Focusing on Fewer Ingredients in Food is Pointless

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Zoning in on the number of ingredients in packaged foods is one of the stupidest consumer driven trends to date. Fueled by the unsubstantiated fear of anything not immediately recognizable or easy to pronounce, companies are turning to “fewer ingredients” to make their food stand out on over-crowded store shelves. Short, recognizable ingredient lists are leading packaged food trends in 2016 yet the number of ingredients or your ability to pronounce an ingredient has absolutely nothing to do with the nutrition value of the food and therefore shouldn’t guide your buying decisions.

The # of Ingredients Has Nothing to do with Nutrition Value

Shorter ingredient lists do not mean a food or beverage is better for you. Companies that make chips, ice cream and other dessert items are among the fiercest competitors for simplifying ingredient lists. According to an article in the Huffington Post, Hershey Co. improved their classic chocolate syrup by cutting the list to 5 simple ingredients. The new version took food scientists a year and a half to make with recognizable ingredients. The challenge? Making a syrup that also tastes good. The new version with cane sugar and organic invert cane syrup instead of high fructose corn syrup will cost you 1 more gram of sugar than the original version. How does this make it nutritionally superior to the old version?

Here’s another example. Let’s say you are in the grocery store debating between protein choices for dinner. Do you pick up the omega-3 and protein-packed (23 grams for 190 calories) salmon or beef franks (15 grams protein for 190 calories and 3x the saturated fat). I hope you choose the salmon if you are choosing based on nutrition value.

Simple Ingredients

I found many similar examples in the grocery store including potato chips with just a few ingredients compared to whole grain, higher fiber crackers with three times the ingredients and Häagen-Dazs ice cream with five ingredients, 250 calories and almost 5 grams of sugar per ½ cup compared to Giant brand ice cream with more than twice the number of ingredients, 160 calories and less than 3 grams of sugar per ½ cup. If you are choosing your dessert not based on taste but instead based on the nutritionally superior option (because that’s why people are focusing on the total number of ingredients right?), you’ll pick up the Giant brand with more ingredients.

Just Because You Don’t Recognize it and Can’t Pronounce it Doesn’t Mean it is Bad

Head over to Cooking Light or any other well-recognized cooking magazine and I’m willing to bet you’ll find ingredients that you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce. I live in the world of food, nutrition and supplements and restaurant menus often stump me while the sheer number of unfamiliar spices in Penzeys Spices satisfies my creative desire for something new and unique. Just because an ingredient is unfamiliar to you does not automatically make it bad. After all you’re probably not a food scientist entrenched in the world of food development and food safety.

Some misunderstood ingredients are emulsifiers – they help ingredients stay together in a mixture vs. separating (for example, salad dressings often contain emulsifiers including lecithin), others add nutrition value, help products retain their color, prolong shelf life or keep the product safe. Pyridoxine hydrochloride sounds scary right? It’s a vitamin B6. Cyanocobalamin? That’s vitamin B12. Beta-glucan? Oat and barley beta-glucan are soluble fibers sometimes added to food to increase the fiber content. They also help you feel more full (satiated) and are fantastic for your immune system. Lupin kernel fiber – lupin is a legume. In other words, it’s good for you. All substances allowed in food in the U.S. are GRAS – Generally Recognized as Safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Even though manufacturers are scurrying to chop down their ingredient lists to meet this silly consumer demand, focusing on the number of ingredients in a food isn’t worth your time or attention span. If you don’t order food in a restaurant based on the number of ingredients used in the recipe why would you choose foods in the grocery store based on the total number of ingredients? In addition, don’t be scared of any ingredient with a sprinkling of scientific reasoning behind its use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meal Planning Made Easy

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salmon with veggies

If you don’t have the luxury of eating in a cafeteria with a variety of options each day, it makes sense to plan your meals ahead of time. Doing so will save you time and money. If saving money doesn’t entice you, consider this: eating at home can help you lose weight. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the average meal at 360 restaurant dinner meals examined contained 1,200 calories. If you choose to dine at an American, Italian or Chinese restaurant, that meal may cost you a whopping 1,495 calories. Don’t worry, I have no intention of having you replicate the instagram photos from fitness buffs who eat perfectly portioned bland-looking chicken, broccoli and brown rice twice a day, every day. Instead, I am an advocate for taste, variety, and better nutrition. Here are the 4 steps you should take to start planning better-for-you meals ahead of time:

1 – Take Inventory

Go through your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer at least once per month and throw out anything that is past it’s expiration date, freezer burned, molded, and stale or smells bad (smell your cooking oil too and if it doesn’t smell normal, toss it). Half-eaten anything that is more than a day old? Trash. This is also a great time to take inventory of what you have on hand.

