Oct 30, 2018

Kelloggs Granola Almonds and Cranberries Review

Corn flakes, chocos, muesli and now the latest entrant, granola. Kelloggs continues to make strides into the growing breakfast cereal market in India. I had earlier written about how the breakfast cereal market growth in India can be attributed to changing consumer preferences, exposure, convenience and availability. Such breakfast cereal brands might be taking a good share from the urban consumer's wallet every week/month, but definitely not from my household.

I don't have any kind of breakfast cereal stocked up in my pantry. It is such a waste of money and it does no good to our health, though the brands continue to scream otherwise. I just wrapped up my breakfast with ragi dosas (with homemade batter) and tomato thokku. With the batter and thokku prepared ahead, all it took me was less than 5 minutes to make the 2 dosas.

Let's look at this new product - Kelloggs granola with almonds and cranberries.

The front side of the pack says "Wholesome crunch - nutritious oats, real almonds, yum cranberry, corn crispies".

Such well-crafted marketing material should be ignored and as consumers who care about our health, we should focus more on the back side of the pack - Ingredients list and nutrition facts. Get bored with this statement but I'm not going to stop repeating it ;-)

Ingredients List:
  1. Rolled Oats (25.1%), 
  2. Candied Fruit and Nut (24%) (Candied Cranberry (14%), Almonds (10%)),
  3. Sugar,
  4. Oat Flour (10.7%),
  5. Edible Vegetable Oil (Palmolein),
  6. Rice (4.2%),
  7. Whole Wheat (3.9%),
  8. Rice Flour (2.7%),
  9. Liquid Glucose,
  10. Corn Flour (1.8%),
  11. Honey,
  12. Malt Extract,
  13. Wheat Bran (0.6%),
  14. Wheat Flour (0.5%),
  15. Iodized Salt,
  16. Dextrose,
  17. Barley Flour (0.1%),
  18. Vitamins,
  19. Raising Agent (INS 500ii),
  20. Minerals,
  21. Antioxidant (INS 320)
Contains Added Flavours (Nature Identical and artificial cream flavouring substances)

1) Firstly, 20+ ingredients.
According to this basic recipe from the popular blog "thekitchn", homemade granola requires just 7 ingredients - Rolled oats, honey or maple syrup, oil, dry fruits, nuts, cinnamon and salt. But if you look at this pack of granola, there are so many unwanted stuff like malt extract, dextrose, liquid glucose, wheat flour etc. 

2) Macros - where do they stand as compared to our typical Indian fresh breakfasts?
Those of you who avoid parathas and idlis for breakfast because they are "carbs", please note that the ingredients of this granola pack include rice flour and wheat flour as well. I had earlier highlighted the same point in my review of Kelloggs Special-K. Please check it out if you haven't.
The table below is a comparison of the macros (Indian breakfast nutrition facts data from myfitnesspal).

Let's not forget the accompaniments. The chutney/sambhar increases the amount of protein, fibre along with various other vitamins and minerals. Not to forget the healing spices. It is only our wrong perceptions that have been carefully influenced by heavy marketing, which has made us believe that such packaged cereals are low-carb/wholesome/light etc, whereas our Indian breakfasts are high-carb/heavy etc. 

3) Typically, granola is made with honey. But if you see the ingredients list, the sweetener is primarily sugar and its various forms. The nutrition facts table states that one serving of Kelloggs granola contains 7.2 gm of sugar (around 2 tsp of sugar). But please note that this is ONLY sucrose. The other types of sugar such as glucose and dextrose are not accounted for. 

4) The fat used is the unhealthiest and cheapest oil available - refined palmolein. 

5) The first ingredient listed is "Rolled oats", which constitutes 25% of the granola mix. This would mean that a 40 gm serving would contain ONLY 10 gm of rolled oats. This also implies that the dietary fibre would be very low, which is proved in the nutrition table (2gm of fibre per serving). 
6) Synthetic additives:
Do take a note of the raising agent (INS 500ii). Sodium bicarbonate causes corrosion of the gut and digestive issues when consumed in large amounts. 

The antioxidant (INS 320) is Butylated Hydroxyanisole, which is banned in Japan because of its carcinogenic and estrogenic effects. Can cause hyperactivity, asthma and allergies. 
In my previous post, I spoke about unscrupulous nutrition experts mushrooming everywhere and how people without proper qualifications call themselves as experts and guide people in nutrition and weight loss.

This is my question to Person B who is being hailed as an Ayurveda expert in Instagram. A few days back, I came across her posts promoting Kelloggs Granola. Based on my limited understanding of Ayurveda, I believe that honey should not be heated. 
Person B, if you are a true Ayurveda follower, then how can you promote Kelloggs granola where honey is added as part of the baking process?
For those of you who like to bake granola at home without honey, here's a good recipe using jaggery.

Oct 26, 2018

Who is the right nutritionist for you?

An alarming trend I'm observing these days - 
Person A completes a basic nutrition course in Coursera and calls herself a certified nutritionist from Stanford. 
Person B goes for a one-month Ayurveda course in Kerala and claims as an Ayurveda expert, giving talks and workshops on Ayurveda. 
Person C loses weight by following Keto diet and then calls herself a Keto expert and offers weight loss packages for a hefty fee (35K-50K for 3 months). 

