Because you asked...Invert Sugar

>> Thursday, May 28, 2009

A reader recently sent me an e-mail asking me if I knew anything about a mysterious ingredient called "liquid invert sugar" that was on the ingredient list of some granola bars he bought at Target. Great question! Funny, the ingredient has never registered with me, but I noticed on the ingredient list of another product the next day at the grocery store.

So...what is liquid invert sugar? Invert sugar is sucrose (a disaccharide of glucose and fructose) that has been broken into free glucose and free fructose. (Sound familiar? That's what HFCS is too - free glucose and free fructose - only the beginning ingredients and processing are completely different.) Invert sugar is sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) because fructose is sweeter than both sucrose and glucose.

Invert sugar is found naturally in honey and maple syrup. In fact, invert sugar is often referred to as "artificial honey," though it doesn't have any of the wonderful little goodies that honey (or maple syrup, for that matter) contain.

Invert sugar is sold as a liquid as either total invert sugar (50% fructose, 50% glucose) or as a mixture of half sucrose and half invert sugar (50% sucrose, 25% fructose, and 25% glucose).

Why use it? Invert sugar has a lot of desirable properties in baked goods and other processed foods. The sugar crystals in invert sugar are smaller than sucrose, which results in a smoother texture of the final product. The smaller crystals also dissolve faster than sucrose crystals. Invert sugar retains moisture better and improves shelf life. As little as 10-15% of invert sugar mixed with sucrose markedly reduces crystallization in the final product, resulting in longer shelf life as well. All the reasons that manufacturers like HFCS apply to invert sugar.

How is it made? Invert sugar is manufactured a couple of different ways - acid hydrolysis and enzymatic inversion. In acid hydrolysis, sucrose is subjected to acid and heat to break it into glucose and fructose. Many different acids can be used, including citric acid. The process is not perfect, however. Conversion of sucrose to glucose and fructose is low (around 40-70% from what I've read), and energy consumption and cost of production are high. Impurities from polymerization products are an issue with acid hydrolysis of sucrose.

Enzymatic inversion of sucrose is achieved using a yeast derived enzyme known as Invertase. Conversion of nearly 100% can be achieved through enzymatic inversion. Low temperatures can be used with enzymatic inversion eliminating polymerization products (and improving final flavor), and filtering of the Invertase is easy. Enzymatic inversion is not cheap, however, so both methods of inversion appear to be in use.

The home cook can also make invert sugar and in fact does so when making jellies or jams. Mixing sugar with citric acid, cream of tartar, or fresh lemon juice and boiling will result in some sugar inversion - enough to keep the remaining sucrose from recrystallizing.

Should I use Invert Sugar? Again, this is a personal decision. We avoid HFCS (of course) and also fructose as ingredients preferring to limit our free fructose consumption to natural products (like fruits, honey, and maple syrup) that have more to offer. Because of that, we'll probably also add invert sugar as a specific ingredient to our list of things to avoid, but I'm not going to be concerned about the invert sugar that is in jellies and other baked goods where it might form during the baking process.

Hmmm... Learning about invert sugar production does make me wonder how much sucrose if converted to fructose and glucose in our stomachs. I've heard the argument that HFCS is processed the same as sucrose in our bodies because sucrose breaks down into fructose and glucose in the highly acidic environment of our stomachs. I would love to know what the conversion of sucrose to free glucose and free fructose is in our body - something I haven't come across yet. Just one of those things I wonder about.

Keep your questions coming!


Meatless Monday - the website

>> Monday, May 25, 2009

Just getting back from a nice little vacation, so I don't have anything substantial to offer, but I wanted to pass along a website that was brought to my attention by a commenter over the weekend. Meatless Monday is a non-profit public service organization working in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that is encouraging people to explore the lessmeatarian life and the health benefits associated with it by going meatless on Mondays.

