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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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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).

Food that’s fit to print–but is it fit to eat?

It’s the next “brilliant” thing. In the wake of Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià et al, the now common your-photo-in-icing cake decorations made using an inkjet printer and soy-based and other edible inks have given way to 3D printable food–or at least that’s what the researchers at Cornell are calling it.

Hydrocolloid Printing: A Novel Platform for Customized Food Production (PDF)

Hydrocolloids are suspensions of fine particulates in liquids–in common terms, gels. Also pastes, like cake frosting or masa. Basically uniform goos. The Solid Freeform Fabrication (SFF) unit squirts the stuff through a computer-programmable injector needle onto a platform based on the design you feed in, and it goes in layers so you get an engineered form. Cool, right? Food, any shape you want, and they contend it can be any flavor too.

But it has to be made of goo. And it can’t clog the needle. And it’s not all that new–the Italians have been extruding pasta shapes for over a century. French pastry chefs did all the heavy lifting with choux paste and fondant flowers even longer ago. And in modern times Wilton makes all those fancy-looking metal tips for pastry bags that they sell in the craft chain stores and that will likely be tried out once and then sit forever in the back of your kitchen drawer.

But pastas, pastries and frostings are all about goo as a starting material. These guys are talking about fish.

Most of all, it isn’t all that appetizing, particularly when you see that they’re trying to sell you on a machine that can make what they’d like you to think of as a tomato with a goo composed of 1% gelatin, 8% xanthan gum and some tomato flavoring. Haven’t we had enough of synthetic tomatoes? Isn’t that what the heirloom movement is all about?

Apparently not. Here are the last couple of paragraphs of the paper I linked to above. See what you think.

It should be noted, however, that even if subtle differences are perceptible, it is not necessary in all cases to perfectly reproduce the original food; there is still great value in simulating the original food.

Regardless of whether a hydrocolloid approach is taken to food-SFF, or some other molecular gastronomic platform is employed, the potential future applications of food-SFF remain the same. From culinary professionals to laypeople, individuals from all walks of life will be drastically affected by food-SFF. Artistic boundaries will be pushed in fine dining and industrial producers will explore mass-customization. Laypeople will have housework time reduced and benefit from direct culinary skill injections. Web 2.0 will tackle the next great frontier as people from all over the world experience food in new ways, while forming social bonds and mass-collaborating.

Now that major barriers have been broken, such as high printer cost and proprietary restrictions, the stage is finally set for tremendous growth of food-SFF. Few things are more central to humanity than food, and therefore [it] should come as no surprise when food-SFF gains prominence as one of the 21st century’s important domestic technologies.

excerpted from:

Hydrocolloid Printing: A Novel Platform for Customized Food Production
Daniel L. Cohen, Jeffrey I. Lipton, Meredith Cutler, Deborah Coulter, Anthony Vesco, Hod Lipson

http://creativemachines.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/SFF09_Cohen1_0.pdf, accessed 9/12/11

Now tell me, is this future palatable to you? Or do you somehow, almost inconceivably, not relish the thought of a xanthan gum conglomerate taking over the world’s food supply and driving us fresh-food conspiracists underground? Dan Brown, where are you?

The new MyPlate icon–fantastic or plastic?

Everyone in the food press seems to be weighing in on the new replacement for the much-cursed USDA Food Pyramid in all (both?) its glorious confusion and obfuscation of real nutritional goals that might have (and should have) undermined the beef, corn, pork, corn, sugar, corn, and soy industries if they’d ever been presented honestly.

So where does that leave us? With ears of fresh corn that are more than 50 cents apiece in Los Angeles supermarkets, and the new…

USDA MyPlate logo

Already, the USDA’s MyPlate web site is in a certain amount of branding trouble (and of course, that’s what counts most in America): the Texas DMV had already bagged “MyPlates.com” for its vanity license plate division (highly unappetizing), and Livestrong.com already has its own well-established “MyPlate” food calculator and fan base. And those items come up first on Google searches. As in, the whole first page or more. The government site ranks way down the list and had to water down the impact of its original name choice with “choose” just to get a URL. Can it elbow out the competition just by bolding the “MyPlate” part?

