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.

Recipes. Technique. Ingredients. What’s your passion?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

If you’re Nigella Lawson, your passion is recipes. If you’re Jacques Pépin, your passion is  La Technique. As for me, my passion is ingredients.

I love running nutrition stats and I love ingredient drill downs. But most of all I love the down and dirty work of sourcing ingredients. Shopping farmer’s markets. Exploring new neighborhoods. Trying new products. Poking around or getting lost or discovering something unique that’s real and wonderful I’ve never tasted before.

Over the last six months I’ve been experimenting with naan pizza. Since every time I make it, the ingredient list is a little different, writing a recipe seems pointless. Who know if this most recent version will continue to work. For the moment however, the ingredient selection appears to be fairly stable.

Rather than making my own pizza dough or buying it frozen, I use an Original Naan. Pictured above is the regular naan, but my preference is whole wheat when it’s available.

Next comes a layer of Traditional Basil Pesto. Not just any old pesto, but my favorite brand of Italian imported pesto with 43% basil by weight as per the label. Less salt, more basil. I’ve never seen pesto listed in any recipe for naan pizza or any other kind of pizza but I like the taste. Guess it’s okay to claim the addition is my own creation.

After the pesto, I add a layer of tomato sauce. I’ve started making my own with peeled plum tomatoes or pelati. Made the sauce last weekend by sweating a base of onion, carrot, and onion in olive oil than adding one 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. I don’t add salt. Not because I have anything against salt but because I love flexibility. Meals should be salted to taste and the tomato sauce will be used in different preparations.

Next is sliced red onion followed by freshly made mozzarella. I use unsalted baby bocconcini which I buy them from my favorite Italian green grocer. I don’t know where he sources them but I’m sure they are made locally. I always buy them the day I’m going to make naan pizza because they are a freshly made product not a processed food with an extended shelf life.

The rest is easy. Heat the pizza stone. Cook the pizza till done in a very hot oven. Eat and enjoy.

Now a final word on salt. The naan is salted as is the basil pesto. Both are processed foods and are salted as per the formulary during the manufacturing process. And it’s enough to please my palette so I don’t add any additional salt.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love salt. Salt to taste is the rule in my kitchen. But salt should never be a substitute for an array of robust flavorful ingredients like the ingredients I’ve chosen for the pizza. Aromatic basil from the pesto. Robust flavorful acidity from pelati. Soft sweetness from red onion. Creamy fatty smoothness from freshly made baby bocconcini. Each ingredient makes its own unique flavor contribution.

My naan pizza is so full of complex flavors and textures, all I need is enough salt to enhance all that diversity. But if your taste is different, please add more salt.

NB: Certain brands are referenced in this post. Please not however the post is not sponsored by anyone. Brands are referenced because I like them and they work better than their competitors in my culinary judgment.

Winter trimmings and regulatory cement.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Some folks follow recipes as if they were set in regulatory cement but that’s not how I like to do things. Too rigid and inflexible. It’s just more fun to take the structure of a recipe and adapt it to my own situation using the recipe as a guiding principle.

Here’s a picture of the last bag of my winter trimmings. Red onion skins, some winter greens, storage carrot ends, portobello stems and gills predominate. This batch has been accumulating over a month or so during which I gathered trimmings and stored them in a 1 liter freezer bag. Batches of trimmings vary through the year. More in the winter than the summer. Different mixtures depending on what I’m cooking.

When the bag is full, I put about 1/2 liter (2 cups) in the bottom of my steamer and put the frozen trimmings in the steamer basket. The brew steams slowly and the trimmings release their pigments and essence into the water below. After an hour or two, I press as much liquid as I can out of the vegetable trimmings and put the remains into my food scraps recycle bin. Then I strain the broth, transfer the beautiful aromatic amber liquid into containers, and store in the freezer for use over the next couple of weeks.

The first time I made a vegetable broth, I consulted a couple of online recipes along with any guidance from my cookbooks, picking up a suggest here and a tip there. Over the years, I’ve established my own rhythm and learned through trial and error. No cauliflower stalks but kale stems or broccoli stem skins are okay. Always carrot ends and peels. And I especially love onion skins both red or white because they contribute such amazing pigment colors.

Making my own no bone vegetable broth is satisfying for many reasons. It’s clean. So clean in fact my broth beats even the cleanest labeled commercial brand. No waste. Food scraps get repurposed then recycled. No salt. Not because I don’t like salt but because I use the broth in cooking and each dish is salted to taste during preparation. Never boring. Each time I make up a batch, the flavor and even the color changes according the selection of trimmings that went into the freezer bag.

Using a recipe as a guiding principle works so well and is how most folks who like to cook use recipes. Cooking is a creative process and the recipe becomes a structure that can be adopted and evolved depending on location, season, custom, and taste preference.

