Tag Archives: healthy

The word healthy has been in need of regulatory update liberation since the 2015. In 2022, the FDA published a 40,000 proposal for a new rule. The final rule is expected during 2023.

The two criteria the FDA needs to consider a food product healthy are:

The product must contain food as measured in meaningful amounts of Food Group Equivalents. See VEGETABLES, FRUIT, GRAINS, MILK, Protein.

The product must contain limited amounts of certain nutrients. See Salt, Added Sugars, Saturated Fats.

Tagine Chicken Thighs slowly braised with potato, carrot, green beans.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Here’s how my tagine chicken thighs look after a couple of hours of braising in a slow oven. That gorgeous red baking dish is the bottom of my tagine. The top of the tagine, which is shaped like a funnel, fits tightly over the baking dish so there’s virtually no evaporation. 

And yes, you really are seeing skin on those thighs. The skin protects the meat while the thighs self baste and the vegetables soften. The result is incredibly tender succulent chicken. Granted, the taste is better if the chicken is a pastured, slow grow bird, but the technique works wonders on industrial birds. The tagine method makes everything just a little more delicious.

Now does the dish look healthy to your eye? If your answer is yes, you would be wrong as per the recently published FDA proposal on labeling food products healthy. And if you’re like me, you are scratching your head and muttering to yourself, what’s missing?

FOOD FIRST

The bright side to the new rules is food counts. The FDA proposal for healthy is aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans so now both the guidelines and the proposed update suggest healthy starts with food.

Using the Facts Label format, here’s how the list of ingredients reads by weight in descending order: potato, chicken thighs with skin & bone, green beans, carrots, tomato sauce (industrially processed and clean labeled), dry vermouth, olive oil, garlic, oregano, salt.

My tagine chicken is freshly prepared from what I like to call “real food” so it meets even exceeds the goal.

NUTRIENT BALANCE

More vegetables than chicken on the plate ensures nutrient density with a varied distribution of both plant and animal based nutrients. Check the Facts Label and you’ll see the serving is an excellent source of both Fiber and Potassium. In addition, thanks to the chicken thigh, the serving provides 24 grams Protein

Most folks would say the combination of real food and nutrient density is the basis of a healthy pattern. And I would agree. However if I were running the numbers for a website or cookbook selling one of the products listed in the ingredient list, I would be forced to recommend reformulation. Both saturated fat and sodium exceed the strict limits as per the FDA proposal.

VIEW FROM MY KITCHEN

When I run numbers for clients, I use the rules and guidelines as an instruction manual for compliance. When I cook in my kitchen, I use those same rules and guidelines as a framework.

For example, vegetable rich dishes put lots of potassium on the plate. Just check the sodium and potassium values on the Facts Label for my tagine chicken. Lots more potassium than sodium because it’s a vegetable rich dish. I salted to my taste but maintained a good potassium / sodium ratio.

 I kept the skin on the chicken thigh. Now check the total fat and saturated fat values and note the difference – 25 grams. Unsaturated fats aren’t required on the standard Facts Label but those 25 grams represent the approximate grams of unsaturated or “healthy” fats.

So what’s missing? The flexibility to make a discretionary culinary judgment call depending on what else is on the plate.

Healthy is getting an update. Finally.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above is a breakfast cereal designed to appeal to the healthy eating crowd. How can we tell? Because every available corner has been used to display a symbol or claim suggesting healthfulness.

NEW RULES FOR HEALTHY

Thanks to a recent FDA proposed update for labelling food healthy, breakfast cereals like the one pictured above may want to make the claim at some point in the future.

To pass the first hurdle, the product must actually contain food. The ingredient list for the cereal pictured above minus additives and fortification reads as follows: whole grain wheat, raisins, cane sugar, whole grain rolled oats, dates, wheat flour, malted barley flour, rice flour, pecans, expeller pressed canola oil, salt, rice syrup, molasses.

Note that the manufacturer tells us in big bold letters that the product provides 32 grams whole grains as certified by the Whole Grain Council. That certification is a good indicator that the cereal has some whole grain. If 32 grams is enough whole grain to meet the proposed standard, there is a good chance the cereal will past the first hurdle and therefore meet the requirements to be classified as a GRAIN.