What really counts are the food and nutrition opinion maker comments, though. And a lot of those are detracting in a nitpicking way that I think kind of misses the point.

The first thing they all have to say is that the plate looks dumbed down. Forgive me, but wasn’t the Food Pyramid’s unreadable and unusable design a large part of the problem? The MyPlate icon is simpler and more direct, and it names real food groups, not “Big Mac” or, on the haute side of things, any of Ferran Adrià’s foams. No wonder foodies and populists alike are wondering what it has to do with them.

A small sampling of the main arguments:

MyPlate: The Food Pyramid for dummies? (LA Times): Dr. Andrew Weil and others discuss what’s still wrong with the new icon. Weil says “fruits” could still include fruit juice, which is usually a useless sugar bomb in comparison with whole fruit, and he worries that the protein section, which comes with a guideline to eat 8 oz. of fish per week, might encourage unthinking people to increase their mercury intake since swordfish is on the guideline menu, as are some of the generally overfished popular species of fish. Weil’s not wrong about the fruit juice vs. actual fruit, but his hand-wringing about fish is really geared for well-off readers who can afford to eat much of it. All the fishes he names are Continue reading

Selling salt, one con at a time

Michael Moss’s new investigative piece,   “The Hard Sell on Salt” at the New York Times, traces the strategies used by the processed food industry over the past 30 years or more to fight any regulation on the amount of salt they dump into everything.

I have wondered for years why TV chefs (Moss ticks Alton Brown on this for having shilled in an ad for Cargill, a major salt producer), the Culinary Institute of America, big-name restaurant chefs and their fans (prominently Michael Ruhlman), and the food processing industry have all pushed salt so hard and why the discussion about reducing salt always, always turns to “what can we substitute” rather than “why not just leave it out.”

It’s not as if any of these players, other than the actual salt production companies, have an intrinsic mission that requires them to sell salt.

Moss turns up a few of the answers. Not surprisingly, products like low-salt tomato sauce require actual fresh ingredients (vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh herbs) to make up the difference in flavor from the current formulas for salted jar sauces, which contain dried herbs and low-grade tomatoes and range from 450-700+ mg. sodium per serving.The low-salt sauces are more expensive to produce. On the other hand, they’re higher quality and they do actually taste good.

But that’s about the simplest case. Tomato sauce actually is made from tomatoes, whether high- or low-grade, and is therefore (if you discount the addition of starch or gum thickeners, sugar or corn syrup, spice “extractives” and preservatives in so many brands) about as close to the actual homemade product as processed food gets. Most of the major processed foods aren’t so recognizable.

Peanut butter should be in the same category as tomato sauce–something with a simple real main ingredient that tastes like what it is. And a number of smaller companies do offer unsalted natural peanut butter–peanuts-only, and it tastes just fine. But the major brands insist that if you take out any of the salt (notably, not “all”) from their formulations, you “have to” add sugar or something else to compensate for the loss of flavor. Read the major brand labels and you realize why: their peanut butters are already mixed with corn syrup sweeteners and solids, gums and emulsifiers and mono- and diglycerides and starches and fillers. The salt is there not so much to highlight the peanuts but to cover all of that extra gunk. You have to wonder whether the nutrition is reduced as well–something like the case of bologna vs. actual meat.

Particularly telling (and entertaining, from my point of view), are the taste consequences of cutting salt in some very popular products:

Even as it was moving from one line of defense to another, the processed food industry’s own dependence on salt deepened, interviews with company scientists show. Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

I have to admit I really adored that one. My general reaction to things like Lean Cuisine, South Beach Diet, etc microwave meals-for-one is that, with so much sodium per serving (up to 1200 mg or worse) you’d be better off tossing out the “meal” and eating the box. Tastes about the same, salt’s gotta be lower, and at least you’d get some fiber. Now we know it’s true.

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

They moved on to Corn Flakes. Without salt the cereal tasted metallic. The Eggo waffles evoked stale straw. The butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have no actual butter, simply disappeared.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Kellogg’s certainly not the only company that’s been selling Americans the food equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Perhaps all the food execs should be required to eat their own products, without “benefit” of salt, and preferably in front of an FDA regulatory panel or a Congressional committee?