Nutrition and fitness are the hot topics in the past 5-6 years, given the prevalence of many lifestyle diseases. Many people are desperate to lose weight and fall for such bogus experts. There's no regulation whatsoever.

I'm perfectly okay with sharing knowledge and perspectives, but I'm concerned when people turn their half-baked knowledge into a business. I have been posting pictures of my simple, healthy meals on Instagram over the past couple of years. A few of my followers have asked me if I can help them with their weight loss. I politely declined with the reason that I'm not a qualified professional.

We seek an expert's advice ONLY when something is complex. If it is simple enough for us to interpret and make decisions, then we wouldn't need the expertise of an outsider.

Nutrition science has been intentionally made complex in the past decade, and you see so many such "experts" mushrooming at every corner, recommending one complicated diet or the other.

If you need specific advice, seek the opinion of a certified medical doctor or a qualified, experienced nutritionist. Avoid these "nethu penja mazhaiyile innikku molacha kaalan" type experts (mushrooms that sprouted after yesterday's rain).

No one knows your body and health better than you. After a meal, observe how your body reacts, how you feel in general. 

You don't need a calorie counter, a measuring scale, a health and fitness app or a dietitian to tell you the exact quantity to eat. Look inward. You'll know when you have overeaten. You'll realize which foods make you drowsy, which foods make you bloated. Mindful eating is the trending topic in the West these days. It is high time that we follow it too.

By looking inward, I was able to understand my food related ailments better.
  • Paneer makes me drowsy
  • I can't eat wheat rotis on a daily basis. I can include them at the max 2-3 times a week. Else, I feel bloated.
  • Pizza takes longer time to digest
  • Excess milk based sweets triggers my sinus
  • I know the foods that trigger migraine (excess caffeine, less water intake)
  • I'm aware of the foods to take in order to avoid menstrual migraine (iron and magnesium rich foods)
  • I can't drink a huge glass of sugarcane juice, it makes me drowsy and tired. Same with too many fruits in a single meal.
Daily food logging is a good habit but it is more than just listing down the foods we eat. It is also about how we feel after eating a certain food. No smileys or emojis please! Plain words that express how you feel.

When it comes to nutrition, you are the best person to decide what to eat. It needs discipline, focus, will power and a little effort. Instead of succumbing to these bogus experts, try to plan your meals yourself. Keep it simple, homecooked and real. I believe nutrition is quite simple, if we take the responsibility in our own hands.

Oct 25, 2018

Maggi Nutri-licious baked noodles with sweet corn

I stumbled upon yet another "healthy" variation of Maggi nutri-licious noodles in the supermarket a few days back. I had earlier written about atta noodles and oats noodles and why they aren't healthy as the brand claims. Do check it out if you haven't.

This new variation is called Maggi nutri-licious baked noodles with sweet corn. The target audience is clearly children looking at the image and the nutrition values are based on the RDA of a 8-year old child. This is the first time I'm seeing the nutrition facts based on a child's requirement. Though I'm happy about this change, the sodium % makes me question if the RDA values are correct.

(1) High Sodium
In a serving size of 60gm of baked noodles, the sodium quantity is 599.6mg. Do you see the Bata pricing tactic being employed here - 599.6mg? Why not call it out as 600mg?

The guideline daily amount % shown is 30%. If 600mg of sodium is 30%, then it implies that an average 8 year old child's guideline daily amount of sodium is around 2000mg. 

I couldn't figure out the daily amount guidelines for sodium as recommended by National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad. Will try to reach out to them to see if there are India specific guidelines and update here if I get any answers.

Meanwhile, using the data from American Heart Association (AHA), the recommended daily amount of sodium for 8+ year old kids and adults is 1500mg and the upper max limit is 2300mg.

So irrespective of whether it is baked, fried, atta, oats, corn or the regular noodles, one cannot deny the fact that all such noodle variants are HIGH in sodium. 

(2) Where's the corn?
The packaging imagery is filled with sweet corn kernels which is one of the favorite foods for most kids. But if you look at the ingredients, the dehydrated sweet corn is ONLY 4.5%. What should be the maximum value of a particular ingredient if the brand intends to use it as part of their branding? A brand adds 10% quinoa and calls it quinoa chips. Another brand uses 4.5% sweet corn and calls it noodles with sweet corn.There's no such regulations/guidelines in our country and brands misuse it big time.

(3) Low fat but still made with maida
Yes, the total fats are low compared to other variants, but the noodles cake is made with maida/refined wheat flour. Maida has no nutrition whatsoever, it spikes up the blood glucose levels which affects the pancreas in the long run.

(4) Where's the protein and fibre?
The brand mentions that this baked noodles is a source of protein and fibre in a child's diet. If you look at the nutrition facts, a single serving contains ONLY 4.6gm of protein and 2.5gm of fibre. Regular Maggi has slightly better protein and fibre, if you do a comparison.

(5) Flavor Enhancer
Though the noodles cake is baked, the tastemaker (masala pack) ingredients mostly remain the same, which includes flavor enhancer 635 - disodium ribonucleotides. I have written about this ingredient in my earlier post on Maggi Masala-ae-magic.

If you or your child crave Maggi, buy the regular variant once in a while. These supposedly "healthy" variants are a big sham and not worth consuming on a daily basis. 

