Tag Archives: commonsense

Our innate ability to think and observe and make our own decisions based on our own experience or the cultural traditions of a group. Distrusted by many experts. Dismissed as anecdotal evidence by health and nutrition professionals. Using common sense is an alternate source of guidance when evidence, for what ever reason, is not available.

The opposite ends of the ultra-processed spectrum.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics | my picture is neither an endorsement nor a product placement

Yellow pea is all the rage. Commodity brokers are taking bets. Plant-based product developers are placing large orders. Farmers are increasing acreage. So what’s all the fuss about? Why you may be asking is the humble field pea suddenly in high demand? Because of these two simple facts. Yellow pea is 23% protein. And it’s not soy.

Beyond Meat is made with yellow pea. It’s listed as pea protein on the label and is the second ingredient (the first ingredient being water). Pea protein isolate is what’s left after fat and carbohydrate (fiber) have been removed.

Golden Lentil Indian Dal, pictured above, is also made with yellow pea. It’s listed as yellow split pea on the label and is also the second ingredient list after water.

What’s truly astonishing, to me at least, is the ingredient lists for these two products start with exactly the same two ingredients. It’s the ingredients that follow which determine the respective position of each product within the ultra-processed group and places the two products at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The ingredients in the soup are similar to the ingredients I use in my homemade lentil soup – extra virgin olive oil, aromatics, spices, salt. Each retains its integrity with minimal disruption to the matrix and reflects the culture and traditions of Central Asia – yellow split peas, garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, turmeric, and red chili pepper.

Not so for the burger. What follows the water and pea protein is a list of 20 plus deconstructed, reduced, and fragmented components which are then reconstructed to look, feel, taste, and smell like beef. The only ingredient on the list that I count as an intact food is water.

Both products are industrial formulations (read ultra-processed) but the burger is at the most heavily processed end of the spectrum whereas the dal is at the other end of the spectrum. Both are ultra-processed but there are major differences.

The question I’m asking is how much does it matter?

Yikes! My favorite cookies have no nutrition facts label!

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics.

Pictured above are my favorite oatmeal raisin cookies. Let’s call them the next best thing to freshly baked. Each little package is processed for local distribution with a list of ingredients but, on closer examination, you’ll notice something is missing.

All manufacturers are required to label products. But only some manufacturers are required to add nutrition facts. When a package of cookies like this one is sold without a nutrition facts label, it means the production batch is small.

So I started thinking, do I really need to know the nutrition stats for these very tasty cookies?

We already know cookies are calorie dense. Most cookies are 400 to 500 calories per 100 grams / 110 to 140 calories per ounce. I weighed the cookies from the package pictured above. The results – a serving size of one cookie (about 45 grams / 1.5 ounces) clocks in at 200 calories plus / minus 50.

We already know cookies are indulgent. The basic formulation is always the same no matter if the cookies are freshly baked with your grandmother’s recipe or turned out in massive numbers using industrial processing and technology. That formulation is flour, sugar, and fat. Most folks don’t need a label to tell them cookies are high in fat and sugar and calorie dense.

We always have an ingredient list. The cookies pictured above are made from organic wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, raisins, oats, eggs, salt, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda. It’s a clean list of quality ingredients with oats being a good source of fibers. Butter instead of less expensive palm or canola oil. Brown sugar instead of dextrose or high fructose corn syrup. No gums or emulsifiers to improve the texture. No preservatives to keep the cookies shelf stable for years so eat quickly or store in the freezer. 

So you see there’s a lot we can do using common sense and an ingredient list. Our nutrition facts label serves manufacturers and analysts well, but it’s not consumer friendly. Most countries have experimented with various formats, symbols, graphics but, in my observation at least, no one has found an optimal approach. I like to think of nutritional labeling as a work in progress. In the meantime, a little common sense goes a long way.

It’s always okay to consult your gut.

 

Consult your gut is a good food rule. Usually the context of the rule is to choose smaller portions, but it’s applicable to many other situations. Like my gut and the Boca Burger.

Boca Burger made its debut in 1978. The burger in its original formulation was around for a long time before Kraft-Heinz reformulate and rebranded the item in 2018. The goal was to modernize the image and appeal to the vegan market.

The product qualifies as a bonafide ultra-processed industrial formulation. The ingredient list includes mostly substances / additives and no recognizable intact food. The tomato slice and lettuce leaf are recognizable but no part of the product. As for that green stuff, your guess is as good as mine, but what ever it is, it’s still not part of the product.

There may be a couple of Boca Burgers in your freezer right now. If your gut responds well to Boca, it’s not a bad choice. The burgers are ubiquitous and reasonably priced. The additives are considered safe and allowed for human consumption by the FDA. The Boca Burger is low fat as compared to a ground beef burger. So as long as your gut is happy eating Bocas, go for it!  If your gut gets a little queasy, however, like mine does, it’s also okay to say no thanks.

