How do I feel about GMO labeling?

shrimp,tomato,arugula,radicchio, scallion | photo gourmet metrics
shrimp,tomato,arugula,radicchio, scallion | photo gourmet metrics

Labeling has been getting lots of buzz lately and there are a couple of really hot issues out there. Natural. Organic. Sustainable. But far and away the hottest and most fiercely contested is GMO.

Last April I attended my state dietetic association meeting and had occasion to talk to a nice lady from Monsanto. I opened by telling her I choose not to eat GMO foods but had come to learn more about the issue. She was informative, engaging and knowledgeable. Surprisingly, not many of my colleagues shared my curiosity so the nice lady and I chatted uninterrupted for a good 40 minutes. She made the case against mandatory labeling but we both agreed voluntary labeling was a good thing.

Now I like labels as much as anyone out there. My reason for studying nutrition in the first place was to learn how to run numbers and make nutrition labels.

Sometimes I use food labels, but I have never looked to the label as my only source of information. So my conversation with the nice lady got me to thinking. How do feel about GMO labels? And what I have come to appreciate is that neither voluntary or mandatory labeling makes much difference to me. Let me explain.

Pictured above is a shrimp salad I put together at the beginning of the summer. I took the picture because the salad presented well on the plate and I selected it at random for this post to explain why a label often doesn’t tell me things I don’t already know?

The shrimp are wild caught from North Carolina purchased from my favorite greenmarket fishmonger told me the origin when I bought them because I asked. The shrimp looked fresh, smelled of the sea, and cost a lot of money. Many places sell shrimp a lot cheaper but I don’t want to eat those shrimp. With or without a label. So I pay more to eat less of an excellent protein.

Those scallions, arugula, radicchio, and cucumber all came from California. No labels because they were fresh and hand selected. Industrial production yes, so not organic or heirloom or local, but carefully selected just the same.

Those tomatoes are hydroponic and they did come in a package with useful information like country of origin so I know they are from Ontario. I use a lot of hydroponic tomatoes because they do the job until local or heirloom tomatoes become available at the end of the summer.

As for the dressing, I make vinaigrette with olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Now these labels have value to me because they tell me things I don’t already know. The olive oil label tells me where in California my oil was pressed and even more important the pressing date. The vinegar label tells me the percentage acidity. The salt label tells me the salt is flake and not table. All critically useful information to an obsessive eater like me.

So you see my style of sourcing and eating takes me out of the GMO marketplace. I prefer cooking to opening packages and most of the food I buy has no label because it’s fresh or local.

So what would a GMO or a nonGMO label tell me that I don’t already know? Not much.

As for the larger issues, I am not concerned per se about health risk and GMO. I’ve done enough research over the last few months to determine to my satisfaction that seeds modified in a laboratory are probably as safe as any other seed breeding technique.

As long as the food is safe, I am okay with honoring choice. Some people want food cheap. Some people want food convenient. Some people want food certified and labeled. I am okay with as much diversity and choice as the market wants to offer.

This issues of genetic modification has aroused more passion that any other I can remember. But for now, I don’t need to get into the fight because in terms of how I choose to eat it’s just not going to make much difference.

Can we eat healthy and high fat?

summer flounder | gourmet metrics
summer flounder | gourmet metrics

 

Wednesday is fish night and summer flounder is what I served for supper a couple weeks ago. The piece I picked out weighing about 2/3 pound (300 grams) so at $15 a pound, I paid about $10.

At my table small is beautiful, so a little bit of protein goes a long way. Just the two of us that night and we split the flounder. That piece pictured above was my half. Cooked and ready to serve let’s say about 4 ounces (120 grams) which by American standards is on the skimpy side. But taste wise and protein wise (15 grams) it’s enough for me.

Some of my more zealous colleagues look at flounder as a low calorie / low fat option because the fish is so lean. Not me. Now I love flounder or fluke as some call it because the flesh is so delicate and the taste so subtle, but even this eater has to admit that all by itself flounder tends to be on the bland side.

My way to cook flounder is to pan-fry in olive oil, season with salt, kiss with pepper, finish with whisper of unsalted butter, and serve with a twist of lemon. Delicious but not low fat.

