Garden, Plant, Cook!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nutrient Density--A Simple Way To Compare Foods

Dear Folks,

Do you know what nutrient density is? Do your eyes glaze over when trying to figure it out? I have a simple formula for you to use when shopping for prepared/manufactured foods like bread, milk, yogurt, pasta etc. This is going to be a long blog, folks, but I think you will find it worthwhile.

Personally, I wanted to lose some weight a while back and while I prepare many of our meals fresh and from scratch, and I have made my own pasta, I wanted to figure out a quick-shopping way to assess the nutrient density of processed and manufactured foods.

Two ‘events' got me comparing labels even more than I had before (I was always a label reader for specific elements or chemicals I wanted to watch for).

One was the big low-carb craze and the second was the introduction of Barilla pasta's "Plus" brand — a pasta made with a combination of flours creating a much higher than average protein and fiber density.

Out of an abundance of curiosity when the grocery stores started displaying a low-carb area some time back, I spent about 25 minutes comparing several food items (like crackers) in both the ‘normal' aisle and the low-carb display — I found, not completely to-my-surprise, that the difference between two cracker types (usually manufactured by the same company --one labeled low-carb, and the other their standard brand), was insignificant, a couple of grams of carbs difference, and a calorie difference of maybe 20 per serving.

So much for making a food better, huh? The manufacturers respond to consumer requests by giving them exactly what they ask for — so you need to be specific if you are asking a corporation for something.

The Barilla Plus pasta product turned out to be better than a great deal. I had tried whole wheat pastas and was not delighted with their flavor (the pasta I make from scratch is egg rich and great tasting-but takes a while). My cousin suggested I try this new pasta and I was really pleased with the flavor and even more with the nutrient density. By combining grain and legume flours Barilla created a version of vegetarian-food-combining criteria to make a more complete protein base for this pasta. The result is a very high nutrient density, even when served with no meat or extra cheese (although pasta just screams for more cheese on the sauce).

So here is My Personal Nutrient Density Formula, followed by some foods for illustration (and a really tasty recipe):

Take the total grams of protein and fiber (not just soluble) and add them together and divide them into the total number of calories and you get a ‘factor' - that factor should be 20 or less for best to greater nutrient density — the lower the factor, the greater the nutrient density.

Example Kashi Golean Crunch cereal has 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber which equals 17. The calories per serving is 190 — dividing the 17 into 190 equals 11 -- a superior nutrient density.

So why don't I take into consideration the vitamins and minerals? Because I figured if the nutrient density — resulting from protein and fiber -- is superior the vitamins and minerals are present in good to great levels ‘naturally' and if you add enough fresh fruits and vegetables to your meals, you are getting what you need. Also grain and vegetable sources of protein are not complete unless combined (legume and grain) except for soy beans and quinoa which are complete proteins by themselves. Having milk with your cereal in the morning makes all the combined protein useable by the body.

A point about nutrient density of grains - check out rice and corn (corn flakes), two of our most popular grains. Wheat is more nutrient dense overall as long as it is wholewheat or a combination of grains to manufacture the cereal or bread. A corn tortilla by comparison is less nutrient dense than the flour tortilla (check those out at the grocery store for yourself). Oatmeal is on a par with whole wheat. The item you need to watch when choosing whole grain breads, for example, is the addition of any sweeteners to enhance the flavor — a store generic version of 12 grain bread was far less nutrient dense because of the addition of a lot of extra sweetener.

Labels show both gram weight and pound weight for serving sizes usually around 2 ounces or 56 grams, for non-meat foods.

Why take the manufacturers serving sizes? Because by and large they are an okay serving suggestion - much better than the average consumer's dinner plate size idea of a meal component, because you are supposed to eat a variety of foods at a meal to have a balanced intake of healthful foods for optimal health.

So here are some examples of foods we eat on a fairly regular basis with highest nutrient density to lowest. Try the formula yourself . Good fats such as nuts and olive oil are going to have a higher factor, but need to be in the diet to make most of the nutrients you consume actually usable by the body.

About treats and desserts — well most of the time they are going to be way over the formula scale, but try to keep it at something less than a factor of 40 or not eaten too often).