2 – Stock Your Kitchen

After taking inventory, decide what you need (sticking to your grocery list will save you from impulse buys you don’t need after looking at your grocery store circular). Essential foods include shelf stable, refrigerator and frozen foods. I like the option of preparing a meal in 5 minutes or less. Frozen and canned items allow me to do this.

Shelf Stable:

  • Beans, lentils and legumes (tip: some lentils can be soaked for just 40 minutes and added to a wide variety of dishes from salads to spouse, stews and grain-based dishes)
  • Bread
  • Canned vegetables, beans, fish and chicken
  • Condiments including chicken, beef or vegetable broth, mustard, hot sauce and any other commonly used condiments
  • Cooking oil – get good quality cooking oil. Pay more for a brand you trust. Olive oil is the most adulterated food on the market so you do get what you pay for.
  • Nutrition bars
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds (all can be refrigerated; opened nut butters should be refrigerated)
  • Popcorn, whole grain snacks
  • Protein powder
  • Rice, pasta, whole grains, cereals and other similar foods. Grab a few options that you can make in a just a few minutes including couscous. Also, vary your rice, pasta and whole grains – look for black, red or purple rice, bean pastas and more.
  • Soups (boxed, bagged or in cans)
  • Spices & seasonings (including salt and pepper). If you don’t use these regularly get dried spices or refrigerated spices in squeezable tubes.
  • Ziploc bags – these will come in very handy if you travel (always pack food and supplements to go)!

Fresh:

  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Eggs (consider egg substitutes for their shelf life)
  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Fish, poultry, meat

Frozen:

  • Fish, poultry, meat
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

3 – Menu Planning

There are a number of ways you can approach menu planning but one of the easiest ways is to center your meals around the protein rich foods you plan on eating. So for instance, if you choose chicken, lean ground beef and fish, you can center 7 meals on those three proteins. Or, if your week is hectic and you are very busy, you can plan meals around protein-rich foods that take just minutes to prepare such as canned tuna, eggs and rotisserie chicken.

After you pick your protein rich foods, decide on recipes or quick prep meals. You might want to do this by determining what perishable foods you have on hand and need to use. So, let’s say you have mushrooms in the refrigerator and chicken defrosting. If you don’t feel like eating chicken Marsala but you aren’t sure what else you can make with a little flavor, type these words in Google to get other meal ideas “chicken, mushrooms, recipe, quick, easy.” (Also check out Cookinglight.com’s “5 Ingredient Cookbook, Fresh Food Fast”)

After determining which meals you are eating each day of the week, write a shopping list by figuring out any extras you may need to buy and what staple foods you are out of. Be flexible with your list depending on the season and sale prices. Shopping in season often means you will not only get the best looking produce but you will save money too. So for instance, if your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but butternut squash is a steal – go for the squash.  When you make your shopping list, you can do it on an app, in the notes section on your phone, or the old fashioned way with pen and paper. I make mine in the order of the grocery store I am shopping in so I can cross items off one by one without having to scan the entire list to make sure I’m not forgetting something before I move onto the next section of the store.

If the weekly circular tempts you with sugary cereals, cookies and candies on sale, don’t pick it up. You won’t miss out on a bargain because you’ll figure out which healthy foods are on sale when you look for the items on your list – all stores flag these items for you.

Quick sample meal ideas:

  • Rotisserie chicken, 10 minute brown rice (or thawed and microwave brown rice from your freezer), frozen veggies
  • Rotisserie chicken wraps with hummus (spread the hummus on first) and any crunch veggies you desire (shopped carrots, cucumbers etc.)
  • Whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti sauce and frozen turkey meatballs with added veggies such as cooked (or steamed) mushrooms, squash, zucchini
  • Whole wheat pasta, canned tuna, light cream of mushroom soup (either made into a casserole and baked along with frozen peas, ½ cup milk and chopped onions at 400ºF for 20 minutes or you can heat up the soup and mix the ingredients together and eat it.
  • Canned tuna, light mayo, chopped celery and onions for a tuna sandwich.
  • Grilled salmon drizzled with lemon, asparagus and a sweet potato.

