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    Archive for the ‘Perfect Pickings’ Category

    You Ask, I Answer/Perfect Pickings: Cereal

    I love cereal and eat it almost every morning but I often feel like the ones I eat are probably too sugary or not very substantial.

    Can you recommend a cereal or two that you consider healthy and nutritious?

    — Jenna Kozel
    Washington, DC

    Since the cereal market is so vast, I find it easier to recommend particular nutrient values and ingredients to look for in these products.

    The first thing to take note of is the serving size.

    Many brands of granola, for instance, use a quarter cup as their serving size, which is absolutely laughable.

    A lot of cereals, meanwhile, list their serving size as a half cup.

    If you have a measuring cup at home, please pour enough cereal into it to fill it to the brim. Yes, that tiny amount is what many companies use as a “serving.” Unreal!

    What I recommend you do as early as tomorrow morning is pour the amount of cereal you normally eat into a bowl.

    Then, use a measuring cup to determine the exact amount of cereal in that bowl.

    Keep that figure as a reference each time you read a cereal’s nutrition label, as it will help you make smarter choices when shopping.

    Let’s say you eat 1.5 cups of cereal every morning.

    If a cereal using half cup servings delivers 150 calories per serving, while another using 1 cup servings offers 200, you now know which is the better choice for you (in this case, the latter would add 300 calories to your day, while the first one would add up to 450.)

    You also want to pay attention to fiber content.

    I recommend anywhere from 4 to 7 grams of fiber per serving.

    Again, since the average person eats more than one serving of cereal in one sitting, I don’t think it’s necessary to track down cereals offering fiber in the double digits.

    Sugar values are also important. I consider up to 3 grams per serving to be the limit (especially since, again, most people eat two or three servings of cereal at a time).

    Be careful with cereals containing raisins or other fruit, as the naturally-occurring fruit sugars “unfairly” drive up sugar numbers.

    Twelve grams of sugar per serving from a cereal with marshmallows offers less nutrition than twelve grams of sugar from a cereal that contains raisins (which provide antioxidants and phytonutrients.)

    If you enjoy raisins in your cereal, you — and your wallet — are better off buying raisins separately and adding them yourself.

    Finally, take a look at the ingredient list. You want to this to be short and, ideally, be absent of refined grains (i.e.: enriched wheat flour.)

    When in doubt, look for the Whole Grains Council Stamp.

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    Perfect Pickings: Sliced Bread (Calling Them As I See Them!)

    Earlier today I received a comment from a reader named Mel, who shared how difficult it is to find a “truly whole-grain bread that does not have high fructose corn syrup.”

    I empathize.

    So, let’s cut down your time in the bread aisle and name names.

    The following “approved” breads have at least 3 grams of fiber, are 100% whole grain, and contain NO high fructose corn syrup.

    Please note this is by no means a definitive list, as it does not include lesser-known brands.

    A random sampling from a New York City supermarket led to these results.

    Small Bites Approved Breads:

    * All varieties of Food For Life Ezekiel 4:9 Flourless Sprouted Grain Breads
    * Arnold 100% Natural Whole Wheat Bread
    * Arnold Natural Flax/Fiber Bread
    * Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural 100% Whole Wheat Bread
    * Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural 9-Grain Bread
    * Pepperidge Farm Golden Harvest Grains
    * Sara Lee 100% Whole Wheat Bread
    * Vermont Bread Company Soft Whole Wheat Bread

    Names Can Be Deceiving…

    * Arnold 12-Grain Bread (contains High Fructose Corn syrup and white flour)
    * Arnold Double Fiber Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
    * Arnold Healthy Multigrain Bread (contains white flour)
    * Arnold Hearty Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
    * Arnold Whole Grain Health Nut (contains High Fructose corn syrup, only 2 grams of fiber per slice, and contain white flour)
    * Dutch Country Stroehmann 100% Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup and only 2 grams of fiber per slice)
    * Healthy Life Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
    * Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Soft 100% Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
    * Wonder Bread 100% Stoneground Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup and only 2 grams of fiber per slice)

    When in doubt, always read the label!

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    Perfect Pickings: Sliced Bread

    You would think something as simple as nutritious bread would be easy to pick out.

    Guess again.

    The sliced bread market brings in approximately $18 billion a year, meaning consumers must sort through a maze of brands, health claims, and expensive marketing campaigns.

    Alas, Perfect Pickings is here to save the day!

    As far as calories are concerned, commercial sliced breads range anywhere from 60 to 120 calories per serving.

