Tag Archives: FoodMatrix

Every intact food has a structure or food matrix. Altering the food matrix can change how we digest and metabolize nutrients.

Summer Fruit Plate

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

We were sitting at the pass in our favorite New York City restaurant pre-pandemic. Fresh fruit doesn’t usually make it to the menu of even the best restaurants. Besides the expense and storage challenges, I suspect the real problem is that most customers want a real dessert not a piece of fruit. But when I asked the Sous Chef is there was any fruit, he said he would check  and that beautifully composed fruit plate is what he came back with.

THE FACTS

The list of ingredients is straightforward – nectarine, peach, orange, blackberries, raspberries. The plate was freshly prepared from fresh fruit, always a minimally processed ingredient. As for nutrients, there is really not much to show from a labeling perspective. No particular nutrient jumps out as high or low. And 2 grams Protein is nothing to get excited about.

PUTTING THE FACTS IN CONTEXT – RETHINKING HEALTHY

Although the practice of serving fruit at the end of a meal is traditional in many Mediterranean countries.  Perfectly ripened fruit is dependent on season and locality. Mangoes thrive in the tropics. Apples love the brisk chill of autumn. Nectarines, peaches, and berries are at peak ripeness mid-summer so the fruits pictured above are good choices for a New York City summer fruit plate in. The orange had to be imported however from Florida or California. 

Why you may be asking would I choose a plate of fresh fruit over say a Valhrona Chocolate Mousse Cake or a couple of scoops of the restaurants signature ice cream? That’s a good question. The answer may actually lie in an extended nutrient analysis, one that captures the full extent of bioactives and phytonutrients and other components resident in the food matrix of seasonal fruit harvested at peak ripeness. Perhaps a future laboratory analysis based on a hand held sensor could reveal that that selection of fresh fruits are a perfect match for my particular microbiome. But ever the most sophisticated nutrient research laboratory we have today falls short of that degree of specificity.

So for now, I can’t make an evidence based case and am forced to fall back on my subjective eating experience. Fresh fruit just tastes better and sets better in my gut then a rich chocolate cake or ice cream based dessert. Ending a really good somewhat heavy meal with something cool and slightly sweet with just the right amount of mild acidity is calming and refreshing. A totally satisfying and pleasurable finish that is the right choice for me.

Seasonal Hudson Valley Strawberries

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Here in the Hudson Valley, seasonal strawberries are a June event. I just picked up my first box along with some spinach, little green peas in the pod, and a basil plant for the balcony.

Local strawberries are more flavorful that commodity berries so I’ve become a confirmed seasonal strawberry eater. Local seasonal berries vary from region to region and my preference is always those berries bred for flavor and sweetness and aroma. Commodity crops are bred for year round “shipability” and shelf stability, but if you’re used to commodity berries, you may not agree with me because we all tend to prefer what we’re used to.

HEALTHY AS PER LABELED SERVING

Looking at the nutrition label, strawberries dont really stand out as a superfood or nutritional powerhouse. No red needed for nutrients to discourage and just a few nutrients listed in green to encourage.

Good Source Dietary Fiber. Fiber to Carbohydrate Ratio is favorable. 1g PROTEIN.

RETHINKING HEALTHY

For the last decade, weve been told to avoid foods with more that 5 ingredients listed on the label. As per a Guardian article from 2006 that I tracked down, an artificial strawberry flavor could have as many as 49 ingredients. Imagine a strawberry flavored ice pop made with water, some high fructose corn syrup, some apple juice, citric acid, some artificial strawberry flavor along with some natural flavor, a preservative or two to inhibit bacterial growth, and some nice bright strawberry red food color. Even the most ambitious count would probably not reach 100. 

A strawberry is normally counted as one ingredient. But what if we consider the chemical components in a whole strawberry?

I discovered that the ingredient list for the chemical matrix of a strawberry would include many hundreds of nutrients, far more than the mere 100 for the ice pop. And these bioactive compounds some with distinctly chemical sounding names. Ascorbic Acid and β-carotene. Anthocyanins. Flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol.  Phenolic compounds like pyrogallol, gallic, catechol, chlorogenic, ellagic acid. Volatile compounds like aldehydes, terpenes, and furanones. I’m not even sure the researches have identified all the chemical components that make up the strawberry matrix yet. 

