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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).

“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

Chain-restaurant excess strikes again

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has found itself swamped for choice in its 2015 Xtreme Eating “awards” list.

What’s the highest calorie chain-restaurant meal in America? (LA Times online, 6/3/15)

The entries are frightening–typically 1-2 days’ worth of calories, 3 days’ worth of saturated fat and sodium, huge oversized amounts of food. One steakhouse platter with so much hamburger meat–not even steak–seven burgers, each piece topped with cheese or at least cheez–it’s like eating several Double Whoppers at once. Ice cream float-type concoctions with no actual pie but pie crust pieces crumbled on them. They start at 32 ounces. Which is clearly the new 20 ounces if you actually read through the horrible meal descriptions, because another chain’s sweet tea is only offered in a 32 oz size as well. That’s a quart. For one person. There’s a 900-calorie margarita in there somewhere at 24 ounces.

I’m sure Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s president, never dreamed there’d be something fully twice as bad on any restaurant menu as fettucine Alfredo, which he termed “a heart attack on a plate” only what, 20 or so years ago?

What the hell is going on here?  The chains may be cutting down slightly on artificial colors and trans-fats and GMO ingredients, but they’re serving meals with an entire day’s worth of calories embedded in the endless parade of glop that is routinely slathered on otherwise reasonable-sounding main ingredients like chicken breast (note: a top offender for hidden sodium in the “healthy” chain offerings, especially on salads). “Special” sauces, breadings, cheese, frying oil, stuffings, dips, and less-announced coatings (the problem with the chicken) that add surprising amounts of sweet, salt and/or fat. Chipotle isn’t on CSPI’s wall of shame over this, but it’s just as true of them as of any of the others–their meals typically run 500-800 calories for a burrito without chips, guacamole or salsa (not to mention sour cream and added cheese), and the same number of milligrams of sodium.

The meal insults listed on CSPI’s site consist of huge portions that could more normally serve four people, not one. Dishes are never less than 3″ high and cover every square millimeter of the plate. Burgers are multiplied–if one or two are okay, six or seven must be even better. Vegetables have disappeared, of course.

Accessories double or triple the calorie, fat and sodium counts of the full “meal”: caesar salad, fries, biscuits, half-gallon drinks, whole quarts of ice-cream-related desserts. Why is this gargantuan approach even appealing?

They didn’t list Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, but maybe they should have–a couple of years ago I took my daughter there for a post-diabetes-diagnosis ice cream cone so we could do something normal for summer, albeit with a shot of insulin (it was a new experience) and we got the entire brochure of offerings when we asked for the nutrition info. The single cone, no lightweight for any of the flavors at about 250-300 calories (double or triple what it would be for Dreyer’s/Edy’s half-the-fat, our standby) and 25-30 grams of carb (also double the D/E per serving), turned out to be a best bet. Some of the sundaes were getting to the 20 oz. range, with over 1500 calories and two days’ worth of carb and fat. The soft serves were actually the worst nutritionally, much higher in calories, carb and fat than they look for the volume you get–and especially given how plain the flavors always are.

Overall, the picture of chain food is not lookin’ good. It’s a nightmare of shameful, pointless stuntlike excess, the stuff parodied in Wall-E and Idiocracy among other movies from the past decade. Only as one of the CSPI judges remarked, it’s become the new normal, and much faster than the screenwriters imagined. Maybe we should all look at the before pictures of the participants on The Biggest Loser, as shown in all the accompanying guidebooks (see your local Friends of the Library bookstore) and ask ourselves if we really want to do that. Because that’s a lot of work.

Coconut, minus the hype

dried coconut shreds

Palm and coconut oils have made a huge comeback in the last few years. Both are very high in saturated fats, which promote high blood cholesterol and heart disease, but the vegan community has embraced them as “natural” and they’re turning up in all kinds of baked goods and sweets these days at Whole Foods. Which also sells big mayo jars full of coconut butter. Looks like Crisco, scoops like Crisco, costs 10 times as much.

A lot of the newer vegan recipes and packaged foods are direct mimics of things that used to include lard, beef tallow and suet at the lower end of the classiness scale, or butter at the high end. My local Whole Foods’ pastry case features a lot of croissant and baklava variations these days, all now made with palm oil, as are many of the muffins. Starbucks’ “old-fashioned kettle” doughnuts feature palm oil in two places, both the dough and the icing.

Why are these fats getting so popular? Why all the wishful thinking that a plant source automatically makes them healthy to eat in quantity? Why are all the nutrition advice columnists in the major newspapers and health magazines suddenly “holistic coaches” who graduated college with psych majors and the like rather than board-licensed nutritionists and registered dieticians?

The truth of the matter is that your body doesn’t care so much whether a saturated fat came from lard, a coconut, or a chemical vat–regardless of the source, the fat molecules are shaped the same and your digestive and metabolic enzymes process them all the same way.

