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!

  • Marion – Great thought-provoking post! As a RD, I think that nutritional information is a huge help for many people, and I can’t imagine not having it. Granted it’s not 100% accurate, but at least it helps people get the idea/direction. For the generally healthy population, you’re right, eating a mostly plant-based, balanced diet with plenty of variety should do the trick, but what about those with specific conditions that need to monitor their intake of specific nutrients for their health? Diabetes comes to mind. Without nutrition information how on earth can people monitor their carbohydrate intake and match that to their insulin?
    Just my 2 cents.

  • Nutrition information on packaged foods is crucial, and I love the idea of having it easily available in restaurants and posted at fast food chains. But for recipes? It’s just too silly. If an ingredient can be acquired to cook with, then you can get its nutrition information – either from reading the side of the package or from looking it up on the very same databases that the cookbook’s author would be using to provide the information.

    Only when you do it yourself, it will be far more accurate than what the cookbook can provide. Why? Because you can measure how much broccoli you’re using – in cups, say, while the cookbook’s author can’t. She can just say “one head of broccoli”. Calculating the nutritional information in a meal is nothing past fourth grade math, and anyone who can send an email should be able to do it for themselves.

  • Kathy

    I disagree with the thrust of this article. Nutritional information of recipes is extremely important for the consumer. We understand that the information cannot be 100% accurate, but those numbers give us a lot of helpful information.

    For example, if I set a goal to increase the fiber in my diet, it helps me to see that a black bean burrito with a whole wheat wrap has X more fiber than a tomato sandwich on white bread. Just seeing those numbers also can help us make better decisions (i.e., choosing not to make that sodium-laden dish or seeing just how much saturated fat is in a coconut curry).

    As Elizabeth states, those numbers can also help people who need more prceision in their diets, for example, if we are (and need to) counting calories, Points, etc. Why are we clamoring for restaurants to publish nutritional information and not cookbook authors? That just doesn’t make sense.

  • I find this surprising and enlightening, because Everyday Food Magazine includes nutritional information for all their recipes, and so do many other magazines. Should I take this to mean that this information should be taken with a grain of salt? But I tend to agree–if one eats a well-balanced diet that is largely free of processed food, then one doesn’t have to think about all the numbers!

  • I like Shulman’s approach. The ingredients list on a product, or in a recipe, is far more important than the nutritional analysis, which is inexact anyway. If the ingredients are healthy and real, the food is likely to be healthy, in reasonable portions (too much of anything is no good). If the ingredients are junk, then it doesn’t matter how much of a particular vitamin or how many carbs the food contains, it’s not doing anything for you.

  • Janet Camp

    My question is this: WHY are people clamoring for nutritional information to be included in recipes? As mentioned in the article and some of the comments, common sense will give you a basic idea (is there two tablespoons of olive oil or 1 cup of olive oil? Cheese grated on top as a garnish or layered throughout?).

    If you only eat one serving of most anything, you won’t have a problem and I’d venture that is true for diabetics as well–especially type II. I think serving size should get more attention than calories. As to nutrients, try to eat as many colors as possible all the time and you will be fine. Too many people get into nutrient fads and drink gallons of (sugar-laden) juice trying to get some particular nutrient benefit.

    I have always thought that RD’s are the most unhelpful people in the world when it comes to enjoying food. They give you silly menus and expect you to carry around measuring cups. Michael Pollan’s advice is so much simpler and easier to follow. I never lost any weight with an RD, but have lost and maintained 45 lbs by following Pollan’s (and Marion’s–eat less, move more, mostly eat less) edicts. I measured in the beginning but can “eyeball” it now. I eat lots of Schulman’s recipes.

  • I’m so glad to see this article! Once in a while I get a request to add nutrition information to my recipes. Apart from the huge amount of time and work involved in doing this for almost 200 recipes, I’ve always felt the value was dubious at best. My feeling is confirmed. Thank you!

    Whatever happened to good old common sense! It should be enough to know generally how many calories are in various common foods. What are high carb foods? High protein foods? High fat foods? Reasonable portions? Anybody could learn this stuff in 4th grade! And should.

