Trans Fat - What it is and why you DON'T want to eat it!

>> Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The last of December Rewind!  Last year we committed to drastically reducing our trans fat content.  Well, we're not ones to do things half way when it comes to our food, and I'm happy to say that trans fat has been purged from our house!  Why would we do this?  Read on and learn about this fat and why you should avoid it - and how it could be lurking in your food even if the packaging claims to be "trans fat free"!

While the main focus of this blog has been on removing HFCS from our diet, we're also taking other steps to improve the overall quality of the foods that we eat. One of the things that we're doing is phasing out bad fats and replacing them with good fats. So today, I'm going to talk about our first target - trans fat.

What is trans fat?
First, let's have a little chemistry lesson and look quickly at the three main types of fatty acids (otherwise known as fats) - saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. (You can skip this part if chemistry is not your thing.) A saturated fat has hydrogen attached to every spot on every carbon atom in the fat and is solid at room temperature.

A monounsaturated fat contains a double bond in the carbon chain - a place where a pair of hydrogen atoms are missing. Because they are missing hydrogen atoms, it is considered unsaturated. When there are more two or more double bonds, the fat is considered polyunsaturated. Mono and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Olive oil is an example of a monounsaturated fat, and omega-3 oils are examples of polyunsaturated fats.

a polyunsaturated molecule

Trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil (a nice monounsaturated fat) during a process called hydrogenation. An unsaturated fat contains double bonds. Hydrogen atoms at the double bond are usually positioned on the same side of the carbon chain (a cis molecule). During partial hydrogenation, the molecule rearranges a bit and hydrogen atoms end up on opposite sides of the double bond. This structure carries the trans nomenclature.

Unsaturated fats with the cis structure are kinked. They don't stack well and so stay fluid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats with the trans structure are straight and stack together easily. Because they stack together so easily, trans unsaturated fats solidify at room temperature. Because of their unique structure, trans fats are softer than fully saturated fats.

a monounsaturated molecule in cis and trans configurations

Double bonds in a fat are susceptible to attack by free radicals. A more saturated fat with fewer double bonds is less prone to rancidity. Hydrogenating a fat removes the troublesome attack sites and makes the fat more shelf stable. Likewise, an unsaturated fat in the trans configuration is also less prone to attack by free radicals.

Why should we care about trans fat?
In a nutshell, trans fat is an issue because it is associated with all kinds of health problems. Trans fat can wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels - increasing your LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and decreasing your HDL (the "good" cholesterol). A high LDL is a major risk factor for heart disease. HDL picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to the liver, so higher HDL is a good thing.

Trans fat also increases triglycerides and causes more inflammation. Triglycerides are another kind of fat that may contribute to hardening or thickening of artery walls. Trans fat consumption is associated with an increased risk of stroke and type-2 diabetes.

Where is trans fat found?
So where does trans fat hide? Not surprisingly, it's found in shortenings, some margarines, and fried foods. Because trans fat increases shelf life and flavor stability, decreases refrigeration requirements, and gives a good mouth feel, it's also rampant in baked goods - crackers, cookies, snack foods.

You can spot trans fat by looking for partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list. All partially hydrogenated oils contain some amount of trans fat. Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain trans fat - those oils are completely saturated. Unfortunately, an oil labeled simply as "hydrogenated" may actually be partially hydrogenated and contain trans fat. Unless the ingredient list specifically states that it is fully-hydrogenated, you should assume that there is some amount of trans fat contained in the oil.

Trans fat is also naturally occurring. Small amounts of trans fat are found in dairy and meat products. Some research suggests that this naturally occurring trans fat is not as bad as man made trans fat, but results are still inconclusive.

Does zero trans fat really mean zero trans fat?
In a word, no. The FDA's rule is that a product can declare itself as trans fat free if the total fat in the food is less than 0.5 grams per serving and no claims are made about the fat or cholesterol content. There are a lot of foods out there declaring themselves trans fat free that contain partially hydrogenated oils - and the trans fat that comes with those oils.

