TIME Diet/Nutrition

Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Doesn’t Help You Lose Weight, Study Says

Fruits and vegetables
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Fruits and vegetables are good for your health, but there's not enough evidence to prove that on their own they can help with weight loss.

The research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed studies that looked at fruit and vegetable consumption and weight gain, and concluded that simply eating more doesn’t doesn’t slim waistlines.

Loading up on more fruits and vegetables, without taking out more high-calorie foods like junk food, or making other lifestyle changes such as exercising, won’t have a significant affect on weight. And that’s especially true if the veggies are fried or coated in butter or cheese. In the study, the researchers only correlated fruit and vegetable consumption with weight, and did not ask the participants about their other lifestyle habits, or about how they were cooking their food.

In addition, the analysis included just nine studies, some of which involved a small group of participants and which lasted only 16 weeks at the most. It’s possible that weight changes resulting from a true change in diet including more fruits and vegetables might take longer.

For those reasons, the researchers still say that consuming more fruits and vegetables may be beneficial for weight loss. “We cannot say with high confidence that there is not some form of a [fruit/vegetable] intervention that may have significant effects on weight loss or the prevention of weight gain,” they write.

And there are other benefits of adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your plates. Beyond weight, produce is a reliable and efficient source of nutrients and fiber, and plenty of studies have linked eating them with lower risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Yogurt Could Lower Your Blood Pressure: New Study

The latest study links certain probiotics with better blood pressure control

Bacteria aren’t the first allies we turn to for staying healthy – there are enough strains that can cause serious illness, after all – but there’s growing evidence that certain strains of the bugs can actually be good for your health, and may even relieve symptoms of inflammatory conditions, allergies and possibly even obesity.

In the latest report on these microbial allies, researchers add one more possible benefit of probiotics – the live concoctions of bacteria contained in foods like yogurt. In an analysis of nine studies that looked at probiotic use and blood pressure, the report in the journal Hypertension found that people using probiotics tend to have lower blood pressure compared to those who didn’t eat them. The effects seemed to be stronger among those with higher blood pressure to begin with, and among those consuming multiple probiotic strains and in higher doses.

What do bacteria have to do with blood pressure? The researchers say that the micro-organisms could be helping to address hypertension in a variety of ways, from lowering cholesterol levels, which can contribute to less fatty buildup in the vessels and therefore reduce the chances of developing hypertension, to controlling blood sugar and keeping the enzymes and proteins that control blood flow and fluid volumes in check.

The results aren’t exactly a prescription for treating hypertension — at least not yet. But they raise the interesting possibility of incorporating a probiotic regimen into blood pressure management. The study authors admit, however, that more questions still need to be answered, such as which micro-organisms might be associated with the strongest effect on blood pressure, as well as which combinations of bacterial strains work best. The formulation of the probiotic may also be important, they say – in the studies they reviewed, participants consumed probiotics primarily from yogurt, but also from cheese, sour milk and supplements (liquid or capsules). Hitting the right threshold of microbes also seems to be important, and figuring out that volume is also essential before any advice about using probiotics to lower blood pressure is given.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Eat Umami, Eat Less

Calories count when it comes to weight, but taste may play a role as well.

If you’re feeling unsatisfied after a meal, perhaps wasn’t flavorful enough. A new study suggests that the taste umami may actually make you feel more full and satisfied.

Umami, a hard-to-describe flavor that tilts toward the savory, is considered the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Long used in Japanese cooking, umami is actually glutamate, once it’s broken down by cooking a steak, for example, or by fermenting things like cheese and soy. For a quick dash of umami, cooks have turned to monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that’s added to soups and other foods. Now a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that MSG can make food more appetizing and therefore help diners feel more full.

The researchers asked 27 participants to eat the same breakfast, then some ate a high-protein soup with an MSG-enzyme combination while other had soup without the pairing. Everyone then sat down for an identical lunch, and the scientists tracked how much the volunteers ate as well as asked them questions about their appetite and how full they felt. The diners who ate the MSG-laced soup consumed less of their lunch, but still say they felt satisfied, suggesting that umami may have a role in regulating eating.