Chunk Light Tuna
in Water Protein 13 Fiber 0 = 13 Calories 60 = Factor 5
Canned Pumpkin Protein 2 Fiber 5 = 7 Calories 40 = Factor 6
Green Soybeans-Frozen
(Edamame) Protein 10 Fiber 4 = 14 Calories 120 = Factor 9
Garbonzo Beans
(canned) Protein 7 Fiber 6 = 13 Calories 110 = Factor 9
Shamrock Cottage
Cheese (regular) Protein 13 Fiber 0 = 13 Calories 110 = Factor 9
Canned Chicken Broth Protein 1 Fiber 0 = 1 Calories 10 = Factor 10
Kashi Golean
Crunch Cereal Protein 9 Fiber 8 = Calories 190 = Factor 11
Shredded Wheat Protein 5 Fiber 6 = 11 Calories 160 = Factor 15
Barilla Plus Pasta Protein 10 Fiber 4 = 14 Calories 210 = Factor 15
Cheerios Protein 3 Fiber 3 = 6 Calories 100 = Factor 17
Roast Beef Hash Protein 21 Fiber 2 = 23 Calories 390 = Factor 17
Old Fashioned Oats Protein 5 Fiber 4 = 9 Calories 150 = Factor 17
Mountain High
Original Yogurt-Plain Protein 11 Fiber 0 = 11 Calories 180 = Factor 17
12 Grain Bread Protein 4 Fiber 2 = 6 Calories 100 = Factor 17
Whole Milk Protein 8 Fiber 0 = 8 Calories 150 = Factor 19
Triscuit Crackers
Fire Roasted
Tomato and Olive Oil Protein 3 Fiber 3 = 6 Calories 120 = Factor 20
Pitted Dried Prunes Protein 1 Fiber 3 = 4 Calories 100 = Factor 25
Walnuts Protein 5 Fiber 2 = 7 Calories 200 = Factor 29
Corn Flakes Protein 2 Fiber 1 = 3 Calories 100 = Factor 34
Brown Rice Protein 3 Fiber 1 = 4 Calories 150 = Factor 38
60% Dark Choc Chips Protein 1 Fiber 1 = 2 Calories 80 = Factor 40
Kroger Ginger Snaps Protein 2 Fiber 1 = 3 Calories 120 = Factor 40
Saltine Crackers Protein 1 Fiber 0 = 1 Calories 60 = Factor 60

You can see that a good old tuna fish sandwich (with only enough mayo to bind) will have a very high nutrient density to calorie intake and if you add tasty options such as chopped apple and celery, some walnuts and a bit of fresh mint or basil, it becomes a whole meal good enough for any member of the family.

How about all the discussions about oatmeal? Look at the nutrient density of oats as compared to rice! Oatmeal is underutilized as a savory component of lunches and dinners. See my recipe I developed to highlight this grain for a hearty side dish.

One of the surprises when I set out to compare manufactured foods was saltines. I have always enjoyed crackers with my cheese and apple. At only 60 calories per serving saltines seemed like a light weight snack option — but there is no nutrient value comparatively speaking. While a serving of Triscuits is twice the calories per serving, the nutrient density along with the cheese and apple, affords a satisfying light lunch. (2 ounces of cheese is about 200 calories, and with an apple and crackers is both satisfying and light enough for an on-the-go-meal.)

Folks, I hope this information is helpful for you in choosing the best use of your food dollars. Nutrient dense also means best dollar value. The empty calories, as the nutrition experts like to say, is like throwing your money away.

And don't forget the economic benefits of growing some of your own edibles.

Here is a side dish for any meal -- warming and satisfying.
1 cup regular oatmeal (not instant or quick cook)
1/2 cup canned pumpkin (not the pumpkin pie spice kind, just plain)
14 oz can of chicken broth (or vegetable)
1/8 teaspoon smoked salt (or sea salt)
8 large basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
Optional: other nuts such as pecans.
Stir pumpkin into broth in sauce pan, add salt and oatmeal and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook for 5 minutes stirring regularly. Add nuts. Rinse and sliver basil leaves and fold into oatmeal just before serving. (Left Over Tip: form into patties and fry gently in a bit of olive oil, about 1 minute each side (just until warmed all the way through and slightly crusted on both sides.)
Optional: For a sweet version: Add 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, 1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries, and omit (or leave in as you prefer) basil leaves, and use only plain (non-flavored) salt.

And finally, check out the link at the top right column for a way to save money on the gardening and cook books!

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady