How to Choose the Healthiest Peanut Butter

Radishes with Peanut Butter

While calorie counters may gravitate towards reduced fat peanut butters, there is no reason to fear the heart-healthy unsaturated fats in peanuts. Peanuts and peanut butter are associated with weight control and longevity, making this inexpensive plant protein a nutritious pantry staple.

That being said, many “no stir” peanut butters on the market (including reduced fat varieties) are riddled with unnecessary sugars and oils (often rainforest-disrupting palm oil). It is totally natural for the oils in peanut butter to separate, so if you have to stir it, thats a good sign!

My shopping tip is to look for nut butters with only peanuts and salt (if desired) on the ingredients, but that’s it! No sugars, no oils, no problem. They’re simply unnecessary. (This advice applies to other nut butters as well, like almond butter or cashew butter.)

Natural PB, Rice Cake, and Cherries

Often, these nutritious nut butters are labeled as “natural,” but be careful — there aren’t really any standards for natural foods. For example, JIF and Skippy both have “natural” lines of peanut butter, yet all of  those products still contain added sugars and oils. In fact, even Whole Foods Market carries some nut butters with these superfluous additives. It pays to read the ingredient listing!

To save you some time in the nut butter aisle, I’ve compiled a list of several of the most popular varieties of “peanut-only” peanut butter (without the hidden sugars and oils). Look for any of these at your local grocer, and rest assured that you aren’t getting any unnecessary sweeteners or stabilizers. Smooth or chunky, organic or conventional, plain or salted, and even with flaxseed, you’re sure to find a peanut butter that meets your needs!

How to Choose the Healthiest Peanut Butter

– Kelly

 

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Guilty Pleasures: An RD’s favorite packaged foods

For the most part, I pride myself on eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, favoring ingredients that are local and organic. However, there are times when convenience takes over and I find myself at the mercy of processed foods. I try to look for packages that have some of the qualities I prioritize, but more often than not, I just end up following my taste buds. Below are my picks for my favorite packaged foods…

Guilty Pleasures: An RD's favorite packaged foods

Backcountry Bundle Trail Mix (Whole Foods Market): This trail mix is a delicious blend of almonds, pistachios, raisins, dried cranberries, and sour cherries. While it would probably be much less expensive to buy the ingredients from the bulk section and make my own, this delightful mix has absolutely everything I need in the perfect proportions. I like to keep a package in my desk drawer at work for when the afternoon slump hits. It also makes a great travel snack.

Champagne Pear Vinaigrette with Gorgonzola (Trader Joe’s): I rarely ever go to Trader Joe’s, but this salad dressing is worth the trip alone. The ingredients certainly don’t have the organic, local, or minimalistic qualities that I typically look for in foods, but I absolutely love the sweet, creamy taste, and I can’t believe that it only has 45 calories per two tablespoon serving. In my book, anything that gets me to eat more vegetables is money well spent. Additionally, the presence of Gorgonzola in the dressing makes cheese, while still welcome, an unnecessary addition to the salad.

Butternut Squash Ravioli Lean Cuisine: Frozen entrees are a last resort, and I try not to rely too heavily on them. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep one in the back of the freezer. While this dish isn’t from one of the organic or natural brands, I feel better knowing that it is a vegetarian entree, and doesn’t feature too many industrialized animal products. I am also constantly surprised at my foodie self for genuinely enjoying this vegetable rich supper.

Chocolate Peppermint Stick Luna Bar: This is my pre-workout snack before my morning gym sessions. I also love to travel with these. While protein bars aren’t very natural or food-like, they can be a reliable source of nutrients when balanced, vegetable rich meals are out of the question.

Do you ever rely on packaged foods? Which ones are your favorite?

– Kelly

Food Adventures in Seattle

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This past weekend, I visited one of my college roommates in Seattle. I had only been to the west coast once before (San Fransisco), so I was eager to spend time with my roomie and explore the Seattle food scene (see her weekend recap here).

Sarah was thoughtful enough to take me to sustainable restaurants including Local 360 (get the PB&J bon bons- just do it!), Homegrown, and my personal favorite, the Volunteer Park Cafe. We also hit up Tom Douglas’s Brave Horse Tavern and Bluebird Ice Cream.  Below are some of my favorite food adventures from the weekend…

Pike Place Market

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^^While Sarah ran into the office for a few hours, I leisurely explored Pike Place Market. It was even better than I expected, and believe me, I had high expectations!

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^^ Fresh flowers as far as the eye can see!

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^^Fruits and vegetables galore!

Queen Anne Community Garden

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^^Quite the hidden gem, and one of my favorite spots from the trip

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^^Check out the beautiful bloom on the artichoke!

blackberries

^^Wild blackberries were EVERYWHERE! Not just in the community garden, but growing all over city.

Theo Chocolate Tour

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^^ I LOVE field trips and food related tours! The Theo tour very much reminded me of the Taza Chocolate tour.

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^^ Fair trade, organic chocolate. My 4 favorite words 😉

Other highlights from the weekend included a jog around the waterfront, an outdoor movie at the Seattle Center (Le Mis) and of course, a given if you know Sarah, a themed party. Have you ever been to Seattle?

– Kelly

4 Tools for Reading, Understanding, and Comparing Food Labels

Most of the healthiest foods available (such as fresh produce, fresh fish, or even fresh meat) don’t carry a food label. But even then, there are choices to make: organic, local, pasture raised, etc. Because most consumers find themselves purchasing foods with nutrition labels or health claims on a regular basis, here are 4 tools to help you read, understand, and compare food labels.

1. The Diagram

Below is a basic diagram on how to read a nutrition facts panel. Here are some things to remember… If there is more than 1 serving per container (such as in the example below) and you eat the whole container, you must multiply the numbers by the number of servings (so below, the total contents would have 500 calories, because of the 2 servings. The yellow nutrients are ones that we usually have too much of, so it’s best to limit those. The green nutrients are the ones that we need to work on getting enough of.

Lastly, although it is not pictured in this diagram, do not ignore the ingredient list. Items are listed in order of descending weight, so the higher up on the list something is, the more of it is present in the product. Do you want to know if the 0g trans fat label is accurate? You must look for hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list. Do you want to know if artificial sweeteners are present? You must check the ingredient list for aspartame, sucralose, and the like. Do you want to know if the sugars on the nutrition panel are naturally occurring or added? You must look on the ingredients list. Sugar can be disguised as corn syrup, cane syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrose, ribose, and about 100 other things.

Nutrition Facts Panel

2. The Book

What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, is by far the most comprehensive and informative resource on my list. PhD Nutritionist Marion Nestle takes you aisle by aisle through the grocery store and explains what to look for in each food category.If you are struggling to learn more about which qualities are important in various foods (organic vs low fat, grass fed vs free range, etc) then I highly recommend investing in a copy of this book. I refer to my copy time and time again.

3. The Video

In this TEDxTalk, Consumer Reports Environmental Health Scientist Urvashi Rangan explains which health claims on food labels are credible and which are not.This quick 15 minute video is something all consumers need to see, to avoid getting duped at the supermarket.

4. The App

Fooducate is an award winning app (created by Dietitians and Parents) for iPhone and Android that grades food choices. Unlike other calorie counting apps, this app considers other factors of food choices, beyond just the calorie count or basic nutrient profile. Based on your goals, it can be programmed to help you avoid processed foods, GMOs, or animal products, as well as programmed to help you select heart healthy foods, and to count carbohydrates.

Fooducate

Take home messages:

When reading labels, don’t fall prey to unhelpful labels. The USDA Organic seal has 600 pages of regulations behind it. On the other hand, “All Natural” simply means that there are no artificial ingredients. Lastly, don’t forget to check the ingredients list!

Fruits and vegetables (beans included) are good for you no matter what, so be the most demanding with animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish). From pasture raised to 100% grass fed, look for something that indicates that the animal was raised in an open pasture (or wild caught). At a Farmers market, you will likely have the opportunity to ask the farmer how the animals were raised. At the supermarket,  I like the 5 Step rating program that Whole Foods uses to rank their meats (the higher the number, the better).

