Exploring the world from your kitchen

Years ago, I was chatting about my work with my mom, who had a talent for making meals from whatever ingredients happened to be on hand. “I don’t understand how there can be new recipes for you to analyze week after week.” Well, I am glad that there are! But how do they do it? How do recipe developers keep coming up with new recipes? Cuisines from other cultures are great inspiration. One of the benefits of globalization is that we are exposed to foods eaten in other countries. Traditional dishes from cultures not our own also allow us to explore the world without leaving home. And often that exploration pays off in some of truly nutritious dishes.

Ethnic dishes are often nutrient-dense menu items because they are made with plenty of vegetables and whole grains. For example, many Asian dishes are based on vegetables and small amounts of protein foods, often fish and seafood. Yes, fish and soy sauce can add high levels of sodium. African, as well as Central and South American cultures incorporate generous doses of spices and herbs rather than heaps of butter and salt to make food flavorful. Nuts or seeds add healthy fats and flavor. Indian cooks have a long history of preparing beans, peas and lentils as delicious main dishes. Besides being inexpensive, beans cooked from their dried form serve as low- sodium protein sources. They help to keep heart and other muscles strong and provide fiber to feel full. They do all this while serving as rich vitamin and mineral sources.

Exploring the world through cooking may require a bigger pantry and a more diverse spice shelf. For someone doing nutrition analysis, diet diversity requires a good data base and continual data base updating. Pad Thai may use regular or light coconut milk, for which the fat content (and flavor) is definitely different; my job is to make sure I have both versions available for the analysis. A dish of Chicken Masala for 4 persons might use 1 tablespoon of garam masala; I need to decide if regular curry powder is an acceptable substitute. (For nutritional purposes, it is.) Or shall I ignore the spices?

The FDA doesn’t require nutritional labeling of spices because they are usually eaten in very small amounts. But I include all seasonings in every recipe analysis. Almost everyone wants to know the sodium values, but most seasonings provide other nutrition as well. For example, a teaspoon of regular chili powder provides 15% of the Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin A. This makes a bowl of chili a pretty good vitamin A source. In the quest for tasty rubs, we can just about count paprika as a vegetable: ½ teaspoon of paprika provides 12 % of the DV of Vitamin A and nearly ½ gram of fiber. When spices are consumed in significant amounts, such as in rub-coated meats or vegetables, they contribute to health.

From the point of nutrition analysis, there’s also the matter of small amounts adding up. For example, FDA’s rounding rules tell us to report 2.6 grams of fiber as 3 grams; that extra teaspoon of pepper might just make a difference.