Vegan Food – Trick or Treat?

Plant-based diet is all the rage but is it healthier for you? There is no argument that eating less animal products is better for your body and for the planet. For years I have been advising the general public, eating a typical North American diet, to reduce meat intake and use meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of their meal. For some, my husband included, it is easier to go cold turkey and avoid meat altogether rather than tease the taste buds and be left feeling unsatisfied. The craving for the flavor of “meat” combined with the desire to go meatless has fueled the surging popularity of meat alternatives in grocery stores and restaurants, including fast food chains.

Tricks

The plant-based food space grew 11% between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion in the US which provided more options and also more confusion than ever for consumers. Have you noticed the growing number of plant-based milk, such as soy, almond, cashew, rice, and oat milks, on your grocery shelves? It can certainly be tricky to find vegan foods with the same nutritional profile as the animal products you are replacing. I recently replaced cow’s milk with almond milk and realized that I now only get 12.5% of my usual amount of protein (1 gram of protein in 1 cup of almond milk rather than 8 grams of protein in cow’s milk). That means I need to adjust my diet to eat other high protein foods to make up the deficit. Not easy to do without some nutrition knowledge and meal planning skills!

Plant-based foods designed to replace milk, cheese, and meat often have a lengthy list of ingredients and full of fillers. Have a look at the 18 ingredients in a Beyond Burger: water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (the beet juice give the burger its meat-like “blood”). Pretty scary! If you are interested in a complete nutritional comparison between a Beyond Burger and a regular burger, check out this article  in Good Housekeeping. It’s clear that plant-based foods can be highly processed and may not be the healthy alternative we think we are eating.

Treat

Eating a vegan or plant-based diet is not just about avoiding animal products or eating meat look-a-likes. It is about eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now, that’s a treat for your health!!!

Plan the main event of your meal around “meaty” vegetables such as mushrooms, eggplant, and squash.  This will easily increase your daily vegetable servings. Consuming enough fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity. The 20152020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume 1.5–2.0 cup equivalents of fruits and 2.0–3.0 cups of vegetables per day. These goals are much more attainable on a plant-based diet.

The best vegan food comes in its natural form. Nuts, seeds, and legumes are never processed and provide a signifiant source of protein and fiber. Many research studies have shown that the high fiber content in some nuts and legumes is good for your gut bacteria and provides protection to the gut lining and creates a healthier microbiome. The gut microbiome plays a vital role in helping with digestion and benefiting your immune system and many other aspects of health.

Another great source of plant-based protein is whole grains.  Whole grains have much more fiber, B vitamins, and iron than refined grains. Experiment cooking with some of the high protein grains such as quinoa, spelt, kamut, amaranth and millet, just to name a few. Their names may sound intimidating but they boil a lot like rice – just follow the cooking direction on the package and you can’t go wrong. To maximum your nutrition at each meal, learn to combine grains with legumes for complementary protein.

Meat is not necessary a villain. But in a culture where meat consumption is excessive and climate change is a concern, it is definitely a treat to have the food pendulum swing in favor of vegan food.

 


Truth about Turmeric

Turmeric really doesn’t need much introduction these days. For those who don’t do much cooking, it is a bright yellow spice commonly used in Indian cooking. If you are wondering what business turmeric has in finding its way into our lattes, it is because of its super food status in culinary medicine. Turmeric has potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects which can potentially prevent and treat arthritis, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  As a food enthusiast, I am no stranger to cooking with turmeric but I am curious whether drinking a cup of turmeric tea latte per day (a.k.a Golden Milk) will keep my knee pain away.

