Tag Archives: sugar

Sugars or simple carbohydrates are our primary source of sweetness. Sugars found in foods that are naturally sweet are considered intrinsic.

Added Sugar is considered a nutrient of concern and was added as a line item to the Nutrition Facts Label in 2016.

Novel sources of sweetness include artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and plant-derived options such as stevia and monk fruit extract.

Summer Fruit Plate – the taste of seasonal deliciousness.

Imagine you’re sitting in a popular Manhattan restaurant. The meal you’ve just finished was worth every calorie and every dollar. Now it’s time for dessert – the best part of the meal. Every wondered why restaurants rarely offer fruit plates? I think I know the answer, but more on that later.

That spectacular fruit plate pictured above passes the Kiss test with flying colors. Edible proof that compliance and correctness don’t have to always mean the Kiss of Death.

For a restaurant to be willing to make a fruit plate, two things are required. Personalized attention and a knowledgeable chef de cuisine. At this particular restaurant, we were privileged to have both in the same person. Seasonal perfectly ripened fruit is a challenge under the best of condition and most restaurants, even good restaurants, aren’t staffed to handle the challenges.

The ingredient list for the plate in descending order by weight could not be more straightforward: nectarine, peach, blackberries, raspberries. And if you check the food composition stats for fruit, most of the weight is water weight. Not just any old tap water weight but naturally rich vitamin / mineral infused water including potassium plus assorted bioactives / phytonutrients depending on the color of the fruit.

A fruit plate for me is the perfect choice after any meal, but especially after a heavy meal. My gut appreciates that refreshing wonderful slightly acidic water. Cool, wet, refreshing, and sweetened just enough with natural intrinsic sugars.


So why don’t more restaurants offer fruit plates?

From the restaurant perspective, it’s actually cheaper and easier to offer a traditional dessert. Fresh fruit is perishable. Stone fruits and berries have a finite shelf life and bruise easily. Apples need to be under constant refrigeration and humidity once they are picked. Melons will keep okay for a while until you cut them open … To sum it up, most fruits are just not good keepers.

Again from the restaurant perspective, it’s easily to stay in business providing foods the customer wants to eat and for many, dessert is the “best part of the meal”. The restaurant we ate at had many options. Here’s the three I can remember:

• Homemade ice cream – a couple of scoops made with heavy cream from grass-fed cows.

• Panna cotta – an Italian creation made from cream, sugar, buttermilk and molded with gelatin for spectacular presentation.

• Valhrona chocolate cake – one of the world’s finest chocolates mixed with almond meal, wheat flour, sugars, butter, and eggs.

Calorie rich combinations of fat and sugar are significantly more popular that a simple fruit plate. Even the restaurant owner admitted he’d rather have ice cream than fruit.

So why don’t restaurant offer seasonal fruit plates? Because the numbers just don’t add up. The product is temperamental with limited shelf stability, requires staff time and expertise, and the customer has no interest.

A fresh seasonal fruit plate is my choice after a heavy meal but for most restaurant customers it’s just one more example of “healthy” as the Kiss of Death.

Blueberry Yogurt – my kind of healthy

Whole milk yogurt and blueberries will not pass the Kiss of Death Test but from my perspective the combination may be a healthier choice. But before we get to that …

Blueberries are in season in the Northeast beginning mid July until the ending late summer. The farm stand I buy from brings them in starting from Pennsylvania / New Jersey. Then continues from the Hudson Valley and sometimes even from New England. It’s long season and blueberry lovers like me take full advantage.

Unlike local strawberries which are sweet, blueberries are on the tart side so I compliment them with a scoop of drained whole milk yogurt and a drizzle of maple syrup. Makes a delicious little after dinner dessert on a hot humid summer evening.

The blueberries of course are minimally processed. Maple syrup is a processed culinary ingredient. And my unflavored whole milk yogurt is traditionally processed with all the fermentation benefits of live and active bacterial cultures. I do the draining myself and use the whey in cooking or drink it to avoid waste.

Why whole milk instead of nonfat milk? Because whole milk yogurt just tastes so good! And deliciousness greatly enhances my enjoyment.

As for portion sizing, that combination of blueberries and yogurt pictured above would fill about 1 cup. Please note however I use more blueberries and less yogurt than those little pots of commodity branded yogurt that line supermarket shelves these days.