Their website, Meatless Monday, is chocked full of information and recipes. I've only started to delve into their site, but it looks to have a lot of good information to offer. Lots of recipes, though a bit heavier on beans and fish for my taste. (Yes, I'm picky, and yes, I should eat more beans and fish.) I'm looking forward to exploring this site more!

Check it out - and maybe take the leap to Meatless Mondays yourself!


Meatless Monday - Pad Thai

>> Monday, May 18, 2009

Mark Bittman has started a movement with his book Food Matters called lessmeatarianism. I like it. We're jumping on the lessmeatarian bandwagon. The concept is simply to eat less meat - not to eliminate meat from your diet, but to shift back to a more plant based diet where meat is not the central focus. Want reasons for doing it? Read Bittman's Food Matters or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. Bittman and Pollan both champion the health benefits of eating more plants and less meat, and Bittman goes a step further and makes an argument for eating less meat helping in a bigger environmental picture.

We're not giving up meat - confirmed omnivores here - just eating less of it. So, a couple of nights a week we have vegetarian (or at least meatless) dinners. One of my go-to meatless meals is Pad Thai. We had never tried Pad Thai before making the lessmeatarian jump. I'm on a search for good, easy vegetarian recipes - especially ones that don't use beans as a base - and this dish jumped out at me.

Pad Thai is great because it's so customizeable. Don't like cilantro? Leave it out! Rather not use fish sauce? Fine! In the mood for shrimp? Toss them in! My current Pad Thai recipe is a combination of a couple of different ones. I'm a Pad Thai novice, and I suspect that my Pad Thai is not very authentic, especially as I don't use tamarind sauce. Still, it's good, and most of the time (but not all of the time) the kids like it too.

Here's my version. If you haven't tried Pad Thai before, hope you give this a try! It's super fast to pull together and very tasty!

Pad Thai

8 oz Pad Thai rice noodles
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup chopped green onions (more if desired) + a little extra for garnish
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup fresh mung bean sprouts
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
roasted peanuts for garnish

4 TBSP lime juice
3 TBSP fish sauce
3 TBSP soy sauce
2 TBSP sugar
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

Mix sauce ingredients together and set aside.

Heat wok or pan over high heat. Add a couple of teaspoons of oil and scramble the egg. Remove egg from heat and set aside. Add a couple of more teaspoons of oil and saute the green onions and garlic a couple of minutes. Reduce heat to low and add sauce, noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, and cilantro. Toss well. Heat through and serve. Garnish with roasted peanuts and green onion.

Do you have a Pad Thai variation that you love? Or how about a go-to vegetarian meal? If you do, I'd love to hear about it!


Trans fat is in the darndest places

>> Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Have you ever really paid attention to the trans fat hiding in your food? We've been working to greatly reduce the foods that contain partially-hydrogenated oils from our home diet. It's amazing all of the foods that still contain some amount of trans fat in them!

One of the foods that caught me off guard was flour tortillas. I use tortillas a lot. Wraps are a favorite lunch of mine, and we frequently eat quesadillas, wraps, and burritos for dinner. Most every flour tortilla on my supermarket shelf contains partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil. (You may remember from my discussion on trans fat that unless the oil is specifically stated as being fully-hydrogenated, it might contain trans fat.)

Let's look at Mission tortillas - my tortilla of choice before all of this. Their regular (meaning not reduced fat) tortillas all contain hydrogenated oil. Since they don't make the distinction of the oil being fully hydrogenated, I'm left to assume that there is some amount of trans fat in it. Oddly, their 96% Fat Free Heart Healthy line contains partially-hydrogenated oil as an ingredient. Hmmm...heart healthy? Really? The other brands at my grocery store are really not any better.

Of course, there are flour tortillas out there that are free of hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils. We've switched to Rico Handmade Wheat Flour Tortillas for now. Yes, they are higher in calories and fat than the low-fat tortillas I was using before, but the ingredient list is so simple - and trans fat free. If you live in Utah or surrounding states, you may be able to find Rico brand in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.