The medicinal effect of turmeric is attributed to its active compound, curcumin. It has been used to help prevent ailments for generations in Asia. Research indicates that you need to get 500 to 1,000 milligrams of curcumin per day for an anti-inflammatory effect. The average Indian diet provides around 60-100 milligrams of curcumin (2,000-2,500 milligrams of turmeric) per day. In other words, you would need to consume more than 10 times the amount of turmeric than what’s in a typical Indian diet. The truth is that it is not easy to get a therapeutic dose of curcumin without some supplementation. However, if you decide to take on the challenge with eating real food for your curcumin,  keep in mind that you will need to add at least 2 1/2 Tablespoons (17 grams) of turmeric a day in your diet to get 500 milligrams of curcumin. Also, curcumin is not easily absorbed and it needs to be combined with fat and black pepper to enhance its absorption. I am sharing my recipe of the Oven Roasted Turmeric Cauliflower that is super easy and delicious with an abundant amount of turmeric. Cauliflower is naturally high in antioxidant so this packs an extra anti-inflammatory punch.

Along with boosting curcumin in your diet to flight inflammation, it is beneficial to avoid inflammation inducing foods – sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial trans fats, refined carbohydrates, processed meats, and alcohol – at the same time. This is a good way to double down on the battle against inflammation!

Cauliflower

Oven Roasted Turmeric Cauliflower

1 large head of cauliflower

1/4 cup Olive oil

2 Tbsp turmeric

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425F.
  2. Cut cauliflower into florets and put on a rimmed baking sheet.
  3. whisk olive oil, turmeric, salt and pepper in a bowl and drizzle over cauliflower to coat pieces.
  4. Roast cauliflower in oven until tender and slightly brown for 15-25 minutes, turning halfway.

 

 


How to avoid GMOs

 

IMG_4606Food companies are labelling their food packaging with more health claims than ever before but do we really know what they mean? The “NON GMO Project VERIFIED” seal is one that has been attracting my attention lately. I am seeing it on a range of products from bread to won ton wrappers. According to data from The Non-GMO Project Verified organization, their seal is the fastest growing label in the natural product industry and represents over $26 billion in annual sales. There are more than 50,000 Verified products from over 3,000 brands available to consumers in the marketplace. With this growing trend, it is definitely worth learning more about what this claim means. I went to their website and this is what I extracted:

What is a GMO?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

Most GMOs have been engineered to withstand the direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. However, new technologies are now being used to artificially develop other traits in plants, such as a resistance to browning in apples, and to create new organisms using synthetic biology. Despite biotech industry promises, there is no evidence that any of the GMOs currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.

Are GMOs safe?
In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown. Increasingly, citizens are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment.

Which foods might contain GMOs?
Most packaged foods contain ingredients derived from corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet — and the vast majority of those crops grown in North America are genetically modified. 

Visit the What is GMO page for more information and a list of high-risk crops.

Animal products: The Non-GMO Project also considers livestock, apiculture, and aquaculture products at high risk because genetically engineered ingredients are common in animal feed. This impacts animal products such as: eggs, milk, meat, honey, and seafood.

Processed inputs, including those from synthetic biology: GMOs also sneak into food in the form of processed crop derivatives and inputs derived from other forms of genetic engineering, such as synthetic biology. Some examples include: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, corn syrup, molasses, sucrose, textured vegetable protein, flavorings, vitamins,  yeast products, microbes & enzymes, flavors, oils & fats, proteins, and sweeteners.

My Bottomline Recommendations:

1. Avoid processed foods. The less processed the food, the less chance of GMO ingredients sneaking into the manufacturing process.

2. Eat fresh food with a short ingredient list. Less is more when it comes to healthy food!

3. Buy organic products when possible because the use of genetically modified organisms are not permitted in products that are USDA organic certified.

4. Look for the Non GMO Project Verified seal on food products, especially with products containing the high risk corps such as Corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal assures consumers that a product has completed a comprehensive third-party verification for compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard.

 

 


The Secret to Southeast Asian Cooking

I love Southeast Asian food for its intense flavors! Fish sauce, made of anchovies and salt, is what creates that bold taste in Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian cuisine. it is used in salads, soups, stir-fry and dipping sauces. Many chefs and home cooks have taken fish sauce beyond Asian dishes to deliver the umami flavor to some unexpected dishes. Try a few sprinkle on the ever so popular roasted Brussels sprouts and you’ll know what I mean!

