Category Archives: Featured Food

Nutrition Fact: Agave Nectar Isn’t as Healthy as You Think

You’ve probably heard a lot of hype about agave as a substitute to sugar as a natural sweetener for quite awhile now.  While it is a great alternative for sugar and definitely has some qualities that set it apart from other sweeteners, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier than sugar or even other sweeteners.  So before you start using agave instead of sugar in all of your cooking/baking, let’s explore a bit more about it.

What is Agave?

Agave nectar is sweetener that is commercially produced from the agave plant.  The agave species is originally from Mexico and South America and most agave nectar is made from the agave blue species, which is the same plant that tequila comes from.  Agave has been around for ages and was originally used by Aztecs for medicinal purposes. Today, it’s produced from a liquid juice extracted from the plant that is them commercially filtered and concentrated to a syrupy liquid that we know as agave nectar.  It’s a bit sweeter than honey and also thinner in consistency.

agaveplant

How Agave Compares to Other Sweeteners?

1.    Sweetness.  Agave nectar primarily consists of glucose and fructose, and depending on brand and how it was produced, ranges anywhere from 50-90% fructose and 20-8% glucose.  Because of its higher fructose content, agave nectar is 1.4-1.6 times sweeter than sugar or honey.

2.    Calories. Compared to sugar, the calories you consume from agave is very similar.  Agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon while sugar has 40 calories per tablespoon, but because it’s sweeter you need less agave so generally the calories consumed is slightly lower or the same when using agave to replace sugar.

3.    Glycemic index. The glycemic index is a way to measure the effect a food has on blood sugar levels.  Traditionally, white sugar and any refined carbohydrates have a high-glycemic index because it’s quickly absorbed in our blood causing a quick rise and then fall.  Foods that have a lower glycemic index are slowly used by our body and keep our blood sugar levels steadier.  Agave nectar compared to sugar has a lower glycemic index (under 55).

4.    Health Effects. While agave does contain small amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium compared to other sweeteners, the amount is so small that it doesn’t matter much nutritionally.  Calories wise agave is very comparable to sugar and other natural sweeteners so the main beneficial health effect is its lower glycemic index compared to other sugars which prevents drastic spikes in blood sugar levels.  However, because agave nectar is often higher in fructose compared to sugar or even high fructose corn syrup, too much agave may actually be more harmful to our health.  Several studies have found that consuming fructose may be less healthy than consuming similar amounts of glucose because participants that consumed more fructose gained more visceral fat, were more insulin-resistant, and were at higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.  That being said, the research did not use agave nectar but just compared pure  fructose and glucose so more research is still needed using agave nectar to really understand whether its high fructose composition causes similar results as current research suggests.  The only other benefit of agave over other sweeteners is that some studies have found agave nectar to have anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties.

How to Use It?

  • When substituting agave nectar for white sugar, use 2/3 cup of agave for every 1 cup of sugar and reduce other liquids by ¼ to 1/3 cupagavesppon
  • When substituting agave nectar for brown sugar use the same ratio as above but only reduce liquids by ¼ cup since brown sugar has higher moisture content than white sugar
  • When replacing agave nectar for honey use 75% the amount.
  • Since agave nectar browns more quickly, consider reducing oven temperature by 25°F and increasing cooking time slightly.

My Recommendations

Agave nectar  is still a sweetener and too much sugar in any form is unhealthy.  So even if you substitute agave for sugar, it’s important to keep your sugar or agave intake low.  The American diet in general tends to consume more sugar or sweetener than we need anyway so while agave is a natural sweetener with some health benefits over sugar and other sweeteners, the key is moderation and variety since there’s still not enough research to determine whether its high fructose content poses negative health effects that could outweigh its other benefits.  My recommendations when it comes to consuming agave are:

  • The best way to fulfill your “sweet tooth” is always through more natural sugars found in fruit.  Fruits have more fiber and more nutrients even though they’re sweet so this is always the best way to consume your sugars.
  • When you do use agave nectar in your diet, it works well for sweetening drinks because it dissolves easily in liquid.
  • Agave nectar also works well in sauces and marinades so consider making the substitute occasionally for sauces and marinades.
  • Moderation is still key.  Don’t feel like you need to completely give up sugar and switch to agave, it may be healthier to consume both in moderation throughout your diet.agave2

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Featured Food: Red Chili Peppers

I LOVE eating spicy food so am obviously really excited to see that there is some research showing consuming red chili peppers may actually have more health benefits than I thought! I always knew red peppers were high in vitamins and minerals because of its bright red color, but research is now also showing other health benefits from red chili peppers derived from its high concentration of a substance known as capsaicin found in the pepper family of vegetables.