Or you can make your own. I haven't gone that route yet, though I think that I will try it soon and see how well homemade tortillas freeze. Itty Bitty Bistro has a recipe that is very intriguing. Their flour tortilla recipe uses no fat at all save a spray of oil on the outside of the tortilla. I will have to try these soon to see how they taste.

Do you have a favorite flour tortilla with a friendly ingredient list? If you do, pass the brand name along in the comments!


Surprising HFCS food of the week!

>> Monday, May 11, 2009

It's been a while since I've posted a surprising HFCS food of the week, I think in part because I'm better at picking out my foods and avoiding HFCS these days, but every now and then I still find a product that catches me off guard. This is one of those products - mustards and horseradish sauce. A condiment with HFCS in itself is not that surprising, but mustards are usually pretty safe. Only occasionally do I come across a mustard with sugar, much less HFCS, in it. And horseradish sauce? Go figure!

I'm going to pick on one brand of condiment today, but I've been surprised by others as well. The particular horseradish sauce that caught us by surprise was Inglehoffer's Wasabi Horseradish. My husband loves horseradish mustard and all things wasabi, so he was drawn to this wasabi concoction at the grocery store today - and very disappointed to find HFCS as an ingredient. Who would have thought that a horseradish sauce would have HFCS in it? Inglehoffer's Cream Style Horseradish Sauce also has HFCS in it.

Then we move to Inglehoffer's mustards. Not all of them have HFCS, but their honey mustard (guess the honey just isn't sweet enough...), dijon mustard, and creamy dill mustard all contain HFCS. Seeing HFCS as an ingredient in their dijon mustard was especially shocking to me.

Fear not! There are lots and lots of HFCS-free mustards in your grocery store. In fact, unless the mustard is supposed to be a sweet one (like honey mustard), most mustards also have little to no added sugar. Regular Grey Poupon Dijon mustard is a good choice (though their Mild & Creamy version does have HFCS in it). Emeril's Kicked-Up Horseradish Mustard is a good choice if you like your mustard with a kick, and in fact none of Emeril's mustards contain HFCS. BAM!

Just a friendly reminder to check those ingredients of even the seeminly safest of products! HFCS slips in everywhere!


Love this chili!

>> Thursday, May 7, 2009

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on crispy granola bars with a brief review of Jessica Seinfield's cookbook Deceptively Delicious. Let me recap the cookbook review a bit for you... Deceptively Delicious is a cookbook aimed at parents trying to get more vegetables into their kids. The recipes include vegetable purees that you mix in. Because the vegetables are pureed, texture isn't an issue and the flavor often blends right in. Personally, I think that these dishes served along side unhidden vegetables are a fantastic to get more vegetables into picky eaters!

The cookbook is aimed at parents, but you don't have to be a parent or picky kid to enjoy these recipes. The simple concept of boosting the nutritional value of everyday foods with purees is one that kids and adults alike can benefit from. It takes a little up front work to make the purees, but the results are great. I go through phases of using the purees in my meals. When I'm in the puree phase, I make a big batch and freeze in ice cube trays. This gives me ice cube size portions that are perfect for using in individual recipes.

We haven't tried many recipes from the cookbook, but one we come back to again and again is turkey chili. This is seriously good chili! (For the record, I am not a chili aficionado. If you are, you might do better to think of this as a really good turkey stew.) It's a juicy chili, but full of flavor.

My version is extremely close to the original. The only difference, really, is the puree I choose to use. The original version calls for half red pepper puree and half carrot puree. I never have those on hand, so I use straight sweet potato puree. If you don't feel like pureeing sweet potatoes (it gives it a really smooth, velvety texture), you can simple cook and mash. I like using pureed better - it seems to thicken the chili up a little more - but I've used straight mashed sweet potatoes too. One last thing - if you're out of flaxmeal as I was the last time I made this, you can simply up the amount of cornmeal by 2 tablespoons.