4 – Storing and Packing

You can freeze almost any food and reheat it easily. Even brown rice – just cook it, let it cool completely and portion it into zip-loc bags (make sure no air is in the bag) for later. Two important things to remember when freezing foods – freeze them in airtight containers and label them so you know what you made and when it was frozen. The longer you leave food in the freezer the greater the likelihood of texture and taste changes over time (sometimes resulting in freezer burn). Foods that freeze well include:

  • Breads
  • Canned foods (once out of the can of course)
  • Casseroles (keep in mind that mayonnaise and other cream sauces do not freeze well)
  • Egg whites (raw)
  • Grains, cooked
  • Granola (homemade or store bought)
  • Herbs, fresh
  • Nuts, seeds (these should not be kept opened on shelves for long periods of time as they can go rancid)
  • Cheese – some types freeze better than others
  • Fish, poultry, meat (raw meat and poultry freezes better than cooked meat and poultry because of moisture lost during cooking).
  • Fruit, though this must be completely dry and frozen in portions (unless you want it stuck together in big clumps). The texture may change so fresh fruit that is frozen may be best used when blended in shakes.
  • Sauces
  • Soups, stews, stock
  • Yogurt – if you want to eat it frozen. If it defrosts the consistency isn’t so great.

Thaw food in the refrigerator, a microwave or immersed in cold water only (in a leak proof plastic bag submerged in the water that should be changed every 30 minutes), not out on countertops or in kitchen sinks.

Recommended Freezer Storage Time (for quality only, frozen food is safe indefinitely if left frozen).

Food Months
Bacon and Sausage 1 – 2
Casseroles 2 – 3
Egg whites or egg substitutes 12
Frozen dinners 3 – 4
Ham, hotdogs, lunchmeats 1 – 2
Meat, uncooked roasts 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked steaks or chops 4 – 12
Meat, uncooked ground 3 – 4
Meat, cooked 2 – 3
Poultry, uncooked whole 12
Poultry, uncooked parts 9
Poultry, cooked 4
Soups and stews 2 – 3
Wild game, uncooked 8 – 12

See, that wasn’t so tough! Get started planning, preparing and cooking right away. If there are a limited number of dishes you feel comfortable cooking, check out quick and easy cookbooks or resources on line. Each time you try a new recipe you’ll expand your horizons and taste buds and also be able to prepare a wider variety of meals on the fly in the future.

References
USDA. Freezing and Food Safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/

 

Go Green for Earth Month & Improve Your Diet at the Same Time

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You don’t have to run out and hug a tree or play hackie sack while barefoot in the park to celebrate Earth Month. Instead, Earth Day and Month were designed to designed to inspire awareness for our environment. What’s in it for you? A polluted environment leads to pollution in our food and water supply that ends up on our plates and in our bodies. And therefore, a healthier earth means a healthier you. You can do your part by recycling, disposing of hazardous wastes properly (so they don’t end up in the water you drink or on the plants you eat) and changing your diet by incorporating foods that are not only good for you but also use fewer environmental resources to produce and/or are produced in an earth-friendly manner. On a recent segment on WBAL NBC Baltimore MD, I shared the top 3 steps you can take right now to help protect the environment and improve your diet at the same time:

1) Choose green seafood – seafood that’s both good for you and good for the ocean.  The DC-based Environmental Working Group has a guide to seafood that is high in omega-3 fats and low in methylmercury. This is especially important for pregnant women and young children. Growing fetuses are exposed to methylmercury in the womb when their mom eats fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury. Methylmercury can harm a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Recent government data suggests an estimated 1.4 million women of reproductive age have blood mercury concentrations that may increase the risk of learning disabilities in their unborn children. Exposure to mercury is harmful to all people and may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. EWG top choices for lower mercury omega-3 rich seafood: wild salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, mussels and rainbow trout.

2 ) Go Meatless. Now, I’m not suggesting everyone go completely meatless (because animal based sources of protein are typically better for building and maintaining muscle) but, adding more plant based proteins or going completely meatless for 1 day a week has the environmental impact of taking your car off the road for 320 miles, according to the Environmental Working Group. How does this help your body? Plant based sources of protein are typically lower in calories yet they are packed with good nutrition including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. How can you get enough protein – choose soy, beans, lentils and nuts. I often mix animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins at meals.

3) Cook with canned foods. Americans throw away approximately 15 to 20 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables they purchase every year. Stock up on canned foods because they help reduce food waste, saving us time and money, and reducing our impact on the environment. Canned food portion sizes are just right for both individuals and families, and most recipes are designed around these sizes. Plus, metal cans are endlessly recyclable and in fact, are the most recycled containers in America today, keeping metal out of landfills and saving significant energy. Looking for convenient, wallet-friendly sources of protein? Check out this resource (and easy recipes) Quality Protein – It’s in the Can – Fact Sheet 

Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD is a proud Can-bassador – helping educate and communicate the benefits of cooking with canned foods.