– Kelly

Top 10 Things You Need to Know about the Farm Bill

  1. What is the Farm Bill? Simply put, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that determines which foods will be plentiful and inexpensive. It gets reworked about every 4-7 years, the last one being passed in 2008. We were due for a new Farm Bill in 2012, but as people following the issue already know, the 2008 bill was left to expire.
  2. Where does Farm Bill money go? Contrary to popular belief, most of the Farm Bill money (73%) goes to nutrition programs, not subsidies for commodity crops (which only gets 14%). Additionally,  7% goes to crop insurance, 6% goes to conservation programs, while less than 1% supports exports and renewable energy investments and research.
  3. How does the Farm Bill help Americans? Most Farm Bill money goes to nutrition programs, the most notable program being SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). With more Americans than ever before (about 45 million, half of which are children) relying on nutrition assistance programs, any spending cut to this area would be devastating, causing hunger and public health problems across the country. At only about $1.50 per meal, SNAP benefits are meager enough already.
  4. Does the Farm Bill help family farmers? While many family farmer do rely on subsidies to stay afloat, 60% of farmers don’t get subsidies. Additionally, the richest 10% of subsidy recipients get almost 75% of the payments. So while many family farmers do rely on these payments, loopholes that allow large agribusinesses to collect the majority of the payments need to be closed.
  5. Who gets subsidies? Almost 70% of commodity subsidies go to just 5 crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are considered “specialty crops” and are largely ignored by Farm Bill policies. Commodity subsidies keep the building blocks of junk food (high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) cheap, which in turn, keeps junk food cheap.
  6. What’s the deal with biofuels? Currently, 40% of our corn crop is being diverted away from food for human consumption to be used for biofuels (corn ethanol). Biofuels are meant to displace oil, so this could be good, right? Wrong. Currently,  ethanol output is displacing only 8% of gasoline. The same amount of gas could be displaced if we increased fleet wide fuel economy by just 1.1 MPG across the board! And if that weren’t enough, it takes at least 2/3 gallon of oil (gasoline) to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. That is ridiculous!
  7. Does the Farm Bill align with U.S. Dietary Guidelines? If Americans increased their fruit and vegetable consumption to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the US would need an additional 13 million acres of these crops! That’s more than 3 times what we currently devote to fruit and vegetable production. Without research devoted to more efficient produce farming, or economic incentives such as subsidies, there is little motivation for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. It simply isn’t profitable.
  8. Does the Farm Bill promote sustainable land use? Some of the biggest conservation programs for land and wildlife are actually funded through the Farm Bill, but conservation programs get only a small percentage of the budget. The financial risks of farming are so high, that farmers plant “fencerow to fencerow” regardless of what is needed, because it is the only way for them to stay afloat. More money should be put into conservation policies to help reward farmers that are good stewards of the land. Right now there is no incentive for them to farm sustainably, except for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is severely underfunded (3/4 applications get rejected due to lack of funds).
  9. What issues should an ideal Farm Bill address? An ideal Farm Bill should better align crop subsidies with nutrition guidelines, and make all farmers meet certain conservation guidelines before being eligible to receive support. This means no more money for large CAFOs or soil degrading mono-croppers. An ideal Farm Bill should also incentivize sustainable methods such as pasture based agriculture and crop rotation, as well as devote more research to organics and produce production.
  10. What’s next for the Farm Bill? The January fiscal cliff bill included a 9 month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. This bill extends direct payments to farmers (unless a new Farm Bill is passed before October), protects against a spike in milk prices (the “dairy cliff”), and makes no major changes to SNAP. Unfortunately, the extension didn’t extend funding for organics, clean water initiatives, beginning farmer programs, or disaster assistance. However, the Farm Bill is facing budget cuts across the board in the aftermath of the sequestration. It is still unclear how the money will get allocated. Things are changing quickly, so now is the time to let your voice be heard.

Statistics mentioned above are sourced from Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, the video displayed below, as well as this article.

For those of you that would like to learn more:

  • To learn more about what the Farm Bill is and what programs it supports (or doesn’t), I highly recommend this 14 minute TEDxTalk from Ken Cook (President and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group) called “Turning the Farm Bill into a Food Bill”.
  • For a shorter video introduction, check out this 4 minute video slideshow from Food Fight 2012. While not as informative as the TEDxTalk, it is still a good place to start.
  • As far as reading materials go, I cannot recommend this book enough. In Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, author Daniel Imhoff breaks down the complexities of the bill in an easy to understand manner. The book is filled with colorful graphics and charts to help illustrate the various aspects of the bill. And best of all, Imhoff highlights the loopholes and problems of the Farm Bill, and offers sensible solutions and policy changes to improve it. This book is indispensable to anyone looking to learn more about the Farm Bill and make a difference in U.S. Food Policy.
  • For more information on how you can get involved in improving the next Farm Bill, see this page. Because the Farm Bill extensions expire in October, NOW is the time to get involved!

