Trying to reduce something as radiantly complex as food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

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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?

Up until recently, neither recipes or ingredient lists were counted by the experts.

Most home cooks and chefs and other foodies however figured out long ago food does count and perhaps that’s why this group tends to pay so little attention to what the government does and does not say is healthy.

Our FDA has only recently agreed to reconsider what constitutes healthy, but other countries has been more aggressive. The Brits worked out their traffic light system of food labeling over a decode ago. The Australians implemented their Health Star Rating System a couple of years ago. And last year, the French approved a voluntary front of the packaged label Nutriscore that counts vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts.

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 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. The salad is 52% plant based (cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, arugula, cabbage, parsley) and that’s not counting the grain farro.

If the salad were completely healthy, I could put a dark green circle. If the salad were somewhat healthy, I could put a light orange circle. So let’s say the salad is reasonable healthy and give it a light green circle. Not sure if it works for the FDA but it 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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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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Are we just a nation of disabled eaters?

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I sure would like to think we’re not. But I listen to my colleagues talk about their own food fears and those their clients struggles with. Good foods. Bad foods. Cheat days. Calorie paranoia. And I’m very grateful that I already knew how to eat, and how to cook, before I studied nutrition.

If not, I too might be struggling, terrified of eating the wrong food, and burdened with food fears. I loved food before I became dietitian and I love food today. The difference is that today I know enough to break the rules and have confidence in my decisions. Let me share how I make a salad and how I adjust the rules to fit how I eat.

Salads are for summer. So I start with lots of healthy greens, vegetables, and legumes. Then I add a protein. And I finish with enough delicious vinaigrette dressing to make my zealous colleagues cringe and keep the folks at my table coming back for more. Fat. Salt. Acid. Works every time.

INGREDIENTS FOR 2

GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED OLIVE OIL – 60 grams or 4 1/2 tablespoons

SHERRY VINEGAR – 20 grams or 4 teaspoons

DIJON MUSTARD – to taste up to 1 teaspoon

SALT – 1.2 grams flake salt or 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 teaspoon table or most sea salt)

CANNELLONI CANNED OR HOME COOKED BEANS – 100 grams cannelloni beans or 2/3 cup

TOMATOES –  100 grams cherry tomatoes or a handful

CUCUMBER – 80 grams or 1 small

MIXED GREENS – 200 grams greens or 4 cups chopped – mesclun, endive, radicchio, red leaf, green leaf, romaine

HAAS AVOCADO – 100 grams or 1/2 whole

GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST – 170 grams or 6 ounces – other protein options are tonino, hard cooked eggs, feta cheese, salmon.

METHOD

Make dressing first by mixing olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt together in the bottom of a 2 liter salad bowl. Wash and dry greens. Wash and prep other vegetables. Cut up and add chicken pieces. Add legumes, tomatoes, greens, chicken, and avocado.  Mix just before serving.

Proportions are important. My ratio of dressing to everything else is about 9 to 1. In other words, 1 ounce dressing (2 tablespoons) to 9 ounces everything else that goes into the salad. These are weight based measures. Please don’t be concerned if you’ve never used a scale. Here’s your chance to develop your eye and manage your own taste preferences. You might find you like more dressing or less dressing than I do. Practice makes perfect and the more salads you make the better you’ll get at using your eye and tasting as you go.


NUTRITION

Nutrition Facts per serving: 560 calories, 41g fat, 19g carbohydrate, 32g protein, 470mg sodium.

And yes 41 grams of fat per serving is lots of fat and, trust me, some of my zealous colleagues are not happy because well over 50% calories in the salad come from fat. But here’s how I look at that percentages. What matters is best measured over the course of a day or even better over the course of a week. Olive oil and avocado are calorie dense; greens and vegetables are calorie un-dense. So of course most of the calories are going to come from fat.

Now let’s dig down a level and check out the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids. Most fatty acids are unsaturated from the olive oil and avocado. Those unsaturated fatty acids are what my more flexible colleagues refer to as “healthy” fats.

As for protein, my tule of thumb is about 25 grams per meal. So a serving of salad is a bit over. Note too that protein comes from mixed sources – chicken and plant.

