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

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
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.

THE NUTRITION FACTS STORY

First take a cold hard look at that small little subset of information called nutrition facts.

660 calories, 48g fat, 8g satfat, 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 6g sugar, 26g protein.
It’s hard to say whether that string is healthy or not. My first though is always that I need more information. Without checking the ingredient list and without the picture, there’s no way to tell what foods are on the plate.

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORIES.

Every recipe has a story to tell. Even when as is the case here, there was no recipe. Its confession time and that means I’ll have to admit that I didn’t actually follow a particular recipe. I followed a pattern. For those who feel more comfortable with a recipe, however, there are hundreds available via a google search.

When I put a salad like this one together, I use what’s on hand. Each salad is different. Depends on what’s is the frig, how big the plate is, what’s in the pantry, how creative I am feeling, and who else will be sitting at my table.

Some recipes have a backstory, but I checked my Larousse Gastronomique and all I could find was the fundamental distinction between tossed salad versus composed salad. Tossed gets well tossed. And composed just sits. Timing of the dressing is the same in both cases, just before serving.

Every ingredient has a story too. Pictured above are arugula, chickpeas, tuna, cucumber, tomato, egg, farro, red cabbage, parsley. All artfully arranged or “composed” on plate and dressing with a classic vinaigrette.

Where were the chickpeas sourced? Canned or home made. And how were they grown? Organic. Conventional. Regenerative. And how about how old are the chickpeas because age really does make a difference when you’re cooking chickpeas from scratch.

What about the tuna? 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. Just for the record, the tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product packed in Italy.

What about the vegetables? Where were the cucumber, red cabbage, and parsley, tomato grown. Organic. Regenerative. Conventional. Local. How long they kept in storage before hitting the supermarket shelf or were they picked up that day from the farmer’s market.

Are the eggs from pastured hens or caged hens? Is the farro imported Italy or home grown in the US? Is the vinaigrette classic clean home made or an off the shelf branded?

So many, many stories to tell for one very simple salad …

WHERE DOES FOOD FIT?

Governments have been slow to act but most home cooks, chefs, and foodies already know food counts. Perhaps that’s why this group tends to pay so little attention to what the government does and does not say about healthy.

Other countries has been more aggressive with consumer package goods labeling than we have been. The Brits worked out their traffic light system of food labeling over a decade ago. The Australians implemented their Health Star Rating System a couple of years ago. But the real breakthrough came last year when the French government approved a voluntary front of the packaged label Nutriscore that actually counts food in the calculation.

AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH A SALAD?

While trying to reduce something as radiantly complex as food down to a couple of nutrients really is a bit crazy making, putting food back into the equation might actually work.

So I began to wonder what would happen if I borrowed the French approach to consumer packaged goods and applied it to a recipe?

First identify the Negatives, which do happen to be nutrients. Then identify the Positives, which are a combination of nutrients and foods. Then balance the Negatives against the Positives and assign a color coded range.

Using this concept, my salad scored reasonably well. Not completely healthy because I do use more salt (sodium) and lots of olive oil (satfat). But better than somewhat healthy because the salad is a good source of protein and fiber and is mostly plant based. You can tell by looking at the picture the salad is mostly plant based. The actual calculation is 52% by weight — cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, arugula, cabbage, parsley. Nutriscore doesn’t count grains in the calculation so I didn’t count the farro. But farro is an ancient whole grain wheat berry with all the benefits of whole wheat

Using the Nutriscore color code, my salad whole be light green. If the salad were rigidly healthy, I would could use dark green circle. If the salad were somewhat healthy, I could use light orange. But the salad is in between so it would light green circle. I’m going to call it reasonably healthy.

Not sure about the FDA, but reasonably healthy works for me. How about you?

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Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

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This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.

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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

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Healthy eating has been in a state of transformation now for the last couple of years. It’s hard to date exactly when the sea change started but we’ve gradually been moving away from low fat, restrictions, and deprivations.

During the 1990s healthy really was synonymous with low fat, restrictions, and deprivations. That was decade when restaurants stopped using the word because they quickly determined that labeling a new menu item heart healthy or low fat was the kiss of death.

Home cooks and creative chefs have probably never paid all that much attention to nutrition guidelines and, just between you and me, I never cooked low fat at home even though I did my nutrition studies during the 1990s. But mainstream Americans embraced carbohydrates and sugar and cut out the fat.

I knew things were happening in the academic community when I started seeing studies like these here and here and here.

