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?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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.

 

 

Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Home made Marinara sauce is the best. But life is complicated and having a couple of jars in the pantry ready to go when you need one in a hurry is helpful. The ingredients I use for my home made Marinara are tomatoes (fresh or canned depending on the season), garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, oregano, parsley. That’s 7 ingredients.

My favorite brand is Rao’s. The ingredient list reads almost the same as what I use for home made: whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, black pepper, oregano. That’s also 7 ingredients.

Now 7 is greater than 5 and that observation started me thinking about the 5 ingredient rule. 

The 5 ingredient rule refers to the popular marker for identifying ultra-processed foods popularized by Michael Pollan in Food Rules. Defining ultra-processed by counting ingredients sounds unhelpful to my ear but it’s popular with both food journalists and food pundits. And the public seems to accept it because counting to 5 is easy to understand.

And that observation brings me back to my Rao’s Marinara.

With 7 ingredients and no other criteria, Rao’s is ultra-processed. So let me state my position right now for all to hear. If Rao’s must be categorized as ultra-processed, then I’m okay with ultra-processed products on my table.

Next time you’re walking supermarket aisles, check the Marinara sauce. There are hundreds of brands to choose from. Many have simple ingredient lists. Many others have more cluttered ingredient lists. Many brands substitute tomato paste or diced tomatoes for whole peeled tomatoes. So the way I see things, there’s work to be done to distinguish a straightforward product like Rao’s from all the other products on the shelf. 

A quick search on a local supermarket website brings up 75 options ranging in price from cheap to expensive. Not surprisingly, Rao’s is positioned near the top of that price range. All brands have 5 or more ingredients. And that means, if we follow the 5 ingredient rule, all brands of Marinara are ultra-processed.

I spot checked those 75 items and discovered the most notable difference is tomato integrity. Cheaper brands use tomato paste or purée or diced pieces. More expensive brand use whole peeled tomatoes. Tomato integrity is not captured by counting ingredients and it’s crucial to both taste and texture.

 While all brands exceed the 5 ingredient rule, most were comparatively additive free. Citric acid and calcium carbonate made frequent appearances along with preservatives, thickeners, or sweeteners making cameo appearances. Citric acid is an acidity regulator and calcium carbonate is a firming agent. Both these additives are ubiquitous on canned tomatoes whether the tomatoes are peeled and whole, chopped, diced, or puréed. 

Two other additives, salt and sugar, are listed as both nutrients on the nutrition facts label and again as ingredients on the ingredient list.

It seems ridiculous to my simplistic mind to put all Mariana sauces in the ultra-processed category without out further differentiation. So I’m asking myself, how would I break that category down? If I ruled the world, here’s where I would start.

First, whole tomatoes are preferable to chopped or diced or puréed tomatoes. That observation is probably related to the food matrix, a new concept in nutrition research currently in initial stages of investigation. Much too complex for my simplistic mind, so let me stay with those visual observable differences that both of us can see. In the case of the Marinara, the closer the tomato is to a whole tomato the better.

Second, less additives are preferable to more additives. I’m not talking here about the “clean” label movement. There’s a dirty little secret behind the clean label movement as explored in an excellent article by Nadia Berenstein. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look now. 

Additives are used by processors for many good reasons. Eliminating them before understanding why the manufacturer used an additive in the first place is not good practice. Additives are however legitimate markers of processed and ultra-processed products. Personally, I’m not concerned about their safety because I trust the FDA to do a good job. My decision to go with the fewer the better is based on taste and texture. Using the whole intact tomato just tastes better to me. More flavor. Better texture.

Third, nutrients remain important. Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. But it’s equally insane to eat as if nutrients don’t matter. Personally, I always check for salt, not so much for health reasons but because it’s been my observation manufacturers use salt in place of better quality ingredients so the product can be sold at a cheaper price.

Rao’s has a lower sodium concentration than many less expensive brands and the only sugars are the natural sugars present in all tomatoes.  The whole peeled tomatoes retain good flavor and contribute their natural sugars so no masking is required.

Now if only I ruled the world …

What to do when healthy and taste collide.

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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.

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?