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the nutrition algorithm

May 18th, 2015

This summer, I will be working full-time on building the nutrition algorithm, a web tool that I (and hopefully you) will use to eat healthy for less money.

Keeping oils healthy by not burning food

February 10th, 2015

You may have heard that “healthy oils” such as olive oil become unhealthy when heated past a certain temperature.

You heard right! All oils have a smoke point, a temperature above which they will begin to smoke. The smoke point varies considerably from oil to oil, which is why some are better for deep frying and others for pouring on a cool salad. Once an oil reaches its smoke point, it will start to break down, releasing free radicals that can increase cancer risk. The oil will start smoking and, when eaten, taste burnt.

The Internet can tell you exact smoke points for any oil. You might want to check if you’re about to embark on a major cooking project so that you don’t ruin your dish (though if you’re following a recipe, there shouldn’t be an issue).

As for the most common oils, olive oil and butter have fairly low smoke points (below 400F). Canola oil’s smoke point is much higher (around 400F), and vegetable oil’s, higher still (around 450F). For daily cooking, I think it’s enough to know that so long as you haven’t burnt your food, you haven’t reached the oil’s smoke point.

thickening gum: high in carbs, equally high in fiber

January 6th, 2015

I aspire to make and eat a THICK CURRY, but I don’t want my blood sugar to rise. That means the curry must be low-carb, which means I must use an alternative to flour as a thickening agent. Some googling guided me to guar gum and xanthan gum (which, until today, I thought was “xantham gum”).

Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide (which is a single carbohydrate molecule comprised of multiple sugar molecules bound together) secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. Guar gum is also a polysaccharide, but unlike xanthan gum, it is not secreted by a bacterium. Rather, it is the ground endosperm of the guar bean, a legume.

I’ve seen these ingredients listed on the labels of processed foods, but it never occurred to me that I could use them in my kitchen. It turns out that xanthan gum and guar gum are both available in many stores!

I was alarmed to find that in 100 grams of each, guar gum contains 86 grams of carbohydrates, and xanthan gum 67 grams. This seemed like an awful lot. I go some weeks without eating 67 grams of carbohydrates. One hundred grams of potato contains only 21 grams of carbohydrates; pasta is just a bit more, but nowhere close to the gums.

Granted, one would never consume 100 grams of either gum at once. But I often look at the 100-gram carbohydrate count of foods, even if that’s not how much of the food I would eat. By comparing similar amounts of foods, I can gauge what I think of as their “carbohydrate concentration,” or carbs per gram. And I’ve rarely seen numbers above 60 outside of sweetened baked goods, so this was a red flag.

With such high carbohydrate counts in relatively small amounts, how could these gums not raise my blood sugar?

Since the carbohydrates in xanthan and guar gum are entirely in the form of fiber, they in fact do not affect blood sugar. Fiber is unlike any other form of carbohydrate in this regard. It can even slow the absorption of what sugar you do consume.

This is in line with the concept of “net carbohydrates.” When counting net carbohydrates, subtract grams of fiber from grams of total carbohydrates. This can get messy and confusing with foods that contain carbohydrates and some fiber, such as whole grain bread. But in this case, it is pretty clear. Net carbohydrates equals zero.

I will test these recipes, test my blood sugar, and hopefully cook up some thick, low-carb curry.

Candy that’s chock full of vitamins!

October 7th, 2014

Are gummy vitamins good for you?

First, let us ask: Has it really come to this? Is nothing sacred? Must we ruin gummy vitamins?


We must not, I posit. When initially asked about the choice between gummy multivitamins and horse-sized pills, I yipped gleefully, “To Candyland!”

I then settled down and turned to the Internet, where I found a positively lukewarm review of gummy multivitamins on the Livestrong website. The main beef? Gummies are sugary, and they contain food coloring, preservatives, and other ingredients that aren’t “natural.”

