Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Home made Marinara sauce is the best. But life is complicated and having a couple of jars in the pantry ready to go when you need one in a hurry is helpful. The ingredients I use for my home made Marinara are tomatoes (fresh or canned depending on the season), garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, oregano, parsley. That’s 7 ingredients.

My favorite brand is Rao’s. The ingredient list reads almost the same as what I use for home made: whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, black pepper, oregano. That’s also 7 ingredients.

Now 7 is greater than 5 and that observation started me thinking about the 5 ingredient rule. 

The 5 ingredient rule refers to the popular marker for identifying ultra-processed foods popularized by Michael Pollan in Food Rules. Defining ultra-processed by counting ingredients sounds unhelpful to my ear but it’s popular with both food journalists and food pundits. And the public seems to accept it because counting to 5 is easy to understand.

And that observation brings me back to my Rao’s Marinara.

With 7 ingredients and no other criteria, Rao’s is ultra-processed. So let me state my position right now for all to hear. If Rao’s must be categorized as ultra-processed, then I’m okay with ultra-processed products on my table.

Next time you’re walking supermarket aisles, check the Marinara sauce. There are hundreds of brands to choose from. Many have simple ingredient lists. Many others have more cluttered ingredient lists. Many brands substitute tomato paste or diced tomatoes for whole peeled tomatoes. So the way I see things, there’s work to be done to distinguish a straightforward product like Rao’s from all the other products on the shelf. 

A quick search on a local supermarket website brings up 75 options ranging in price from cheap to expensive. Not surprisingly, Rao’s is positioned near the top of that price range. All brands have 5 or more ingredients. And that means, if we follow the 5 ingredient rule, all brands of Marinara are ultra-processed.

I spot checked those 75 items and discovered the most notable difference is tomato integrity. Cheaper brands use tomato paste or purée or diced pieces. More expensive brand use whole peeled tomatoes. Tomato integrity is not captured by counting ingredients and it’s crucial to both taste and texture.

 While all brands exceed the 5 ingredient rule, most were comparatively additive free. Citric acid and calcium carbonate made frequent appearances along with preservatives, thickeners, or sweeteners making cameo appearances. Citric acid is an acidity regulator and calcium carbonate is a firming agent. Both these additives are ubiquitous on canned tomatoes whether the tomatoes are peeled and whole, chopped, diced, or puréed. 

Two other additives, salt and sugar, are listed as both nutrients on the nutrition facts label and again as ingredients on the ingredient list.

It seems ridiculous to my simplistic mind to put all Mariana sauces in the ultra-processed category without out further differentiation. So I’m asking myself, how would I break that category down? If I ruled the world, here’s where I would start.

First, whole tomatoes are preferable to chopped or diced or puréed tomatoes. That observation is probably related to the food matrix, a new concept in nutrition research currently in initial stages of investigation. Much too complex for my simplistic mind, so let me stay with those visual observable differences that both of us can see. In the case of the Marinara, the closer the tomato is to a whole tomato the better.

Second, less additives are preferable to more additives. I’m not talking here about the “clean” label movement. There’s a dirty little secret behind the clean label movement as explored in an excellent article by Nadia Berenstein. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look now. 

Additives are used by processors for many good reasons. Eliminating them before understanding why the manufacturer used an additive in the first place is not good practice. Additives are however legitimate markers of processed and ultra-processed products. Personally, I’m not concerned about their safety because I trust the FDA to do a good job. My decision to go with the fewer the better is based on taste and texture. Using the whole intact tomato just tastes better to me. More flavor. Better texture.

Third, nutrients remain important. Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. But it’s equally insane to eat as if nutrients don’t matter. Personally, I always check for salt, not so much for health reasons but because it’s been my observation manufacturers use salt in place of better quality ingredients so the product can be sold at a cheaper price.

Rao’s has a lower sodium concentration than many less expensive brands and the only sugars are the natural sugars present in all tomatoes.  The whole peeled tomatoes retain good flavor and contribute their natural sugars so no masking is required.

Now if only I ruled the world …

What to do when healthy and taste collide.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above are two winter squashes. Two acorn squash and one sweet dumpling squash picked up recently from my local farmers market. Beautiful, incredibly healthy, and for me at least inedible.

