by Marion Nestle
Sep 25 2009

Should recipes include nutrition info?

The terrific food writer and cookbook author, Martha Rose Shulman, gets lots of requests for nutrition information on her recipes.  What do I think about this?  Here’s her interview with me borrowed from Zester Daily (the site has the photos and links to her work):

Add Guesswork and Stir –  By Martha Rose Shulman (24 September 2009)

Many of the people who read my Recipes for Health column on The New York Times website are clamoring for me to include nutritional analyses with the recipes. Today you don’t have to be a nutritionist to add this kind of information. There are lots of computer programs that will calculate it for you. The problem is, none of the data is particularly accurate. So my editors and I resist. We question the value of the numbers and know that they’re too easy to tweak.

I don’t like nutritional data because I’ve always approached healthy eating not as a nutritionist, but as a cook. I’ve devoted my career to preparing delicious food that does no harm – not too caloric, not too fatty, with a focus on plant-based foods – because that’s the way I like to eat.

During my 20s I did toy with the idea of getting a degree in nutrition, but I always preferred the kitchen to the classroom. I audited an Introduction to Nutrition class, but stopped going when we had to memorize molecular formulas. I took biology courses at the University of Texas. My professor surely suspected I wasn’t destined for a future in science when I turned in a term paper composed as an epic poem, rhymed couplets and all, entitled “The Odyssey of my Breakfast.” (He gave me a B+.) Once I hit organic chemistry I dropped out and started teaching vegetarian cooking classes.

Still, I do want my readers to be happy. So after I’d received several dozen emails asking why I don’t include such data with the recipes in my column, I emailed prominent nutritionist Marion Nestle and asked her what she would recommend if I were to get software to do the breakdowns.

“I don’t know any easy way to do this,” Nestle responded. “All software uses the same USDA database plus information from food companies, and all of it requires interpretation. A big reason has to do with measurement. If you give it even a moment’s thought, you realize that the nutrient contents have to vary with growing location, soil conditions, climate, transportation, and storage, so the amounts given in the database can only be approximations of what you are actually eating, particularly if you are not weighing the exact portions out. The data aren’t meaningless, but they don’t mean nearly as much as people think they do. I always laugh when I see calories listed as anything that doesn’t end with a zero. Measurements of nutrients just aren’t all that precise.”

Nestle directed me to the USDA National Nutrient Database, and I saw her point immediately. After typing in “broccoli,” I was offered 15 choices, including “broccoli, cooked, boiled, drained, with salt;” “broccoli, raw;” “broccoli, flower clusters, raw.” Then I had to indicate an amount, either in grams or cups (how do you measure a cup of broccoli florets?). But my recipes simply call for “1 bunch broccoli, broken into florets.” And how do they know how much salt I use? As often as not, I steam my broccoli — which I understand preserves more nutrients than boiling — but that wasn’t even an option.

I punched in garlic. The garlic cloves in the USDA database weigh 3 grams. I weighed my garlic cloves; the plump ones I like to use weigh 6 to 8 grams, the medium ones about 4 grams. Clearly the technicians at USDA do not come from the Mediterranean.

Nutrient analyses encourages us to see the food that we eat in terms of its carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and other micro-parts. But “nutritionism” doesn’t lead to better health. Michael Pollan makes this point eloquently in his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” His seven-word maxim says just about all you need to know about a healthy diet: “Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.”

Nestle concurs. “I am opposed to nutritional info,” she told me. “The basis of healthful diets is variety, relatively unprocessed foods, and not eating too much. Variety and processing matter because ‘real’ (relatively unprocessed) foods contain large numbers of required nutrients but in different amounts and proportions. If you vary food intake, you don’t have to worry about individual nutrients because the foods complement each other.”

The emails from my readers continue to arrive on a daily basis, but I have not yet bought any nutrition software. Marion urged me to “resist including nutrient analyses to the bitter end,” and so far, I’m holding firm.

I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought the data were reasonably accurate and could be put into context.  We know from studies using experimental animals that it is extremely difficult to induce nutrient deficiencies in animals that are fed a variety of foods providing sufficient calories.  The best way to avoid nutrient deficiencies is to eat a variety of minimally processed foods.  If you do that, you don’t have to worry about specific nutrients.  Vitamin D may be the one exception.  For that, get outside and expose your skin to some sun.  Even in winter!