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.

 

Rethinking Healthy

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Here’s the menu for a delicious, somewhat indulgent celebration meal I shared with family and friends in December. 

The meal reflects my kind of healthy. At least my kind of healthy before I decided to become a dietitian and learned how to measure healthy in grams of fat.

Over the last three decades we’ve been taught that palatability and healthy are polar opposites. Stealth health is a term still used today with regard to food. In other words, many people still believe that if food is obviously healthy, it’s not to be trusted.

That polar divide dates back to the 1990s. Research was going on prior to that date linking dietary fat to heart issues, but implementation didn’t happen until 1990.

That was the year congress passed the NLEA (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act). I was totally unaware that anything important had happened when I started my nutrition studies in 1993, the same year the Nutrition Facts Label appeared on packaged products. Buried under layers of regulatory cement, the new law contained austere nutrient-based criteria for healthy. Initially, the criteria were only applicable to packaged goods but by the end of the decade, the damage was done and the word healthy was successfully redefined as low fat.

The only items on my Christmas menu that qualify as healthy using these austere criteria are the baguette, the steamed rice, and the clementines. 

Low-fat is healthy dominated the first decade of this century. According to NBC news, when a group of researchers set out to understand the views of executives at major U.S. restaurant chains regarding the addition of healthy options to their menus, they were able to determine why by ensuring anonymity to the executive’s interview.

“If we put something on the menu and say it’s healthy, it’s the kiss of death,” one executive told the researchers.

The kiss of death was not limited to restaurant food. The first time I ran numbers on a mix of fresh mesclun with vinaigrette dressing, I discovered to my horror that my salad couldn’t qualify as healthy either. Too much fat. And too much saturated fat.  Olive oil has a higher fraction of saturated fatty acids than walnut or avocado or some of the other wonderful oils that can be used for a vinaigrette. In other words, my salad was even more unhealthy because I used olive oil.

Healthy as low-fat remained set in regulatory cement for 25 years. In 2015, however, something happened. That was the year the FDA sent a warning letter to the manufacturer of KIND BARS.

Most of the errors were minor technicalities except for one major misbranding error. The FDA requested that the manufacturer remove the word healthy from the label. The bars identified were made with nuts and because nuts are high in fat, the gram values exceeded those austere criteria set back in 1990.

KIND BARS complied but decided to file a citizen’s petition asking the FDA to re-evaluate. And the FDA agreed. The agency acknowledged the science related to recommendations for intake of dietary fats had evolved and, as per a 2016 guidance document, stated its intention to exercise enforcement discretion on an interim basis shifting the focus away from limiting total fat to encouraging unsaturated fats.

Et voilà. With the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, my menu got healthier. The menu as a whole just meets the current level 35% calories from total fat and my green pea soup, green beans, and rapini now meet this interim FDA criteria for healthy.

About the same time that the FDA published their interim guidance, a group of academic researchers working out of a university in Brazil published a document that took a completely different approach to healthy. 

Nutrition researchers and policy professionals in this country are used to breaking foods down into smaller and smaller components. Researchers have worked hard to develop hundreds of thousands food codes. Using these food codes, policy professionals can manipulate foods precisely and accurately in every conceivable combination of nutrients, micronutrients, or any other component.

The Brazilian academics reversed the process. They took a step back and developed a system that consolidated foods into only 4 groups: Unprocessed / Minimally Processed; Processed Culinary Ingredients; Processed Foods; Ultra-processed Foods. They called this food classification system NOVA.

Most chefs, home cooks, and food writers relate immediately to NOVA. Working with intact foods every day and thinking about food as a whole comes easy. A whole onion. A whole egg. A whole piece of Clothbound Cheddar.

My dietitian colleagues struggle with NOVA because they have been trained to think about food differently.

Dietitians are taught to think about food as nutrients. Onions are low in calories and contain no fat. Eggs are high in cholesterol. And even an artisan hand crafted cheese is high in saturated fat. In their view, NOVA seems crude, simplistic, and downright unprofessional.

Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between two coasts. I understand why NOVA upsets my zealous colleagues but I love the approach. 

And I love looking at my menu through the NOVA lens. Carefully sourced fresh ingredients. Enough salt, sugar, and fat to ensure palatability. Lots of freshly cooked vegetables and fresh fruit.