    These figures mainly depend on the thickness and weight of a particular brand’s slices.

    Some clock in at 1 ounce, while another weigh in at an ounce and a half. Some lower-calorie “light breads”, though, constitute a single serving as two slices.

    Most standard commercial breads, though, are very similar when compared ounce to ounce.

    Don’t focus too much on calories — the differences aren’t that significant, and there are more important values to consider.

    Sodium amounts are also fairly consistent across the board, ranging from 120 to 190 milligrams per slice (unless you specifically buy low-sodium varieties or sprouted grain breads, which contain no sodium).

    Fiber is the main figure to be on the lookout for. Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

    Don’t be fooled by varieties consisting of 9, 12, or 15 grains. It is very possible all 15 grains are refined and stripped of their fiber.

    You must check the nutrition facts and ingredient list to ensure you are getting a whole grain product.

    If “whole wheat flour” is not the first ingredient and each slice provides less than 3 grams of fiber, you are eating white bread (you can thank the addition of molasses for that brown color) with seeds sprinkled on top.

    If you see “enriched wheat flour” as the first ingredient, you are not buying whole grain bread. “Enriched wheat flour” is a nice way of saying “white, fiberless flour.”

    Keep in mind that Although pure rye bread – popular in Scandinavia – is a whole grain food, the overwhelming majority of rye breads in the United States contain a significant amount of white flour.

    Another tricky tidbit – careful with low-calorie “light” breads.

    Many boast a fiber content of 5 or 6 grams per serving, but this is mainly due to the addition of cellulose or soy fiber.

    Although they operate like insoluble fiber (by helping everything move quickly and smoothly through the digestive system), they do not provide the same health benefits as fiber derived from whole grains.

    I recommend avoiding varieties containing high-fructose corn syrup (bread requires a pinch of sugar to soften texture, but HFCS skeeves me out).

    Mission: (Semi) Impossible!

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    Perfect Pickings: Frozen Waffles

    In a breakfast landscape full of high fiber cereals and “energy bars”, waffles are often thought as a nutritionally inferior twice removed cousin.

    Not so!

    Depending on what waffles you purchase – and what you top them off with – you could very well take care of a third of your daily fiber needs before noon.

    When purchasing waffles, there are two values you want to pay special attention to: fiber and sugar.

    Although calories can indeed vary between different products (anywhere from 130 to 240 calories per serving), it is usually what waffles are topped off with that significantly raises these figures.

    Buying frozen waffles offering 130 calories per serving but drowning them in 400 calories’ worth of syrup and whipped cream defeats the initial purpose of seeking a lower-calorie alternative.

    Anyhow, a fiberless waffle (one or two grams per serving) is not much of a power breakfast. You might as well be eating a slice of white bread with some butter on top.

    Aim for five or more grams of fiber and no more than six grams of sugar per serving (usually two waffles).

    Always think of frozen waffles as simply – and literally! — the base of a highly nutritious breakfast.

    Here are some topping ideas:

    To sneak some calcium into your day, cover each waffle with two tablespoons of non-fat or, even better, low-fat plain yogurt (vegans: soy yogurt also does the trick).

    This is a great opportunity to get a fruit serving in. Think bananas, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, peaches, kiwis – any fruit you like, really.

    Not only do these toppings provide nutrition, they also offer such an array of flavors that you will need very little – or no – syrup on your waffles.

    Ground flaxseed is something I think everybody should have in their refrigerator or freezer.

    Since it is virtually tasteless, you can add it to anything! Sprinkle a tablespoon on your waffles to start your day off with lignans and some Omega-3’s.

    Remember – flaxseeds must be ground up if you want to reap the full nutrition benefits.

    You can either buy ready-to-eat flaxseed meal — Bob’s Red Mill is a popular brand — or purchase whole flaxseeds, which you should then demolish in a coffee grinder.

    Therefore, don’t be fooled by frozen waffles containing whole flaxseeds you aren’t getting very much extra nutrition for the extra buck.

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    Perfect Pickings: Tuna

    It may surprise you to learn that not all canned tuna is created equally.

    First up: packed in water or oil?

    Water is preferrable – for two reasons.

    It results in less calories (60 calories per 2 ounce serving, rather than 110 or 120) and, since water and oil don’t mix, the Omega-3 fatty acids present in tuna are not lost when water is drained.

    The two more important issues surrounding canned tuna are sodium and mercury levels.