It’s not the first taste linked to appetite — peppers and spicy foods, for example, have been associated with eating less. It’s not exactly clear how the flavors affect appetite — they may work in different ways — but the growing research suggests that how much you eat may be affected by which taste buds the food activates.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

3 Ways to Kick Your White-Bread Habit

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There are many strategies for avoiding white bread Angela Wyant—Getty Images

Some of my clients wouldn’t touch white bread, rice, or pasta with a 10-foot pole, while others just can’t seem to make the switch to whole-grain alternatives. For the latter group, it’s either because they’re so accustomed to the flavor or texture of refined grains, or because they’ve had a bad experience with healthier options.

For example, one of my pro athlete clients recently told me that whole-grain pasta tastes like sticky cardboard mixed with glue, a pretty vivid and unappetizing description! But it turns out, the pasta he tried was way overcooked and unseasoned. If, like him, you’re reluctant to try again, I encourage you to give it another go, because racking up more nutrients isn’t the only benefit.

Health.com:16 Whole Grains You Need to Try

A recent Spanish study that tracked the eating habits and weights of more than 9,000 people found that those who ate only white bread and downed two or more portions a day were 40% more likely to become overweight or obese over a five-year period, compared to those who ate less than one portion of white bread a week. While the study didn’t include rice or pasta, other research backs the notion that consuming whole-grain versions curbs obesity risk, and protects against a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.

Try these three tricks to reap the benefits of whole grains without feeling like you’re choking down cardboard. You may never crave the pale stuff again!

Health.com:The 20 Healthiest Breakfast Foods

Spruce up with spreads

A hearty whole-grain bread can overpower the flavor of sandwich fillings. To balance it out, slather on a plant-based spread or two, including hummus, olive tapenade, pesto (like sun-dried tomato, roasted red pepper, artichoke, or eggplant), tahini, ripe avocado, or guacamole. In addition to being delicious, these spreads add heart-healthy fat and boost your antioxidant intake. To prevent carb overkill (and an overly grainy texture), opt for an open-faced sandwich, or use crisp Romaine leaves as the top layer so you can still pick it up with both hands and bite in.

Become season-savvy

Nearly everyone who’s told me they don’t like brown rice or other cooked whole grains like quinoa tried them plain—and a little seasoning can make a huge difference. One of the simplest ways to add both flavor and moisture is to quickly sauté cooked grains in organic low sodium vegetable broth along with herbs and spices. There are dozen of options, but some of my favorite combos include: minced garlic with fresh grated ginger and crushed red pepper; garlic with fresh cilantro and fresh squeezed lime juice; or garlic with fresh squeezed lemon juice, black pepper, and Italian herb seasoning. In addition to serving them hot, seasoned whole grains can also be chilled. Either way, try tossing them with chopped or shredded veggies, lean protein, and a good-for-you fat, like extra virgin olive oil, chopped nuts, or minced avocado.

Health.com:16 Ways to Lose Weight Fast

Think al dente

These days there are a wide variety of whole-grain pasta options, including whole wheat, or gluten-free choices, like brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta, and noodles made from black beans and buckwheat. But when it’s overcooked, any pasta can lose its appeal. Whole-grain versions do take a little bit longer to cook than white pasta, but the difference is generally only a few minutes, much less than most people think. So start checking it right away, and turn off the heat when the pasta is still firm to best preserve the texture.

Health.com:31 Superfood Secrets for a Long and Healthy Life

Like bread and rice, whole grain or white pasta alternatives taste best when paired with robust sauces, so let your culinary creativity run wild. Try healthy add-ins with bold flavors like Kalamata olives, capers, wild mushrooms, and caramelized onions, or stir in a little balsamic vinegar or harissa seasoning. Or forgo pasta sauce in favor of a dollop of one of the spreads I mentioned above, like sun-dried tomato or eggplant pesto. Hot or chilled, the right combination may just win you over!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor. Frequently seen on national TV, she privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. She’s also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

5 Tricks to Avoid Being Hungry All the Time

Woman drinking water
Daniel Ingold—Getty Images/Cultura RF

Once, one of my clients half-jokingly requested an exorcism from the demon possessing her body: hunger. Kind of a gruesome analogy but, truth be told, it’s fairly accurate considering how out of control she felt. When my clients struggle like this, I often say I wish I could wave a magic wand to make it all better, which of course I can’t. But what I can do is offer some tried and true advice to effectively rein in appetite and help regain a sense of balance. The five strategies below are tops for doing just that, and each also has the power to enhance your overall health. Win-win!

