Tag Archives: nutrients

A nutrient is a microscopic component of food. Fat, carbohydrate, protein, and water are considered macro nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, bioactives, metabolites, phytochemicals are considered micro nutrients. Nutrients are easy to count and lend themselves to complex algorithm development and nutrient profiling systems. See guideline, NutritionFacts.

Green beans braised with olive oil, tomato, garlic.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Green beans are available here in the north east from early summer up until the first frost. Steamed and served naked or dressed to kill, green beans make frequent appearances at my table during the growing season.

Pictured above is my favorite version of “dressed to kill”. The ingredient list is simple: green beans, cherry tomato, gremolata​​ (parsley, Parmigiano Reggiano, garlic cloves, lemon zest), olive oil, salt. All ingredients qualify as minimally processed except salt and olive oil which are culinary processed ingredients and the imported aged Parmigiano Reggiano which would be classified as processed. 

THE FACTS

As nutrition labels go, this label reflects a balanced nutrient profile. No dramatic highs and no notable lows with a serving size of approximately 1 cup. A nutrition non-event.

THE PROBLEM​ WITH FACTS

This time the facts are kind to my green beans, but as a general rule of thumb the facts are not friendly to home cooks or chefs.

The facts were designed for processed food products in a retail environment. The original nutrition facts legislation, passed in 1990, required a standardized nutrition label on these products and affirmed the FDA’s authority to regulate nutrient content and health claims on food labels. Concurrently the Dietary Guidelines urged Americans to choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol; to use sugars in moderation; and to use salt and sodium only in moderation.

Over the last 3 decades, moderation has morphed into an axis of nutrient evil. And that’s the problem for cooks and chefs. Fat and salt and sugar, the components of the axis of nutrient evil, are the same traditional processed culinary ingredients cooks and chefs have traditionally used on a daily basis in home kitchens and restaurants.

Let’s refocus for a moment of my green beans. Home cooks have an advantage over food product manufacturers because we work primarily with minimally processed fresh ingredients. Fresh vegetables especially fresh seasonal vegetables add flavor to the plate. What’s left to the cook or chef to do is flavor enhancement.  The little tomatoes add sweetness to the green beans. A sprinkle of Parmiggiano and my beloved olive oil add fat. And some salt enhances flavor. Never too much so the dish tastes salty, but just enough to highlight the flavors from all the other ingredients.

Home cooks who are just beginning and lack experience with the traditions of home cooking may not realize that salt and sugar and fat are culinary ingredients that used to be commonly found on counters or in pantries. We’ve spent several decades now in a world that favors convenience over freshly prepared and surrounds us with media messages about hyper-palatability and the axis of nutrient evil in packaged products.

What the Dietary Guidelines refer to as nutrients to restrict and NOVA classifies as processed culinary ingredients, traditional chefs and home cooks just think of as normal.

 

Sliced Seasonal Local Tomatoes

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

The picture of those beautiful tomatoes was taken last year mid September at a farm on the west bank of the Hudson River. I had spent the whole month of August searching for perfection, but it wasn’t until September that I found what I was looking for. I carefully hand picked a couple of tomatoes off the vine. The taste, complexity of flavors, and texture met every expectation that gorgeous photo promises. Perfect tomatoes do not require a recipe. All that’s  needed is to slice and serve dressing with your best extra virgin olive oil, a splash of vinegar, and salt. Nothing could be easier or simpler.

THE FACTS

Facts of course refer to the Nutrition Facts Label that I added just now. As my focus shifted to the numbers, I felt a disconnect. Estimating the weigh of the tomatoes, dressing, and salt, then deciding to use a cup-equivalent instead of the Serving Size / Reference Amount Customarily Consumed required me to put on my analytic cap. The facts themselves are benign and reflect a balanced nutrient profile. The shift in focus, that disconnect, however was notable.

THE PROBLEM

The problem isn’t that facts are not important. Facts are always important. The problem is that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts and those other parts, which can be equally important, get buried under the analytic weight of the facts.

So how would I characterize those other factors when it comes to tomatoes? 

Some are physical. The season is important. Tomatoes are fussy. They love heat and sun and don’t like too much rain. Locality and transit time are important. Fully ripened tomatoes don’t travel well. The most flavorful tomatoes need to ripen on the vine and once they have ripened, they bruise easily. My hunt for a perfect tomato is important. We ate lots of good tomatoes last year, but no matter the label – local, seasonal, or heirloom – there’s no guarantee the tomato will be perfect.