The Cheap Vegetables–Snack Edition

A food marketing study released findings a few days ago about the top 10 fastest growing snack food preferences for kids 2 to 17 years old. Yogurt came out as number one, then potato chips, then–very surprisingly to me–fresh fruit. The others down the rest of the list were a soggy but predictable mash of candy, chips, “donuts” [sic], and other junk foods, though I think cheese cubes were in there somewhere. If yogurt and fresh fruit are in the top three, though, the news must be good, right?

Um. Maybe. But both of them are sweet or sweetened (in the case of most flavored yogurts, very heavily sweetened compared with plain)–so they kind of fit in with the candy, donut, carb-carb-carb kinds of snacks in the rest of the list.

What’s missing from the top 10 list? Plain milk, pasta or beans, bread and jam, the simpler unpackaged, unprocessed, or unbranded stuff you could bring from home, are all missing. But most of those are hard to take to school, and none of them are crunchy, which is a big part of the pleasure of snack. Actually, few of the packaged snacks are crunchy any more either. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there is a simple way to restore the full joy of snacktime.

Because mostly what you don’t see on the marketing study list are vegetables. Raw, crunchy vegetables, low in calories, starches and sugars, fats and  sodium, are high in potassium and fiber and vitamins, easy to prepare (another chorus of “just wash and nosh”) and perfect for snack. A handful of red cabbage or a couple of carrot or celery sticks along with a piece of cheese or a few nuts will keep kids from hunger for a lot longer than the carb-laden snacks on that list, and they’re a lot less expensive–on your wallet or your kids’ waistline.

Parents at school complain all the time that vegetables are too expensive, too time-consuming, take too much preparation by hand, and are not convenient to deal with, and their kids “won’t eat them”. But I wonder if that’s true, because whenever I go at lunchtime, I see many of those same kids enjoying the vegetables that come out of the school garden. They aren’t whining and they don’t appear to be suffering, and nobody seems to be sneering at anyone else that their lunch has Brand A taco chips and all the other poor schlub’s mother packed was vegetables. They’re all waving broccoli or lettuce leaves around, holding them up for comparison, and using them as props for one or another comic performance before chomping into them with savage glee.

And I know an ordinary bunch of celery–even a head of cauliflower–is the same price or cheaper than an econo bag of Doritos. Even at the big brand supermarkets. Celery. Carrots. Red or green cabbage. Raw green beans or if you’ve got the extra cash, snow pea pods. Broccoli or cauliflower. Lettuce wedges. Tomatoes. Cucumber. Bell pepper. None of these are hideously expensive, all of them taste good raw, and all of them store well washed, dried gently, and kept in the fridge.

So what’s stopping the parents from packing vegetables as lunchbox fare? The fact that they have to wash them to get the dirt off? Get their hands wet doing it? Maybe peel some of the vegetables? Find a knife to cut them up with? Use them up within a week or so of buying them? I honestly don’t know, but a lot of the parents seem whinier than their kids. Maybe they should all learn to just wash and nosh.

It only takes a minute or two to deal with a full head of broccoli or cauliflower, or a bunch of celery, and it’ll last you several days’ worth of school and work snacks at a cost of under $2. The most prep required is for carrots, if you start with an actual bunch. Not that I’m advocating the prepacked “baby cut carrots” bags, which are more expensive, but if you really hate peeling and cutting up carrots, you could go this way and still do better than chips and snack packs and the like.

All I can tell you is, if the vegetables are fresh and crunchy, most kids will get into them as long as their friends are doing it too, and there’s no great way to overeat them (except maybe for carrots). And some vegetables are just plain fun–red cabbage in particular is handy for revealing secret invisible baking-soda messages, and if your kids eat it at recess they can compare purple tongues with their friends afterward.  Can’t do that with taco chips.

Getting Sensitive to Snacks

In the past two weeks since my daughter returned to school as a newly diagnosed diabetic, we’ve started finding out just how many times a week students are presented with treat foods as extra snacks, even outside of what they bring from home. Happens at least twice a week. Why? They’re not in kindergarten.