Make sweating fun

Have you ever found yourself hungrier after working out, and then “ate back” more calories than you burned exercising? It’s a common phenomenon, and the trick to breaking the cycle may just be choosing ways of being active that feel like fun. In a recent Cornell University study, researchers asked two groups of adults to take a two kilometer walk before lunch or a snack. Those who were told they had been on an exercise walk wound up eating 35% more chocolate pudding for dessert at lunch and 124% more M&Ms at snack time than those who were told they had been on a fun, scenic walk.

Health.com:25 Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

Other research shows that intense exercise—sweat sessions that are perceived as work—can lead to eating more overall. In other words, a “no pain, no gain” mentality may wind up wreaking havoc with your appetite. If you’re in a similar boat, try mixing things up. Trade grueling workouts for activities that get your heart rate up but seem like play. Think dancing, hiking, roller skating, and swimming. Many of my clients find that even if they burn fewer calories, engaging in recreational activities often helps them lose more weight, because they don’t experience rebound hunger spikes.

Get enough sleep

Catching too few ZZZs is notorious for not only ramping up hunger, but also increasing cravings for junk food. One study from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that too little sleep triggered excessive eating and weight gain, and getting more sleep slashed the consumption of carbs and fat, leading to weight loss. Another from the University of Chicago found that getting 4.5 hours of sleep (rather than 8.5) ups hunger and appetite, especially in the early afternoon.

In addition to causing appetite craziness, sleep deprivation has been tied to a number of health problems, including weakened immunity, and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, and heart disease. For these reasons, in my opinion, making sleep a priority may even be more important than exercise for weight loss. If you’re falling short like most people, read up on ways to improve your slumber.

Health.com:14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

Drink more water

Research backs what I find to be true for myself and my clients: drinking plenty of water can help manage appetite. One study found that people who drink about seven cups of water per day eat nearly 200 fewer daily calories compared to those who gulp less than one glass. Another found that when adults drank two cups of water right before meals, they ate 75 to 90 fewer calories. A second study by the same researchers showed that when two groups of people followed the same calorie-limited diet for 12 weeks, those who downed two cups of water before meals lost about 15.5 pounds compared to about 11 pounds for the water-free bunch.

Finally, a German study showed that a 16-ounce dose of water resulted in a 30% increase in metabolic rate within 10 minutes. The effect peaked 30 to 40 minutes after consumption, but was sustained for more than an hour. To take advantage of the benefits, drink about 16 ounces of H2O four times a day. If you dislike the taste of plain water, spruce it up with wedges of lemon or lime, fresh mint leaves, cucumber slices, fresh grated ginger, or a bit of mashed fruit.

Eat on a schedule

Your body loves consistency, which is why in my own personal experience, as well as my clients’, eating at the same times every day can go a long way in regulating appetite. Try eating breakfast within one hour of waking up and spacing your remaining meals about three to five hours apart. In addition to consistent meal times, strive for a steady meal structure in terms of the foods and proportions you include.

Health.com:15 Ways to Lose Weight Without Trying

For example, I recommend always including: produce, lean protein, plant-based fat (like avocado), and a small portion of a healthy starch. I’ve seen that mixing up the foods you choose within these categories, while keeping the types and quantities comparable, can have a huge impact on regulating hunger, supporting sustained energy, and creating a predictable return of hunger, almost like clockwork. In other words, when your meals are all over the place, it’s much easier to feel hungry all the time or confuse true hunger with boredom or other emotions.

Learn how to deal with stress

For most of my clients, stress is the number one eating trigger. And research backs the old adage: “stressed is desserts spelled backwards.” One recent animal study found that female monkeys chronically exposed to stress overate calorie-rich foods, unlike their calm counterparts. They also ate more throughout the day and evening, while the chilled-out chimps naturally restricted their noshing to daytime hours only. This behavior parallels what I see in so many people, and until they find effective ways to reduce stress, emotional eating is a difficult pattern to break.