So after spending a couple of hours spinning my head around “what’s in a strawberry” I’m beginning to think maybe we got it all wrong. Im thinking, maybe really healthy food is actually more chemical complex than manufactured food.

My seasonal strawberries, even those commodity berries, are healthier because of the chemical complexity.

The End of Craving for my Dietitian Colleagues

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

That’s my well worn copy of Mark Schatzker’s most recent book pictured above. It’s a book that asks a good question. Why have we been getting fatter over the last 40 years?

Each chapter takes us through a series of seemingly unconnected events. Towards the end of the book, we learn this from the author “so here then is the theory spelled out: the obesity epidemic is being
fueled by advancements in food technology that have disrupted the brain’s ability to sense nutrients, altered eating behavior, and given food an unnatural energetic potential”. 

My plan is to review this book in terms of my training and experience as a dietitian during the 15 years I worked in weight loss. I got my RDN in 1997 and worked in corporate wellness, weight loss counselling, and bariatric wellness.

The book begins with two approaches to disease. Pellagra is caused by a vitamin deficiency. The disease is prevalent when the food supply does not include a source of niacin. Both the United States and Italy have experienced periodic bouts of pellagra. In Italy, the government encouraged its inhabitants to raise rabbits and drink yeasty wine. In the US, the government recommended fortification of grains. Both solutions worked but the metaphor of a fork in the road between the old way and the new way dominates the book.

I went back to school to study nutrition in the early 1990s and remember to this day my sense of wonder as I learned about the discovery of vitamins and the miracle of enrichment. I was delighted to learn that nutrients like niacin could cure diseases like pellagra.

We explore the brain-gut connection with a trip to Lyon and the experiments of a French psychologist with bathwater temperature and starvation. We move to Bethesda Maryland and a Kevin Hall presentation on the results of the analysis he ran on contestants in the Reality TV show The Biggest Looser. We spend time with illiterate laborers in Karnataka and learn why these men love the bitter taste of tamarind. And we end with the work of Kent Barringer who was the first to differentiate the brain’s wanting” circuitry (dopamine driven) from the brain’s liking” circuitry.

Schatzker is a brilliant writer and able to put complex concepts into understandable common language. Despite my training as an RDN, I struggled to follow the intricacies of brain science and neurotransmitter patterns. I got my Certificate of Training Adult Weight Management 2001 but at that time obesity was considered a behavior disorder. My training focused on helping clients navigate the ever more enticing calorie proliferation of the modern food environment.

We explore “wanting” vs “liking” with a visit to Yale and a laboratory scientist who studies glucose metabolism. We investigate the seemingly irrational behavior of compulsive gamblers, learn how Swedish gerbils behave when fed a mixture of seeds and grains of sand, and take a whirlwind tour of food technology innovations over the last 40 years. Schatzker coined the term nutritive mismatch” to describe a situation where our taste perception confuses the signaling system of the brain  

The science of neurotransmitters and the brain / gut connection was in its infancy when I got my certification. Swedish pharmacologist, Arvid Carlsson, had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his contributions on the neurotransmitter, dopamine. The counseling techniques I learned were based on an assumption Schatzker refers to as The Hungry Ape” theory. We humans gorge on food when it’s available so we have fat stores to carry us through to the next starvation cycle.

Finally we take a vacation in 19th century Italy with Goethe. We delight in eating figs, pears, macaroni, and Sicilian lettuce. We study the stalking behaviors of snakes, learn about the evolutionary benefits of our liking” food brain circuitry, delve into the beginnings of concentrated animal feeding operations and the development of scientifically managed swine rations.

Pigs get sick if all they are fed is corn and soy. Research done in the late 1940s enabled hog farmers to maintain a nutritionally adequate diet as animals moved from foraging in pasture to a feeding lot diet of corn and soy meal. When B vitamins were added to the feed, the hogs no longer got sick. Even better, the hogs gained weight faster. If adding B vitamins to hog feed as was done back in middle of the last century promoted weight gain, could the same weight gain happen in humans? Is it possible that enrichment could actually be a contributing factor to human weight gain? Oh my goodness! That is exactly what Schatzker said. It took my breath away. I had to put the book down.