For the rest of the plate, steamed local spinach and farro. Local fresh spinach has plenty of flavor and to my taste at least needs nothing else, not even salt. I added some farro for whole grain carbohydrate but I took the picture before putting it on the plate. We finished off with a salad of finely diced kohlrabi, red Boston lettuce, Napa cabbage, and a couple of hydro-tomatoes dressed with my vinaigrette. And local blueberries for dessert.

The calorie count ran around 650 per person. Not a big meal by American standards but more than enough for us. It was a work night and we prefer not to have a heavy meal before going to bed.

Sounds pretty healthy doesn’t it? Let’s take a look.

Protein. A modest portion. Bonus points for seafood.

Vegetables. 6 different kinds of vegetables, total of 2 cups. Bonus points for dark green.

Fruit. Blueberries, rich in Anthocyanins, 1/2 cup. Bonus points for whole fruit.

Whole Grain. Farro is a wheat (not gluten free) and one of my favorite ancient grains. Bonus points for whole grain.

Fatty Acid Ratio: excellent which means more olive oil and less butter.

Sodium. 780 mg for the meal and 33% DV.

And for added value the meal qualifies as sustainable and affordable. In New York, flounder is local and not currently overfished. And despite the high price per pound, a modest serving size makes the cost manageable.

But there is always that question from the back of the room. How about fat? No problem. I’m a nutrition nerd and I always have the numbers. The percentage is above the recommended cut off which puts my meal into the high fat range. Not a meal for someone who needs to adhere to a low fat regime or who believes only low fat meals are healthy.

And because regulatory compliance is cast in concrete leaving little flexibility for humans to exercise judgment, labeling my meal healthy would be illegal.

It’s what I call healthy versus healthy.

And that’s why, when it comes to my own table, I exercise culinary judgment.

“Judgment is to law as water is to crops. It should not be surprising that law has become brittle, and society along with it.” The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard, 1994

My First CSA Box

photo | gourmet metrics

 

Tuesday was the night I picked up my first box. Never been a member before so I did not know what to expect. But I arrived on time with about 10 other people and we walked into a room with about 50 boxes stacked on two tables.

“Pick a box, empty it into your bags, fold the box, and put it over there with the other boxes. It’s really easy.” And it was so I got home within 15 minutes with over 4 pounds of greens. Now that is what I call healthy. It’s also what I call work. Spinach, Baby Bok Choi, Lettuce Mix, Arugula and Red Kale to wash, trim, and eat before the next pick up.

That night I washed and trimmed enough lettuce and arugula to put together a large salad. Added tuna, some small cannelloni, some tomato, scallions, my own vinaigrette and served supper within 30 minutes. Last night was more time consuming. Sorting through the lettuce mix and arugula took some time but we have enough salad mix ready to go through Monday. For supper that night I steamed spinach to serve with a locally caught filet of summer flounder picked up on the way home from work.

Today I am going to think about the rest of the load. Kale chips are trendy, so I think I will give them a try. I mean how hard can it be? Kale, olive oil, salt, bake in slow oven till done. What else do I need to know?

The kale is much prettier than the chips. Paper-thin, darkened, crumpled so no before and after pictures posted. My technique needs some refinement, but the chips are edible and now I know for my next batch to use a little less oil. When I try something new I go for edible. Refinement can come later.

Now all that’s left is my baby bok. How does this sound: small piece of fish, ancient grains, shiitake, scallion, and the baby bok. Sounds like a plan to me.

It’s illegal to label my green salad healthy!

mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics
mesclum mix | gourmet-metrics

 

Like pornography, healthy food might be tough to define but you know it when you see it. Now a simple green salad should be the picture of healthy. Right? But since healthy means different things in different contexts, defining healthy gets confusing at times.

Take the green salad I am serving tonight. The choice of greens always depends on availability so some mesclun from my local greenmarket will serve as the base. A handful on each plate, a few tomato pieces (still not seasonal I admit), some thinly sliced scallion, and for the final touch, a tablespoon or two home crafted vinaigrette made with a fine California Arbequina, some sherry vinegar, and salt. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? Of course. Who would say no?