I think that I should note that the white specs that kind of look like congealed fat are actually specks of cornmeal! I'll say it again - I'm not a food photographer!

Turkey Chili
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 pound ground lean turkey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 TBSP chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp pepper
1 (15 oz) can chopped tomatoes
1 (26 oz) carton reduced fat, low sodium chicken broth
1 cup pureed sweet potatoes
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 TBSP flaxseed meal
1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Cook onion in oil until it begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the turkey to the pot along with the garlic, chili powder, salt, paprika, and pepper. Stir occasionally to break into the desired chunk size and cook until the turkey is no longer pink, 5-6 minutes.

Stir in the tomatoes. Add the broth, puree, cornmeal, flaxseed meal, and stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, 20 minutes. Stir in the beans and cook until heated through.

Voila! Fast, simple, and delicious! My daughter loves this chili. My son, eh, he's not a big soup or stew fan in general, and while he doesn't hate the chili, he's not a fan either.


Because you asked...modified food starch

>> Monday, May 4, 2009

A reader asked me a little while back about the ingredient "modified food starch" - what is it and should it be avoided. Great question! Modified food starch is a very common ingredient, so let's find out a little about it!

Modified food starch can be made from many different grains - corn, wheat, tapioca, etc. - but for the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to focus on modified cornstarch. The principles are the same for all of the modified starches.

Why not just use regular starch?
Let's start by talking about unmodified starch. Starch, a long-chain carbohydrate, is the food reserves of many plants - including corn. In making cornstarch, the corn kernels are soaked and the outer covering removed. The embryo - or the center of the kernel that would form a new corn plant - is also removed. The remaining part of the kernel is mostly starch, which is dried and ground into a fine powder. (For a more detailed description of cornstarch processing, check out this article from the International Starch Institute.) Dent corn, a "field" corn, seems to be the corn most often used to make cornstarch.

Unmodified cornstarch breaks down when heated too much, which is why gravy made with cornstarch is often watery and thin when reheated the next day. Cornstarch also does not hold up well in acidic environments. To minimize the limitations of cornstarch, processed foods often use "modified cornstarch." Cornstarch is modified by applying different reaction conditions to produce the desired end product. The starch can be physically modified, chemically modified, or enzymatically modified. The starch retains its granular form and often resembles the original starch, but the modification results in improved properties.

How is modified food starch used?
Modified food starches are used in a mind-boggling variety of products - luncheon meats, orange juice, baked goods, biofuels, bioplastics, and the list goes on - for a variety of reasons. Modified food starches are used as gelling agents, insuring that foods maintain the correct texture in both frozen and microwaved foods. They're used as thickeners in fat-free dairy products. They're used as bulking agents to increase the bulk of a food without affecting its nutritional value. Modified food starches might be used as an anti-caking agent to keep foods free-flowing, or as an inexpensive way to control moisure in a food product. In low-fat meat products, modified food starch is used as a binder.

Is modified food starch dangerous?
The accepted answer to this question is that modified food starch is harmless. Modified food starch doesn't really have any nutritional value, but it does serve a useful purpose in processed foods. The one concern noted is that manufacturing of modified food starch is not tranparent. There is virtually no way to find out how the modified food starch used in a product was produced - what chemicals or enzymes were used, if used at all, for example - and the possibility of trace chemical contamination bothers some.

I'll note that people sensitive to wheat or gluten should avoid products with modified food starch as an ingredient unless it specifically states that the product is gluten free or states the specific type of starch used. Many manufacturers will use whatever food starch is cheapest or readily available for their product - corn, wheat, or otherwise.

Should you avoid foods with modified food starch?
That's a personal decision. If you don't like the idea of a heavily processed ingredient, then you would probably be happier without modified food starch in your life. Having done a little research, I'm not bothered by this ingredient, so personally, I'm not avoiding foods made with modified food starch.

Thanks so much for the question, Barb! Have an ingredient of a nutrition question? E-mail me! It might take me a little while, but I'll try to answer in a post!


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