Cute and tasty and ultra-processed?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

Pictured above is one package of Mild Green Mojo Multigrain Tortilla Chips and a couple of little Mojos. Not being a chip person, I’m not a good judge on how Mojos compare to the competition, but one of my best friends who speaks from years of chip experience has confided that the chips are good verging on addictive.

I do agree the Mojos are tasty. When I take the first bite, corn predominates. Very nice. Makes sense too because corn is the main ingredient. After the distinctly corn taste comes a cheesy somewhat salty taste. Definitely salty, but not so salty that other flavors are over powered. I’m okay with a couple of Mojos, however, I seem to be immune to what ever causes my friend’s addictive behavior.

INGREDIENT LIST

The ingredient statement lists each substance by name in descending order by weight and here’s what I found when I turned the package over. Note that parenthesis and brackets indicate sub-ingredients. I’ve also added asterisks to mark an ingredient as separate from any sub ingredients.

Ingredients: *organic ground whole corn, *organic expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or organic expeller pressed safflower oil, *organic brown rice, *organic chia seeds, *organic grain & seed blend (organic flax, organic millet, organic brown rice, organic quinoa, organic amaranth), *Late July organic mild green mojo seasoning (salt, organic green pepper powder, organic parsley powder, organic sour cream powder [organic cream, organic whey powder, lactic acid, cultures, salt], organic cheese powder [organic cheddar cheese, organic whey powder, lactic acid, disodium phosphate, cheese cultures, non-animal enzymes], organic whey powder, organic evaporated cane sugar, organic jalapeno powder, organic lime juice powder [organic lime juice, organic maltodextrin, mixed tocopherols], organic garlic powder, organic onion powder), *organic evaporated cane sugar.

That’s a lengthy list of substances most of which you won’t find in my kitchen cabinet. Note too that the word count is 114 even though the ingredient count is only seven. Many of those 114 words are repetitions. The word organic appears 29 times; the word powdered 11 times.

Both seed & grain blend and chia look to be intact but the other ingredients have all been pulverized or dehydrated.

DEGREE & PURPOSE OF PROCESSING

As my colleagues who work in the food industry love to remind me, humans have always processed their food. And they are of course spot on.

What is worth taking a closer look at however is the degree and purpose of the processing.

Making a chip takes some pretty sophisticated technology. First the ingredients are powdered, pulverized, dehydrated, and deconstructed. The industrial process is fascinating to watch. It’s easy and free to check one of the many videos available on UTube that gives you a visual of how a chip gets made.

Nutrients survive processing and are listed on the nutrition label but the food matrix has been shattered. In other words, the corn, green pepper, cheese, sour cream listed on the ingredient statement are unrecognizable.

Marketing the chips takes some pretty sophisticated technology too. Just take a look at that beautifully designed bag. Color is two vibrant shades of environment green with yellow lettering to highlight those intact seeds and grains. A work of art that has been hermetically sealed to ensure crispness and protect from intruders. Each bag sits seductively on the shelf patiently waiting for indulgence to happen.

I would say the Mojos are a outstanding example of a well crafted ultra-processed product. Would others agree? I don’t know. The concept has not been reduced to a consistent set metrics we can measure yet.

ARE ULTRA-PROCESSED PRODUCTS BAD?

The answer to that question depends of course on who you ask.

My position is to remain neutral but to ask lots of questions. How does all the grinding and pulverizing effect metabolism? Are we really just eating pre-digested food? Why am I satisfied with a handful of Mojos but my friend can’t put the bag down? And, most basic of all, what set of metrics should we use to decide what is ultra-processed and what is not?

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Recipes. Technique. Ingredients. What’s your passion?

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

If you’re Nigella Lawson, your passion is recipes. If you’re Jacques Pépin, your passion is  La Technique. As for me, my passion is ingredients.

I love running nutrition stats and I love ingredient drill downs. But most of all I love the down and dirty work of sourcing ingredients. Shopping farmer’s markets. Exploring new neighborhoods. Trying new products. Poking around or getting lost or discovering something unique that’s real and wonderful I’ve never tasted before.

