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?

Biscotti, NOVA, and Common Sense.

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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.