The amount of trans fat that you consume from these products is small, but those grams of trans fat add up if a person eats more than one serving or several products containing small amounts of trans fat through the day. The FDA has not set a "daily recommended value" for trans fat consumption, but the American Heart Association does have a trans fat consumption recommendation:

The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of trans fats you eat to less than 1 percent of your total daily calories. That means if you need 2,000 calories a day, no more than 20 of those calories should come from trans fats. That’s less than 2 grams of trans fats a day. Given the amount of naturally occurring trans fats you probably eat every day, this leaves virtually no room at all for industrially manufactured trans fats.

How to rid your diet of trans fat
Read the ingredients! Avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils or hydrogenated oils. Avoid foods with shortening or margarine, as they usually - though not always - contain trans fat. (As a side note, there are shortenings that do not contain trans fat. They accomplish that by mixing a fully hydrogenated oil, which is very hard at room temperature, with liquid vegetable oils to achieve the proper consistency.)

It's been hard, but we have managed to eliminate trans fat from our home eating. I found that task to be even harder than getting rid of all HFCS. Partially hydrogenated oils are used in so many processed foods, but most use it in small amounts and can claim to be trans fat free.  Perhaps eliminating - or at least greatly reducing - your consumption of trans fats would be a worthwhile New Years resolution?


Meatless Monday - Lettuce wraps to lighten up your New Year!

>> Monday, December 28, 2009

Many thanks to the Meatless Monday organization for featuring my Savory Apple Pizza on their site this week!  If you're looking for ideas on how to get started with Meatless Monday's, check them out.  Lots of great recipes and information - and they even have a weekly newsletter chocked full of great information.

The new year is fast approaching!  After a month of eating too many treats and heavier foods, I'm ready to lighten up and get back on track.  Lettuce wraps are a great start! 

Sometimes I have a favorite meal that is so mindlessly easy and simple that I wonder if I should even bother posting it. But I find that sometimes I don't think of these simple recipes or meals on my own, so I'm passing them along to you in case anyone else out there needs an a-ha moment.

Today's meal is one of those crazy simple meals - lettuce wraps. The variations are infinite, so have fun modifying to suit your own particular tastes. I find that these make a fabulous light lunch - kind of a hand-held salad. Here is my current favorite lettuce wrap concoction:

  • Place a nice, clean lettuce leaf on a plate. Most any leaf lettuce will do (my picture shows red leaf lettuce), but romaine hearts are especially good.
  • Smear a bit of goat cheese (or yogurt or hummus or salsa or whatever suits your mood) lengthwise down the leaf
  • Top with roasted vegetables - onion and yellow bell pepper in my case
  • Pick up and enjoy!

The yumminess doesn't translate so well in this picture, so just trust me - it's good!

If you've not roasted vegetables before, it couldn't be easier. For my onion and bell pepper, I spread thinly sliced onion and bell pepper in a single layer on a baking sheet. Coat with a little olive oil (you don't need much - just enough to coat), and cook in a preheated oven at 400-425 F for about 20 min. Voila! Roasted vegetables! When I'm on a lettuce wrap kick, I'll roast a ton and keep in the fridge to use throughout the week.


What is "nutritional yeast"?

>> Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I talk about nutritional yeast a lot - mainly because it seems like most people haven't heard of it.  If you're eating a vegan diet, nutritional yeast can be a wonderful and necessary source of B12.  If you're not vegan, it's still loaded with good-for-you stuff and adds a wonderful depth to vegetables and soups.  Read on to learn more about this unusual ingredient!

Have you heard of nutritional yeast? I hadn't until a couple of months ago when I reviewed a cookbook that used it as an ingredient. Now I find myself using it more and more. I love finding and learning about new foods, and thought I would share some of what I've learned about this odd ingredient with you.

So, what is nutritional yeast? Nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of the fungus (yes, yeast is a fungus) Saccharomyces cerevisiae that has been grown on a molasses-based medium. The molasses gives it more flavor than either brewer's or baker's yeast. The yeast is dried and sold as a powder or a flake. Nutritional yeast has a cheesy or nutty flavor - think cheesy umami flavor. It's often used by vegans for its cheesy flavor.

What's special about nutritional yeast? Nutritional yeast is loaded with protein (50% by weight!), B-vitamins, essential fatty acids, and folic acid. Some brands, but not all, are fortified with B-12. (The vitamin B-12 is produced by bacteria and then added to the yeast during the growing process. Not all companies do this, but Red Star apparently does.) The addition of B-12 makes nutritional yeast especially popular among vegans and vegetarians, as B-12 is an important nutrient that can be hard to get if you don't eat meat. It's also low in sodium, which is great when you're trying to impart a little extra flavor without loading up on sodium.

