Here’s the secret to a great ratatouille.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Every August I make ratatouille. Zucchini is still coming in. Tomatoes and peppers are bursting on the scene. Fresh garlic and fragrant basil are in season and abundant.

JULIA KNEW THE SECRET.

I made my first ratatouille to rave reviews using a Julia Child recipe. Her version was spot on because she knew the secret so I just did what she said and used a generous hand and the best olive oil I could afford.

Julia made her mark in the 1960s and 1970s so she missed a head on collision with the fat phobic era that gripped our nation starting mid 1980s.

DECADES OF FAT PHOBIA IMPACTED RECIPE DEVELOPMENT.

By the time I went back to school to study nutrition in 1993, low fat was firmly entrenched. Manufacturers had already jumped on this bandwagon as noted in an article from 1993 in the The Washington Post. It took a little longer for recipe modification to take hold however.

In October 1998,  Eating Well a magazine dedicated to healthy eating published a recipe for ratatouille. Enough olive oil was removed to get the calories from fat down to 33%. In other words about half the amount of olive oil as Julia called for in her recipe.

The most austere recipe I pulled up searching for low fat ratatouille was from 2008. This recipe substituted cooking spray for olive oil and successfully reduced the calories from fat down to an austere level of 10%.

LOW FAT HITS VEGETABLES ESPECIALLY HARD.

That’s because vegetables by weight are mostly water and water has no calories. Vegetables have lots of positives like fiber, some protein, sometimes sugars, and a rich array of vitamins, minerals, pigments, phytonutrients. Just not many calories.

Fats like olive oil are calorie dense so when the oil gets added to eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes — all of which have practically no calories — of course most of the calories will come from fat. A well crafted ratatouille clocks in between 60 TO 70% calories from fat.

WE NEED A BETTER SCORING SYSTEM.

Vegetables, some of the healthiest foods out there, got punished when salt and oil were added just because vegetables are so low in calories. With all due respect to our regulatory officials, there has just got to be a better way

So I decided to keep an eye out for a better scoring metric. I discovered some research done at Oxford a decade or so ago that counts both negatives and positives. Then I adapted this approach to my own recipe analysis.

Ratatouille tastes much better made with salt (40% sodium) and lots of olive oil (13% saturated fat). Sodium and saturated fat currently count negative.

Ratatouille is mostly eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato by weight (over 90%). Vegetables, protein, and fiber currently count positive.

The negatives are about equal to the positives with a slight edge to positives and that sounds healthy to my simplistic mind.

AUGUST IS MY MONTH FOR CELEBRATION.

August is the optimal month for ratatouille. August is the month Julia was born. And August is the month I finally figured out how to score ratatouille healthy.

There are so many classic recipes for ratatouille available via the internet. You can find Julia’s recipe here. And Alice Water’s recipe here. And the recipe from The Kitchn here.

Or you message me via LinkedIn or Facebook and I’ll send you my recipe.

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

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
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
Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics

That’s not to say that nutrients aren’t important. Because they are. They’re very important. But nutrients are only one of many parts to a complex story.

Take my beautiful salade composé pictured above. There is so much more going on than a string of numbers can communicate.

THE NUTRITION FACTS STORY

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

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

AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORIES.

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

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

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

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

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

What about the tuna? Is it domestic or imported. Line caught or net caught. Skipjack or yellowfin or albacore or one of the lesser known species. Jared or canned or fresh. Just for the record, the tuna pictured above is Tonnino, a branded product packed in Italy.

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

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

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

WHERE DOES FOOD FIT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

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

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

Emphatically my answer is yes.

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

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

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the new criteria look like?

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

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

 

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

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

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

NUTRIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

FOOD GROUPS

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

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

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

HYBRID

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

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

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

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

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

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

METRICS

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

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

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Looks like the French are up to mischief again …

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Something happened in France at the end of last year.

The French government officially endorsed Nutri-Score on October 31, 2017 and that beautifully designed 5 color graphic pictured above because the official voluntary front of the package scoring system in France.

Why voluntary? Because France as a member of the European common market is not allowed to mandate a food label. However, several large French food manufacturers have already agreed to start using Nutri Score and a couple of enterprising young French entrepreneurs have already launched an app that reads barcodes and scores products.

Americans are used to French influence. Think French restaurants. Or Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese. Or Jacques Pépin. And most Americans are familiar with French food. We suspect the French eat perhaps a little more butter and cheese than most of us think is healthy. And we may also suspect the French have a more casual approach to food that allows for enjoyment without guilt. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that consumer package labeling is not the usual place one looks to for French inspiration.

Besides, why look to France when we have our own version of a front of the package label.  Ever notice those little boxes with numbers and percentages on the front of packaged foods as you’re walking down a supermarket aisle? Sometimes there is just one box. Usually there are four boxes. Sometimes up to six boxes. Here’s what our Facts Up Front label looks like

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The first box always lists calories per serving. The next three boxes provide information on nutrients to limit in the diet: saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Subsequent boxes if they appear are used for nutrients to encourage.

