How to Eat Healthy at the Iowa State Fair

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack flips pork burgers at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa.

When I asked the woman behind the information desk at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines this week where I could find some healthy food, she looked at me with surprise, broke into a bemused smile and responded gently, "You're at the Fair, honey."

Clearly I was a lost soul, wandering dazed and confused in a vast batter-dipped, sugar-coated, super-sized wonderland of foot-long corndogs, deep-fried Snickers, Xtreme Tenderloins, Mac n' Cheese Bites, Grater Taters, Dippin' Dots, curly fries, chili-cheese nachos, caramel-coated marshmallows, frozen s'mores, funnel cakes and rootbeer floats. "You're pretty hard-pressed to find anything healthy," the woman added. But she gamely tried to steer me to a few hidden outposts of relatively nutritious fare. And they do exist.

Salad on-a-stick anyone? I'm serious. Skewered chunks of iceberg lettuce and other fresh veggies served with a salad dressing packet, salad on-a-stick are among the newer, more attention-grabbing (if not bestselling) items designed to appeal to health-conscious fair-goers. Other newer — or newly-rediscovered-and-marketed — "healthy food choices" highlighted on the Fair's website include mixed fruit cups, baked potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, pork chops on-a-stick, turkey tenderloins, shish-ka-bobs, sandwich wraps and veggie corndogs.

A case could easily be made that state fairs remain the worst place to find healthy food but there is general agreement that Iowa's famous fair — held for 11 days in mid-August — is offering a few more nutritious options, including more foods cooked in trans fat free oil. The trick is finding the stuff — and getting more fairgoers to eat it. The lousy economy also may not be helping. "It's a growing trend that as consumers are looking for and demanding more options that are lower in calories and fat, smaller portions, more healthful, the vendors are responding," says Ruth Litchfield, State Nutrition Specialist for Iowa State University (ISU) Extension. "If you compare the State Fair options today versus 20 years ago, you definitely have seen some change." But, she adds, "There's work to be done still."

Just how bad is the traditional fair food for us? Put it this way (as ISU Extension did with a clever nutritional display at the fair a few years ago): A 150-pound person must walk one mile to burn off the calories from consuming cotton candy; three miles for cheese on-a-stick; four miles for a corn dog; 5 miles for a fried candy bar; and 11 miles for a gigantic grilled turkey leg.

And it's not just the obvious culprits that are an issue but the way food is prepared (deep-fried veggies), served (corn with gobs of butter, fresh fruit with whipped cream) and portioned (one-pound turkey legs.) "Even good foods can be not so good if you eat excessive amounts," says Litchfield. This year, portion control is not in vogue, she suspects, due to a poor economy that has some vendors responding to increasingly cash-strapped fairgoers by offering larger portions for the same price (an often high price to begin with.) "I would have preferred to see a lower price and a smaller portion," says Litchfield. However, "we as consumers are looking for the bargain. Vendors know that."

Rollie McCubbin, the Fair's longtime concessions director, reports fielding more fairgoer requests for help ferreting out healthful options, especially gluten-free items and food suitable for diabetics. But creating a conclusive, accurate list is time-consuming and costly. Helping people find healthful fair food has been a topic at seminars for state fair officials, with some states more proactive in than others, he notes, adding Iowa is "on the fence on how to accomplish this." McCubbin also doesn't tell vendors what not to serve. "I'm not real big on mandates."

And providing more healthful food items with fresh, non-fried, ingredients is no stroll on the Midway. It poses challenges — from proper refrigeration to more labor-intensive preparation — that can raise food safety and cost issues. (McCubbin is quick to mention state health inspectors' vigilance at the Fair.)

Then there's the challenge of creating something portable to cater to fairgoers' desire to eat-and-walk — which explains the mounting number of foods on-a-stick (50 this year, from pickle on-a-stick to chocolate-covered cheesecake on-a-stick.) "How are you going to be able to hold a drink in one hand, your salad in another and still try to eat?" says McCubbin.

Sometimes, vendors sell the good, the bad, and the ugly — and fairgoers dine accordingly. "We just come here one day so I guess I didn't give it much thought," says Jill Allen, 31, of Peru, Iowa, while her four children ate fresh fruit cups, as well as hotdogs, French fries and pork tenderloins served at Beattie's Melon Patch, near the popular Giant Slide.

Vendors specializing in nutritious choices — and their customers — are careful not to bash the not-so-nutritious choices. Business has steadily climbed "as people want healthier alternatives," says Connie Boesen, owner of The Salad Bowl, whose bestseller is sandwich wraps, not its salad-on-a-stick. "They still want some of the great fair food." "People come to the Fair who will never have a corn dog the rest of the year but by gosh, they've got to have a corn dog here," says Bill Brown, 64, of Des Moines, after eating a vegetable pasta salad at The Salad Bowl. Even Litchfield, the nutritionist, says it's "not that big a deal" to eat a favorite no-no food at the Fair "one day out of 365." (But eating that funnel cake daily throughout the fair or once-a-week routinely? Not so good.)

Which may be welcome news for Cindy Walker, 63, of Urbandale, Iowa, who, after eating a fresh fruit salad, admitted that she planned on one splurge — a Wonder Bar, a thick ice cream bar coated in chocolate and nuts. And maybe, just maybe, some sweet potato fries.