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.

 

 

Healthy means one thing to cooks and something different to a recipe analyst like me.

photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Chicken Platter | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

Feast your eyes on a gorgeous Brune Landaise, a slow grow (110 days) heritage breed chicken raised in rural Pennsylvania. I took the picture recently at a Manhattan restaurant and even with the addition of vegetable sides, it’s not your classic picture of healthy eating.

HEALTHY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

Roast chicken is a healthy alternative for carnivores when they get tired of steak. If you’re a vegan however roast chicken is unhealthy or immoral. And probably both. These are subjective opinions based on two different belief systems.

Enter the nutrition researcher. These folks have been taught to measure healthy in grams and milligrams. Personal anecdotes and opinions are suspect. Research and evidence are what count. Now the scientific method is by natures reductionist and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that scientists sometimes forget that the whole can be more than the sum of its measurable parts. And so sometimes do recipe analysts.

THE NUTRITION FACTS

I ran the numbers for roast chicken based on my own recipe for a modest serving size (2 pieces or about 6 ounces). Calories 370, Fat 22 g, Saturated Fat 6 g, Sodium 560 mg, Carbohydrates 0 g, Fiber 0 g, Sugars 0 g, Protein 39 g.

If you have a hard time finding meaning in the numbers, you’re not alone. I know what all the numbers mean, I’m a dietitian, and I have a hard time too. Facts are important and we don’t want to ignore them. But nutrition researchers are coming to realize, facts are not enough.

My most brilliant research colleagues are currently doing just that — developing algorithms for putting the parts back together. Similar research is going on in Europe, South America, and Australia.

PUTTING ISOLATED NUTRIENTS BACK IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WHOLE PLATE

Chefs and home cooks and food writers know intuitively that food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts.

Nutrition researchers and dietitians and recipe analysts dedicate their lives to understanding those nutrient parts.

Both perspectives are valid. But that hasn’t made it any easier for cooks and recipe analysts to discuss what’s healthy and what’s not healthy.

Here’s a small taste of what lies ahead for recipe and menu analysis when we widened the lens and look at food through both perspectives.

Using a narrow lens, roast chicken isolated and alone provides excellent protein but comes with saturated fat. My zealous colleagues, with the best of intentions, solved the problem by removing the skin. As a result, skinless boneless breast became ubiquitous.

When we widen the lens by adding a green salad, two vegetable sides, a piece of French bread, and a glass of Bordeaux, the dynamics change. The same excellent protein remains, but now we find 40% that plate is vegetables and those grams of saturated fat are nicely balanced by unsaturated fatty acids.

A hybrid perspective meets the objective demands of the analyst. Being a dietitian by trade but a foodie at heart, I find the hybrid perspective helpful because it more reflects my standards of healthy better than a more narrow reductionist view.

Only time will tell however if a hybrid perspective will be useful to chefs, home cooks, and food writers.

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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
Omelette plated with greens and cannelloni | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

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

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

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

First cholesterol and now veganism.

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

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

Does anyone think eggs are healthy?

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

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

So what is it — are eggs healthy or unhealthy?

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

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

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

Here’s why I use the word indulgent.

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

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

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

Some final thoughts on healthy.

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

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

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

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Reducing a radiantly complex plate of food down to a couple of nutrients is insane.

Photo Credit: gourmetmetrics
Salade Composée | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

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

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

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.

 

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

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

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

Emphatically my answer is yes.

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

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

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will the new criteria look like?

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

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

Pumpkin Pie with Oil Based Crust | photo credit: gourmetmetrics
Pumpkin Pie with Oil Based Crust | photo credit: gourmetmetrics

 

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:

6898FFC3-380D-4D8A-87E3-6DA30037892D

 

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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