What section of the supermarket do plant based meats belong in?

photo credit |gourmetmetrics
photo credit |gourmetmetrics

If you were a supermarket, where would you put a product that is engineered to taste like ground beef but is manufactured from pulverized plants?

The food scene is changing fast. Plant-based products have arrived, but they are anomalies. They don’t fit in the usual slots. It’s not the first time rapid change has disrupted our food supply and it probably won’t be the last, but each time a disruption occurs, our sense of normal needs adjusting. So I posed the question in a number of forums and here’s what came back.

EMOTION OUTBURSTS

The arrival of plant-based meat analogs evokes passion ranging from evangelical ecstasy to visceral derision.

For true believers, the promise of phasing out livestock production is an absolute good for our health, the planet, sustainability, and the welfare of animals. For traditional eaters, pastoral romantics, and regenerative farmers replacing real meat with fake meat is misguided. One particularly caustic commentator suggested putting the product in the pet food section because the texture of pulverized plants is the same as canned dog food.

PRAGMATIC SUGGESTIONS

The vegan/vegetarian section would be a logical place and that was the section I checked first. Nothing new. No faux burgers. Just the usual collection of traditional veggie burgers.

Meat analogs can’t go in the organic food section, at lease now yet. The first generation meat analogs don’t meet the USDA organic criteria. One brand proudly lists the use of two genetically engineered components.

If there were a section dedicated to sustainability, it would be a good place for meat analogs. Climate change activists believe red meat is bad for the planet and ruminants like beef and dairy cattle are a big contributor to global warming. Not everyone agrees however. The belief that red meat is a significant contributor to warming remains controversial.

Business decisions still get made based on many factors and it appears manufacturers have pushed hard to get their meat analogues into the meat department and that’s exactly where I found the package. Beyond Meat Burgers were right next to the grass-fed burgers in the frozen meat section.

FOOD 2.0

Food 2.0 was the most creative response I received. As technology continues to disrupt the food section, supermarkets will respond as best they can. Food 2.0 is as good as any catch word to describe the brave new world of food tech that we have just entered. The FDA has cleared both major meat analog manufacturers for retail sale and that means a tsunami is about to hit the supermarket floor.

Many of my fellow dietitians have serious concerns about the healthiness of meat analogs because they are highly processed. It takes a lot of tinkering to get a plant to taste like ground beef. I share that concern but to date there’s no good evidence that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. Lots of speculations and gut feelings but no hard evidence except for one study published this year which established a correlation between a diet of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.

So what should we do while we wait for more evidence?

Here’s my plan. No problem with a meat analog from time to time, but my gut isn’t used to high tech food and I see no reason to change right now. So for the time being, the proteins you will find on my plate will be lentils and chickpeas and 100% grass-fed beef.

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

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#7 rice flour is a stabilizer

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

#10 sea salt is salt

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

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

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

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

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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?

 

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Does healthy come in one size that fits all?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

When it comes to automobiles, maybe we could get by with one size fits all. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said we could have any color you want as long as it’s black. But imagine how miserable we’d be if everyone had to fit their feet into the same shoe size?

Now there are some obvious differences between food and shoes. But when it comes to size and shape, food and shoes have more in common than you might think.

Consider this recent dinner I put together. A modest piece of beef tenderloin. Sliced savoy cabbage, shallot, and green peas braised in olive oil and stock. Steamed Yukon gold potato. Add a Guinness stout to accompany the meal followed by fresh pineapple, a couple of walnuts, and a small square of very dark chocolate.

Et voilá. A plate that manages to be non compliant with every healthy dietary model.

Compared to Dietary Guideline recommendations, my plate falls short. No bread or rice or pasta on the plate. A beer instead of a glass of milk. And too many calories from fat (>35%) and saturated fat (>10%).

Vegan activists will come after me because I put a piece of meat on my plate.

Keto enthusiasts love no carbs on the plate but will ask why no cream or butter or coconut oil.

Globalists who promote the planetary health or flexitarian diet, will be upset because my serving of beef is so big, my serving of nuts is so stingy, and there’re no whole grain.

It used to bother me that my usual pattern is non-compliant but I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. Being out of step with a vegan or Keto approach is one thing. Being out of step with dietary guidelines or planetary health is quite another however.

Why was I bothered? Because I’m a nerdy dietitian who studied nutrition, appreciates the need for evidenced based science, and supports the concept of a healthy eating pattern. But my numbers still never fit a conventional model.

So that brings me back to shoe sizes. Before industrialization, if you were lucky enough or rich enough to own a pair, your shoes were custom made. In today’s world the best a shoe manufacturer can do is offer many different sizes and styles. Then it’s up to us, the shoe wearing public, to find shoes that fit.

Maybe that same logic works for food choices too. As a committed omnivore in love with all things vegetable, fruit, legume, and whole grain, my pattern has fewer carbohydrates and more fats than the one size fits all dietary guidelines. And if I think about guidelines as guiding principles instead of regulatory mandates, my pattern looks a lot healthier.

