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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Faster Roasted Tomato Soup

Yeah, I know, it’s early March, the winds and rain and snow and tornadoes are still doing their thing around much of the country and here in Pasadena the chill has set in…sort of, to about 75 degrees or so daytime. With actual rain last night.

Chunky pan-roasted tomato soup

And it’s tax season.

So what we really need is something to brighten the last dregs of winter. I was thinking tomato soup, myself.

Why was I thinking it? Because so many food articles in the past couple of weeks have mentioned slow-roasted tomatoes, charred tomatoes, and so on to improve the obviously lacking flavor of winter tomatoes and avoid using canned ones. One  chef got flamed for suggesting in the New York Times food section that “local” is not the sane way to go with produce that simply isn’t producing in winter in the northeast, and that canned tomatoes are not the worst idea in the world after all. Shame! Shame!

Actually, I agree with her–and not just because I’m the original purple thumb when it comes to gardening. In a surreal reversal of my hideously lacking garden skills, I actually have three–count ’em, three–grape tomato plants in bloom and producing the occasional tomato-let as we speak. I even have basil and rosemary and mint and thyme that I haven’t killed through inattention and forgetting to water. But really, even so, there’s no way I’d set myself up as a homesteader on those flimsy credentials. We’d starve.

Tomatoes are one of those things–either you’ve got the Fresno specials (or something local and preferably from your own garden so you can brag) in the summer and they’re divine with nothing but a bit of olive oil and vinegar, or even just plain, or else it’s winter and you’ve got blah tomatoes that are kind of orange and grainy. Or you’ve got canned tomatoes, preferably no-salt Romas. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that in winter. Or any other time you’re making microwave marinara.

ripening roma tomatoes

However…If your supermarket tomatoes will consent to ripen on a counter near a window for a couple of days, you might be able to eke out some actual tomato flavor from them. They may still not be fantastic, and one or two may start to develop soft spots, but it’s still worth doing anyway. Keep turning them gently every day to minimize the risk of spoilage and use them. They should at least redden.

And as mentioned above in the numerous food section articles, you can do the slow-roast-on-parchment-in-the-oven thing to them and they’ll be a bit more flavorful for sauces and tomato soup. But it takes about 45 minutes to an hour. And I’m impatient.

So today I rescued a couple of aging Roma tomatoes from my countertop and decided to try pan-roasting them, as in frying pan. Would they take on a char? Would they taste better? Would they make soup worth eating?

Bear in mind this is an experiment more than a proper recipe with specific quantities, but yes, it worked, and it only took about 10 minutes from start to finish. Maybe the flavor’s not as glorious as if I’d oven-roasted them for an hour, but the lack of waiting makes it reasonably good, and the garlic makes up for the rest of it. Continue reading

“Healthy” breakfast muffins? Miscalculated.

Julia Moskin’s latest “Recipe Lab” in the New York Times food section revisits one of my (cranky, irascible) pet peeves: the “healthy” muffin. She claims her version, filled with an expensive and lengthy list of the latest buzzword ingredients and yet supposedly lighter-textured than most bakery offerings, is healthy, always a warning sign, especially when paired with the instruction to make sure it’s well-leavened and to use “unprocessed” oils. These are code words for a heavy dose of baking soda and baking powder on the one hand and coconut oil, the newest darling of the hipster food world, on the other.

But–benefit of the doubt–I looked at the recipe and scrolled down to mouse over the nutrition stats. They’re provided in a popup link you can’t copy, with a very faint “i-in-a-circle” watermarked icon below the ingredient list. Not a good sign, generally: hiding the nutrition stats signals that they’re kinda suspish, or at least unflattering. But okay, at least they’re posted here.

Edamam provides the analysis–and per average muffin, 20 to the batch, claims the following stats:

318 cal, 16 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 trans, 9 g monounsaturated, 4 g polyunsaturated, 39 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 19 g sugars, 4 g protein, 38 mg cholesterol,260 mg sodium

Something didn’t sit quite right with that. I looked up at the ingredient list.

Sure enough, the fat was provided by 1 1/3 cup of coconut oil. Yick. But never mind. The point here is that Edamam lists the saturated fat at a very improbable 1 gram per muffin.

There is–being kind about it–no way this is correct. The only thing I can think of is that Edamam used the soybean or canola oil option for the calculation, but why would that be? Coconut oil is listed as the much-preferred fat. And it’s got more saturated fat per gram than lard. About 82% saturated fat by weight, if you check the most reliable lab analysis at the USDA National Agricultural Library’s nutrient database. And actually, the mono and poly stats suggest something closer to olive oil than soybean or canola.

