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    Copyright 2008-2018Slow 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).

Three nonsense words

That I don’t really want to hear about food or nutrition, pretty much ever, and certainly not as a way to welcome in 2018. Courtesy of the New York Times’ T Magazine this week:

To usher in the new year, we asked creative people to share the homemade recipes they count on to detox, cleanse — and refresh.

Please. When you start describing breakfast in terms better suited to a moist towelette, and when the breakfast product itself comes out looking…well, let’s not even go there. I mean, check out the before and after food photos and tell me I’m wrong.

The fashion-slash-yoga world tends to be convinced that cleanses and detox schemes are legitimate. Physiologists, internists and RDs with board certifications tend to disagree.

Juicing, while obviously ultra-fashionable (still? boggles the mind), actually removes all the fiber, concentrates the sugars, and makes you wonder, given the thinness and the (frankly hideous) color of the stuff in the goblet in the right-hand “after” photo, whether it wouldn’t have been more genuinely nutritious, tastier, satisfying and visually appealing at the same time just to make some chunky vegetable soup–with garlic and herbs, not this sweet swill–and just wash and eat the apple with the peel. Because of course it would.

Another article in the series shows the breakfast for a conceptual artist who includes “human bacteria” and Teva sandals in her exhibitions (why? and I mean, are you really tempted to follow her food conceits after reading that?)–a bowl with about 10 hazelnuts and a dusting of chia seeds, not exactly a meal, and on the side a shotglass of something that is admittedly a much better green than the first interviewee’s due to dark leafy greens rather than celery and carrots, but would still be better left unjuiced, lightly cooked in stirfry or soup form, and without any sweet stuff in it. And preferably with a hit of garlic.

No major calories in this kind of breakfast, and perhaps we should be grateful that they don’t throw in any bacon or its variants with the veg, but really. Those breakfasts look pretty bleak and cold and less balanced than they ought to be, whether green or not-such-a-good-green.

Why the “detox” label? Why the crash-style diet drinkies? Why an article series–not even just one ill-judged gush piece–on food that doesn’t really look or taste all that good or deliver that much actual nutrition as given in the recipes, and frankly isn’t necessary if you actually eat things like vegetable soup or broccoli and other greens as part of your regular meals? Is the NYT readership really that into these things? Are they in it for the post-holiday self-castigation value?

None of the women interviewed (and of course they are all women, at least so far) are  particularly unfit or overweight or heavily broken out or anything, and none of them look ill or hung over. Raises the question: just how badly did these people really eat during the holidays?

You’d think from the tone of the articles that these artists had all been rolling around in crappy green and red sugar cookies of increasing staleness and chugging quarts of full-on eggnog all December just for something to do.  It’s the only way the articles even begin to justify themselves.

Surviving the holiday table

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last month every newspaper and online health magazine was brimming with handy top-10 tips to avoid stuffing yourself into a coma when you got over the river and through the woods to your in-laws’. Did it work? Did you try any of them? Was it even possible with the food available? MMMmmmph.

And…now we’ve started on the next round of holiday parties. And yes, I’m well aware, after last week’s “let the fools have their tartar sauce” tax subversion bill, that the tenor of my questions could equally apply to trickle-down economics, neocon “efficient” remote war management in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I am not a crook,” “too big to fail,” “No Collusion,” “FAKE NEWS,” and other fantasy favorites.

I don’t want to add to the burden of public speculation on the kinds of people who could genuinely fall for those slogans or excuse them in the face of the visible harm they do to all of us (okay, MOST of us. 99.9 percent of us). I’ve met some of these true believers, a few are actually friends, and they are otherwise decent, but really, stubbornly naïve is the kindest thing I can say. Tunnel vision, perhaps.

But back to holiday food–an even more fraught social topic. Because the same stubborn naïveté applies.

The trouble with most of the dutifully published top-10s for navigating party fare is how incredibly vague and trivial they are. They don’t give you a plate plan diagram like the ones for DASH/MyPlate balanced meals and the Idaho Plate™-style recommendations for Type II diabetes management. They don’t help you set a reasonable goal number for carb grams for the total meal including desserts and appetizers, and they don’t help you estimate anything or give you some sample sizes to go by.