Here’s how my menu breaks down. All aromatics (onion, celery, carrot), garlic, fresh herbs, rapini, green beans, and clementines are obviously raw, minimally processed and belong in Group 1. Not so obvious foods included in Group 1 would be lamb shanks, spices, dried split peas, whole milk plain yogurt (pie crust), fresh egg (pumpkin filling), basmati rice, and refined wheat flour.

Olive oil, salt, butter (pumpkin filling), and sugar are classified in Group 2 as processed culinary ingredients. Canned whole tomato, canned pumpkin, and Bordeaux rouge are classified as processed foods and placed in Group 3. Only the mass-produced packaged baguette, the prosciutto, and the Armagnac are candidates for ultra-processed or Group 4.

And I’ve ended up coming full circle in my belief about healthy. It’s not that nutrients aren’t important. Nutrients are very important. But in the process of drilling down deeper and deeper, something basic has been forgotten. Let’s hope that something basic has not been lost.

Looking at the plate through a NOVA lens is a gentle reminder that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts. And that palatability and healthy don’t have to be polar opposites.

Cute and tasty and ultra-processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above is one package of Mild Green Mojo Multigrain Tortilla Chips and a couple of little Mojos. Not being a chip person, I’m not a good judge on how Mojos compare to the competition, but one of my best friends who speaks from years of chip experience has confided that the chips are good verging on addictive.

I do agree the Mojos are tasty. When I take the first bite, corn predominates. Very nice. Makes sense too because corn is the main ingredient. After the distinctly corn taste comes a cheesy somewhat salty taste. Definitely salty, but not so salty that other flavors are over powered. I’m okay with a couple of Mojos, however, I seem to be immune to what ever causes my friend’s addictive behavior.

INGREDIENT LIST

The ingredient statement lists each substance by name in descending order by weight and here’s what I found when I turned the package over. Note that parenthesis and brackets indicate sub-ingredients. I’ve also added asterisks to mark an ingredient as separate from any sub ingredients.

Ingredients: *organic ground whole corn, *organic expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or organic expeller pressed safflower oil, *organic brown rice, *organic chia seeds, *organic grain & seed blend (organic flax, organic millet, organic brown rice, organic quinoa, organic amaranth), *Late July organic mild green mojo seasoning (salt, organic green pepper powder, organic parsley powder, organic sour cream powder [organic cream, organic whey powder, lactic acid, cultures, salt], organic cheese powder [organic cheddar cheese, organic whey powder, lactic acid, disodium phosphate, cheese cultures, non-animal enzymes], organic whey powder, organic evaporated cane sugar, organic jalapeno powder, organic lime juice powder [organic lime juice, organic maltodextrin, mixed tocopherols], organic garlic powder, organic onion powder), *organic evaporated cane sugar.

That’s a lengthy list of substances most of which you won’t find in my kitchen cabinet. Note too that the word count is 114 even though the ingredient count is only seven. Many of those 114 words are repetitions. The word organic appears 29 times; the word powdered 11 times.

Both seed & grain blend and chia look to be intact but the other ingredients have all been pulverized or dehydrated.

DEGREE & PURPOSE OF PROCESSING

As my colleagues who work in the food industry love to remind me, humans have always processed their food. And they are of course spot on.

What is worth taking a closer look at however is the degree and purpose of the processing.

Making a chip takes some pretty sophisticated technology. First the ingredients are powdered, pulverized, dehydrated, and deconstructed. The industrial process is fascinating to watch. It’s easy and free to check one of the many videos available on UTube that gives you a visual of how a chip gets made.

Nutrients survive processing and are listed on the nutrition label but the food matrix has been shattered. In other words, the corn, green pepper, cheese, sour cream listed on the ingredient statement are unrecognizable.

Marketing the chips takes some pretty sophisticated technology too. Just take a look at that beautifully designed bag. Color is two vibrant shades of environment green with yellow lettering to highlight those intact seeds and grains. A work of art that has been hermetically sealed to ensure crispness and protect from intruders. Each bag sits seductively on the shelf patiently waiting for indulgence to happen.

I would say the Mojos are a outstanding example of a well crafted ultra-processed product. Would others agree? I don’t know. The concept has not been reduced to a consistent set metrics we can measure yet.

ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED PRODUCTS BAD?

The answer to that question depends of course on who you ask.