The correct calculation for 315 ml of coconut oil is 260 grams of saturated fat for the recipe. For 20 muffins, that’s almost 14 grams of saturated fat per muffin, not 1. And 14 grams is pushing the recommended daily max of 20 grams of sat fat for a 2000 calorie-per-day diet. Just for a muffin.

Given the nice way the New York Times provided the grams as well as cups and spoons measures in the recipe, here’s what I came up with, direct from the USDA NAL database and averaging a bit for the different options between apples and carrots and between walnuts and pecans.

  • Total calories for the recipe: 7213, per 1/20th (1 muffin): 361
  • Total saturated fat: 273 g,  per muffin: 13.7 g
  • Total monounsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
  • Total polyunsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
  • Total cholesterol: 744 mg, per muffin: 37 mg
  • Total carb for the recipe: 699 g, per muffin: 35 g
  • Total sugars: 390 g, per muffin: 19.5 g
  • Total fiber: 49 g, per muffin, 2.5 g
  • Total sodium: ~4670 mg, per muffin, 234 mg.

And yes, it’s kind of a pain to navigate all the USDA data chart by chart, ingredient by ingredient, put in the actual amounts in grams, have it recalculate the whole chart, add the totals up nutrient by nutrient, and then divide by 20. It would be so nice to find an accurate and complete free recipe-style app to pull all the relevant data and stick it in a single spreadsheet. The myfitnesspal.com recipe calculator is about the best I’ve found so far, but it’s not as complete, and neither unfortunately is the USDA’s Supertracker calculator, as far as I can tell.

How did Edamam and the New York Times Food Section do? The sodium, though a bit much for a single bready item (4 t. baking powder, 1 t baking soda and half a teaspoon of salt on top of that, plus whatever’s in the buttermilk), came out about right at 260 mg (I got 234 per muffin). The carbs are about right too, if kind of a lot. Sugar at 19 grams is about half the total carb and makes it no great bargain (not to mention, brown sugar plus maple syrup? cha-ching, and the maple flavor probably disappears with all the other stuff. Kind of a waste.). This is still a pretty cakey item, despite Moskin’s protestations to the contrary and all the grated carrot and blueberries and multigrain ethos. Edamam’s calorie estimate is a bit low by 40 cal per muffin. You could probably live with that.

But you shouldn’t. Because with the trendy, expensive coconut oil option, the published saturated fat estimate is way, way, way off. Way off. Bizarrely off.

I visited Edamam’s web site to see if I could figure out how they calculated this–whether their own calculator would give me the right result if I input “315 ml. coconut oil,” or whether their API, which features natural language processing, somehow makes  errors this big when it parses a recipe and does the lookup in the USDA database. Did it pull the wrong ingredient, or did the NY Times staff type the wrong thing into their recipe submission? Or what? Continue reading

Emergency Éclairs 2.0, Even More Microwaved

 

plate of eclairs

All the components of an éclair are at least partly microwaveable, flavorful and pretty forgiving. Even if you have to serve them upside down.

Here we go again, because it’s been Valentine’s Day this past weekend and I have pretty loose time standards for such things…I did actually make these before dinner on the 14th, so it counts. Not that you really need VDay as an excuse.

Éclairs are a lot simpler than they look in the pastry shops, and a lot cheaper than you’d think to make at home–in fact, cheaper than almost any American-style dessert in terms of calories, sugar, fat, salt… A surprisingly small amount of ordinary pantry staple ingredients goes a very long way and makes a bigger show than if you tried making brownies.

If you have a microwave, they can also be a lot quicker than most cookbook recipe specs, even though there are three separate parts to prepare and assemble–the filling, the shell, and the chocolate topping–rather than the usual American one-bowl dump-mix-and-bake scheme.

Éclairs don’t hit you over the head with sweet–they rely on the contrast of textures and flavors between the mostly unsweet pastry shell, the delicately sweet pastry cream, and the deep chocolate (or other flavor, but it has to be an actual flavor to be good, not the typical flavorless, oversweetened canned cake frosting) topping.

Éclairs have also become something of a canvas for artistic expression in Parisian bakeries; David Lebovitz has some great photos of ones with reproductions of paintings screened onto the tops, woodland scenes in colored icing and fondant and flavored marshmallows, fruit fantasias, and I don’t know what else, not to mention the fillings. They’re gorgeous to look at in the glass pastry cases but you couldn’t walk down the street, find a park bench, and just eat them with your fingers. You’d end up wearing them.

So the classic chocolate-topped, pastry cream-filled éclairs are still my favorite, partly because you can’t find them in most of the bakeries here.

Baking the dough is the one part you can’t really do in the microwave, more’s the pity (although you can do it in the toaster oven for a small batch). But otherwise, I can say it was worth it and–although I needed to step on a scale Monday morning to be certain–not that devastating dietwise…or even diabetes-wise. But, as with rugelach, you probably shouldn’t do this too often. Holidays and sharing are a pretty good idea. Leftovers are not. Limit the dietary badness.