Fall is the season for so many good healthy vegetables. There’s the brassica family. Late season storage carrots. And squashes like butternut, spaghetti, pumpkin, and acorn.

But I have a problem. Squashes make me gag. Not all squashes, just winter squashes. Spaghetti squash. Butternut squash. Acorn squash. Hubbard squash. Exotic squashes like Calabasa. Even familiar squashes like pumpkin which is, despite its notoriety as both a police flavor and a dessert, still a member of the winter squash family.

All vegetables are healthy but some vegetables are more healthy than others. Pigment color is a good marker for phytonutrients. Red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetable are rich in carotinoids. And winter squash is nothing if it’s not deep orange.

So I tried on many occasions to find some way to prepare winter squashes but never succeeded.

A couple years ago, I put on my creative cooking cap and came up with a good solution. Every Thanksgiving I make pumpkin pie. So I got to thinking, what would happen if I used the same amount of steamed local squash for canned pumpkin?

My solution worked. Those little squashes make excellent squash pies. Squash purée, eggs, sugar, milk, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, just a pinch of salt, an olive oil crust. Et voilá!

As my zealous colleagues are forever reminding us, squash pie is not as healthy as steamed squash. Too much fat and too much sugar. However my squash pie is fresh baked, I can eat it without gagging, and not a single squash will go to waste.

Fat. Sugar. Salt. In the hands of a creative and gifted cook, all three work kitchen magic. Trust me, the food manufacturing industry is not unaware of this culinary fact. For industrially processed or ultra-processed foods, overuse can be problematic.

But those of us who cook or bake at home are not industrialists. Nor are we flavor technologists formulating the next product for mass consumption.

We have the luxury of making our own discretionary judgement calls. And that’s why as both cook and RDN I encourage home cooks to make use of the magic. Fat, sugar, and salt make freshly prepared food taste even better.

It’s really is okay as home cooks to make those discretionary decisions.

Rethinking Fat, Sugar, and Salt.

photo credit | gourmetmetricsphoto credit | gourmetmetrics

The corona virus pandemic has sent us to our homes and forced us to cook. No one knows yet how many will continue once pandemic policies are relaxed, but some will. If you are one of those hungry folks who only recently has discovered the joys of cooking, please read on.

Being new to cooking probably means you grew up in a culture that measures healthy in nutrients. Nutrients like fiber and protein are good. Nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt / sodium are bad. Food is fuel and energy is measured in calories. Superfoods like cauliflower or kale make headlines but nutrients and calories remain the dominant metric for measuring healthy. 

I know all this because I get paid to run nutrition stats for websites, book editors, and federally sponsored institutional foodservice.

These nutrient centric one size fits all guidelines were built with the best of intentions on a foundation of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. And that is the reason why so many food focused folks like chefs, food writers, and home cooks have problems with the guidelines.

Flavor is what counts at their table. They know for instance that roasted cauliflower is more delicious than steamed cauliflower. They know fat carries flavor and salt is a powerful flavor enhancer. 

As a home cook and RDN, I too am critical of the guidelines. My views are divergent, divergence being the rejection of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. I was lucky. Growing up in California meant eating fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables all year long. Living in France for several years meant honing my cooking skills and developing my culinary palate. I learned to eat before I started my nutrition studies so I knew what delicious tasted like before I learned how to count nutrients and calories.

Having one foot in nutrition stats and the other in home cooking gives me a unique perspective because I know down to the gram and the milligram when the meals at my table are guideline compliant and when they are not. From a nutrient compliance perspective, my pattern is mixed.

Detailed below are some stats I ran before the pandemic. The stats reflect aggregate nutrient values for the meals I cook at home.

✅Sodium is a nutrient to avoid and salt enhances flavor.  Because I cook from scratch and salt to taste, sodium is within acceptable range. 

✅Fiber is a beneficial nutrient. Because we eat so many vegetables and legumes, fresh seasonal fruits and whole grains, fiber is always well represented at my table.

✅Sugar is the new toxic nutrient. Natural sugars appear on my table as fresh seasonal fruit. Added sugars appear as home baked cookies, my signature pumpkin pie, or some of my other favorite home baked desserts. Sugar is within acceptable range.

