Vegetarian and organic foods are gaining popularity in supermarkets around the country–it’s been happening for at least a decade. Vegetarian- and organic-seeking customers assume they’re getting something closer to fresh if it’s labeled vegetarian or organic, and most of them also assume that vegetarian automatically means healthy. So, apparently, do nutrition researchers when they’re not really thinking hard enough.
The American Dietetic Association recently announced–again, updating from 1997–that vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthful at all stages of life from infancy onward and posted suggestions for getting started. Keyword here is “can”.
The idea of easing into a less-meat diet in stages by cooking familiar foods and familiar ingredients as far as possible is understandable. The Vegetarian Nutrition practice group of the ADA is trying to reach people they think are likely to panic at the suggestion of not eating meat. Unfortunately, the suggestions that top the list are mostly for processed meat substitutes, jarred pasta sauces, canned beans, boxed rice mixes and the like, rather than a dietary framework for eating fresh whole-ingredient vegetarian foods.
In the health section of the LA Times online, where I first read about the ADA’s statement last week, many reader comments objected to this approach primarily because the major brands of veggie hot dogs and hamburgers tend to have long, improbable ingredient lists and very high salt. After a casual tour of the sauces-soups-and-rice-mixes section at my local Whole Foods, it’s an objection I second even more strongly.
For several years now I’ve had reservations about the processed food industry’s tendency to throw salt at anything and everything. Vegetarian and organic food is supposed to be better. Fresher, better-tasting, realer, more nutritious, healthier, more responsible for the planet, the animal world, and the customer. In a word, BETTER.
Nice intentions aside, most of the vegetarian and organic products companies these days seem to be trying as hard as they can to keep up with or even surpass the meat-eating Joneses–the big-brand pantry staples from Stouffer’s, Swanson’s, Kraft Foods, Campbell’s, and so on. They’re still claiming the health and planet virtues of vegetarian and organic, but they’re actually processing the hell out of their foods, adding all kinds of laundry-list mystery ingredients, and salting them out of all reason. And health-and-planet-conscious consumers are flocking to them without bothering to look hard at the nutrition labels. How have we come to such a pass?
Take a look at the nutrition labels. Campbell’s Soup protested hard in the 1970s and 1980s when their tomato soup was deemed high sodium at 500 mg. and up per serving. But today, you find both Imagine and Pacific vacuum-packed boxes of Cream of Tomato–all organic, all vegetarian–at 550-650 mg. sodium per serving. Does the organic, vegetarian virtue of the soup really counteract that? Their Cream of Corn and Butternut or Acorn Squash soups are even more puzzling. Both are supposed to be fresh and slightly sweet, right? 720 mg. sodium per serving.
Vegetable broths–720 mg/serving regular, though only 140 mg/serving for “low sodium”. It’s pretty much a declaration that they don’t really need as much salt as they’re throwing into the “regular”.
Rice and couscous mixes–actual rice or couscous or tabouleh grain have nearly no sodium, but the “savory herb” boxes contain 500-700 mg sodium per serving. Makes you wonder if most of the savory herb flavor is really just salt, like bouillon cubes. You could do that yourself and it would be cheaper.
Why are they adding so much salt? They don’t need it to retard spoilage–frozen, vacuum packed, and dried foods are already preserved and shouldn’t need so much “help”. After all, a sack of plain dried beans or rice–no salt involved–should be shelf-stable for months.
Are they overcompensating for the fact that their products “aren’t meat”–and for crying out loud, why, if that’s the selling point? They have a core audience of consumers who already self-identify as eager for vegetarian and organic food and are in fact willing to pay premium prices for it. Do they really assume their core customers will find their food lacking if it tastes like anything other than salt? And, frighteningly, are they right?
What are Whole Foods’ (and other vegetarian-leaning stores’) customers really looking for when they buy these foods–familiarity from their pre-vegetarian lifestyles, or something reassuringly labeled that lets them feel like they’re “eating healthy” without all the work of handling fresh vegetables themselves? Is the convenience of opening a package or can more important than the actual value of the food?
Is there a healthier way to do vegetarian convenience foods? Definitely.
