Tag Archives: salt

Salt is a mineral composed of sodium & chloride. Sodium is a member of the current axis of nutrient evil. Cooks love salt because salt makes everything taste better. Dietary guidelines set limits on salt to promote healthier food choices. Food manufacturers use salt because it’s cheap and makes up flavor lost in processed. See fat, sugar.

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?

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.

Can fortification make ultra-processed foods healthy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s always okay to consult your gut.

 

Consult your gut is a good food rule. Usually the context of the rule is to choose smaller portions, but it’s applicable to many other situations. Like my gut and the Boca Burger.

Boca Burger made its debut in 1978. The burger in its original formulation was around for a long time before Kraft-Heinz reformulate and rebranded the item in 2018. The goal was to modernize the image and appeal to the vegan market.

The product qualifies as a bonafide ultra-processed industrial formulation. The ingredient list includes mostly substances / additives and no recognizable intact food. The tomato slice and lettuce leaf are recognizable but no part of the product. As for that green stuff, your guess is as good as mine, but what ever it is, it’s still not part of the product.

There may be a couple of Boca Burgers in your freezer right now. If your gut responds well to Boca, it’s not a bad choice. The burgers are ubiquitous and reasonably priced. The additives are considered safe and allowed for human consumption by the FDA. The Boca Burger is low fat as compared to a ground beef burger. So as long as your gut is happy eating Bocas, go for it!  If your gut gets a little queasy, however, like mine does, it’s also okay to say no thanks.

Just because an additive is safe doesn’t mean the substance sets well in everyone’s gut. My gut is unhappy with one of the substances. Is it the soy protein concentrate? Or perhaps the modified cellulose, the wheat gluten, the hydrolyzed wheat protein, or the natural flavor? Or perhaps it’s simply that my gut is not used to metabolizing substances that only come from time to time?

What ever the reason, it’s still okay to say no thanks. Trusting your gut is just common sense and there’s nothing wrong with good old fashioned common sense.

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.

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. 

Counting ingredients in my favorite Marinara sauce.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Home made Marinara sauce is the best. But life is complicated and having a couple of jars in the pantry ready to go when you need one in a hurry is helpful. The ingredients I use for my home made Marinara are tomatoes (fresh or canned depending on the season), garlic, onions, olive oil, salt, oregano, parsley. That’s 7 ingredients.

My favorite brand is Rao’s. The ingredient list reads almost the same as what I use for home made: whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, salt, garlic, basil, black pepper, oregano. That’s also 7 ingredients.

Now 7 is greater than 5 and that observation started me thinking about the 5 ingredient rule. 

The 5 ingredient rule refers to the popular marker for identifying ultra-processed foods popularized by Michael Pollan in Food Rules. Defining ultra-processed by counting ingredients sounds unhelpful to my ear but it’s popular with both food journalists and food pundits. And the public seems to accept it because counting to 5 is easy to understand.

And that observation brings me back to my Rao’s Marinara.

With 7 ingredients and no other criteria, Rao’s is ultra-processed. So let me state my position right now for all to hear. If Rao’s must be categorized as ultra-processed, then I’m okay with ultra-processed products on my table.

Next time you’re walking supermarket aisles, check the Marinara sauce. There are hundreds of brands to choose from. Many have simple ingredient lists. Many others have more cluttered ingredient lists. Many brands substitute tomato paste or diced tomatoes for whole peeled tomatoes. So the way I see things, there’s work to be done to distinguish a straightforward product like Rao’s from all the other products on the shelf. 

A quick search on a local supermarket website brings up 75 options ranging in price from cheap to expensive. Not surprisingly, Rao’s is positioned near the top of that price range. All brands have 5 or more ingredients. And that means, if we follow the 5 ingredient rule, all brands of Marinara are ultra-processed.

I spot checked those 75 items and discovered the most notable difference is tomato integrity. Cheaper brands use tomato paste or purée or diced pieces. More expensive brand use whole peeled tomatoes. Tomato integrity is not captured by counting ingredients and it’s crucial to both taste and texture.

 While all brands exceed the 5 ingredient rule, most were comparatively additive free. Citric acid and calcium carbonate made frequent appearances along with preservatives, thickeners, or sweeteners making cameo appearances. Citric acid is an acidity regulator and calcium carbonate is a firming agent. Both these additives are ubiquitous on canned tomatoes whether the tomatoes are peeled and whole, chopped, diced, or puréed. 

Two other additives, salt and sugar, are listed as both nutrients on the nutrition facts label and again as ingredients on the ingredient list.

It seems ridiculous to my simplistic mind to put all Mariana sauces in the ultra-processed category without out further differentiation. So I’m asking myself, how would I break that category down? If I ruled the world, here’s where I would start.

First, whole tomatoes are preferable to chopped or diced or puréed tomatoes. That observation is probably related to the food matrix, a new concept in nutrition research currently in initial stages of investigation. Much too complex for my simplistic mind, so let me stay with those visual observable differences that both of us can see. In the case of the Marinara, the closer the tomato is to a whole tomato the better.

Second, less additives are preferable to more additives. I’m not talking here about the “clean” label movement. There’s a dirty little secret behind the clean label movement as explored in an excellent article by Nadia Berenstein. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look now. 

Additives are used by processors for many good reasons. Eliminating them before understanding why the manufacturer used an additive in the first place is not good practice. Additives are however legitimate markers of processed and ultra-processed products. Personally, I’m not concerned about their safety because I trust the FDA to do a good job. My decision to go with the fewer the better is based on taste and texture. Using the whole intact tomato just tastes better to me. More flavor. Better texture.

Third, nutrients remain important. Reducing healthy down to a couple of nutrients is insane. But it’s equally insane to eat as if nutrients don’t matter. Personally, I always check for salt, not so much for health reasons but because it’s been my observation manufacturers use salt in place of better quality ingredients so the product can be sold at a cheaper price.

Rao’s has a lower sodium concentration than many less expensive brands and the only sugars are the natural sugars present in all tomatoes.  The whole peeled tomatoes retain good flavor and contribute their natural sugars so no masking is required.

Now if only I ruled the world …

What to do when healthy and taste collide.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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