Those rich dark greens and shades of almost purple are the colors of healthy.

Not boring or austere thanks to good oil, salt, and pristine greens. Not too much sodium. Nutrition points for dark green vegetables. Expensive, local, fresh, and natural. Organic? Now that one I am not completely sure about. The mesclun is probably organic. But tomatoes and scallions? Just not sure.

And the vinaigrette is not unprocessed. Grinding olives to olive oil is complex, but the oil is unfiltered with shades of green in the sunlight and was pressed within the last 6 months so I am am going to say “good” processed. As far as the salt and the vinegar, those two products are complex too.

Looking at the nutrition numbers, the fatty acid ratio is excellent. Well above the ratio recommended by the Healthy Eating Index. This ration is a calculation used by nutritionist nerds like me to evaluate the quality of the fat for clients who want to reduce dietary saturated fat.

My plate of salad counts for about 180 calories out of my usual dinner of 700 to 800 calories.

So far so good. Eating salads before the meal makes good nutrition sense for two reasons. First it is nutrient dense. And second, salads fill you up so you are less likely to devour the main course.

But think about this scenario. And until the FDA finalizes nutrition guidelines for restaurant menu labeling, we won’t know for sure. As an off the shelf product, my salad could not be labeled healthy. Sodium is okay, but there is too much fat and too much saturated fat. What that means is that if the restrictive labeling criteria remain intact when the restaurant regulations are finalized, it would be technically illegal for a restaurant or deli take out to label my salad healthy. That’s what I mean about healthy meaning different things in different contexts.

I am still going to give it a healthy thumbs up.

How about you?

In Defense of Salt

 

Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons. Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia
Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons.
Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia

Cooks love salt.  Robust and exceptionally effective, salt is the most powerful flavor enhancer know to man.  Or woman.  Because of its power, I have always used a light hand and treated salt with tremendous respect.

Dietitians are not suppose to love salt, so as a dietitian, saying I love salt can get me in trouble.  But it’s the truth. Let me explain.

Salt has always been controversial and salt wars have been waged for thousands of years.   The current battleground is our national health. Since upwards of 75% of the sodium ingested comes from processed and restaurant food, the enemy targeted is the food industry.

Remember Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution back in the fall of 2009?  Jamie’s goal was to bring healthier foods to a school in West Virginia.  He revised the school lunch menus and starting cooking from scratch.  It was a fascinating reality show.  After the series ended, somebody ran the numbers.  Jamie’s menus were analyzed for nutrition content.  Fat and saturated fat were over target, but sodium came in below target.   In other words, cooking from scratch, using mostly whole foods, and salting to enhance natural flavors may have actually resulted in a net reduction of sodium intake.  Interesting …

It seems to my simplistic mind that salt in the hands of a knowledgeable and talented cook is a great asset.  For example, how else can we make healthy foods like robust greens, legumes, soups,or salads palatable to skeptics who come to sit at our table?  There are no guarantees for success, but I know where to start.  A judicious amount of salt, a generous amount of fat, perhaps some acid, and some culinary expertise.

Turkey Salad

turkey summer salad

turkey salad with greens and chickpeas

Protein, greens, legumes, vinaigrette, ready to go in 40 minutes — my kind of summer workday supper.  The turkey I use comes from an old school Italian grocery store in my neighborhood.  It is made on site so I guess that would make it an artisanal product.  However you call it, to my taste this turkey has better flavor and less salt intensity.  Other customers buy it sliced as a cold cut.  I get a chunk and make salad.

For the vinaigrette:

1 ⅔ tablespoons vinegar with acidity at least 6% (25ml)

½ teaspoon kosher style flake salt (1.7g)

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (75ml)

dried herbs, basil, oregano

For the salad:

½ cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained (100 g)

¾ cup red cabbage, washed and coarsely shredded (50 g)

3 ½ cups washed assorted greens or mesclum mix (100 g)

½ cup washed, cored and coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes or 1 small local tomato in season (130 g)

1 fresh carrot peeled and grated  (90g)

2 scallions washed, trimmed, and chopped (50g)

1/3 pound piece roasted turkey breast cut into small pieces (150g)

METHOD

Make the dressing in the bottom on a bowl with a 2 quart (2 liter) capacity.  Add the vinegar and salt.  Let salt dissolve.  Then add the olive oil and herbs.  Whisk until thoroughly emulsified.