I know I kind of “got into this” in my post two days ago about making hamantaschen lower in carbs. But my lingering amazement at the automatic and frequent food handouts in class, between snack and lunch even, got a boost this morning when I read the New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope on the big rise in kids’ snacking over the past 30 years.

Barry Popkin, a nutrition researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of his students have just published an analysis of American kids’ snacking over the past 3o years. They compiled data from four national diet and health surveys and found that kids are now snacking an average of 3 times a day, mostly on cookies, chips, candy, sodas etc., not vegetables or whole fruits. They’re taking in more than a quarter of their daily energy, about 600 calories, from these low-nutrition processed foods. That’s 168 more calories on average than 30 years ago, and kids 2-6 seemed to be in even worse shape.

The percentage of kids who snacked at least once a day in 1977 was about 75%, but now it’s up to about 98%. About half the kids today snack 4 times or more per day. Some snack 10 times a day. What on earth?

This article in the NY Times “The Well” section was quickly followed by another in which Parker-Pope reviews countering arguments about the real harm a single cookie a day may or may not be doing. Studies cited a bit more vaguely than the Popkin study may suggest a lack of consistent benefit to insisting that everyone cut out a cookie a day to lose weight.

Will cutting out a cookie a day help if you’re eating other extras instead or not exercising? Maybe not–in fact, probably not. But I have to wonder why this hedging, wishy-washy kind of article followed so quickly on the heels of the report on the bigger study with hard numbers.  Does Parker-Pope’s second piece negate what Popkin and his student Carmen Pierna have reported on snacking trends? Not legitimately.

My daughter actually needs to eat a snack between meals these days. But she’s an exception, not only for needing it at age 9 but for eating a specific and limited snack with some nutrition to it in a timely, coordinated way rather than grabbing up unlimited treat foods without regard to the regular meal plan.

Automatic, constant, reason-free snacking–now not even limited to snack time!–is just not a necessity. It’s a habit that’s snowballed until it seems so normal people don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore or why it’s not a good idea.

All I can say is, it shouldn’t take having to be diabetic to notice the excess snack habit and steer clear. Is it time for the Great American Snack-Out?

Getting the Salt Out: NSRI and Voluntary Compliance, Again

In the wake of its city-wide diabetes reduction and restaurant nutrition labeling initiatives, the New York City Department of Health is leading yet another dietary health campaign, this time one that involves a national coalition of cities, states, and medical organizations. My hat’s off to them, even though I think the demands they intend to make of the food industry are much too light and much too toothless.

The National Salt Reduction Initiative, announced on Monday, will  encourage “voluntary compliance” from the processed food and restaurant industries to lower their sodium content by about 20% over the next 5 years. That’s pretty modest considering that both industries have doubled the standard sodium content of many common foods in the past 20-30 years, and that the national obesity epidemic seems to have coincided pretty nearly with that trend.

The UK’s national salt reduction campaign, which started in 2003 and serves as a model for NSRI, has government backing and its goal is 40% reduction of sodium in processed foods within 5 years, not 20%. They seem to be getting there, too.

NSRI’s coalition includes the Los Angeles Department of Health and a variety of medical organizations like the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. What it doesn’t include this year, to my surprise–and, frankly, dismay–is involvement, funding or guidance from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH.

Ten years ago the NHLBI would have participated one way or another in encouraging this sort of initiative, but that was before the Bush years. NHLBI has been reorganized several times in the last decade. Two of its key diet-related outreach and education programs–the National Cholesterol Education Program and the National High Blood Pressure Education Program, which would have been the leading outreach proponent for NSRI–have receded from view, with perfunctory descriptions on the agency web site, no functioning links to current activities if there are any or to updated program pages, and no clear leadership or place in the agency’s organizational chart. But the need for them certainly hasn’t ended.

Voluntary compliance programs don’t have a great track record in the processed food industry. Look at the recent Smart Choices nutrition labeling program fiasco (see under, Froot Loops) from October.