 

 

Lighten Up Over the Holidays: Healthier Holiday Eating

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Gisselle Marie Rosa, UGA M.S. student

With the holiday season here, many Americans are faced with a very difficult decision: should I dive into that second serving of glazed ham and mashed potatoes delicately covered with a blanket of gravy or put the rest away for later? At this time of year, family and friends often gather together around the dinner table, sharing comfort food and stories while celebrating the holidays. But, let’s face the facts, many holiday foods aren’t the healthiest options. According to a recently published study, most Americans gain 0.5 kilograms, or about 1 pound, of weight during the holiday season.Overweight and obese individuals gain more than than those who are healthy weight.

But, if it’s only 1 measly pound over the holidays, then what’s the big deal?

While it seems that gaining 1 pound isn’t a big deal, the same study showed that most individuals don’t shed that pound over the next year. So over time those measly pounds tend to add up, increasing the individual’s risk for becoming overweight or obese.

Does this mean that you can’t eat your favorite holiday dishes?

Absolutely not! This is a special time and it is OK to enjoy the foods you love. However, there are some ways that you can modify your favorite dishes to make them more nutritious but still keep the familiar flavor that you love. Here are some tips to lighten up your holiday favorites:

  1. Appetizers/Dipping Sauces
    1. Chips, creamy dips, fried cheese sticks, potato skins, buffalo chicken poppers, you name it. These tasty snacks are one of the biggest calorie-packing culprits during the holidays. If appetizers are on the menu, opt for fresh vegetables dipped in a light ranch sauce or whole wheat pita chips dipped in a low-fat yogurt dip. Plenty of flavor, fewer calories.
  2. Mashed Potatoes
    1. This creamy dish is the quintessential holiday companion to any entrée, but many people make mashed potatoes with cheese, heavy cream, and plenty of butter. Try substituting the heavy cream for skim milk and chicken broth or roasted garlic for extra flavor while keeping the creamy texture of the potatoes.
  3. Latkes
    1. Potato Latkes are an essential part of every Hanukkah celebration, but these fried pillows of potatoes can really add a lot of fat to the holiday meal. Try mixing white and sweet potatoes to add extra vitamins and minerals to your dish. Also, make sure to use healthy oils such as olive oil to sauté the latkes instead of butter!
  4. Vegetable Casseroles
    1. While delicious, these creamy concoctions are typically filled with extra cheese, creamy condensed soups, and overcooked vegetables. Upgrade your favorite vegetable casseroles by substituting canned vegetables with frozen vegetables to decrease the sodium. Additionally, substituting some of the fried onions with slivered almonds keeps the familiar crunch while switching to low-fat cheese cuts out some of the fat and calories (or use less of a more flavorful cheese).
  5. Baked Goods
    1. Dessert during the holidays is definitely a must! A great way to cut the fat and the calories from your favorite baked goods is by substituting the oil with applesauce. Applesauce adds lots of moisture and becomes almost flavorless, making it a versatile ingredient.

Making healthy choices during the holidays may seem like a sacrifice, but it does not have to be! Done right, you can enjoy your favorite holiday comfort foods without packing on the calories or the pounds.

References

Schoeller DA. The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiology and Behavior 2014;134:66-69.

Try this Winter Fruit for Great Taste & Good Health

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By Sara Shipley, RD-to-be and student at the University of Central Oklahoma

Looking for a reason to try butternut squash? I have plenty! This winter fruit, (yes it is technically a fruit because it has seeds) is packed with healthful benefits to round out any meal. Just a single cup provides an ample dose of vitamins A, B1, B3, B6, C, calcium, potassium, and fiber! The butternut squash has an inedible pale-yellow skin with a sweet, somewhat nutty flavored, deep orange flesh. The seeds must be removed prior to cooking, however they can be eaten as a snack after roasting.

Beyond the delicious taste, butternut squash is chock full of wholesome vitamins and minerals that you need in your daily diet.

THE BOON OF BUTTERNUT SQUASH:

VITAMINS: The primary source of vitamin A is from beta-carotene,     with more than 300% of the daily-recommended value in a single cup. It is also a great source for Vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant and enzymatic cofactor in our bodies, both necessary to  regulate healthy function. Moreover, this squash provides a source of    approximately 10% each of multiple B vitamins, including B1-Thiamin,   B3- Niacin and B6.