Notice too, there’s not a lot of carbs and no refined carbohydrate. Just intact carbohydrates from the vegetables, some sugars from tomatoes, and 7 grams dietary fiber per serving. Now 7 grams may not sound like a lot, but think about that fiber like this. One serving puts 25% of the Daily Value on the plate.

Last word goes to potassium. The new label format will mandate potassium be listed as a line item. Note the sodium is 470mg per serving. Now compare that number with 1200mg potassium per serving. In other words, more than twice as much potassium as sodium. That’s a really good ratio.

Food Composition per 100 grams is only for NERDS like me: 10g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 9g protein, 77g water.

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Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Guaranteed these little beauties are easy to make and delicious to munch on. My version is adapted from Cuisinicity, a recipe website developed by Catherine Katz. Definitely worth the time to check out especially if you are looking for vegan / vegetarian options. Catherine is a lovely, creative, energetic cook who write recipes that work.

I got to know Catherine when I did some metric re-engineering on some of her recipes. She’s French and has many followers from Europe who appreciate metric measures. Catherine’s original version is made with agave syrup instead of maple syrup. I used maple syrup because that’s what I had on hand and the recipe worked just fine. Reading through the comments I can see other adapters used honey. So it’s really up to you.

When I bake, my preference is to use my digital scale because to my way of thinking it’s easier. Before I start, the oven gets set at 350 F. Next I put a medium sized mixing bowl on the scale and zero out. Now comes the fun. Weight out each of the 4 ingredients directly into the bowl zeroing out after each addition. No mess. No extra spoons or cups to wash. No waste.

  • 100 grams almond meal  | 2 2/3  cups
  • 80 grams canola oil | 6  tablespoons
  • 120 grams maple syrup |  6  tablespoons
  • 100 grams chocolate chips | 3/4  cup

Remove bowl to counter and mix thoroughly.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, form dough into 24 little balls, and press each one down to flatten out into a fat pancake. Mine bake them for about 17 minutes, longer than Catherine recommends, or until lightly browned. Then cool on a wire rack and store in an air tight container or freeze.

INGREDIENTS – I’m particular about ingredients and am willing to pay a higher price for more specific and detailed ingredient credentials. But that’s me and I’ll okay with other folks choosing other options because just making your own cookies is such a big step towards eating healthier.  One caveat. Almonds and real maple syrup are not inexpensive and these cookies will cost $11 to $12 dollars per pound.

• Ground almonds come in two forms. Actually it’s three forms if you count grinding them yourself. The major provider of ground almonds is Bob’s Red Mill and he makes two versions: almond meal and almond flour. The meal is made from almonds with the skins on whereas the flour is made with balanced skinless almonds. I prefer the whole meal but either type will work.

• Canola oil comes in two forms too. Conventional or nonGMO. I use the nonGMO version. Not because I have concerns about genetically engineered ingredients – I remain neutral in that volatile issue – but because the oil is expellor pressed. Conventional canola oil is heat processed and expellor processing is a gentler way to get the oil out of the rape seed. Consider price and choose the one that works best for you.

• Maple syrup comes from the north east mainly Québec, New York, and Vermont. I use New York State dark syrup because I live in New York and buy local when I have the choice.

• Chocolate chips are the easiest to source. My preference is bittersweet or the darkest chip I can find. The ones I use for these cookies are the 67% cocoa Whole Foods house brand.

NUTRITION – Healthy has a very specific meaning as per FDA regulations and up until recently there’s no way I could label them healthy. Things are beginning to change which is, in my opinion, a positive and long overdue move.

The nutrition tag reads as follows: 140 calories per cookie, 11 grams fat (1.2g saturated), 9g carbohydrate (2g dietary fiber, 6g added sugar), 3g protein. Recipe analyzed using Bob’s Red Mill almond meal.

• Fat Profile. Don’t be concerned when I share with you that 72% calories come from fat. That fat comes from almonds, canola oil, and chocolate chips. I still can’t label these cookies healthy but one of the changes recently introduced by the FDA allows me to talk about the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats. I won’t be able to calculate that ratio until Bob revises the nutrition facts label and lists mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, but I can tell looking at the total fat and the saturated fat that the ratio will be very favorable. In other words, most of those 11 grams fat will be coming from “healthy” unsaturated fats.