– Kelly

Snow Day & Hot Chocolate

Okay… so this might be a bit of a departure from the healthy side of things. But if there were ever a weekend for extra special hot chocolate, this would be it…

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conquering my first blizzard

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My roommate and I scored this orange and cinnamon spiced chocolate when we toured the Taza chocolate factory last month (read about our tour here). Because this particular chocolate bar is intended to be enjoyed as a drinking chocolate (I thought it was just supposed to look like a cute coaster or something!) we were saving it for a snowy day. Taza chocolate is organic and direct trade certified from small producers, and is made right here in the Boston area (Somerville). I think we picked the right day to pull it out… wouldn’t you agree?

– Kelly

Why I Drink Organic Milk

I was raised in a “milk with dinner” kind of family, and my taste for skim milk has carried with me into adulthood. Milk, after all, is the number one reason I could never go vegan. When I went off to college and started grocery shopping for myself, I got into the habit of purchasing organic milk. At upwards of $6 a gallon (although closer to $5 in Texas), one might question if the expense is worth it. My answer? Yes, indeed.

Image via USDA

According to the USDA website, “The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.” But what does this mean for the milk exactly? Read on to find out…

  • Does organic milk come from cows that are exclusively grass fed? Not necessarily, but we’re moving in the right direction. More recently (2010), cows are now required to obtain 30% of their feed from pasturing, and must be in the pasture for no less than 120 days. This is quite a victory not only for small organic farmers that adhere to the principles of grass fed livestock, but also for consumers. Grass fed cows are shown to produce milk that is higher in vitamins, antioxidants, and even Omega-3’s! This is why organic milk is said to be HEALTHIER.
  • Are hormones in milk a big deal? Unfortunately, there have been reports of female infants growing breasts, which scientists have attributed to the hormones in milk (baby formula). Although these cases were in China and Puerto Rico, the US also allows conventional (not organic) cows to be supplemented with growth hormones and estrogen. Despite a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that concluded that the growth hormones in conventional milk break down and become inactive, and that the estrogen given to cows is in quantities too small to matter, this certainly is not something that I want to take a chance with. Additionally, milk from cows treated with growth hormones (rBGH) have higher levels of IGF-1, which is worrisome because elevated human levels of IGF-1 are thought to pose a risk for cancer.
  • What about antibiotics? Because antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread between people and food, the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates a preference for antibiotic free, organic meat. Why does this recommendation not extend to dairy products? Conventional milk is routinely tested for antibiotic residues, so the finished product should be free of them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that antibiotic resistance CAN spread to humans through what we eat, and is serious enough for the FDA to dub the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals “a serious public health threat”. And if the antibiotics don’t make it into our milk, do you know where they end up? In our waterways. As you could have guessed, organic practices are healthier for the environment as well.

For more information on organics and organic milk:

  • As with most organic products, there are a handful of industrial sized dairy farms that try to cut corners. In order to make organic dairy practices more transparent to consumers, the Cornucopia Institute put together a report card for organic dairy, rating producers on a scale of 0-5. This report card is meant to help consumers make informed decisions about dairy, based on the pasturing practices, feed, and treatment of the animals. My Whole Foods 365 milk scored an impressive 4/5, and was the highest rated private label milk. On the other hand, Horizon Organics scored a pathetic 0/5.  I highly recommend that all shoppers head over to the Cornucopia Institute and check this list out.
  • Are you still unsure how you feel about organics? Check out this debate (“Are Organics Worth the Expense?”) from the New York Times. Not surprisingly, I side with the Marion Nestle/Raj Patel/Tom Philpott arguments. But don’t just take it from me. Check out the debate for yourself.

Image via yelp

The way I see it, fruits and vegetables are going to be good for you no matter what. It is the more “controversial” or “questionable” food items, such as dairy, livestock, and eggs, that you want to be extra careful with. These foods definitely have the potential to nourish your body, just make sure that you shop with integrity.

Understandably, not all Americans are fortunate enough to be able to choose organic milk, and many health professionals will tell you that drinking conventional milk is much better than drinking no milk at all. I’ll be the first to admit that in freezing cold weather, the corner store’s conventional milk is a lot more tempting than making the trek to Whole Foods, which is why you’ll see quite a variety of dairy products in my recipe posts. But for those of you that do have the time and the choice, I urge you to consider organic dairy. My health is worth $6 a gallon. Is yours?

– Kelly