✅Protein is adequate to meet nutrition need and comes from both animal and plant sources. Our portions are guideline compliant but smaller than what most of my fellow Americans expect to see on the plate.

❌Fat used to be the toxic nutrient. And my pattern has been consistently out of compliance for 25 years. My stats reflect calories from total fat is 35% to 40%. Our Dietary Guidelines set a 35% limit and the most recent World Health Organization Guidelines set a 30% limit. Olive oil is central to my cooking and is considered a healthy fat but I have a very generous hand. Milk and cheese are full fat. Nuts are part of our daily pattern. 

Being a registered dietitian and deciding to follow a divergent pathway puts me in an awkward position. If I were willing to reduce my use of olive oil, to use fat free dairy, to eat more carbs, and to develop a taste for skinless boneless chicken breast, my pattern would be optimal. Since I’ve never felt comfortable telling others to follow guidance I don’t follow myself, I prefer working in recipe analysis.

The stats I run for institution foodservice and book editors are nutrient focused because nutrients remain the standard protocol. But things are changing.

Nutrition science is wicked hard. Truth be told, significant disagreement currently exists among nutrition researchers about what is and is not healthy. The old nutrient focused paradigm that I learned in the early 1990s is cracking at the foundation. Seismic shifts are traumatic. The ground needs to stabilize before a new foundation can be built. Something will coalesce but no one knows yet, when a new paradigm takes form, if we’ll be counting nutrients or foods or patterns or all three.

Culinary divergence in a nutrient obsessed food world is stressful, liberating, and in my humble opinion necessary.

Stressful because we want to do the right thing but we’re not sure yet what the right thing is. Liberating because we have more freedom to be creative and to experiment. Necessary because we need to put the joy back in eating.

These are exciting times to be writing about food and nutrition. These are also exciting time to be learning how to cook.

 

Quarantine Cooking and Emotional Eating

“Like most humans, I am hungry. Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…” 

― M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me, 1943

Those words were written nearly 80 years ago. Now fast forward to today. 

The corona virus has arrived in New York and we’ve been staying at home for over a month. Shopping the center of the isle is back in fashion. My colleagues are writing helpful posts about managing cravings and focusing on healthier options. Comfort food sales are booming.

The pandemic has entered our lives and our kitchens. We are all hoping a new normal will be as bright and sunny as my lovely flowers, but no one knows for sure. Our future is uncertain.

Staying home, being unemployed, home schooling your kids – whatever your current situation is, I am sure that you’re as hungry for food and love and security as I am. 

About a decade ago, I was the dietitian tasked with setting up the nutrition component for a bariatric wellness program to help overweight folks loose enough weight to qualify for bariatric surgery. Most of my understanding of emotional eating comes from the work I did for that program. 

My approach to promote self awareness was the self-care acronym HALT. I did private one on one sessions and participated in weekly group sessions with a physical therapist, social worker, psychologist, and me an RDN. 

HALT for those not familiar with the acronym = Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

For the last couple of weeks, those words are reflecting how many of my fellow New Yorkers are feeling. Those words reflect how I am feeling too. If I turn to food for comfort, does that make me an emotional eater? Because if it does, I am guilty as charged and need treatment. 

So what is that treatment? Redirect cravings, identify triggers, and separate them from food.

I’m not sure that treatment works today and am obsessed with the observation, made nearly 80 years ago, that food and security and love are inseparable.

Before the corona virus arrived, dietitians like me and my colleagues characterized emotional eating as the enemy. Today we are dealing with a new enemy and as we are learning, this virus is a serious threat to our security and well being.

And I am having a moment of significant personal doubt.

Maybe we’ve been going at this emotional eating thing from the wrong direction. Maybe we humans are not as good as we thought we were at separating our hearts from our stomachs.

Before I became a dietitian, I was a home cook. My Tantôt Brieux taught me to make crèpe at the age of 5 and I’ve been hooked ever since. From milking a cow in British Columbia to private cooking for a couple of years in Paris, culinary curiosity and culinary passion have formed my approach to food.

During the last month that I’ve been staying at home, I’ve cooked every night. I’ve spent more time at table with people I love and care for and experienced food and love and security coexisting in positive balance.

No one knows yet what will evolve over the next couple of months or years. The virus will claim its victims. The world may or may not fall into economic recession. Social distancing will likely remain at least for a year or so. Life will go on.