How do you use nutritional yeast? It's apparently a very popular topping for popcorn in some areas and because of its cheesy kind of flavor is often used in place of parmesan cheese in vegan diets. I've been sprinkling it onto vegetables like lima beans while I cook them. It adds a very subtle pleasant flavor to them. It could also be a salad topper. Its flavor is mild enough and pleasant enough that it really could be used on many different foods with good effect.

Where can you find nutritional yeast? You can order on-line or many health food stores sell it. Red Star is a very popular brand, and one of the brands that adds B-12 to the yeast. (If you're specifically consuming nutritional yeast for the B-12, read labels carefully! They aren't all fortified with B-12.) Nutritional yeast is sometimes sold as "savoury yeast flakes" or "vegetarian yeast."

Whatever you do, don't confuse nutritional yeast with brewer's yeast! I had two health food stores in my town tell me that they're the same thing - one even sold nutritional yeast (as vegetarian yeast) without knowing it. Brewer's yeast is a byproduct of the brewing industry and has a bitter flavor. It's the same deactivated yeast strain, but the growing medium is decidedly different resulting in decidedly different flavors.

Also don't use active, bread making yeast in place for nutritional yeast. Active yeasts are still alive and may continue to grow in your intestines resulting in you not getting all of the nutrients out of your food as you should.


Meatless Monday - Christmas Manicotti

>> Monday, December 21, 2009

Zip on over to A Life Less Sweet Reviews for a chance to win a gift basket from Musselman's full of applesauces and pie filling!  Great for snacking and baking!

 December Rewind continues!  I wrote about our Christmas manicotti tradition a few months back.  This week seems like an appropriate time to bring back the manicotti since we will be enjoying it on Friday.  Yum - I can't wait!

We have a Christmas tradition in our house - manicotti!  I'm not really sure how it got started, but it's stuck. It's good, filling, and easy. Manicotti is not just for Christmas though, of course. It's a favorite year round with us.

Today I want to share my recipe for manicotti with you. The original recipe came from a magazine - Southern Living, I think - but I've changed it up a bit to suit my tastes. I use jarred marinara for my sauce - Newman's Own Marinara, to be exact - but feel free to use your favorite sauce, jarred or homemade. I also use a bit more sauce than the recipe below calls for. I like my pasta saucy! So, feel free to use more or less sauce depending on your tastes.

This dish is a real kid pleaser, and it's a great one to hide veggies in. I like to add sweet potato puree to the spaghetti sauce, but you could also add other veggies. Maybe saute some mushrooms and add to the spaghetti sauce, or cauliflower puree in the cheese sauce, or carrot puree in the spaghetti sauce, or shredded zucchini in the spaghetti sauce. You get the idea. The sauce and cheese flavors are strong enough that added veggies would add only a subtle flavor.

Easy, Cheesy Manicotti

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
2 cups lowfat cottage cheese
1/2 cup reduced-fat ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 large egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
3/4 cup sweet potato puree (optional)
12 manicotti shells, cooked per box instructions
1 large jar spaghetti sauce (more or less to taste)

Combine 1/3 cup parmesan cheese and the next 5 ingredients (cheese through egg).

Stuff each shell with about a 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture. Arrange in a 13x9x2" baking dish.

Mix spaghetti sauce and sweet potato puree. Pour sauce over shells.

Cover and back at 375 for 25 min or until thoroughly heated. Uncover and sprinkle with remaining parmesan cheese. Bake an additional 5 minutes.

A tip for working with the manicotti - if your manicotti tears, don't worry about it! Just put a little filling in the center of the pasta strip and fold the pasta around the filling. Put in the baking dish so that it stays folded in a cylindrical shape. No one will ever know the difference!


Turkey chili with a twist

>> Friday, December 18, 2009

Another December Rewind post!  We had this chili again this week.  So good!

A few 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.


What is "modified food starch"?

>> Tuesday, December 15, 2009

People come to this blog for lots of different reasons, but two searches that really seem to pull people in are pumpkin muffins and modified food starch.  This next post has generated a lot of comments over the months.  Hope it helps to demystify this ingredient that is so prevalent in processed foods!

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.