• Carbohydrate. Both added sugars and dietary fibers get counted as carbohydrates. Each cookie has 6 grams added sugars about half from maple syrup and the other half from chocolate chips. I used USDA bittersweet chocolate chip for my calculation which breaks out the added sugars. Each cookie also has 2g dietary fiber from the almonds because I used almond meal which includes skins.

• Protein. Well we all know we don’t eat cookies because we want protein. However nuts are a source of protein and these cookies are almost 50% almonds, so it’s not surprising that one cookie delivers 3 grams.

ALLERGENS – Tree Nuts

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Fat, Salt, and Split Pea Soup

 

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Thank goodness fats are no longer considered a toxic substance. I did my nutrition studies during the height of the low fat is healthy years. Just imagine how confused I felt when I ran my own numbers and discovered my daily pattern was based on an unhealthy amount of fat.  That was just 20 years ago and as you know things have changed.

My split pea soup depends on fat to bring out the flavor of aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot, and celery. Finely chopped and sweated in lots of olive oil, this mirepoix adds color, hearty flavor, and sweetness to the soup. Without that generous dose of olive oil, the recipe wouldn’t be as delicious.

Salt of course is the other critical component. I learned I use too much fat but I also learned I under salt.  Salt is critical to good cooking but if you know your way around the kitchen you know how to squeeze flavor out of all the ingredients so there’s no need to use so much salt.

Recipe writing is not my strength. I do provide proportion but in both metric and common measure and some instruction. But if you’re a beginning cook and need basic instruction or technique, I suggest you check out a website like Simple Recipes or New York Times Recipe Box or one of the reputable collections available via the internet.

Rest assured that messing up a split pea soup is really hard. Burnt onions. Rancid olive oil. Confusing table salt with kosher flake salt. These are mess ups. But proportions of split peas to onion, carrots, celery can be highly variable as can the amount of liquid. So making this soup is good practice for trying your hand at no recipe cooking.

RECIPE for 3 liters (12 cups)

• 500 grams split peas (2 1/2 cups – generous pound)

• 400 grams mirepoix (1 1/4 cup chopped onion; generous 3/4 cup chopped carrot; generous 2/3 cup diced celery)

• 100 grams olive oil (7 1/2 tablespoons)

• 2 to 3 liters water or stock (8 to 12 cups)

• 12 grams salt (4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt or 2 teaspoons table/coarse sea salt)

Start by rinsing the split peas. Then gently sweat chopped onions in olive oil until golden browned and aromatic at least 30 minutes. The longer the onions sizzle softly in the oil the more aromatic they get. Add carrots and celery and sauté another 30 minutes. Now add liquid, split peas, herbs of choice, salt, and gently simmer partially covered until split peas are fully softened and starting to fall apart. Pass the soup through a food mill for an even textured consistency.

INGREDIENTS – Good flavor starts with sourcing the best ingredients. Look for split peas from the most current harvest. Sometimes these dates are hard to find. Store managers often really don’t know and in all due respect many could care less. Best to buy from a trusted supplier. As for the olive oil, no reason to use your best. High heat destroys some of the healthful properties and delicate taste aromatics. I use an everyday extra virgin olive oil from California. As for the liquid use water or vegetable stock or chicken stock in any combination. What’s important is the final volume, about 3 liters or 12 cups.

NUTRITION – I run numbers on all my recipes but I don’t post label results, however I’m happy to send you those numbers if you want them so just let me know.

I prefer using common measure. Most folks can visualize a cup of soup and once you know a cup of soup puts about 230 calories in the bowl, you can do the math yourself. Serving sizes always vary depending on how the soup gets served.  Appetizers are usually less than a cup. Main course soup for supper is usually more than a cup. Snackers I’m sure have their own favorite amounts.

Here’re a breakdown for the nutrients per cup that I check for:

• Protein. This soup qualifies as vegan so all 10 grams per cup are plant protein. Ham hocks or bacon or cheese are common additions to split pea soup. They add more protein and you’ll end up with an animal plant protein mix.