Health.com:25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

The best place to start: stop beating yourself up. Instead of berating yourself for not having enough willpower, acknowledge that when your stress hormones are surging, you’re programmed to reach for chips or chocolate. Speak kindly to yourself, and shift your energy toward testing out positive ways to cope, like listening to guided meditation, venting to a friend, spending time outdoors, reading, stretching, drawing, or whatever gives you a mini-vacation from the intensity of your emotions. That strategy, rather than “dieting,” is a much better way to set yourself up for successful weight control and better overall health.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

There’s A lot of Junk Food at the School Nutrition Conference

This year's annual conference run by the School Nutrition Association is not without politics

The 68th Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association is finishing up today in Boston, and it’s not go on without controversy.

Here’s some backstory: When the Obama administration revamped the school lunch requirements, they received a lot of praise and counted among their champions the School Nutrition Association. But now, the group, which is a national organization of school nutrition professionals, is heading up a lobbying campaign to let schools opt out of the requirements saying they are too restrictive and costly. (You can read in detail what the group is pushing for here.)

Many experts in the school-nutrition world are surprised by the stance the SNA has taken and some of its members have resigned, voicing criticism of SNA for accepting sponsorship money from food companies.

At the same time, Congress is considering legislation to delay by one year some of the school-lunch regulations, as the New York Times reported earlier this month.

Given the ongoing debate about school nutrition, it shouldn’t be surprising that this year’s convention—which brings together 6,000 school nutrition professionals and industry members—has been mired in politics. As Politico reported: Sam Kass, the Executive Director of Let’s Move! was even turned down when he asked to speak at the conference this year.

Though the conference has long allowed food companies to be involved, their new position on the school lunch standards have some nutrition groups and experts skeptical. And that makes the presence of fast food and junk food at the event all the more surprising.

Here are some tweets from public health lawyer Michele Simon:

To be sure, there were certainly booths with healthy food–even a great vending machine idea like this one:

So while the conference highlighted ways to get kids to eat more healthy food, it’s hard to take seriously when Cheetos and pizza are so heavily marketed.

TIME

You Asked: Are All Calories Created Equal?

Are all calories equal?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Kale or corn dogs, bananas or beer, a calorie is still a calorie. At least, that’s what dieters have been told for the past half-century. Now, experts don't agree

“By and large, we’ve been taking an accounting approach to weight loss,” says Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. By that he means, health scientists have traditionally focused on the number of calories coming in versus the number of calories going out. But there are a lot of problems with that approach, he says. For one thing, it’s really tough to accurately keep track of your daily calorie intake. “Being off by just 100 calories a day could add up to a hundred pounds over a lifetime,” he says.

If burning more calories than you consume would keep you skinny, a low-fat diet should be the answer to all your diet prayers. That’s because, compared to protein or carbohydrates, fat contains roughly twice the number of calories, ounce for ounce. But Ludwig says low-fat diets have proved ineffective when it comes to losing weight. “Mediterranean or low-carbohydrate diets outperform a low-fat diet every time, and that wouldn’t be true if calories were the only measure that mattered,” he adds. (Mediterranean diets and others like the now-trendy Paleo diet are both high in fat, comparatively speaking.)

In reality, Ludwig says the body responds differently to calories from different sources. “Your weight is regulated by a complex system of genetic factors, hormonal factors, and neurological input, and not all calories affect this system the same way,” he explains.

As for fat: “Some naturally high-fat foods are among the most healthful we can eat in terms of promoting weight loss and reducing risk for diabetes and heart disease,” he explains, listing off foods like nuts, avocados, and many types of fish. “If you’re counting calories, you would want to eat these foods sparingly because they’re dense in calories. But they’re also very filing.”

Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand—like those found in white bread, cookies, crackers, and breakfast cereals—raise your blood’s level of the hormone insulin, which signals to your body that it needs to store fat cells. Also referred to as high-glycemic foods, these refined carbs pass through your digestive system quickly—which is why you can eat a whole bag of potato chips and feel hungry 15 minutes later, Ludwig says.

Dr. Richard Feinman, a professor of cell biology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, compares insulin to a faucet handle. The more your blood’s amount of the hormone rises, the more the faucet opens and the more fat your body stores.

Feinman has looked at calories from the perspective of thermodynamics—or the laws that govern heat and energy. Like Ludwig, he says the idea that calories from different macronutrient sources would have the same effect on your body is silly. Put simply, it doesn’t make sense that “a calorie is a calorie” because your body uses the energy from different foods in a variety of ways, Feinman explains.