Most nutritionists and dietitians agrees that it’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from real food, but as Harvard’s Nutrition Source explains, a daily multivitamin is a good “insurance policy.” Just like with your health insurance provider, if there’s a week – or a month, or a long while – when you don’t get enough of a vitamin or mineral, your daily multivitamin will be there, responding promptly and happily to your insurance claims.

In particular, we near the earth’s poles need to consume enough Vitamin D in our diet, because we definitely won’t get it from the sun. Vitamin D is essential to the body’s absorption of calcium, and we need calcium for strong bones. (Really, Vitamin D is essential. Literally, essential. It doesn’t matter how much calcium you eat or swallow or inject – your bones won’t be strong unless you’ve got a steady source of Vitamin D alongside.) So, a daily multivitamin.

Livestrong had some ideas for what to do if you are going to eat gummies and not horse pills. Eating regular food at the same time as your gummies will increase saliva production, which will reduce risk of tooth decay. I add that brushing your teeth after eating sugary, sticky foods (and all foods, really) will help reduce tooth decay.

Gummy vitamins are not worse for you than candy. If you’d like to eat candy every day, why not make it a multivitamin! If you’re not ready to commit to eating vitamin-infused candy on the daily, consider horse pills.

Either way, it’s important to get enough Vitamin D.

How will the meds get people to vaccinate?

September 24th, 2014

I recently attended a panel at Harvard School of Public Health on vaccines. Several panelists discussed how vaccines have transformed the public health landscape over the last century, some reasons why people today are opting out of vaccinating their children, and how challenging it is for doctors and medical professionals to handle such cases ethically and responsibly.

One perspective presented was that people of a younger generation don’t know or remember what it was like when infectious diseases damaged and took so many lives. The dangers of not vaccinating are less real, intuitive, and obvious.

One idea that was not presented (in spite of my dutifully raised hand) was that of launching a public relations campaign similar to those that promote quitting smoking, wearing seat belts, driving sober, or eating well. The medical community would need to partner with a PR firm to do this effectively. (Exactly who or what institution in the medical community would spearhead such a partnership is another question. Perhaps the lack, to my knowledge, of a dedicated, focused, well-defined “pro-vaccine” lobby compounds the challenge at hand.) The point would be to raise attention to the benefits of vaccination, given that their impact feels neutral, at best, at a time when infectious diseases don’t much bother us, at least here in the United States.

The panelist (a pediatrician) with whom I spoke after the presentation commented that though most medical schools don’t offer courses in communications, he feels that they should, and that some med schools now require courses in psychology. This makes sense, especially since routine medical visits are constrained to as little as 15 minutes these days. (I didn’t realize this was a new thing – according to this pediatrician, there used to be more time.) Such precious little time needs to be used effectively.

This issue doesn’t pertain directly to food or a new food culture, but the intersection of access to information, communication between medical professionals and the populous, the role of the media, and health outcomes is analogous.


The history of lettuce and the healthiest greens

July 23rd, 2014

Listen to the audio version!

It has been difficult for me to hear lettuce disparaged as a lesser green. Could it be true that this staple of my diet is kind of pointless? And if so, however did lettuce-based green salads become so prevalent in the first place?

photo (4)

A little context and further disclosure of my bias. At family dinners throughout my childhood, a voluminous green salad was central as the table itself. To help get dinner ready, I didn’t ask if we were having salad tonight. I just knew to rummage for lettuce and start chopping.

I came to understand that lettuce was synonymous with health – unambiguously healthy.

Is it all a lie? I think my doubts have less to do with an expanding worldview than the recent cultural apotheosis of kale, collard greens, and other such crucifers. “Salad” no longer means “lettuce,” as it did in the 1990s and beyond. In my parents’ backyard garden, kale and collard greens now tower above the lowly poofs of lettuce. Things aren’t as they used to be.