What next? Quinoa variant? Ragi or any other millet variant? The same story will repeat itself. Add a teeny tiny percentage of these healthy grains, keep the rest of the ingredients same and position it as a healthy snack for kids/adults. This trend seems to be never ending, unless we as consumers stop falling for this trick.

Oct 23, 2018

Seek inspiration from within

Mental Health Awareness Day is observed every year on Oct 10th. I had earlier posted an article related to mental health around this time of the year, as it is such an important topic that needs to be discussed.

Many times, we wonder why life throws so many challenges to us, while the rest of the world (friends, relatives, social circle etc) seems to be having so much fun and enjoying their life. 

Firstly, we cannot and should not judge someone's life based on what they share on social media. We like to share our life's best moments, while we sulk alone or with close family members during our worst moments. So let's consciously put an effort not to be affected by social media. I'm active on social media mainly for inspiration, to get ideas and to learn about interesting stuff. Lately I have been quite active on Instagram. I get inspiration from many foodies who share similar passion towards healthy eating and cooking like me. There are also a lot of people whom I haven't met in person but we share mutual respect and common interests. So I believe not all social media is bad, we just need to identify what we are looking for and the platform that provides the same.

Secondly, the most important point. You may disagree with me if you are not a spiritual person and that's totally fine. I have started to believe in this following principle - 

"God gives the right amount of challenges to those who can handle them and come out strong". 

 So if I find someone in my social circle who seems to be having fun and enjoying life without any difficulties, while I face certain challenges, then I tell myself that I'm becoming a stronger and a better person. That these experiences are helping me evolve and prepare myself to take on new challenges.

In the earlier days when I became a mother, I was struggling with raising my daughter D without any family help. It was a totally new experience and I had no clue whatsoever on many things - feeding her, giving her a bath, putting her to sleep, soothing her when she has a colic etc. When I see moms who have it all easy and get ample support from their mothers/MILs, I used to think why I'm not getting any help and used to feel bad about it. I wrote about this in my earlier article on self-pity as well. Please check it out if you haven't.

Now when I look back, these 7 years since D was born have been the most challenging and most exciting phase of my life. If I had someone to help me with, I might have just lazed around or taken up a full time job that doesn't give time for anything else. I wouldn't have invested that time and energy to understand child nutrition, perils of packaged foods, importance of eating local and traditional etc. When I read messages from my Insta friends that they have made changes to their eating habits after reading my posts, I feel so grateful and blessed. My blog has been super active in the past few years. From cooking basic dishes and "OB adichifying" (taking it easy) with curd rice for dinner most often after a long day of work, I now invest a lot of time to cook 2-3 meals a day for myself and my family. I came out of my comfort zone and tried out a catering service, cooking traditional Indian meals for my apartment neighbours. I have fallen in love with Yoga and been a regular for the past 3.5 years. I take care of my health much better in my 30s than in my 20s.

Given my family circumstances, I knew earlier on that going for a full time job is out of the question. If I had to make that possible, I had to place my trust either on a nanny or a day care. The first option was ruled out as I'm not comfortable with leaving my daughter alone with a third person. I tried a couple of day cares for a few months and was so disappointed with the "care" they give to young kids. Most of them resort to playing TV or youtube videos the whole afternoon. So I decided that I need to take care of my daughter and at the same time, continue to build my identity. I don't want to use the word "career", as it comes with many underlying notions. I want my own identity in this world, that lets me seek meaning and leave an impact. I also understood something about myself in this journey. I'm neither a perfect home maker nor a career driven, working woman. I want to be somewhere in the middle. While many have discouraged me that the "middle" path will take me nowhere, I persisted. Ever since my daughter turned 1.5 years old, I have been working part-time, telecommute, work-from-home, project based opportunities etc. I'm happy and content doing product management work and I'm not concerned about my title or the typical growth paths that a product manager strives towards in software organizations. Yes, this path has given me financial freedom, flexibility, the option of choosing work that I like to do and most importantly, to be there with my daughter during these crucial years.

If this all sounds like my ego talking, let it be. Because I want to revisit this post often whenever I'm down on motivation and need inspiration. We often seek inspiration from others, sometimes the inspiration could just be ourselves, when we did something out of the ordinary, when we pushed ourselves, when we came out of our comfort zone or when we went after our goals. So it is okay to recognize and be happy about one's accomplishments, however big or small it may be. We (women) often have high expectations of ourselves and fail to acknowledge our little milestones. I would urge you to take some time and write a similar post that you can look back and feel inspired about yourself. Write in your journal, blog, social media page, wherever you are comfortable with. Let your own words guide you towards inspiration, because only when you feel inspired, you feel the magic happening from within.