The two systems reflect two very different approaches to the same problem. One isn’t necessarily easier or better than the other. A shopper who wants to choose healthier packaged items can succeed with either system. But because the approaches are so different, I decided to compare the two, detail those differences, and share my discoveries with you.

  1. The French system is color coded. Facts Up Front is not. So let’s say right up front that the color range makes the label more intuitive. Dark green indicates a healthier choice. A lighter shade of green and oranges in the middle. At the end, a deep reddish orange to indicate not so healthy choices.
  2. The French system is weight based. Facts Up Front is portion sized based. Our American system works well for comparing two brand of potato chips or whether or a portion of potato chips with a portion of an energy bar. The French system is based on a consistent weight and helps consumers compare calorie density and percentage weight. For example potato chips usually are 500 or more calories per 100 grams whereas most granola bars are closer to 400 calories per 100 grams.
  3. The French system sums up multiple nutrient numbers and presents the consumer with a single color coded score. Our American system puts 4 or more discrete values on the front of the package and it’s up to us put a picture together.
  4. The French system scores food groups. Our American system scores only nutrients. The combined weight of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts is summed as a percentage of the total weight. The higher the percentage, the more points a product earns. Our American system focuses exclusively on nutrients, more specifically the nutrients to limit or avoid. There is a place for nutrients to encourage like fiber or protein or potassium, no mechanism for scoring a food group.

So there you have my run down of the differences. The best labeling strategy of course is that strategy that works for you and most folks tend to like the strategy they are used to. So most Americans will feel more comfortable with out American portion sized system and most French people will feel more comfortable with the French weight based system.

As for me I’m intrigued with the concept of including food groups in the scoring algorithm. Especially if those foods are intact whole foods. Fascinating idea and one worthy of more thought …

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Calorie Counting and Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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French Macarons and Added Sugars

 

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris. @gourmetmetrics

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
@gourmetmetrics

 A beautiful pastry selection. Wouldn’t you agree?  We took the picture during a recent trip to Paris. And yes the pastry selection really was in McDonalds. And yes that McDonalds really is on the Champs-Élysées just about a block down from the Arc de Triomphe.

Now check out those 6 plates in the center. Those are plates of French Macarons. See the two plates in different hues of green. Then a plate of vibrant pink. And two more plates of chocolate-browns and one of cream. All beautifully sculpted and artfully arranged. All perfect. And all tasting deliciously sweet.

If you were standing in front of that gorgeous display, how many would you eat? Just between you and me, I don’t have a well developed sweet tooth so a good French macaron is almost too sweet for me. One or two is all I can eat at a time.

Now if you have a well developed sweet tooth and are feeling an irresistible urge to indulge, here’s the good news. You don’t have to go to Paris to savor the delicacy. There are stores in New York and other metropolitan cities dedicated to Macarons. Specialty manufacturers have picked up on the trend and providing packaged Macarons in stores and via the internet. Websites like Food Network or Epicurious also feature recipes for making Macarons at home.

The cookie is sweet, light, airy, and dainty. Made with sugar, almond meal (no flour and therefore no wheat), egg whites, cream, butter, and flavorings, the list of ingredients is straightforward and simple.

Had I been at a McDonald’s here in New York, calories for these Macarons would be easy to access. Several cities including New York City require it and McDonald’s has decided to be proactive posting nutrient information in restaurants and online. But Paris has no such municipal regulations so no calories and no other nutrient data.

Based on comparing data from boutique providers and recipe nutrient tags, here’s my guesstimate for my two French Macarons. Weights can vary of course but depending on selection one can expect 5 to 6 Macarons per 100 grams. So for calories let’s say 70 to 80 per each or 140 to 160 calories for two.

As for sugars, it’s safe to assume the carbohydrate is all added sugar. The other ingredients (almond meal, egg whites, cream, butter) are not carbohydrate sources except for just a whisper of lactose from the heavy cream. Good news for celiacs and those with a wheat allergy because Macarons are both gluten free and contain no wheat. Bad news for folks with a nut or milk allergy.

But who really cares? I do. But I’m a self confessed nutrition nerd. So who else cares?

A group of committed health professional food activists care. They believe their duty is to help others eat better and healthier. They care a lot. Then there’s a group made up of food manufacturers and restaurants. This group cares too but for completely different reasons.

Now you may be asking what does all this have to do with French Macarons?

Like so many other packages on the shelf, there’s added sugars in French Macaron. Quite a lot of added sugars actually. Sugar by weight is over 40% of the macaron’s total weight. Or calories from added sugars are over 40% of the total calories. However you measure it, that’s a lot of sweet.