Source: LimonChili Blog

Did you know?

Chili peppers have been planted as a crop for the last 6,000 years.   They were first discovered in Central and South America and slowly introduced to other parts of the world like Europe, India, China and other parts of Asia.  The active compounds of chili peppers that provide the spicy pungent flavors are called capasaicinoids. When chili peppers are consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. These receptors are then activated and send messages to the brain that the person has consumed something hot and the brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins.  Hence– the pungent and spicy reaction you feel when consuming them.

Nutrition Facts

Chili Peppers, especially red ones are high in vitamins and minerals.  They are a good source of Dietary Fiber, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper.  Additionally, they are a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Potassium and Manganese.

What is most interesting is that one small chilli pepper provides more than 100% of your daily needs of Vitamin C!  Do you still need more reasons to like spicy foods?  Well in case you do, I have a few more additional health benefits to share.

Health Benefits 

Immunity. The bright red color of red chili peppers indicates its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for healthy epithelial tissues including the mucous membranes that line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract and urinary tract and serve as the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens.  Moreover, red chili peppers are an excellent source of Vitamin C which is not only an antioxidant, but has been shown to stimulate while blood cell production which helps to fight infections.

Heart Health.  Some studies have shown that capsaicinoids from chilies can lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol.  A team of researchers from Hong Kong found that capsaicin and a close chemical relative boost heart health in two ways. First, they lower cholesterol levels by reducing accumulation of cholesterol in the body and increasing its breakdown and excretion in the feces. Second, they block action of a gene that makes arteries contract, restricting the flow of blood to the heart and other organs. The blocking action allows more blood to flow through blood vessels.  While the evidence supporting heart health seems promising, these studies have mostly been conducted via animal studies so we need more research testing the effect in humans before we know for sure how beneficial capsaicinoids can be in humans and whether or not supplements and actual red peppers pose any difference in effectiveness.  So for now, I would avoid taking capsaicin supplements, but if you eat the real thing you could hope to see some positive effects when it comes to your heart health.

Weight loss. While red chili should not be used as a weight loss supplement, there is some evidence that capsaicin can either help reduce hunger and/or increase energy expenditure.  There’s a few caveats to these findings.  First, studies that found that red pepper increased energy expenditure, used an amount that was not acceptable for the average American. (10g/meal).  Second, other studies looking at appetite and hunger actually found that the effect of curbing appetite was much stronger in individuals who were not used to eating spicy foods.  So for those of us that can eat enough red pepper to help increase energy expenditure, we probably would not also get the benefit of reducing appetite and vice versa.   In addition, the research shows that using capsaicin supplements you lose the effect because part of the effect is caused from the heat and spiciness reactions from eating chili peppers which is lost through supplement use.  So, while this is no miracle diet food or supplement for weight loss, for some of us eating red chilies we might have some additional benefit related to weight loss, whether it’s through reduced appetite or through increased energy expenditure.

Pain Relief. Capaisin used topically has been shown to be an effective treatment for cluster headaches and osteoarthritis pain.  Additionally, it has been shown be an effective treatment for pain management for diabetic neuropathy.   The main side effect reported with topical capsaicin cream is a burning sensation at the area of application.

How to eat it

Spice up your food and enjoy red chili peppers either raw, dried, or sprinkled on top of your favorite foods.  You could use dried cayenne pepper spice, red crushed pepper, chili powder, or paprika.  Remember, Crushed/Ground red pepper and cayenne pepper spice have the most antioxidants, and then chili powder and paprika.

  • In South Asian and Asian cooking, you can just toss whole chili peppers or dried chili peppers into your dish while cooking to release the flavors while cooking.
  • When using dried cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper, try adding it to any sauteed vegetable dish, on top of pastas, sauces, pizzas, or in curries.
  • I also love adding cayenne or ground red pepper to any greens with a hint of fresh lemon.
  • Cayenne pepper also tastes great mixed in chocolate– add it to a dark chocolate ganache, hot chocolate, etc.