Unromantic morning-after nutrition stat check: At the medium-small size I made, they weigh in at about 22 grams of carbohydrate, 160 calories, 6 grams of fat (mostly saturated, from the butter and chocolate plus egg yolks) and maybe 40-50 mg max of sodium apiece. Verdict: Not too shabby for a French dessert. Could be worse and often is. Stick to one apiece, plus some fruit, and eat it with a light supper that includes a green salad and you should be reasonably fine. Also svelte, happy, and able to sing «Non…je ne régrette rien…» the next morning. But please don’t. Not before coffee.

Even if you eat two at a time after supper because you’re not sure how long you can store the extras in the fridge so they don’t go all soggy the next day, it shouldn’t hit you like a ton of lead…well, not too much like a ton of lead. At least they weren’t full sized; they were pretty filling. Afterward, when we were lying in a daze on the couch recovering, my husband suggested just freezing any extras next time. He had a point.

About halving a recipe

I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the lower-saturated-fat recipe I’d used successfully for “Emergency éclairs 1.0” so I went with the recipes for choux paste shells and pastry cream in the “basics” back section of the white Silver Palate Cookbook. The dough and pastry cream worked fine in the microwave, as I think almost any standard recipes would.

Since there are only myself, my husband and our daughter here for dinner and eligible for éclairs (plus the cat, who is miffed that we didn’t count her), I cut both recipes in half–I repeat, limit the dietary badness…

The pastry cream was fine, but I hadn’t read all the instructions for the choux pastry, or I’d have known that the 3rd egg was for a completely unnecessary egg yolk glaze. When I halved the recipe I used an extra egg white as the “half egg,” and when the puffs puffed, they left nothing behind, no base, just a hollow, once I peeled them off the foil. The result was still fine for us but a little awkward for presentation–I had to sit them upside down like boats to fill them, and then cover the filling with the ganache. So definitely go back to the right proportions for the choux recipe (repeated below).

The ganache…is always very chocolate, very microwaveable, very forgiving of awkwardness and therefore perfection itself. It covers a lot of sins and makes you feel much better about them.

Mostly Microwaveable Éclairs

This is half-recipes all the way: it makes 6-7 half-size éclairs, 3″ rather than the standard 6″ monsters at the bakery. We each had two after supper and were completely stuffed.

Timing: If you’re doing the whole thing in one go, start by preheating the (regular) oven to 400 F, then make the pastry cream, which is really fast, and chill and stick it in the fridge, then do the choux paste, because as soon as you make that you need to dollop it out and bake it right away. If you use the microwave for the pastry cream, and you should, the choux will be ready to go just about when the oven beeps. Continue reading

BMI criticized again…by psychologists?

The International Journal of Obesity has just released a short article by Janet Tomiyama (UCLA) and Jeffrey Hunger (UC-Santa Barbara) et al–a team of psychologists. They analyzed NHANES data from 2005-2012 for about 75,000 individuals, and concluded that BMI status doesn’t correlate well with six concrete markers of cardiovascular and metabolic health–blood pressure, blood triglycerides and cholesterol, blood glucose, insulin resistance, and C-reactive protein. Extrapolating a bit from the NHANES study participant numbers, they conclude that millions of Americans–54 million–have been misclassified as unhealthy due solely to their BMI numbers.

According to their analysis, 47% of the overweight people in the study had healthy status (0-1 of 6 markers) other than their weight. About 30% of obese and even 16% of morbidly obese people had healthy status according to their protocol, whereas about 30% of those in the healthy BMI range had more than one actual cardiovascular or metabolic disease marker that would be ignored if only BMI is considered.

Is this really the death-knell for public concern over weight? Should it be?

Here’s how the UCLA press release puts it (with my emphases in italics):

But a new study led by UCLA psychologists has found that using BMI to gauge health incorrectly labels more than 54 million Americans as “unhealthy,” even though they are not.  […]

“Many people see obesity as a death sentence,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the study’s lead author. “But the data show there are tens of millions of people who are overweight and obese and are perfectly healthy.”

Incorrectly labels? Perfectly healthy?

The definition for “healthy” used in this study is 0 to 1 known risk factor for CVD and diabetes. But clinically, one risk factor is often enough to be of acute concern, especially if it’s untreated high blood pressure or blood glucose. Those generally need treatment sooner rather than later.

Furthermore, the study as posted on Hunger’s web page excludes obesity and overweight a priori from that count of risk factors for CVD and diabetes. I don’t know the absolute latest research consensus, other than what was in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee’s report last February, but my general understanding is that weight does show some statistically independent influence on CVD at least. That picture may be changing as we learn more about its interactions with other risk factors, but if it’s still valid, weight should have been counted as one of the existing “known risk factors” along with the other markers and that would have skewed Tomiyama and Hunger’s analysis considerably.

