Taking the mystery out of food labels
Date: Jun 21st, 2006 11:06:04 am - Subscribe

I love nutrition labels, I read them all the time and you should too. Better yet, read them and learn to understand how they can work for you and make what you put into your mouth a healthier thing. They are not full of terms that need a Ph.D in science to figure out, in fact they are quite easy. But they won't help if you never look at them.

Each label starts out with serving sizes, calories per serving and servings per container. People can get tripped up if they don't read these carefully. For example, a pint of ice cream says it contains 180 calories and 24 grams of fat, but what you don't read carefully enough is that the pint also has four 1/2 cup servings. So if you eat the whole thing, those 180 calories are quadrupled, as is the fat amount. Suddenly you've downed 720 calories and 96 grams of fat, most of which is saturated fat- the kind that your heart doesn't really need. In that label, each serving has those calorie and fat amounts, it's not the whole container. We're all guilty of this, so let's get over it and move on. Another really important number is the sodium content. Excessive sodium in the diet causes a multitude of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and circulation problems. Most, if not all packaged foods have high sodium levels simply because sodium is used as a preservative. That boxed rice mix can sit on your shelf for two years and not lose any flavor quality because it's riddled with sodium to keep it that way. Yikes! Who needs this!?? Pay attention to those sodium numbers, most Americans salt their food a lot, and if you are eating something with an already astronomically high sodium content and then adding salt, well.....it's not rocket science, like I said earlier. Dinner meals in a bag in the freezer sure seem like a nice convenience, but think about your poor heart. Take pity! Pay attention to the sugar number too. Any product carrying a sugar content over beyond 15 grams should be avoided. Most breakfast cereals have super high sugar levels. We give them to our kids and wonder why they can't concentrate. Sugar raises the blood glucose levels, flooding your body with insulin which provides a temporary energy rush. But just as quickly, the insulin amount disappears and you crash from the sugar high and feel like crap. Carbohydrates do the same thing. Sugar is not a bad thing, but most people eat way too much of it, mostly because they don't realize how insidious sugar is in their foods. It takes on many, many different faces: corn syrup, glucose, fructose, lactose and a host of other names that hide it's true identity. Carbs are one culprit of being over-consumed, but our body also needs them for energy. Most people, however, eat way too much of the wrong kind. There are complex carbs and simple carbs. Simple carbs come from things like white bread, bagels, some crackers, biscuits, cakes and candy, but there are also natural sources of these carbs that are good for you- mostly coming from fruits. These break down quickly giving you that sugar/energy rush that doesn't last very long. Complex carbs break down slower over time, giving you a more steady energy feed. More of these and less of the simple are a better way to healthier eating: whole grain breads, oatmeal, bran, brown rice, root veggies and legumes. These are by no means exhaustive lists, there are many more as well. Cholesterol is another item you will see on a food label. Our bodies produce cholesterol naturally in our fat cells and it's used to form cell membranes and some hormones. It is carried through the blood by lipoproteins, most commonly as high-density (HDL) and low-density (LDL). Quick quiz: Which one is the 'good' one??? It's the HDL, which some docs think helps remove cholesterol from the blood before it can build up as plaque in your arteries. Since our bodies are very efficient in making this, it would be safe to assume that we don't need too much added to our diet. The truth is, we don't need to eat it at all. Foods from animal sources contain it, foods from plants don't. Foods high in saturated and trans fats will increase your cholesterol level which, as we all know, can lead to many life threatening health problems. These are what I consider to be the items on a nutrition label that should get the most attention. Fiber is really important too, it's like Drano for your body in it's ability to 'clean you out'. We'll talk about knowing the hidden dangers in the food ingredients too on another post
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Breakfast Talk
Date: Jun 21st, 2006 11:05:12 am - Subscribe

Breakfast. Just the name conjures up many images, scents, tastes and items. What does it make YOU think about?? And I don't mean what you normally eat for breakfast, but what does the word actually make you think of as breakfast itself?