Food is more than the sum of the nutrient parts. That phrase has always resonated with me but the resonance is more intuitive than evidence based. I’ve always had a hard time relating to the accepted science based guidance that whole fruit and whole wheat are health promoting while whole milk is not.

Things may change however. Have you ever heard the phrase the food matrix?

During the decade 1990s when I studied nutrition and the subsequent 20 years I worked in rehab and bariatric wellness, I never heard anyone use the phrase. The recipe analysis tool I work with lists 172 nutritional components but food matrix is not one of those components. Food Data Central, the USDA database lists 259 unique nutrient names but makes no reference to the matrix. The only USDA reference I could find was in the National Agricultural Library. Here’s how that document defined the food matrix:  The nutrient and non-nutrient components of foods and their molecular relationships, i.e. chemical bonds, to each other.

Perhaps the best introduction to this novel concept comes from a theoretical discussion between a Holistic and a Reductionist posted earlier this year on the blog written by Rob Shewfelt, Professor Emeritus at University of Georgia.

The food matrix is a novel concept that could explain differences we see in whole and ultra-processed foods. Holistic viewpoints clash with reductionistic ones. Is one superior to the other? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between? Both holism and reductionism tend to oversimplify each other’s arguments. Each perspective has its strengths and limitations.

Sitting here looking out the window and savoring my local blueberries, maple syrup, and plain whole milk drained yogurt, my gut says the combination works for me.

✔️So do I trust my gut or do I go with the guidelines?
✔️Do I defy the food police or do I stop at that metaphoric red light?

Dealing with unknowns is never easy. But I do know nutrition is wicked hard. And I know the role of saturated fat in a healthy pattern remains controversial. And I know researchers are studying if saturated fats within a matrix like my yogurt behave differently than saturated fats that have been extracted from the matrix like butter.

So for now I am going to trust my gut, wait for more clarify, and enjoy my yogurt.

Home baked cookies – good intentions versus good outcomes.

Cookies are scrumptious little bundles of calorie dense fat and sugar. And yes added sugars are healthy. Labeling everything unhealthy means not on will pay attention. But more on that later.

Some folks love Oreos, still the best selling off the shelf branded cookie. As for me, I like to bake my own. The aroma that fills the air whets my appetite and I always put a couple of freshly baked cookies aside to savor as soon as they’re cool enough to eat. Whether store bought or freshly baked, most of us enjoy a good cookie from time to time.

Oreos can’t pass the Kiss of Death Test. Stats for Nabisco Oreo Sandwich Cookies can be found by checking Smart Label.

The cookie recipes posted on the USDA website MyPlate Kitchen can’t pass the test.

And my little home baked beauties pictured don’t stand a chance. I do use better quality ingredients so the list is NOVA friendly. The list includes mostly minimally processed ingredients (rolled oats, walnuts, raisins, whole wheat flour, egg), some processed culinary ingredients (butter, Demerara sugar, salt), and only one ultra-processed (vanilla). But do NOVA friendly ingredients make my cookies a better nutrient dense choice?

The challenge that all cookies face is nutrients – that irresistibly delicious combination of fats and sugars. Cookies as a generic group can’t pass the Kiss of Death test, but in my humble opinion that’s not to say cookies are categorically unhealthy.


Here’s my concern. With the best of intentions, the FDA proposal and to some extent our Dietary Guidelines have neglected something fundamentally important that relates to how humans eat.

What is it exactly that has been neglected? Enjoyment. Pleasure. Joy of Eating. Folks expect food to taste good.

The word enjoyment doesn’t appear a single time in the 40,000 word proposal on using the word healthy on food product labels recently published by the FDA. And the word appears only 4 times in the 164 pages of our current Dietary Guidelines.

Now as one of my colleagues has noted, some folks will eat tree bark if it’s labeled healthy. But I wouldn’t and neither would most folks who sit at my table. Most people have higher expectations for what gets put on our plates.

I would be okay with the FDA using labels to inform us when nutrient thresholds are high or low. But I’m not okay with an a labeling strategy that equates the word healthy with a nutrient content claim. The folks at the FDA may have good intentions so I’m not questioning their motivation. I am just questioning the use of the word healthy.

Like I used to tell clients – you can eat anything you enjoy as long as you’re willing to manage portion size and frequency.

