Dec 31, 2018

2018 in review

Keeping up with the habit of reviewing the year gone by, here's how my 2018 went. 
I started off 2018 with a few intentions. I didn't want to label them as resolutions or goals as they sound too restrictive. 

As always, I wanted to try a few things which I've never done before. 2018 was the year when I ran my first 5K and 10K runs - 5K millet awareness run in Jan and 10K Pinkathon run in Feb. I didn't do any special trainings for the marathon as the regular yoga practice kept me more agile. My Yoga teacher taught me to concentrate on my breathing during the run and also a few stretches to do before and after the run. These helped tremendously and I completed both the runs without much tiredness or exhaustion and was able to recover quickly. Though I enjoyed the runs, I'm not planning to register for them anymore. Yes, it gives a sense of accomplishment but looking at the tangible (registration fees, petrol expenses to drive to and from the far-off marathon locations) and intangible costs (the daunting amount of plastic waste each marathon generates), I don't think they are worth it. If I want to set and achieve running goals, I might as well run around the lake nearby my apartment.

In 2017, I started to write detailed posts on ingredients of various packaged foods. Many readers appreciated the efforts and some of them even messaged me saying that they have stopped buying such packaged foods after reading my posts. I continued with reviewing more packaged foods in 2018 and analyzed over 25+ products in my blog. 2018 also brought me a few opportunities to speak to parents/communities on what goes in packaged foods. I enjoyed preparing and delivering the talks as they combine my two favorite interest areas - public speaking and nutrition. The most memorable talk was the one I gave at Bhoomi College to students pursuing a programme on sustainable living.

The no-junk-food birthday party continued this year and though it was a FLOP, I'm glad I stuck to my beliefs. I continued the same practice for Halloween celebrations as well. For most festivals this year, I prepared traditional sweets and savories. I want my daughter to be aware of various Indian festivals and I plan to continue celebrating all festivals with the same traditions that my grandmothers used to follow.

This year, husband and I went for a couple of workshops together - First, a water colour painting workshop. We both had fun teasing each other on how our painting skills are so pathetic 😉 Then we went for a minimalism workshop, a topic that is of interest to both of us. This workshop introduced me to Durgesh Nandini, who practices minimalism and zero waste among various other things. I find her ideas very inspirational and easy to connect to. Call it serendipity, I bumped into her again in the zero waste meetup in Chennai. I visited her minimalistic home and we chatted for 2 hours on various topics. I returned home with a lot of inspirations and ideas to work in 2019.

I rarely take part in any activity being organized in my apartment. Though I want to, the timings are just not working out. This year, I participated in a poetry reading session and it was truly enjoyable. I read a few poems of mine and it was so interesting to hear poetry written by others.

After repeated failed attempts to get my voter registration done, I FINALLY managed to get my voter ID card this year and I voted for the first time in Karnataka assembly elections. This milestone needs to be tracked in my review.

On the professional front, I took up a consulting assignment to identify and define a minimum viable product for a particular area in the education space. It gave me good exposure to understand the current challenges students face in showcasing their capabilities and becoming job-ready. 

This year, D moved to 1st grade, which means an early school start time and 3 boxes (breakfast, snack, lunch) to be packed by 6:45AM. This has been a big challenge for me, since I'm a slow starter in the mornings. So my weekdays begin at 5-5:15AM and I finish cooking breakfast and lunch by 7AM, send her off to school by 7:15 and head straight to Yoga class. After Yoga, my work begins immediately after a quick breakfast. Since the weekday mornings have become so rushed, I decided to take it easy on weekends and I stopped my weekend breakfast catering work that I used to offer to my apartment neighbours.

Though I had set a goal of reading 50 books this year, I managed to finish only 16 and a few are in progress.

