Processed or Ultra-Processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

The best lasagna I ever ate was home made. Even the pasta! 100 grams durum semolina flour and 1 egg, diligently hand mixed, kneaded, then rolled into thin sheets with this cool little pasta machine I brought back from Rome one year. Pelati, canned whole peeled Italian tomatoes, olive oil, some garlic and onion, fresh basil and parsley, gently boiled down into a traditional marinara sauce. Fresh ricotta cheese. A mixture of ground beef and pork browned and seasoned. Layer by layer all that deliciousness was carefully arranged in my pan and baked to perfection in the oven. It was incredibly delicious! 

My home made masterpiece was a spontaneous event. I don’t even remember following a recipe although I had a general idea of ingredients before I set out. But I’ll never do it again. Why? Because the process took one whole day!

When I serve a lasagna these days, my choices are store prepared or store bought off the shelf. I’ve had good lasagnas, but I’ve never found a replacement that matches the taste of that lasagna I made myself. Not at least until recently …

Rao’s Made for Home, the same folks who produce a wicked good Marinara sauce, has gone into the frozen entrée business and one of their offerings is Meat Lasagna. 

Pre-prepared meal entrées are often disappointing because they are ultra-processed formulations of inferior ingredients intended to displace real food. Convenient yes. Delicious no. Never as good as the dish they intent to replace. But hope springs eternal, especially after a year of pandemic isolation, so I decided to give it a try. 

What a pleasant surprise!

What truly amazed me was the quality of the pasta. The taste and consistency of those sheets of lasagna actually reminded me of that lasagna I made by hand. It’s an amazing accomplishment because Rao’s Made for Home lasagna is a manufactured product, so by definition it’s both an industrial formulation and ultra-processed. Or is it ultra-processed?

INGREDIENTS

The ingredient list reads like a recipe for home made lasagna: Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes (Tomatoes, Salt, Basil Leaf), Ricotta Cheese, (Milk [Whole & Skim], Vinegar, Salt), Pasta (Durum Semolina), Water, Beef, Mozzarella (Pasteurized Part Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Pork, Romano Cheese (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Onions, Olive Oil, Egg, Salt, Spices, Garlic, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder. 

The ingredients are recognizable. And the label is beyond clean because no additives of any kind are listed. What isn’t on the label is as significant as what is. No modified corn starch, no natural flavor, no carrageenan, no gums. No messy additives to clean up!

The ingredients are top quality. Whole peeled Italian tomatoes are listed instead of tomato paste or purée. Fresh ricotta cheese instead of dry curd cottage cheese. And olive oil instead of canola or soybean oil.

Bronze cut does not appear in the ingredient list but the words can be found on the back of the box on the right panel. “Snuggled between every layer of bronze cut pasta …”. Those words bronze cut pasta are significant and may explain why the Rao’s lasagna reminded me of my hand rolled sheets.

Pasta has been made in Italy since the 13th century, but up until recently it was mixed and cut by hand. Manufacturers today use an industrial process called extrusion. The dough is mixed then forced through a mold or “die” which forms the familiar shapes we find on the grocers shelf: orecchiette, penne, lasagna. Most modern producers coat their dies in Teflon producing a smooth shinny pasta. Using bronze is the traditional method but its use fell out of favor because Teflon is cheaper. 

NUTRITION

Using current nutrient reductionist criteria, lasagna is not a healthy choice. Whether frozen and re-heated, served at the Olive Garden, or prepared at home with hand rolled lasagna sheets and carefully sourced ingredients, lasagna gets classified as “empty calories”. Too many grams of saturated fat and too many milligrams of sodium. 

There are other ways to think about what’s healthy and widen the focus however. Like ingredient quality. Or degree of processing.

TASTE

So why does the Rao’s lasagna remind me of my home made lasagna. Maybe it’s because of the whole peeled tomatoes or the fresh ricotta? Or maybe the bronze cut sheets of lasagna? Or maybe the olive oil? It’s not cold-pressed extra-virgin, but at least the oil is pressed or centrifuged from olives instead of rape seed or soybeans. 

Because taste is 100% subjective, I don’t know if you would like the lasagna as much as I did but two facts are indisputable. The lasagna is made with quality ingredients. And it costs twice as much as its competitors. 

SO IS RAO’S LASAGNA  PROCESSED OR ULTRA-PROCESSED?

There’s an argument to be made for either side. As per this 2019 commentary:  Ultra-processed foods are not ‘real food’. As stated, they are formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready to consume hyper palatable food and drink products using flavours, colours, emulsifiers and a myriad of other cosmetic additives. 