News and personal observations on school lunches

>> Friday, December 11, 2009

I'm putting December Rewind on hold for a day because a couple of articles that family forwarded to me have school lunches swimming around in my head.  This is such an important issue!  I've heard the argument that school lunches and vending machines are not the real issue when it comes to teaching kids how to eat healthy - that kids will face temptations all their lives, and they might as well learn to start resisting temptation now.  But people, schools are institutions of learning.  When you put junk in the schools, you are actively teaching the kids that junk is ok to eat. Those vending machines selling chips and sodas in schools - their very presence implies that eating and drinking junk is fine.  Serving kids fast food as a school lunch (Dominoes pizza, anyone?) teaches them that these are good-for-you foods.  Kids are paying attention to what they're served and what they have available to them!  For some kids, school might be their primary place to learn about eating healthy, but instead they see more chips, more soda, more fast food.  Let's stop pimping out our kids to the junk food industry and start serving them real food in schools.

I could go on and on.  

Moving on to the news...  First, a rather disturbing article from USA Today that asserts that fast food restaurants have higher standards for the meat that they serve than our schools do.  So nice to know that our schools serve meat so cheap that McDonalds wouldn't touch it.  Read more here

Next, Miller-McCune talks about recommendations that the Institute of Medicine has for improving school lunches and the difficulty in getting these changes implemented.  It's not all black and white - in fact, there's a lot of green (aka money) involved.  I hope that the powers in charge at the USDA realize that feeding our kids healthy food and in essence teaching them about healthy food by the foods that schools serve can have potentially dramatic, money-saving consequences down the road.  Think of the positive health consequences if we could teach kids early on about how to eat healthy - through example, not just talk.  Find the article here

 And now for some personal observations.  I posted some of my school lunch fears at the beginning of the school year.  I eat lunch with my son at his school once a week, so I've had first-hand experience with his school lunch.  My son quite often likes to buy his lunch, and I'm letting him despite my criticisms.  Happily, there are quite a few good things to say about the lunches served at his school.  The kids have a well-stocked salad bar to choose from at every single lunch.  They also have a choice between two different fruits each meal.  There is no dessert except on Domino's Pizza day (yes, that's right), which is every Thursday.  The teachers and cafeteria workers actively encourage the kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.  The school even provides a morning snack of fresh fruit to every child that wants it!  Love that! 

Amazingly, my son's palate has actually expanded because of his school lunches.  He's discovered that he loves celery sticks and Clementines and has tried (and liked) foods that he wouldn't try at a restaurant or at home.  Best of all, those new likes spill over to home as he asks for celery sticks with a little ranch dressing for a snack at home or happily eats an entree that he first tried at school. 

The bad...well, these are still school lunches.  The ingredient quality of the entrees leave much to be desired.  The entrees are often bland and mushy and not at all appetizing (at least not to an adult).  And did I mention the ingredient quality?  Typically, the salad bar is the only vegetable option.  That is not necessarily a bad thing as it is full of a variety of fresh vegetables that are good for dipping (and even occasionally cold green peas or cold green beans), but it would be nice to see a well-cooked vegetable offered alongside the entree.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that we're perfect eaters.  We're not - far from it.  Our food journey is far from over.  But, as you know from this blog, we are doing our best to instill healthy eating habits in our children through example.  I wish our schools would do the same.  I think that things are starting to change for the better.  We need to keep the conversation going to keep the positive changes coming!


The scoop on prebiotics

>> Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Another December rewind!  This post was originally in response to a question sent in by a reader.  I love getting questions! I'm reposting this because prebiotics are popping up in more and more products, and I suspect that most people have no clue what a prebiotic really is. 

One great thing about this blog is that through interacting with other people, I am learning so much. A commenter had a question about fructo-oligosaccharides - an ingredient she saw in one of her food products - and frankly I really didn't know anything about them. Hence this post! I love it when a question spurs me on to learn more about something - especially as I am relatively new to thinking about nutrition and what we put into our bodies in a more hardcore way.

What is FOS?
So, what exactly are fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and what are they doing in our food and supplements? Let's start with the big word - oligosaccharides are short to medium chains of sugar molecules. Adding fructo to the word indicates that the chain is composed of several fructose molecules. So FOS is really just a bunch of fructose molecules connected to each other chemically. (Similarly, galacto-oligosaccharides are a bunch of galactose - or milk sugar - molecules strung together.)