 The word healthy makes more sense as a dietary pattern than as a nutrient content claim. And patterns require looking at the whole meal or the whole day.

Simply put, the proposed FDA update will likely fail to improve anyone’s health while potentially having some unintended consequences. The intention was to encourage people to make healthier choices. But in reality, it runs the risk of alienating them. That serves no one’s interest.


Clafouti – Apple Flan

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Sour cherries, like our American cranberries, are a little too sour to savor straight up. So in the spirit of thrift and ingenuity, some practical French cook figured out a solution. If you add those sour cherries to a sweet eggy batter, sour balances perfectly with creamy and sweet. And voilá, claflouti was born. The combination evolved in the French city of Limousine a hundred plus years ago and has today attained global status.

Clafouti, or apple flan, is the second recipe I’m putting to my kiss of death test.


The ingredient list is short and simple: apples, milk, eggs, sugar, whole wheat flour, raisins, butter, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg. The apple flan pictured above is made using whole wheat flour but honestly I don’t taste much difference between whole wheat or all purpose flour. There’s a bit more finely ground fiber in whole wheat of course so the nutrition stats do look better. All ingredients except the vanilla extract are minimally processed or culinary processed ingredients. The flan reflected in the photo is freshly baked just out of the oven. As it cools, however, the flan will sink down in the baking dish.

I make my version with apples because apples are one of my favorite winter fruits and I’ve discovered that this flan is an excellent way to repurpose any apples which have aged past their prime and lost their crispness.

The sugar is essential – just enough sweetness to make a delicious little ending to a celebration meal. 


Butter and sugar guarantee that the apple flan will fail my kiss of death test. Sugar was actually okay back in the 1990s but butter even in small amounts would have delivered a knock out blow. Today added sugar is a member of our nutrient axis of evil – sodium, saturated fat, added sugars. So my apple flan gets two knock out blows.

An FDA serving size or RACC is weight based. In order to asses for compliance, analysts like me are expected run the numbers using the appropriate serving size. Sometimes that amount corresponds with what folks at my table eat. Sometimes not. For the apple flan 2/3 of a cup looks to be about right for me. But most folks who sit at my table will eat more.



Is added sugar healthy or unhealthy?

Having given this question a lot of thought since the FDA published their proposed update, I’ve decided I’m okay with the FDA setting a draconian limit on added sugars and with the predictable set of winners and losers.

So let’s assume added sugar is not healthy and see where that assumption takes us. Fresh fruit will always be a healthy choice, but most folks who crave desserts don’t reach for fruit. They want a real dessert. The proposed rules are very restrictive and would knock out exactly those real desserts folks want.

Following traffic rules is easy when it comes to red lights or seat belts. Following food rules when it comes to added sugars is much harder. Common sense should tell us that sweetness at end of the meal is always enjoyable but not always health promoting. Common sense should also tell us there’s a time and a place for an enjoyable “unhealthy” indulgence.

Deciding when and how much, however, is a lot more complicated than putting on your seat belt or stopping for a red light.

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.

A Taste for Freshly Baked

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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 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.


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”.


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?


• Cost. The cost difference is significant. My pie costs twice as much. And it’s not just dollar cost. I spend more time. Prep, cooking, and clean up take 1 1/2 to 2 hours plus time to source ingredients!

• Ingredients. The ingredients are processed but not ultra-processed. Does the avoidance of ultra-processed foods make my pie any healthier? My take on that question is probably yes. I do understand however evidence is still pending and making a statement at this point in time would be a leap of faith.

• Nutrients. As per the analysis, my pie reflects a slightly less “unhealthy” profile compared with the commodity pie.

• Taste. I’ll have to do an addendum next year. I’m food literate enough to know how to determine quality by reading an ingredient list and checking the price. But for the actual taste comparison, for a side to side comparison, I’ll have to wait for next year’s pumpkin pie season. 

Twinkie Addendum

photo credit | gourmetmetrics


A couple of threads fell into place recently as I continue to explore the NOVA food classification system. And that send me out looking for Twinkies.

The first thread came by accident. I found myself listening to a previously recorded presentation at Google headquarters in California by New York based writer, editor, and publisher Steve Ettlinger. He was in California discussing his book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats. Published in 2007, the book is a fascinating exploration of the multitude of weird, unrecognizable ingredients used in modern food processing. 