Other factors are emotional. Like the joy of eating that perfect tomato! The facts don’t measure the joy of eating. All raw tomatoes sold fresh are minimally processed. All raw tomatoes are analyzed using the same nutrient data base reference unit. But only certain tomatoes are that perfect blend of ripeness, complex flavor profile, texture, terroir.

The pleasure I experience remembering that late summer day when I picked my tomatoes and the joy of eating and savoring each bite is emotional and that experience is an important part of how we humans eat. When all we pay attention to are facts, we can get disconnected from or, worse, totally miss the joy of eating.

Ratatouille

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

August means mid-summer vegetables and mid-summer vegetables mean it’s time for me to make some ratatouille.

Variations on this simple vegetable stew appear in Mediterranean countries from Spain to Greece, but I’ve always imagined the primary inspiration came from a parsimonious farmhouse lady somewhere in the south of France. Faced with nature’s seasonal bounty arriving all at once, ratatouille was her answer to the eternal question of what to do with too many vegetables.

THE FACTS

Ingredient list: eggplant, zucchini, sweet red peppers, tomatoes, onion, olive oil, garlic, basil, salt.

Nutrition Facts: balanced and unremarkable. No “superstar” vegetables to boost the numbers. High Fat >20%. Fatty acid ratio is favorable.

Degree of Processing: freshly prepared from mostly minimally processed ingredients (98% by weight) and 2 processed culinary ingredients (olive oil, salt).

Like all factual statements, the results are cold, hard, impersonal, and detached.

THE PROBLEM • The facts have little to do with the subjective experience of eating.

What makes my ratatouille so wonderfully satisfying to me has absolutely nothing to do with the cold hard facts.

The first time I tasted the dish was the summer in the south of France where I found myself getting a cooking lesson, along with a group of American high school students, from the chef of a local restaurant. The vegetables got chopped up and thrown into a pot with copious additions of olive oil and salt after each handful. The chef didn’t use a recipe.

I make a ratatouille every August to celebrate the event. I remember the beautiful warm summer day in Aix-en-Provence, a small university city in the Côte d’Azur region of southern France. And I always use lots of olive oil. I’ve recreated the dish in Berkeley California, Montréal Québec, the south shore of Long Island, and now in New York’s Hudson Valley. Each time I put the ingredients together I get variations in taste but I always make the dish in August with locally grown season vegetables.

I don’t use a recipe either.  I just recreate the tastes and textures of how that first delicious bite smelled, looked and tasted in my kitchen.

Each of our past experiences form our subject eating experience. The memories we bring to the plate have more hold on us than any list of nutrients and ingredient in a labelled serving. And that is the problem with the facts approach to eating. Just compare the cold hard facts of the label with the warmth of the colors and radiant complexity in the photo. Now ask yourself which one you would prefer on the plate …

Seasonal Hudson Valley Strawberries

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

HEALTHY AS PER LABELED SERVING

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

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

RETHINKING HEALTHY

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Salads

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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.

The End of Craving for my Dietitian Colleagues

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can fortification make ultra-processed foods healthy?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Would your great grandmother have eaten an Enchilada?


photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

My great grandmother would be flabbergasted if she could see what I had for dinner last night. She was born in Maine, ate cod fish cakes, baked beans, meat, and potatoes. Mexican food was as foreign to her as salt cod is to me.

Moreover my great great grandmother might actually have appreciated the convenience of dinner in 45 minutes although unfamiliar ingredient like tortillas and black beans might take her some time to get used to.

This dinner is clearly an industrial formulation. How do I know? Because this dinner is my fall back when life conspires and I don’t have time to shop or cook. I’ve taken the short cut enough times to know the product will taste exactly the same every single time.

Checking the label, you’ll find there are 65 words, 20 ingredients, and the word organic is used 16 times. One could quibble about expeller expressed canola oil because it’s still an RBD (Refined, Blanched, Deodorized) seed oil.  Or prefer flour to the more refined tapioca starch. But as an example of a well written clean label, I think it’s an exemplary example with no dirty little secrets that I can find. So I’ll say, in all due respect to Michael Pollan, 20 ingredients instead of 5 works okay for me.

Nutrients are balanced with moderate levels of sodium and respectable amounts of fiber and protein. So again, in all due respect, it’s possible at least in my opinion to use the tools of modern food technology to make a product with some whole food (black beans,  corn kernels, tortilla) and balanced nutrition. Will everyone agree that home made enchiladas taste better? I don’t know. I am pretty sure, however, that many folks would be unwilling to spend time & trouble to make this Mexican standby at home.

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.