Just because an additive is safe doesn’t mean the substance sets well in everyone’s gut. My gut is unhappy with one of the substances. Is it the soy protein concentrate? Or perhaps the modified cellulose, the wheat gluten, the hydrolyzed wheat protein, or the natural flavor? Or perhaps it’s simply that my gut is not used to metabolizing substances that only come from time to time?

What ever the reason, it’s still okay to say no thanks. Trusting your gut is just common sense and there’s nothing wrong with good old fashioned common sense.

Biscotti, NOVA, and Common Sense.

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Who doesn’t like a good biscotti? It’s sweet and nutty and soft when made with enough butter, but firm enough to dunk in coffee. Pictured above are my favorite off the shelf biscotti. Biscotti aren’t healthy, but that’s not why I like them. This traditional Italian delicacy is concentrated sugars and refined carbohydrates softened with butter. Totally unhealthy and completely delicious.

Trying to make them at home is complex. Most recipes use a standard set of ingredients consisting of sugar, flour, nuts, and baking powder. Some recipes call for eggs, others call for butter, still others call for oil. Some even call for dried fruit like the cranberries in my favorite biscotti. No matter which combination of ingredients, however, there is one feature that all biscotti have in common. They are twice baked. And twice baked is too complex for my simplistic mind, so I have become a connoisseur of off the shelf.

Like all packaged cookies my biscotti are ultra-processed. Maybe if I baked them at home with carefully sourced ingredients I could get away with dropping the ultra … but just maybe.

How do I know? Because NOVA says so.

SO WHAT’S NOVA?

NOVA is new way to classify food. It’s a system that examines the extent and purpose of food processing. Originally developed in Brazil, the concept is gaining traction in other South American countries, Canada and France.
 NOVA characterizes ultra-processed foods as industrial formulations made with many unfamiliar ingredients not commonly used in kitchens. These foods are manufactured and designed to be profitable, convenient, and hyper-palatable.

My favorite biscotti fit the description. They are palatable and very tasty. The ingredient list looks mostly familiar with the exception on malted barley flour. But when I check ingredient lists for other brands, I do find suspicious additives like soy lecithin, palm kernel oil, mono- and di-glycerides, natural flavors to name a few.

The product is an industrial formulation. Otherwise, my biscotti would not taste exactly the same every time. The product is convenient too saving me the time and trouble of twice baking every single batch I mix up.

So now what?

NOVA is not well known here in the states but that may be changing. We Americans are big consumers of ultra-processed products, well over 50% by most counts. Our voracious consumption is causing concern among some of my fellow dietitians. Many nutrition commentators agree that a food pattern based on minimally processed real food is the best option but I’ve yet to find anyone willing to commit to a percentage.

As for me, I know that my gut is happier when I eat less highly processed foods. But that’s a personal testimonial and anecdotal evidence doesn’t count for much. So …

IN MY HUMBLE OPINION

Proponents of an evidenced based approach to eating don’t give much credit to common sense. Those folks are scientists and view common sense much the same way as Albert Einstein “… the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Science moves methodically and slowly and nutrition science is wicked hard. Like a never ending story, the facts of today are subject to change based on new findings tomorrow.

But since we need to make eating decisions every day with or without evidence, sometimes that collection of “prejudices” is all we’ve got. We put something the plate every day. We can’t just stop eating while science is still working things out.

So let’s be patient and let science do its thing. Let’s enjoy our biscotti without fear or worry. We have no common food culture to reference, but we do have our gut and our own common sense. One biscotti will hopefully not be a problem. Eating the whole package should give you a stomach ache.

Getting the most out of nutrition stats.

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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.

 

 

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.

Here is one healthy sustainable fish.

Porte or Scup | photo from NOAA fishwatch.gov

Porgy or Scup | photo from NOAA fishwatch.gov

Stenotomus chrysops, more commonly called porgy or scup, is one of my favorite whole fishes. I didn’t know how to call the fish the first time I bought one, but it was love a first sight. The right size and so fresh I could smell the sea. I like my fish whole. Grilled, steamed, broiled, pan fried. Just give me a whole fish.

I lived on the south shore when I first moved to New York, so I had good access to fresh fish. My curiosity and sense of culinary adventure have always been my best teacher, so although I never heard of a fish called a porgy or a scup before, it was the right size and the right price and I bought a couple on the spot.

Living on the South Shore of Long Island provided good access to fishmongers and local catch and we ate a lot of scup. The fish is just the right size for two modest portions or one big e.g. generous restaurant size portion.