Over the last six months I’ve been experimenting with naan pizza. Since every time I make it, the ingredient list is a little different, writing a recipe seems pointless. Who know if this most recent version will continue to work. For the moment however, the ingredient selection appears to be fairly stable.

Rather than making my own pizza dough or buying it frozen, I use an Original Naan. Pictured above is the regular naan, but my preference is whole wheat when it’s available.

Next comes a layer of Traditional Basil Pesto. Not just any old pesto, but my favorite brand of Italian imported pesto with 43% basil by weight as per the label. Less salt, more basil. I’ve never seen pesto listed in any recipe for naan pizza or any other kind of pizza but I like the taste. Guess it’s okay to claim the addition is my own creation.

After the pesto, I add a layer of tomato sauce. I’ve started making my own with peeled plum tomatoes or pelati. Made the sauce last weekend by sweating a base of onion, carrot, and onion in olive oil than adding one 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. I don’t add salt. Not because I have anything against salt but because I love flexibility. Meals should be salted to taste and the tomato sauce will be used in different preparations.

Next is sliced red onion followed by freshly made mozzarella. I use unsalted baby bocconcini which I buy them from my favorite Italian green grocer. I don’t know where he sources them but I’m sure they are made locally. I always buy them the day I’m going to make naan pizza because they are a freshly made product not a processed food with an extended shelf life.

The rest is easy. Heat the pizza stone. Cook the pizza till done in a very hot oven. Eat and enjoy.

Now a final word on salt. The naan is salted as is the basil pesto. Both are processed foods and are salted as per the formulary during the manufacturing process. And it’s enough to please my palette so I don’t add any additional salt.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love salt. Salt to taste is the rule in my kitchen. But salt should never be a substitute for an array of robust flavorful ingredients like the ingredients I’ve chosen for the pizza. Aromatic basil from the pesto. Robust flavorful acidity from pelati. Soft sweetness from red onion. Creamy fatty smoothness from freshly made baby bocconcini. Each ingredient makes its own unique flavor contribution.

My naan pizza is so full of complex flavors and textures, all I need is enough salt to enhance all that diversity. But if your taste is different, please add more salt.

NB: Certain brands are referenced in this post. Please not however the post is not sponsored by anyone. Brands are referenced because I like them and they work better than their competitors in my culinary judgment.

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.

 

 

Classic Risotto

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Good risotto requires three essentials – time, patience, and a healthy dose of respect for ingredients.  The last risotto I made was at Thanksgiving.  My brother in law, an aspiring amateur, volunteered me.  He had crafted a non-conventional spread, got caught up in other preparations, and asked me to give him a hand.  All the right stuff was assembled and my job became the time and the patience part.    Once you get the hang of making risotto, you really do not need a recipe because much of the work is coaxing the rice into absorbing just the right amount of broth then stirring in some more cheese and butter.

The process is straightforward.   Melt about half the butter in a pan, stir the rice into the melted butter, let it sizzle softly, start adding broth little by little until at the end the broth is absorbed and the rice is cooked just al dente.  Incorporate the rest of the butter and cheese.  Serve immediately.

When one of the essentials is missing, you get a bad risotto.  Not enough time.  Not enough patience.   Or insufficient respect for the integrity of the ingredients.  My first risotto was not all that good, but with practice you get the feel of it and with each repetition, the risotto gets better.

Classic proportions for four people as listed in my favorite Italian recipe source, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane: Quarta Edizione 1976, are as follows:  400 grams rice, 100 grams butter, 1 ½ liters stock, 80 grams parmigiano.  Optional ingredients:  medium onion, olive oil, white wine, saffron, salt, and pepper.   Translated into common American measure:

2 cups short grain rice, measured dry

               7 tablespoons unsalted butter

               6 cups chicken or beef stock

               1 cup grated parmigiano

Now, you may be asking, what has to be done to a sumptuous, sinfully delicious dish like risotto to make an ugly risotto?  Let me explain.