The second thread fell into place when I discovered a recipe for homemade Twinkies does actually exists. About a decade ago, Jennifer Schihauser, a NYT journalist, developed a series of articles around the concept “If I make it myself, it’s not junk” and one of her recipes was for making Twinkies at home.

With a Twinkies formulation in one hand and a recipe for a homemade version in the other hand, I can actually do an “apples to apples” comparison between a formulated product and an equivalent homemade version. That was the third thread falling into place. I have what I need to count ingredients / markers of Ultra-Processed food (UPF) and compare nutrition stats. 

I needed to go out looking for Twinkies to get a label, always the best way to get the ingredient list. Product formulations change so the best source of data is always the current product label. Besides, I’ve never tasted a Twinkie so I was curious. I figured I should at least have a bite.

Using the ingredient list from the Twinkie’s wrapper and the Jennifer Schihauser recipe, I was ready to begin.

Running the numbers was easy because I’m in the business of recipe analysis. For guidance on the NOVA food classification system, however, I selected 2019 commentary Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them to serve as my reference guide.


Flour. Butter. Sugar. Eggs. Those are the primary ingredients listed in the homemade version. All familiar, recognizable ingredients. Besides the basics, the recipe also calls for salt, milk, vanilla, cream of tartar, heavy cream, and Marshmallow Fluff. That’s a total of 11 ingredients. 

The formulated Twinkie is manufactured with mostly unfamiliar ingredients. To my eye, they look like deconstructed fragments. Examples are high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or hydrogenated tallow, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin. 

I counted 7 primary ingredients plus an additional 22 listed on the label as <2% by weight and felt comfortable tagging 18 as UPF markers.

What counts as a marker? As per my NOVA reference document, markers can be 1) “food substances not usually found in the home kitchen like high-fructose corn syrup or 2) “cosmetic additives” like flavors, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or thickeners. Note that salt and sugar get a pass because NOVA classifies them as processed culinary ingredients.


Both homemade and formulated versions are intense concentrations of fats and sweetness with little positive nutrient benefit. And both versions are calorie dense. 

Nutrients per serving size is the best metric for checking how much you’re actually eating, but comparing nutrients in similar products needs a different metric. My choice for this type of comparison is the calorie density scale which reflects nutrient values by weight. Think of the calorie density scale as a sort unit price for nutrients.

The homemade Twinkie is 3.6 calories per gram. The formulated product is 3.4 calories per gram. To put these calorie density numbers in context, Doritos scores 5.1 on the calorie density scale whereas a Chipotle Beef Burrito will clock in at about 1.8 calories per grams.

Both recipe and formulation have comparable amounts of total fat but homemade Twinkies have a significantly higher concentration of saturated fat. No surprises here. Butter is the only fat called for in the recipe and butter is notoriously high in saturated fatty acids. 

The formulated Twinkies use a combination of animal fat (tallow) and seed oil (cottonseed oil) which results in less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat.

Both recipe and formulation are intensely sweet. Sweeteners in one form or another comprise about 40% by weight. Homemade uses granulated sugar plus some marshmallow fluff. The formulation lists sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose. 

Sodium is not significant for either version but it’s worth noting there’s more in the formulation than the recipe.


The final thread fell into place when I tasted the Twinkie. Actually better than I expected but still too sweet for my taste.


It’s takes many hours to source and study the NOVA research, to count ingredients and identify the markers, and to compare nutrition stats. Here’s why I believe my time was well spent:

  • I learned that nutrients are easier to count than ingredients or UPF markers, especially hard was deciding which additives were “cosmetic” and which were not. Difficult and inconclusive.
  • Simplistic pronouncements by food pundits, corporate marketeers, or social influencers are misleading. NOVA is a sophisticated concept. Selecting a couple of buzz words may sell books or products but does a disservice to consumers.
  • Expanding my NOVA analysis skills is a good investment of time. My sense is we’ll be having more serious discussions about degree of processing in the coming years.

So do I plan to do more apples-to-apples comparisons between a formulation and a recipe? You bet I do.



Biscotti, NOVA, and Common Sense.