But I am seriously questioning the conventional approach to emotional eating.

Rethinking exactly how we do that is best left to psychologists but let me say this to my fellow dietitians. 

Let’s not be too hasty to reduce hunger down to the physiological need for fuel and nutrients. And let’s not be too quick to assume those who seek comfort during stressful times need tips and treatment plans. 

Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. 

Reducing emotional eating down to triggers and cravings may be equally insane.

Looking at meat through rose colored glasses.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Plant-based is in. Red meat is out. 

Momentum has been building for more plants over the last decade but this year looks like the year plant-based will go mainstream. As more climate related  catastrophes are attributed to a carnivorous lifestyle, darker and more ominous predictions regarding the evils of meat eating will likely continue through 2020. Penance for our sinful climate ways. 

There’s nothing new about the assault on red meat. The first official iteration was nutrient focused and appeared in 1980 with the publication of our first set of dietary guidelines. Guideline #3 reads “Avoid too much Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol”. Or as the phrase has evolved over the decades, choose lean meat.

Recently, however, red meat has been targeted for different reasons. Environmental and animals rights activists have joined forces to condemn red meat as climate unfriendly and inhumane. These activists are a small percentage of the population but their collective voice is shrill and aggressive. Both groups promote a plant-based plate.

So you may be wondering what inspired a flexitarian like me to put on rose colored glasses and take a peek at red meat in the first place.

It all started with NOVA, a new kind of food classification system, developed about a decade ago in Brazil by a group of academics, that groups foods by degree of processing instead of by nutrients. Foods look remarkably different viewed through a NOVA lens. Especially meat. 

By dividing food into four groups, NOVA allows a single food to be viewed from four distinct perspectives depending on the degree of processing.

Freshly slaughtered and chilled meat is considered minimally processed. Contrary to the prevailing nutrient based perspective, the NOVA classification has a place for meat on the plate independent of fat content. Freshly slaughtered and chilled meat can keep company with other minimally processed foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and legumes. Wow! That is what I call a revolutionary thought.

The second NOVA group is for processed culinary ingredients like salt, sugar, and oils. Included in this group are traditional animal based fats like butter and lard.

Meats become processed when they are preserved using traditional  techniques like salting, drying, curing, or smoking. NOVA does recommend restraint, but acknowledges the deliciousness of traditional preparations. Examples of traditional processed red meats include corned beef, jerky, prosciutto, dry cured Virginia hams. Other equally delicious non-plant members of this processed foods group are salt cod, smoked salmon, canned fish.

To be classified as ultra-processed, the fourth NOVA group, red meat needs to be pre-prepared, re-formulated, or modified. Examples of ultra-processed meat products are frozen pepperoni pizza, fast food burgers, deli cold cuts, reconstituted meat products like hot dogs, LFTB (lean finely textured beef). 

Making a pizza at home using fresh ingredients and traditionally cured cheese or sausage is classified as processed. Prepackaged frozen pizza manufactured and marketed for convenience gets the ultra-processed classification. 

There’s plenty of controversy surrounding the NOVA classification system.  The groups are squishy and subjective. Lines of demarcation are not clearly defined. Many of my fellow analysts, used to working with thousands of precise nutrient based food codes, dismiss NOVA as unprofessional. Their dismissal is understandable.

So why bother taking a peek you may be asking? Because food is so very much more than the sum of its nutrient parts and over the last 40 years we’ve all been conditioned to look at food through a narrow precisely defined reductionist lens. 

Changing focus and looking through the NOVA lens let’s us take a step back. And by taking a step back from the plate, we get a different perspective. It’s easier to see the food and harder to scrutinize nutrients. Even a flexitarian like me has come to appreciate meat in new ways. Remember, it’s just a peek.

Rethinking Healthy

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Here’s the menu for a delicious, somewhat indulgent celebration meal I shared with family and friends in December. 

The meal reflects my kind of healthy. At least my kind of healthy before I decided to become a dietitian and learned how to measure healthy in grams of fat.

Over the last three decades we’ve been taught that palatability and healthy are polar opposites. Stealth health is a term still used today with regard to food. In other words, many people still believe that if food is obviously healthy, it’s not to be trusted.

