Food & Drink

Ever heard of dried plums? How about stevia extract?

What do 10,000 dietitians do when they get together? They eat. And they listen to experts talk about innovations and the latest research on diet and health.

The American Dietetic Association's annual food and nutrition conference took place in Chicago last month. I visited several hundred booths in the massive convention center.

What's new?

Pink Lemonade-flavored Metamucil powder. Berry Burst flavor, too, as well as Metamucil cinnamon fiber wafers.

It's always preferable to get your fiber from whole foods, but some people can benefit from fiber supplements for the laxative and cholesterol-lowering effects.

Stevia-based sugar substitutes. Stevia is a South American shrub with leaves so sweet that extracts are as much as 300 times sweeter than table sugar. It's not approved for use as a food additive in the U.S. because it hasn't been adequately tested for safety.

Nevertheless, stevia is sold in natural-foods stores, and three food companies handed out single-serving samples similar to those yellow and blue packets of Splenda and Equal. These packets were green and white. They included PureVia, Truvia, and SweetLeaf.

For now, be cautious about using stevia. Some studies have found that large amounts can cause problems in animals.

Dried plums. That's right, they're not called prunes anymore. It's part of an image makeover to help baby boomers embrace the nutritious fruit. Sunsweet is marketing Ones, individually wrapped dried plums – a good snack for anyone (if you brush the sticky fruit off your teeth afterwards).

A push for probiotics. Dannon is marketing Activia yogurt with active cultures, as well as DanActive, a drinkable yogurt with active cultures. Probiotics are often called “friendly bacteria.”

Some people think that live microorganisms in foods or supplements can boost the immune system and treat digestive conditions by replacing or increasing the body's natural supply. More studies are needed before firm recommendations can be made.

A strong placebo effect may be behind benefits from probiotics. In other words, people may feel better because they expect to. At least there doesn't appear to be much, if any, risk.