Last weekend I made truffles and filled it with chocolate ganache with a hint of cayenne pepper 🙂

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Featured Food: Quinoa

Quinoa is a grain that originates from the Andean region of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Columbia and has been cultivated for the last 5,000 years by the Incas.  Even before I travelled to Bolivia I always loved this grain, but after trying it there and seeing it grown in the Andes where very little other vegetation grew because of poor soil, I had an increased fascination with this grain.  Not only is it high in fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals like iron and calcium, but it’s so versatile and can be eaten so many ways.

Quinoa growing in Andes region of Bolivia

Health Benefits

Quinoa has been known to be called a “superfood” mostly because of its high protein content (18%) and its balanced set of essential amino acids making it a complete protein source.  Additionally, it is a good source of fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper, and iron.  And for those that are gluten intolerant, quinoa is also gluten-free!

Here’s the nutrition facts:

Source: Quinoa Corporation

Are there any nutritional differences between regular and red quinoa?

  Regular (per ¼ c uncooked quinoa) Red (per ¼ c uncooked quinoa)
Protein

6 g per

6 g

Fiber

3 g

5 g

Iron

20% DV

10% DV

Fat

2.5 g

2 g

Source: Livestrong

As you can see, they are both highly nutritious and differ slightly in fiber content and iron, with red quinoa being the better choice for fiber but regular quinoa being the better choice for iron.  I personally use both interchangeably in order to maximize benefits from both.

How to Eat It: 

Quinoa can be used in salads, soups, baked goods, pilafs, casseroles, cereals, pastas and can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Can you say versatile or what?

Basic preparation:

  1. Rinse several times and soak quinoa for about 5- 15 minutes
  2. Boil 2 cups of water (can use vegetable or chicken stock instead if using for more savory dishes)
  3. Add 1 cup washed quinoa to boiling water, cover and simmer, about 15 minutes until water is fully absorbed

Here’s a few recipes that I like:

  1. Curried Quinoa Pilaf (I usually add chickpeas and red and yellow bell peppers for added protein and color)
  2. Black Bean Quinoa Salad (I added avocado when I made it) and Caprese Quinoa Salad 
  3. Breakfast Quinoa
  4. Quinoa Cakes (Haven’t made these yet, but had quinoa cakes in Bolivia and was in love so will need to try making it myself!)
  5. Quinoa Kitchuri (My cousin’s awesome recipe…and follow her blog for more amazing recipes while you’re at it!)

Quinoa Cakes in Bolivia!

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Featured Food: Acai Berry

Acai Berry….superfood or not?

I just came back from visiting Brazil and had the chance to spend a few days in the Amazon Rainforest.  And I’m not going to lie, I was all about the acai berry when I was down there.  From acai berry sorbet on the beach to acai berry jam in the amazon, I was in love!  I even brought back acai berry jewelry!  When you’re in this region, it’s hard to ignore this amazing fruit, especially after all the hype you hear about it.  But does this superfood live up to all the hype back in the US?

So what is the acai berry? The acai berry comes from the acai palm tree (photographed below) which is native to Central and South America, particularly in the Amazon region.  The fruit is small, round and the pulp is a black-purple color.  The seed makes up about 80% of the fruit and the remaining is a viscous pulp that can be eaten raw or as a juice.  The fruit pulp contains about 4% protein and 12% lipids, with the majority of lipids being a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Not only is the acai berry a complete food containing all the macronutrients, additionally, they are rich in nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and are most known for containing antioxidants like polyphenols and anthocyanins.

What are the Health Benefits of Acai Berry?

Ever since Oprah and Dr. Oz presented the acai berry as a “super food” the food industry has been all over trying to make all sorts of acai products with numerous health claims.  Unfortunately, many of the health claims are not true, at least not from any scientific studies done so far.  That being said, the one health benefit we do know is true about acai berries is it’s antioxidant power.  Animal studies and  in vitro studies have found that acai berry is a very powerful antioxidant.  Research has shown that anthocyanins and polyphenols in the acai berry are  antioxidants that help defend the body against life’s stressors. They also play a role in the body’s cell protection system. Free radicals are harmful byproducts produced by the body. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants may interfere with aging and the disease process by neutralizing free radicals.  Antioxidants in general may help reduce the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease and cancer by lessening the destructive power of free radicals in the body.  

