Tag Archives: MinimallyProcessed

Minimal processing includes drying, powdering, squeezing, crushing, grinding, fractioning, steaming, poaching, boiling, roasting, pasteurization, chilling, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, non-alcoholic fermentation, and other methods that do not add salt, sugar, oils or fats or other food substances to the original food. See Processed, UltraProcessed, fresh.

Seasonal Hudson Valley Strawberries

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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 bold 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.

Summer Salads

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Salads make delicious summer meals. Ingredients used for the salad pictured above are: tuna, white beans, cucumber, avocado, escarole, tomatoes, boiled egg, olive oil, scallions, vinegar, mustard, salt.

That Nutrition Facts Panel pinned next to the salad set the portion as 3 cups because that’s about how much we eat for a dinner serving. Using FDA guidelines for determining “healthfulness”, I’ve highlighted the nutrient risks in red and the nutrient benefits in green.

HEALTHY – AS PER LABELED SERVING FOR 3 CUPS:

High Saturated Fat. Fatty Acid Ratio is favorable. High SodiumHigh PotassiumPotassium to Sodium ratio is favorable. High Dietary Fiber. Fiber to Carbohydrate Ratio is favorable. 34 grams Protein. Good Source/High certain nutrients to encourage.

As you can see, nutrient risks and benefits are intertwined in complex patterns. Marketeers and Food Labelers earn their living by getting rid of the red. It’s not hard to do. Canola oil for olive oil.  Tuna canned in water with no added salt. What’s more challenging is getting the flavor complex right.

RE-THINKING HEALTHY

Other models of healthy have been proposed like nonGMO, intermittent fasting, paleo, vegan. And of course degree of processing, a model popularized by Michael Pollan but based on a serious document published in 2009 entitled NOVA.

Here’s how my salad looks through the NOVA lens.

The beans, all the vegetables, and egg are minimally processed. Olive oil, vinegar, and salt are considered processed culinary ingredients. The canned tuna is processed and that little dash of Dijon mustard added to the vinaigrette is industrially formulated with two markers – citric acid and metabisulfite.

I appreciate the NOVA classification system but the approach has nothing to do with how I make my summer salads. I look for minimally processed quality ingredients because I value taste and flavor. The heirloom small white beans are home cooked in salted water because the flavor is more nuanced than any canned variety on the shelf. Robust escarole has more complex flavors and a crunchier leaf than commodity mesclun. The remaining vegetables each add different colors and textures. And I use 100% California extra virgin olive oil because well to be honest because I’m a Californian. Vinegar adds acid and salt accents the flavors already present in the bowl.

Each ingredient in the salad brings something special to the plate. The end result is a mixture of robust textures and complex flavors.

Rolled Oat Walnut & Raisin Cookies

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Cookies are dense little bundles of grains, fats, and sugars. And if you are like most folks, you like cookies. According to most surveys I checked, the best-selling cookie is the humble Oreo.  Personally, I don’t care for Oreos. Too sweet for my palate so sometimes I make my own. Ingredients: rolled oats, walnuts, raisins, refined wheat flour, egg, butter, sugar, vanilla extract, salt.

That Nutrition Facts Panel pinned next to the picture looks similar to any other cookie, even an off-the-shelf ultra-processed brand like those Oreos. A little more saturated fat [butter] but much less sodium and added sugars. More potassium and protein. Comparable fiber. 

As to how many I like to eat at a sitting. Well let’s just say a couple, especially when I bake them myself.

HEALTHY – AS PER LABELED SERVING

High Saturated Fat. Fatty Acid Ratio is unfavorable. Some Total Sugars are Added Sugar.

5g PROTEIN

About 10 years ago, the buzz was that Oreos were as addictive as cocaine. The global food activist community sent out a resounding collective cheer that has haunted the echo chamber ever since. But I have a hard time with the addiction hypothesis because of the similarities between the nutrient profile of my cookies versus an Oreo.

RE-THINKING HEALTHY

My cookies are freshly baked from minimally processed and processed culinary ingredients [butter, sugar, salt]. Vanilla extract is the only industrially produced ingredient; the essence is extracted from the vanilla bean with alcohol. By shifting the balance away from sweet toward whole grain, fruit, and nuts, my cookies have greater flavor complexity.