In the beginning, lettuce was a weed that ancient Egyptians cultivated to be edible – its seeds and leaves. The native range of lettuce was Old World, from the Mediterranean to Siberia.  Lettuce helped the Egyptian god Min “perform the sexual act untiringly,” while the Greeks considered lettuce a symbol of male impotence.

The Roman emperor Domitian (C.E. 81–96) commenced meals by serving young leaves with oil and vinegar. Starting to sound familiar.

Lettuce historians have written much about the intervening years, which I will skip. Green salads persisted. But: there is a crucial fact! It wasn’t all about lettuce until recently. Kale (yes, kale) was a popular crop in ancient Greece and Rome and across Europe from the days of the first salads. Collard greens share a similar heritage with an even wider historical footprint, extending to India and East Africa.

In the 20th century, the variety of greens in our salads, lettuce and otherwise, diminished with the advent of large-scale food production and transport. Crisp and sturdy iceberg lettuce came to dominate because it shipped well.

By the 1970s, the advent of more efficient refrigeration and shipping allowed for greater variety in large-scale agriculture. Americans took an interest in mesclun salad or “spring mix,” originating in France, and other greens have been rediscovered over the last few decades. I trust you’ve heard of kale.

So, with such variety, is lettuce a worthy choice? It’s true that kale and collard greens are relatively dense in micronutrients, especially vitamins K and C. However, because these greens are so fibrous, you might not eat as much of them in one sitting as you would delicate lettuce. Your physical capacity (and desire) to eat particular foods should be kept in mind when comparing nutritional value by weight. Moreover, you only need so much vitamin K.

By eating dark green leafy vegetables of all kinds, you can obtain needed vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids and reduce your risk of cancer. These vegetables include:

  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Kale
  • Collard greens
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Chicory
  • Swiss Chard

Notice the presence of lettuce on this list in addition to various trendier greens (and others lesser known). Iceberg lettuce, on the other hand, consists of mostly water and few nutrients.

No longer will I question the nutritional quality of my childhood fare. Instead of fretting over which dark leafy green vegetables are best, I plan to eat them all, admiring their various qualities. I will proudly continue the ancient tradition of eating a salad with my meal.

The devil is in the details.

June 13th, 2014

A disclaimer, because there have been questions. I’m not suggesting we eat only two or three foods! Not at all. Rather, this post imagines a three-food world to simplify the problem. Next, I plan to develop an algorithm that runs similar, but more complicated, calculations. Then, we can start to apply this logic to actual diets.

Calories per dollar is all good and well, but to eat well for the least money, there’s more to it.

A 16-ounce jar of natural peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts) at Wegmans is $2.99. That’s 936 calories per dollar. If your ideal caloric intake were 2,000 calories and you ate only peanut butter, your weekly grocery bill would average out to $14.98. For $781, you could feed yourself for a year.

Kale. It’s a different story. Assuming this bunch is about a pound, which lines up with the price and price per weight at my local Stop & Shop, you’ll buy 114 calories per dollar of kale. That weekly grocery bill is now $123.

Now, you can’t eat only kale and you can’t eat only peanut butter. No single food supplies the proper balance of nutrients. You might get the right amount of one thing, but you’d get too much and not enough of other things. To be healthy, a human must eat various foods.

For simplicity, we’ll pretend that you only need three things for a healthy diet: enough calories (let’s say 2,000), 75 grams of protein, and enough vitamin A (5,000 IU). Nothing else matters.

Kale and peanut butter both contain protein — in fact, nearly the same amount per calorie. A diet of only kale includes 120 grams of protein per 2,000 calories, and peanut butter, 90. So if you’re eating only kale and peanut butter, you’re going to consume between 90 and 120 grams of protein per 2,000 calories. That is fixed.

In this example, vitamin A is the critical variable. Kale contains a large amount of vitamin A, and peanut butter, none at all.