Oct 9, 2018

A primer on how to read food labels

Image Source: https://fssai.gov.in/EatRightMovement/back.jsp

 Recently, I came across this FSSAI page that talks about decoding back of the pack. The explanation is at a very high level and doesn't include any useful details whatsoever, that will help the consumer understand the ingredients and make a purchase decision. My guess is that they don't want consumers to dive into any further details.
This post below is a summary of how to read and interpret food labels. This post is intended for those who have never read food labels before and would like some pointers to get started. Readers who have read my previous posts can skim through or treat this post as a revision :-)

Whenever you pick a packaged food from a shop/supermarket, the first thing you do is ignore all the attractive images and taglines in the front of the pack. Simply flip over and turn to the back of the pack.
  1. Firstly, check the manufacturing date and expiry date. The product shouldn't have gone past the expiry date or shouldn't be too close to expiry. Might sound very basic, but many people don't even check this, especially senior citizens.
  2. Check the expiry date/best before. If it is greater than 3-4 months, be a little cautious that there might be preservatives added to extend the shelf life.
  3. Look at the ingredients list. 
    1. Count the number of ingredients. The higher the number of ingredients, the higher the chances of the product being highly processed. 5-6 "identifiable" ingredients is okay but we should be concerned if it exceeds this limit.
    2. Among the ingredients, count the number of ingredients that starts with INS or E followed by a number. Usually, they will be listed as emulsifiers, stabilizers, acidity regulators, improvers, preservatives etc. This is especially important for foods that you consume on a daily basis - breakfast cereal, ketchup, bread, chocolate spread etc. If the pack doesn't have any such ingredient, then it might be classified as "OK to buy"
    3. The order in which the ingredients are listed matter a lot. The first ingredient is the one with the highest quantity. Check the first three ingredients. If it is either sugar, wheat flour or refined vegetable oil, then you can conclude it as having either high-sugar, high-refined-carbs or high-unhealthy-fats respectively. For eg, Nutella's first ingredient is Sugar.
    4. If you see "wheat flour" listed as one of the ingredients, it means it is refined wheat flour (maida). If whole wheat flour is used, the name would be explicitly listed as "whole wheat flour".
    5. If the brand claims as "multi-grain", check the percentage of various other grains. Chances are that they might be very less. If the brand claims as "zero sugar", check for artificial sweeteners. 
    6. Sugar comes in various names and avatars. If you see ingredients such as liquid glucose, invert syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose etc, then you can conclude that it is loaded with sugar.
    7. Regarding fats, look at the source of oils used. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are the worst. 
  4. Now that you have gone through the ingredients list, you would have a fair idea of what's inside the pack. Turn your attention to serving size, number of servings and the quantity of the pack. Usually all three metrics will be given. If not, the quantity of the pack and serving size will be provided, using which you can decipher the number of servings. 
  5. Take a look at the nutrition facts table.
    1. Based on step #4, figure out whether the nutrition facts table is applicable for "per-serving" or for the whole pack. 
    2. Unless you are into counting calories, you can skip the calories part. I usually focus on the macro-nutrients.
    3. Under carbohydrates, you will see sugar listed. 1 tsp of sugar is equivalent to 4 gm. Calculate the tsps of sugar per serving. If it is greater than 2 tsp, you can conclude that it is a high-sugar product.
    4. Look at the quantity of sodium per serving. Since there are no strict regulations on sodium, many brands conveniently skip it (McCain frozen foods for example). If the sodium quantity is greater than 200mg per serving, you can conclude that it is high on salt. These are not industry-defined standards which could be biased or "fixed" by big food conglomerates. This is how I as a mom evaluate a product. 
    5. If the pack says "high fibre", "high protein", "high calcium" etc, look for the exact values in the nutrition facts table. If the serving contains more than 7gm of fibre per serving, then it can be considered as a high fibre food. Most brands that claim high fibre hardly contain 2-3gm.
    6. It is also important to figure out the source of these "nutrients". Quaker Oats milk claims that it is high in fibre but if you look at the source of that fibre, it is polydextrose and not oats.
This might seem like a lot of steps, but trust me, once you get into the habit of reading labels, this would become second nature to you. You would be able to decipher the ingredients in less than a minute. Let's become more mindful of our grocery shopping. Let's invest that time to read through the labels for the sake of our good health.
Hope you find this post helpful. If you have any questions or need further clarification, do share in the comments below.

Oct 4, 2018

3 reasons why I would choose idli over healthy pizza

Last week, we celebrated D's birthday and hosted a small party for a group of her friends (aged 3-8 years). As always, I stuck to my no-junk-food rule. I had taken the help of a friend who cooks amazing North Indian food to prepare snacks for the birthday party.  She gave me a wide variety of options and I selected
Pooris and aloo gravy
Veg cutlet
Dahi bhalla

Ofcourse, birthday cake was also there!

What's the one food that unites all urban kids? The answer is pizza. It is the default item in all birthday parties. I so wanted to change that. Why can't it be pooris or dahi vadas? Or for that matter any other Indian food? Why are our kids crazy about pizza, noodles and pasta? I tried to see if an Indian snack menu like the above would appeal to young kids of this generation.

Although the food was yummy and tasty (adults devoured it), the kids hardly ate anything. Except for the cake and lemonade, they just nibbled a few bites of poori.

Wrong judgment call from my side. But I just cannot compromise on my food beliefs. One might ask, it is just one birthday party, why can't the kids eat what they want? Kids go to atleast 2-3 parties a month and the menu is the same - junk food, pizza, sandwiches or noodles. They eat the same during weekends too. Maathi yosikkalaame! (let's think differently). D ate a couple of pooris and half a dahi vada. I guess I should just feel happy about that and not worry too much. But I couldn't.

I had posted this on Instagram to let out my thoughts but I couldn't sleep that night. My mind was extremely active, thinking about how this problem can be solved.

There were a couple of constructive comments to this Insta post of mine, that got me thinking even more. 

