Friday, August 24, 2012

Reading the Label; part I

Last weekend I traveled up-state to Hudson, New York to spend the weekend volunteering at a Plant-Strong immersion get-away with the stars of Forks Over Knives. The speaker list consisted of an all-star cast, including author of the Engine 2 Diet, Rip Esselstyn, author of the ground-breaking study How to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, The China Study author, Dr. Colin Campbell, Jeff Novick who is one of the most impressive Dietary Nutritionists I’ve ever met and finally one of the most inspiring plant-based athletes and my friend, Rich Roll among others. 

The weekend proved to be a great inspiration. I sat in on lectures about how to reverse heart disease, how oil and other fats harm and damage our endophilia cells, two different cooking classes and much more. Ann Esselstyn even personally taught me the best and most efficient way to strip kale from it’s stem. However, the most important lesson I was able to take away from the weekend was when Jeff Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN taught the group how to read a nutrition label.

There is an old joke about how vegan means expert ingredient reader. And they are. Long term vegans are excellent at spotting the smallest trace amounts of any animal products listed in the ingredients. As I’ve argued in the past, all animal products should be completely removed from the diet. This includes meats, dairy, eggs, and fish. These are devoid of micro nutrients but more importantly have been demonstrated in study after study to be harmful in overall long term health as well as greatly increasing the risk of contracting most of America’s most deadly diseases including heart disease, cancer (just about every form), and diabetes. Since I am a vegan, I always assumed I knew what to look for when evaluating a product, however, I never realized how little I knew about these very tricky black and white charts.

At one time or another we’ve all looked at the package and attempted to decipher these. But three little tricks Jeff Novick taught me makes distinguishing between healthy and fraudulent a breeze.

We will analyze those tricky charts in part II. First we need to understand how to read the ingredient list. Never, excuse me, NEVER trust anything found on the front of the package. It is amazing what companies can get away with through their advertising on the front of their packaging. Things like “Fat Free,” “Multi-Grain,” and “All Natural” are all common catch words found on the front of packaged foods to make the consumer think they are getting something they are not.

Any time a product lists any type of oil it is an instant clue the product contains fat. Be especially weary of the word hydrogenated oil and partially hydrogenated oil as this is a sign that the product contains saturated fat and sometimes even trans fat (this is particularly the case in “High Heat” cooking oils). Even more outrageous, due to a loophole in labeling laws, companies are legally allowed to hide harmful fats in their products and still list it as having 0 grams of fat on the nutrition label. This is because any time a product has less than .5 g they can legally round that number down to zero. Pam is an excellent example of this.  Despite the fact that the product is 100% fat (much of it saturated fat), the company is legally able to claim their product is “fat free” simply by making the serving size so incredibly small (.266 g or 1/3 of a second of spray) that the product serving size will contain less than .5 g of fats. Hence they round that number down to zero and bippity boppity boo you get “Fat Free Cooking!”  (check out this article for news about a recent law suit over this practice)

Unfortunately, we can’t even trust words like “All Natural,” “Multi-Grain,” “Made with Wheat” or even “Made with Whole Wheat.” The phrase “All Natural” simply means the product started with a natural source. After processing there may not be a single trace of that natural source left, but hey, it’s all natural! The same thing goes for “Multi-grain” and “Whole wheat” labels found on the front of the packaging. Instead, search for the words “Whole,” “Rolled,” “Stone Ground,” or “Cracked” in the ingredient list. One of these words should be directly followed by the word “wheat.” Be sure to avoid products that just list “wheat,” “white,” “Durum,” “Semolina,” “Bleached,” “Unbleached,” or “Enriched” as these are all code words for white flour, which has been so heavily processed nearly all of it’s nutrients have been stripped away, leaving empty calories and damaging oxidants (think the opposite of antioxidants).

Back to Nature Organic Stoneground Wheat Crackers were the example Jeff used because the front of their package looks incredibly healthy. But a closer look at the ingredient list shows their claims on the front to be only partly true.

If you enlarge the picture, company appears to have listed the ingredients right on the front of the package, accordingly, these crackers are made from “Organic Stone Ground Wheat, Organic Safflower Oil, Organic Whole Wheat Flakes, Organic Whole Brown Flax Seed and Sea Salt.” However, when you compare what the front of the box claims to be made from with the actual ingredients….


Hopefully you notice two things. First, several ingredients were not included on the front of the box, including the very first ingredient, which is organic and unbleached enriched flour. In other words, this product is mostly white flour! The second ingredient is oil or 100% fat and then followed by more white flour, then white flour flakes and then finally we get "whole brown flax seed." Just based off this knowledge, we now know to put these crackers back on the shelf and continue shopping.