  • Laurie

    I think it’s intersting that nutrition information is becoming so common on everything, that when people don’t see it on something they go into panic-mode. In reality, if the ingredients are listed, the nutrition info is right there.

  • Count me in as someone who wishes nutrition information were available at every turn — and who invests the time and effort to provide nutrition estimates (and yes, I am quite aware that they are rough estimates but still, better than nothing) for all the recipes on my two recipe websites. Even after calculating this information for seven years, I’m still quite taken aback on occasion when something that looks “not that bad” adds up to far more calories (especially) than expected, even for relatively small portions. Building the calculations also lets me to illuminating what-ifs — what if I use less oil, what’s the difference in both calories and satisfaction? what if I add more vegetables/volume, what does that do? I think the reason so many food magazines / cookbooks / restaurants fear nutrition information is NOT the effort it would take but the very real fear that if the information were revealed, readers / buyers / guests would be horrified and change their behavior.

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  • How refreshing – Bravo.
    Kids Kitchen is a collection of 40 recipes cards for kids to cook; My publisher (Barefoot books) was keen to colour code the recipes with reference to food groups; not least to encourage the non reader to have fun with the recipe cards (pelmanism) My husband (UK General practitioner) has undertaken a course in Human Nutrition and so, I asked him to write the simple introduction (a fold out card) bringing together the US Pyramid and UK Eatwell plate and the importance of a balanced diet ( nutrition) in child friendly terms. However, when I run healthy cookery demonstrations for children in UK schools,I talk about colours of the rainbows on a plate and balance; encouraging a child to use his/her eyes to see how much fat, sugar and salt has been used in the recipe. This is the real benefit of cooking with raw not processed ingredients, the child can see what has gone into the food that is eventually eaten. We also talk about treats (no food police here but moderation is required) and of course, five portions of fruit and veg a day (by the way I prefer the US pyramid which separates fruit and vegetables).

    Here in the UK, some supermarkets follow a traffic light labelling scheme (high to low in fat sugar and salt) and others a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). It is complicated for the layman to understand and family life is too busy to expect parents to put specs on or peer at labels, as they do a mad supermarket trolley dash between school runs. The last thing that I want to do, is to complicate my recipes with nutritional breakdowns. Many families lack basic food preparation skills; we need to encourage confidence in the kitchen and then, stir in a good dose of common sense. Of course, if there is a medical referral to dietician, this is another question but for the majority a return to simple home cooking from scratch is in my opinion, a route to a healthy diet.

    Here is a link to a share your healthy and win contest (Barefoot Books UK and USA) promoting Kids’ Kitchen (I hope that this isn’t too cheeky)

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  • Erik

    As father of a kid with Type I diabetes I can sympathize with some of your reasons for not doing nutrition analysis: it’s hard and inaccurate; yet we do it every day, for every meal. Our ‘Joy of Cooking’ is marked up with carb percentages and I frequent websites that do show carb counts.

    I like your columns (as I like this website) because they introduce me to new food, and gives nutritional information in the wider sense. I’ll keep reading, whatever you decide, although you could save me some work 🙂

    By the way, are you sure we can get enough vitamin D in winter on New York lattitudes? Many people don’t think so.

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  • pdquick

    Due to an inherited heart condition, I have to limit my sodium intake to about a gram and a half a day. Even foods that are lightly processed or not processed at all can be high in sodium, and can bust the budget. I agree with the well-reasoned argument for not including nutritional information in recipes, but to dismiss all nutritional information is problematic. I care less about the precise number of calories and amount of folic acid than I do about the ratio of sodium to calories, but in order to know that, I have to have an idea of both. Cheeses, for example, can have 80 mg sodium per ounce or 300 mg per ounce, and when you’re rationing 1500 mg, the difference matters.

    As for vitamin D, if your skin is light, sunlight poses a risk of skin cancer, and if your skin is dark, you probably can’t get enough vitamin D from the sun unless you live near the equator. Our ancestors either got their vitamin D from fish, or they got it from the sun at a time when they were likely to die shortly after reproducing. Getting skin cancer was the least of their worries. Fortunately, we now live long enough as a rule to need to be careful about it.