" I dont think it should be about Western (pizza and pasta) vs Indian (Samosa and chat). Even pizza can be healthy if it is made from sourdough or ragi gluten free base."

"I don't see any harm in making your own whole what pizza dough at home or buying organic whole grain pasta or Millet noodles.... Its of course not in a daily basis...it depends on each one what you want to eat and how healthy u wanna make it.simple. There's nothing wrong in healthyfying non Indian dishes..and as a foodie, the challenge is to make all the non Indian dishes as healthy and as tasty as possible."

I respect these alternative perspectives but here are my reasons why I would want my child to love and eat Indian foods rather than a healthy pizza.

What's the need?
Why do we need to pick pizza/pasta/noodles and take the effort (and/or pay a premium) to healthify it when we have inherently healthy dishes like idli, poha, kichdi, paratha and more? It is okay to indulge in non-Indian foods once in a while, irrespective of whether they are healthified or not. But the more I observe, I notice that kids are overly becoming dependent on such popular foods. Any party you go to, you find these dishes. You go to a restaurant, kids would like to order them. You find them in a school lunch caterer menu. I wouldn't be surprised if a traditional wedding menu will start to include these items (maybe, it is already happening)

Are we losing our identity?
One might argue, "What's wrong? We have to adapt to the modern times". My point is "Isn't it our responsibility to pass on our food traditions and values to our children?". Food, clothing and language are all part of one's identity. Shouldn't we be worried that we are losing our identity from all directions? As parents, it is our responsibility to pass on the food wisdom to our kids. People who are born in the 70s and 80s are what I call "bridge generation". They have had exposure to traditional foods, recipes and food customs from their parents/grandparents while growing up. The current generation of kids don't seem to get this knowledge from parents or grandparents. Globalization, media, availability of junk food, peer pressure etc have pushed native Indian cuisines out of their selection criteria. I find it scary to know that if I don't teach my daughter her "mother cuisine", she would no longer have that connection to her local food. 

Dependency on market:
Even if you don't agree to the above two reasons, I hope you can relate to this important point.

In order to healthify these non-Indian popular dishes, most people are dependent on the market
  • millet noodles
  • whole wheat pasta
  • whole wheat / multigrain bread
Firstly, the market dictates the price and position such products in the premium category because of the health tag. Not everyone can afford such products.

Second, such products tagged under "health" category are marketed heavily but if you carefully look into the ingredients and nutrition table, you'd realize it is just a eye-wash tweaking the ingredients a little bit but they aren't really as healthy as they claim to be. Someone recently shared with me the ingredients list of "quinoa pasta", which had just around 35% quinoa and the rest was durum wheat semolina. 

The brand Cornitos Nacho Crisps has launched a "Quinoa" nachos with the tagline "the healthy nachos" but if you look at the ingredients, it has ONLY 10% quinoa. 

I had earlier written about brown bread and why it isn't healthy as many believe.

As long as we take charge of the healthification process (that's not even a word but hope the meaning is clear) and not depend on the market to do it for us, it is okay. But people who make such preparations from scratch are an exception. The majority of the affluent population end up buying premium looking packs of noodles and pasta from Nature's Basket, thinking they are buying something healthy but without realizing what's in the ingredients list. 

To prepare any non-Indian dishes, a range of packaged products are lined up on the supermarket shelves. I wrote a separate post on this recently, please check it out if you haven't.

In conclusion, I would like to make sure that 80-90% of my daughter's daily menu includes dishes that I have eaten while growing up. I strongly believe that eating local, seasonal and traditional is the ONLY way to good health.

Oct 3, 2018

Cornitos Nachos Quinoa Crisps Review

When a packaged food brand says quinoa on the front label, I get excited. Not because I want to buy it but I know I'll definitely have something to write about.

All buzz words on the front side - quinoa, chia seeds, flaxseeds, himalayan pink salt, high protein, high fibre etc. But turn to the back side of the pack and the truth unveils itself. 

Only 10% is quinoa. Yes, it is printed in the ingredients list, just that not many of us care to read it. Chia seeds and flaxseeds follow quinoa, which means they are less than 10%. 60% is corn. The oil used is refined corn oil. How different is this from regular nachos? 

What about high protein, high fibre? Well, the answer is there in the nutrition facts table. One serving contains ONLY 3 gm of fibre and 2 gm of protein.

This shows the pathetic state of regulations in our country. Brands can claim anything. We as consumers need to be vigilant about these tall health claims. Let's not fall blindly for quinoa, chia seeds, avocado or any other hyped up foods. Yes, I'm talking about millets too. Many brands use ragi to portray themselves as a health brand. Read, read and read the ingredients list.

Sep 19, 2018

Dr Oetker's FunFoods Zero Fat Smokey Pineapple Dressing Review

I always come up with a bunch of blog ideas after a Chennai trip. The reasons are many - 
1) I get to watch TV (and the ads) 
2) I get to read newspaper 
3) I get valuable advice from family elders, who blindly believe whatever junk food brands claim - high calcium / high protein / high fibre and what not.
During the long weekend trip, I stumbled upon this ad of "Dr.Oetker's FunFoods Smokey Pineapple dressing". What grabbed my attention was, you guessed it right, "zero fat". If the brand just says "high taste, taste mein hero, super yum" and similar such phrases, my brain would selectively ignore it but the moment the health buzz words are thrown in, I become alert and watch the ad with interest.