1. Keepers of the Kalachakra by Ashwin Sanghi
2. The Big Switch by John Thomas
3. The girl who chose by Devdutt Pattanaik
4. When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi
5. Naattu Marundhu Kadai by Dr. G Sivaraman
6. So you want to know about economics by Roopa Pai
7. You can achieve more by Shiv Khera
8. Aayiram Sooriyan Aayiram Chandiran Oru Bhoomi by M.Senthamizhan
9. Job Be Damned by Rishi Piparaiya
10. So good they can’t ignore you by Cal Newport
11. The fault in our stars by John Greene
12. Amma - Jayalalitha's memoir by Vaasanthi
13.When she went away by Andaleeb Wajid
14.Ikigai by Hector Garcia
15.The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh
16.Unavu yuddham by S.Ramakrishnan

We did 3 long weekend trips this year - Coimbatore, Ooty and Pondicherry. And frequent visits to Chennai. Other than these, we couldn't do much of traveling. 

Tried out 20+ new recipes, didn't track the count accurately. I guess it is not needed either, as long as I have the spark to try out new recipes.

It isn't all productive as it might sound. You want to know how I wasted my time this year? I binge-watched the series - The Middle, Castle, Young Sheldon, Zindagi gulzar hai and Humsafar. I'm a human! ;-)

So that's my long review of 2018. 

Let me share my intentions for 2019 - being mindful of my time and energy, minimize things at home and consciously reduce waste, invest more time doing deep work and consciously improve my focus and attention. Other focus areas like eating healthy, Yoga, staying active, no compromise on sleep will continue in 2019.

Wishing you all a very happy, healthy and peaceful New Year 2019!! 

Dec 30, 2018

Book Review: Ramayana vs Mahabharata by Devdutt Patnaik

The title of this book leads one to believe that it attempts to show how different the 2 epics are from one another. As one reads the book however, it becomes clear that the intention of the book is two fold. It brings out the similarities as well as the differences. This is also evident from how the book is structured, its grouped into 8 sections with multiple chapters and the title of each chapter begins with "Both".

For example, "Both are family disputes over property". If you have the faintest recollection of the 2 epics, you might be able to guess what this is referring to. In the Ramayana, Bharat's mother Kaikeyi convinces Dasharatha to make Rama go into exile, which he accepts willingly. In the Mahabharata, the Kauravas trick the Pandavas to do the same through an act of gambling. 

The author show other parts of the epics that relate to the same theme. For example, in the Ramayana, the family dispute also occurs between Vali & Sugriva, who are brothers. Vali overpowers Sugriva by might and banishes him from the kingdom. Ravana also does the same with his half-brother, Kubera before establishing his rule over Lanka. The latter is usually not covered in many renditions of the epic, and thus the book also educates the reader on less known facts.

There are references into local folk retellings of both the epics. For example, in the chapter "Both have secret stories of vengeance", the author draws out a retelling that shows how Surpanakha (Ravaana's sister) is the mastermind and seeks out Rama with the intention of causing Ravana's downfall. In the case of the Mahabharata, there is another retelling that shows how Bhishma kill Shakuni's father & brothers, and that's the reason why Shakuni ensures the Pandavas & Kauravas never became friends. 

These retellings lend a darker theme to both these epics and educate the reader about how the world is clearly divided into black or white, hero vs villain. The most popular renditions of the Mahabharata show Bhishma to be a noble warrior. These retellings bring out his character flaws. 

There are also references to Greek mythologies & other religions like Judaism, Buddhism & Christianity to draw out both similarities & differences. This gives the reader a wider perspective & also brings in credibility into the author's vast knowledge of the subject at hand.

Its important to note that this book is more like a summary and does not elaborate the details in a story like mode. Hence, this caters more to the advanced reader. By no means is this book an introduction to the two great epics. If one is new to either one, the reader would be lost in a sea of facts, and not find much interest in reading through this book. 

This book is a treat for all those have read multiple versions of the Ramayana & Mahabharata, including the author's own versions (Sita & Jaya). Since both these epics are usually read independently, this book is unique and gives insight into how they are related and intertwined. 

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback on the book.

Dec 19, 2018

Parle Nutricrunch Biscuits Review

A few days back, there was a contest hosted in Instagram where many food bloggers were creating "innovative" and "healthy" recipes using Parle biscuits - halwa, burfi, laddoos etc. Why would we want to mess with traditional recipes, I wondered. Most of the biscuits shown in the contest photos were from the newly launched Nutricrunch brand. 