The second hurdle is nutrient based. Checking the label for nutrients, we see Saturated Fat is listed as 0 grams per serving and Sodium is well below the new 230 mg limit per serving. So far so good. There is a problem, however, and the problem is Added Sugar. The grams of added sugar exceed the newly proposed limit as measured by percentage Daily Value. In order for this cereal to qualify for the healthy claim, the manufacturer would need to reformulate.

THE CONUNDRUM

A conundrum is a confusing and difficult problem or question. With the proposal for new rules, both manufacturers and consumers have tough decisions to make.

Manufacturers who decide to reformulate have a wide range of options from artificial sweeteners to concentrated fruit purée and date paste. Manufacturers always of course have the option of ignoring the healthy claim and continuing to use all the other symbols and certifications to communicate healthfulness.

Consumers also have tough decisions. Some healthy eating enthusiasts will demand the products they buy display the healthy claim. Not all of course because other enthusiasts want sugar while still others will want to avoid artificial or laboratory synthesized sweeteners. Still others may believe traditional sugars are actually a better choice despite the fact the product can’t make a healthy claim.

HOWEVER …

Neither the degree of processing or fortification will impact the manufacturers right to claim the product is healthy as per the current proposal.

Check out the picture posted above and take a good look at the middle box identified as “FLAKES & CLUSTERS”. The flakes are identifiable as whole grain rolled oats. But those clusters? They look to my untrained eye like clumps of brown goo. Perhaps the end product of whole grain wheat that has been pulverized into a fine powder, mixed with a liquid, than extruded into a pre-formed “cluster”. Besides enrichment which is mandated, the cereal is fortified with 13 other vitamins and minerals.

Here’s my prediction. We will be talking a lot more about what is and is not food from now on.

 

 

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

October means fall and fall means it’s time to roast vegetables. Roasting brings out the flavor of vegetables in a way that steaming can’t match. Folks who have never liked Brussels sprouts before may even become converts. Nothing wrong with frozen vegetables, but to successfully roast a vegetable, the taste better when you start with fresh and recently harvested.

THE FACTS

Ingredient list: Brussels sprouts (91%), olive oil, salt.

Nutrition:  Good Source Fiber. Saturated FatSodium. 

Take note however that Brussels sprout are also a rich source of POTASSIUM and olive oil is mostly UNSATURATED FAT. And that means both ratios — potassium to sodium and saturated to unsaturated fat — are favorable.

THE PROBLEM WITH NUTRITION FACTS

The facts don’t honor the season. And for cooks and chefs, that’s a bit of a turn off because we know the folks who sit at our tables don’t want roasted Brussels sprouts on a hot humid day in the middle of the summer. Those same folks, however, will relished the soft, crusty, concentrated caramelized flavor of freshly roasted sprouts on a crisp autumn day.

The facts don’t honor culinary wisdom. For folks to eat and enjoy vegetables, it really helps if those vegetables are irresistible. Restaurant chefs are notorious for having a heavy hand with salt and fat for good reason. Salt works. So does olive oil. And as noted above, there’s enough potassium in the Brussels sprouts to balance the sodium in the salt. 

”YOU’VE RUINED THE BRUSSELS SPROUTS!”

This all reminds me of the story of the lunch lady in Texas. The kids who ate in the cafeteria loved her Brussels sprouts. She used bacon. Fat and salt are a powerful combination and I would argue well placed on a vegetable that offers the nutrition benefit of a Brussels sprout. One day the inspectors paid a visit and when the inspector discovered the sprouts bacon scenario, she declared “You’ve ruined the Brussels sprouts!”

That in a nutshell is the real problem with the facts. The inspector was factually correct. The salt and saturated fat levels did push the guidelines.

But what’s the goal? Compliance with guidelines or getting the kids to love Brussels sprouts?

 

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.

Seasonal and local depend on where you live.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics photo credit | gourmetmetrics

These eggplants tasted just as good as they look. I took the picture at a pre-pandemic farmer’s market. The farmer set up an eye catching display and I wasn’t the only one who snapped a picture. A gorgeous day, a brilliant sunny blue sky, and just a whisper of coolness in the air which, for those of us living in the northeast, means fall is on its way. That gorgeous sunlight accentuated the vibrant colors in the eggplant.