To reemphasize the first part of our lesson, ignore the front and read the ingredients. Your body will thank you! Go and try this in your pantry or any grocery store. You will be amazed at what you find. Next week I will post more about how to read the Nutrition Facts Label so be sure to check back.


For more information check out Jeff Novick’s DVD lecture “Should I Eat That” or Rip Esselstyn’s book The Engine 2 Diet. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wild About Greens and Curried Chickpeas with Sweet potatoes and Collards

Last week I learned about a new cookbook from of all places…Fox News. Don’t be mistaken. I am not NOT a follower of anything Fox. However, a friend posted an article about veganism they published (I’ll spare you the trouble, it wasn’t all that flattering of an article, although considering the source it wasn’t terrible either) and Nava Atlas, the vegan cookbook author extraordinaire, was featured in it.  At the bottom, it mentioned she had a new book out called Wild About Greens: 125 Delectable Vegan Recipes for Kale, Collards, Arugula, Bok Choy, and other Leafy Veggies Everyone Loves. I messaged a close friend asking if they had heard of it and a week later that very special friend gave me the book as a birthday present. I can assure you all that this is one present that will be getting a lot of use!

Having now read Wild About Greens from cover to cover I can say this is easily one of my favorite cookbooks. The first 25 pages gives short “biographical” sketches about each of the main greens featured throughout the book. Here you will find blurbs about taste and texture for common household named greens like spinach and kale as well as a few more rare treats such as escarole and dandelion greens. Nava Atlas also included a quick recipe finder in this section to spare the reader from having to search aimlessly in the index for recipes for specific greens. (Note: I’m not actually so sure how much more helpful this is then the index, but it’s a nice touch). Unlike other cookbooks I have, Atlas chose to only use relatively easy to find greens (all the greens in this book are commonly found in grocery stores, health stores, and CSA’s) in her recipes, this is a particularly appealing aspect of the book.

After this introduction to the greens, come her amazing recipes. If you are familiar with her other work, all of the recipes in this book sound as amazing as her more classic ones. The book is broken down into Basic Preparations; Greens with Beans, Grains, Pasta & Other Vegetables; Salads, Dressings & Dips; Greens in Soups & Stews; and concludes with a short section on Green Juices & Smoothies.

The book is well written and the directions are easy to follow. So far I’ve made a few recipes all of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but down below I decided to share my favorite!

There are two negatives in this otherwise excellent book. My first compliant is that the book was published in China. This just seems completely unnecessary with so many US printers. My second compliant is the lack of photos of the prepared food. Often times, I flip through a cookbook without reading a single word but instead just glance for the pictures that look appealing. This book, however, only offers 8 high definition photos found in the middle of the book. Still if you are looking to increase your intake of veggies, particularly of nutrient-dense greens, this is a must have cookbook!

Here is a remarkable recipe, which I altered just slightly. It is high in protein as well as vitamins and minerals. While I enjoyed it immensely in 90+ degree heat of the summer, I think it would really go-over well in the autumn and winter seasons.

Curried Sweet Potatoes with Chard & Chickpeas (4 servings)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into chunks
1 16-20 oz can of chickpeas (I used 2/3 cup of dried chickpeas which I cooked ahead of time)
1 16 oz can of diced tomatoes
2 scallions (I used green onion)
8 to 12 oz of chard (I used collards)
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, diced
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup raisins
cilantro or parsley and salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the garlic over low heat until golden. Then add the sweet potato with 1½ cups of water. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until the sweet potatoes until they are tender. (I think if you prebake the sweet potatoes you can skip this step and save about 12 minutes of cooking time).

After most of the water has been cooked off and the sweet potatoes are tender, add the chickpeas, tomatoes, scallions, curry powder, ginger, and cumin and bring the mixture to a simmer again; cook over low heat for 10 minutes or so until the tomatoes have been reduced to a sauce and the flavors have mingled.

Meanwhile, strip or cut the chard leaves (collards) away from their stems. Slice the leaves into strips.

Add the greens to the skillet and cook briefly, just until the greens begin to wilt. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and optional raisins. I highly recommend the raisins. The sweet and spicy combination made this dish phenomenal!

                          (yes, I consider this a single portion)

Now besides swapping chard for collards, I also added freshly crushed red pepper seeds to the mixture as well as ½ cup cooked buckwheat that I had left over. While the dish certainly doesn’t need it, I couldn’t imagine making this again in the future without it! Finally I served the entire dish over fresh spinach adding just a little extra something special.