And if I were asked to provide pivotal dates, I would cite the publication of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines because of the implicit acknowledgement that the sum may be greater than its individual parts.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.

Or perhaps the FDA decision to exercise enforcement discretion as the agency reviews labeling criteria for manufacturers who want to label their products healthy.

But when I see a statement like the one below from a restaurant consulting group suggesting deprivation and restriction need no longer be a necessary component of healthy eating, I begin to think 2018 may actually be the year when the pieces fall into place. Healthy Dining is a San Diego based restaurant consulting group. Here’s that quote from the CEO from a recent blog:

There’s a new trend in healthy eating and restaurant dining, and it is leaving behind restriction and deprivation in favor of savoring great meals at restaurants that support a healthy lifestyle.

So you may be wondering what all this has to do with my lovingly prepared and very tasty chicken tagine pictured above?

Well let me explain. Even by current liberalized criteria, my tagine is not technically healthy.  Despite using quality ingredients and significant amount of vegetables to compliment the chicken thighs, my cooking uses more olive olive than is currently recommended.

Since the 1990s when those draconian criteria were cast in regulatory concrete, many of my zealous colleagues have dutifully taken classic recipes like the one I used for the tagine and made adjustments to the proportions to restrict fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

Relief is in sight however. To their credit, the FDA has acknowledged the need to revise that criteria. And I say congratulations. Maybe a little late, but better late than never …

What will the new criteria look like?

Hopefully a better way to asses the food and nutrition values of a dish like the one pictured above. We need a scoring system that awards points for making half the plate vegetables plus positives like fiber and protein. Then we need that same scoring system to balance those positives against sodium and saturated fats.

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

 

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Since the first release of the Nutrition Facts Label, healthy has been a nutrient based construct. Recently, the FDA agreed to review and revise the regulatory criteria for healthy and the new regulatory requirements could be released as soon as this year.

When I posed a question to a group of dietitians asking them if healthy should be food based or nutrient based, to my surprise, my colleagues all favored food based. When I asked for examples however of a food based scoring system, no one volunteered.

So I decided to investigate and went out looking for scoring options. I found three. Then using one of my favorite recipes, I ran three sets of numbers. Here’s are the results using my home baked pumpkin pie pictured above.

NUTRIENTS

If you’ve ever tried to make sense out of a Nutrition Facts Label, you already know the label is not easy. Deconstruction is based on the belief that the best way to understand something is to break it into parts. This view of healthy assumes individual nutrients are what counts and the parts are more important than the whole. Deconstruction has dominated the healthy labeling conversation for the last 30 years.

Using a simplified format Facts Up Front , here’s what deconstruction looks like:

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The “get less” numbers for a modest piece of my pumpkin pie are 3.5 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams sodium, 22 grams sugars.

What do those numbers and percentages mean? As one astute observer shared with me “I have zero idea what the … label on the boxes means and generally ignore them … “

Making a decision based on a string of unconnected numbers with no context or big picture is hard, even for someone like me who understands nutrition. At best the process is confusing. At worst no one pays attention.

FOOD GROUPS

Food groups have been part of the healthy eating conversation since the USDA released farmer’s bulletin No. 149 in 1916. More recently, the USDA developed a scoring system to determine how compliant or non-compliant Americans are when it comes to following government guidelines.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores sample days, market baskets, or menu offerings at a fast food restaurant and, since it scores both food groups and nutrients, it’s a hybrid system. Unfortunately, the HEI is not helpful for my purposes.

Besides being kludgy and very complex, the system is not intended for scoring a single item like a pumpkin pie. And I’m still left making a decision based on grams of saturated fat and added sugars, along with 1/8 cup pumpkin and 1 ounce-equivalent whole wheat flour. No big picture. No synthesis. Still just a string of unrelated numbers.

HYBRID

I need a algorithm that gives me a single score based on both food groups and nutrients. Wishful thinking perhaps, but consider what just happened in France last year.

In October 2017, the French government officially sanctioned Nutri-Score, a hybrid system for front of package labeling. Originally developed out of the in the UK, Nutri-Score is now been adopted in France on a voluntary basis.

Nutri-Score is different from Facts Up Front and here’s how.

First, Nutri-Score is weight based using 100 grams instead of serving size. Second, food groups are included in the score. Third, positives are balanced against negatives to produce a single color coded grade. Now that’s what I call a simple, straightforward, and very cool scoring system.
76CA7999-F737-4E01-8AAF-7D25AC17882FSo I said to myself, maybe I can make a little algorithm modeled after the Nutri-Score. I gave it my best shot. And I succeeded. My home crafted quite delicious pumpkin pie did okay.