Instead, they put the burden on you (or your kid) to select and use the fictitious ideal of self-control (more accurately known as “winging it”) in an environment that, to put it mildly, probably won’t support it. Oh, dear. JUST like the tax boondoggle.

There is also a big, big missing ingredient for most of these party suggestions: vegetables of worth. People don’t cook as much as they used to, chain restaurants and drive-thrus don’t really serve them, and the big food mags have almost dropped them from any party spread that isn’t for summer.

If there aren’t greens on the table, how do you fill half your plate with them as recommended by doctors and CDEs and RDs everywhere? If there’s one green vegetable dish and it’s breaded, panko’ed, crusted, dressed, nutted, topped, creamed or cream sauced, gratinéed, gravied, stuffed, sweetened, pancetta’ed, buttered or cheesed (I know, some of that litany is starting to sound a little obscene, as it should) to within an inch of its life, is it still worthwhile counting it as a green? Or is it actually mostly yet another starch with cheese, cream, butter, breadcrumbs, bacon bits and so on?

If you need to cover up any dish that thoroughly, it should tell you something pretty important about the recipe:

It is not exactly a taste explosion.*

Sorry, I WAS trying to get away from the obvious political metaphor, but it looks like it’s going to stick. (*And my thanks to the much-mourned Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series–and more specifically another of his books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for that line).

In any case, to survive the holidays and look good doing it, you need a winter holiday table that works better and tastes fresher and is actually lighter than the usual stuff and won’t leave you wishing for a sleigh to schlep your stomach home in after the party.

You need vegetabalia, ungunked. Some actual greens (or purples) on the table to lighten the load and redress the balance.

Actually, vegetabalia has always been a key part of classic dinner parties and it would be a shame to forget it, especially when you’re in the heart of winter. I don’t think I actually have ten ideas here, because as you may have seen in my previous attempts at top-10 lists, I tend to go a little overboard. Let’s see.

One way to do it without too much shock is to make the starch dishes a little smaller and the greens platters a little bigger and more numerous, colored, varied and–this is actually important, at least for a party–pretty.

Another is to add a green salad worthy of a celebration–keep it simple, elegant, just a couple of key and colorful ingredients that go together, not like something you scooped out of your local chain restaurant salad bar. See the big box of salad post for some inexpensive and winter-worthy vegetable selections that are easy to prep and store in the fridge for showtime and won’t look like “rabbit food.”

The third is to provide appetizers that are bigger on vegetabalia, ones that get beyond celery sticks, baby-cut carrots and bottled ranch dressing and are actually appetizing.

…Of course, the key element for avoiding idiots who take one look and say, “Oh. Rabbit food.” is not to invite them in the first place. The second strategy is surprise (in a good way, that is, not as in “celery with marshmallow fluff!”)

Good-looking vegetable appetizers that won’t bore people aren’t necessarily more expensive, especially if you buy bulk vegetables and wash and cut them up yourself. And some can actually be easier to make, and make look impressive, than lining up all those crackers and cheese slices neatly on a circular tray (my bane, I just don’t have the hostess/catering gene). The bonus: if you’re the host, you won’t have a load of crackers and cheese sitting around the house the next day, and you might have some fresh noshing vegetables left over, ready to grab and go.

Here are a couple of more specific (forgotten?) ways to make vegetabalia rock, cold and hot.

Crudités (#4)

The “just wash and nosh” scheme for raw vegetables is pretty easy and can even be elegant for a raw vegetable tray. You don’t need fancy chef-school knife skills or fancy expensive knife sets to make the magic happen, either.

You don’t have to do a massive tray or a zillion different expensive designer raw vegetables–three or four types on a medium platter with some contrast and a good fresh dip make a nice party display. At between $1 and $5-6 (for heirloom, top-end stuff or for portobello mushrooms) per pound, most noshing vegetables are also cheaper than many chips-and-dips junk foods, designer breads, cheeses, sliced deli meats, and premade party platters of just about any kind.

Do get away from the tedious carrots-and-celery-sticks-and-ranch-dressing version, even if you are doing carrots and/or celery. Celery and carrots are still good, mind you, but you might want to grow them up a bit, cut them differently, add one or two less common dipping vegetables for variety and something fresher and more interesting than ranch dressing for a dip or spread.

