Processed or Ultra-Processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

What a pleasant surprise!

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

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

NUTRITION

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

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

TASTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NUTRIENTS

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

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

TASTE

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

BOTTOM LINE

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

What section of the supermarket do plant based meats belong in?

photo credit |gourmetmetrics
photo credit |gourmetmetrics

The food scene is changing fast. Plant-based products have arrived and they are disruptive. They don’t fit in the usual slots. It’s not the first time rapid change has disrupted our food supply and it probably won’t be the last, but each time a disruption occurs, our sense of normal needs adjusting.

I posed this question in a couple of forums. Where should a supermarket put a product that is engineered to taste like ground beef but manufactured from pulverized plants and here’s what came back.

EMOTION OUTBURSTS

Plant-based meat analogs evoke passion ranging from evangelical ecstasy to visceral derision.

For true believers, the promise of phasing out livestock production is an absolute good for our health, the planet, sustainability, and the welfare of animals. For many others and for a variety of reasons, replacing real meat with fake meat is misguided. One particularly caustic commentator suggested putting the product in the pet food section because the texture of pulverized plants is the same as canned dog food.

PRAGMATIC SUGGESTIONS

The vegan/vegetarian section would be a logical place and that was the section I checked first. Nothing new. No faux burgers. Just the usual collection of traditional veggie burgers.

Meat analogs can’t go in the organic food section, at lease now yet. The first generation meat analogs don’t meet the USDA organic criteria. One brand even proudly lists the use of two genetically engineered components.

A section dedicated to sustainability might be a candidate for meat analogs. Climate change activists believe red meat is bad for the planet and ruminants like beef and dairy cattle are a big contributor to global warming. But that position is controversial and other groups, especially the regenerative agriculturists, disagree.

Business decisions get made based on many factors and it appears manufacturers have pushed hard to get their meat analogues into the meat department. And that’s exactly where I found the package. Beyond Meat Burgers were right next to the grass-fed burgers in the frozen meat section.

FOOD 2.0

Food 2.0 was the most creative response I received. As technology continues to disrupt the food section, supermarkets will respond as best they can. Food 2.0 is as good as any catch word to describe the brave new world of food tech that we have just entered. The FDA has cleared both major meat analog manufacturers for retail sale and that means a tsunami is about to hit the supermarket floor.

Many of my fellow dietitians have concerns about the healthiness of meat analogs because they are highly processed. I share that concern but to date there’s no good evidence that ultra-processing per se is unhealthy. Lots of speculations and gut feelings but no hard evidence except for one study published this year which established a correlation between a diet of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.

So what should we do while we wait for more evidence?

My plan is moderation. I’m okay with a meat analog from time to time, but my gut isn’t used to high tech food and I see no reason to change right now. So for the time being, the proteins you will find on my plate most days will be lentils and chickpeas and 100% grass-fed beef.

Are you a flexitarian or an omnivore?

 

Green Pea Soup | Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

Flexitarian and omnivore are two words that describe the eating pattern of someone who eats plant based and animals based foods.

Flexitarian is a new word. It’s a neologism coined in the early 1990s by putting two familiar words together – vegetarian and flexible.

Omnivore is an old word. It’s descended from the Latin omnivorus via French into English probably during the 19th century and used to describe a person who eats both plants and animals.

If you had asked me a month ago if I were an omnivore or a flexitarian, I would have said both. Lots of vegetables and fruits and legumes and nuts and whole grains and smaller portions of meats or poultry or fish or cheese have always been part of my usual pattern.

Something happened recently, however, that caused me to change my mind. The EAT-Lancet report was released last month. This report champions a planetary health diet and a flexitarian dietary pattern.

The report is the result of a three year effort and reflects the work of many international experts. Described as a dietary approach that promotes both the health of people and the health of the planet, the flexitarian pattern that emerges is largely plant-based but includes small amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods. Links are provided for those of you who want to read the report and the summary for yourselves.

Now getting more fruits and vegetables and legumes and nuts and whole grains on the plate is a great idea. But the flexitarian pattern proposed in the report is not a pattern I want to follow and here’s why.

RIGID

Like so many diet plans, the guidelines are not flexible and virtually eliminate whole groups of foods. Many fashionable diets reflect rigidity. Keto eliminates carbohydrates. Fat Free eliminates olive oil and avocado and nuts. There are plenty of vegetables in the planetary health diet but I don’t see a lot of flexibility for animal based foods. Like whole milk yogurt. Or a cheese omelet made with eggs from pastured hens. Restricting personal choice and spontaneity and surprise takes so much of the joy out of eating.

DOGMATIC

Saving the planet is a goal most of us support. It’s just not clear to me however why a piece of farmhouse cheese from grass fed cows is a worse choice for the planet than an industrially produced cashew analogue made with nuts imported from who knows where. Cashew analogues are encouraged as per my reading of this flexitarian approach and whole milk products like cheese are not even allowed.

Doing my own research and making my own moral choices is important and the more I studied the report, the more inflexible and dogmatic the flexitarian pattern sounded.

AUSTERE

Shopping and cooking are fun. At least for me.  Experimenting with new foods and exploring new places and learning new techniques are part of the adventure. Food should be celebrated and, all due respect, I found the report lacking in joy and spontaneity.

§§§

Time for reassessment. Maybe I’m not a flexitarian after all. But does that make me an omnivore? I went out looking for confirmation and found myself on Michael Pollan’s website.

No other food writer is more closely associated with the word omnivore than Michael Pollan. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma about a decade ago and penned that famous dictum: eat food, mostly plants, not too much. He is not, or at least he was not at that time, vegetarian. Here’s how he phrased his response.

“Meat eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and sunlight is something I’m happy to do and defend. The same is true for a pastured chicken or hog. When obtained from small farms where these animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten.”

Makes perfect sense to me. Exactly the path I’ve followed. Making peace with the messy realities of eating animals is necessary. My way of making peace is to support small scale agriculture, humane treatment, and pasture raised meat, dairy, and cheese.

I understand this pathway is not for everyone and honor the personal choice of others. The recommendations in the EAT-Lancet report hit me as rigid, dogmatic, and austere. I feel the writers are mandating a course of action and are not in the mood for compromise. I’m not expecting the flexitarian movement to honor my personal choice, but I’ve decided to keep my mind open and hope for a pleasant surprise.

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

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Chicken Platter | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

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

HEALTHY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

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

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

THE NUTRITION FACTS

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

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

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

PUTTING ISOLATED NUTRIENTS BACK IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WHOLE PLATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First cholesterol and now veganism.

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

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

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

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

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

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

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

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

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

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

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

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

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

Some final thoughts on healthy.

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

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

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

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.