As a result of the pandemic, we moved out of New York City and now live in the Hudson Valley, an agricultural area north of the City know for tree fruits, apples, onions, brassicas, potatoes, and sometimes tomatoes. I say sometimes because tomatoes like sun and when it rains too much the tomatoes just don’t do as well. The growing season is short which gives states like California a significant competitive advantage.

Living in a rural area means I shop farms and farm stands now instead of farmer’s markets. What’s the difference? A city based farmer’s market benefits from population density. These markets offer more variety. A farm stand only sells what surrounding farmers produce. We’ve eaten well this summer however. A ton of green beans. Tree fruits everyday along with eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes all available during August and September. Potatoes and apples are just starting to come in and soon I’ll be seeing broccoli, cauliflower, and other cabbages. Then the leaves fall off the trees, the days get shorter, winter descends, and the ground freezes.

I’ve learned a lot about seasonal and local living in the northeast. I’ve also come to understand more about the meat & potatoes culture. What can  folks eat during the winter without importing from other warmer states? Storage vegetables, baked goods, some meat if you are lucky, and probably lots of beans. Faced with  a limited growing season and frozen ground 4 to 6 months out of every year, you don’t have much choice. You eat what’s available.

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.

Processed or Ultra-Processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

What a pleasant surprise!

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

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

NUTRITION

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

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

TASTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Taste for Freshly Baked

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NUTRIENTS

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

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

TASTE

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

BOTTOM LINE

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

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

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

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

Twinkie Addendum

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

 

A couple of threads fell into place recently as I continue to explore the NOVA food classification system. And that send me out looking for Twinkies.

The first thread came by accident. I found myself listening to a previously recorded presentation at Google headquarters in California by New York based writer, editor, and publisher Steve Ettlinger. He was in California discussing his book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats. Published in 2007, the book is a fascinating exploration of the multitude of weird, unrecognizable ingredients used in modern food processing. 

The second thread fell into place when I discovered a recipe for homemade Twinkies does actually exists. About a decade ago, Jennifer Schihauser, a NYT journalist, developed a series of articles around the concept “If I make it myself, it’s not junk” and one of her recipes was for making Twinkies at home.

With a Twinkies formulation in one hand and a recipe for a homemade version in the other hand, I can actually do an “apples to apples” comparison between a formulated product and an equivalent homemade version. That was the third thread falling into place. I have what I need to count ingredients / markers of Ultra-Processed food (UPF) and compare nutrition stats. 

I needed to go out looking for Twinkies to get a label, always the best way to get the ingredient list. Product formulations change so the best source of data is always the current product label. Besides, I’ve never tasted a Twinkie so I was curious. I figured I should at least have a bite.

Using the ingredient list from the Twinkie’s wrapper and the Jennifer Schihauser recipe, I was ready to begin.

Running the numbers was easy because I’m in the business of recipe analysis. For guidance on the NOVA food classification system, however, I selected 2019 commentary Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them to serve as my reference guide.

INGREDIENTS & UPF MARKERS

Flour. Butter. Sugar. Eggs. Those are the primary ingredients listed in the homemade version. All familiar, recognizable ingredients. Besides the basics, the recipe also calls for salt, milk, vanilla, cream of tartar, heavy cream, and Marshmallow Fluff. That’s a total of 11 ingredients. 

The formulated Twinkie is manufactured with mostly unfamiliar ingredients. To my eye, they look like deconstructed fragments. Examples are high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or hydrogenated tallow, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin. 

I counted 7 primary ingredients plus an additional 22 listed on the label as <2% by weight and felt comfortable tagging 18 as UPF markers.

What counts as a marker? As per my NOVA reference document, markers can be 1) “food substances not usually found in the home kitchen like high-fructose corn syrup or 2) “cosmetic additives” like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or thickeners. Note that salt and sugar get a pass because NOVA classifies them as processed culinary ingredients.

NUTRITION STATS

Both homemade and formulated versions are intense concentrations of fats and sweetness with little positive nutrient benefit. And both versions are calorie dense. 