Let's clarify a basic formula. Packaged foods are made addictive due to 3 elements - sugar, salt and oil. If you remove one of the 3 elements, then the brands compensate it by increasing the other 2. Yes, there are other artificial flavor enhancers too, but these 3 elements in various proportions are the key to any junk food formulation.

So now that FunFoods claims "zero fat", obviously they must have increased sugar and salt in their dressing. I wanted to confirm my hypothesis. As I searched for this brand in Big Basket, look what I found in their ingredients list:

So disappointed! This is exactly the reason why we need strong regulations in place where the e-commerce players are forced to list the ingredients of packaged foods. If we shop offline, atleast there is a chance that we might take a look at the pack and might read the details. I know not many of us do that but there is hope.

I then searched in Flipkart and found the details I was looking for.

Ingredients List:
Water, Pineapple (20%), 
Sugar, Liquid Glucose, Iodised Salt, 
Acidity Regulators (INS260, INS296, INS330),
Jaggery, Stabilizers (INS440, INS415),
Mixed Spices, Preservatives (INS211, INS202), Spice Extract

1) There are no fat related ingredients and so it is true about zero fat. But look at the sugar, along with liquid glucose. This dressing contains 19.4 gm of sugar per 100 gm. Pineapple is in itself a sweet tasting fruit, then why do we need 20% sugar?

2) The nutrition table doesn't list the quantity of sodium. It is high time that FSSAI puts forth a regulation to list sodium in ALL packaged foods. It is certainly not optional anymore.

3) It is important that we take a note of the various additives in the form of acidity regulators and stabilizers. One might argue that if we consume them occasionally, it may not be a concern. But these brands want consumers to include such dressings in our meals on a daily basis. They are pitching this dressing to be used NOT just for salads but also as dips or in wraps and subs. The more we consume, the more profits they make. But do we know the long term effects of consuming such additives on a daily basis?

4) The expiry date of this dressing is 6 months from manufacture date. This long shelf life is made feasible because of the preservatives:
INS 211 -  Sodium Benzoate. I wrote about this preservative in detail in my earlier post on Kissan tomato ketchup. Do check it out.
INS 202 - Potassium Sorbate. In a study, potassium sorbate is seen to be genotoxic to the human peripheral blood lymphocytes (white blood cells). In another study, potassium sorbate in combination with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) caused mutagenecity and DNA damaging activity.

Which dubakoor (meaning "fake") doctor comes up with such formulation? Or the Dr in the brand name plays a similar role to that of a doctor coat wearing lady in the ad promoting Pediasure for immunity?

We need to be quite cautious about these new products that are entering Indian supermarket shelves before we embrace them blindly as "cool, hip and modern". We deserve better food, not such chemical loaded dressings that cause DNA damage.


Sep 15, 2018

Restore ruminations

Last evening, I finally made time to visit the organic store "Restore" in Kottivaakkam, Chennai. It was such a beautiful sight to see organic dry groceries (traditional rice varieties, millets and pulses) stocked up in huge tins. There were also many kinds of cold-pressed oils. Customers are supposed to bring their own containers and pick up the required stuff. It brought back memories of my childhood where we used to visit a "Chettiyaar Kadai" every month for groceries. The annas would pack the groceries in newspapers and we would pick up chekku oils in oil cans. No plastic packaging whatsoever.

I didn't go to Restore with the intention of buying any groceries and so didn't carry any containers. I just bought a couple of items that were packed in plastic bags along with a few books. As we were driving back home, my mind started to wander, "Wish I had a similar store in Bangalore. Oh wait, if it is not there, why can't I start something with a similar promise - organic grocery store with no packaging? Seems like a good idea. Need to think about it".

We then went to Besant Nagar Beach - a mandatory visit that my daughter D loves. It was a Friday evening and the beach wasn't crowded. As we walked down the sand, D started to pick some plastic spoons and plastic lids from water bottles. As she sat down to play with her collection, I couldn't bear to see the sheer amount of plastic on the beach sand - plastic spoons, plastic straws, green lids from plastic bottles etc. I started picking handfuls of such plastic waste and was dumping them in the garbage bin nearby. It was anger, frustration and helplessness that pushed me to do a teeny tiny bit of cleanup. After a few times of collecting and dropping the plastic waste, I noticed a stray dog that was defecating on the sand. I stopped and asked myself, "What am I doing? I cannot do such impulsive cleanup acts. I need proper gloves, a bag to collect the waste and drop them in the garbage bin". I stopped and we proceeded to the beach. The beautiful waves, clear sky and the stunning sight of horizon calmed me a little bit but I was lost in my thoughts. 

The news about the hurricanes, the recent Kerala floods and many such calamities are a proof that mother earth is fighting back. How much we have taken her for granted? We are destroying our planet in all possible ways. Our heinous acts have led to a state where the air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is contaminated and the food we eat is loaded with chemicals. 

A few days back, we went to a "health" restaurant in Bangalore - the food was good, the service was awesome but the price for a meal for 3 was around Rs.1500. If I want to switch to organic groceries at home, I have to pay double the price. I'm also quite suspicious about the claims made by various organic brands. I read somewhere that it would take between 4-5 years to convert the soil which had been previously cultivated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers into a soil fit for organic produce. How come we see a sudden proliferation of organic produce everywhere? How can I as a consumer validate organic claims? I might be able to afford organic but what about middle and lower income-group of people? Does that mean only if you have a high disposable income, you can eat good quality food?

