Tag Archives: water

Water is our most important nutrient and has a direct impact on the nutrient concentration levels of both macro & micro nutrients. FRUITS and VEGETABLES are 90% water. Bread is about 40% water. Dry pasta should be about 12.5% water, roughly the same as most energy bars. Olive oils are less that 1% water. See calorie.

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.

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.

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 …

Rethinking Fat, Sugar, and Salt.

photo credit | gourmetmetricsphoto credit | gourmetmetrics

The corona virus pandemic has sent us to our homes and forced us to cook. No one knows yet how many will continue once pandemic policies are relaxed, but some will. If you are one of those hungry folks who only recently has discovered the joys of cooking, please read on.

Being new to cooking probably means you grew up in a culture that measures healthy in nutrients. Nutrients like fiber and protein are good. Nutrients like fat, sugar, and salt / sodium are bad. Food is fuel and energy is measured in calories. Superfoods like cauliflower or kale make headlines but nutrients and calories remain the dominant metric for measuring healthy. 

I know all this because I get paid to run nutrition stats for websites, book editors, and federally sponsored institutional foodservice.

These nutrient centric one size fits all guidelines were built with the best of intentions on a foundation of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. And that is the reason why so many food focused folks like chefs, food writers, and home cooks have problems with the guidelines.

Flavor is what counts at their table. They know for instance that roasted cauliflower is more delicious than steamed cauliflower. They know fat carries flavor and salt is a powerful flavor enhancer. 

As a home cook and RDN, I too am critical of the guidelines. My views are divergent, divergence being the rejection of sameness, similarity, conformity, and uniformity. I was lucky. Growing up in California meant eating fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables all year long. Living in France for several years meant honing my cooking skills and developing my culinary palate. I learned to eat before I started my nutrition studies so I knew what delicious tasted like before I learned how to count nutrients and calories.

Having one foot in nutrition stats and the other in home cooking gives me a unique perspective because I know down to the gram and the milligram when the meals at my table are guideline compliant and when they are not. From a nutrient compliance perspective, my pattern is mixed.

Detailed below are some stats I ran before the pandemic. The stats reflect aggregate nutrient values for the meals I cook at home.

✅Sodium is a nutrient to avoid and salt enhances flavor.  Because I cook from scratch and salt to taste, sodium is within acceptable range. 

✅Fiber is a beneficial nutrient. Because we eat so many vegetables and legumes, fresh seasonal fruits and whole grains, fiber is always well represented at my table.

✅Sugar is the new toxic nutrient. Natural sugars appear on my table as fresh seasonal fruit. Added sugars appear as home baked cookies, my signature pumpkin pie, or some of my other favorite home baked desserts. Sugar is within acceptable range.

✅Protein is adequate to meet nutrition need and comes from both animal and plant sources. Our portions are guideline compliant but smaller than what most of my fellow Americans expect to see on the plate.

❌Fat used to be the toxic nutrient. And my pattern has been consistently out of compliance for 25 years. My stats reflect calories from total fat is 35% to 40%. Our Dietary Guidelines set a 35% limit and the most recent World Health Organization Guidelines set a 30% limit. Olive oil is central to my cooking and is considered a healthy fat but I have a very generous hand. Milk and cheese are full fat. Nuts are part of our daily pattern. 

Being a registered dietitian and deciding to follow a divergent pathway puts me in an awkward position. If I were willing to reduce my use of olive oil, to use fat free dairy, to eat more carbs, and to develop a taste for skinless boneless chicken breast, my pattern would be optimal. Since I’ve never felt comfortable telling others to follow guidance I don’t follow myself, I prefer working in recipe analysis.

The stats I run for institution foodservice and book editors are nutrient focused because nutrients remain the standard protocol. But things are changing.

Nutrition science is wicked hard. Truth be told, significant disagreement currently exists among nutrition researchers about what is and is not healthy. The old nutrient focused paradigm that I learned in the early 1990s is cracking at the foundation. Seismic shifts are traumatic. The ground needs to stabilize before a new foundation can be built. Something will coalesce but no one knows yet, when a new paradigm takes form, if we’ll be counting nutrients or foods or patterns or all three.

Culinary divergence in a nutrient obsessed food world is stressful, liberating, and in my humble opinion necessary.

Stressful because we want to do the right thing but we’re not sure yet what the right thing is. Liberating because we have more freedom to be creative and to experiment. Necessary because we need to put the joy back in eating.

These are exciting times to be writing about food and nutrition. These are also exciting time to be learning how to cook.

 

Winter trimmings and regulatory cement.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Some folks follow recipes as if they were set in regulatory cement but that’s not how I like to do things. Too rigid and inflexible. It’s just more fun to take the structure of a recipe and adapt it to my own situation using the recipe as a guiding principle.