Who doesn’t like a good biscotti? It’s sweet and nutty and soft when made with enough butter, but firm enough to dunk in coffee. Pictured above are my favorite off the shelf biscotti. Biscotti aren’t healthy, but that’s not why I like them. This traditional Italian delicacy is concentrated sugars and refined carbohydrates softened with butter. Totally unhealthy and completely delicious.

Trying to make them at home is complex. Most recipes use a standard set of ingredients consisting of sugar, flour, nuts, and baking powder. Some recipes call for eggs, others call for butter, still others call for oil. Some even call for dried fruit like the cranberries in my favorite biscotti. No matter which combination of ingredients, however, there is one feature that all biscotti have in common. They are twice baked. And twice baked is too complex for my simplistic mind, so I have become a connoisseur of off the shelf.

Like all packaged cookies my biscotti are ultra-processed. Maybe if I baked them at home with carefully sourced ingredients I could get away with dropping the ultra … but just maybe.

How do I know? Because NOVA says so.


NOVA is new way to classify food. It’s a system that examines the extent and purpose of food processing. Originally developed in Brazil, the concept is gaining traction in other South American countries, Canada and France.
 NOVA characterizes ultra-processed foods as industrial formulations made with many unfamiliar ingredients not commonly used in kitchens. These foods are manufactured and designed to be profitable, convenient, and hyper-palatable.

My favorite biscotti fit the description. They are palatable and very tasty. The ingredient list looks mostly familiar with the exception on malted barley flour. But when I check ingredient lists for other brands, I do find suspicious additives like soy lecithin, palm kernel oil, mono- and di-glycerides, natural flavors to name a few.

The product is an industrial formulation. Otherwise, my biscotti would not taste exactly the same every time. The product is convenient too saving me the time and trouble of twice baking every single batch I mix up.

So now what?

NOVA is not well known here in the states but that may be changing. We Americans are big consumers of ultra-processed products, well over 50% by most counts. Our voracious consumption is causing concern among some of my fellow dietitians. Many nutrition commentators agree that a food pattern based on minimally processed real food is the best option but I’ve yet to find anyone willing to commit to a percentage.

As for me, I know that my gut is happier when I eat less highly processed foods. But that’s a personal testimonial and anecdotal evidence doesn’t count for much. So …


Proponents of an evidenced based approach to eating don’t give much credit to common sense. Those folks are scientists and view common sense much the same way as Albert Einstein “… the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Science moves methodically and slowly and nutrition science is wicked hard. Like a never ending story, the facts of today are subject to change based on new findings tomorrow.

But since we need to make eating decisions every day with or without evidence, sometimes that collection of “prejudices” is all we’ve got. We put something the plate every day. We can’t just stop eating while science is still working things out.

So let’s be patient and let science do its thing. Let’s enjoy our biscotti without fear or worry. We have no common food culture to reference, but we do have our gut and our own common sense. One biscotti will hopefully not be a problem. Eating the whole package should give you a stomach ache.

Looks to me like my KIND bar is ultra-processed.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

A couple of weeks ago, the word ultra-processed made national headlines when a well done study concluded that ultra-processed food promotes weight gain while unprocessed food does not. This one I said to myself needs further investigation.

After reading the complete study, I linked to another site for clarification on what foods are ultra-processed and ended up at NOVA. There I learned about a Brazilian academic Carlos Monteiro and his novel food classification system NOVA. Links to both study and NOVA provided at the end of the post.

NOVA divides foods into four groups and characterizes ultra-processed foods as follows:

“The fourth NOVA group is ultra-processed food and drink products. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.”

Then I went to my pantry hoping to find something vaguely resembling that verbose awkward prose. I didn’t find much until I remembered my KIND bars. I always keep at least one in my pocketbook for emergencies. I’m partial to the apricot almond, so I looked in my pocketbook and there was a KIND bar wrapped and ready to go. The ingredient list is printed on the wrapper: almonds, coconut, apricots, glucose syrup, honey, chicory root fiber, rice flour, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt.

With the ingredient list in one hand and that prose description in the other, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. Words in boldface refer back to NOVA. Ingredients are numbered in descending order.

#1 almonds, #2 coconut, #3 apricots are familiar foods. I can see the almond pieces and perhaps the coconut shreds in my KIND bar so we’ll call them intact. I don’t see any apricot pieces however. Maybe apricot purée?

#4 glucose syrup, #5 honey, and #9 sugar are sugar.