My doctor is okay with my health stats. And my gut is happy with my food choices. So I’ve decided to stop being bothered because my pattern is not a perfect fit.

So you see, finding the right dietary pattern really is like shopping for shoes. You keep trying on different patterns until you find the one that’s the best fit for you.

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Are you a flexitarian or an omnivore?

 

Green Pea Soup | Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

Flexitarian and omnivore are two words that describe the eating pattern of someone who eats plant based and animals based foods.

Flexitarian is a new word. It’s a neologism coined in the early 1990s by putting two familiar words together – vegetarian and flexible.

Omnivore is an old word. It’s descended from the Latin omnivorus via French into English probably during the 19th century and used to describe a person who eats both plants and animals.

If you had asked me a month ago if I were an omnivore or a flexitarian, I would have said both. Lots of vegetables and fruits and legumes and nuts and whole grains and smaller portions of meats or poultry or fish or cheese have always been part of my usual pattern.

Something happened recently, however, that caused me to change my mind. The EAT-Lancet report was released last month. This report champions a planetary health diet and a flexitarian dietary pattern.

The report is the result of a three year effort and reflects the work of many international experts. Described as a dietary approach that promotes both the health of people and the health of the planet, the flexitarian pattern that emerges is largely plant-based but includes small amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods. Links are provided for those of you who want to read the report and the summary for yourselves.

Now getting more fruits and vegetables and legumes and nuts and whole grains on the plate is a great idea. But the flexitarian pattern proposed in the report is not a pattern I want to follow and here’s why.

RIGID

Like so many diet plans, the guidelines are not flexible and virtually eliminate whole groups of foods. Many fashionable diets reflect rigidity. Keto eliminates carbohydrates. Fat Free eliminates olive oil and avocado and nuts. There are plenty of vegetables in the planetary health diet but I don’t see a lot of flexibility for animal based foods. Like whole milk yogurt. Or a cheese omelet made with eggs from pastured hens. Restricting personal choice and spontaneity and surprise takes so much of the joy out of eating.

DOGMATIC

Saving the planet is a goal most of us support. It’s just not clear to me however why a piece of farmhouse cheese from grass fed cows is a worse choice for the planet than an industrially produced cashew analogue made with nuts imported from who knows where. Cashew analogues are encouraged as per my reading of this flexitarian approach and whole milk products like cheese are not even allowed.

Doing my own research and making my own moral choices is important and the more I studied the report, the more inflexible and dogmatic the flexitarian pattern sounded.

AUSTERE

Shopping and cooking are fun. At least for me.  Experimenting with new foods and exploring new places and learning new techniques are part of the adventure. Food should be celebrated and, all due respect, I found the report lacking in joy and spontaneity.

§§§

Time for reassessment. Maybe I’m not a flexitarian after all. But does that make me an omnivore? I went out looking for confirmation and found myself on Michael Pollan’s website.

No other food writer is more closely associated with the word omnivore than Michael Pollan. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma about a decade ago and penned that famous dictum: eat food, mostly plants, not too much. He is not, or at least he was not at that time, vegetarian. Here’s how he phrased his response.

“Meat eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and sunlight is something I’m happy to do and defend. The same is true for a pastured chicken or hog. When obtained from small farms where these animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten.”

Makes perfect sense to me. Exactly the path I’ve followed. Making peace with the messy realities of eating animals is necessary. My way of making peace is to support small scale agriculture, humane treatment, and pasture raised meat, dairy, and cheese.

I understand this pathway is not for everyone and honor the personal choice of others. The recommendations in the EAT-Lancet report hit me as rigid, dogmatic, and austere. I feel the writers are mandating a course of action and are not in the mood for compromise. I’m not expecting the flexitarian movement to honor my personal choice, but I’ve decided to keep my mind open and hope for a pleasant surprise.

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Getting the most out of nutrition stats.

C19D6603-6022-4AC5-9618-1A6DB8CAB11A

I love to eat and I love to cook, but when I’m not in my kitchen cooking up a storm, I’m sitting at my desk running nutrition stats.

My clients are editors for website recipe collections and cookbooks. The preferred format is a listing of nutrients per serving which roughly match the Nutrition Facts Label.

Like my colleagues who work in the consumer packaged goods industry, I’m dedicated to providing the most accurate analysis possible given the vagrancies of ingredient data sourcing and the lack of clarity in certain ingredient listings.

I’d like to believe cooks, recipe developers, and consumers pay as much attention to the stats I produce as I pay to accuracy. But I have my doubts.

The label as currently formatted is hard to understand even for me and I’m an expert. The data is good but the format is dense and unfriendly. As one perceptive observer has said, the current label is still a work in progress.

The current nutrition stats approach sends a message that healthy can be reduced to a couple of nutrients. That is not a helpful message. However, nutrients remain important and the stats work well to size a portion or to calculate a ratio.