That polar divide dates back to the 1990s. Research was going on prior to that date linking dietary fat to heart issues, but implementation didn’t happen until 1990.

That was the year congress passed the NLEA (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act). I was totally unaware that anything important had happened when I started my nutrition studies in 1993, the same year the Nutrition Facts Label appeared on packaged products. Buried under layers of regulatory cement, the new law contained austere nutrient-based criteria for healthy. Initially, the criteria were only applicable to packaged goods but by the end of the decade, the damage was done and the word healthy was successfully redefined as low fat.

The only items on my Christmas menu that qualify as healthy using these austere criteria are the baguette, the steamed rice, and the clementines. 

Low-fat is healthy dominated the first decade of this century. According to NBC news, when a group of researchers set out to understand the views of executives at major U.S. restaurant chains regarding the addition of healthy options to their menus, they were able to determine why by ensuring anonymity to the executive’s interview.

“If we put something on the menu and say it’s healthy, it’s the kiss of death,” one executive told the researchers.

The kiss of death was not limited to restaurant food. The first time I ran numbers on a mix of fresh mesclun with vinaigrette dressing, I discovered to my horror that my salad couldn’t qualify as healthy either. Too much fat. And too much saturated fat.  Olive oil has a higher fraction of saturated fatty acids than walnut or avocado or some of the other wonderful oils that can be used for a vinaigrette. In other words, my salad was even more unhealthy because I used olive oil.

Healthy as low-fat remained set in regulatory cement for 25 years. In 2015, however, something happened. That was the year the FDA sent a warning letter to the manufacturer of KIND BARS.

Most of the errors were minor technicalities except for one major misbranding error. The FDA requested that the manufacturer remove the word healthy from the label. The bars identified were made with nuts and because nuts are high in fat, the gram values exceeded those austere criteria set back in 1990.

KIND BARS complied but decided to file a citizen’s petition asking the FDA to re-evaluate. And the FDA agreed. The agency acknowledged the science related to recommendations for intake of dietary fats had evolved and, as per a 2016 guidance document, stated its intention to exercise enforcement discretion on an interim basis shifting the focus away from limiting total fat to encouraging unsaturated fats.

Et voilà. With the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, my menu got healthier. The menu as a whole just meets the current level 35% calories from total fat and my green pea soup, green beans, and rapini now meet this interim FDA criteria for healthy.

About the same time that the FDA published their interim guidance, a group of academic researchers working out of a university in Brazil published a document that took a completely different approach to healthy. 

Nutrition researchers and policy professionals in this country are used to breaking foods down into smaller and smaller components. Researchers have worked hard to develop hundreds of thousands food codes. Using these food codes, policy professionals can manipulate foods precisely and accurately in every conceivable combination of nutrients, micronutrients, or any other component.

The Brazilian academics reversed the process. They took a step back and developed a system that consolidated foods into only 4 groups: Unprocessed / Minimally Processed; Processed Culinary Ingredients; Processed Foods; Ultra-processed Foods. They called this food classification system NOVA.

Most chefs, home cooks, and food writers relate immediately to NOVA. Working with intact foods every day and thinking about food as a whole comes easy. A whole onion. A whole egg. A whole piece of Clothbound Cheddar.

My dietitian colleagues struggle with NOVA because they have been trained to think about food differently.

Dietitians are taught to think about food as nutrients. Onions are low in calories and contain no fat. Eggs are high in cholesterol. And even an artisan hand crafted cheese is high in saturated fat. In their view, NOVA seems crude, simplistic, and downright unprofessional.

Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between two coasts. I understand why NOVA upsets my zealous colleagues but I love the approach. 

And I love looking at my menu through the NOVA lens. Carefully sourced fresh ingredients. Enough salt, sugar, and fat to ensure palatability. Lots of freshly cooked vegetables and fresh fruit.

Here’s how my menu breaks down. All aromatics (onion, celery, carrot), garlic, fresh herbs, rapini, green beans, and clementines are obviously raw, minimally processed and belong in Group 1. Not so obvious foods included in Group 1 would be lamb shanks, spices, dried split peas, whole milk plain yogurt (pie crust), fresh egg (pumpkin filling), basmati rice, and refined wheat flour.

