Gail Rampersaud, RDN: Reflecting on 20 Years of Nutrition Research

Gail Rampersaud served as the Florida Department of Citrus’ Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for almost 2 decades. She is now enjoying all aspects of retired life in the hills of North Carolina.

As I close the chapter on more than two decades of work for the Florida Citrus growers, I can’t help but reflect upon the changes I’ve witnessed during this time.

As the Department’s Registered Dietitian, I was fortunate to travel around the country to do live and taped TV appearances or radio interviews promoting the nutrition and health benefits of Florida Orange Juice throughout the early 2000s. Now, nearly all communication has pivoted to the internet and social media making TV and radio work a rare occurrence.

While the way we reach consumers has undergone a major transformation since the days of 250 million plus boxes of citrus, our message focus has not. Then and now, sound scientific research on the health and nutritional benefits of citrus is the basis for the majority of consumer outreach. And it continues to be vital in everything we do.

I lived through (or should I say survived?) four complete rounds of Dietary Guidelines for Americans review and development and am pleased to report that 100% fruit juice remains a recommended beverage and part of the fruit group. I’d like to think that FDOC’s active engagement with the Guidelines processes as well as our partnership and work with the Juice Products Association has helped educate the DGA scientific committees about the wealth of research on the benefits of including 100% fruit juice and OJ in the diet of children and adults.

Remember back in the 1980s and 90s when fat was the demonized nutrient? Well, we have now seen the rise of sugar as the modern-day dietary demon. While in the United States the focus is on reducing the intake of added sugars, in other parts of the world the focus is on reducing the intake of free sugars, the definition of which includes 100% fruit juices. We need to keep an eye on how the free sugars concept/definition might eventually filter its way into U.S. dietary discussion and policy.

As far as obesity… sadly, the U.S. is basically no farther along in fighting this than when I started working with the FDOC over 22 years ago. While a number of pharmaceuticals have come to market to help combat obesity, our medical, scientific, and governmental/policy communities are still struggling to pinpoint exact causes and what to do to turn the tide on obesity rates.

At the same time, we have made little if any dent in getting Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables (hmmm… are the two topics related?). 100% orange juice counts toward fruit intake yet the dramatic decrease in juice intake over the last decade hasn’t helped with moving the needle.

The important role of bioactive compounds in foods has gained extensive research traction over the past 20 years and has helped accelerate FDOC’s sponsorship of research related to hesperidin in orange juice and its health benefits. The newest kid on the block is the role of the gut microbiome in health and disease and some preliminary work with orange juice has been positive. Budget allowing, FDOC aims to include this topic in future sponsored studies.

When I started working with the FDOC there were fewer registered dietitians in my role, that is, working with a food or commodity group. Now, virtually every food and beverage company and commodity group has a registered dietitian nutritionist. And that is a very good thing because it adds value and credibility to research, communications, and outreach efforts by companies/groups to health professionals and consumers alike. It is the best job I’ve ever held, and it has been my great privilege to work on behalf of and in support of the Florida citrus growers.