Plain-Jane bulgur or tabbouleh grain and prepared couscous (not the real Moroccan kind that you actually steam in a sealed couscoussiere over a stew, that would be asking too much) both are available in slightly more cost-conscious quantities than the decorator boxes if you go to an Arab or Armenian grocery or head to the bulk foods section of the Whole Foods. They both cook up in a microwave or a stove-top pan in five minutes flat–pour boiling water over them, cover and let them sit to absorb, then drain excess liquid off. Or pour water just to cover grain in a microwaveable bowl, put a lid on, microwave 3-4 minutes and check if it needs more water or more microwaving, then drain. Chop parsley and squeeze lemon juice, throw in some cherry tomatoes and scallions, drizzle olive oil and sprinkle oregano or mint (optional) and you’ve got it. Even my mother does it that way, and she tries very hard not to cook.
Encouragingly, Whole Foods’ own “365” store brand includes a number of other decent low-salt pantry staples, including low-salt (under 200 mg/sodium per serving) and no-salt canned beans. These are just beans and water, and they’re quite a bit cheaper than the fancy pre-flavored name-brand items. You get to flavor them at home with something real, and perhaps you’ll be creative enough not to dump in salt as a substitute for flavor–perhaps you’ll choose (not all at once, obviously) something like onion, garlic, tomato, celery, carrots, lemon juice, cilantro, cumin. Curry powder. Sage. Thyme. Hot peppers. Tehina. Wine and tomato paste.
Big cans of no-salt tomatoes are a must for me–see the 5-minute marinara and fast tomato vegetable soup recipes earlier on this blog. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s both have reasonably priced store versions. Muir Glen also offers no-salt organic tomatoes, though they cost somewhat more. Ralph’s and other mainstream supermarkets also sometimes have low- and no-salt tomatoes and canned beans, so seek them out if you’re not starting from dried or fresh.
Tomato paste–the stuff in the little cans–is another decent convenience food choice. It’s just tomatoes, no salt, no anything else. For nearly instant microwaveable cream of tomato soup, mix it up with water, chop a bit of onion and garlic, and toss in some herbs like basil or marjoram and thyme, nuke it, and you’ve got cream of tomato soup that’s not very acidic, so you could stir in a little milk, half-and-half, or soymilk without it curdling. Or you could skip the milk and add a dash of vinegar or lemon juice and a pinch of cumin. No salt necessary.
Canned pumpkin–not the pie filling, just straight pumpkin–is one of the few unsalted high-nutrition canned vegetables. It has a ton of vitamin A and fiber, even after canning, and it’s cheap. It makes a pretty good quick pumpkin soup very quickly and easily–just heat it with milk or water, chopped onion and garlic, and some sage, either on the stovetop or in a pyrex bowl in the microwave for a few minutes. A few spoonfuls of dry white wine or sherry are good in this and the alcohol cooks out fairly well if you don’t cover the pot.
Corn soup is very easy to make fresh and takes so little time it’s a shame to rely on a box. Corn is actually in season right now, and in the winter frozen corn kernels–store brand, no salt–are actually pretty good and cheap. Cut the kernels off the cobs of fresh corn and blend them with milk, a spoonful of flour, a quarter or so of a yellow onion, a clove of garlic, and some savory herbs–sage and marjoram are both very good and the marjoram in particular accentuates the sweetness of the corn. A few spoonfuls of dry white wine or sherry are good in this as well. Nuke a few minutes in a pyrex bowl and stir to prevent lumps–or reblend if necessary.
You want rice pilaf–why not? So make it from actual rice and tomato and peppers and onion and garlic and raisins and nuts and sage and basil and etc etc. and throw in a small amount of curry powder to color and flavor it a little, whatever you like. But keep the salt out of it, and let people salt it themselves at the table if they want–chances are they won’t add a whole quarter-teaspoon of salt from the shaker. It probably won’t take so much longer than the boxed stuff. It’ll be cheaper. And it’ll have the virtue of a few actual vegetables.
Filed under: Beans and legumes, cooking, DASH Diet, Food Politics, Grains, high-speed soup, Revised recipes, Vegetabalia | Tagged: American Dietetic Association, convenience foods, meatless cooking, nutrition, nutrition labeling, organic foods, processed, processed food, vegetarian, vegetarian diet, Whole Foods |