The big lesson here is that people need to look at food as not just a collection of calories, experts say. By cutting out refined carbs and eating more protein and healthy fats, which help you stay full without triggering the storage of fat cells, “You can work with, as opposed to against, your body’s internal weight-control systems,” he says. “That will make weight loss more natural and easy.”

The best part: You can put away the calculator. No more calories counting.

TIME Food & Drink

5 Delicious Breakfasts That Won’t Leave You Hungry

Breakfast smoothie
madlyinlovewithlife—Getty Images/Moment Open

You may have seen reports in the news lately questioning the benefits of breakfast for weight loss, but I’m not ready to sanction skipping. In my experience, eating breakfast strongly supports weight control, and several studies back what I’ve seen in my 15+ years of counseling clients—breakfast fuels your body when you’re most active, and therefore most likely to burn off what you’ve eaten. It also tends to prevent late night overeating, when you’re less active, and more prone to racking up a fuel surplus that feeds fat cells.

Also, weight loss aside, “breaking the fast” is a savvy nutrition strategy, because it’s a chance to fit in servings of produce, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins. Missing that opportunity, particularly day after day, can lead to shortfalls that deprive your body of important health protective nutrients.

Health.com: Best Superfoods for Weight Loss

Eating breakfast, especially one with protein, is also a smart way to build and maintain metabolism-boosting muscle. One recent study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that muscle building was 25% greater among people who ate a diet with an evenly distributed protein intake, compared to those who consumed less protein at breakfast, slightly more at lunch, and the majority of their protein at dinner.

Finally, a study published last year from the American Heart Association found that over a 16 year period, regular breakfast skippers had a 27% higher risk of a heart attack or fatal heart disease.

If you’re on board for a daily breakfast, but your biggest barrier is time, here are five tips and tricks to help you create shortcuts, so you can reap the benefits without running late.

Chill your oatmeal
Oatmeal doesn’t have to be served warm. Cook, then chill individual portions, and stash them in the fridge in small containers you can grab, along with a spoon, on your way out the door. Just mix a protein powder (like pea, hemp, or organic whey) into rolled oats, add hot water, stir, fold in fresh fruit, cinnamon, and nuts, and chill. Or skip the protein powder, and mix the oats, fruit, cinnamon, and nuts into nonfat organic Greek yogurt, and chill to make a grab-n-go mueslix.

Health.com: 20 Snacks That Burn Fat

Hard boil it
Many of my clients enjoy omelets on the weekends, but feel like an egg-based breakfast takes too much time during the week. For a make-ahead option, prep hard boiled organic eggs on a Sunday for the upcoming week. While you’re making dinner, take a few extra minutes to whip up a simple egg salad for breakfast the next morning. Mix chopped egg with either guacamole or pesto, diced or shredded veggies, and a small scoop of cooked, chilled quinoa or brown rice. Grab a portion with a fork in the a.m., and you’re good to go.

Have dinner for breakfast
It may seem odd to chow down on a garden salad topped with lentils or salmon at 8 am, but who says breakfast meals have to look different than lunch or dinner? Many of my clients make double portions in the evening, and eat seconds for breakfast the next day. Give it a try – you may just find that warmed up stir fry, veggie “pasta,” or a crisp entrée salad is your new favorite way to start the day.

Health.com: 25 Surprising Ways to Lose Weight

Pre-whip your smoothie
Smoothies are pretty fast, but I know that when you’re running late, just tossing ingredients into a blender and pressing a button can require more time than you can spare. If that tends to be the case, blend up a smoothie just before bed, stash it in a sealed to-go jug in the fridge, grab it on your way out the door, and shake it up before sipping.

Make a meal out of snack foods
It’s perfectly OK to cobble together a breakfast from an assortment of snack foods, including veggies with hummus and whole grain crackers, or trail mix made from nuts or seeds, unsweetened preservative-free dried fruit, and a whole grain cereal you can eat with your hands. Bon (breakfast) appetit!

Health.com: 10 High-Protein Breakfast Recipes

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Stressful Days Can Slow Your Metabolism, Study Says

Denny's waitress Tahmina Najemyar delivers free Grand Slam breakfasts to customers on February 3, 2009 in Emeryville, California.
Denny's waitress Tahmina Najemyar delivers free Grand Slam breakfasts to customers on February 3, 2009 in Emeryville, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Why you shouldn't reward yourself with a donut after a long day

You might think that on a high-intensity stressful day would cause you to burn more calories, but research shows you’d likely be wrong.