The product is a formulation that is industrially made and mass produced. That’s why the product will taste exactly the same every single time. These are characteristics it has in common with Twinkies, Oreos, and Doritos.

However, the ingredients are real food. I’m being subjective here, but I don’t see the ingredients listed on the label as food substances. Or as Michael Pollan puts it “food-like” substances. Rao’s lasagna uses precisely the ingredients that I would use to make lasagna at home. No additives needed. No flavors, colors, emulsifiers, or any other cosmetic ingredients. Just real food.

I want to classify the product as processed because the taste is clean and the list of ingredients is simple and straightforward. But I can’t ignore the technological sophistication which guarantees that taste will be consistent in every box. So there you have it. Is Rao’s meat lasagna processed or ultra-processed? It all depends …

Bottom line, there are some wrinkles in the NOVA food classification system which will be need to be ironed out.

 

A Taste for Freshly Baked

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

My ideas about food are old fashioned. Food should taste good. It’s not an objective standard because taste is 100% subjective. But it’s a standard most of my fellow Americans can relate to.

When it comes to pumpkin pies, my preference is freshly baked. Now freshly baked pie means one of two things. Buy it from an honest baker or make it myself. I usually opt for the later and, over the years, I’ve perfected my own recipe. So for this month’s post, I decided to take a look how my pie compares to a formulated version. To run the numbers I need a weight and a nutrition facts label so my choice is limited to frozen pies.

The criteria are the same as I used last month for the Twinkie Addendum. Ingredients. Nutrients. Taste.

INGREDIENTS

Ingredients make the dish in my kitchen, so when I cook, I put thought, time, energy, and dollars into sourcing.

Pumpkin pie starts with pumpkin. Making my own purée pumpkin from pumpkin is one option. The other is a traditionally processed canned purée pumpkin. My local market carries 4 brands, two organic and two conventional. I always go with one of the organic brands but not because the label says “organic”. I like the brand because the pumpkin works perfectly in my recipe and the manufacturer is a midsized regional company that specializes in pumpkins and squashes.

I use turbinado sugar, a partially refined cane sugar that retains some molasses giving the sugar crystals a rich brown glow and a more nuanced flavor. Instead of a butter based crust, I use olive oil. Extra virgin cold pressed from California. 

Eggs, flour, milk, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla are off the shelf, but I do buy whole nutmegs and grate of what need for the pie. The ingredients are all processed – minimally, culinary, or traditionally processed. Just not ultra-processed. 

Many food writers and commentators fail to distinguish between processed and ultra-processed. A careful reading of NOVA documentation makes it clear however NOVA is not opposed to processed food. The group demarcation lines may be squishy, but it’s misleading to confuse processing with ultra-processing, implying or stating that NOVA is opposed to food processing.

In other words, a pumpkin pie made with minimally processed foods like eggs and flour, culinary processed foods like sugar and olive oil, and traditionally processed foods like the canned pumpkin purée is processed but not ultra-processed.

Formulated frozen pumpkins pies also start with pumpkin. For comparison purposes, I chose a clean labeled commodity pie carried by many East coast supermarkets. In adherence to the dictates of the clean label philosophy, the formulation contains no artificial colors, flavors, or colors.

The label on the Nature’s Promise frozen pumpkin pie lists 11 ingredients:  pumpkin, cane sugar, water, unbleached wheat flour, egg, nonfat milk powder, palm oil, modified food starch, spice, salt, dextrose.

Two ingredients qualify as markers. Modified food starch is a synonym for modified corn starch, a thickener. Dextrose is a sweetener and humectant.

Assessing ingredient quality for a formulated product is not possible from the outside looking in. The NOVA solution to this conundrum is to classify the whole product as ultra-processed.

NUTRIENTS

Pumpkin is a nutrient dense squash, rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber so it’s hard to make a completely unhealthy product that contains any significant amount of pumpkin. 

Both pies have roughly the same amount of protein and fiber. Nature’s Promise has a higher concentration of all three nutrients of concern – sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. So if you measure healthy in grams of saturated fat and sugar and milligrams of sodium, both pies are unhealthy. My freshly baked homemade version is however marginally less “unhealthy”.

TASTE

I went out looking for the formulated version. Unfortunately, I discovered that commodity pumpkin pies disappear after the holiday season. Despite my best efforts to find one locally, I came up empty handed. Very disappointing because the taste comparison is integral to my assessment. I’ve been served enough commodity pumpkin pies at various holiday gatherings and Thanksgivings to know my preference is freshly baked. But I wanted to taste the Nature’s Promise pie. Does that clean label make a taste difference?