Nutrients per serving size is the best metric for checking how much you’re actually eating, but comparing nutrients in similar products needs a different metric. My choice for this type of comparison is the calorie density scale which reflects nutrient values by weight. Think of the calorie density scale as a sort unit price for nutrients.

The homemade Twinkie is 3.6 calories per gram. The formulated product is 3.4 calories per gram. To put these calorie density numbers in context, Doritos scores 5.1 on the calorie density scale whereas a Chipotle Beef Burrito will clock in at about 1.8 calories per grams.

Both recipe and formulation have comparable amounts of total fat but homemade Twinkies have a significantly higher concentration of saturated fat. No surprises here. Butter is the only fat called for in the recipe and butter is notoriously high in saturated fatty acids. 

The formulated Twinkies use a combination of animal fat (tallow) and seed oil (cottonseed oil) which results in less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat.

Both recipe and formulation are intensely sweet. Sweeteners in one form or another comprise about 40% by weight. Homemade uses granulated sugar plus some marshmallow fluff. The formulation lists sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose. 

Sodium is not significant for either version but it’s worth noting there’s more in the formulation than the recipe.

TASTE IS 100% SUBJECTIVE

The final thread fell into place when I tasted the Twinkie. Actually better than I expected but still too sweet for my taste.

WHY BOTHER?

It’s takes many hours to source and study the NOVA research, to count ingredients and identify the markers, and to compare nutrition stats. Here’s why I believe my time was well spent:

  • I learned that nutrients are easier to count than ingredients or UPF markers, especially hard was deciding which additives were “cosmetic” and which were not. Difficult and inconclusive.
  • Simplistic pronouncements by food pundits, corporate marketeers, or social influencers are misleading. NOVA is a sophisticated concept. Selecting a couple of buzz words may sell books or products but does a disservice to consumers.
  • Expanding my NOVA analysis skills is a good investment of time. My sense is we’ll be having more serious discussions about degree of processing in the coming years.

So do I plan to do more apples-to-apples comparisons between a formulation and a recipe? You bet I do.

 

 

What to do when healthy and taste collide.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above are two winter squashes. Two acorn squash and one sweet dumpling squash picked up recently from my local farmers market. Beautiful, incredibly healthy, and for me at least inedible.

Fall is the season for so many good healthy vegetables. There’s the brassica family. Late season storage carrots. And squashes like butternut, spaghetti, pumpkin, and acorn.

But I have a problem. Squashes make me gag. Not all squashes, just winter squashes. Spaghetti squash. Butternut squash. Acorn squash. Hubbard squash. Exotic squashes like Calabasa. Even familiar squashes like pumpkin which is, despite its notoriety as both a police flavor and a dessert, still a member of the winter squash family.

All vegetables are healthy but some vegetables are more healthy than others. Pigment color is a good marker for phytonutrients. Red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetable are rich in carotinoids. And winter squash is nothing if it’s not deep orange.

So I tried on many occasions to find some way to prepare winter squashes but never succeeded.

A couple years ago, I put on my creative cooking cap and came up with a good solution. Every Thanksgiving I make pumpkin pie. So I got to thinking, what would happen if I used the same amount of steamed local squash for canned pumpkin?

My solution worked. Those little squashes make excellent squash pies. Squash purée, eggs, sugar, milk, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, just a pinch of salt, an olive oil crust. Et voilá!

As my zealous colleagues are forever reminding us, squash pie is not as healthy as steamed squash. Too much fat and too much sugar. However my squash pie is fresh baked, I can eat it without gagging, and not a single squash will go to waste.

Fat. Sugar. Salt. In the hands of a creative and gifted cook, all three work kitchen magic. Trust me, the food manufacturing industry is not unaware of this culinary fact. For industrially processed or ultra-processed foods, overuse can be problematic.

But those of us who cook or bake at home are not industrialists. Nor are we flavor technologists formulating the next product for mass consumption.

We have the luxury of making our own discretionary judgement calls. And that’s why as both cook and RDN I encourage home cooks to make use of the magic. Fat, sugar, and salt make freshly prepared food taste even better.

It’s really is okay as home cooks to make those discretionary decisions.