By SARA ARTHURS
BLUFFTON — We hear a lot about vitamins, but “all along it’s been pigments” that make a difference in your health, said Jeanna Haggard, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Bluffton University. Haggard’s students have been educating the community on the importance of the pigments in produce — and providing tasty recipes along the way.
At a recent event, Bluffton juniors Faith Sherman and Arie Cox presented on capsaicin and betalains, respectively, to an audience that included faculty and staff as well as community members.
Sherman said capsaicin is not actually a pigment. But while you can’t see it, like you can a color, you can feel it — for capsaicin is what gives spicy peppers their hotness.
She said it can play a role in controlling your weight — decreasing your appetite and affecting hormones related to hunger, as well as increasing your body temperature which affects your metabolism. And, she said, it is used in some creams to treat pain.
Capsaicin can also reduce your chance of a stomach ulcer, she said. People think eating something hot is bad for you in this way but “it’s actually the opposite.” And, she said, it can promote cancer cell death.
Sherman made a mango salsa for the group, which also included corn.
She said it’s a myth that the seeds are the hottest part of the pepper. It seems that way because they are next to the pepper’s placenta, and they get the spicy oil on them. But if you washed and dried them, the seeds themselves wouldn’t be as spicy, she said.
She also offered advice on cutting a mango without cutting yourself. Mangoes, she said, are high in vitamin C.
As well as salsa, the attendees also tasted a beet pesto of walnuts, beets and olive oil on pasta, which Cox had prepared. Haggard said that, unlike, say, mayonnaise, it can survive longer without refrigeration, so it could be taken on a picnic.
Cox said betalains are found in beets, quinoa, amaranth, dragonfruit and Swiss chard. These pigments decrease blood pressure and have anti-cancer properties, she said.
If you eat a lot of beets it can turn your urine red or pink, but this is a good thing as it indicates you are absorbing the nutrients and getting rid of the undigested components, she said.
In addition to the pesto, she shared a beet Burgundy — like beef Burgundy, only with beets taking the place of the beef. The dish featured beets, carrots and mushrooms, served over mashed potatoes.
She said the entire beet is edible, so if you buy them and they have leaves on them, you can cut them off and save them. Peeling the beets means losing pigment, so leave the skin on but scrub all the dirt off, she said.
She said roasting is the best way to cook beets. They are water-soluble, so if you cook them in water you will lose some of the nutrients, she said.
She used white button mushrooms in the beet Burgundy. She said to rub off the dirt, but not rinse them in water, or they won’t caramelize.
Haggard said you can’t get pigments in supplement form. You have to eat them.
She said if you peel a carrot, you lose the beta carotene, but you don’t lose the vitamin A.
“There’s no beta carotene in a baby carrot,” she said.
Haggard also encouraged people to eat produce when it’s in season. If you think you “don’t like” a certain fruit or vegetable, think back to whether you ate it when it was in season, she said.
Biology professor Angela Montel worked with the dietetics students, doing the groundwork of researching the pigments. Then the students picked a topic to research.
Those in attendance also sampled beet burgers, a type of sloppy Joe, and a fruit tart. Sherman said the original recipe featured cashews and raisins in the crust, but they substituted walnuts and dates. You could also do figs and macadamia nuts, she said. The filling included yogurt and mango, with honey drizzled on top.
Sherman said when you get coleslaw at a restaurant it might include a large amount of sugar. She instead shared a more savory variety. But as it involves poppy seeds, as well as celery seed, you need to be sure you’re around good friends when you’re eating this one, she said: “It does get stuck in your teeth.”
Most of the recipes were original, created by students.
Cox said she has always been “interested in food” and took nutrition classes in high school. She said learning about dietetics has changed her own life and gotten her personally eating healthier.
Student Katie Kline, also a junior, said she has always been interested in health and fitness. Her career goal is to work one-on-one with clients, prescribing meal plans and workouts. Kline, a volleyball player, is also taking classes in exercise science.
One thing that’s surprised her in her studies is “how hands-on we’ve gotten,” such as doing the cooking demos and going out into the community.
And studying the pigments has helped her realize “how important your fruits and vegetables are.” Her advice? Even if you’re having a hard time cutting out the “bad foods,” try to add some good ones.
Haggard said some students are drawn to the dietetics program because of an interest in anatomy and physiology, “how the body works.”
Next year, as seniors, they will spend nine months in a clinical rotation at St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima. Haggard said this also gives them a chance to interact with other health care professionals.
Bluffton also offers a post-baccalaureate internship (a fifth-year program) which is required to sit for the registered dietitian nutritionist licensure exam.
Within one year of graduation, 85 percent of Bluffton graduates who seek a post-baccalaureate internship are placed in an accredited program, compared to the national average of 50 percent, according to the university.
Haggard said about half of the graduates go on to work in a hospital as a clinical dietitian. But some are interested in public health, and their license also allows them to do things like manage a school food service program, she said. Or a dietitian might set up an office next to an endocrinologist.
Haggard said she’s seen her students develop confidence and grow to see themselves as “somebody that’s going to make a difference” and can affect other people’s quality of life.
Haggard said presentations like this help with “the awful question: ‘What’s for supper?'” People may need ideas that don’t take too much time so, she said, there is a demand for programs like this.
She hears back from people who’ve attended the presentations, and email to say things like “I took that tabouli you made to a church potluck.”
The Food Store in downtown Bluffton sponsored the program.
The students have also presented at the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library and the Putnam County District Library, as well as at company wellness fairs. And they put on the annual Harvest Dinner in the fall which feeds hundreds in the community and benefits local food pantries.