Usually I’m against “fashion vegetables,” heirloom everything and bagged, prewashed/pretrimmed veg because of the price markup compared to bulk. But if you’ve got access to something a little extra in an unexpected color (purple is good, so is bright yellow), like purple cauliflower or multicolored peppers, you might want to go for it just once in limited amounts and mix them up with the regular vegetables.

And there are non-designer vegetables with enough mix of color and flavor to do the pretty at a slightly lower price point.

  • Regular globe radishes are pretty bright and crunchy and eye-catching and peppery–lop off the thin root and most of the stem; wash them really well to get out any sand and keep them whole or slice them in half lengthwise. If you have a local farmer’s market that doesn’t slap on chichi markups in the price per pound, or you happen to see a bunch of longer or otherwise eye-catching radishes for about the same price in the produce section of your grocery store, go for it.
  • Fancy variety pods like sugar snap peas and snow peas–even raw green beans–are a nice choice too. You can get bulk snap and snow peas for about $3/lb. at the Ralph’s/Kroger’s and fresh green beans are sometimes on sale between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for under $1/lb. but usually about $2/lb.
  • Trader Joe’s sells 2-lb. bags of multicolored full-sized organic carrots for about $2 at this writing. White, deep purple with a gold core, bright yellow…pretty dramatic and they mix up nicely with the cheaper orange ones without being a lot more expensive.
  • If you can get colored full-sized bell peppers, maybe get one or two, and choose colors other than green. Sliced lengthwise they go pretty far in brightening up a vegetable tray.

Continue reading

The Case Against Bologna

(Beside the fact that I’ve never actually liked it, not even as a kid. Too flabby and bland.)

It would be so nice if once in a while, just occasionally–every other Thursday would probably be enough–the processed food industry judged nutritional value the way the CDC or NIH public health guidelines do. (The USDA and its Food Pyramid scheme, all versions, are too compromised toward the food industry for me to include.)

Take a small health column in today’s Washington PostJennifer LaRue Huget comments on Oscar Meyer’s claim that a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich has nothing on a classic bologna sandwich for health. Their contention is that the bologna sandwich is healthier because it has only 4 grams of sugar, and somewhat less total fat than a sandwich’s worth of peanut butter, about 2 tablespoons.

Huget proceeds to tear that argument down with a simple look at the nutrition label stats for both and a smidgen of common sense–why would bologna have sugar in it anyway? The bologna has less total fat but somewhat more saturated fat and cholesterol, and it has only 3 grams of protein for peanut butter’s 8. And what about the salt–800 mg for a sandwich with a single slice of bologna, compared with a PBJ at 490 mg–which is still high by my standards, but I guess it’s salted peanut butter, and quite a bit of the salt is probably in the bread itself (incidentally, did Oscar Meyer include bread in its sodium count for the bologna sandwich? did it use the same kind of bread in the PBJ comparison? Hmmm….)

Well anyway, Huget doesn’t need to work too hard to make her case. Still, there are issues she doesn’t even scratch. Obviously Oscar Meyer is trying to play up its few nutritional points and hide its glaring weaknesses–most of the processed food players have been doing this aggressively for years now. We’re mostly inured to it, and frankly we expect bologna to be high-salt and kind of fatty. No big surprises there.

So let’s get back to the main strangeness of this comparison and ask the key questions: How could peanut butter possibly have more protein than bologna? Isn’t bologna meat? What’s going on?

I headed for the USDA Nutrient Database to find out. As much as I distrust the USDA’s dietary advice and its Food Pyramid, the nutrient database is pretty vast and pretty consistent, and its holdings aren’t branded.

The protein in bologna and most other processed sandwich meats–not just Oscar Meyer brand but others as well–is considerably lower than in the same amount of plain unprocessed cooked meat. We’re talking 3 grams of protein in a 28-gram (1-oz) slice.

Oscar Meyer’s bologna is made in descending order of “mechanically separated” chicken and pork bits and then a variety of corn derivatives, both syrup and starch, plus gelatin and other fillers.