Using this algorithm, my pumpkin pie scored a “C plus” or “B minus” depending on ingredient amounts entered. Translating that grade into a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a food score of 6 or 7.

And I’m thrilled. I’ve put together a scoring system that works on a recipe basis. Here’s how it works. Identify negatives, nutrients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Then identify positives, food groups like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts plus nutrients like protein and fiber. Then balance negatives against positives to get a single food score.

METRICS

My ingredients are always carefully sourced and minimally processed. For the crust, I use whole wheat pastry flour and a grassfed whole milk yogurt / olive oil combination in place of butter. As for the pumpkin purée, I use a canned product with no fillers or flavor enhancers. Food score for my pie was helped by having a healthier fatty acid balance, a moderate amount of added sugars, protein from eggs and milk, and more fiber from the whole grain.

Guaranteed, it tastes just a good as it looks and if you’d like me to send you a copy of my recipe, please message me via LinkedIn or Facebook.

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Looks like the French are up to mischief again …

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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

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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 …

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Christmas Dinner 2017

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Pictured above is the center piece of my Christmas meal this year – a roasted rack of pork. You can see from the rib bones that the butcher has employed a presentation technique referred to as “Frenched” and the rack was roasted with the skin on. Those crusty squares you can see on the top are cracklings. They’re delicious. Almost as good as the tender juicy roasted pork.

A center piece needs to be carefully positioned with surroundings to be fully appreciated. Properly selected, the appetizer announces there’s more to come without being too filling or overwhelming. This year, I made an escarole salad with Forelle pear, walnuts, and Parmiggiano dressed with an apple-cider honey vinaigrette dressing. Cooling, refreshing, lightly salted and slightly sweet. A well positioned beginning for what is to come.

Moving on to the main course, let’s consider side dishes. This year, I selected winter greens and baked sweet potatoes. Rapini braised in olive oil and garlic is my dish of choice but not everyone has developed my taste for bitter greens so I always serve steamed green beans along side. I sliced the rack of pork between each rib bone, arranged the pieces on a serving plate with the sweet potato along side accompanied by the two bowls of greens. There was a moment of silent appreciation and then we dug in and I have to admit we did eat well.

To accompany the meal, we offered beer, apple cider, or a red Bordeaux.

The ending of a meal should never in my culinary opinion at least outshine the centerpiece. So I prepared an apple pudding, derived from one of my favorite French desserts – clafouti. And of course a dish of mandarin oranges from my beautiful California. No meal, even a celebration meal like Christmas, is complete for me without some seasonal fresh fruit at the end.

MEAL METRICS

The holliday season is a time for celebrations and my Christmas meal is my celebration of the season. From the beginning salad appetizer to ending piece of fruit, the meal clocks in just a little over 1400 calories.

Like all combination plates, a meal is a mixture of different foods some clearly more healthy than others.

The health promoting aspects of my meal are the abundance of vegetables and fruits (59% plant based by weight), good protein (74 grams), and beneficial fiber (71% Daily Value) from intact sources. On the not so healthy side, we note 21 grams saturated fats, 970 mg sodium, and 18 grams sugar.

Now what I would like to have is an algorithm that would balance the value of the healthy foods against the risks from the not so healthy components and seasonings. My thesis that is in the final analysis, the benefits outweigh the risks. Now I need to find my self algorithm that will do that kind of computation.

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Calorie Counting and Thanksgiving

photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons
photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons

Not sure how you feel about this one, but the folks I spend Thanksgiving with have absolutely no interest in counting the calories on their Thanksgiving plate. They want to gossip and tell jokes and watch football and relax and most of all enjoy the day. No politics. And no calories. Should yours truly even mention the word, I would be chastised, ostracized, shunned, and censored.

Now I love to talk about calories. I actually went back to school to study nutrition so I could learn how count calories on my Thanksgiving plate. I’ve subsequently learned the hard way however that talking about calories is not appreciated. Especially at Thanksgiving. But I do like to check for Thanksgiving calorie counts that circulate in the blogosphere around this time of the year.

Clearly aimed at the shock and awe effect, the highest count I’ve ever seen was 4500 calories. Having worked with clients diagnosed with eating disorders I know it’s physically impossible to fit that many calories into a normal sized stomach and to accomplish the goal requires purging. That many calories is possible over the course of a day. Professional swimmers or football players eat that much or more on a regular basis. But not at a single sitting.

