The 2010 Dietary Guidelines: What’s ahead from the government?

You may not turn to the government as your best source for nutrition advice, but the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 will influence what you eat in one way or another. These are the “official” recommendations, and they’re updated every five years. They shape everything from food labeling to public food programs, including school lunches.

The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, which issue the guidelines jointly, appointed an advisory committee of top researchers in fields of nutrition, medicine, and food safety and technology to evaluate the latest scientific evidence and submit their recommendations in June. Now the USDA and HHS are considering the committee’s proposals, along with public comments (from public-health advocates to food-commodity special interests), and will release the final guidelines later this year.

As with past Dietary Guidelines, this report’s recommendations are aimed at turning our nation’s tide of obesity. Too many Americans are overweight or obese yet “undernourished in several key nutrients,” the committee notes.

What struck me, as I culled through the 700-page report, was how familiar their suggestions are, in that many of their recommendations reflect NOURISH Evolution’s four pillars.

Sound Nutrition: A plant-based diet

Since they were first published in 1980, every version of the dietary guidelines has advised Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. But the latest recommendations take it a step further, advocating a “total-diet approach” emphasizing plant foods: “Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds.”

They also call for us to eat more seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, while consuming lean meats, poultry and eggs in moderation.

It’ll be interesting to see how that recommendation is interpreted in the final 2010 guidelines released later this year. Lobbies, like the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council, exert tremendous influence on the USDA and may take a dim view of a government guideline for a plant-based diet.

Eco-Bites: Choose environmentally sustainable food

The committee also calls for increased “environmentally sustainable production of vegetables, fruits, and fiber-rich whole grains.”

However, it stops short of recommending organic agriculture as that sustainable solution, saying that the evidence is too limited to declare organically cultivated produce and grains nutritionally superior to conventional. They also conclude that conventional fare is safe, since it meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. (On an encouraging note, however, the USDA appears to be boosting its support of organic and local farming.)

The report also recommends increasing sustainable aquaculture in order to meet the recommendation to eat two (4-ounce) servings of seafood per week. But it doesn’t delve into what constitutes responsible aquaculture, either from a health or environmental perspective. The genetically engineered salmon which is under consideration for approval by the FDA next week will prove an interesting in-the-trenches benchmark on how they’re really defining “sustainable” aquaculture.

While we’d like to see the recommended guidelines call for organic agriculture and responsible aquaculture in more specific terms, the fact that they even touch on these topics is remarkable.

Mindful Meals: Eat attentively

The committee acknowledges that there’s a huge disconnect between what experts, including the government, advise people to eat and what they really eat. “Americans must become mindful, or ‘conscious,’ eaters, that is, attentively choosing what and how much they eat,” the report notes.

We couldn’t agree more–if you don’t pay attention to what you eat, all the great nutrition advice in the world means nothing. But we’re curious how this will play out in the final guidelines, since mindful eating is an intangible, though crucial, part of the equation and the Dietary Guidelines tend to favor concrete advice.

Kitchen Tips: Learn to cook

It’s no surprise that the report scolds Americans for eating too much food away from home, noting that portion sizes have ballooned over the years as we eat out more often. Meals away from home are a big reason why an astonishing 35% of the American diet is now made up of solid (saturated) fats and added sugars–aka “SoFAS” in the report.

To remedy that, the proposed recommendations urge Americans to return to the kitchen to “improve nutrition literacy and cooking skills, including safe food handling skills, and empower and motivate the population, especially families with children, to prepare and consume healthy foods at home.”

They also call for nutrition, cooking and food safety to be incorporated into school curricula from preschool on.

We’re intrigued to see how this recommendation is interpreted in the final guidelines. Will they recommend a certain number of meals per week prepared from scratch at home? How do mindful eating and home cooking fit onto a pyramid? Or will they dispense with the Food Guide Pyramid–which was first introduced in 1995 and evolved into the confusing color-coded, personalized MyPyramid in 2005–in favor of a simpler, whole-food diet?

If they do latter, it will indeed look familiar … it would look a lot like the NOURISH Evolution approach.

(Almost) Traditional Spanish Paella

Perhaps no dish conjures up more images of Spain than paella. Steeped in history and distinctive spices, to prepare this dish is to summon the soul of Spain and the spirit of her people.