I started reading up about this brand to understand how it is being positioned. Quoting from LiveMint article,

The company’s new brand is focused more on consumers who consciously opt for healthy offerings, rather than those who choose health once in a while because of price-based promotions. Nutricrunch’s range will include products such as digestive cookies, low-sugar cream crackers, digestive Marie biscuits, etc. Some variants will include indigenous ingredients such as jowar. The range will also include products that target lifestyle issues such as weight management, sugar and cholesterol management and nutrient deficiency.

It is clear that the brand wants to be positioned under "health biscuits & cookies" segment. As a conscious consumer, it is our responsibility to examine and evaluate if the brand's offerings are true to this positioning.

Let's talk about 2 products under the Nutricrunch brand in this post.

1.Nutricrunch Digestive

I had earlier analyzed two popular digestive biscuits - McVities and Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero. If you haven't read my analysis, please do check them out.

The front label claims of Nutricrunch Digestive are as follows:
High Fibre, Source of iron, zero cholesterol, vitamins & minerals
Contains Jowar: Rich in antioxidants and Low GI

Now how do we validate these claims? Simply turn to the back of the pack and check the ingredients list and nutrition facts table.

Wheat flour (40%), Refined palm oil, whole wheat flour (19%), Sugar, Sorghum flour (5%), Wheat bran (4.4%), Wheat fibre (1.2%), Milk solids, Malt extract, Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii)), Iodised salt, invert sugar syrup, vitamins & minerals (0.2%), emulsifier of vegetable origin (di-acetyl tartaric acid ester of mono and di-glycerides)
Contains Added Flavours (artificial flavoring substances - cereal, milk, vanilla)

1.The very first ingredient is Maida which constitutes 40%. Whole wheat flour is ONLY 19%. Yes, it contains jowar but the percentage is so measly (5%). With 40% maida and 15% sugar, claiming it as "low GI" is the ultimate comedy! There are no regulations in our country and brands can claim whatever they want. It is our responsibility as consumers to ensure that these brands don't do comedy using us (Play that classic vadivelu line in your head)

2.100 gm of these biscuits contain 14.8 gm OR nearly 4 tsp of sugar AND 20 gm OR 5 tsp of unhealthy fats. Though the sugar levels are low compared to Parle-G, the unhealthy fats are quite high.

3.Does the brand really contain high fibre as it claims? Not really. 100 gm of these biscuits contain ONLY 6 gm of dietary fibre. 

4.There are also other unwanted ingredients in the form of raising agents, invert syrup, emulsifier, artificial flavours etc.

As I keep reiterating, digestive biscuits are as unhealthy as a regular Marie biscuit. Why pay a premium to buy the same maida, palm oil and sugar combo?

Let's get to the second product
2.Nutricrunch - Honey and Oats
Ah, if "oats" is mentioned on the pack, namma makkal (our people) would grab it like a superstar FDFS ticket, isn't it? ;-)

Let's see how much "goodness of honey and oats" is actually present in this pack.

Wheat flour (37.8%), Refined palm oil, whole wheat flour (18.9%), Sugar, Wheat bran (4.9%),
Oats (3.8%), invert sugar syrup, Wheat fibre (1%), Honey (1%), Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii)), Iodised salt, vitamins & minerals (0.2%), emulsifier of vegetable origin (di-acetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and di-glycerides)
Contains Added Flavours (artificial flavoring substances - cereal, honey, vanilla)

1.Do you see the similarity between the two ingredients lists? Were you able to spot oats and honey in this list? What goodness would you get with such a low percentage - oats 3.8% and honey 1%?  The predominant ingredient is indeed maida (37.8%).

2.The sweetness is NOT from honey as you might have thought, but from sugar and invert sugar syrup. 100 gm of these biscuits contains 18.7gm of sugar (close to 5 tsp of sugar). And let's not forget the unhealthy fats from refined palm oil - 19.2 gm of total fats per 100 gms of biscuits.

3.One might have also thought that this brand might contain high fibre because of oats. No, it contains only 6gm of dietary fibre per 100 gms.

Biscuits are never healthy, irrespective of their name or positioning. Let's stop this habit of having biscuits with tea/coffee.

If you are concerned about your health, stop searching for new products in the supermarket. Get into the habit of cooking at home. Eat wholesome meals, you wouldn't need such unhealthy fillers/snacks to munch on in the first place.