Way back in 1997, as New York City restaurants were expanding their portion sizes and Americans were expanding their waistlines, four nutrition professionals and an intrepid food writer at The New York Times conducted a calorie counting experiment.  The original article is still available at the Times website “Losing Count of Calories as the Plate Fills Up” and that is where I found it recently.

The purpose of that article was to highlight expanding portion sizes in restaurants.  The signature dish was a risotto, which laboratory analysis determined contained 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat.

Under the most benign conditions, risotto is certainly not what you would call a light dish.  Just check out the nutrition numbers below for a classic portion.  Good risotto needs the right amount of butter and cheese to make it decadently delicious.

So I said to myself, what would you have to do to classic proportions to get 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat?  Classic proportions by weight are consistent no matter which source you choose, so establishing a ratio is relatively easy.  Ratios work by weight, so bear with me and we will walk through the weights together.

The ratio of rice to butter for the classic version is 4 to 1.  In other words, four parts rice to one part butter plus the handful of cheese.  In metric units, that is 400 grams rice to 100 grams butter.  Or in common measure about 2 cups rice to 7 tablespoons butter.

It actually took me a while to retrofit the ratio to yield 1280 calories and 110 grams of fat.  When I finally succeed, there was a lot more fat and a lot less rice.  The calories from fat go from 44% for the classic risotto to 77% for this risotto.  Starting with the same 400 grams / 2 cups rice, the butter needs to be increased to 600 grams.  That is 43 tablespoons or 1 ⅓ pounds.  Plus that handful of cheese.  And who knows what kind of fat the restaurant used?  Fresh unsalted butter?  Margarine?  Fats of unknown origin?

So how did it taste?  To my great disappointment, not one of the nutrition professionals or even the intrepid food writer commented on how this risotto tasted so we will never know.  What we do know, however, is that whatever this risotto was, it was not classic.  I love butter.  And I love cheese.  But too much of a good thing can get ugly and that is why I decided to call this risotto ugly.   So back it goes filed under nutrition in the archives of the New York Times.  I plan to stay with a small portion of my decadently delicious and very good classic risotto.

 

One Portion Classic Risotto,  about 1 ½ cups (364g):  Calories 530, Fat 26g, Saturated Fat 16g, Sodium 370mg, Carbohydrate 59g, Fiber 2g, Protein 13g.
One Portion Ugly Risotto, about 2 ½  cups (640g):  Calories 1280, Fat 110g, Saturated Fat 70g, Sodium 350mg, Carbohydrate 55g, Fiber 2g, Protein 12g.

Fresh Pasta

My experiment for this batch of fresh pasta was to try white all purpose whole wheat flour and it worked beautifully.  Cooked in salted water and dressing with say Roman artichokes, grated parmigiano, and extra virgin olive oil, the final product was delicious.  I used a hand cranked pasta machine with a four inch roller and “fettuccine” cutters for this batch.

  • makes 1/3 pound (150 grams) fresh pasta

  • cost $2.70 per pound

  • serves 2 to 4 depending on portion size

INGREDIENTS

 white whole wheat flour, ¾ to ⅞ cup  (100g)

egg, 1 large

METHOD

Weigh out (or measure) flour.  Place in bowl or on a board.  Add the egg.   Knead until the moisture from the egg has absorbed as much flour as it can hold.  Form dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour.  Divide the dough into 6 pieces.  Working one piece at a time, finish the kneading process by putting each piece through the large rollers until it is soft and pliable.  Then flatten the piece by progressing from the wide roller setting to the narrow roller setting and cut the piece using one of the two cutting blades.  Form into a nest, use immediately, or freeze.

  • The exact amount of flour depends on the moisture content of the flour and the moisture in the egg.  The goal is just the right amount of flour and moisture and is more dependent of getting a feel for the dough than on an exact measurement.  If the dough is too dry, it becomes brittle, lacks pliability, and cannot be rolled or cut successfully.  If the dough is too moist, it gets stuck in the rollers and the cutters and ends up making a sticky mess.

  • Using the same ratio of 100 grams flour to 1 extra large egg, different combinations of flour can be used:  all purpose unbleached white flour, whole wheat all purpose flour.  You can also experiment with using semolina flour, up to 25% of the total amount.   Because the recipe is weight based, proportions are expandable.