The government has already spent significant resources constructing the new regulations. Manufacturers are now being asked to spend significant dollars to research and update their labels. Soon it will be our turn. Were consumers willing to invest the time to read and understand labels, the investment would be easy to justify. Especially if the information transmitted resulted in a decrease in obesity rates.

But here’s the catch. Will listing added sugar grams on the label discourage folks from eating too many French macarons? That’s the crucial question. Personality, I don’t think so.

Do you think the folks who just love these sweet delicate little treats will pay much attention and eat less?

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OMG Did my Roast Chicken Just Get Healthier?

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Here’s a picture of my beautifully roasted chicken right out of the oven.

Now feast your eyes on that lovely crispy skin. Like my granddaddy always said “Skin’s the best part.” And my granddaddy was always right.

Not everyone agrees however. Many health professionals along with some of my zealous colleagues still advise us to discard the skin. Current USDA MyPlate handouts and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines continue to recommend “lean” proteins. And lean always means skinless chicken breast when referring to poultry.

Now I’m not sure how you’ve done it, but for me I’ve always served my roast chicken with skin intact. My foodie friends and the chefs I know also honor the whole bird. Besides being absolutely delicious, the skin protects the chicken as it roasts keeping the meat moist and flavorful.

Officially we’ve been a fat phobia nation for a while now. Back in 1980 when the first dietary guidelines were published, Guideline #3 said it all: avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

But another 10 years passed before the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) authorized the FDA to regulate labels for packaged foods and we actually start having food rules. Now I’m the first to agree that a few good rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some of these rules like criteria required for labeling a food healthy were draconian.

Industry insiders used to joke that the surest way to guarantee a food offering failed was to label it healthy and health messaging started to develop a reputation as the kiss of death. Using low fat as the most significant market for a healthy food meant avocados were not healthy. Neither were nuts. And even a simple green salad vinaigrette dressing could not be labeled healthy.

Like all research, nutrition science continued to forge ahead and a better understanding of fats began to emerge. The low fat kiss of death criteria however remained cast in regulatory concrete.

Then in September 2016, the FDA announced its intention to review the rules for healthy. The process is going to take years, but in the meantime, we have this interim statement:

Foods that use the term “healthy” on their labels that are not low in total fat should have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats (i.e., sum of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are greater than the total saturated fat content of food).

Since most folks don’t even know that these rules exist, it’s worth asking what difference does it makes. Most of my foodies friends for example are not paying much attention and could care less what the FDA decides to do.

Being an RDN however I really do care and here’s why.

Dietary rules and guidelines impact public policy. They are written into federally mandated programs like school nutrition. They regulate nutrition labels on packaged food. And effective next year, the rules will be extended to restaurant menu labels.

But getting back to my roast chicken, the FDA interim statement has a significant impact on whether or not it’s healthy to eat the skin.

The fats in my roasted chicken are primarily in the skin with the rest marbled into the leg muscle. That’s why the skinless breast was lauded in the first place. Dry and tasteless but no fat.

Now let’s take a closer look at the fat profile for a roasted chicken. Total fat is composed of saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated added together equal total unsaturated fats. When we compare the two values, we can determine which type of fat predominates. Are there more saturated fats? Or more unsaturated fats?

Some folks find it easier to think in terms of a ratio. My roasted chicken has a good ratio. For every gram of saturated fats, we have over 2 grams of unsaturated fats. Clearly the unsaturated fats predominate. And that ratio looks pretty good to my eye.

The FDA doesn’t directly regulate recipe tags, but folks like me who develop recipe tags need to keep a watchful eye on the rules. Personally I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I would prefer that the FDA did less micro-managing. On the other hand food manufacturers need to be held accountable and a few good rules helps keep them honest.

But I’m thrilled the FDA has decided to review and revising the rules. It will probably take a couple of years before they decide what those revisions will be, but in the meantime it looks like my roasted chicken most certainly did get a little healthier.

BUY GOOD STUFF.    The breed of the chicken determines the flavor. My preference is a chicken that grows slowly. Heritage breeds are grown here in the states but most are descended from a French breed called cou nu or naked neck. This “slow grow” bird takes almost twice the time to reach market weight. The birds are not cheap because they require more feed, fuel, water, and land per pound of meat to sustain their growth. But for folks like me who appreciate a really flavorful bird, the extra dollars are well spent.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.  Nutrition Facts per 5.5 ounce serving roast chicken: 350 calories, 21 grams fat, 0g carbohydrates, 38 grams protein. That serving size reflects 1/8 of a whole chicken that weighed  about 4 pounds as purchased raw.

Fat breakdown for those 21 grams total fat is 6 grams saturated and 13 grams unsaturated (5 grams poly and 8 grams mono). In other words, unsaturated fats predominate in a ratio of 2.2 to 1.

 

 

 

 

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