It was also the day of 2.0 teaser launch. The underlying message that I interpret was that the birds are fighting against mobile phones. "The world is meant not only for humans" - how true! The atrocities towards orangutans because of rapid deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia just because our demand for palm oil has increased and we want to eat food out of a packet. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every decision of ours has repercussions. We are constantly making trade-offs that impact not just our health and life but also the other species on the planet who have equal rights just like us. Why do we stand tall with that ego that we humans are superior? 

There are just too many questions running in my mind. I may or may not find the answers. I don't want to feel depressed about the state of the world. Hopefully these questions will lead me to someplace productive and impactful.

Aug 20, 2018

Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli Review

Over the past couple of months, I have been conducting workshops for parents of young children to share my understanding of packaged foods. One of the most common questions I get is “What about muesli? Is it healthy? Can I have it everyday for breakfast?”.

Firstly, I would highly recommend that you try and find out the answer by yourself. 

There are 1000s of packaged food brands in the supermarkets and I have managed to analyze ONLY around 50 of them so far. My intention is NOT to analyze each and every product. Rather my objective is to show how easy it is to understand and decipher the ingredients by yourself, so that as a consumer, you can make the right choice, before you add an item to your shopping cart.

Now to the How? 
Read the labels - Ingredients list and nutrition facts table. Yes, as simple as that.

Many years back, I used to have a bowl of Baggrys muesli every single day for breakfast. Because it was quick and convenient. After I started reading the ingredients, I no longer buy it. As a family, we no longer do the “cereal” business in the mornings anymore. The umpteen number of synthetic chemicals in the form of preservatives and flavours, sugar hidden in various forms and on top of it, the expensive price we had to pay for each box - we realised how ridiculous this habit is! The recent news about Glyphosate present in numerous breakfast cereals in the US is something that we all need to be aware of, especially those living in India who associate eating "cereal" breakfast with their self-esteem.

Yesterday, we had a bowl of fruit salad for breakfast and today it was Rava Upma with a little lemon pickle. Our other options are idli, dosa, paratha, poha etc.

Let’s see the Ingredients of Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli - Mixed fruit with almonds & raisins

Rolled Oats (40.3%)
Whole wheat flakes 28.4% (Wheat, sugar, iodised salt, Malt extract, antioxidant - INS 322)
Strawberry crush 10.9% (Sugar, water, strawberry pulp, thickener (INS 440), acidity regulator (INS 330 & INS 331), Contains Class II preservatives (INS 224 & INS 211))
Apple Juice Concentrate (3.5%)
Pineapple Crush (3.5%)
Broken rolled wheat
Raisins (3%)
Almonds (2.1%)
Invert Syrup
Wheat bran
Oat bran
Honey (1%)
Beetroot powder

(Contains added flavour (S) - Natural, nature identical flavouring substances)

1) Take a note of the two Class II preservatives
INS 224 - potassium metabisulfite. May cause asthmatic and allergic reactions.
INS 211 - sodium benzoate. Linked to hyperactivity and asthma. When combined with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), sodium benzoate may form benzene, a known carcinogen.

Why would we want to consume such harmful chemicals on a daily basis?

2) For a Serving size of 30gm, the amount of added Sugar (Sucrose) is 2.4 gm (or a little more than 1/2 tsp of sugar). It isn’t much, we might think. But take a look at this ingredient “Invert syrup”. It is composed of equal parts of glucose and fructose (the other kinds of sugar), the amounts of which are not shared. Having tasted this pack of Muesli, I can say that it is definitely on the sweeter side (much more than 1/2 tsp of sugar per serving size).

3) Most of us switch to oats and muesli mainly because of the “fibre”. But do they really have high fibre as they claim? For a serving size of 30 gm, the Dietary fibre present is ONLY 3.2 gm. The oats and wheat flakes are highly processed, that they hardly have any fibre. Starting the day with local fruits like guava, papaya and banana will give us much more fibre, along with various other vitamins and minerals.

This is just one example of a Muesli brand. There are many other brands such as Kelloggs, Soulfull, Saffola etc. Before you pick one, read the ingredients - Are they all natural? Are there any unfamiliar names? What’s the sugar level per serving? 

Mindful shopping is the need of the hour. Let’s not dump things to our shopping cart, just because we have habituated ourselves to certain products and routines.

Jul 27, 2018

Maggi Atta Noodles Review

A few days back, I was delivering a talk to a group of mothers. As I was walking through my slides on the ingredients of one packaged food after another, a couple of them remarked, “please please don’t include Maggi in your list” :-)

The unanimously favourite junk food (or indulgence) for people who grew up in the 80s and 90s had to be Maggi. And for many of us, that would have been the first dish we learned to cook ;-) So we have such deep, emotional connect with the brand (which other noodle brands envy) - the connect so powerful that even after the lead controversy, the brand seemed to have bounced back.

In my 20s, whenever I return home late from work, Maggi with veggies used to be the default dinner. Or when I return early, I would wipe off a bowl of Maggi with onion raitha as an evening snack. Weird combo, you might think but my absolute favourite!

Now, after many years of clean eating, I can’t eat even a spoonful of it, let alone a bowl. My tongue rejects the overpowering salty taste and artificial flavours. I don’t crave for Maggi anymore.