Women who ate a high-fat meal after they were stressed burned calories more slowly, according to a new study.

Our bodies metabolize slower under stress, but the types of food we crave when we are stressed or depressed tend to be very high in fat and sugar. New research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry suggests how that combination of factors could result in significant weight gain.

Researchers from Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center interviewed 58 women about stressors they experienced the day before, such as arguments with spouses or trouble with kids, before giving them a meal of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits and gravy containing 930 calories and 60 grams of fat.

The women then wore masks which were able to measure their metabolism by calculating inhaled and exhaled airflow of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The researchers also measured the women’s blood sugar, triglycerides (cholesterol), insulin and the stress hormone cortisol.

The researchers found that women who reported being stressed out during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than the women who were not stressed. That effect could add up to 11 extra pounds gained over a year of stress-eating, they concluded.

The women who were stressed had higher levels of insulin, which contributes to how the body stores fat, and can slow down the process of metabolizing calories into energy. If fat is not burned, it’s stored on the body. Previous research shows a similar effect in men.

It’s important to note that while stress can lead to overeating, that is not what this research showed. The women in the study were fed high-fat meals as part of the design of the study; they did not choose those foods on their own. Regardless, this adds to a large body of research suggesting the importance of reducing stress and adhering to a healthy diet.

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

People Still Don’t Know the Difference Between “Organic” and “Local”

Food Prices Expected To Rise Significantly In 2014
Fresh produce is displayed at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on March 27, 2014 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

'Organic' vs 'local', the saga continues

It’s no secret that the organic food market is ever-growing. Organic food hit $28.4 billion in sales last year, and the Nutrition Business Journal reports that organic food products will reach and estimated $35 billion in 2014. Yet despite the popularity of “local” and “organic,” Americans are still very confused about what those words mean, according to a recent study published in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review.

A team of researchers surveyed consumers across the U.S. and Canada and discovered that 17% of the people they spoke with incorrectly believed that foods labelled “organic” were also grown locally. Another 23% falsely believe that local produce is grown organically. Researches also found that 40% of consumers think “organic” food is more nutritious than conventional food, while 29% believe that “local” products are more nutritious than their imported equivalents.

But when you scrutinize the laws governing what food companies can and cannot say on labels, it becomes obvious why consumers are so confused. Words like “all natural” and even “free range” are not easily (or often) policed, and many words used on so-called health foods have no legal definition enforceable by the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission.

So, what’s organic?

“Organic” is more straightforward, from a legal perspective, but most consumers likely do not know that. To be labelled organic, a producer must abide by a stringent set of government standards. The USDA qualifies produce as organic if no synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified organisms (GMO) are used. Pest control and crop nutrients must be managed through natural physical, mechanical and biological controls. And when producing organic meat, eggs and dairy, for instance, farmers must provide non-GMO livestock with year-round outdoor access. They are also prohibited from using growth hormones or antibiotics. The U.S. and Canada follow fairly similar organic guidelines, said the study.

And what’s local?

“Local,” meanwhile, is murky. A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that “though ‘local’ has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption.” This despite a provision in the 2008 Farm Act, that stated, in part, that any food labeled “local” must be produced in the “locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product.”

To put the distance in perspective, a drive from Washington, D.C., to Boston is about 400 miles, which means “local” is not necessarily close-by. Many states have limited “local” to mean produced within the state, and some retailers and restaurants have their own definitions. Many farm-to-table restaurants, for example, only serve food from within a 100-mile radius.

And are they healthier?

For the health-conscious, organic food is probably better for you—but not necessarily because of traditional nutrition measures. A 2012 study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Health Policy concluded that organic produce is not more nutrition-dense than its generic counterparts. However, the research was widely panned for taking a narrow view of nutrition. Counterarguments insisted that food grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides—which is to say organic—are by definition healthier choices.

As for the 29% of consumer who believe local food is more nutritious, they may be right. Most nutrients begin to degrade the moment a fresh piece of produce is picked, so the sooner it gets to you the better. Many studies have shown that a peach or berry picked closer to ripeness is more nutritious than a fruit—organic or not—picked before or after its peak of ripeness.

The bottom line

Both organic and local are good healthy options, but knowing the difference is important—especially when you consider the cost that can be attached to both.

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