Dec 14, 2018

Book Review: The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh

Come Oct every year, we keep hearing about the smog in Delhi. The reasons quoted in the media were mostly focused on stubble burning and/or Diwali crackers. I wanted to understand the underlying reasons behind stubble burning and the other reasons behind rising air pollution, not just in Delhi but also in other parts of the country. This year, both my husband and I were hit with allergy related cold and cough often. The frequency of such issues were higher, compared to the previous years. And the recovery took more time than the usual viral infections. Dust, mites, traffic, smoke etc were the reasons given for these allergies. Similar to the way I tried to understand about food and nutrition over the past 5-6 years, I have been wanting to understand in depth about what goes in the air we breathe and water we drink. 

This book "The Great Smog of India" couldn't have come at a better time. The author has taken ample effort in demystifying air pollution and the various facets that need to be considered. Starting from the basics of what constitutes air pollution, particulate matter and its various sources, the first 3 chapters set the context very well, before diving into the reasons and sources that increase particulate matter in the air. The author also raises valid concerns on the silence towards air pollution related issues and its impact on health care, employment and productivity of citizens, which would in turn impact the growing economy.

I was simply nodding my head when he talks about how India's economically privileged class have managed to escape situations where the Govt has offered sub-optimal solutions in fields of education (private schools), health care (private hospitals), security (gated communities), clean water (water purifiers and filters) and now clean air (air purifiers).

This statement below is so relevant and true:

Not only do air purifiers allow us to consume clean air, they also lead to increased energy consumption - which in turn can lead to increased power demand and therefore emissions, further impacting those who cannot afford the purifiers.

After setting the context, the author has taken the reader on a journey by explaining the 5 main reasons behind the "great smog" in a clear and easy to understand language without any complicated jargon.
  1. Geographical and meteorological reasons
  2. Energy generation, sources and the externalities behind each source
  3. Industrialization and growth
  4. Transportation
  5. Agricultural impact post the Green Revolution
The chapters explaining the history and timeline of various critical decisions behind these 5 reasons were quite insightful. I was particularly interested in reading about rice-wheat cropping system being followed by farmers in the Northern region which necessitates burning crop residue, because of the limitations and costs involved in other alternative solutions.

The book also talks about various solutions to address this problem of air pollution - "reduce or remove the sources of pollutants using innovative policies, technologies and investments". Air pollution needs to be considered an important "national" issue to be addressed. Instead of blaming the meteorological reasons, inaction by certain states, lack of cohesive policies and lack of right data points to quantify the issue, we need to look for innovative solutions, addressing the various sources of pollutants.

It was truly an insightful read with many key take-aways. If we care about the air we breathe in, we need to know how it is getting affected by various factors. It is high time that we as citizens take serious note of this issue and demand the right solutions from our elected representatives.

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback on the book.

Dec 4, 2018

3Rs of healthy eating

You might have heard of the familiar 5Rs related to waste management and sustainability - Reflect, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking of a similar framework that is so relevant to healthy eating habits as well.

Having been reading about food and nutrition for many years now, I have come to believe that both from a quality and a quantity standpoint, our eating habits have become poor.

Because of the poor quality ingredients being used in processed foods, the frequent eating-outs, take-aways, the pesticides and chemical fertilizers being used in our fresh produce, the quality of foods we put in our mouths have deteriorated over time. 

The other important but overlooked aspect is the Quantity. It is shocking to note how we keep munching something or the other throughout the day, mindlessly in front of our screens. There is hardly any gap between meal times. More than the main meals, we tend to snack a LOT. These may not be applicable to the entire population but a general trend among the affluent. 

I have found this 3Rs framework to be very helpful to communicate my perspectives on healthy eating. The 3Rs comprise of 
  1. Remove/Reject
  2. Reduce and
  3. Replace

We keep adding more and more super foods and other ingredients to our daily diet, in the hope that green tea will reduce belly fat, quinoa will help in weight loss etc. Our pantries and fridges are filled with so many stuff (jams, preserves, sauces, spreads etc). If an ingredient is promoted as a super food, we immediately add it to our never-ending shopping list. 
Instead of "adding" more to our diet, I would suggest we "Remove" or "Reject" certain foods and ingredients. 
Remove/Reject anything packaged, especially those with a lot of unidentifiable ingredients.
Remove all that is imported and has high carbon footprint.
When it comes to healthy eating, "less is more" is so true. We don't need fancy ingredients. We can lead a healthy life with a minimal pantry.