Yesterday I had breakfast out with my sister and G-man (the nickname for my son Griffin since he was crawling around on the floor at my feet) When we go out for breakfast, I want to eat BREAKFAST! And to me, that means eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, toast (either traditional or French) pancakes, hot coffee and cold juice. Although, I have to clarify.....not all that in one sitting! At home when I eat breakfast, it's likely a bowl of cereal with some fruit in it, maybe an over-hard fried egg with toast, peanut butter toast with coffee, maybe some yogurt with fruit, or a smoothie made out of yogurt, fruits and protein powder. And again, I clarify.....not all this in one sitting! Lord knows I love to eat, but there are limits. Breakfast should be a substantial meal, after all you haven't put a thing in your tum-tum since dinner or your bedtime snack the night before. It should be filling and sturdy enough to get you through your morning, with a clear head and lots of energy. I'm all for breakfast reform for everyone, and don't tell me that you don't eat breakfast or you might have to hold my soapbox so I can climb up to tell you how I feel about that. I tell G-man that I am not opposed to him eating whatever strikes his fancy for his morning meal, but he does not have the option of NOT eating. So he will eat soup, leftover mac-n-cheese, a cheese quesadilla, a ham and cheese sandwich (sometimes we refer to him as Griffin McCheese due to his love of the stuff) or whatever might be in the fridge. He will once in a while eat cereal, although his tastes tend more towards the sugar stuff that is outlawed in my house, he will eat oatmeal or Bear Mush (a hot cereal similar to Malt-O-Meal) if it's made for him, and he loves scrambled eggs (with CHEESE!!!) on toast. But what he cannot do is skip the meal. The main reason is that he becomes irritatingly disobedient and defiant without proper nutrition, and the other reason is that it just doesn't make any sense. Eating good food=good productive output= happy parents and teachers. The equation is clear and everyone is happy. Yes, breakfast as a whole can mean certain items, even rituals and rules, but eating well in the morning without a fight is often the goal in our house. And as every parent knows, you need to pick your battles. Happily, he will eat if given the option of making his own choice. That for me, is a handily won battle.
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Road food and mile high pie
Date: Jun 15th, 2006 8:25:10 am - Subscribe

Road trips have their own unique food experiences. They can be either incredible or profoundly bad but the one thing you can rely on is that they will give you a glimpse of local life no matter where you are.

Recently I have been taking road trips East from MN to WI, to visit a relative hospitalized there. The first trip, on the tail of the frantic phone call that gave me the heads up on the issue, I drove East without looking at much around me, just lost in thought about God's great plan and how we all fit into it and bent and determined to arrive in one piece after sharing the road with multiple 18-wheelers as bent and determined as myself. On that trip home, at dusk, with the intensity of the previous days issues having been toned down, all I wanted to do was get home and despite the beautiful sunset, I noticed little else.