    A standard 6 ounce can of tuna provides 750 – 850 milligrams of sodium (approximately a third of a day’s needs) — quite a bit for its low calorie contribution (roughly 150, if canned in water).

    Look for low-sodium varieties that slash sodium by half, like Starkist’s “low sodium tuna”.

    You will barely tell the difference, especially if you are eating canned tuna as part of a salad or sandwich.

    Albacore tuna — the white, meatier, less fishy tasting of the bunch — happens to be one of the largest fish.

    Therefore, its mercury content is approximately 3 times higher than that of smaller fish — mainly skipjack — used for chunk light varieties.

    Some companies, like King of the Sea, sell authentic low-mercury — chunk light is “lower mercury”– tuna . The secret? Using yellowfin tuna!

    Here’s a tidbit that surprises many people.

    Those of you with a milk protein (casein) allergy must read canned tuna labels carefully, since some of them are processed by adding hydrolyzed casein!

    Lastly, be mindful of what you’re putting on your tuna. If it’s a few tablespoons of mayo, it’s time to do some modifying.

    I find, for instance, that hummus — especially a red pepper variety — is a wonderfully tasty replacement for mayonnaise when making tuna salad.

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    Perfect Pickings: Nut Butters

    Wonderful as spreads on English muffins or dips for Granny Smith apples and celery, nut butters are delicious and pack a good deal of nutrition.

    All varieties — peanut, almond, cashew — provide 180 – 200 calories and 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoon serving.

    They are also good sources of vitamin E, niacin (Vitamin B3), manganese, and phosphorus.

    Reduced fat nut butters are simply marketing gimmicks. On average, they offer a mere ten less calories than their regular counterparts.

    How so? The small amount of fat that is taken away is replaced with extra carbohydrates (usually double that of regular nut butter).

    The key to finding the healthiest, least processed nut butters is to read the label.

    Brands like Jif and Skippy lis the following ingredients:

    “Roasted Peanuts, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Oils, Salt.”

    In essence, crushed peanuts with sugar and trans fat.

    No, thanks.

    You can do better than that by reaching for natural nut butters. Their labels tell the tale:

    “Peanuts, Salt.”

    Wow, imagine that!

    If you are buying no-salt-added varieties (which I prefer solely from taste perspective; nut butters with salt offer a very decent 140 milligrams per serving, far from a high-sodium food), the sole ingredient is peanuts.

    Natural nut butters need to be mixed when you first open them, as the oil separates from the solid nut paste.

    After mixing, store in the refrigerator to delay spoilage.

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    Perfect Pickings: Nut Mixes/Trail Mix

    Let me begin by saying that all nut products will contain (heart-healthy) fats — there is no use in looking for low-fat trail mix!

    Contrary to popular belief, raw and roasted nuts are virtually identical.

    An ounce of raw almonds contains 164 calories, a mere five less than the same amount ounce of a roasted variety.

    What differs most between the two is sodium content.

    Whereas an ounce of raw almonds contributes 0 milligrams of sodium, that same amount of roasted almonds contains 100 milligrams.

    You won’t find too many nutritional differences among commercial trail mixes.

    The overwhelming majority pack in the following per quarter-cup serving:

    • 130 – 150 calories
    • 75 – 100 milligrams of sodium
    • 2 grams of fiber
    • 5 – 8 grams of protein

    However, this is one product where a peek at the ingredients list comes in handy.

    All trail mixes containing dried fruit, for example, will show high sugar values on their nutritional labels.  This is where you need to read the ingredient list closely.  Look for plain and simple dried fruit.

    Hence, seeing “raisins, dried mangoes” (literally dried fruit) is much better than “dried cranberries [sucrose]” (fruit with added sugar).

    Since berries are generally tart when dried, expect trail mixes containing them them to contain added sugar for flavor-enhancing purposes.

    While M&M’s and caramel corn are tasty additions, they make for trail mixes with inferior nutrition profiles.

    If it’s nutrition you seek, stick to the tried and true classics.

    Speaking of dried fruit, though, there is one component in trail mix that is especially worth looking out for.

    The sneaky culprit I am referring to? None other than dried bananas!

    Their nutrient profile is inferior to that of a common banana (potassium, vitamin C, and fiber are significantly lower), and since they are deep fried prior to being dried, their calorie and fat content is significantly heightened.

    Keep in mind that all trail mix is calorically dense (a quarter cup clocks in at roughly 150 calories); it was originally a snack consumed by people who hiked for hours and needed a quick and healthy energy boost.