In addition, an animal study also found that regular consumption of acai berries improved lipid profiles in rabbits and rats, which could  help reduce risks of heart disease.  However, this has not been tested in humans yet so is still a bit of a stretch to claim this as a health benefit just yet.  I did find one study conducted in humans which was a pilot trial with only 10 participants aimed at looking at whether or not acai berry could improve the metabolic profile of overweight adults.  This study found that participants that consumed the acai berry pulp regularly had improved cholesterol, triglyceride, and insulin levels after just 30 days.  This is a promising study but unfortunately because it was done in such a small sample and specific subset of individuals of overweight and unhealthy adults, the results are not generalizable to the public– so again we don’t know for sure how beneficial the acai berry can be in lowering cholesterol and triglycerides in humans just yet.  However, it does prove the need for additional research to explore these and other potential health benefits in humans.

Another study actually found that red wine, pomegranate, grape juice and blueberry juice actually have higher antioxidant power than acai juice.  So just remember that all the health claims made by acai berry product manufacturers like helps fight heart disease, helps people lose weight, prevents aging, stops cancer, improves sexual performance, improves digestion, improves sleep, improves arthritis, and improves general health,  are mostly not yet proven scientifically in humans yet or can be  achieved from antioxidants from other berries such as blueberries, pomograntes, etc.

Source: acaiberryeducation.com

How to eat it?

I enjoyed eating my fair share of acai berry when I was traveling in Brazil, but until the health benefits of the açaí berry are scientifically proven, it seems more reasonable, cheaper, and safer to get your antioxidants from other fruit and vegetable sources rich in antioxidants like blueberries, pomegranates, strawberries, etc that are more readily available in the U.S.

Until further research is done, I would avoid any acai berry supplements since they have not yet been studied extensively and we do not yet know if the health benefits from the acai berry resembles that from supplements.  Additionally, I would definitely be suspicious of “free-trial offers” for acai products.

However, if you do want to try some acai berry products, here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Buy freeze-dried acai berry and use in smoothies.  Here’s a recipe you can use.
  2. Eat acai berry as part of flavored products like ice cream, sorbets, and jellies.  Each brand and food product has different amounts and forms of acai berry in their products so keep in mind this may not be the best method of getting your antioxidants.
  3. As a juice– but remember some juices are better than others.  Make sure to read the ingredients and nutrition label.  Many are mixed with other juices and contain a lot of added sugars which would generally cancel out the benefit from the antioxidants of the acai berry.  So if you’re not drinking it just for the flavor, make sure to read the labels to ensure you minimize the added sugar and other ingredients.
  4. I also started seeing chocolate covered acai berry on the market.  I took a look at the label and it seems that they don’t always use the actual fruit but they use the acai berry fruit juice or pulp mixed with other juices, then diped in chocolate.  So again, seems like all the processing and added ingredients may outweigh any benefit received from the antioxidants.

Overall, my recommendation is to get your antioxidants from other berries that are easily available and cheaper in the U.S. until 1.) more research is done and in fact shows that acai berries are indeed much more beneficial to your health than other fruits 2.) fresh or freeze dried acai berry is more readily available in the U.S.

If you like acai berry products, that’s fine, but just make sure you’re eating those products for the taste and flavor and not just for the health benefits since often times these products contain lot’s of added sugars and ingredients.  And last, if you go to South America, enjoy all the acai berry you can get :).  Natural, fresh, and tastes so good!

Me in Rio having fresh Acai sorbet 🙂

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Featured Snack: Brown Rice Crackers & Hummus

Did you know that by eating just 100 calories over your needs per day, you can gain 10 pounds in a year?

That is why snacking can be dangerous– because it can easily add extra calories to your day and often times not a whole lot of nutrition if your’e not eating the right kind of snacks.  But, if done properly, snacking can actually be a healthy part of your diet and help you lose or maintain your weight.

Here’s why? 

If you’re just eating 3 times a day you may end up going too long between meals. This can cause you to become low on energy and become overly hungry and overeat during your meals– leading to weight gain.  So for many people, it is important to eat between meals as long as you can try to follow these three important guidelines:

  1. Eat a snack in between meals but when you’re NOT hungry.  When you try to get a snack when you are hungry, you can end up over eating and just consume more calories in the day than you need, instead of trying to control hunger and intake throughout the day.
  2. Use your snacks as a way to meet some nutritional gaps from your meals.  Things like nuts, yogurt, fruits are great snacks because they are highly nutritious and filling, and often helps fill vitamin and mineral gaps from your meals.
  3. Try to choose snacks that blend complex carbohydrates with protein.  These types of snacks are both nutritious and satiating and will help keep your caloric intake under control throughout the day.