Calculations for whole fish are easy. Count 50% edible and 50% for bones, skin, cooking loss, and all that other stuff. A fish that weighs 1 1/3 pounds (600 grams) as purchased means about 10 ounces (300 grams) cooked. The nutrition nerd in me really diggs those kind of calculations. I prefer using the gram amounts because I can do the arithmetic in my head.

My scup was a resounding success. They do have bones, but practice makes perfect and my daughter learned to tackle whole fish by the age of 12 with skill and gusto.

I no longer live so close to the shore and I have discovered that scup is not easy to come by. Greeks are fish eaters and whole scup or porgy is often served in Greek restaurants. And I also know there have been periods of intense regulation due to over fishing which has periodically limited the catch.

But my favorite Greenmarket fishmonger was the person who told me the real reason. Although scup is plentiful now, they just don’t sell.

“I bring them but no one buys them so I am stuck with the whole lot.” Next question of course is why don’t your other customers like them as much as I do. “Probably because they are sold whole.”

Since early 2013, an national organization called Chefs Collaborative has been holding Trash Fish Dinners around the country to bring attention to undervalued and underutilized species of fish. The goal is to encourage chefs and diners to focus on fish that have historically been left off menus to help to take pressure off of overfished species and help support our fishing communities

Sounds to me like scup fits that description well. It’s plentiful, sustainable, local and underused. Personally I like it much better than tilapia, another popular inexpensive mild flavored fish. The flavor profile is more interesting to my palate and because it’s local I can buy the fish whole. And serving it whole means the filet gets cooked protected by the skin so moisture and flavor are better retained.

So there you have it. For you fish eaters who live on the east coast and are looking for an underutilized “trash” fish to cook whole, give scup a try. Healthy. Sustainable. Delicious. Who can ask for more?

On Elizabeth David, measurement, culinary judgment.

French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David, Reprinted with revision 1970, page 124.

French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David, Reprinted with revision 1970, page 125.

I adore Elizabeth David. For so many reasons. Her attitude. Her wit. Her unshakable common sense. The way she writes about the food she loves. And I especially love her human approach to measurement.

Pictured above is a page from French Provincial Cooking. It’s the opening paragraph for the chapter on Weights and Measurement. Her words were a breath of fresh air to this American ear raised to measure with cups and spoons according to the rigid methodology of sifting, spooning, and leveling developed by Fanny Farmer and in her Boston School of Cooking Cookbook. I have paraphrased Elizabeth David’s text as follows:

The dangerous person in the kitchen is the one who goes rigidly by weigh, measurements, thermometers, and scales … The tradition of French cookery writers, with a few notable exceptions, is to give only rather vague directions as to quantities, oven temperatures and timing. American cookery writers are inclined to err in the other direction, specifying to the last drop and the ultimate grain the quantities so salt, sugar, powdered herbs, spices, and so on, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination or discretion of the cook … Seasonings and flavoring are surely a question of taste; they are the elements which give individual character to each person’s cookery. And then there is always a question of what happens to be available. One cook will trudge for miles to buy a sprig of thyme because the directions for the stew tell her to include ‘a bouquet of thyme, parsley, and bay leaf’. Another will cheerfully leave it out. A third will substitute some other herb, a fourth will abandon the whole project as being too much worry and trouble, a fifth will be careful always to have a small supply of at least common herbs and spices in her store cupboard. It is not for me or anyone else to say which one is acting correctly. It is a question of temperament …

The really good cooks I know seem to have one thing in common. They tend to ignore recipes. Well I don’t mean completely ignore, but the really good cooks I know are more likely to do things their own way and less likely to follow the measurements and ingredients with dogmatic precision.

More than once I have been asked by one of the not so good cooks I know to salvage a situation using my culinary instinct. Like the time my sister was preparing a crab dish. She was carefully measuring out the required 1/2 teaspoon salt, her hand slipped, and a lot of salt went in before she could steady the container. She was expecting company that night and panicked. So I just rinsed off the crab, did a second béchamel, and no one was any the wiser.

When I look at a recipe, I see a framework for creativity. And if I make a mistake, so what? That is called human error and it happens to the best of us. Maybe I have created a new masterpiece. Much to my surprise and delight I have discovered that as long as you don’t broadcast the mistake, most people sitting at the table never know the difference. Like the time I found the sour cream for the beef stroganoff still sitting on the counter after dinner.

I do expect some things from a recipe. A listing of ingredients. Basic proportions. A sensible set of guidelines to help me out along the way. I don’t care if the ingredients are listed in order of use. Or how they are listed although my preference is by weight in grams. What I do not expect is guaranteed success. That will depend more on my culinary judgment than on my ability to execute a series of steps in the right order.

Now the dietitian in me is beginning to speculate … What role would culinary judgment have to play in nutrition / healthy eating? Hummmmmmm … I will have to give that one some serious thought.