Put chickpeas and cabbage in first, then greens, then carrot, scallion, and tomato. Arrange turkey pieces on top.  Mix salad just before serving.

 METRICS

Protein, greens, legumes, extra virgin olive oil – my kind of healthy!  Hard to go wrong with locally sourced vegetables.  Nutrition return is excellent – fiber, carotenoids, vitamin C, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium.  The olive oil even enhances carotenoid absorption.  But calories still count.  So here is the scoop.  Proportions listed provide 500 to 600 calories per serving and work well for those of us have a vested interest in not eating too much on workdays.  For larger portions, count about 170 calories per cup (120g); for eaters at your table with robust appetites, add crusty bread and dessert.

 

Summer salad with turkey, greens, and chickpeas (1/2 recipe, 400g):  Calories 550, Fat 38g, Saturated Fat 5g, Sodium 420mg, Carbohydrate 27g, Fiber 8g, Protein 30g.  Vitamin A 280%, Vitamin C 60%, Calcium 10%, Iron 20%.

Spinach with Currants & Walnuts

makes 2 cups

cost $6.00

serves 4

150 calories per serving

This complex richly flavored dish is best balanced against a simple braised protein like fish or served on its own as an appetizer.  A robust, loose leaf spinach works best, but sometimes this spinach can be hard to find.  I am lucky enough to have a local grocer who carries the real thing all year round.  And since I live in New York City, that means shipping spinach in from California or Texas when local product is not available.  Alternatives are bagged, pre-washed, or hydroponically grown spinach.  For me the taste and texture of the real thing are worth it, but it is a personal decision.  Waiting for local product would have reduced the cost, but what can I say.  I was impatient!

Spinach grows best in sandy soil and each leaf requires washing several times to remove any little pieces of grit that may have lodged in the crevices.  So spinach whether transported or grown locally can be time consuming.  My first encounter with the combination of spinach, nuts, and fruit was in Claudia Rodin’s wonderful book The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  Her version calls for pine nuts but I use walnuts.  I always have a few walnuts on hand and I prefer the taste.

RECIPE

1 ⅓ pound spinach as purchased fresh and untrimmed (600g)

1 whole shallot (65g) peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (15ml)

¼ teaspoon flake salt

4 tablespoons chopped walnuts (30g), about 6 walnuts as purchased in shell

2  tablespoons currants (30g)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (15ml)

2 teaspoon first cold pressed olive oil (10ml)

Trim stems and roots from the spinach, wash thoroughly, chop into large pieces, and spin dry in a salad spinner.  Remove walnuts from shell and chop.  Refresh currants by covering with hot water and letting them soften for about 10 minutes.  Assemble other ingredients.

Sauté scallions in olive oil using a sauté pan that comes with a cover and is large enough to hold all the spinach.  When the shallots have softened and turned translucent, add balsamic vinegar and let most of it evaporate.  Then add the chopped walnuts, softened currants, and finally the spinach, pressing the spinach down into the pan.  Do not add any additional water.  Cover and leave over low heat until the spinach softens into a mass.  Incorporate the walnuts and currant evenly into the spinach and finish with remaining cold pressed olive oil.  Tastes as good at room temperature as it does served hot.

METRICS

The experts agree that spinach is a healthy food.  A dark green vegetable as per MyPyramid.   A source of essential micro-nutrients as per Nutrition Facts Label.  The experts however do not agree about fat.  Using olive oil in classic proportions will always exceed the austere requirement of 3 grams per serving* required by the FDA to label a preparation “healthy.”  The role of fat in the diet, especially unsaturated fats and oils, is becoming controversial and consensus has not been reached yet.

My friends and family take a liberalized approach to fats and olive oil and devour my spinach faster as I can wash the leaves with comments like “I can eat this all day!”  If good cooking is the art of creating food people love to eat, than smart cooking is using those skills to encourage people to eat healthy food.  So wouldn’t that mean that olive oil is serving a noble purpose?  But there I go again – me and my simplistic mind!