Olive oil, salt, butter (pumpkin filling), and sugar are classified in Group 2 as processed culinary ingredients. Canned whole tomato, canned pumpkin, and Bordeaux rouge are classified as processed foods and placed in Group 3. Only the mass-produced packaged baguette, the prosciutto, and the Armagnac are candidates for ultra-processed or Group 4.

And I’ve ended up coming full circle in my belief about healthy. It’s not that nutrients aren’t important. Nutrients are very important. But in the process of drilling down deeper and deeper, something basic has been forgotten. Let’s hope that something basic has not been lost.

Looking at the plate through a NOVA lens is a gentle reminder that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts. And that palatability and healthy don’t have to be polar opposites.

Cute and tasty and ultra-processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above is one package of Mild Green Mojo Multigrain Tortilla Chips and a couple of little Mojos. Not being a chip person, I’m not a good judge on how Mojos compare to the competition, but one of my best friends who speaks from years of chip experience has confided that the chips are good verging on addictive.

I do agree the Mojos are tasty. When I take the first bite, corn predominates. Very nice. Makes sense too because corn is the main ingredient. After the distinctly corn taste comes a cheesy somewhat salty taste. Definitely salty, but not so salty that other flavors are over powered. I’m okay with a couple of Mojos, however, I seem to be immune to what ever causes my friend’s addictive behavior.

INGREDIENT LIST

The ingredient statement lists each substance by name in descending order by weight and here’s what I found when I turned the package over. Note that parenthesis and brackets indicate sub-ingredients. I’ve also added asterisks to mark an ingredient as separate from any sub ingredients.

Ingredients: *organic ground whole corn, *organic expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or organic expeller pressed safflower oil, *organic brown rice, *organic chia seeds, *organic grain & seed blend (organic flax, organic millet, organic brown rice, organic quinoa, organic amaranth), *Late July organic mild green mojo seasoning (salt, organic green pepper powder, organic parsley powder, organic sour cream powder [organic cream, organic whey powder, lactic acid, cultures, salt], organic cheese powder [organic cheddar cheese, organic whey powder, lactic acid, disodium phosphate, cheese cultures, non-animal enzymes], organic whey powder, organic evaporated cane sugar, organic jalapeno powder, organic lime juice powder [organic lime juice, organic maltodextrin, mixed tocopherols], organic garlic powder, organic onion powder), *organic evaporated cane sugar.

That’s a lengthy list of substances most of which you won’t find in my kitchen cabinet. Note too that the word count is 114 even though the ingredient count is only seven. Many of those 114 words are repetitions. The word organic appears 29 times; the word powdered 11 times.

Both seed & grain blend and chia look to be intact but the other ingredients have all been pulverized or dehydrated.

DEGREE & PURPOSE OF PROCESSING

As my colleagues who work in the food industry love to remind me, humans have always processed their food. And they are of course spot on.

What is worth taking a closer look at however is the degree and purpose of the processing.

Making a chip takes some pretty sophisticated technology. First the ingredients are powdered, pulverized, dehydrated, and deconstructed. The industrial process is fascinating to watch. It’s easy and free to check one of the many videos available on UTube that gives you a visual of how a chip gets made.

Nutrients survive processing and are listed on the nutrition label but the food matrix has been shattered. In other words, the corn, green pepper, cheese, sour cream listed on the ingredient statement are unrecognizable.

Marketing the chips takes some pretty sophisticated technology too. Just take a look at that beautifully designed bag. Color is two vibrant shades of environment green with yellow lettering to highlight those intact seeds and grains. A work of art that has been hermetically sealed to ensure crispness and protect from intruders. Each bag sits seductively on the shelf patiently waiting for indulgence to happen.

I would say the Mojos are a outstanding example of a well crafted ultra-processed product. Would others agree? I don’t know. The concept has not been reduced to a consistent set metrics we can measure yet.

ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED PRODUCTS BAD?

The answer to that question depends of course on who you ask.

My position is to remain neutral but to ask lots of questions. How does all the grinding and pulverizing effect metabolism? Are we really just eating pre-digested food? Why am I satisfied with a handful of Mojos but my friend can’t put the bag down? And, most basic of all, what set of metrics should we use to decide what is ultra-processed and what is not?