Even without those considerations, the different weight groups classified by BMI cutpoints do in fact show a significant increase in health risk from one category to the next. Turn Hunger and Tomiyama’s percentages around and you see that 70% of people in the 18.5-24.9 healthy BMI range have 0-1 risk marker other than weight; 53% in the 24.9-29.9 overweight range have more than 1 marker, 70% in the 30-35 range have more than 1 marker, and 84% in the 35 and over BMI range have more than one marker other than weight.

Plot those crude percentages and you’ll see a very sharp rise in risk incidence between the healthy and overweight categories, a reversal of fortune from “most people healthy” to “more than half at risk,” with further solidification of “most people at risk” as you venture further into obese and morbidly obese. There’s really no debating that trend, even given the narrow way this team has defined “healthy.” To say nothing of “perfectly healthy.”

Researchers in biomedicine (i.e., physical as opposed to psychological medicine) have recently reexamined whether the current BMI cutpoints defining healthy, overweight, obese and morbidly obese are in the right places to describe most people’s 10-year risk of overt CVD events (heart attacks and stroke), diabetes, or all-causes mortality, or whether BMI is just a continuous gradient of increased risk without definable cutpoints. At last count, the conclusion was that the current statistical best-fit cutpoints are pretty much correct, even though the data for individuals have a pretty big spread (and that each BMI step or number still has incrementally higher risk than the one below).

The upshot: BMI categories are still a pretty good marker of the overall health status of Americans when you’re talking about trends. Crude, yes. Exceptions for athletes with much more muscle than fat, yes. But the numbers are still strongly in favor of using BMI as a general warning flag to check for more specific cardiovascular and metabolic disease markers in individuals.

It’s very odd to see a paper like this coming from a team of behavioral psychologists, which Tomiyama and Hunger are. They’re at least nominally outside their field here, doing a statistical analysis on physical health data, and the paper’s methodology and definitions (along with some of their position statements in the American Journal of Public Health and elsewhere) show a specific agenda toward deconsecrating BMI and downplaying overweight and Continue reading

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

Thanks

I want to give a quick thanks to Dr. Marion Nestle, who took the time to let her readers and colleagues know about Sunday’s Dietary Guidelines post in her Twitter feed and on her blog, foodpolitics.com, which I’ve read with interest ever since starting this blog. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I appreciate it very much.

USDA Dietary Guidelines released…a full year later

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scientific report, essentially the major draft of the USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” guidelines, was finished last February. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 has finally been released in its official form to the public–but it’s only available online at health.gov as of this week, with promises of an eventual PDF.

To that end, because the Health.gov site doesn’t yet have a downloadable version, I’ve pulled the text and images of the final “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020” into a quick-and-dirty two PDFs you can download below for free. It’s not perfect–the pages don’t all flow with gorgeous layout and some of the graphics were so oversized I had to kind of select-cut-and-paste them in sections to get the charts to fit. I think I’ve got it all in there, though, including most of the helpful nutrition and diet charts in the appendices (with notes where I didn’t catch on that there was more to a chart than first appeared).

What can I say–“Enjoy.” Ummm….well, anyhow, here they are:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020–this includes the Table of Contents, Intro, Executive Summary, and body of the report (Chapters 1-3).

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final-IntroandChapters (PDF, 3.4 MB)

Appendices (14 of them) for the Dietary Guidelines –I couldn’t get Adobe to stick this on the end of the document nicely, so it’s separate but useful.

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final Appendices (PDF, 263 KB)

The original Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report from last February is available here.

What was the holdup? What are the differences from the health-basis-only recommendations of the DG Advisory Committee’s version last year?

Given the shoddy job major media gave the advisory committee’s scientific report last winter and spring, perhaps the best thing to do this time around is skip the media coverage hyperbole and compare the two reports directly and see what gives.

Professor Marion Nestle digs in with dissatisfaction as to some of the likely buyoffs this time around–she deems that the big meat, egg, sugar, etc. producing industries have won some victories in what wasn’t said. She also complains, as I do, that the online version is full of stupid bells and whistles. It’s hard to navigate, there are a lot of windows and figures that are actually slide shows and you have to know to click on them to get the rest of the information. Hopefully the PDFs above will be more readable.

Nestle’s take is more political than mine (for a change? not really). She notices more of the inconsistencies with naming food categories only when they’re favorable, and using nutrient names (sugar, saturated fat, sodium) as substitutes for the big-business food categories that are poor nutritionally.

I’m less incensed about most of that– and ironically a little more optimistic about what was included. Continue reading

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