My position is to remain neutral but to ask lots of questions. How does all the grinding and pulverizing effect metabolism? Are we really just eating pre-digested food? Why am I satisfied with a handful of Mojos but my friend can’t put the bag down? And, most basic of all, what set of metrics should we use to decide what is ultra-processed and what is not?

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?

 

Does healthy come in one size that fits all?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

When it comes to automobiles, maybe we could get by with one size fits all. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said we could have any color you want as long as it’s black. But imagine how miserable we’d be if everyone had to fit their feet into the same shoe size?

Now there are some obvious differences between food and shoes. But when it comes to size and shape, food and shoes have more in common than you might think.

Consider this recent dinner I put together. A modest piece of beef tenderloin. Sliced savoy cabbage, shallot, and green peas braised in olive oil and stock. Steamed Yukon gold potato. Add a Guinness stout to accompany the meal followed by fresh pineapple, a couple of walnuts, and a small square of very dark chocolate.

Et voilá. A plate that manages to be non compliant with every healthy dietary model.

Compared to Dietary Guideline recommendations, my plate falls short. No bread or rice or pasta on the plate. A beer instead of a glass of milk. And too many calories from fat (>35%) and saturated fat (>10%).

Vegan activists will come after me because I put a piece of meat on my plate.

Keto enthusiasts love no carbs on the plate but will ask why no cream or butter or coconut oil.

Globalists who promote the planetary health or flexitarian diet, will be upset because my serving of beef is so big, my serving of nuts is so stingy, and there’re no whole grain.

It used to bother me that my usual pattern is non-compliant but I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. Being out of step with a vegan or Keto approach is one thing. Being out of step with dietary guidelines or planetary health is quite another however.

Why was I bothered? Because I’m a nerdy dietitian who studied nutrition, appreciates the need for evidenced based science, and supports the concept of a healthy eating pattern. But my numbers still never fit a conventional model.

So that brings me back to shoe sizes. Before industrialization, if you were lucky enough or rich enough to own a pair, your shoes were custom made. In today’s world the best a shoe manufacturer can do is offer many different sizes and styles. Then it’s up to us, the shoe wearing public, to find shoes that fit.

Maybe that same logic works for food choices too. As a committed omnivore in love with all things vegetable, fruit, legume, and whole grain, my pattern has fewer carbohydrates and more fats than the one size fits all dietary guidelines. And if I think about guidelines as guiding principles instead of regulatory mandates, my pattern looks a lot healthier.

My doctor is okay with my health stats. And my gut is happy with my food choices. So I’ve decided to stop being bothered because my pattern is not a perfect fit.

So you see, finding the right dietary pattern really is like shopping for shoes. You keep trying on different patterns until you find the one that’s the best fit for you.

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.

Getting the most out of nutrition stats.

C19D6603-6022-4AC5-9618-1A6DB8CAB11A

I love to eat and I love to cook, but when I’m not in my kitchen cooking up a storm, I’m sitting at my desk running nutrition stats.

My clients are editors for website recipe collections and cookbooks. The preferred format is a listing of nutrients per serving which roughly match the Nutrition Facts Label.

Like my colleagues who work in the consumer packaged goods industry, I’m dedicated to providing the most accurate analysis possible given the vagrancies of ingredient data sourcing and the lack of clarity in certain ingredient listings.

I’d like to believe cooks, recipe developers, and consumers pay as much attention to the stats I produce as I pay to accuracy. But I have my doubts.

The label as currently formatted is hard to understand even for me and I’m an expert. The data is good but the format is dense and unfriendly. As one perceptive observer has said, the current label is still a work in progress.

The current nutrition stats approach sends a message that healthy can be reduced to a couple of nutrients. That is not a helpful message. However, nutrients remain important and the stats work well to size a portion or to calculate a ratio.

Research on new formats in this country and elsewhere is ongoing and it’s likely we will see a more intuitive, interpretive, or holistic format at some point in the future. But for now we need to use what we’ve got, so let me share with you some observations.

CHECK CALORIES FOR PORTION SIZE

Rigid calorie counting is out, but portion sizing is always useful for individuals. I know for example that a 600 calorie plate is plenty for me. I do enjoy meals over 1000 calories from time to time. Sometimes a lot over but I need a good reason. Like a celebration meal or dinner out at one of our favorite Manhattan restaurants.

Calories are my metric of choice for portion sizing. Very useful when scanning a restaurant menu or for assessing portions for a new recipe.

