Tag Archives: healthy

Healthy used to mean sound, wholesome, robust, indicative of good health. The word was co-opted, redefined as a complex nutrient content claim, and applied to food by the FDA under pressure from the food industry. This action changed the meaning of the word. The word healthy is in desperate need of linguistic liberation.

Am I eating too much beef?

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Hanger steak braised in a tomato / wine reduction with steamed potatoes. Tender, flavorful, omnivores delight. That generous pound (500g) lasted us two nights and was delicious. But then I got to thinking. It’s been an important week for climate change because of an international conference in Glasgow, Scotland this week. Beef production does have an impact on green house gases, perhaps not to the extent that vegan activists would have us believe, but enough to be a cause for concern for me. Anyway, I got curious and that’s when I decided to run the numbers on our beef consumption.

Having recently moved to New York’s Hudson valley, I’m privileged now to be able to buy locally raised grass fed beef directly from the farm. The meat I buy there is expensive, about double the price for a comparable cut of commodity supermarket beef. Americans love their beef and if we ate beef a couple times a week I couldn’t afford the luxury. But we’ve never been big meat eaters so I’m okay with with the upfront cost. Besides when ever possible, I like to support local agriculture.

Now my challenge was to find a reference point for assessing “too much beef”. I settled on a report from the World Resources Institute, a Washington DC based think tank with the admirable mission of moving human society to live in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs of current & future generations. The report, 6 Pressing Questions About Beef and Climate Change, makes the case that if ruminant meat consumption were limiting to 55 calories per day per person, it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion.

My braised hanger steak made 4 meals and each serving weighed about 100 grams (3.5 ounces)  / 275 calories. By American standards, that’s a pretty small portion. As referenced above I’ve never made meat the center of the plate because I enjoy so many other foods. A couple steamed potatoes, several dollops of that tomato based pan sauce, and a robust serving of broccoli raab filled up the rest of the plate. A satisfying, tasty, and well balanced meal .

But going back to the numbers, for argument sake, let’s say I cooked beef once a week and used the same serving size. That would be 275 calories divided by 7 or an average of 40 calories per day. Since we’re not big beef eaters however, it’s more likely we would only have beef once a month. This month we’ve eaten beef twice (two days of braised hanger steak) so our monthly total is 550 or an average of 18 calories from beef per day per person.

If an average of 55 calories per day per person is a good goal, we’re doing spectacularly well.

Can fortification make ultra-processed foods healthy?

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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?

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.

Seasonal and local depend on where you live.

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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?

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

Rethinking Fat, Sugar, and Salt.

photo credit | gourmetmetricsphoto credit | gourmetmetrics

The corona virus pandemic has sent us to our homes and forced us to cook. No one knows yet how many will continue once pandemic policies are relaxed, but some will. If you are one of those hungry folks who only recently has discovered the joys of cooking, please read on.

Being new to cooking probably means you grew up in a culture that measures healthy in nutrients. Nutrients like fiber and protein are good. Nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt / sodium are bad. Food is fuel and energy is measured in calories. Superfoods like cauliflower or kale make headlines but nutrients and calories remain the dominant metric for measuring healthy. 

I know all this because I get paid to run nutrition stats for websites, book editors, and federally sponsored institutional foodservice.

These nutrient centric one size fits all guidelines were built with the best of intentions on a foundation of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. And that is the reason why so many food focused folks like chefs, food writers, and home cooks have problems with the guidelines.

Flavor is what counts at their table. They know for instance that roasted cauliflower is more delicious than steamed cauliflower. They know fat carries flavor and salt is a powerful flavor enhancer. 

As a home cook and RDN, I too am critical of the guidelines. My views are divergent, divergence being the rejection of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. I was lucky. Growing up in California meant eating fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables all year long. Living in France for several years meant honing my cooking skills and developing my culinary palate. I learned to eat before I started my nutrition studies so I knew what delicious tasted like before I learned how to count nutrients and calories.

Having one foot in nutrition stats and the other in home cooking gives me a unique perspective because I know down to the gram and the milligram when the meals at my table are guideline compliant and when they are not. From a nutrient compliance perspective, my pattern is mixed.

Detailed below are some stats I ran before the pandemic. The stats reflect aggregate nutrient values for the meals I cook at home.

✅Sodium is a nutrient to avoid and salt enhances flavor.  Because I cook from scratch and salt to taste, sodium is within acceptable range. 

✅Fiber is a beneficial nutrient. Because we eat so many vegetables and legumes, fresh seasonal fruits and whole grains, fiber is always well represented at my table.

✅Sugar is the new toxic nutrient. Natural sugars appear on my table as fresh seasonal fruit. Added sugars appear as home baked cookies, my signature pumpkin pie, or some of my other favorite home baked desserts. Sugar is within acceptable range.

✅Protein is adequate to meet nutrition need and comes from both animal and plant sources. Our portions are guideline compliant but smaller than what most of my fellow Americans expect to see on the plate.

❌Fat used to be the toxic nutrient. And my pattern has been consistently out of compliance for 25 years. My stats reflect calories from total fat is 35% to 40%. Our Dietary Guidelines set a 35% limit and the most recent World Health Organization Guidelines set a 30% limit. Olive oil is central to my cooking and is considered a healthy fat but I have a very generous hand. Milk and cheese are full fat. Nuts are part of our daily pattern. 

Being a registered dietitian and deciding to follow a divergent pathway puts me in an awkward position. If I were willing to reduce my use of olive oil, to use fat free dairy, to eat more carbs, and to develop a taste for skinless boneless chicken breast, my pattern would be optimal. Since I’ve never felt comfortable telling others to follow guidance I don’t follow myself, I prefer working in recipe analysis.

The stats I run for institution foodservice and book editors are nutrient focused because nutrients remain the standard protocol. But things are changing.

Nutrition science is wicked hard. Truth be told, significant disagreement currently exists among nutrition researchers about what is and is not healthy. The old nutrient focused paradigm that I learned in the early 1990s is cracking at the foundation. Seismic shifts are traumatic. The ground needs to stabilize before a new foundation can be built. Something will coalesce but no one knows yet, when a new paradigm takes form, if we’ll be counting nutrients or foods or patterns or all three.

Culinary divergence in a nutrient obsessed food world is stressful, liberating, and in my humble opinion necessary.

Stressful because we want to do the right thing but we’re not sure yet what the right thing is. Liberating because we have more freedom to be creative and to experiment. Necessary because we need to put the joy back in eating.

These are exciting times to be writing about food and nutrition. These are also exciting time to be learning how to cook.