I don’t make cookies very often. When I do however the aroma that fills the air greatly enhances my subjective experience of eating so when they come out of the oven, I always ignore the advice of my zealous colleagues to limit my intake to one small cookie.

But do you eat cookies because the numbers on the label reflect a healthy nutrient profile? The real question I would like to know the answer to is why do we need some labeled serving to give us permission to enjoy a couple of good cookies?

The End of Craving for my Dietitian Colleagues

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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.

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.

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.

Where’s the Apricot?

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My favorite dried apricots are moist, flavorful, sweet, and the color of rusty golden brown. A perfect balance to a handful of dry roasted unsalted nuts.

Dried apricots are whole fruits with the water removed. They are flat, but still recognizable as apricots. Some products, like my favorite KIND bar, list apricots as an ingredient but when you open the package and look for the apricot, all you find is gooey sticky stuff.

That observation inspired this month’s post. Minimally processed versus ultra-processed. My favorite KIND bar versus a handful of dried apricots and nuts.

INGREDIENTS

Minimally processed dried apricots come in two colors. Rusty golden brown and vibrant orange. Most commercial dried apricots have been treated with sulfur dioxide, an additive that lightens the color, softens the texture, and extends shelf life. I prefer the darker color, however. They are harder to find but the taste is more complex and nuanced.

A dried apricot, whether sulphured or un-sulphured, still looks like an apricot. There’s an argument to be made that sulphured apricots are ultra-processed, but un-sulphured apricots clearly meet NOVA guidelines for minimally processed food.

My choice of nuts to compliment the apricots is whole dry roasted unsalted mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia). Ingredient count is 2 to 6 depending on if you count the mixed nuts as a single ingredient or if you count each kind of nut as a separate ingredient.

My KIND bar has more ingredients. Lots more ingredients. Listed in descending order by weight, I count 13: peanuts, almonds, glucose syrup, honey, apricots, sultana, rice flour, dates, flax seed, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt. Two of these ingredients count as markers of ultra-processing:  glucose syrup and soy lecithin.

I can also see pieces of nut. But where is the apricot?

All I can see is that sticky gooey stuff holding the nut pieces together. The technical name for the sticky gooey stuff is a slurry and the slurry in my KIND bar must be a combination of purée fruits (apricots, sultanas, dates), added sugars, some starch, and an emulsifier.

Please don’t think I’m picking on the daring of the healthy snacking crew. A KIND bar is one of my favorite ultra-processed foods. When I’m on the run, it’s the first thing I reach for. KIND is also the company that successfully challenged the FDA’s criteria for healthy when the company filed a Citizen Petition back in 2015.

NUTRIENTS

Both the bar and the fruit & nuts are energy dense.

• 4.5 calories per gram for the KIND bar (10% water). An individually wrapped bar that weighs 40 grams clocks in at 180 calories.

• 4.2 calories per gram for a handful of dried un-sulphured apricots & mixed nuts (24% water). One handful of an equivalent weight of dried apricots and mixed nuts clocks in at 168 calories.

Both have similar nutrient profiles. KIND has a few more grams of protein; my handful of apricots and nuts a few more grams of fiber.

Both have an equally favorable fatty acid ratio.

TASTE

The KIND Fruit & Nut bar is dense and chewy. Peanut predominates and I can taste that sweet, fruity slurry. I can’t however taste or see an apricot.

An un-sulphured apricot, a pecan, and a walnut half are also dense but not as chewy or sticky or sweet as the bar. The nuts add crunchy, the sweetness is softer, more nuanced, and clearly apricot.

BOTTOM LINE

The price of a KIND bar varies significantly. The bar I used for taste comparison cost $1.50 at my local supermarket. An equivalent weight for a handful of un-sulfured apricots and mixed nuts is about $1.00.

A handful of fruit and nuts is a great snack to have in your pocket because it requires no refrigeration. But it does require planning and some prep time. KIND bars are ubiquitous and available everywhere.

The taste difference between the bar and a handful of nuts and apricot is dramatic. Which tastes better? That’s a question best left to the eater. Taste is 100% subjective, so the only person you can make that decision for is yourself.

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. 

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.

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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.