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Halva, the Middle Eastern sesame candy, is a dessert favorite. Dense and rich, it tastes like peanut buttery fudge and is often layered with ribbons of chocolate. What could be better? Just one problem: It’s traditionally loaded with sugar. Israeli native Shahar Shamir was a huge halva fan too, but as a former dancer keen on keeping healthy, he was hesitant to dig in.
A home cook since the age of eight (his mother taught him everything he knows), Shamir decided to fiddle with a recipe of his own, grinding sesame seeds with honey and roasted nuts, and making something that more closely resembled a nut butter than a candy. His rendition also dispensed with the usual hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors. He served his new-fangled halva spreads to friends at dinner parties. They went wild.
In this week’s news: Imagining the coffee-pod version of Soylent; sizing up gummy bears as body-builder food; and creating a non-profit supermarket in a low-income suburb.
Make Mine a Decaf — with Extra Vitamin D
Nestle researchers have announced they are developing tools to analyze an individual’s levels of essential nutrients such that they can offer custom-blended drinks tailored to a person’s specific dietary needs. The end goal, they say, is to create a Nespresso-like machine to brew it all up just like your morning joe. Comparisons to Soylent, the Silicon Valley–born meal substitute promising to forevermore eliminate your need to chew, have already been made. That said, don’t hold your breath for the coffeemaker version. The kinds of workups Nestle is talking about currently cost around $2,000 per person.
Sodium Levels? Nothing to See Here.
Until recently, a meal of chicken, stuffing, cornbread and mashed potatoes at Boston Market would have contained about 2,590 mg of salt — or 290 mg more than U.S. guidelines recommend for an entire day. Today, that same dinner tallies up at 2,000. Facing increasing pressure to make products healthier, the restaurant chain has quietly cut down on salt content in many of its dishes. The food giant is far from the only one: Hamburger Helper, Oreo cookies and McDonald’s french fries are just some of the items that have been “stealth health”-ified. You read right. Consumers may know that healthier food options are a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always excited to partake. Case in point: When McDonald’s started cooking without harmful trans fats, it was flooded with complaints of the fries tasting different — and not in a good way. As a result of such episodes, many brands are trying to make changes on the sly. Nevertheless, even though General Mills went the quiet route, slowly reducing sodium in Hamburger Helper by 50 percent over a six-year period, the product’s sales have been in steady decline since the salt reduction began.
It’s the new smoothie dilemma: Straw or spoon? Just when you thought the world of liquid meals was complete, along comes something new. The latest trend in purified food: Smoothie bowls. That’s right, these are smoothies, but you eat them out of a bowl. Before you write off this craze as just as change of scenery for your smoothie, there are, apparently, a few key distinctions between an old-style smoothie you drink and the newer, smoothie-in-a-bowl versions.
Besides the obvious difference in how you consume it, smoothie bowls provide the opportunity to get even more creative with liquefied creations. Because smoothie bowls don’t have to be slurped through a straw, cooks have the option to make the concoction as thick as they want — blending in ingredients like seeds, frozen bananas, nut butters or even avocado for added heft and texture.
“Smoothie bowls are essentially more nutrient-dense smoothies, thick enough to eat with a spoon and often topped with fruits, nuts, seeds, muesli or granola,” explains McKel Hill, MS, RD, and creator of the plant-based, whole foods blog Nutrition Stripped. “Think of smoothie bowls as the new cereal — like cereal 2.0.”
In this week’s news: Having an off-again-on-again relationship with bread; debating the meaning of “natural” food; and naming as many Dr. Oz diet catchphrases as possible (it’s a “miracle!”).