So why not use the same logic for dietary guidelines? I just wish it were that simple. Over the last 3 decades each time there’s a new release of dietary guideline, institutions implement those guidelines as one more layer of regulatory cement. Those layers of cement has been accumulating now for decades. Absolute compliance takes precedence over location, season, custom, and taste.

Trusting folks to use dietary guidelines as guiding principles might not produce better results than regulatory cement but it’s hard to see how it could be worse. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what would happen if the experts were comfortable letting us humans make our own judgment calls based on a few good rules?

 

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.

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.

Do we need a food based nutrition label?

Pumpkin Pie with Oil Based Crust | photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Pumpkin Pie with Oil Based Crust | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

 

Since the first release of the Nutrition Facts Label, healthy has been a nutrient based construct. Recently, the FDA agreed to review and revise the regulatory criteria for healthy and the new regulatory requirements could be released as soon as this year.

When I posed a question to a group of dietitians asking them if healthy should be food based or nutrient based, to my surprise, my colleagues all favored food based. When I asked for examples however of a food based scoring system, no one volunteered.

So I decided to investigate and went out looking for scoring options. I found three. Then using one of my favorite recipes, I ran three sets of numbers. Here’s are the results using my home baked pumpkin pie pictured above.

NUTRIENTS

If you’ve ever tried to make sense out of a Nutrition Facts Label, you already know the label is not easy. Deconstruction is based on the belief that the best way to understand something is to break it into parts. This view of healthy assumes individual nutrients are what counts and the parts are more important than the whole. Deconstruction has dominated the healthy labeling conversation for the last 30 years.

Using a simplified format Facts Up Front , here’s what deconstruction looks like:

6898FFC3-380D-4D8A-87E3-6DA30037892D

 

The “get less” numbers for a modest piece of my pumpkin pie are 3.5 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams sodium, 22 grams sugars.

What do those numbers and percentages mean? As one astute observer shared with me “I have zero idea what the … label on the boxes means and generally ignore them … “

Making a decision based on a string of unconnected numbers with no context or big picture is hard, even for someone like me who understands nutrition. At best the process is confusing. At worst no one pays attention.

FOOD GROUPS

Food groups have been part of the healthy eating conversation since the USDA released farmer’s bulletin No. 149 in 1916. More recently, the USDA developed a scoring system to determine how compliant or non-compliant Americans are when it comes to following government guidelines.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores sample days, market baskets, or menu offerings at a fast food restaurant and, since it scores both food groups and nutrients, it’s a hybrid system. Unfortunately, the HEI is not helpful for my purposes.

Besides being kludgy and very complex, the system is not intended for scoring a single item like a pumpkin pie. And I’m still left making a decision based on grams of saturated fat and added sugars, along with 1/8 cup pumpkin and 1 ounce-equivalent whole wheat flour. No big picture. No synthesis. Still just a string of unrelated numbers.

HYBRID

I need a algorithm that gives me a single score based on both food groups and nutrients. Wishful thinking perhaps, but consider what just happened in France last year.

In October 2017, the French government officially sanctioned Nutri-Score, a hybrid system for front of package labeling. Originally developed out of the in the UK, Nutri-Score is now been adopted in France on a voluntary basis.

Nutri-Score is different from Facts Up Front and here’s how.

First, Nutri-Score is weight based using 100 grams instead of serving size. Second, food groups are included in the score. Third, positives are balanced against negatives to produce a single color coded grade. Now that’s what I call a simple, straightforward, and very cool scoring system.
76CA7999-F737-4E01-8AAF-7D25AC17882FSo I said to myself, maybe I can make a little algorithm modeled after the Nutri-Score. I gave it my best shot. And I succeeded. My home crafted quite delicious pumpkin pie did okay.

Using this algorithm, my pumpkin pie scored a “C plus” or “B minus” depending on ingredient amounts entered. Translating that grade into a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a food score of 6 or 7.

And I’m thrilled. I’ve put together a scoring system that works on a recipe basis. Here’s how it works. Identify negatives, nutrients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Then identify positives, food groups like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts plus nutrients like protein and fiber. Then balance negatives against positives to get a single food score.

METRICS

My ingredients are always carefully sourced and minimally processed. For the crust, I use whole wheat pastry flour and a grassfed whole milk yogurt / olive oil combination in place of butter. As for the pumpkin purée, I use a canned product with no fillers or flavor enhancers. Food score for my pie was helped by having a healthier fatty acid balance, a moderate amount of added sugars, protein from eggs and milk, and more fiber from the whole grain.

Guaranteed, it tastes just a good as it looks and if you’d like me to send you a copy of my recipe, please message me via LinkedIn or Facebook.