NB:  Making fresh pasta requires a pasta making machine.  Models available today come with a wider cutting surface which makes the process go faster.  If I were getting one today, I would get the wider cutting surface.  But I don’t make enough pasta to warrant replacing the one I have and my machine has a lot of sentimental value for me because I bought it on my first trip to Rome and hand carried it back home.

 METRICS

Cost.  I priced fresh pasta and it runs $3.50 to $4.00 per pound in one of my local supermarkets.  Making it at home cost me less, but the difference is not significant enough however to justify my labor.  Pasta only gets made at home if you like the taste better and you think it is fun.

 Calories.   Proportions for fresh pasta used consistently in my Italian source books are 200 grams flour and 2 eggs for 4 people. These classic proportions are a little larger that our current Serving Size for pasta which is 1 about cup. I prefer a smaller portion, say half the size of the classic Italian portion.

Classic Italian Portion (163g):  Calories 210, Fat 3.5g, Saturated Fat 1g, Sodium 270mg, Carbohydrate 36g, Fiber 5g, Protein 10g.
My Smaller Portion (82g cooked):   Calories 100, Fat 2g, Saturated Fat 0g, Sodium 135mg, Carbohydrate 18g, Fiber 3g, Protein 5g. 

Camembert Cheese and Apples

We all love cheese.  But it is the French who have mastered the art of serving cheese and setting it within the structure of a meal.  Try serving cheese accompanied with fruit after the meal instead of a dessert.  Most people do not complain and for those who do, just serve a “real” dessert too.  If you have never tried, you may find cheese is more satisfying at the end of a meal than something sweet and syrupy.  Cheese is fun to experiment with.  Most people quickly determine which types they like and which types they can do without.  Each cheese has its own unique character and its own finite shelf life.  A hard cheese like parmiggiano or aged cheddar will keep months as long as it is stored correctly.  A fresh cheese like goat should be eaten relatively quickly.  A camembert will keep a while.  The delicate aromas and textures of cheese are enhanced when served at room temperature, so remove cheese from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.  Pictured below is the local Hudson Valley Camember cheese (5.6 ounces/156g) I picked up at my Greenmarket. Hudson Valley Camembert & ThinCrisps

one camembert cheese       6-8 ounces (150g-250g)

cost $7.00 – $10.00

calories depends on size

serves 6 to 10

140 calories per serving

 Green Apples Fall

Pictured here on the left are the green Pepin apples I also picked up at the Greenmarket.   Thin crispbreads, water thins, or a good baguette are a must.  Crispbreads or water thins are my preference because they provide a surface for tasting and savoring cheese but are less calorie dense than bread.  A plain wooden board makes the best serving plate.  The best garnish is an attractive cheese knife.

RECIPE

camembert cheese, count 1 ounce (25g-30g) per person

box of crispbreads

crisp fall apples, count 1/2 apple per person

METRICS

Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, but is also high in butterfat and for sodium for some people.  See nutrition information for fat content.  So here is the question — can we eat our cheese and be healthy too?  Guess the answer to this one has got to be it depends …

A serving of cheese on my plate is about an ounce or 25 to 30 grams.  Small is beautiful!

Comparing my cheese plate to the calories in an equivalent dessert say a piece of cheesecake, the camembert does well.  A classic restaurant style cheesecake will run about 550 calories, considerable more than my camembert plate.  More extravagant cheesecakes go up exponentially up from there to 1000 calories or more.  As for salt, comparing my camembert to an equivalent weight of American process cheese, the camembert has less sodium.

Liz Thorpe has written a wonderful book chronicling how local cheese makers across our country have reinvented European traditions for American consumption.  Check out The Cheese Chronicles:  A Journey through the Making and Selling of Cheese in American, from Field to Farm to Table, 2009.

 

Per Serving of cheese,crispbread, and apple (103 g):  Calories 140, Fat 7g, Saturated Fat 4g, Trans Fat 0g, Cholesterol 20mg, Sodium 290mg, Carbohydrate 14g, Fiber 1g, Protein 6g.