good neighbors & nutrient density

I’ve been so preoccupied in the last few weeks with a) scrambling to catch up with spring in our slacker vegetable garden and b) brainstorming logistics for my pilot subscription program this summer, that I’ve been lax with posting recipes on the site. Though most of my recent experiments in the kitchen have yielded success (flavor, toddler appeal, proper mouthfeel, etc.), others left me questioning myself not only as a baker, but as a competent adult: a crumbly fail of what I intended to be a chewy nutrient bar (not photographed because my hands were too coated in chia seeds, dehydrated kale, and tears to operate my phone’s camera); and a whole sheet of deliciously sweet quinoa beet crackers which ended up in the compost bin, charred and black, after I decided to “crisp them up” really quickly in the oven. Long story. In any case, I look forward to bringing my newer secret recipes to scale. After taking samples around to my favorite vendors at the farmers market, Caromont Farm is interested in replacing her Carr’s crackers with some of mine for her cheese samples. Baby steps!

As the streets of Baltimore (home to some of my closest family) erupted with misplaced frustration about persistent economic disparities, I came home Tuesday last week to find a surprise wedged between our screen and front door. A leaky red box of imported cocoa powder, aside an unopened box of Whole Foods’ 365 brand “Quack’n Bites.” The kind my kid recognizes inexplicably and steals from other kid’s snack bags as I sigh disapprovingly (is there a gene for brand recognition, somehow?). I hid the box in the darker part of the pantry until I could regift it again to someone more appreciative.

I didn’t need to ask who left these items, for two reasons. First, our next door neighbors had already made clear that they “don’t eat organic,” quick to bring over any cereal branded to vaguely convey health properties, whether or not they had an organic label. I was told, at one point, that they “don’t eat that healthy stuff, honey.”

They are kind, generous people living in a small one story concrete house, patient with a landlord that seems to ignore nearly every aspect of maintenance. They mow their grass with a regularity that puts us to shame. Raising their 5 year old grandson, they receive some public assistance (I think), and get food donations every once in a while. When deer season comes and they get lucky, you can bet our freezer gets stocked, too, especially if I’m willing to help process the bigger cuts. Reciprocation is impossible– when we still had chickens, they persistently refused offers of eggs. “We don’t eat them rich brown eggs.” I tried meekly to share some local apples once, and it was only (after my third attempt at persuasion) that the boss (mom) of the house finally conceded they might be good fried with pork chops. I considered it a huge success that they reluctantly accepted a pre-made meal of plain pasta with sauce and cheese this past weekend as a thank you for the cocoa and crackers. I felt like I was acting out some kind of sketch comedy, standing in their smoky doorway trying to “sell” something so plain and inoffensive. Secondly, I deduced the gifter because the boxes reeked of cigarette smoke, as anything would after 30 seconds or more of exposure to their interior atmosphere.

While our opaque recycling bin hides wine bottles, theirs hides cans of Mountain Dew. They shun organic for their own reasons, as I seemed to snub the Quackers for my own.

As days went by, the whole situation bugged me. I didn’t share a skepticism about organic foods, so what could I possibly have against innocuous goldfish crackers (even their overpriced organic equivalents)? Did I just resent major retailers’ lucrative attempts to “organic-wash” what was essentially junk food? Had I turned into a party-pooping, home-baking snob, or worse– a proselytizing (and hypocritical) dietary zealot? After all, red wine is about as empty in calories as Mountain Dew.

So I snuck into the pantry and looked more closely at ingredient and nutrition label:

  • 17+ ingredients (the top three by weight being white (organic) flour, vegetable oil, and natural cheddar cheese flavor)
  • 130 calories for a 68 cracker serving
  • 21 grams of carbohydrate (only 1 being dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar)
  • 2% each of daily values of Vitamin A, Calcium, and Iron
  • Despite a seal on the front (designed, I’m sure to cue the sensation of authenticity) which claimed inclusion of “Real Organic Cheddar Cheese,” said cheese came AFTER salt, by weight, on the list of ingredients, right before paprika

That pretty much validated my assumptions, though, in the poor Quack’n Bites’ defense, there were no added sugars. I guess I’m not the only party-pooper, though: Quack’n Bites earned a C grade on Fooducate, a rating web site on which “minimally processed, real foods with intrinsic nutrients will score better than processed foods that are poor in built-in nutrients.”

I compared the Quack’n Bites’ nutrition label with one of my newer kitchen inventions, for which I used my new best friend, Recipal. It generates nutrition labels for recipes (a function it performs much more expertly than a lot of the free versions out there, which I’ve also tried). It. is. awesome. And I swear they are not paying me to say so.

Curried Sweet Potato & Flax Crackers are one of my simpler recipes, grain-free and packed with baked organic sweet potatoes and golden flax seeds. First of all, even your toddler can probably pronounce the ingredients, and the vitamin content is much higher, with more protein and fats (mostly omega 3s), less sodium, and more than 50% fewer carbohydrates.  And, somehow, ten 1.5 inch square crackers have 20 fewer calories than the 68 Quack n’ Bites, though their serving weight is identical. This is a classic case of nutrient density, which is going to be the next drumbeat coming from dieticians, many of whom are advocating for a standardized “nutrient density score” to help people make better decisions about how to “spend” their calories. Ironically, Whole Foods has an Aggregated Nutrient Density Score (ANDI) on their web site (as does the CDC, and, among others). Keep in mind that any “ranking” rubric is misleading, since EVERY food has some unique nutritional properties, and the less domesticated versions of crops tend to have more beneficial phytochemicals (as Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side explains in detail). Watercress scores more highly than sweet potatoes in CDC’s scoring, for example, but if I’m interested in getting more Vitamin A, you can bet I will opt for the latter. It depends on what nutrients that matter to you; and whether you trust pill vitamins to make up for the nutrients lacking on the plate.

Party-poopery aside, it comes down to this: I don’t resent empty calories (hey– we all have our vices), but I reserve the right to resent empty calories that are mass-produced, over-packaged, and branded to convey wholesomeness to busy parents who don’t have time to scrutinize nutrition labels in the store aisle. This reminder, after a week of aforementioned “ooopses” in the kitchen, is enough to keep me moving forward with a mission to make nutrient-dense snacks that are tasty enough for kids and grown-ups alike. When it comes to feeding children with developing brains– and with, like mine, an impatience for seated mealtime, I don’t want “cheese” crackers to be my only healthy option for food on the go. Until my guy is old enough to wield the power of consumer choice on his own, I will not let snack-time be wasted.