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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