MINERALS: We’ve heard they’re important, but how can you keep up with getting the right amount? Rather than taking a supplement, try incorporating just a single cup for a good source of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Calcium contributes to strong bones and muscle function and potassium is an integral player in the fluid balance within our bodies. Without magnesium, many enzymatic processes required for normal function cannot proceed. These minerals are vital to a healthy diet.

FIBER: Ah, the digestive health rock star. Fiber keeps your body regular and it is involved in lowering cholesterol and maintaining blood sugar levels. That makes it heart healthy and a preventative measure towards pre-diabetes. Eat just a single cup of this squash and you will add at least 2 grams to your daily fiber goal, which should be approximately 15-20 grams.

There are also many other heart healthy attributes to this squash. Low in fat, there are only 80 calories in a cup (205g), primarily which come from complex carbohydrates. There is no cholesterol and less than 8 mg of sodium! Because this squash is naturally sweet, you don’t need to add much to enjoy the simple taste.

Steaming the squash for 7-8 minutes makes it so easy to enjoy and a quick addition to many basic dishes.  I have been cooking with butternut squash a lot lately and have found two recipes that I love, are easy to make and quite affordable.

Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Tart: There is nothing fancy about this ‘tart’ and this recipe calls for only 6-7 ingredients. Don’t be detoured from the process of caramelizing the onions, because they pair so well with the squash and your family or guests will be asking for seconds (or the recipe).

Ingredients:

1 frozen puff pastry sheet, thawed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, separated

4 ounces goat cheese, slightly chilled

1.5 cups of cooked, 1-in. cubed butternut squash

3 large onions, thinly sliced

Thyme sprigs (fresh is best, dried works fine)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparations:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

With the thawed puff pastry, use a rolling pin to roll it out to approximately 10 by 16 inches. Carefully slice off half an inch from all sides of the rectangle, keeping the scraps as long strips. Transfer the pastry to the parchment paper. Wet your fingertips and the edge of the pastry. Reapply the scraps to their respective sides, creating a border. With a fork, pierce the inside part of the pastry, so when the puffing occurs in the oven, the unpierced border will rise around the inside and the middle will remain. Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until golden. Set aside and turn the oven down to 375 Fahrenheit.

While the pastry is baking, heat a large skillet on medium heat with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add the onions, a pinch of salt and pepper and several thyme sprigs. Place a lid on the skillet and stir often to prevent burning. Once they begin to soften and brown, keep the lid on for another 15 minutes and continue stirring.  Take the lid off as they begin to caramelize and turn heat to low. They will take another 15-20 minutes to caramelize entirely, but believe me it is worth every minute. When complete, turn off the heat and remove the thyme sprigs, as they will have done their job by imparting their flavors during that process.

After peeling and cubing the butternut squash into 1-inch cubes, steam the squash for 5-6 minutes. This will not entirely cook the squash, but it will be in the oven again so we do not want to initially overcook it.

Once the tart has been removed from the oven and the onions are caramelized, you can begin to assemble. With a large spoon, spread the onions over the entire pastry inside, as though it were a sauce on a pizza. Next, add the butternut squash and finally, crumble the goat cheese (it is easiest when chilled) in your hand and sprinkle generously over the onions and squash. You may want to brush a small amount of olive oil over the border, to add extra sheen to the pastry before baking again. Place back into the oven for 5-7 minutes, until reheated through. Take out and cut into 8 pieces. Enjoy!

Butternut Squash Risotto: I made this for a birthday dinner a few weeks ago and it was a huge hit. Besides the creaminess of risotto that everyone loves, the squash imparts a pretty orange color and adds to the rib-sticking goodness of this dish. With Parmesan cheese, this is a savory side of butternut squash I think anyone will enjoy. (Recipe adapted from Foodnetwork.com, Rachel Ray)

Ingredients:

  •  1 qt chicken stock
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1 cup dry, white wine
  • 2 cups cooked butternut squash
  • 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 7-8 sage leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preparation:

Bring the 1-quart stock and 1 cup water to a simmer in a saucepot then reduce heat to low.

Heat a medium skillet with the olive oil over medium to heat. When oil becomes hot, add the onions and garlic. Cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and toast 3 minutes more. Add the wine, stirring occasionally until completely evaporated.

The risotto should take 18 minutes to fully cook so, patiently ladle the stock into the rice in intervals, allowing the liquid to evaporate each time. After approximately 15 minutes, stir the cooked squash into the rice. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper and in the last minute of cooking time, add the butter in small pieces, sage and cheese.  Enjoy!