Research on new formats in this country and elsewhere is ongoing and it’s likely we will see a more intuitive, interpretive, or holistic format at some point in the future. But for now we need to use what we’ve got, so let me share with you some observations.

CHECK CALORIES FOR PORTION SIZE

Rigid calorie counting is out, but portion sizing is always useful for individuals. I know for example that a 600 calorie plate is plenty for me. I do enjoy meals over 1000 calories from time to time. Sometimes a lot over but I need a good reason. Like a celebration meal or dinner out at one of our favorite Manhattan restaurants.

Calories are my metric of choice for portion sizing. Very useful when scanning a restaurant menu or for assessing portions for a new recipe.

CHECK RATIOS FOR NUTRIENTS

Ratios are a quick and easy way to compare two nutrients. And because a ratio is not dependent on a serving size, a ratio remains constant regardless of how much or how little ends up on the plate.

• Calorie Density. The calorie to gram ratio tells you how many calories per unit of weight. Cookies have a high calorie density where as a mixed greens salad olive oil & vinegar dressing has a low calorie density.

• Salt. The ratio of sodium to calories is an easy way to determine sodium concentration. This ratio is especially useful when you check out a packaged product or a restaurant menu item. Canned soups have a high sodium ratio. My homemade legume soup has a lower sodium ratio.

• Fiber. The fiber to carbohydrate ratio helps you figure out if a product or a menu item is a good source of fiber. 100% whole wheat bread has a high ratio for fiber. Pop Tarts have a low ratio.

• Healthy Fats. The fatty acid ratio tells you which fatty acids predominate. Unsaturated fat is considered healthy but the status of saturated fat remains controversial. I prefer whole milk to skim milk and always choose whole milk yogurt and cheese. Many nutrition researchers and dietitians recommend limiting saturated fats as do the current dietary guidelines, but I continue to opt for a good honest cheese like the St André pictured above.

AN INTERPRETIVE LABEL

The next generation of nutrition labels will be more personalized and more intuitive. We will probably see more color coding and more logos. This type of labeling is already being used in some European and South American countries.

In the meantime, nutrient ratios, calories per serving, and lots of good old fashioned common sense are out best option.

 

 

Here’s why indulgence has a place at my table.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Omelette plated with greens and cannelloni | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

An omelette is my go to meal when I’m hungry, pressed for time, and feel like indulging myself.

Pictured above is a quick and dirty meal I put together a couple of weeks ago. Bitter greens and cannelloni beans mixed with calamari, restaurant leftovers from a meal the night before, filled up half the plate so all I did was make the omelette.

My meal was delicious. Greens and legumes fall into the healthy column, but I’m wondering about that omelette …

First cholesterol and now veganism.

Since the 1970s, we’ve been told to avoid foods high in cholesterol and egg consumption has taken a major hit. In 2015, cholesterol was removed as a nutrient of concern and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines say eggs are now okay with this disclaimer. Eggs like all animal based proteins should be consumed in moderation.

Vegans take that advice one step further.Eating an egg is as bad as smoking cigarettes.” That claim was made in a recent Netflix movie funded and produced by folks promoting veganism. What the Health got mixed reviews but vegan messaging tends to be aggressive and the message is clear — eating eggs is not okay.

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

An Organic egg farmer in New Hampshire recently filed a citizens petition asking the FDA to allow them to label eggs healthy based on the revised guidance issue by the FDA. The petition points out that the fatty acids in an egg are predominantly unsaturated.

Eggs do have an impressive nutrient profile. Excellent protein with all essential amino acids, a favorable mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and a very impressive list of micro- and phyto-nutrients.

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. Eggs are a mixed bag and making an omelette with butter or oil and salt adds more variables to the bag.

My omelette has strong positives. Complete protein plus all those other micro nutrient benefits.

And my omelette has strong negatives. Saturated fat, calorie density, and sodium.

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

Swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other is not helpful. We need a better approach. Some kind of hybrid system that scores the omelette as a whole.

Towards this end, an approach developed in the UK and recently implemented in France has potential. The metric is weight based and positives are balanced against negatives to come up with a single score. I’ve adapted this approach for recipe analysis. When I ran the numbers, my omelette got more negatives than positives.

Actually got a lot more negatives than positives and that’s why I use the word indulgent.

Some final thoughts on healthy.

• Nutrition research is constant and ongoing. Saturated fat and sodium score negative because current guidelines from both the US and EU recommend moderation. Both nutrients however remain controversial in some research circles. Especially the complex issue of saturated fats.

• Ingredient quality and degree of processing aren’t scored. Pastured local eggs, California certified olive oil, and home cooking add value for me but are not part of the scoring metric. And because I value home cooked from whole minimally processed foods, delicious indulgent is okay at my table as long as I source my own ingredients and make it myself.

• Putting my omelette, or any other meat based protein, on the same plate as greens and legumes makes the whole plate healthier.

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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.

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Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

 

Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Green Salad with Shrimp | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

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?

 

Chicken Tagine | photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Chicken Tagine | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

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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