read each and every label, depending on what you’re looking for,” she says. “No one struggles with whether or not they should buy spinach or carrots. They struggle when they really want some chips. That’s why we have the ‘Dietitian’s Top Pick.’ It doesn’t mean it’s the most nutritious product in the whole store. But we’ll pick a chip that tastes good and is a better-for-you product.”

Ultimately, she advises people not to get sidetracked by particular trends, like consuming high amounts of protein and zero carbs, or limiting themselves to a low-fat diet, which can sometimes include products with added sugar. Just eat in moderation, and insist on foods with plenty of nutrients. “Focus on simple nutrients and simple labels,” she says. “If you take out any one nutrient, you run the risk of not having everything you need for your body.”

Garcia likes to compare the human body to a high-performing car. “If you have a car and you decide to fill it up with water instead of gas because water is cheaper, you’ve filled up the tank but you’re going nowhere,” she says. In fact, you’ll probably damage the vehicle. “That’s the same as using lots of foods that don’t provide you with any nutrients.”

Every car needs different fluids in different amounts – gasoline, motor oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power-steering fluid, coolant. All have a distinct purpose, but those fluids aren’t interchangeable.

Likewise, each nutrient has a distinct purpose for the human body, from protein to carbohydrates to fiber. Highly processed foods tend to strip out those natural nutrients, so strive for a balanced diet, eat whole foods, and keep an eye on those labels.

Date and Apple Puree Baked Beans

Recipe from “The Recipe Box,” by Taylor Sutton

½ cup apple sauce

5 dates

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 (15-ounce) cans white beans, no salt added

⅛ cup ketchup

⅛ cup mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper, as desired

Put dates in bowl with water to cover and let soak for 20 minutes. Heat pan with butter and oil to caramelize onions for 40 minutes. Put apple sauce, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, and dates into small blender; puree until smooth. Once onions are done caramelizing, add un-drained canned beans and apple puree; stir and heat through.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional Facts:

Calories: 272

Total fat: 4 grams

Protein: 13 grams

Sodium: 150 milligrams

Fiber: 11 grams

Sugars: 9 grams

Sheet Pan Chicken Thighs

Recipe from “The Recipe Box,” United Supermarkets

2 pounds skinless chicken thighs

5 tablespoons fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 medium pears, cored and diced

1 (10-ounce) package pre-cut butternut squash

1 (12-ounce) package arugula

1 bunch green onions, diced

Salt, to taste

Cinnamon, to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees. On sheet pan place chicken thighs in center and generously season with rosemary, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Place pears on one side and butternut squash on the other and sprinkle with salt and cinnamon. Bake for 35 minutes. Build 4 plates by starting with a base of arugula on each. Layer sheet pan contents evenly amongst the 4 plates. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional Facts:

Calories: 462

Protein: 30 grams

Cholesterol: 130 milligrams

Carbohydrates: 24 grams

Fiber: 5 grams

Sugars: 11 grams

Fat: 23 grams

Sodium: 139 milligrams

Potato Sausage Soup

Recipe from “The Recipe Box,” United Supermarkets

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, diced

1 pound Italian sausage

2 potatoes, cubed

2 stalks celery, diced

1 carrot, diced

1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with liquid

1 (15-ounce) can white beans, with liquid

4 ½ cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 teaspoon fresh parsley

In saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook until soft. Next, add sausage and cook until browned. Drain. Add sausage and onion mixture and remaining ingredients to a slow cooker. Set on low for 6 to 8 hours, or high for 4 to 6 hours. The potatoes should be soft. Serve warm and garnish with parsley as desired.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional Facts:

Calories: 330

Total fat: 16 grams

Cholesterol: 45 milligrams

Protein: 27 grams

Sodium: 1,236 milligrams

Potassium: 1,065 milligrams

Fiber: 14 grams

Carbohydrates: 47 grams

Sugars: 6 grams

Baked Apple Pork Chops and Green Beans

Recipe from “The Recipe Box,” United Supermarkets

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 (8-ounce) pork chops, bone-in, ¾-inch to 1-inch thick

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

16 ounces green beans, trimmed

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced

2 tablespoons brown sugar

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch nutmeg

3 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet or coat with nonstick spray. In large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Rub both sides of pork chops with sage; season with salt and pepper. Add to skillet and sear both sides until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Place pork chops and green beans in single layer onto prepared baking sheet. Drizzle green beans with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic; season with salt and pepper. Place into oven and roast until pork is completely cooked through, reaching an internal temperature of 145 degrees, about 12 to 15 minutes. Return skillet to medium-high heat and melt butter. Add apples, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook, stirring occasionally, until apples just begin to soften, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in maple syrup, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Serve pork chops immediately, topped with apple mixture, garnished with parsley, if desired.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional Facts:

Calories: 574

Total fat: 28 grams

Cholesterol: 125 milligrams

Protein: 48 grams

Sodium: 710 milligrams

Potassium: 384 milligrams

Fiber: 11 grams

Carbohydrates: 39 grams

Sugars: 29 grams

Salted Dark Chocolate Popcorn

Recipe from “The Recipe Box,” by Happy and Nourished

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/3 cup popcorn kernels

4 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, chopped

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

In medium pot, heat oil and 3 kernels popcorn, covered, over medium heat until all kernels pop. Pour in remaining kernels, cover pot again and shake to distribute. As popcorn pops, shake pan occasionally and immediately remove from heat once popping slows to 2 to 3 seconds between pops. Pour popcorn into large bowl, removing any unpopped or partially popped kernels. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place chocolate and ½ teaspoon salt in microwave-safe measuring cup or bowl. Heat in microwave in 30-second increments until chocolate is very soft and becomes completely liquid when stirred gently. Immediately pour over popcorn and stir to coat as thoroughly as possible. Spread evenly onto baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Let sit at room temperature until chocolate has hardened, about 1 hour. Popcorn will keep for up to 3 days in an airtight container.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional Facts:

Calories: 135

Total fat: 9 grams

Protein: 2 grams

Sodium: 268 milligrams

Fiber: 8 grams

Carbohydrates: 18 grams

Meet the Expert: Brenda Garcia, Health and Wellness Manager, United Supermarkets

“I love to teach people, and I love to show them that eating healthy is attainable, affordable and can taste good,” Brenda Garcia says from the United corporate office in Lubbock. Garcia has been a practicing, registered dietitian for 21 years after earning bachelor's and master’s degrees in Food and Nutrition from Texas Tech University. “I’ve done everything from work in a hospital to work in pharmaceutical research. I’ve taught at South Plains [College], and this go-around, I’ve been with United for seven years.”

Before her current position, Garcia worked with the supermarket chain for two years while attending Tech. Back then, she was pursuing a food and nutrition degree but had no intention of becoming a dietitian. Then one day Jan Daniels (now Jan Tilley) – who pioneered the dietitian role for United Supermarkets – appeared as a guest speaker in one of Garcia’s classes.

“I was inspired. I thought what she did was so interesting, so I asked her if I could volunteer and learn more,” she says. Garcia went on to work for United for the next two years. “I ended up sticking with it and I changed my whole major so that I could do exactly what I’m doing right now,” she says. “United was one of the first companies to invest in having a dietitian available for the community.”

Brenda loves to cook and frequently represents the United Family of stores on local media to share advice about healthy eating and grocery shopping.