What section of the supermarket do plant based meats belong in?

photo credit |gourmetmetrics
photo credit |gourmetmetrics

The food scene is changing fast. Plant-based products have arrived and they are disruptive. They don’t fit in the usual slots. It’s not the first time rapid change has disrupted our food supply and it probably won’t be the last, but each time a disruption occurs, our sense of normal needs adjusting.

I posed this question in a couple of forums. Where should a supermarket put a product that is engineered to taste like ground beef but manufactured from pulverized plants and here’s what came back.

EMOTION OUTBURSTS

Plant-based meat analogs evoke passion ranging from evangelical ecstasy to visceral derision.

For true believers, the promise of phasing out livestock production is an absolute good for our health, the planet, sustainability, and the welfare of animals. For many others and for a variety of reasons, replacing real meat with fake meat is misguided. One particularly caustic commentator suggested putting the product in the pet food section because the texture of pulverized plants is the same as canned dog food.

PRAGMATIC SUGGESTIONS

The vegan/vegetarian section would be a logical place and that was the section I checked first. Nothing new. No faux burgers. Just the usual collection of traditional veggie burgers.

Meat analogs can’t go in the organic food section, at lease now yet. The first generation meat analogs don’t meet the USDA organic criteria. One brand even proudly lists the use of two genetically engineered components.

A section dedicated to sustainability might be a candidate for meat analogs. Climate change activists believe red meat is bad for the planet and ruminants like beef and dairy cattle are a big contributor to global warming. But that position is controversial and other groups, especially the regenerative agriculturists, disagree.

Business decisions get made based on many factors and it appears manufacturers have pushed hard to get their meat analogues into the meat department. And that’s exactly where I found the package. Beyond Meat Burgers were right next to the grass-fed burgers in the frozen meat section.

FOOD 2.0

Food 2.0 was the most creative response I received. As technology continues to disrupt the food section, supermarkets will respond as best they can. Food 2.0 is as good as any catch word to describe the brave new world of food tech that we have just entered. The FDA has cleared both major meat analog manufacturers for retail sale and that means a tsunami is about to hit the supermarket floor.

Many of my fellow dietitians have concerns about the healthiness of meat analogs because they are highly processed. I share that concern but to date there’s no good evidence that ultra-processing per se is unhealthy. Lots of speculations and gut feelings but no hard evidence except for one study published this year which established a correlation between a diet of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.

So what should we do while we wait for more evidence?

My plan is moderation. I’m okay with a meat analog from time to time, but my gut isn’t used to high tech food and I see no reason to change right now. So for the time being, the proteins you will find on my plate most days will be lentils and chickpeas and 100% grass-fed beef.

Biscotti, NOVA, and Common Sense.

EF96E28C-A295-42EB-8B63-1EF3710D6A06

Who doesn’t like a good biscotti? It’s sweet and nutty and soft when made with enough butter, but firm enough to dunk in coffee. Pictured above are my favorite off the shelf biscotti. Biscotti aren’t healthy, but that’s not why I like them. This traditional Italian delicacy is concentrated sugars and refined carbohydrates softened with butter. Totally unhealthy and completely delicious.

Trying to make them at home is complex. Most recipes use a standard set of ingredients consisting of sugar, flour, nuts, and baking powder. Some recipes call for eggs, others call for butter, still others call for oil. Some even call for dried fruit like the cranberries in my favorite biscotti. No matter which combination of ingredients, however, there is one feature that all biscotti have in common. They are twice baked. And twice baked is too complex for my simplistic mind, so I have become a connoisseur of off the shelf.

Like all packaged cookies my biscotti are ultra-processed. Maybe if I baked them at home with carefully sourced ingredients I could get away with dropping the ultra … but just maybe.

How do I know? Because NOVA says so.

SO WHAT’S NOVA?

NOVA is new way to classify food. It’s a system that examines the extent and purpose of food processing. Originally developed in Brazil, the concept is gaining traction in other South American countries, Canada and France.
 NOVA characterizes ultra-processed foods as industrial formulations made with many unfamiliar ingredients not commonly used in kitchens. These foods are manufactured and designed to be profitable, convenient, and hyper-palatable.

My favorite biscotti fit the description. They are palatable and very tasty. The ingredient list looks mostly familiar with the exception on malted barley flour. But when I check ingredient lists for other brands, I do find suspicious additives like soy lecithin, palm kernel oil, mono- and di-glycerides, natural flavors to name a few.