BOTTOM LINE

• Cost. The cost difference is significant. My pie costs twice as much. And it’s not just dollar cost. I spend more time. Prep, cooking, and clean up take 1 1/2 to 2 hours plus time to source ingredients!

• Ingredients. The ingredients are processed but not ultra-processed. Does the avoidance of ultra-processed foods make my pie any healthier? My take on that question is probably yes. I do understand however evidence is still pending and making a statement at this point in time would be a leap of faith.

• Nutrients. As per the analysis, my pie reflects a slightly less “unhealthy” profile compared with the commodity pie.

• Taste. I’ll have to do an addendum next year. I’m food literate enough to know how to determine quality by reading an ingredient list and checking the price. But for the actual taste comparison, for a side to side comparison, I’ll have to wait for next year’s pumpkin pie season. 

Twinkie Addendum

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

A couple of threads fell into place recently as I continue to explore the NOVA food classification system. And that send me out looking for Twinkies.

The first thread came by accident. I found myself listening to a previously recorded presentation at Google headquarters in California by New York based writer, editor, and publisher Steve Ettlinger. He was in California discussing his book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats. Published in 2007, the book is a fascinating exploration of the multitude of weird, unrecognizable ingredients used in modern food processing. 

The second thread fell into place when I discovered a recipe for homemade Twinkies does actually exists. About a decade ago, Jennifer Schihauser, a NYT journalist, developed a series of articles around the concept “If I make it myself, it’s not junk” and one of her recipes was for making Twinkies at home.

With a Twinkies formulation in one hand and a recipe for a homemade version in the other hand, I can actually do an “apples to apples” comparison between a formulated product and an equivalent homemade version. That was the third thread falling into place. I have what I need to count ingredients / markers of Ultra-Processed food (UPF) and compare nutrition stats. 

I needed to go out looking for Twinkies to get a label, always the best way to get the ingredient list. Product formulations change so the best source of data is always the current product label. Besides, I’ve never tasted a Twinkie so I was curious. I figured I should at least have a bite.

Using the ingredient list from the Twinkie’s wrapper and the Jennifer Schihauser recipe, I was ready to begin.

Running the numbers was easy because I’m in the business of recipe analysis. For guidance on the NOVA food classification system, however, I selected 2019 commentary Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them to serve as my reference guide.

INGREDIENTS & UPF MARKERS

Flour. Butter. Sugar. Eggs. Those are the primary ingredients listed in the homemade version. All familiar, recognizable ingredients. Besides the basics, the recipe also calls for salt, milk, vanilla, cream of tartar, heavy cream, and Marshmallow Fluff. That’s a total of 11 ingredients. 

The formulated Twinkie is manufactured with mostly unfamiliar ingredients. To my eye, they look like deconstructed fragments. Examples are high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or hydrogenated tallow, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin. 

I counted 7 primary ingredients plus an additional 22 listed on the label as <2% by weight and felt comfortable tagging 18 as UPF markers.

What counts as a marker? As per my NOVA reference document, markers can be 1) “food substances not usually found in the home kitchen like high-fructose corn syrup or 2) “cosmetic additives” like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or thickeners. Note that salt and sugar get a pass because NOVA classifies them as processed culinary ingredients.

NUTRITION STATS

Both homemade and formulated versions are intense concentrations of fats and sweetness with little positive nutrient benefit. And both versions are calorie dense. 

Nutrients per serving size is the best metric for checking how much you’re actually eating, but comparing nutrients in similar products needs a different metric. My choice for this type of comparison is the calorie density scale which reflects nutrient values by weight. Think of the calorie density scale as a sort unit price for nutrients.

The homemade Twinkie is 3.6 calories per gram. The formulated product is 3.4 calories per gram. To put these calorie density numbers in context, Doritos scores 5.1 on the calorie density scale whereas a Chipotle Beef Burrito will clock in at about 1.8 calories per grams.

Both recipe and formulation have comparable amounts of total fat but homemade Twinkies have a significantly higher concentration of saturated fat. No surprises here. Butter is the only fat called for in the recipe and butter is notoriously high in saturated fatty acids. 

The formulated Twinkies use a combination of animal fat (tallow) and seed oil (cottonseed oil) which results in less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat.