For others who still love to eat Maggi, my ONLY suggestion would be to eat a small bowl once in a while (say, once in a month or two). Just because there are many “so-called” health variants, please don’t indulge on a more frequent basis. The health variants are a big sham. I had earlier written about the oats noodles, please check it out if you haven’t read it.

Let’s talk about Atta noodles in this post:

1. The pack says it has 78.7% atta. Most flours are generally called atta - chawal ka atta, ghehun ka atta, nachni ka atta. What does “atta” refer to? Is it wholewheat flour? That’s one area of ambiguity. 
2. The pack states that a portion of Maggi atta noodles has the fibre of 3 rotis, whereas the nutrition table states that a portion of atta noodles has 4.5 gm of fibre. A small 6-inch chapathi contains 2 gm of fibre, so 3 chapathis would contain 6 gm of fibre, which doesn’t match to Maggi’s claims. Another area of ambiguity.
3. Most of us add very little salt to our chapathi dough but look at the sodium level in Maggi atta noodles - each portion contains a whopping 825 mg of sodium. Though it is slightly less as compared to regular Maggi, it is still a high number if you are consuming it on a regular basis, thinking you are making a healthy choice.
4. Added gluten causes acidity, bloating, constipation and various other digestive issues. That’s one of the reasons why packaged branded atta flour isn’t recommended. Look at the 3rd ingredient - yes, wheat gluten. IF the atta refers to wholewheat, then what’s the need for added gluten?
5. The noodles also contain various other chemical additives in the form of thickeners, acidity regulators and humectant. 
6. The “taste maker” masala powder is being promoted extensively with a message that it contains ONLY freshly roasted spices. Why aren’t the ad celebrities (guys from "highway on my plate”) talking about flavour enhancer (635)? I have written a separate post on the Maggi masala-ae-magic powder where I have highlighted the side effects of 635. 

Signaling” is a powerful concept in marketing to create symbols/associations in the minds of consumers. The brand is associating itself with a “health” tag through their promotion - “Win Garmin fitness tracker every hour”. Though the actual product isn’t healthy, this promotion creates that association.

In Instagram, I saw a few food bloggers promoting Maggi through an event “Maggi’s kitchen journeys” organised in Goa that celebrates women who made their dreams come true through the culinary route. Guess what the hashtag is - #KuchAcchaPakRahaHai
Give "OC trip, OC saapadu" and these food bloggers are always ready to promote any junk and add such hashtags (OC implies free)

If we eliminate ALL Maggi packs (noodles, taste makers, masala, bhuna masala gravy etc) from our kitchen, then yes there are high chances of #KuchAcchaPakRahaHai. Else the situation will eventually be #HumPakGaye 

Jul 16, 2018

Book Review: So good they can't ignore you by Cal Newport

Some books you find interesting, some you find insightful while only a few would feel like they understand you and were written especially for you. I felt this way when I read “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert a couple of years back. Over the past one week, I was engrossed in Cal Newport’s "So good they can’t ignore you”. The underlying message felt so relatable and clarified many questions that were haunting me.

Last year, I read “Deep work” by the same author. It was such an insightful read on how our distracted daily routine with multitasking and busyness derails our ability to engross in deep, meaningful work with utmost focus. Here’s my detailed review. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend that you check it out.

“So good they can’t ignore you” as the subtitle suggests is all about why investing in building skills is more important than mere passion in the quest for work you love. 

I find these two phrases - “identify your passion” and “do the work you love” to be quite ambiguous and misleading. Does that mean that all of us need to identify what we love when we decide on our college major? It is an extremely tough ask if you haven’t had enough exposure to various options while growing up. As people grow and evolve, interests and passions also change. 

Coming back to the book, the author details out the pitfalls of adopting the “passion mindset”, a focus on what value your job offers you.
“When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness”.
As an alternative, he recommends what he calls the “craftsman mindset”, a focus on what value you are producing in your job.
“Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer”.
The main outcome of adopting a craftsman mindset is to work on acquiring your career capital.
"If you want to do great work, you need to build up rare and valuable skills - career capital - to offer in return.”
Identifying these rare and valuable skills, consciously stretching yourself through deliberate practice and seeking out active feedback are ways by which you go about increasing your career capital. 

The career capital you have accumulated would help you find great work - ones that offer rare and valuable traits such as control, creativity and impact/mission. 

Control - gives you command over what work you do, when you do and how you do it. It is one of the powerful motivators of a fulfilling career.

An overarching mission enables one to look at their career as a way to make a meaningful impact. In order to make this mission come true, the author recommends a strategy called “little bets” - small and achievable projects that help one to learn from small but significant wins and lots of little failures. These little bets also need to remarkable - compelling people to remark about it. 

This might sound like a lot of theory, but what I have learned is that irrespective of the work you do, you need to consciously build rare and valuable skills. This “career capital” would help you achieve those traits of great work like working towards a mission, having control over what you do and applying your creativity without any bureaucratic barriers. If you look at it, one ends up wanting to pursue their passion in order to achieve the same results.

It was an insightful read with a lot of relevant examples and case-studies. At times, it does tend to get a little dragging and repetitive. But it is worth taking the time to absorb the material and ponder over it, especially if you are an early to mid-stage working professional.

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