The product is an industrial formulation. Otherwise, my biscotti would not taste exactly the same every time. The product is convenient too saving me the time and trouble of twice baking every single batch I mix up.

So now what?

NOVA is not well known here in the states but that may be changing. We Americans are big consumers of ultra-processed products, well over 50% by most counts. Our voracious consumption is causing concern among some of my fellow dietitians. Many nutrition commentators agree that a food pattern based on minimally processed real food is the best option but I’ve yet to find anyone willing to commit to a percentage.

As for me, I know that my gut is happier when I eat less highly processed foods. But that’s a personal testimonial and anecdotal evidence doesn’t count for much. So …

IN MY HUMBLE OPINION

Proponents of an evidenced based approach to eating don’t give much credit to common sense. Those folks are scientists and view common sense much the same way as Albert Einstein “… the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Science moves methodically and slowly and nutrition science is wicked hard. Like a never ending story, the facts of today are subject to change based on new findings tomorrow.

But since we need to make eating decisions every day with or without evidence, sometimes that collection of “prejudices” is all we’ve got. We put something the plate every day. We can’t just stop eating while science is still working things out.

So let’s be patient and let science do its thing. Let’s enjoy our biscotti without fear or worry. We have no common food culture to reference, but we do have our gut and our own common sense. One biscotti will hopefully not be a problem. Eating the whole package should give you a stomach ache.

Looks to me like my KIND bar is ultra-processed.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

A couple of weeks ago, the word ultra-processed made national headlines when a well done study concluded that ultra-processed food promotes weight gain while unprocessed food does not. This one I said to myself needs further investigation.

After reading the complete study, I linked to another site for clarification on what foods are ultra-processed and ended up at NOVA. There I learned about a Brazilian academic Carlos Monteiro and his novel food classification system NOVA. Links to both study and NOVA provided at the end of the post.

NOVA divides foods into four groups and characterizes ultra-processed foods as follows:

“The fourth NOVA group is ultra-processed food and drink products. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.”

Then I went to my pantry hoping to find something vaguely resembling that verbose awkward prose. I didn’t find much until I remembered my KIND bars. I always keep at least one in my pocketbook for emergencies. I’m partial to the apricot almond, so I looked in my pocketbook and there was a KIND bar wrapped and ready to go. The ingredient list is printed on the wrapper: almonds, coconut, apricots, glucose syrup, honey, chicory root fiber, rice flour, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt.

With the ingredient list in one hand and that prose description in the other, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. Words in boldface refer back to NOVA. Ingredients are numbered in descending order.

#1 almonds, #2 coconut, #3 apricots are familiar foods. I can see the almond pieces and perhaps the coconut shreds in my KIND bar so we’ll call them intact. I don’t see any apricot pieces however. Maybe apricot purée?

#4 glucose syrup, #5 honey, and #9 sugar are sugar.

#6 chicory root fiber is the name manufacturers give to inulin for labeling purposes. Chicory root is an intact food. It looks like a short fat shaggy cream colored carrot with long brown hairs. Inulin is a white powder which is extracted and refined from the root and is considered an isolated non-digestible carbohydrates by the FDA. Manufacturers can count inulin as a fiber on the nutrition facts label. Inulin is not commonly used in culinary preparations, although you can order inulin as a supplement online or buy it off the supplement shelf in a health food store.

#7 rice flour is a stabilizer

#8 soy lecithin is an emulsifier (not referenced above but found in other descriptions of NOVA)

#10 sea salt is salt

So is my KIND bar ultra-processed? It certainly looks that way to my analytic eye. Of the 10 ingredients counted, 7 tract back to NOVA.

Does it matter? Now that’s the tricky question. And over the next couple of years, many smart, knowledgeable researchers are going to be working hard trying to figure out the answer to that question.

Pictured next to the KIND bar is an equivalent weight of dry unsulfured apricots and almonds which I also keep in my pantry. Just two ingredients. Clearly not ultra-processed. Taste is 100% subjective and my preference is the simpler version of fruit and nuts. But when I’m hungry enough to just need calories, the KIND bar is what I reach for.

Here’s a link to the study and a link to NOVA.