Palm and coconut oil? The hip vegan crowd, who consider themselves really indie, would be surprised to learn how thoroughly they’ve been manipulated by a very big industry. In the past 10 years, these oils have suddenly ramped up production wherever palm trees can be grown, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where producers started by stripping the jungles to plant a single crop (though some of the main palm oil traders, like Lever–yes, the soap manufacturer–have made statements that they’re working to reverse some of the damage and buy only from those who “plant sustainably”). The other main centers of palm and coconut oil growers are Africa, India and Latin America.

Palm and coconut oils have taken off not because they’re vegan (outside of India, there just aren’t enough to support the industry boom) but because they’re such a cheap source of fat. Well, cheap everywhere but the Whole Foods shelves. They are indeed useful to the processed baked-goods industry for lending that heavy grease “satisfaction” factor to things that used to be made with butter, suet or lard. And they’re much less heavily regulated in the US by the agricultural inspectors because they don’t trigger all those livestock rules.

But should you be eating them? Buying jars of coco butter for your home cooking? Something tells me you’d be better off eating less of anything that requires cooking in heavy fats as opposed to regular polyunsaturated vegetable oil. And cutting down on all fats unless you’ve actually been diagnosed by an MD, not a holistic coach, as underweight.

Because even the unsaturated fats have a lot of calories. Rip Esselstyn’s “Fire Engine 2 Diet” specifically cut out all oils because the people he was training to eat better really needed to lose weight, and the bottom line is that the 120 calories in a tablespoon of ordinary unsaturated vegetable oil are still extras. There’s no real way around that. Not even if you’re vegan.

And wasn’t the point of nonstick pans supposed to be so you could cut down on cooking fats? (ok, it was really so the pans would be easier to wash, but why not take advantage while you’re at it?)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever use coconut itself in cooking–I’ve been a Mounds fan from way back, and please just don’t ask about those poufy huge coconut-sprinked, bright pink marshmallow things we used to clamor for as kids (“Snowballs”? I think it was a half-dome of marshmallow that sat on a cookie…almost as bad as Moon Pies.) These days I try to eat it sparingly, because it’s still fatty, and because most of my coconut exposure now takes place in the form of macaroons at Passover, when I’m already feeling like if I see another can or box of something packaged I’ll pass out.

But seriously–and more sophisticatedly–coconut itself is a worthwhile cooking ingredient in some savory dishes, and it has a subtle, penetrating flavor that means you don’t have to use a ton. You can also find good steam-defatted versions of shredded coconut that have about half the fat of regular, and look for partially decreamed canned coconut milk as well (I think Trader Joe’s sells it, maybe Whole Foods as well). Unfortunately, half the fat for coconut is still pretty fatty, but it’s an improvement.

Even a spoonful of unsweetened shreds can give a curry or aviyal (i.e., coconut-based “dry curry” class of dishes) a satisfying suggestion of richness without adding loads of fat. Maybe a gram or two per serving, and it can help even out jagged edges in the spicing.

To get the most flavor out of a small amount of coconut, I do one of two things. In the aviyal of cowpeas below, I toast a spoonful of dried shreds Continue reading

Putting Pie Crust on a Diet

From a recent LA Times special on savory pies comes a classic calorie-bomb–only, it’s not even the pie. It’s the pie dough itself:

Basic savory pie dough No. 2 (cream cheese)

Servings: 1 double-crust (9-inch) pie or 6 individual hand pies

  • 1 (8-ounce) container cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 2/3 cups (11 1/2 ounces) flour

Each of 6 servings: 638 calories; 9 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 48 grams fat; 29 grams saturated fat; 137 mg. cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 518 mg. sodium.

Now come on. 638 calories before you ever get to the filling? Who wants to eat that much pie dough at a time, especially one so rich? OK, don’t answer that, but really. Gag.

Except for the extra cream and the teaspoon of added salt (and why do you even need those with a cream cheese dough anyway?) this is really just a classic rugelach dough–you mix the fats together and then stir in the flour a little at a time by hand. Only, rugelach dough is meant to be rolled out as thin as physically possible–1/16 inch thick or even less–before spreading with jam and nuts and chocolate and cinnamon and so on and rolling it up into a crescent shape. And a good thing too, because cream cheese doughs are notoriously rich. More dough per rugelach and you’d soon feel like you’d eaten an airline Danish–it would sit like lead in your stomach for hours.

I compared the recipe above with the one in my much-used spiral-bound 1984 edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen (thank you, Hadassah rummage sale!) It was probably the one cookbook that influenced me most as a college student, and I still use it for the classics, especially baked things like rugelach and hamantaschen that I can’t just wing (note–her cookie-style hamantaschen recipe is the best I’ve ever tasted, a far cry from the usual chalky white horrors on the Purim carnival bake sale table).

Based on Nathan’s rugelach recipe, which is the same recipe everyone everywhere seems to use, the quantities in the LA Times recipe above should make something like 40 rugelach, so figure about 15-20 realistic servings, not six. The cooks at the LA Times must be rolling the dough out the standard 3/8 inch thick for their pies, but it seems like a complete waste of this dough’s particular talents. Continue reading

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