This last time I was in the backseat, the driving being done by my more than capable husband, and the urgency being much less than the previous week. I could focus out the window and watch what went by. Of course, driving in WI means that you are in farmland and cheese country. Signs for cheese are everywhere. And at each little town we passed I wondered about the local food joints and what tasty nuggets of local fare they may be offering. When the afternoons visit came to a close, and an evening meal was necessary, we went to a place called the Norske Nook, in lovely downtown Osseo, WI. A famous place, no doubt, as the signs along the Interstate might testify. Their specialty is sweets, pies of all kinds, sweet rolls big enough to feed a large family and a menu full of comfort foods and lefse wraps. The owners fav was a Cod wrap, which my stepmother ordered and claimed tasted like lutefisk might. None of us accepted the proferred tastings. The food was good, comfort food at it's finest, certainly not bad but definitely not something I would want to eat regularly. Of course, the french fries with my French dip were out of this world as a gastronomical treat, deftly seasoned, crunchy out and mealy in but also straight out of the fat fryer and onto my plate. Even dragging them through a bowl of homemade beef gravy didn't remove the image of them being plastered right into my arteries. But in my mind, eating something like this once in a while is all right, making a habit out of it is not. This is where it's hard to draw the line through what can be thought of as a 'bad food' and what can be called 'bad for you food'. While a roast beef sandwich and fries is not 'bad' it is not healthy to eat all the time. And being in Smalltown America means having to mostly forego finding a good restaurant with healthy offerings. Then it came time for pie, and hoooo boy.....the two pieces brought to the table for sharing couldn't have been more polar opposites. The Cherry Crunch was a sweet/sour delight with a very flavorful crumb topping and a crust that crumbled perfectly in your mouth, a manageable piece for anyone. The French Silk made us all burst out laughing at it's absurdity. This pie slice had to have been at least six inches high, and then came the whipped cream. My son, the Sweet Freak, took one look at it and partially lapsed into a sugar coma just at the sight. The rest of us nearly broke open at the seams from the hearty guffaws. My dear husband, ever the practical type, said "No thanks" to either piece. I had a bite of the mile-high pie and thought I might lose a few molars from the unbelievably sweet taste. The rest of them, bless their hearts, took to the pies like lost sheep at the feed trough. My poor son was not allowed to eat to his hearts content since he has not yet figured out the key to moderation, but even carving off a substantial slice of the chocolate pie did nothing to eliminate it's bulk. I couldn't imagine one person ever being able to consume such a ridiculously gargantuan thing unless it was the only thing eaten at the meal. But I suppose that many do, based on the popularity of the place.

Wow, after all that, today I just feel like eating some grains, lots of veggies and a whole lot of water. Probably that's a really good idea. At least we didn't stop at the Cheese Haus or I may have some lovelies beckoning me from the fridge. *sigh* Oh to be at the age where what you eat matters more than how it tastes!!
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Musings on the almighty Blueberry
Date: Jun 15th, 2006 8:22:40 am - Subscribe

Growing up, blueberries were something that came frozen in a bag for most of the year. Once in a a while, my mom would get a pint of two from the store in the summertime if the price was good. We would each get a small amount, maybe in our cereal or in a bowl with a splash of cream. But it was over as soon as it appeared, and then we were back to the frozen in the bag, tossed into pancake batter or scooped in a muffin. Fortunately, my experience with them has come to maturity, and what rests in my freezer now are bags of freshly picked berries from my annual berry-pickin' trip.

For anyone reading this who happens to be blessed with living in my fair state, even close to the livable Twin Cities, I sadly pass on that I will not divulge my favorite and most bountiful berry patch, as I know it is already close to fanatical status with many, many berry lovers and I won't allow it to be overrun with just anyone. But come late July, the most anticipated piece of mail for the entire year arrives announcing the THE BERRIES ARE RIPE!!! All else falls away, the cats are ignored and supper goes unmade until I have my day in the sun with my berries. The drive alone is amazingly beautiful, curving through farmland and along the river through breathtaking vistas of high hills, mature trees and soaring eagles. I climb the steep road to the berry farm with it's 7-mile views, grab my basket and head out to the vines. The fruit beckons, glowing an ethereal snowy blue, in clumps of thumbnail sized clusters that weigh the vines to the ground. Two hands are cupped around the berries, and my fingers deftly pull the fruit free. Handfuls are gently laid in the bucket, over and over again I work, seeking the biggest berries and the heaviest vines. The basket fills, the sun beats down and the sweat trickles down my back. I am impervious to anything but filling my basket. Soon enough, I sit back on my heels and take note of what is going on around me. There is a Chipping Sparrow in the vine next to me making quite a ruckus. As I approach, it flies off and I spot the source of it's agitation....a small nest with 5 tiny eggs. She stays near, watching me and squeaking endlessly. She has no idea that I only want the fruit, not her babies. There are voices coming from other pickers, drifting over the gentle breeze that cools us and rustles the trees. My basket is half full, big fruit and small fruit, ripe with the snowy pallor indicative of their maturity. I gather a handful and press them into my mouth, biting down gently. The juice bursts forth, filling me with an alternating sweet, then sour, then sweet again flavor. It's like dam breaking free in my mouth, the soft interior of the berry teasing my tongue with it's pillowy texture. I am borne away, no longer sitting in the berry patch, sweaty and targeted by an agitated mama bird, but to the place where only a mouthful of manna can take me. For the brief moments that I am aware, where I am holding a mouthful of delectable blueberries, nothing else around me exists, my eyes are closed, my senses focused on the waves of pleasure swallowing me, as I swallow the fruit. I could eat the whole basket. But slowly regaining my sense of reality, I stand up and begin again to search out the biggest fruits, the heaviest vines and the bounty available to fill the blueberry desire in me. I must have enough to get me through the year until that coveted postcard arrives next summer. Ignoring Mama sparrow, and the increased intensity of the sun, I forage on. More fruit awaits, more pleasures to know, maybe another basket to fill. This is the one day of each summer where it's all about me, the blueberries and the sunshine.
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Food in the summertime
Date: Jun 14th, 2006 8:37:45 am - Subscribe

