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Eating Healthy At The Iowa State Fair Means Salad On A Stick

Caprese salad on a stick is one of the healthier options at this year's Iowa State Fair.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Trying to find healthy food at a state fair awash with deep-fried Oreos and foot-long corn dogs is no easy task.

At the Iowa State Fair, one of the rites of passage is trying food on a stick.

But dietitian Nikki Stahr, who works for the Iowa-based Hy-Vee grocery chain, is running a booth at the fair promoting healthy eating and portion control.

She has her work cut out for her.

There's an old fashioned hand-dipped ice cream stand and a cookie booth right across from her, so she's got some competition for her message of healthy eating.

Stahr says it's all about balance in your food choices.

"If someone is looking for healthier options, there certainly is a variety out here ... grilled turkey tenderloins, turkey sandwiches, turkey wraps," she says. "You certainly want to keep fried foods and higher fat foods in moderation."

But Stahr admits she did have corn dog at the fair.

"We always have those confessions of a dietitian," she says.

She says, though, that she'll add to that some fresh watermelon or veggies. There's a stand where you can get salad on a stick, made with carrots, tomatoes — and Iceberg lettuce.

But in some cases, like at The Corn Stand, you find even the fresh produce — in this case Iowa sweetcorn — is covered in pork sausage, cheese and mayonnaise.

Fairgoer Tammy Newton, a cancer survivor from outside Des Moines, says she tries to eat healthy at the fair. She ordered plain old corn — grilled, no toppings. But there's a downside to that approach — the price is the same.

Of course, the fair is better known for classics like the corn dog.
/ Sarah McCammon/NPR
The Florida Channel
Of course, the fair is better known for classics like the corn dog.

Of course, the fair is better known for food choices that take eating meat on a stick to the extreme. Like one of this year's new foods: the Bacon Brisket Bomb, at the Rib Shack stand.

It's a concoction made of ground brisket "infused with a white pepper cheese, fresh salsa, jalapenos, a little bit of onion, and it's bacon wrapped and smoked for three hours, and then it's glazed with our sweet chili barbecue sauce — and it's all gluten free," says the Rib Shack's Joni Bell.

And, then, there the people who come for more traditional favorites, like the corn dog.

One long-time Iowa State Fair volunteer, Susan Pascasio of Des Moines, has a list of not-to-miss favorites. But, calorie counting is out.

"No, no," she says. "This is the time when you splurge because this is only 11 days out of the year. You've gotta do it, or you just might as well go home."

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.