For the uninitiated, paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”) is kind of a rice casserole, traditionally prepared in a special kind of pan (from which it takes its name) over an open fire. And it’s prepared by men.

Food carries a very strong cultural imperative in Spain, and customs are not swept away merely for the sake of political correctness. Throughout Spain, there are exclusive all-male clubs dedicated entirely to cooking and to the pleasures of the table.

Paella has at least 400 years of history, and its origins are in the province of Valencia, on the southeast coast. There, they grow the medium-grain Valencia rice that absorbs flavors wonderfully and is the key to the dish. The first paellas were made by peasants, using their native rice and whatever was available–often snails, onions, and that curious import from the New World, the tomato.

Since then paella has evolved into an enormous variety of dishes in every region of Spain, as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Many use saffron, but not all, and the countless combinations of ingredients include all manner of shellfish, game, fowl, mushrooms, and finfish.

The traditional method, using the wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed paella pan, cooks slowly over a well-regulated fire. Where Americans might have a clambake, Spanish families have beach cookouts where paella is made amid plenty of wine-fueled arguments about the right way to do it. Controlling the fire, stirring enough but not too much, when to add which ingredients so they cook completely without overcooking; all this is debated throughout the process because every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella. This method takes practice and patience, but is quite rewarding for all who partake.

Now for those who are looking for a shortcut, here’s a simpler method that cooks the rice and the seafood/chicken/chorizo mixture separately so it doesn’t require the constant attention of the traditional method. Breaking with tradition is not a sin of which I am often guilty, but I have to admit that this does produce quite a tasty dish … even if I would be shunned by my fellow male chefs in Spain.

Secrets to the Perfect Pie

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten over my fear of making pie dough, thanks to practice, culinary school training, and a stint in a restaurant pastry kitchen. But you don’t need to be a pro to bust out a winning pie. As superstar pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini recently scolded a Top Chef contestant: “My grandmother wasn’t a pastry chef, but she could make a pie.” (Oh, snap!)

When we wanted a great all-purpose, slightly lighter pie dough recipe for NOURISH Evolution, we turned to food stylist Kathleen Kanen. She’s a home economist by training who worked in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens for 20 years and currently does freelance food styling and recipe developing for a variety of national outlets (including us!).

Her secret to great pastry? Keep everything cold. I asked her for other tips to ensure your pie turns out perfect every time.

What’s your definition of the perfect pie crust?

I love a crust that’s flaky and has some sugar for sweetness and some salt for flavor. I think many dough recipes don’t call for enough salt, and that makes them taste flat.

What’s your preferred fat for pastry?

A combination of butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness. Also, the shortening doesn’t harden, which makes the dough easier to roll so there’s less chance of overworking it.

What’s the best way to cut the fat into the flour–in a food processor, with a pastry blender, or with your fingers?

The easiest way is the food processor. Just pulse the mixture a few times so it doesn’t get warm and the fat melts into the flour. [Those little chunks of cold fat make the pastry flaky.] It should look like coarse crumbs.

What are your tips for working with a lower-fat crust?

Three things: cold fats, chilling the dough, and plastic wrap!

  1. Chill the butter and shortening for a flaky crust. For an even flakier crust, chill the flour, too.
  2. Add just enough ice water to moisten the dough. Add too much, and the dough will be soggy. Add too little, and it will be crumbly. Press a small amount of dough between your fingers to check the consistency. If it’s too crumbly, add another tablespoon of water.
  3. Handle the dough gently. Overworking it develops the gluten in the flour and makes the crust tough.
  4. Chill the dough to help relax the gluten.
  5. Roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap [a trick Kathleen learned in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens] to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Chill the dough again after rolling it to make it easier to remove the plastic wrap. It’s not a step to rush.

Any tips for rolling out the dough so it’s even?

Begin rolling in the center and stop about 1/2 inch from the edge so it doesn’t get too thin and crumble. I start rolling in the middle of the dough vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally.

Which camp do you fall in: top crust or lattice?

I love pastry, so my favorite is a top crust. Lattice is very pretty, but not enough crust for me! [If you prefer a lattice crust, check out Saveur’s instructions to weave one.]

Here’s Kathleen’s recipe for peach pie with a foolproof dough. Use this crust for pies made with whatever fresh, seasonal fruit is on hand. I can’t wait to try it with apples in the fall, and for savory pies like quiches too.