Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is That Liquid on Top of My Yogurt?

Know what I'm talking about?  You open your container of yogurt and there's a thin layer of liquid on top?  It also happens with other dairy products like sour cream and cottage cheese.  What is that and why does it happen?

There are two main reasons:

1. A process called syneresis.  This is a fancy schmancy name that means "watery proteins leaking out of the product".  Yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese are all products that are made from milk proteins forming a gel with water.  Some of the proteins are very sticky (like casein) and some are not as sticky (like whey).  As these foods sit on the grocery store shelf and then in your refrigerator, the less sticky proteins leach out over time and collect on the surface.  If it's a large container with multiple servings, it keeps happening each time you take a serving and put it back in the frig because now you've disrupted that gel.  As the gel settles down to the bottom of the container, more watery whey proteins leach out.  

What to do about it?  I've blogged about whey before, but just as a refresher, it's a milk protein that is similar in composition to human muscle, so it's great for your body.  Just mix it back in with the yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese, and feel good about yourself.

2. The other reason only applies to products that have already been opened and put back in your frig.  This will not make you feel as good.  

Many dairy products contain a small amount of carbohydrate (especially sweetened yogurts and sour cream).  Human saliva contains enzymes that digest carbohydrates within the mouth.  Imagine a scenario where you take a spoonful of yogurt, stick it into your mouth, and then back into the yogurt.  You decide not to eat the entire container of yogurt and stick it back in the frig.  All of sudden, those lucky enzymes from your spoon are swimming around in their favorite food, digesting it along the way, leaving behind a trail of digested carbohydrates that draw out water. Imagine a scenario where it's not your enzymes in the food you're about to eat, but someone else's.  EWWW!    

Best to never contaminate your food with your saliva-ridden spoon, don't you think?  Here endeth the lesson.  :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Frozen Spinach is Not Always a Substitute for Fresh....and Other Tips

Imagine you once made the best breakfast smoothie that was a blend of non-fat yogurt, blueberries, orange juice and fresh spinach.  It was so delicious, that you wanted to make it again.  However, you didn't have any fresh spinach so you substituted with frozen spinach.  The result?  AWFUL!

This is a true story from a friend of mine.  Her experience is not an unlikely one.  Most people know some cooking basics, such as substituting margarine for butter, but healthy foods come with a slightly different set of rules.  

As such, I've started a list of "Considerations for Healthy Eating/Cooking":

1. Not everything will taste good in a smoothie.  Juicers and fancy blenders make it seem like any combination of something healthy can be successful mixed up into a frothy, yummy treat.  Alas, this is not true.  Luckily, there are about a billion recipes out there for smoothies to make your life easier (and some where you can sneak in foods like salmon...aka, The Bass-a-Matic).  Follow the recipe, and chances are that it will be delicious or at least, delicious to someone.  

2. Frozen spinach is a great substitute for fresh, so long as you're cooking with it.   Frozen spinach is fabulous to have on hand to throw in soups, sauces, with egg dishes, etc.  In these applications, fresh will work too.  But it doesn't work well the other way.  Frozen spinach is much more concentrated, so a cup of frozen spinach is equivalent to practically 3 times that of fresh.  I think this is why the smoothie my friend made was not very good...too much spinach relative to the other ingredients.

3.  Don't be afraid to use the salt shaker on healthy foods.  Salt and fat (especially butter) greatly improve most foods.  And here's the thing with a salt shaker...salting the top of a food does not get you into trouble with salt.  This is because very little salt is needed when it's directly on the food.  With each bite, the salt comes into direct contact with salt receptors on the tongue.   When the salt is mixed in the food (like soups or frozen entrees or cheese), it cannot directly contact the tongue which means food companies have to add a whole lot more to make the food taste salty.  Even people on a salt-restricted diet (due to high blood pressure or another condition) can enjoy adding salt to their healthy foods in moderation.

4.  Don't be afraid of fat with your healthy food!  Over the past 10 years, experts have slowly been increasing the recommendations for intake of fat.  Why?  Because as it turns out, fat is not the devil food that everyone thought it was.  Sure, some fats are bad (trans fats especially) and some are good (fats from fish and oils), and it still has more calories than protein or carbohydrate on a gram for gram basis.  But fat itself does not cause heart disease or cancer or diabetes.  Unhealthy diets and lifestyles do.  There is nothing unhealthy or wrong with adding olive oil to a salad or eating a full-fat yogurt with fruit.  And here's the thing...fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that require fat to be absorbed into the body.  I cringe whenever I see a woman eating a beautiful salad of vegetables with lemon juice or only balsamic vinegar.  A little oil will greatly improve the flavor and allow your body to harness all the disease-fighting compounds in those veggies.

5.  Healthy foods taste better when they are in season.  Forcing a fruit or vegetable to grow under less than ideal conditions or shipping them from another continent affects the quality of the food.  Some vegetables produce more bitter compounds, some fruits can develop thicker rinds and plants like tomatoes make fruit that are mealy and gritty.  January in Chicago is not the best time to make a tomato-cucumber salad and it's especially not the best time to introduce a lot of these seasonal-type foods to picky eaters.  If #s 3 and 4 above cannot help, then I say save those foods for a different time of year and enjoy what's fresh. 


Monday, August 15, 2011

Snacking for Back-to-School

It's that time of year again.  Time to pack up the kiddos in the morning and send them off to school.  

Along with their backpacks, lunches, special assignments, a check for the fundraiser-du-jour, water bottles (I don't remember bringing this much stuff when I was little)....many teachers encourage sending in a snack.  

Before I actually had kids, I used to always recommend fruit as a snack.  It seemed so easy to me to just send in an apple or banana with your child.  While I'm sure many children can successfully bring in fresh fruit as a snack, none of my 3 kids can do so without a high degree of smushing, crushing, bruising, or leaking which results in an icky snack and disgusting backpack.  [And as a side note, even a nanoparticle of a banana on a backpack causes my small, placid dog to eat said backpack in a matter of seconds.]

In the event that this is a problem in your household, I have started a list of some alternative snack options that will provide long-lasting energy and  transport easily, even under jarring or backpack-as-cushion-on-the-bus conditions:

Frozen tubes of yogurt work perfectly as a snack.  Even if they are not completely thawed by snack time, they still taste great.  Simply Gogurt or Stoneyfield Farm are my favorites.  Plus, yogurt tubes are peanut free. 

 Chex mix isn't the healthiest snack option out there, but is a better alternative to chips and other related snacks.  This one is not peanut free, so may not work in every classroom.   

I wish Fig Newtons were cooler.  If only they would dress up a fig in big underwear and make him sing and dance on TV, kids would actually request fig newtons for a snack.  They are a wonderful, peanut-free option that taste great, even when flattened under a text book. 

I absolutely love these VitaTops.  They are packed with fiber and protein and come in a variety of flavors.  They are frozen, but do well when thawed over time in a backpack.  Some flavors are also peanut free.

Popcorn is always a great option as a snack.  This new Skinny Pop Popcorn tastes great and only contains popcorn, sunflower oil, and salt as ingredients.   No peanuts!

Even a few hours outside of the refrigerator should not be a concern with individual, packaged servings of cheese.  This could also be paired up with a side of whole grain crackers.  Another peanut free option!

Emerald has a bunch of new products that make for great snacking.  Here's one that is dried fruit with granola.  I love these things and throw them in my purse.

Any other snacks that folks like to send in with their kids?