Here’s a picture of the last bag of my winter trimmings. Red onion skins, some winter greens, storage carrot ends, portobello stems and gills predominate. This batch has been accumulating over a month or so during which I gathered trimmings and stored them in a 1 liter freezer bag. Batches of trimmings vary through the year. More in the winter than the summer. Different mixtures depending on what I’m cooking.

When the bag is full, I put about 1/2 liter (2 cups) in the bottom of my steamer and put the frozen trimmings in the steamer basket. The brew steams slowly and the trimmings release their pigments and essence into the water below. After an hour or two, I press as much liquid as I can out of the vegetable trimmings and put the remains into my food scraps recycle bin. Then I strain the broth, transfer the beautiful aromatic amber liquid into containers, and store in the freezer for use over the next couple of weeks.

The first time I made a vegetable broth, I consulted a couple of online recipes along with any guidance from my cookbooks, picking up a suggest here and a tip there. Over the years, I’ve established my own rhythm and learned through trial and error. No cauliflower stalks but kale stems or broccoli stem skins are okay. Always carrot ends and peels. And I especially love onion skins both red or white because they contribute such amazing pigment colors.

Making my own no bone vegetable broth is satisfying for many reasons. It’s clean. So clean in fact my broth beats even the cleanest labeled commercial brand. No waste. Food scraps get repurposed then recycled. No salt. Not because I don’t like salt but because I use the broth in cooking and each dish is salted to taste during preparation. Never boring. Each time I make up a batch, the flavor and even the color changes according the selection of trimmings that went into the freezer bag.

Using a recipe as a guiding principle works so well and is how most folks who like to cook use recipes. Cooking is a creative process and the recipe becomes a structure that can be adopted and evolved depending on location, season, custom, and taste preference.

So why not use the same logic for dietary guidelines? I just wish it were that simple. Over the last 3 decades each time there’s a new release of dietary guideline, institutions implement those guidelines as one more layer of regulatory cement. Those layers of cement has been accumulating now for decades. Absolute compliance takes precedence over location, season, custom, and taste.

Trusting folks to use dietary guidelines as guiding principles might not produce better results than regulatory cement but it’s hard to see how it could be worse. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what would happen if the experts were comfortable letting us humans make our own judgment calls based on a few good rules?

 

Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

Salade Composée | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

NUTRIENTS

Let’s look at the nutrition facts first: 660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.

INGREDIENTS

Here is the list of ingredients: arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and generously dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Those chickpeas were home cooked with salt from a heirloom variety. But I had many other options. Canned, drained, or rinsed. And how old were the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

The tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product imported from Italy. Again, there are many options to choose from. Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh.

As for the vegetables, one thing for sure is they were imported from some warmer part of the country because here in the northeast planting doesn’t get started until May. Probably not USDA organic either because my Italian green grocer believes “organic” is a scam and tells me his customers don’t want to pay extra for the label.

Eggs are from pastured hens that are free to roam, weather permitting. The farro is grown here but I’ve used farro imported from Italy and it’s very tasty. Finally my classic vinaigrette is made with a certified branded dated olive oil from California and a distinctive sherry vinegar imported from Spain and salt.

Ingredients always generate so many questions and it’s hard to believe your choice of ingredients doesn’t impact the healthiness of the plate independent of those nutrition facts noted above.

SO WHAT EXACTLY MAKES A PLATE HEALTHY?

That’s a good question and the answer all depends on who is looking at the plate.

If you’re the FDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on milligrams of sodium, the ratio of saturated fatty acids to unsaturated fatty acids, and the respective percentage contributions of certain essential nutrients to established reference values per day. I understand how to run those stats and am happy to explain the calculation in detail.

If you’re the USDA, you’ll gauge “healthiness” on cups of vegetables, ounces of protein, grams of saturated fatty acids and milligrams of sodium with bonus points for whole grains and fish. Again, I know how to run those stats and can explain in detail.

I’m just not sure, however, that explaining in detail is helpful. I’ve tried in the past and most folks go glassy eyed.

And I’m also not sure my explanations answer the question of whether of not the plate is healthy. The folks who believe low fat is healthy won’t like the fact that 65% calories come from fat and 11% calories come from saturated fat. Vegans won’t think the plate is healthy because of the tuna and egg. Carnivores won’t think it’s healthy because there’s no meat.  Keto enthusiasts will reject the plate because of the grain. The organic crowd will reject the plate because my vegetables are conventional. So you see, it all depends.

Maybe someday researchers will figure out how to reflect all the radiant complexity in my salad with a single healthy symbol. But for now it makes more sense to my simplistic mind to source my ingredients carefully, go with my gut, check the nutrition facts, and retain at all times a healthy dose of common sense.