#6 chicory root fiber is the name manufacturers give to inulin for labeling purposes. Chicory root is an intact food. It looks like a short fat shaggy cream colored carrot with long brown hairs. Inulin is a white powder which is extracted and refined from the root and is considered an isolated non-digestible carbohydrates by the FDA. Manufacturers can count inulin as a fiber on the nutrition facts label. Inulin is not commonly used in culinary preparations, although you can order inulin as a supplement online or buy it off the supplement shelf in a health food store.

#7 rice flour is a stabilizer

#8 soy lecithin is an emulsifier (not referenced above but found in other descriptions of NOVA)

#10 sea salt is salt

So is my KIND bar ultra-processed? It certainly looks that way to my analytic eye. Of the 10 ingredients counted, 7 tract back to NOVA.

Does it matter? Now that’s the tricky question. And over the next couple of years, many smart, knowledgeable researchers are going to be working hard trying to figure out the answer to that question.

Pictured next to the KIND bar is an equivalent weight of dry unsulfured apricots and almonds which I also keep in my pantry. Just two ingredients. Clearly not ultra-processed. Taste is 100% subjective and my preference is the simpler version of fruit and nuts. But when I’m hungry enough to just need calories, the KIND bar is what I reach for.

Here’s a link to the study and a link to NOVA.

Looks like the French are up to mischief again …


Something happened in France at the end of last year.

The French government officially endorsed Nutri-Score on October 31, 2017 and that beautifully designed 5 color graphic pictured above because the official voluntary front of the package scoring system in France.

Why voluntary? Because France as a member of the European common market is not allowed to mandate a food label. However, several large French food manufacturers have already agreed to start using Nutri Score and a couple of enterprising young French entrepreneurs have already launched an app that reads barcodes and scores products.

Americans are used to French influence. Think French restaurants. Or Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese. Or Jacques Pépin. And most Americans are familiar with French food. We suspect the French eat perhaps a little more butter and cheese than most of us think is healthy. And we may also suspect the French have a more casual approach to food that allows for enjoyment without guilt. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that consumer package labeling is not the usual place one looks to for French inspiration.

Besides, why look to France when we have our own version of a front of the package label.  Ever notice those little boxes with numbers and percentages on the front of packaged foods as you’re walking down a supermarket aisle? Sometimes there is just one box. Usually there are four boxes. Sometimes up to six boxes. Here’s what our Facts Up Front label looks like


The first box always lists calories per serving. The next three boxes provide information on nutrients to limit in the diet: saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Subsequent boxes if they appear are used for nutrients to encourage.

The two systems reflect two very different approaches to the same problem. One isn’t necessarily easier or better than the other. A shopper who wants to choose healthier packaged items can succeed with either system. But because the approaches are so different, I decided to compare the two, detail those differences, and share my discoveries with you.

  1. The French system is color coded. Facts Up Front is not. So let’s say right up front that the color range makes the label more intuitive. Dark green indicates a healthier choice. A lighter shade of green and oranges in the middle. At the end, a deep reddish orange to indicate not so healthy choices.
  2. The French system is weight based. Facts Up Front is portion sized based. Our American system works well for comparing two brand of potato chips or whether or a portion of potato chips with a portion of an energy bar. The French system is based on a consistent weight and helps consumers compare calorie density and percentage weight. For example potato chips usually are 500 or more calories per 100 grams whereas most granola bars are closer to 400 calories per 100 grams.
  3. The French system sums up multiple nutrient numbers and presents the consumer with a single color coded score. Our American system puts 4 or more discrete values on the front of the package and it’s up to us put a picture together.
  4. The French system scores food groups. Our American system scores only nutrients. The combined weight of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts is summed as a percentage of the total weight. The higher the percentage, the more points a product earns. Our American system focuses exclusively on nutrients, more specifically the nutrients to limit or avoid. There is a place for nutrients to encourage like fiber or protein or potassium, no mechanism for scoring a food group.

So there you have my run down of the differences. The best labeling strategy of course is that strategy that works for you and most folks tend to like the strategy they are used to. So most Americans will feel more comfortable with out American portion sized system and most French people will feel more comfortable with the French weight based system.

As for me I’m intrigued with the concept of including food groups in the scoring algorithm. Especially if those foods are intact whole foods. Fascinating idea and one worthy of more thought …