Replace is something that we have all been addressing over the past 5-6 years. So I'm not going to dive into the details, as the awareness is high. Replace unhealthy ingredients with healthy, natural ingredients.
White sugar with cane sugar, palm sugar or jaggery
Iodised salt with unprocessed / Himalayan pink salt
Refined oils with cold-pressed oils
White polished rice with handpounded rice and millets

The main intention of this post is to talk about the second R - Reduce.

Reduce the quantity we eat, as we age. I read somewhere that as we enter our 40s, the number of meals should be 2 and not 3. If that's not feasible, let's atleast try to reduce the quantity we eat in each of our 3 meals. 

Reduce mindless snacking - when your mind is occupied with a tough problem or you are ruminating about some issue at workplace, no unnecessary munching please. 
When you are relaxing in front of a TV, no snacking, especially late nights.
Reduce the frequency of restaurant trips, take-aways and home deliveries.
Reduce the amount of groceries you buy on a weekly/monthly basis. I had shared a few tips in this post.
Reduce the number of food options when you are hosting a party. Let the focus of the party be about interesting conversations and NOT ONLY about food.
Reduce the number of items you cook on a daily basis. It is better to eat 1-2 freshly made dishes than 4-5 dishes that have been cooked a week back. I don't remember my grandparents eating a feast every other day. They ate simple fresh meals and led healthy lives.
Reduce the number of treats - sweet and deep fried. Brands pitch their chocolates with the tagline "sweet edu, kondaadu" for every teeny tiny event. If you want to treat yourself after achieving a tiny milestone, why not an experience you would enjoy that doesn't involve food? For me, that would be half-an-hour of uninterrupted time to listen to ARR's music, an afternoon nap on a Saturday or relaxed time to cuddle up with a good book.

Food gives us energy, nourishes us and helps us to pursue our life's goals. That doesn't mean we pressure our digestive systems to be constantly working all through our waking hours. The reason why intermittent fasting works for many people is the break our digestive system gets from processing all the food we stuff into our mouths.

I hope that this 3R framework makes sense and helps you to look at healthy eating in a different light. Comments welcome.

P.S. This post is equally applicable to me and my family as much as to my readers. I'll revisit this post whenever I'm deviating from these 3Rs. It is certainly not my intention to advise if it comes across so, but merely sharing my thoughts on this topic.

Nov 27, 2018

Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero Biscuits Review

Many of us presume that digestive biscuits are healthy and can be eaten guilt-free. I had earlier written about the popular McVities digestive biscuits and how it tags to an existing habit of eating biscuits with tea/coffee (Do check it out if you haven't)

A few days back, I spotted a new variety of Brittania Nutrichoice digestive biscuits at a supermarket with a tag "zero" - zero sugar and zero maida. Needless to say, I was intrigued and started reading through the ingredients. On googling, I realized that this brand was launched a couple of years back.

Whole Wheat Flour (61%),
Edible vegetable oil (palm),
Maltitol (965),
Wheat bran (5%),
Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii))
Milk Solids
Iodised Salt
Emulsifiers (322, 471, 472e)
Malt extract
Sweetener (955)
Dough Conditioner (223)
Spice (Nutmeg)

For people who repeatedly ask me why I call out wheat flour as maida, please check the first ingredient here. It is clearly written as "WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR". Maida is always stated as wheat flour or refined wheat flour.

So yes, this pack of digestive zero contains NO maida, which seems to be a good thing. But let's go through the rest of the ingredients.

The second ingredient is palm oil - one of the unhealthiest and cheapest forms of oils being used by the food processing industry. 100 gms of digestive zero biscuits contain 21gm of fat, which is quite high (and on similar levels as that of McVities digestive biscuits). 

There are two different artificial sweeteners being used in this pack - maltitol (965) and sucralose (955).