Starting a national  program like this with voluntary compliance as a key component means the designers don’t think there’s much way to enforce the changes other than persuasion. It also means the government doesn’t have the tools, the money, or–and here is the crux of it–the will to enforce even modest limits on sodium content. Both the AHA and the AMA have been working on the FDA for years to get salt off the “generally harmless Continue reading

Smart Choices Labeling Program Falls Apart

The FDA’s recent and surprisingly bold scrutiny of the Smart Choices food labeling program, coupled with wide public indignation over the program’s obviously inappropriate awards of healthy food status to processed foods without much actual merit, has left the industry-led nutrition rating effort in shreds.  In a recent followup to his initial article in the New York Times, William Neumann reports that the Smart Choices program has been suspended only about two months after going live, and participants like PepsiCo have pulled out altogether.  Kellogg’s, on the other hand, is “phasing out” its green checkmarked cereal boxes and announced that global marketing officer Celeste Clark  is staying on in good standing after what has amounted to a PR fiasco over Froot Loops. Makes you think they were the ones with the highest investment in the program to begin with, or that perhaps they were the company least likely to admit how transparently flimsy the program’s nutrition criteria had become to the rest of the country.

It’s the first time in quite a while that the FDA has taken on a big household-name food industry target in public without a lot of hemming and hawing and backpedaling and dealmaking. It gives me hope that at least some of the federal government is shifting gears to start serving the public again.

The great surprise for me is how little real effort it took to shut down the food industry’s program. Three or four years ago it might well have prevailed, and the processed food industry might have been able to keep inserting its priorities into the debates over nutrition without any effective logical check. But at a time when the nation’s gotten sick of being lied to so brazenly for so long about so many things–many of them more serious–corporate food tampering and misrepresentation of food quality are becoming hair-trigger topics. Not least because food is the easiest  for ordinary people to judge and to protest safely in the streets.

We can’t organize effectively enough to protect ourselves against the invasive, petty and obscene wastefulness of the Patriot Act as it has actually been applied. We can’t organize effectively enough to demand and get a proper, timely accounting of Guantanamo and the government’s use of torture there and abroad.

But we can talk food and nutrition and sustainability and corporate manipulation until the cows come home.

How else to explain the cult status of Michael Pollan? The rise of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc.? The fights over school cafeteria vending machines and chain restaurant nutritional stats? The Smart Choices checkmark for Froot Loops, which people buy specifically for the artificial colors and know perfectly well is not really food, touched the match to a very big pile of sawdust.

And now the FDA is also on its way to strengthened oversight powers from Congress, including mandatory food recalls, not just recommendations for recall, to go after contamination of the food supply, and with any luck some extra funding to cover the actual field investigations needed.

It’s long overdue, but somehow it seems to me the FDA is being tasked with something the USDA should have been doing all these years and hasn’t. The USDA has more tools and resources at its disposal for doing food safety checks at the agricultural and manufacturing levels but because part of its mission is to boost agriculture, it has often dismissed these checks as unnecessary and even obstructed them, as in the case of routine meat testing for BSE and other infections.

The FDA is still supposed to protect the nation against food and nutritional claims fraud, though some of its targets appear to be of diminishing significance in comparison with preventing widespread salmonella and E. coli in the food supply. Smart Choices is obviously a big and publicly important target, but on the other hand, it seems to have been exposed and skewered satisfactorily already by public reporting of the Froot Loops fiasco. The FDA can ride the crest and put the final, perhaps critical, touch on it, but the agency’s gotten a huge boost this time around from public opinion.

Maybe that’s saved the FDA and the public some time and taxpayer dollars that won’t have to be spent going to court over it. Maybe it’s given them the nerve to work on the public’s behalf more daringly, knowing that the public actually does give a damn about its own well-being? Maybe things are really going to be different enough that they’ll go after the big offenders even when the public isn’t way ahead of them? We can only hope.

But frankly, I still want to see the USDA fulfill its responsibilities to protect the public and the food supply, and not abandon or subvert them in service to big agriculture and processed food firms. The FDA shouldn’t have to pick up after them.

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