I don't know about you, but summer means more wonderful food. I live in the upper midwest, known for long cold winters and short mercilessly hot summers. For the most part, this is accurate, and yes, we survive quite well in this climate with temps that can flucuate from -30 below zero to nearly 100 degrees over the course of the year. But for us, summer means the bounty of the land becomes more readily available. Tiny gardens sprout tomato plants, peppers, basil, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, and if you're lucky and have the space, melons, pumpkins or squash.

In MN, in the summertime, it's about the tomato. I live all year in anticipation of the first crimson globe to be plucked from my tiny garden and taken indoors to it's timely demise. There is nothing in this world like a fresh tomato right off the vine, bursting forth with the taste of the sun, the warmth of an August day and a flavor unlike anything in the world. At certain moments, there is nothing that can compare, and when the short-lived tomato season is over and the last of the lonely reds are consumed, a sort of ennui comes over me, somewhat akin to sorrow that it will be another year before it's joys grace my palate again. I hover over the tomato section in the grocery store, wondering "Do I dare?" and when the desperate urge for a tomato becomes too much, and I give in to the bright red and beckoning store-bought orbs, the first bite often heaves my anticipation right off the edge of Mt. Everest. Yikes.....why do I STILL think it would taste the same!!! Despite year after year of this, I still think, somewhere, somehow, that store-bought tomato will give me the same burst of ecstacy in my mouth as my garden beauts. Wrong! Again.

Summer also means melons, juicy, sweet and deliciously soft and silky. I have never grown melons, but thankfully I worked for a produce company for nearly two years, and I know where the best melons come from and when you should be consuming them until you drop from sheer bliss. The secret?? Westside fruit from CA, it should say so right on the box in the grocers, and if the box isn't available, ask! Westside melons are to die for, everything a melon should be and generally come available around the end of June. The Cantaloupes are a gorgeous hue of orange, the flavors as sweet and as tantalizing as your wildest dreams can conjure. Watermelons are a dark ruby red, loaded with juice, just screaming for you to grab a hunk and go sit outside in what I laughingly call the 'melon stance' . And yes, we all know what that is.....you sit with the chunk of melon in your hands, knees apart and bent over so that all the juice that gets away won't run down your legs. Unless you're six, then you don't care. There's the sluuuuurrrrpppp of your first bite.......the swish of pushing that big hunk back into your mouth, and the attempt to keep the lips closed over the amazing amount of liquid spurting forth from that one bite. Eyes are half closed as if a shot of some natural painkiller has just hit your brain. The swallow, and then the mouth attacks.....over and over until all that remains in your slippery fingers is a much gnawed rind. Juices gather at the corners of your mouth, and your tongue is calling for more.....more.....more. Fruit heroin, nature's dope. One of God's greatest gifts. Never does anything taste more like summer than a big chunk of melon in July. Not even the bees hovering around the sweet, noxious aroma can spoil the mood. Just give 'em their own rind to get drunk on and go for another piece cool.gif
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