Normally you look at the top two ingredients and think “Meat! That’s the main ingredient! It’s chock-full of protein!” Actual chicken and pork–the solid meat, not the skin or fat of the chicken, and not bacon–contain about 25 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat, according to the USDA nutrient database, or about 7 grams of protein per 28 grams of meat. Not 3 grams per 28. By the time you get to bologna, you’ve got less than half the protein of actual meat.

You have two possibilities here for how that happens:

1. The company’s definition of “chicken” and “pork” includes a hefty proportion of skin and solid fat most people trim away and throw out rather than eat when they buy actual chicken or pork. Fat doesn’t have protein in it but it does weigh something. Should it be allowed to qualify as “meat”?

2. The percentages of the chicken and pork bits in the bologna are just enough higher than those of each of the filler ingredients to qualify as leading ingredients on the label, but the actual proportion of chicken-plus-pork to the total filler is something under half.

So bologna leaves a lot to be desired even compared to an old standard like PBJ, especially today when you can get peanuts-only peanut butter without fillers, and fruit-only fruit spreads without added sugars or corn syrup. And you can look on the nutrition label to find out what’s in it and what it’s worth nutritionally.

But what disturbs me, even more than the clear and present need for Huget’s column to point out Oscar Meyer’s casual sophistry in this over-informed day and age, are some of the comments her column generated. The Washington Post has a pretty liberal comment policy on just about every opinion article.

I expected some type of Food Police accusations to crop up. I’m not sure they didn’t, eventually, but when I read the piece this morning, what struck me was just how many of the commenters waxed nostalgic about how much they loved bologna. How, even with all its and Oscar Meyer’s obvious flaws, they still craved bologna when they saw the word in print. Even when they’d actually read the whole article. Brought them right back to the good old days of the elementary school cafeteria. Worse, it brought them a specific craving for bologna with mayonnaise on white bread. That plus Velveeta to cap things off.  I ask you, is there any hope?

Stuffed: A Food Industry Insider Attempts Moderation

It’s taken me over a week to read and figure out what I wanted to say about Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s [Really] Making America Fat. As usual, I’m about 6 or 7 months late to be the very first reviewer—I waited until my library acquired it. But having read it, I’m astonished that none of the bloggers, pro- or con-, have picked up on the fascination of reading a food politics book for its entertainment value as it unfolds and reveals its eccentricities. Because this is one strange concoction.

Hank Cardello, who spent most of his career as a marketing exec for General Mills, Coca Cola and other giants of the branded food world, is not the kind of player you’d expect to enter the current obesity debate, certainly not as a champion for health. His current organization is “a consulting firm that helps businesses take the lead on solving social issues.” Does that mean he’s pro-processed? Anti-processed? Well, not exactly.

Stuffed is neither a counterattack from the food industry nor the next go-green manifesto. It’s Cardello’s attempt to mediate between restaurant chains, supermarkets, Big Food manufacturers, Big Agro, the government, public schools, and pretty much every other player in food politics. It does pack some original insights about the interlock between food industry, government, and consumer behavior and a few genuine surprises among his recommendations—some reasonable, some so strange it’s worth reading just to find out how Big Food envisions its future.

Cardello spends the first part of his book dissecting the ways processed food companies, supermarkets and restaurants make decisions about the food they sell, and how they market it to consumers. Although some of it’s been done before–-usually with more indignation–-Cardello takes full advantage of his inside experience to shed light on the large web of influences surrounding profit, the bottom line, and manipulation of consumer perception and demand.

Why is a muffin or bagel twice as big as it was 30 years ago? How did Swanson’s TV dinners steer American expectations toward convenience over quality? Who decides what goes on the supermarket shelves? How did Pizza Hut get the cafeteria concession at your child’s school? How come the price of fruits and vegetables rose by 40% in a decade while the price of sodas and snacks fell?

His answers reveal the fundamental gridlock of businesses that have grown so successful that they can’t change easily without shutting down. Without exactly letting anyone off the hook for clinging to damaging business practices, Cardello contends that not only basic business constraints but government and consumer expectations are making it difficult to shift the system enough to improve the overall health of processed food. Continue reading

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