Both recipe and formulation are intensely sweet. Sweeteners in one form or another comprise about 40% by weight. Homemade uses granulated sugar plus some marshmallow fluff. The formulation lists sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose. 

Sodium is not significant for either version but it’s worth noting there’s more in the formulation than the recipe.

TASTE IS 100% SUBJECTIVE

The final thread fell into place when I tasted the Twinkie. Actually better than I expected but still too sweet for my taste.

WHY BOTHER?

It’s takes many hours to source and study the NOVA research, to count ingredients and identify the markers, and to compare nutrition stats. Here’s why I believe my time was well spent:

  • I learned that nutrients are easier to count than ingredients or UPF markers, especially hard was deciding which additives were “cosmetic” and which were not. Difficult and inconclusive.
  • Simplistic pronouncements by food pundits, corporate marketeers, or social influencers are misleading. NOVA is a sophisticated concept. Selecting a couple of buzz words may sell books or products but does a disservice to consumers.
  • Expanding my NOVA analysis skills is a good investment of time. My sense is we’ll be having more serious discussions about degree of processing in the coming years.

So do I plan to do more apples-to-apples comparisons between a formulation and a recipe? You bet I do.

 

 

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.

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.

Does healthy come in one size that fits all?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

When it comes to automobiles, maybe we could get by with one size fits all. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said we could have any color you want as long as it’s black. But imagine how miserable we’d be if everyone had to fit their feet into the same shoe size?

Now there are some obvious differences between food and shoes. But when it comes to size and shape, food and shoes have more in common than you might think.

Consider this recent dinner I put together. A modest piece of beef tenderloin. Sliced savoy cabbage, shallot, and green peas braised in olive oil and stock. Steamed Yukon gold potato. Add a Guinness stout to accompany the meal followed by fresh pineapple, a couple of walnuts, and a small square of very dark chocolate.

Et voilá. A plate that manages to be non compliant with every healthy dietary model.

Compared to Dietary Guideline recommendations, my plate falls short. No bread or rice or pasta on the plate. A beer instead of a glass of milk. And too many calories from fat (>35%) and saturated fat (>10%).

Vegan activists will come after me because I put a piece of meat on my plate.

Keto enthusiasts love no carbs on the plate but will ask why no cream or butter or coconut oil.

Globalists who promote the planetary health or flexitarian diet, will be upset because my serving of beef is so big, my serving of nuts is so stingy, and there’re no whole grain.

It used to bother me that my usual pattern is non-compliant but I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. Being out of step with a vegan or Keto approach is one thing. Being out of step with dietary guidelines or planetary health is quite another however.

Why was I bothered? Because I’m a nerdy dietitian who studied nutrition, appreciates the need for evidenced based science, and supports the concept of a healthy eating pattern. But my numbers still never fit a conventional model.

So that brings me back to shoe sizes. Before industrialization, if you were lucky enough or rich enough to own a pair, your shoes were custom made. In today’s world the best a shoe manufacturer can do is offer many different sizes and styles. Then it’s up to us, the shoe wearing public, to find shoes that fit.

Maybe that same logic works for food choices too. As a committed omnivore in love with all things vegetable, fruit, legume, and whole grain, my pattern has fewer carbohydrates and more fats than the one size fits all dietary guidelines. And if I think about guidelines as guiding principles instead of regulatory mandates, my pattern looks a lot healthier.

My doctor is okay with my health stats. And my gut is happy with my food choices. So I’ve decided to stop being bothered because my pattern is not a perfect fit.

So you see, finding the right dietary pattern really is like shopping for shoes. You keep trying on different patterns until you find the one that’s the best fit for you.

Healthy means one thing to cooks and something different to a recipe analyst like me.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Chicken Platter | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

Feast your eyes on a gorgeous Brune Landaise, a slow grow (110 days) heritage breed chicken raised in rural Pennsylvania. I took the picture recently at a Manhattan restaurant and even with the addition of vegetable sides, it’s not your classic picture of healthy eating.

HEALTHY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

Roast chicken is a healthy alternative for carnivores when they get tired of steak. If you’re a vegan however roast chicken is unhealthy or immoral. And probably both. These are subjective opinions based on two different belief systems.

Enter the nutrition researcher. These folks have been taught to measure healthy in grams and milligrams. Personal anecdotes and opinions are suspect. Research and evidence are what count. Now the scientific method is by natures reductionist and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that scientists sometimes forget that the whole can be more than the sum of its measurable parts. And so sometimes do recipe analysts.