• Fiber. Both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers are beneficial from a health perspective. All legumes are fiber rich and split pea soup has lots of fiber, about 11 grams per cup.

• Fat. Olive oil is the source of fat and contribute 35% of the calories as per proportions used above. Using olive oil ensures that the fat profile will be predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Adding ham hocks or bacon or cheese adds saturated fatty acids and changes the fat profile.

• Salt. Essential for a good tasting soup. Keep in mind however it’s important to salt to your own taste. So the most important step is learning to salt is to know your own salt tolerance. Always keep in mind that under salting is safer. You can use a sprinkling of finishing salt just before serving. Desalting an over salted soup is hard.

Using 4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt Diamond for 3 liters soup, one cup of soup has about 410 mg sodium. Sometimes I use only 3 teaspoons of salt which works out to 320 mg per cup. I don’t seem to need as much salt as many other cooks and eaters like to use. For me, a little bit of salt goes a long way. Salting to your own taste is really important because we don’t all taste salt the same way.

Why you may be asking do I specify salt by brand name? The answer is because brand and grind make a difference. So I’m not writing a sponsored post. There are two brands of kosher salt and one brand sits much lighter in the spoon than the other brand so it makes a difference which one you use.

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Let’s see if I can count the added sugars in my jam.

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Pictured above is one of my favorite jams. Lingonberry Jam. The berries grow in Sweden and this jam is imported from Sweden. It’s not too sweet and that’s why I like it so much.

With sugars rapidly replacing fats as the nutrient of the day to avoid, lots of folks are paying more attention to how many sugars are added to whatever they eat. So I thought I’d try to figure out how many grams were in my jam.

Currently as per the FDA, manufacturers will need to add a line item on the nutrition fact label indicating how many sugars in their product have been added. But for now we’re on our own. So let’s take a look

First I checked the ingredient list.

Lingonberries (48%), sugar, water, and fruit pectin. Ingredients must be listed by weight in descending order, so the list tells me that the manufacturer used more lingonberries than sugar, water, or pectin. But I still don’t know what fraction of the sugars come from added sugar and what fraction comes from natural sugars in the lingonberries.

Then I tried to find a food composition table for lingonberries.

Lingonberries grow wild in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, as well as Canada, Sweden, and Finland. I’ve never tasted a raw wild lingonberry but from what I can tell based on a couple of internet searches, these tiny, round berries are a distant relative of cranberries and share the same bitter flavor.

Checking my favorite food composition database, I actually found a reference to raw, low bush cranberry or lingonberry listed under American Indian /Alaska Native Foods. The record is incomplete. Carbohydrates are listed but no detail is given on how many are sugars or complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers. It’s a safe assumption to assume the number of natural sugars is pretty low just like the natural sugars in a cranberry but I still don’t have the number of added sugar grams.

Then I looked for a lingonberry jam recipe.

I’m sure recipes exist in Swedish but I can’t read Swedish. So I tried a substitution. It’s my understanding that red currants are similar to lingonberries so I set out to find a recipe for red currant jam. I want a European source because I need a weight based recipe. I have a good collection of French books and checked Conserves Familiales by Henrietta Lasnet de Lanty. Confiture de groseilles: 700 grammes de sucre par kilo de groseilles. In English: 700 grams sugar and 1 kilogram red currants. Those proportions correspond to the Swedish label which listed lingonberries first, sugar second.

But after all this I still don’t have the number of added sugar grams.

So the answer to the question is no. I can’t calculate the grams of added sugar in my jam without having the proportions used by the manufacturer.

Okay, I can’t do it. But I do know this. There is less sugar than fruit. The last thing I checked was the USDA Standard Reference food composition table. I pulled up about two dozen berry jams. Most of these branded jams list sugar first and fruit second.

And here’s my take away.

We may not be able to calculate the actual grams of added sugar until the manufacturer updates the label in 2018. But I do know what I need to look for on the ingredient list. Fruit listed first and sugars in any form listed second.

 

 

 

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