One serving of kale (1 1/2 cups, chopped) contains 310% of the recommended daily value of vitamin A. That’s a lot, but it’s OK to get “too much” vitamin A on one day. So let’s say you’ll eat that amount of kale. It will cost $0.44.

Because peanut butter is so much cheaper per calorie, the rest of your calories, 1,950 of them, should come from peanut butter.

At the end of the day, you’ll have spent $2.52, consumed 91 grams of protein (just a bit more than your goal), and 15,500 IU of vitamin A (310% of your goal).

What if you want to save the most money possible? Easy. Eat less kale, so that you’ll hit the daily intake of vitamin A on the dot. A half cup (chopped), to be precise. It costs $0.14. Eat just a bit more peanut butter, your protein remains basically the same, and your bill drops to $2.26.

You can see that in a world of kale and peanut butter, with only three important dietary elements (calories, protein, and vitamin A), this is how you might identify the optimal breakdown. If you are OK with spending a bit more money, you might eat more kale — a full serving, even. But maximizing your peanut butter intake is most cost-effective. You would eat the minimum amount of kale so as to consume enough vitamin A.

Now, let’s introduce a third food: canned tuna. Per calorie, tuna contains around four times as much protein as peanut butter and kale, so things could get interesting.

We’ll also introduce a fourth nutritional consideration: fat. For whatever reason, you’d like to limit your fat intake to 100 grams per day. Peanut butter is full of fat, and tuna costs more per calorie than peanut butter. At 117 calories per dollar, canned tuna is only slightly more expensive than kale per calorie.

Since canned tuna and kale both contain little to no fat, peanut butter is the main issue. Let’s aim to minimize cost. Recall that earlier, we designed a “diet” at $2.26 per day, where 1,984 of the 2,000 calories came from peanut butter. That included around 160 grams of fat.

Cut fat to 100 grams. Suddenly (and keeping your 16 calories of kale in mind), there’s a 734-calorie deficit. Enter tuna!

The bad news is that your cost will skyrocket. A day’s diet is now $7.72, $6.25 of which comes from canned tuna. On the other hand, this is starting to look somewhat more like a real diet. Your fat intake is 100 grams on the dot.

The other bad news is that your protein intake has risen above 200 grams, well above your goal of 75.

What you could do, then, is split the difference between your fat and protein goals — and save money. We’ll lower your protein intake and raise your fat intake, which amounts to more peanut butter and less tuna, calories held constant. Recall that peanut butter is much less expensive per calorie.

By relaxing your hard cap on fat and shifting the balance from tuna to peanut butter, you can reach a comfortable medium of 140 grams of fat and 135 grams of protein. Both exceed your goals, but neither has reached an extreme value. Calories remain at 2,000, kale is constant (maintaining your vitamin A levels), and cost has dropped to $4.00 on the nose.

The day’s food:

  • 18 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • Just under 1/2 cup of tuna (drained)
  • 1/2 cup of kale (chopped)

2,000 calories, $4.00, 100% of your required vitamin A, and somewhat more protein and fat than you planned for. See where I’m going with this?

“Eat real food.” Michael Pollan’s simple, concise guidelines have real value. We are too busy and tired to dig into the data, memorize complicated guidelines, and spend time and money on resources to help us eat well.

But wait. It’s easy to let “eat real food” cost more. Often, it’s unavoidable. Not everyone is able to simply “eat real food” and absorb the cost.devil

That is why we must look at the details. As much as details confuse and overwhelm us and play into the hands of the diet industry, they are critical to reducing cost while eating a healthy diet, which is the path to food justice. The devil is in the details, and there is not a shortcut.

In a perfect world, healthy food would not cost more than unhealthy food. But since it does (according to the Harvard School of Public Health), it is even more important for consumers to understand how to navigate their food environments without spending as much money.

What to do, then? Is there an app for that?

We’re working on it.

The fickleness of taste and the hip

May 28th, 2014

“Food rejection was part of the assimilation process,” said Devra Ferst, editor of the food blog The Jew & The Carrot.