The New York Times published a good read by Tara Parker Pope back in 2012 How Many Calories Do We Really Eat at Thanksgiving? She also questioned that shock and awe number and put together her own gluttonous Thanksgiving plate which she detailed in the link. Best she could do was about 2500 calories.

One of my favorite classics cookery books The Good Housekeeping All-American Cookbook was published in 1989. The book documents American cooking and American celebration meals. The date is crucial because calories were just beginning to appear in recipes but counting had not yet been politicized and calorie shaming was still in its infancy. The editors at GH just ran the numbers and shared results with us. Refreshingly honest and transparent. Adding up the calories for that gorgeous Thanksgiving spread, the number comes to just under 1900 calories.

EatingWell is one of my favorite food magazines. It’s written for readers who are as interested in good taste and they are in good health. The magazine ran a cover story in 2012 “A Simple Celebration” which qualifies as the most austere Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever seen in print – 1074 calories.

Calories aren’t so prominent for Thanksgiving 2017. Here’s a smattering of what just came up in a google search. Count your blessing, not your calories … Burning off that 1600 calorie meal … Forget the calories and add on flavor … Couldn’t find a single shock and awe sensational number this year.

Putting calories into perspective is a healthy move. I like counting because calories are my metric of choice for portions sizing. But shaming and sensationalizing are not healthy and I’m happy to see both going away. Accurately counting calories is not easy. Accurately assessing how much folks actually eat is not easy. And of course figuring out how what folks eat relates to their health is wicked hard. So this year I’m thankful to see less shock and awe calorie counting. It’s about time.

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I’m a realist when it comes to brocolli. Here’s why.

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That’s a good looking broccoli isn’t it? Actually I bought one of those beauties last week. I really like broccoli braised with garlic, a good California olive oil, and a couple of pinches of salt. I just cut off the flowerlets, peeled and sliced that thick stem, pulled out my sauté pan and voilá that’s how to turn good looking broccoli into delicious broccoli.

Being that it’s October, I would have picked up a local broccoli at my Wednesday farmers market. But this is a busy week for me, so I settled for conventional product. Pristine and lovely, not a worm or an aberrant insect to be seen.

Now the reason I know worms love broccoli just as much as I do is I have done battle.  You might say we’re in competition for the same delicious stuff. Us humans and the worms I mean.

Anyone who has grown broccoli knows worms can be a problem. And everyone agrees the no one wants to deal with a broccoli crawling with worms. Home gardeners face the same wormy issues as commercial growers. Whether you’re a home gardener committed to pesticide free or a commercial grower committed to efficiency and year round production, you got to do something. A home gardener might choose to check plants for infestation on a regular basis, pluck off any worms, and toss each one in a salt solution. A commercial grower has different options. Conventional growers use pesticides and organic growers use USDA approved non-synthetic pesticides.

With worms being a formidable enemy, however, somebody has to do something. Otherwise the worms would eat all the broccoli before we humans even have a chance.

I used to get romantic about broccoli. But I learned a harsh lesson during that first year I cooked in Garches, a lovely little suburban village on the western side of Paris. And I have looked at broccoli with a realistic eye ever since.

My friend Isabelle has a beautiful house and property in Garches and the first year I cooked there, she had an arrangement with a local gardener. He could grow whatever vegetables he wanted to and sell in return for making the garden available to us. And we ate marvelously well from that garden! Everything except brocolli.

Each day I would just go out and pick whatever I wanted. Broccoli came in that fall and I was there to pick some for supper. But I just picked broccoli once.

Being young and romantic I believed all that was natural was good. Now farmers know that when you grow broccoli, you have to deal with worms. But I grew up in the suburbs so how was I supposed to know?

The broccoli in Isabelle’s vegetable plot was completely natural and completely full of worms. So when I went out that October to get me some, I had my first encounter with what brocolli really looks like in it’s true natural state.

I want you to know I put up a valiant battle. I soaked the broccoli spears in salt and vinegar and the worms starting floating to the surface. But there were just too many. Those worms outnumbered and out gunned me. There were so many I gave up trying. The remains of that broccoli worms and all got dumped out back somewhere behind a bush.  I could not look at broccoli again for a long time.

Thankfully my taste for broccoli did return eventually but I lost my romanticism. The best broccoli won’t have a food label because it is sold fresh. And I’m more particular about locally grown than I am about organic versus conventional.