THE NUTRITION FACTS

I ran the numbers for roast chicken based on my own recipe for a modest serving size (2 pieces or about 6 ounces). Calories 370, Fat 22 g, Saturated Fat 6 g, Sodium 560 mg, Carbohydrates 0 g, Fiber 0 g, Sugars 0 g, Protein 39 g.

If you have a hard time finding meaning in the numbers, you’re not alone. I know what all the numbers mean, I’m a dietitian, and I have a hard time too. Facts are important and we don’t want to ignore them. But nutrition researchers are coming to realize, facts are not enough.

My most brilliant research colleagues are currently doing just that — developing algorithms for putting the parts back together. Similar research is going on in Europe, South America, and Australia.

PUTTING ISOLATED NUTRIENTS BACK IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WHOLE PLATE

Chefs and home cooks and food writers know intuitively that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts.

Nutrition researchers and dietitians and recipe analysts dedicate their lives to understanding those nutrient parts.

Both perspectives are valid. But that hasn’t made it any easier for cooks and recipe analysts to discuss what’s healthy and what’s not healthy.

Here’s a small taste of what lies ahead for recipe and menu analysis when we widened the lens and look at food through both perspectives.

Using a narrow lens, roast chicken isolated and alone provides excellent protein but comes with saturated fat. My zealous colleagues, with the best of intentions, solved the problem by removing the skin. As a result, skinless boneless breast became ubiquitous.

When we widen the lens by adding a green salad, two vegetable sides, a piece of French bread, and a glass of Bordeaux, the dynamics change. The same excellent protein remains, but now we find 40% that plate is vegetables and those grams of saturated fat are nicely balanced by unsaturated fatty acids.

A hybrid perspective meets the objective demands of the analyst. Being a dietitian by trade but a foodie at heart, I find the hybrid perspective helpful because it more reflects my standards of healthy better than a more narrow reductionist view.

Only time will tell however if a hybrid perspective will be useful to chefs, home cooks, and food writers.

Here’s why indulgence has a place at my table.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Omelette plated with greens and cannelloni | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

An omelette is my go to meal when I’m hungry, pressed for time, and feel like indulging myself.

Pictured above is a quick and dirty meal I put together a couple of weeks ago. Bitter greens and cannelloni beans mixed with calamari, restaurant leftovers from a meal the night before, filled up half the plate so all I did was make the omelette.

My meal was delicious. Greens and legumes fall into the healthy column, but I’m wondering about that omelette …

First cholesterol and now veganism.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to avoid foods high in cholesterol and egg consumption has taken a major hit. In 2015, cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines say eggs are now okay with this disclaimer. Eggs like all animal based proteins should be consumed in moderation.

Vegans take that advice one step further.Eating an egg is as bad as smoking cigarettes.” That claim was made in a recent Netflix movie funded and produced by folks promoting veganism. What the Health got mixed reviews but vegan messaging tends to be aggressive and the message is clear — eating eggs is not okay.

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

An Organic egg farmer in New Hampshire recently filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to allow them to label eggs healthy based on the revised guidance issue by the FDA. The petition points out that the fatty acids in an egg are predominantly unsaturated.

Eggs do have an impressive nutrient profile. Excellent protein with all essential amino acids, a favorable mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and a very impressive list of micro- and phyto-nutrients.

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. Eggs are a mixed bag and making an omelette with butter or oil and salt adds more variables to the bag.

My omelette has strong positives. Complete protein plus all those other micro nutrient benefits.

And my omelette has strong negatives. Saturated fat, calorie density, and sodium.

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

Swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other is not helpful. We need a better approach. Some kind of hybrid system that scores the omelette as a whole.

Towards this end, an approach developed in the UK and recently implemented in France has potential. The metric is weight based and positives are balanced against negatives to come up with a single score. I’ve adapted this approach for recipe analysis. When I ran the numbers, my omelette got more negatives than positives.

Actually got a lot more negatives than positives and that’s why I use the word indulgent.

Some final thoughts on healthy.

• Nutrition research is constant and ongoing. Saturated fat and sodium score negative because current guidelines from both the US and EU recommend moderation. Both nutrients however remain controversial in some research circles. Especially the complex issue of saturated fats.

• Ingredient quality and degree of processing aren’t scored. Pastured local eggs, California certified olive oil, and home cooking add value for me but are not part of the scoring metric. And because I value home cooked from whole minimally processed foods, delicious indulgent is okay at my table as long as I source my own ingredients and make it myself.

• Putting my omelette, or any other meat based protein, on the same plate as greens and legumes makes the whole plate healthier.