Hold the Gluten — or Make it Artisanal
Only about one percent of the population has celiac disease, about six percent are gluten-intolerant and, according to recent research, those who have gluten sensitivity may have another problem altogether. Nevertheless, more than a quarter of Americans say they’re cutting down on or eliminating gluten. In light of this, you might be surprised to learn that whole-grain bread is starting to get a lot of ink. Food world luminaries such as Michael Pollan are increasingly speaking up about the benefits of artisanal bread products and, this summer alone, carb lovers can look forward to meetings like the “Kneading Conference” (from the Maine Grain Institute) and “Grain Gathering” (brought to you by the Bread Lab in Washington State). Yet don’t judge a book by its cover (or a grain by its husk?). The bread/no-gluten trend might not be as discordant as it appears. Most of the flour in commercially sold foods is white — made from grains that have been refined to remove the nutrient-rich germ and bran. What’s left is something called endosperm, a tissue that happens to house the plant’s gluten supply. Eat white flour, and you’re essentially mainlining gluten. Whole wheat, on the other hand, is rich in not just nutrients, but also a number of proteins that seem to temper the gut irritation people complain they feel when they eat gluten. This means that, at least for non-celiacs, whole-wheat bread may offer a way to have your bread and eat it too.
As blood pressure and health care costs for chronic disease continue to rise, the Food and Drug Administration is preparing to issue new guidelines on sodium. Americans currently take in about 3,400 milligrams (or 1½ teaspoons) of salt each day, a number well above the 2,300 milligrams per day (or 1 teaspoon) recommended upper limit. By advising food companies and restaurants to reduce sodium level in foods, the FDA hopes to lower the incidence of high blood pressure, strokes and other medical problems.
Talks of salt reduction have been swirling since 2010. Although the new salt guidelines were originally slated for release in 2013, the FDA told the Associated Press this week that the agency will be ready to issue the guidelines “relatively soon.” The FDA’s limits on sodium are expected to be voluntary, yet many food companies and retailers are planning to or have already cut back on salt in their products. Food giant ConAgra says it has already made a 20 percent reduction, while Walmart plans on slashing sodium by 25 percent in many products by next year. Subway restaurants have also claimed a 30 percent salt reduction in the chain’s offerings.
Technically, Soylent isn’t really a food at all. It’s a drink mix designed to replace actual food in order to make your diet easier, cheaper and more convenient. Soylent was created by a 25-year-old software engineer named Rob Rhinehart, as a solution, in part, to his own dilemma. The entrepreneur was on a tight budget, which meant subsisting on a steady diet of ramen noodles, fast food and frozen burritos. In search of something healthier but even cheaper, he started researching nutrients and eventually came up with this concoction of protein, carbs, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Read more
In this week’s news: Seafood guidance for kids and expectant mothers; the next iteration of futuristic faux food; and a reminder from Mark Bittman to just eat the real thing.
Pass the Salmon
This Tuesday, federal officials announced that they’re for the first time ever recommending a minimum of two weekly servings of low-mercury seafood (think salmon, shrimp, cod and light canned tuna) to children and pregnant or breast-feeding women. Back in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency had set an upper limit to these foods. And though this proposal, too, suggests an upper limit of three servings, the shift is noteworthy. According to a recent FDA analysis, one in five pregnant women in the United States currently eats little or no fish, and the new recommendation is said to reflect concern that these individuals are missing out. Indeed, a number of studies show that children born to women who eat fish have better cognitive development and higher IQs than those born to women who eat little to no fish. Still, the recommendation isn’t without controversy: Some environmental groups expressed concern that this will ultimately increase mercury consumption. One particular worry is packaged fish, especially tuna, from which Americans get approximately a third of their methyl mercury exposure. Interestingly, other groups fear that the measures don’t go far enough. Bottom line: Know where your fish is sourced, and also remember that while plenty of research suggests taking Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, there remains a wide variety of nutrients in fish worth tapping.
Will Gluten-Free Go the Way of Fat-Free?
Gluten-free. Paleo. Vegan. According to an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week, someday we’ll likely look back on the current crop of diet trends with the same regret-slash-sheepishness we now view our fat-free binge of the 1980s and ’90s. (“Think of all the money and meals you wasted on fat-free ice cream and bone-dry chicken breasts that didn’t do you a lick of good,” writer David Sax admonishes us.) As the story points out, Jimmy Kimmel’s hit skit on gluten last month — featuring hilariously cringe-worthy responses from dieters who seem to shun gluten strictly for the cool quotient — perfectly capture our collective dietary cluelessness. But there are some winners out there: Fad diets appear to be big cash cows for food manufacturers, especially when they market products capitalizing on the nutrition words of the moment.