Inulin, often used as a dietary fiber, is a longer chain of fructose molecules. Sometimes inulin is referred to as an FOS, but generally FOS are generally shorter chains of fructose, while inulin is a very long chain of fructose. Both FOS and inulin are found naturally in Jerusalem artichoke, burdock, chicory, leeks, onion, aspargus, bananas, wheat, leeks, and tomatoes. FOS can be synthesized by Aspergillus enzmatically acting on sucrose or by the degradation of inulin.

FOS actually behaves quite differently than a solitary fructose molecule. We don't have the right enzymes to digest FOS, so they pass through our stomachs and small intestines intact. The flora in our large intestines and colon, however, are able to feed on FOS. What's more, FOS is preferred by the good bacteria (such as the Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus strains), though bad bacteria (like Klebsiella, Clostridium, and E. coli) are able to digest it on a limited basis. Because FOS serves as food for friendly bacteria (the kind you find in probiotics), it's considered to be a prebiotic. Get it? Prebiotics feed probiotics.

The Good
There are quite a few health benefits associated with FOS. Have you heard that a happy colon equals a happy body? Well, the health and happiness of your colon and intestines is largely dependent on its bacterial population. The human gastrointestinal tract has a complex ecosystem of hundreds of different types of bacteria. These bacteria have enormously important functions, including protection from infection from foreign bacteria and providing nutrients, including B-vitamins and short chain fatty acids.

The good bacteria in our body feed on FOS with a much greater efficiency than the bad bacteria in our body. In that way, FOS acts as a selective food for the good bacteria. The hope with a prebiotic like FOS is that the good bacteria will get the extra nourishment and thrive at the expense of the bad bacteria, and the bacterial population in your gut will then be mostly good bacteria.

FOS consumption has been associated with a lot of positive results. It's been shown to increase calcium and vitamin K absorption in the colon. It also boosts the bacterial populations' ability to synthesize B vitamins (like riboflaven, niacin, and pyridoxine). The level of short chain fatty acids in the colon is also higher with FOS consumption. All good things for colon health.

Because we can't digest FOS, it serves as a low-calorie dietary fiber, and we all know that we need to be consuming more dietary fiber! FOS is sweet - about half as sweet as table sugar - and is finding popularity as a low calorie sweetener, which is one reason why it's popping up in more and more foods.

The Bad
Of course, everything isn't all sunshine and roses with FOS (and inulin). There are concerns surrounding prebiotics. The biggest concern is that FOS also feeds the bad bacteria. If the microflora in a person's gut is out of balance - with more bad bacteria than good bacteria - this could be especially troubling.

Some people who consume FOS have problems with gas formation, bloating, abdominal pain, and (to a lesser extent) diarrhea. These problems have been attributed in part to actions by bad bacteria. While many people tolerate and are benefited by consumption of FOS, others simply cannot tolerate it and experience intestinal havoc when taking FOS or inulin.

Some claim that FOS and inulin can help those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but clinical studies simply do not support this. Not only does FOS not help alleviate IBS symptoms, some IBS sufferers experience a short term worsening of IBS symptoms when taking FOS or inulin.

What's the bottom line?
FOS consumption has a lot of potentially positive outcomes, but its interactions with bacteria in the gut are still not well understood. Each person's body chemistry is so different, and I suspect that the microflora population (good versus bad bacteria) in a person's colon determines to a large extent how effective - or detrimental - FOS is. For a colon in bacterial balance, FOS and inulin are probably beneficial. For a colon where the bad bacteria have an edge, FOS and inulin might not be such a good thing.

FOS is starting to pop up in a lot of different places. If you buy probiotics (aka good bacteria taken as a supplement), you might see FOS bundled in. Inulin is sold as a dietary fiber (Fiber Choice fiber supplement). And because both are sweet, they're starting to be used as sweeteners in foods too.

In the end, we've decided to be cautious with FOS and inulin. We have irritable bowel syndrome in our family and don't want to risk the detrimental effects that can potentially come along with FOS and inulin consumption. So, for now, we'll stick with natural sources of FOS and avoid FOS as a supplement.

Do you have a question about an ingredient or food issue?  Ask!  I'd love to try to tackle your question!


