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?

Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Salade Composée | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

NUTRIENTS

Let’s look at the nutrition facts first: 660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.

INGREDIENTS

Here is the list of ingredients: arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and generously dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Those chickpeas were home cooked with salt from a heirloom variety. But I had many other options. Canned, drained, or rinsed. And how old were the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

The tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product imported from Italy. Again, there are many options to choose from. Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh.

As for the vegetables, one thing for sure is they were imported from some warmer part of the country because here in the northeast planting doesn’t get started until May. Probably not USDA organic either because my Italian green grocer believes “organic” is a scam and tells me his customers don’t want to pay extra for the label.

Eggs are from pastured hens that are free to roam, weather permitting. The farro is grown here but I’ve used farro imported from Italy and it’s very tasty. Finally my classic vinaigrette is made with a certified branded dated olive oil from California and a distinctive sherry vinegar imported from Spain and salt.

Ingredients always generate so many questions and it’s hard to believe your choice of ingredients doesn’t impact the healthiness of the plate independent of those nutrition facts noted above.

SO WHAT EXACTLY MAKES A PLATE HEALTHY?

That’s a good question and the answer all depends on who is looking at the plate.

If you’re the FDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on milligrams of sodium, the ratio of saturated fatty acids to unsaturated fatty acids, and the respective percentage contributions of certain essential nutrients to established reference values per day. I understand how to run those stats and am happy to explain the calculation in detail.

If you’re the USDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on cups of vegetables, ounces of protein, grams of saturated fatty acids and milligrams of sodium with bonus points for whole grains and fish. Again, I know how to run those stats and can explain in detail.

I’m just not sure, however, that explaining in detail is helpful. I’ve tried in the past and most folks go glassy eyed.

And I’m also not sure my explanations answer the question of whether of not the plate is healthy. The folks who believe low fat is healthy won’t like the fact that 65% calories come from fat and 11% calories come from saturated fat. Vegans won’t think the plate is healthy because of the tuna and egg. Carnivores won’t think it’s healthy because there’s no meat.  Keto enthusiasts will reject the plate because of the grain. The organic crowd will reject the plate because my vegetables are conventional. So you see, it all depends.

Maybe someday researchers will figure out how to reflect all the radiant complexity in my salad with a single healthy symbol. But for now it makes more sense to my simplistic mind to source my ingredients carefully, go with my gut, check the nutrition facts, and retain at all times a healthy dose of common sense.

Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

 

Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.

The unintended consequences of buying labels instead of food.

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Was visiting one of my favorite foodie stores in the Catskills last weekend and as I walked through the produce aisle I happen to notice the apples. Now this is the beginning of a glorious apples season in New York State. Local production is varied, delicious, plentiful, and available during the next couple of months.

The store prides itself on being a “health food” store and is a stickler for organic certification. But I figured they would also bring in local product if only as a gesture of good will. To my utter amazement, there were no New York State apples. Just USDA Organic apples from, would you believe it, Argentina!

That means the store choose to import an apple from Argentina which is over 5,000 miles away instead of carrying a locally grown apple. And that got me to thinking about what happens when folks make decision on what to eat based on the label instead of based on the apple.

That apple pictured above was from last fall. I can’t remember the varietal name but I do remember how delicious it tasted last fall I took the picture first because the apple looked so fresh and shiny. I don’t remember if the grower had bothered to get USDA Organic Certification. In fact I don’t care. I value local over USDA organic so I select growers and farmers carefully but best practice is more important to me than a particular certification.

Besides I also know that pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, so you have to do something to protect the crop. Organic certification does not mean no pesticides or herbicides. It just means the pesticides or herbicide used are natural and not synthetic. I also know that eating more apples is better for your health independent of an organic certification.

The orchard were I bought that apple has been selling apples for 10 generations which suggests these folks are seasoned and experienced. Ten generations ago, everyone farmed organically because there were no synthetic products. Organic certification on the other hand is really the new kid on the blog. State certifications started gaining prominence starting in the 1960s and USDA process verification started in the early 1990s.

Since the organic certification process is expensive and time consuming, many small scale growers and farmers don’t have the manpower or the discretionary dollars to get the certification. And since pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, everyone needs to use some sort of protection.

It really is a matter of trust. And in the best of all possible worlds we wouldn’t need to choose and we could have both. But sometimes you do have to make a decision. Some of us have more trust in an impersonal label or a certification. Others like me have more trust in the people do the farming or growing. At least choosing between an Argentinian apple and a local New York State, at least you’re still eating an apple. A whole fresh piece of fruit with all the attributes of an apple.

There’s a more sinister consequence of buying labels instead of food. Imagine a fresh apple versus apple juice. Or a fresh apple versus versus a packaged consumer goods apple product. Most would agree that a fresh apple is more nutritious than an ultra-processed apple snacks made from dried apple powder and sugar even if the label says the product is natural, gluten free, and nonGMO verified.