Which is a healthier meal: two apples or mac and cheese? What if it’s organic mac and cheese and a non-organic apple? What if the mac and cheese contains GMOs?

We’ve all seen popular health trends move from social media to special sections in the grocery stores, and among all the green labels, it can be overwhelming figuring out what healthy eating truly looks like. Many times, popular health trends only create barriers to nutrition.

We spoke with Emily Suttle, a registered dietitian from Vanderbilt University, about some of the ways that food labels can make nutrition overly complicated, especially for those of us operating within a tight budget.

Organic or non-organic?

First up: organic food. Organic bananas are healthier than standard bananas, right?

While there may be some benefits to organic foods, Emily shared that there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that organic produce is any more nutritious than their conventionally grown counterparts.1

In fact, one of the most notable differences between organic and conventional foods is the price tag. Organic foods can be anywhere from 7% to over 100% more expensive than “regular” foods.

“If a nutrition professional is preaching that organic foods are better to someone who truly cannot afford organic, they’re probably not going to reach for the non-organic produce because they feel like, ‘Organic is the only option, but I can’t buy that,’” Emily said. “That really creates an issue because they can actually just get the non-organic produce. It has the same amount of vitamins and minerals and fiber and is a totally fine choice.”

What are GMOs?

People often consider non-GMO foods to be healthier foods, but the FDA actually considers GMOs to be “as healthful and safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts.”2

Emily explained that sometimes misinformation about terms like GMO (genetically modified organism) can circulate and cause fear in the grocery store.

“Actually, for our food supply to thrive, we need GMOs,” Emily said. “Some fruits and vegetables are GMOs to help resist insects and disease.”

Fresh versus frozen

Fresh foods are wonderful. At One Generation Away, we pride ourselves on being able to give away fresh produce through our mobile food pantry. But this isn’t the only way to get color into your meal.

As prices of fresh produce have increased significantly over the past year, Emily shared that frozen is a perfectly good, nutritious option. Plus, it lasts longer.

Even canned can be fine — just watch out for high amounts of added sugar or sodium. If you do get canned veggies with added sodium, give them a rinse before using them.

Fruits and vegetables play an important role in our diets, so get what works best for you.

What about keto? Paleo? Vegan diets?

An apple and a box of mac and cheese on a wooden pallet
While an apple may traditionally be considered a “healthier” food compared to mac and cheese, $1.50 can buy a couple apples or a box of mac and cheese, and two apples just isn’t going to provide enough energy for a meal.

Everyone has their dietary preferences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In general, though, Emily describes herself as an anti-diet dietitian and recommends speaking to a dietitian before cutting out entire food groups altogether.

She said that, many times, popular diets can create emotional and mental stress and are bound to fail. And sometimes, financial burdens come with certain diets as well, particularly those heavy on meat.

Of course, striving for a balanced diet is important, but Emily said all foods can fit in a balanced diet. Even your birthday cake and the occasional box of mac and cheese.

In fact, sometimes foods like mac and cheese are fine options, especially on a tight budget. While this may not have all the vitamins and nutrients you would normally want, when you’ve got $1.50 to buy a meal for your family, a box of mac and cheese is going to be the nutritious option compared to what you could buy for that price in the produce section, such as a bag of carrots or two apples.

“Sometimes, you have to choose the quote ‘unhealthier’ choice because that’s what is going to ultimately sustain your family and get you through the week,” Emily said. “It might not be the most beautifully balanced meal, but mac and cheese is something that’s going to give people energy versus two apples.”

When possible, Emily recommends creating meals that have a mix of complex carbs, healthy fats, and lean proteins, and there are relatively inexpensive options in all three categories! But at the end of the day, do what you can, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Complex CarbsHealthy FatsLean Protein
• Brown Rice
• Oats
• Vegetables
• Fruits
• Nuts and seeds
• Avocado
• Canned fish
• Cheese
• Poultry
• Beans
• Quinoa
• Tofu