And I say God Bless whatever my farmer needs to so I don’t have to deal with any more worms!

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The unintended consequences of buying labels instead of food.

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Was visiting one of my favorite foodie stores in the Catskills last weekend and as I walked through the produce aisle I happen to notice the apples. Now this is the beginning of a glorious apples season in New York State. Local production is varied, delicious, plentiful, and available during the next couple of months.

The store prides itself on being a “health food” store and is a stickler for organic certification. But I figured they would also bring in local product if only as a gesture of good will. To my utter amazement, there were no New York State apples. Just USDA Organic apples from, would you believe it, Argentina!

That means the store choose to import an apple from Argentina which is over 5,000 miles away instead of carrying a locally grown apple. And that got me to thinking about what happens when folks make decision on what to eat based on the label instead of based on the apple.

That apple pictured above was from last fall. I can’t remember the varietal name but I do remember how delicious it tasted last fall I took the picture first because the apple looked so fresh and shiny. I don’t remember if the grower had bothered to get USDA Organic Certification. In fact I don’t care. I value local over USDA organic so I select growers and farmers carefully but best practice is more important to me than a particular certification.

Besides I also know that pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, so you have to do something to protect the crop. Organic certification does not mean no pesticides or herbicides. It just means the pesticides or herbicide used are natural and not synthetic. I also know that eating more apples is better for your health independent of an organic certification.

The orchard were I bought that apple has been selling apples for 10 generations which suggests these folks are seasoned and experienced. Ten generations ago, everyone farmed organically because there were no synthetic products. Organic certification on the other hand is really the new kid on the blog. State certifications started gaining prominence starting in the 1960s and USDA process verification started in the early 1990s.

Since the organic certification process is expensive and time consuming, many small scale growers and farmers don’t have the manpower or the discretionary dollars to get the certification. And since pests and weeds are a fact of farming life, everyone needs to use some sort of protection.

It really is a matter of trust. And in the best of all possible worlds we wouldn’t need to choose and we could have both. But sometimes you do have to make a decision. Some of us have more trust in an impersonal label or a certification. Others like me have more trust in the people do the farming or growing. At least choosing between an Argentinian apple and a local New York State, at least you’re still eating an apple. A whole fresh piece of fruit with all the attributes of an apple.

There’s a more sinister consequence of buying labels instead of food. Imagine a fresh apple versus apple juice. Or a fresh apple versus versus a packaged consumer goods apple product. Most would agree that a fresh apple is more nutritious than an ultra-processed apple snacks made from dried apple powder and sugar even if the label says the product is natural, gluten free, and nonGMO verified.

Ratatouille, Julia Child, and Eating Healthy.

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Julia Child was born August 15, 1912 and would be turning 105 years old if she were alive today. She brought French cooking into the homes of millions, changed the way Americans think about food, encouraged us to enjoy our meals, and inspired us to cook more often.

During the1990s fat hysteria, she was reputed to have used unpleasant words like “nutrition terrorist” or “food nazi” when referring my fellow dieticians.  I love her attitude. I love her spunk. And I totally agree with her description of my more zealous colleagues.

I made my first ratatouille following each of her meticulously laid out steps. Julia warned that a really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make because each vegetable was to be cooked separately.

Every August I make a couple of ratatouille and I say thank Julia. Not for the recipe. I just don’t have the patience to follow her meticulously written recipe so I’ve developed my own sloppy method.

I says thanks Julia for celebrating fat and supporting my belief that fats are part of healthy eating despite those dark restrictive years back in the 1990s when for the best of intentions even a ratatouille was labeled unhealthy for having too much fat.

You need vegetables – zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers combined to make about a kilo (2 pounds). And you need good olive oil – about 60 grams (4 tablespoons) and some garlic, parsley, basil, or any other fresh herbs you have on hand. Cook it all up, salt to taste, you’re good to go.  At my table we get about 3 – 4 servings per batch.

Use fresh, local, just harvested vegetables for the best taste and flavor. Most of the calories do come from fat, somewhere in the vicinity of 68%. Excellent fiber, not much complex carbohydrate because vegetables are mostly water, and some simple natural sugars from those vine ripened tomatoes. And don’t worry about too much fat.

First olive oil is mostly healthy unsaturated fatty acids. And second because Julia says so. It’s the best way to honor the memory of Julia Child on her birthday. Just enjoy your ratatouille.

 

 

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