Meatless Monday - Frittata

>> Monday, December 7, 2009

 December rewind continues with another of my go-to Meatless Monday meals.  Frittata is so easy to pull together in a pinch with whatever you happen to have in your fridge.  You can add meat, of course, but it makes such a wonderful, protein-packed meatless meal, so why even bother with meat?  Read on!

One of my quick, go-to meatless meals is a frittata. A frittata - at least the way I make it - is basically just a crustless quiche. I start it on the stove and end in the oven. It's a great meal to use up leftovers in the fridge. Virtually any vegetable is good in a frittata. You could even throw in a little meat if you want - a little bacon is a particularly good addition and sausage would probably also be good.

I am not a big fan of eggs - the taste does not appeal to me - so I like a frittata that has a lot of stuff in it. The egg acts more as a binder than anything, and all of the other flavors temper the egg flavor. My husband and I love this dish (though my husband likes quiche better - he's a crust fan), and it's growing on my kids too.

I like recipes. I like to fiddle with a recipe to make it my own, but I still like to have a base recipe to go by. Frittata is an exception. It's a very forgiving dish, and I usually just wing it. So, I'm going to give you a basic recipe, but don't be afraid to play around with it. Feel free to use less egg or more egg, different seasonings, a different cheese or no cheese at all, and of course whatever vegetables suit your mood. You can even go up or down with the oven temperature - just adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Without further ado, here is the basic recipe for the frittata that I made for our family last week. Enjoy!


1 1/2 cups red potato, cubed
1 cup onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups broccoli florets, chopped and steamed
1/2 cup Jarlsberg cheese
4 eggs
1 cup skim milk
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp paprika

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Saute the potato and onion over medium heat in an oven-safe skillet with a little olive oil for about 10 min or until potato is tender. Stir frequently. Add broccoli florets and top with cheese.

Mix eggs, milk, salt, and paprika. Pour into skillet over broccoli/potato/onion mixture. Shake the pan a bit to distribute the ingredients. Cook over medium heat for 5-10 min or until the bottom starts to set up while the top is till a bit liquidy.

Move skillet to oven and cook for another 15-20 min or until the frittata has set up. A toothpick inserted about an inch from the center should come out clean.


Being a good guest while eating healthier

>> Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Another oldie but goodie that seems appropriate this time of year.  How do you handle holiday parties and dinners with friends when you've made a personal commitment to eat healthier?   Here's my take on this dilemma!

I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent here today. I read a quote in a magazine recently that set my mind to wandering and my fingers to typing.

What do you do when you've taken on a healthier diet - say, given up HFCS and trans fat - and are eating food at someone's house? Maybe you're at a playdate and a friend is serving your child bright blue yogurt or maybe a sugary punch drink that you know is filled with HFCS. Do you call them on it? Do you tell them that you don't eat foods like that?

I saw this quote from Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and Omnivore's Dilemma, in Reader's Digest last week. He says:

I really care where my food comes from, but I also care about being a good guest. So I eat whatever is put in front of me and don't make special requests.
I completely agree with Mr. Pollan. I know that not everyone is on the same food journey that we're on. Some people are not at all concerned about the ingredients in their food, some people are on a very different sort of journey than we're on, and some people are way ahead of us in the foods they eat.

I have had mothers snub snacks that I've served at playdates in the past, and I found it incredibly rude. (I'll note that no food allergies were involved. Food allergies or intolerances completely change the picture.) You can serve me shrimp floating in a pool of HFCS and topped with globs of trans fat, and if it is my only choice that you're serving me as a host, I'll eat it with a smile on my face (or else take a cue from my father and declare that I ate a big lunch and am just not hungry). I'm happy to talk about what we're doing with our diet if it comes up organically, but I'm not going to belittle your way of eating. That just isn't polite and isn't what a good guest should do.

I do think that we should fight for the food that our kids eat. We should fight for better school lunches. We should make it known with our pocketbooks and e-mails and blogs that we won't tolerate trans fat or HFCS or whatever else gives you the heebie-jeebies in our food - especially when that food is marketed to children. We should lead by example and eat a good, healthy diet so that our children have something to model. But we should also remember to be gracious to our hosts.

What do you think? Do you challenge your host if they serve you something that doesn't fit a healthier diet? Or do you eat it what you're given without comment?


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