 

Per Serving  (114g):  Calories 150, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 125mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber 3g, Protein 4g.
Excellent source  vitamin A as beta-carotene, folate, magnesium.
Good source fiber, vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, potassium.
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Black Kale

As with so many of life’s important decisions, the choice of red, curly, or black kale comes down to your taste, your personal preference, and your pocketbook

Curly kale has broad based deep green leaves and a robust, pungent, fully developed favor.  It is cultivated all year long and is easy to pick up in most supermarket chains.  Some cooks blanch the leaves first, while others add a grated carrot to the pan to soften and sweeten the somewhat bitter taste.

makes about 2 cups (500ml)

cost $6.00 for black kale / $3.00 for curly kale

calories 320

serves 2

160 calories per serving

More exotic and expensive are red kale (pictured on the right) and black kale (pictured on the left).  A little milder and a little less pungent, these kales can be found in green markets starting in fall through early winter and in specialty supermarkets all year long. My favorite is cavolo nero or black kale.  Alternatively called dinosaur or laciniato kale, this blackish-green leafy kale is favored by the Tuscans who have developed a special affection for its distinctive taste and gnarled appearance.  Chicken stock enhances flavor and a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice before serving sharpens the flavor.  Check to be sure that excess stock or water has been completely evaporated so the final dish does not weep.

An excellent choice of greens to accompany a ham, a rack of pork, or a roast beef, keep kale in mind as you plan for the upcoming holidays.  Each pound (½ kilo) kale as purchased yields 2 to 2½ cups cooked.

RECIPE

2 bunches (15 ounces/430g) curly, red, or black kale, washed, stemmed, and chopped into medium sized pieces

2 tablespoons (25g) extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves (10g) fresh garlic, peeled and crushed

1 – 2 cups (250ml – 500ml) low sodium chicken stock

¼ teaspoon (.7g) flake salt

Lemon juice or Balsamic vinegar

Warm oil in sauté pan and soften crushed garlic.  Add kale a handful or two at a time using medium heat and stirring as you add each handful.  Sauté the kale until the pieces start to wilt and the oil is evenly distributed, usually about 5 minutes.  Add the salt and start adding stock or water a half cup (100ml) at a time.  Keep adding the stock until the kale is softened.  Keep heat high enough to evaporate each addition of stock.  If more liquid is required, use water.  Braise the kale for another 20 minutes.   Reduce the heat when the kale is softened and all liquid is absorbed or evaporated.  Adjust seasonings and finish with some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.  At this point, the kale will hold nicely for at least 30 minutes.  Check before serving to be sure that excess stock or water has been completely evaporated so the final dish does not weep.

Note:  Both piece size and cooking time effect the texture of the final product.  The smaller the pieces or the longer the cooking time, the softer and smoother the kale.  Start with medium sized pieces and about 20 minutes, then adjust according to taste.

METRICS

Kale is not cheap, but it is incredible healthy. MyPyramid classifies kale as a dark green vegetable and recommends 2 cups dark greens per week.   Whole Foods uses the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) to numerically rate foods and kale is on top with a score of 1000.  For those of you like me who love kale and are willing to pay the price, we get both flavor and nutrition with each bite.  The question I wrestle with is how to make this incredibly healthy vegetable appealing and acceptable to those of you who do not share my taste for slightly bitter greens.  I can’t guarantee success, but I know where to start.  A judicious amount of salt, a generous amount of fat, some acid, some culinary expertise, and a few discretionary dollars to invest in healthy greens.

Encouraging more people to eat and enjoy a healthy vegetable like kale is the best kind of healthy eating.  So I choose to focus more on the sourcing and cooking end and less on the limits to sodium and fat end.  To my simplistic mind, flexing a little on olive oil and salt makes good nutrition sense as long as more people eat more kale.

 

Per Serving (130g):  Calories 160, Fat 13g, Saturated Fat  2.0g, Sodium 240mg, Carbohydrate  8g, Fiber  2g, Protein  3g.  
A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.