Processed or Ultra-Processed?

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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.

 

Where’s the Apricot?

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My favorite dried apricots are moist, flavorful, sweet, and the color of rusty golden brown. A perfect balance to a handful of dry roasted unsalted nuts.

Dried apricots are whole fruits with the water removed. They are flat, but still recognizable as apricots. Some products, like my favorite KIND bar, list apricots as an ingredient but when you open the package and look for the apricot, all you find is gooey sticky stuff.

That observation inspired this month’s post. Minimally processed versus ultra-processed. My favorite KIND bar versus a handful of dried apricots and nuts.

INGREDIENTS

Minimally processed dried apricots come in two colors. Rusty golden brown and vibrant orange. Most commercial dried apricots have been treated with sulfur dioxide, an additive that lightens the color, softens the texture, and extends shelf life. I prefer the darker color, however. They are harder to find but the taste is more complex and nuanced.

A dried apricot, whether sulphured or un-sulphured, still looks like an apricot. There’s an argument to be made that sulphured apricots are ultra-processed, but un-sulphured apricots clearly meet NOVA guidelines for minimally processed food.

My choice of nuts to compliment the apricots is whole dry roasted unsalted mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia). Ingredient count is 2 to 6 depending on if you count the mixed nuts as a single ingredient or if you count each kind of nut as a separate ingredient.

My KIND bar has more ingredients. Lots more ingredients. Listed in descending order by weight, I count 13: peanuts, almonds, glucose syrup, honey, apricots, sultana, rice flour, dates, flax seed, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt. Two of these ingredients count as markers of ultra-processing:  glucose syrup and soy lecithin.

I can also see pieces of nut. But where is the apricot?

All I can see is that sticky gooey stuff holding the nut pieces together. The technical name for the sticky gooey stuff is a slurry and the slurry in my KIND bar must be a combination of purée fruits (apricots, sultanas, dates), added sugars, some starch, and an emulsifier.

Please don’t think I’m picking on the daring of the healthy snacking crew. A KIND bar is one of my favorite ultra-processed foods. When I’m on the run, it’s the first thing I reach for. KIND is also the company that successfully challenged the FDA’s criteria for healthy when the company filed a Citizen Petition back in 2015.

NUTRIENTS

Both the bar and the fruit & nuts are energy dense.

• 4.5 calories per gram for the KIND bar (10% water). An individually wrapped bar that weighs 40 grams clocks in at 180 calories.

• 4.2 calories per gram for a handful of dried un-sulphured apricots & mixed nuts (24% water). One handful of an equivalent weight of dried apricots and mixed nuts clocks in at 168 calories.

Both have similar nutrient profiles. KIND has a few more grams of protein; my handful of apricots and nuts a few more grams of fiber.

Both have an equally favorable fatty acid ratio.

TASTE

The KIND Fruit & Nut bar is dense and chewy. Peanut predominates and I can taste that sweet, fruity slurry. I can’t however taste or see an apricot.

An un-sulphured apricot, a pecan, and a walnut half are also dense but not as chewy or sticky or sweet as the bar. The nuts add crunchy, the sweetness is softer, more nuanced, and clearly apricot.

BOTTOM LINE

The price of a KIND bar varies significantly. The bar I used for taste comparison cost $1.50 at my local supermarket. An equivalent weight for a handful of un-sulfured apricots and mixed nuts is about $1.00.

A handful of fruit and nuts is a great snack to have in your pocket because it requires no refrigeration. But it does require planning and some prep time. KIND bars are ubiquitous and available everywhere.

The taste difference between the bar and a handful of nuts and apricot is dramatic. Which tastes better? That’s a question best left to the eater. Taste is 100% subjective, so the only person you can make that decision for is yourself.

A Taste for Freshly Baked

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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

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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.