With the increasing popularity of Southeast Asian food, fish sauce is much more available in the grocery store than ever before. If you don’t find it in your local grocery store, you can always have it delivered to your door by Amazon. Just don’t expect to get a good price on it – even on Amazon Prime Day!

I usually get my Red Boat Fish sauce at Trader Joe’s until they were unable to restock it from their supplier in the last several months.  When I saw Red Boat Fish sauce at Sur La Table selling for $8.95 (8.45 fl. oz.), it was all the motivation I needed to make a trip to the Asian market for the authentic stuff for cheap. Of course, when I got there I was confronted with an array of choices except the Red Boat brand I was looking for. How do I decide which one to buy? Not sure it matters if it’s from Thailand or Vietnam. Price is not the deciding factor since they are all inexpensive so it boils down to their ingredients. Surprisingly, some of them contain fillers other than anchovies and salt. For example, Three Crabs brand (popular with some chefs) contains anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose (a form of sugar) and hydrolysed vegetable protein (a form of MSG) and yet it makes the claim “no MSG added” on its label. Really! Imported foods don’t always meet the same regulation on label claims so read the ingredient list to verify their claims. My final choice was the “Top” brand containing anchovies fish extract, water and salt for $1.25 (23 fl. oz.).

Fish sauce is an extremely tasty fat-free condiment. It is very high in salt so you may need to adjust the amount of added salt in the dish when using fish sauce. Be adventurous and go beyond borders when cooking with it! If you are a novice, start with the dipping sauce below for salads, noodles and grilled meats. It is a family recipe from Mai Pham, author of “The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking.” It has been my go-to for over 20 years.

Classic Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)

2 small garlic cloves, sliced

1-2 tsp. ground chile paste

1-2 Thai bird peppers, or any other chiles, chopped

1/4 cup good quality fish sauce

2//3 hot water

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice with pulp

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. shredded carrots for garnish

Place the garlic, chile paste and fresh chiles in a mortar. With a pestle, pound into a paste. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, mince by hand.

Combine the garlic mixture with the remaining ingredients (except carrots) in a small mixing bowl. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Ladle the sauce into small ramekins and float the carrot slivers on top. Makes 1 1/2 cups. Keeps in refrigerator for one month.


Eat Smarter Live Longer

As I was cleaning out my stash of food magazines, I came across the 2017 issues of Food & Wine. Many of its recipes I have not tried as I was on overdrive with work during that time. The February issue was entitled “Eat Smarter Live Longer” which grabbed my attention. It is comforting to know the plant-based food trend hasn’t changed much in the last couple years and I am still on the right track as a smart eater. In hopes of influencing my meat-eating husband in the right direction, I made the Chickpeas and Kale in Spicy Pomodoro Sauce from the magazine. When I served it at lunch today, he said “I thought some bacon would be great in this until I tasted it and realize it doesn’t need it at all.” This is a recipe for 4 and just the two of us polished it off. I think this says it all!

This recipe was created by Chef Missy Robbins of Brooklyn’s award-winning Lilia restaurant who took an age old Italian classic, pasta al pomodoro, and made it gluten-free by replacing pasta with chickpeas. Then she added kale, one of the healthiest greens of the 21t century to pump up the nutritional quotient. No wonder Food & Wine named this recipe one of their top 40 in 2018. Below is the recipe from the February issue of Food & Wine magazine. For more healthy food ideas, check out my Instagram @healthydigz.

How to Make It

Step 1

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until very fragrant 
but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and 
the sauce is thickened, about 25 minutes.

Step 2

Stir the kale into the sauce and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in the chickpeas and cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. Season with salt. Spoon into bowls and garnish with torn basil 
and marjoram leaves. Top with finely grated pecorino and serve hot.