CHECK RATIOS FOR NUTRIENTS

Ratios are a quick and easy way to compare two nutrients. And because a ratio is not dependent on a serving size, a ratio remains constant regardless of how much or how little ends up on the plate.

• Calorie Density. The calorie to gram ratio tells you how many calories per unit of weight. Cookies have a high calorie density where as a mixed greens salad olive oil & vinegar dressing has a low calorie density.

• Salt. The ratio of sodium to calories is an easy way to determine sodium concentration. This ratio is especially useful when you check out a packaged product or a restaurant menu item. Canned soups have a high sodium ratio. My homemade legume soup has a lower sodium ratio.

• Fiber. The fiber to carbohydrate ratio helps you figure out if a product or a menu item is a good source of fiber. 100% whole wheat bread has a high ratio for fiber. Pop Tarts have a low ratio.

• Healthy Fats. The fatty acid ratio tells you which fatty acids predominate. Unsaturated fat is considered healthy but the status of saturated fat remains controversial. I prefer whole milk to skim milk and always choose whole milk yogurt and cheese. Many nutrition researchers and dietitians recommend limiting saturated fats as do the current dietary guidelines, but I continue to opt for a good honest cheese like the St André pictured above.

AN INTERPRETIVE LABEL

The next generation of nutrition labels will be more personalized and more intuitive. We will probably see more color coding and more logos. This type of labeling is already being used in some European and South American countries.

In the meantime, nutrient ratios, calories per serving, and lots of good old fashioned common sense are out best option.

 

 

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 the secret to a great ratatouille.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Every August I make ratatouille. Zucchini is still coming in. Tomatoes and peppers are bursting on the scene. Fresh garlic and fragrant basil are in season and abundant.

JULIA KNEW THE SECRET.

I made my first ratatouille to rave reviews using a Julia Child recipe. Her version was spot on because she knew the secret so I just did what she said and used a generous hand and the best olive oil I could afford.

Julia made her mark in the 1960s and 1970s so she missed a head on collision with the fat phobic era that gripped our nation starting mid 1980s.

DECADES OF FAT PHOBIA IMPACTED RECIPE DEVELOPMENT.

By the time I went back to school to study nutrition in 1993, low fat was firmly entrenched. Manufacturers had already jumped on this bandwagon as noted in an article from 1993 in the The Washington Post. It took a little longer for recipe modification to take hold however.

In October 1998,  Eating Well a magazine dedicated to healthy eating published a recipe for ratatouille. Enough olive oil was removed to get the calories from fat down to 33%. In other words about half the amount of olive oil as Julia called for in her recipe.

The most austere recipe I pulled up searching for low fat ratatouille was from 2008. This recipe substituted cooking spray for olive oil and successfully reduced the calories from fat down to an austere level of 10%.

LOW FAT HITS VEGETABLES ESPECIALLY HARD.

That’s because vegetables by weight are mostly water and water has no calories. Vegetables have lots of positives like fiber, some protein, sometimes sugars, and a rich array of vitamins, minerals, pigments, phytonutrients. Just not many calories.

Fats like olive oil are calorie dense so when the oil gets added to eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes — all of which have practically no calories — of course most of the calories will come from fat. A well crafted ratatouille clocks in between 60 TO 70% calories from fat.

WE NEED A BETTER SCORING SYSTEM.

Vegetables, some of the healthiest foods out there, got punished when salt and oil were added just because vegetables are so low in calories. With all due respect to our regulatory officials, there has just got to be a better way

So I decided to keep an eye out for a better scoring metric. I discovered some research done at Oxford a decade or so ago that counts both negatives and positives. Then I adapted this approach to my own recipe analysis.

Ratatouille tastes much better made with salt (40% sodium) and lots of olive oil (13% saturated fat). Sodium and saturated fat currently count negative.

Ratatouille is mostly eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato by weight (over 90%). Vegetables, protein, and fiber currently count positive.

The negatives are about equal to the positives with a slight edge to positives and that sounds healthy to my simplistic mind.

AUGUST IS MY MONTH FOR CELEBRATION.

August is the optimal month for ratatouille. August is the month Julia was born. And August is the month I finally figured out how to score ratatouille healthy.

There are so many classic recipes for ratatouille available via the internet. You can find Julia’s recipe here. And Alice Water’s recipe here. And the recipe from The Kitchn here.

Or you message me via LinkedIn or Facebook and I’ll send you my recipe.