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol (a polyol) used as a sugar substitute. It has 2.1 calories per gram (white sugar has 4 calories per gram) and a glycemic index of 52 (table sugar has a glycemic index of 60). Since maltitol is a carbohydrate and contains calories, it affects blood glucose levels. Some of the side effects of maltitol include abdominal cramps and intestinal gas. It is also mentioned in the pack - "polyols may have laxative effect". Being the third listed ingredient, it is strange why the brand is not explicitly calling out maltitol as an artificial sweetener.

Let's look at sucralose. It is a zero calorie, artificial sweetener. 

This Harvard article sums up the side effects of artificial sweeteners (Do read if you are interested). A few points that caught my attention -

" One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits "

" Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. In other words, use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. "

" Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight. "

Having observed a few family members who have been on sucralose for many years, I can see these patterns in their eating habits. Just because they believe that sucralose is not sugar, they tend to add it to every damn thing - lemonade, green tea, idli molagapodi (no kidding). They drink 6-7 cups of tea/coffee per day, with sucralose as the sweetener. The moment they see sweet/dessert while eating out or at a family function, they pounce on such sugar treats first before the main course, sometimes even asking for a second serving.  Continuous intake of sucralose has made them crave for more sugar. They don't like to eat natural sweet tasting fruits like papaya, watermelon etc. The only fruit they like to consume are those long, yellow Morris variety of bananas which are too sweet. They are struggling with weight gain, they have been on diabetes medication for decades now, with their health declining and dealing with various issues.

As with any packaged foods, these biscuits also contain a load of synthetic additives (the ones indicated in numbers) - raising agents, emulsifiers, dough conditioner etc. There is no point discussing each of these ingredient's side effects. The fact that it contains artificial sweeteners is more-than-enough reason for me to never buy this pack.

If you would like to eat something along with your tea, avoid such fake biscuits. Instead eat a simple masala roti or thepla along with your tea. 


Nov 25, 2018

Soulfull Ragi Bites Choco Fills Review

I wasn't planning to write a separate post on Soulfull ragi choco fills as I had earlier touched upon its ingredients in my post on Kelloggs Chocos. However, having seen how it is being promoted by mommy instagrammers, I decided that this product needs to be reviewed separately.

It is all so cute and fun to see heart-warming pictures of mommy and kids in a lake side picnic. But carrying a picnic basket with small packs of Soulfull ragi choco fills is the heights of fake promotion (If you don't understand the context, check out these pics)

It is being promoted aggressively as a "healthy" breakfast cereal and a "healthy" anytime snack for young kids. 

The brand and its digital aLLakkais (insta supporters) are pushing the product using the key ingredient "ragi". Yes, the ingredients list shows ragi as the first ingredient with 50%. What about the second ingredient - Sugar? Why isn't any of these mommies talking about the high sugar content (25%)?

A 30gm serving contains 7.5 gm of sugar (close to 2 tsp). So if a child eats 2 servings a day (one for breakfast and one for snack), then he/she would have consumed 4 tsp of sugar (close to hitting the 5 tsp sugar allowance limit per day).

Though the overall fats percentage is relatively low (10%), let's look at the fat sources - edible palm oil and hydrogenated vegetable fat. Both are unhealthy and causes inflammation in the long run.

As with any packaged foods, there are additives added to increase shelf life - stabilizer (INS 170), emulsifier (INS 322) and antioxidant (INS 320), each having its own set of side effects in the long run.

100 gm of ragi wholegrain contains 11 gm of dietary fibre, whereas ragi chocofills (100 gm) contains ONLY 6.1 gm of dietary fibre. This is due to the fact that the processing involved in making those fills strips off the fibre. 

If you want to include ragi in your daily diet, make
- ragi idlis, dosas and adais with wholegrain
- ragi porridge made with ragi flour / sprouted ragi flour
- ragi rotis made with ragi flour
- add ragi flour to your regular wholewheat atta to make chapathis
- bake cake/muffins at home with ragi flour
- make ragi laddoos for anytime snack
- make ragi halwa, ragi murukku for festive treats

Let’s not rely on these packaged brands to give us the "goodness of ragi".

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

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 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.

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