Here’s a snack idea that I LOVE because it’s nutritious, satiating, and most importantly—it tastes good!

  1. 18 Multiseed Brown Rice Mini crackers from Trader Joe’s (see packaging below)
  2. 1/2 Persian Cucumber (cut in slices or sticks)
  3. 2 TBS. Regular Hummus

Nutrition Facts:   Calories:  120 ; Protein 3 g ; Fat 4 g ; 17 g carbs  (mostly complex)

These crackers are great because they’re made with brown rice flour and flax seeds so are a good source of omega-3 Fatty acids and b-vitamins. They’re also easy to take on the go or to work and you can eat up to 35 of them for about 100 calories.  For a more satiating snack that will keep you on track the rest of the day, I like eating half the serving size of the crackers (about 18) and add something with a bit of protein like the hummus or low-fat string cheese.

Happy “healthy” snacking!

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Featured Food: Dark Chocolate

Chocolate can be good for your health…well at least dark chocolate can be (and in small amounts).  It’s hard to imagine, but if you didn’t know, chocolate really comes from a plant.  It’s made from the beans of the fruit of a tropical plant called Theobroma cacao.  So like other plants, there are tons of great nutrients in cacao, but in order to truly receive these benefits, you need to eat the dark chocolate, usually 60% cacao and above, and of course, the darker the chocolate, the more nutrients there are and less sugar and milk fat.

Cacao plant and pods. Source: Fairtrade Foundation

Why is it good for you?

1. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids which is a polyphenol antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage, reduce clot formation and improve blood sugar levels.  In general, a 1.5-oz. serving of dark chocolate has the same amount of antioxidants as a 5-oz. glass of red wine and dark chocolate provides eight times more antioxidants than strawberries. (source: Livestrong)

2. It may reduce blood pressure.  In 2007, a study published in JAMA found that small amounts of dark chocolate helped reduce blood pressure without causing weight gain.

3. Flavonoids from dark chocolate may also help improve your cholesterol levels.  A small study at Pennsylvania State University found that participants who had a diet with flavonoids from dark chocolate had higher HDL (good cholesterol) than those without a diet rich with flavonoids from dark chocolate.

Nutrition Info: 

Here’s a comparison of general nutrition facts for various types of chocolate.  You’ll see as the antioxidant amount gets reduced, the higher the sugar and total carbohydrate content due to the added milk and artificial sweeteners.  While it may seem like the fat content is higher in dark chocolate than some milk chocolates, keep in mind that that fat is from the fat content from the cocoa beans so it’s richer in nutrients compared to the fat in regular chocolate which is primarily derived from milk fat.

  Fat (g) Sat. Fat (g) Carbs (g) Sugar (g) Calories Antioxidants Ranking
Cocoa Powder 4 2 16 0 64 1
Dark Chocolate, 70-85%   12 7 13 7 168 2
Dark Chocolate, 60%   11 6 15 10 162 3
Milk Chocolate 8 5 17 14 150 4
White Chocolate 9 5 17 17 151 5

Nutrient data from: USDA Nutrient Database 

How to eat it: 

  • Cocoa power contains the highest amount of flavonoids, then dark chocolate, then milk chocolate and white chocolate has almost no flavonoids.
  • Portion size and moderation is still key.  While there is not enough research to recommend an exact amount that is healthy, one study found that any more than half of a bar cancels out the positive benefits of the flavonoids.  Remember, chocolate is still high in fat and sugar so keep your serving size under 1 oz, and preferably, a third of an oz. (about 2 squares of a bar).  That amount usually may be enough to satisfy your chocolate craving and receive the most benefit of the flavonoids while limiting the fat and calories.
  • Try adding a little cocoa powder to your smoothie, milkshakes, coffee, or sprinkle a little on top of your oatmeal.
  • The darker the chocolate, the less milk fat and sugar there is and a higher amount of flavonoids so you ideally want to choose 70% dark chocolate or higher.  Some companies have as much as 90% dark chocolate bars available.  Unsweetened baking chocolate is also rich in flavanoids.
  • Don’t just start eating dark chocolate because you think you need the flavanoids/antioxidants– fruits and vegetables are much better options for antioxidants that are lower in fat and sugar if you’re not dying for the chocolate.
Source: Mercola.com

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