There is now a movement to relish in mocked, maligned, ridiculed, shunned Jewish food, long considered at once bland, rank, and unhealthy.

I’m amazed as always at the fickleness of tastes and how swiftly they change. A pendulum swings interminably between romantic nostalgia and unhesitating disavowal. Do you wonder whether you might enjoy tomorrow what’s gross and embarrassing today?

Did you know that lobster (which isn’t kosher, incidentally) was considered inedible until the 19th century and revolting food for the poor until the 20th?

For the time being, why not revel in the fad and convenience. But whether Jewish food is considered artisanal and hip for a few months or a few decades, we may continue to eat it.

Buying (and eating) kale stems saves money

May 22nd, 2014

Listen to the audio version!

In my last post, I wrote about how collard greens and kale sell for triple the price when chopped and bagged. In response, a thoughtful reader asked, what about the inedible stems? Is bunched whole kale still a better deal if you only count leafy weight?

If you plan to toss the stems, the price for bagged, “ready to eat” kale is not tripled. But buying the whole bunch still saves money, reducing the price by more than half.

To determine this, I removed the leaves from the stems of a bunch of kale and weighed each part. In 572 grams of bunched, whole kale (just over 20 ounces or 1.25 pounds), the leaves weighed 420 grams and the stems, 152 grams.kalestems

(When I divided the stems from the leaves, I only removed the stems that were thicker than a pencil. To remove the stems altogether would yield leaves luxurious and tender, but my method approximates what you would find in a “ready to cook” bag of kale from the grocery store. Based on this, when I refer to “leaves,” I really mean “leaves plus thin stems.”)

So when you buy a bunch of whole kale, just under 75% of that is leaves.

Recall that one pound of bunched whole kale is $0.99 at Stop & Shop, while one pound of bagged, “ready to eat” kale is $2.99.

If you plan not to eat the stems, you’ll eat 0.73 pounds of kale for every one-pound bunch you buy. So to obtain one pound of kale leaves, you would have to buy 1.37 pounds of bunched whole kale. At $0.99 per pound, that costs you about $1.36.

For $1.36, you can buy the same amount of kale leaves – one pound – for well under half what you’ll pay – $2.99 – for “ready to eat” kale that comes chopped and in a bag.

Of course, this is all assuming that you won’t eat the kale stems. But you can eat them! They are completely edible, and while not as dense in nutrients and antioxidants as the leaves, they are quite nutritious.

Even though the stems are considered by many to be undesirable or inedible, they are indeed food – fresh vegetables, no less – with nutritional value.

If you wish to eat the stems, I recommend dicing them into short cylindrical sections (against the grain) and sautéing. Alternatively, I sometimes take the whole stalk and dip it into something like cream cheese. food52 has assembled a few other ideas for preparing and eating the stems.

A bag of “ready to eat” kale costs more than twice as much as the whole bunch if you remove the stems. A bag of “ready to eat” kale costs three times as the whole bunch if you eat the stems. In both cases, buying the whole vegetables saves money and makes healthy eating more affordable.

Triple the price for “ready to cook” greens

May 21st, 2014

At Stop & Shop today, I found a bag of collard greens for $2.99/lb. Not bad, I thought. Collard greens, like kale, are rich in nutrients and fiber, and per pound, they are way less expensive than other greens like spinach and lettuce.


So that was that, until I turned around, and across the wide fresh produce aisle, through the gentle mist, I saw … kale. Collards. Bunches upon bunches! I paced toward them.


I won’t bore you with math. One-third the price for collards out of the bag. The only difference is that the bagged ones are “ready to cook.” They are washed and chopped into pieces.

I bought a bunch of each collards and kale. See the quarter for scale. Instead of paying three bucks for one pound of greens, I paid two bucks for two pounds.


These vegetable market forces could triple your spending on greens, which should matter to anyone trying to eat healthy on a budget.