At no point in my nutrition studies has anyone questioned the value of enrichment. Or fortification for that matter. These policies were presented as unqualified nutrition success stories. I never realized until I read Schatzkers book that most European countries don’t enrich or fortify grains.

We end with a celebration of the power of good food by visiting Leipzig Germany and a doctor who works with clinically severe obese patients. We savor the taste of a perfectly crafted dark chocolate and the culinary equivalent of pastoral romanticism as the writer celebrates and indulges in the joy of eating really good northern Italian food.

We are left with a metaphoric fork in the road. Italy represents the old fork. The United States represents the new fork. And we are left with a speculation. Maybe if we restore the relationship between flavor, nutrition, and enjoyment that food provides, we will have a chance to change eating habits and health status.

These concepts are not completely outside the RDN tool box, but for the vast majority of my dietitian colleagues, Schatzkers book will be hard to read because it challenges aspects of our training and core principles like the acceptance of enrichment and fortification as a net positive. Or the acceptance of artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes as categorically safe and without health-related consequence.

My first job in dietetics was nutrition counseling at a corporate wellness gym. My clients were social media savvy and would frequently bring a wild and crazy ideas to our sessions. I never directly confronted clients.  Instead I explained there were two types of people out there in blogosphere. Most are predatory charlatans who are only interested in their own self-enrichment but there are always a couple of brilliant folks who are just slightly ahead of their time. Then I would add, sometimes its damnably difficult to tell which is which.

My reading of The End of Craving is that Schatzker is just slightly ahead of his time.

Can fortification make ultra-processed foods healthy?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

This POST cereal proclaims it’s healthiness in every possible way.

This cereal qualifies for a Whole Grain Stamp and a nutrient content claim as a good source of fiber. The Heart Healthy ❤️ appeals to an older generation whereas the nonGMO butterfly will appeal to a younger generation. The whole raisins, dates, and pecans pictured on the box are really there when you open the box and look inside.

And this cereal is an ultra-processed industrial formulation. The whole grain oats are rolled & polished. The whole grain wheat looks to have been pulverized then formed into “clusters”, probably with the help of an extruder. Both rolling and pulverizing theoretically impact the grain’s food matrix which in turn can impact rate of absorption and digestion. And as with other functional foods, the cereal lists an array of micronutrients including vitamin B12, a vitamin not naturally found in cereal products.

So just how healthy is this carefully formulated, extensively certified, micronutrient fortified ultra-processed breakfast cereal? That’s a really good question and the answer depends on how you think about healthy.

For the last 30 years, healthy has been equated to nutrients so consumers have gotten used to thinking that nutrients are the only measure. If healthy = nutrients, the cereal is healthy. So I’m asking myself, are we actually in the presence of a healthy ultra-processed product?

The science as reflected by the certifications, the claims, and the extensive fortification certainly suggest that we are. But when I ask my gut, I get a different answer.

Compared to my usual breakfast, this cereal just doesn’t cut it. My usual breakfast is a couple slices local artisan whole wheat bread, jam or butter, café au lait, a handful of nuts, and I’m fine until lunch. Even a big bowl of this cereal with milk however doesn’t hold me until say mid-morning.

My usual breakfast clocks in around 430 calories. The Great Grains breakfast is a little higher around 450 calories. All I can do is speculate at this point, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

• My artisan whole wheat bread is made with coarsely ground hard wheat flour. It’s likely that the particle size of the grain is larger that the whole wheat flour used to make the Great Grains clusters. Is the difference in particle size important?

• My usual breakfast has more water. About 80% of the total weight is water. Milk and coffee are fluids and bread is about 40% water. The dry cereal is of course “dry”. Even with the addition of milk, the meal is about 45% water. The volume of water impacts the calorie density and my usual breakfast is less calorie dense (calorie density = kcal/gram). Is the lower calorie density a factor?

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?

Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now if only I ruled the world …

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?

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?

 

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.

Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

 

Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.