    That said, if you’re seeking a nutritious trail mix, Bear Naked’s Pacific Crest Mix is one I have enjoyed a few times — it’s low in sodium and contains no added sugar.

    Sometimes, I prefer to make my own trail mixes.

    I usually throw in a whole grain (usually oat-based) cereal low in added sugar, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, raisins, and half a handful of cacao nibs (you could also break up a square of dark chocolate — comprised of at least 75% cocoa, if you’re looking to get some health benefits — into small bits and mix it in!)

    If you enjoy the combination of fruits and nuts and want it in an even more nutritious package, I suggest trying Lara, Clif Nectar, or Pure bars.

    If they are hard to find in your area, click on each bar’s name to be directed to their respective order pages.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Ideal Food Label Values

    I would LOVE to see you make more recommendations like this one [you made about pasta sauce]:

    “Choose ones offering no more than 4 grams of sugar and 350 milligrams of sodium per half cup serving.”

    Any similar guidelines for mixed nuts/trail mixes, peanut butters, canned tuna, salsa, and chicken/vegetable paste to make stock?

    — Antonella Montagna
    Key Largo, FL

    I was initially going to answer this question like I would any other, but then a better idea came to mind — turn this request into a new section of the blog!

    Tonight, I will launch “Perfect Pickings,” which will help you navigate the nutrition labels and ingredient listings of various products to make the best choices.

    Stay tuned.

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    Perfect Pickings: Nut Mixes/Trail Mix

    Let me begin by saying that all nut products will contain (heart-healthy) fats — there is no use in looking for low-fat trail mix!

    Expect 10 – 12 grams per quarter cup serving.

    Contrary to popular belief, raw and roasted nuts are virtually identical.

    An ounce of raw almonds contains 164 calories, a mere five less than an ounce of a roasted variety.

    What differs between the two is sodium content.

    Whereas an ounce of raw almonds contributes 0 milligrams of sodium, that same amount of roasted almonds contains 100 milligrams.

    You won’t find too many nutritional differences among commercial trail mixes.

    The overwhelming majority packs in 130 – 150 calories, 75 – 100 milligrams of sodium, 2 grams of fiber, and 5 – 8 grams of protein per serving.

    However, this is one product where a peek at the ingredients list comes in handy.

    All trail mixes containing dried fruit, for example, will initially appear high in sugar, partly because food labels do not differentiate between naturally-occurring and added sugars.

    This is where you need to read the label. Look for plain and simple dried fruit.

    Hence, seeing “raisins, dried mangoes” (literally dried fruit) is much better than “dried cranberries [sucrose]” (fruit with added sugar).

    Since berries are generally tart when dried, expect them to have sugar added on to enhance flavor.

    While M&M’s and caramel corn are tasty additions, they taint the nutrition profile of mixes consisting exclusively of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits.

    If it’s nutrition you are seeking — stick to the tried and true classics.

    Speaking of dried fruit, though, there is one component in trail mix that is especially worth looking out for.

    Just one ounce provides 40 percent of a day’s worth of saturated fat and 145 calories.

    The sneaky culprit I am referring to? None other than dried bananas!

    Their nutrient profile is inferior to that of a common banana (potassium, vitamin C, and fiber are significantly lower), and since they are deep fried in quite a bit of coconut oil prior to being dried, saturated fat content is off the charts!

    Keep in mind that all trail mix is calorically dense (a quarter cup clocks in at roughly 150 calories); it was originally a snack consumed by people hiking for hours, in need of a quick and healthy energy boost.

    That being said, if you’re seeking a nutritious trail mix, Bear Naked’s Pacific Crest Mix is one I have enjoyed a few times — it’s low in sodium and contains no added sugar.

    Sometimes, I like to make my own trail mixes.

    I usually throw in a whole grain (usually oat-based) cereal low in added sugar, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, raisins, and half a handful of cacao nibs (you could also break up a square of dark chocolate — comprised of at least 75% cocoa, if you’re loking to get some health benefits — into small bits and mix it in!)

    Although a good source of protein and vitamin E, you would need to eat a significant amount of trail mix (and calories!) to make it a high-fiber snack.

    If you enjoy the combination of fruits and nuts and want it in an even more nutritious package, I suggest trying Lara, Clif Nectar, or Pure bars.

    If they are hard to find in your area, click on each bar’s name to be directed to their respective order pages.

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