Tag Archives: NutritionFacts

Nutrition Facts is our American standard for labeling nutrients per serving for food products or restaurant menus. FDA is responsible labeling for most items. USDA is responsible for labeling meat, poultry, and eggs. Recipe and formulation analysis has spawned a generation of food labelers. See guideline, nutrients, ServingSize, enjoyment.

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

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

FOOD FIRST

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

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

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

NUTRIENT BALANCE

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

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

VIEW FROM MY KITCHEN

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

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

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

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

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

THE FACTS

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

Nutrition:  Good Source Fiber. Saturated FatSodium. 

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

THE PROBLEM WITH NUTRITION FACTS

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

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

”YOU’VE RUINED THE BRUSSELS SPROUTS!”

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

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

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

 

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 …

Summer Fruit Plate

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

THE FACTS

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

PUTTING THE FACTS IN CONTEXT – RETHINKING HEALTHY

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

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

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

Seafood linguine with shrimp, clams, scallops.

 

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

The kitchen smelled like the sea as I unwrapped the packages and started my preparation. Those clams were purchased alive in their shell. And yes, I did the brutal steaming business myself. As for the scallops, someone else did the shucking and the shrimp were beheaded then preserved in ice to make their journey northward from either the Gulf or the Carolinas.

The north east has great seafood. The clams are from Long Island. The scallops come from Massachusetts . And I consider the Carolina’s east coast. The olive oil is extra virgin 100% California ans my preferred brand of pasta is imported from Italy. As per the manufacturer, the linguine is cold extruded but the bronze-cut dyes soften the excursion process.

INGREDIENTS: cooked pasta, shrimp, clams, scallops, olive oil, dry vermouth, parsley, fennel, garlic.

RETHINKING HEALTHY

Each carefully sourced ingredient puts its own unique texture, flavor, and nutrient profile on the plate. Wonderful aromas. Delicious and complex tastes. Does a totally satisfying subjective eating experience count as healthy? Not as per government guidelines unless the numbers add up. So let’s take a look at the numbers.

NUTRIENTS OF NOTE AS PER LABELED SERVING

High Sodium. 19g PROTEIN.

As you can see from the mixture of red and green, the message that gets communicates is mixed. Our dietary guidelines recommend eating more seafood so my linguine also gets bonus points.

I’ve set the serving size for 1 1/2 cups because it’s more realistic as a portion size than either the FDA Reference Amount Commonly Consumer or the USDA 1 cup-equivalent.

The sodium
value is high despite no addition salt added during cooking. That because seafood is salty. Fish live in the sea. Makes sense to my simplistic mind.

Sometime the rules contradict each other and this seafood linguine is a good example. Eat more seafood. Eat less salt. Two pieces of equally valid advice which are, qualitatively speaking, incompatible. No wonder folks get confused.

Experts love to quantify, but I’m more into heuristic thinking. I’ve been hung up on healthy since the day I walked into my first course in nutrition. Is my seafood linguine healthy? The numbers on the label say simultaneously yes and no, so here’s my heuristic for reducing confusion. When what I’m cooking fills my kitchen with a fresh sea aroma, something healthy is going on.

The nutrition facts tells us nothing about the origins or quality of the ingredients. Or about the pleasure I take in making and serving the plate to those who sit at my table. And that lovely delicious sea air aroma lingers in my memory only to be reinforced each time I make the dish.

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.

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?