Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sugar and Sweeteners - How to Read Labels and Make The Best Choices

I frequently take clients shopping as part of my consultation services. At first, most people think they don't need help shopping, but once we get to the store, everyone is blown away by what we can learn by taking our time, reading labels, discussing ingredients, alternatives, and ways to navigate the aisles.

Sugar is a topic that comes up with almost everyone. Sugars, or simple carbohydrates, which the body essentially treats as sugars in the digestion and assimilation process, can be extremely damaging to one's health. Refined sugars pull minerals from our body's stores, making bones and teeth weaker. Sugars also throw off hormone functions, cause inflammation and weaken the immune system.

Simple carbohydrates include refined grains, like breads, pastas, anything made with flour, fruit juices etc. Sugars are also added to almost all processed foods. This is what we find out when we start paying attention, and decoding to ingredients on packaged foods. Part of the pro
blem is that labels are not easy to understand. For example, there are many words for sugar, some of which you may have thought made foods healthy, and others which you may have thought were chemicals.

·Cane Sugar

Cane Juice

Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids

· Dehydrated Cane Juice

· Dextrin

· Dextrose

· Fructose

· Fruit juice concentrate

· Glucose

· High-fructose corn syrup

· Honey

· Invert sugar

· Lactose

· Maltodextrin

· Malt syrup

· Maltose

· Maple syrup

· Molasses

· Raw sugar

· Rice Syrup

· Saccharose

· Sorghum or sorghum syrup

· Sucrose

· Syrup

· Treacle

· Turbinado Sugar

· Xylose

In many of the sweeter recipes I post, you will note that I recommend using 'whole sweeteners'. While these are still simple carbohydrates, which should still be used sparingly, these are less refined versions, which are healthier options. These whole sweeteners often are accompanied by a wide variety of minerals or other nutrients, which help the body to assimilate the sugars in a more healthful way.

Here are some of the whole sweeteners which I recommend using to replace refined white or brown sugar:

Maple syrup: The maple syrup market is a minefield of artificially maple-flavored syrups with little to no maple content, so be sure to read labels - what you are used to buying may in fact be high fructose corn syrup. Pure maple syrup is rich in important minerals like zinc and manganese and comes from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Available in various grades depending on when the sap was harvested from the tree, syrup produced from tapping early in the season yields a lighter, finer syrup designated grade A. Chose grade B, which comes from sap harvested later in the season; it’s thicker and more luxurious in flavor, color and has the widest spectrum of minerals. Buy pure 100 percent organic maple syrup.

Agave nectar: Lighter, cleaner, and less cloyingly sweet than honey, but with a similar appearance, agave nectar is a fantastic mild-tasting sweetener that is gaining widespread popularity. It is renowned for having a low glycemic index, which is of particular importance to diabetics and anyone who has problems with blood sugar regulation. Look for 100 percent pure agave nectar. The darker amber variety retains more of the plant’s natural nutrients.

Blackstrap molasses: is a full-bodied sweetener that runs thick and black as tar. It is made from successive boilings of sugarcane, and because many of the minerals and nutrients are preserved throughout the process, it is rich in potassium and an excellent source of calcium, vitamin B6, and iron. Like maple syrup, molasses is sold in grades having to do with whether it is from the first, second, third, or fourth boiling of the sugarcane, blackstrap coming from the last. Again because this sweetener is a concentrate, buying organic is important.

Honey: Honey has a flavour that reflects the blossoming flowers of the specific region in which it was produced. Some honeys are thick, dark, and brooding; others are light in color and bright on the tongue. Navigating your way through the vast landscape of honey varieties involves a lifetime of tasting. A honey appropriate for pairing with an artisan cheese might be very different than a honey for baking with, so taste different types, take notes, and try different pairings. Look for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey and be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants. Farmers’ markets are typically a great place to find honey producers who can talk you through the nuances of the different varieties.

Stevia: is derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30-times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and may be useful for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia or candida. Available in powdered, liquid, concentrate, tea or tablet form.

So, start reading the ingredients labels on the products you buy each week. Don't be surprised if sugar pops up in most products, including whole grain breads, 'healthy' cereals, yogurts, smoothies, and just about everywhere else. Armed with this knowledge you can make better choices, avoid those products where sugar is found in the first 4-5 ingredients, and begin making sweet treats at home with more wholesome sweetener choices.

Questions? Email alicia@blossom-nutrition.com

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall Favourites

Fall is my favourite season. Or it was, until I moved to Vancouver where we don't really get many of those crisp cool days or colourful leaves. But the season still lives on in my mind! And this week the weather has actually felt like a New England autumn here, so it has put me in the mood for some fall favourites.

I love pumpkin anything, and its just what I wanted this week to celebrate the autumnal weather.

While all the world seems to be soaking up Pumpkin Spice Lattes for nearly $5 a cup, I have been incorporating real pumpkin in the kitchen instead!

While we are on the topic - have you seen what's in that latte? Oh wait- that's right, they don't actually disclose ingredients! But they do give you the nutritional info, and I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that this is not exactly a healthy addition to your daily routine.

Try some of these more wholesome ideas for getting a little fall flavour into your diet!

Pumpkin Oatmeal
  • 1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 Tbs whole flax seeds, optional
  • 3 1/2 tsp pureed dates (puree in food processor with a little hot water)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 3/4 cup milk


  • 1/4 cup pecans, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, softened
  • a little more pureed dates

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 4 individual sized ramekins. Set aside.

Combine the oats through salt in a medium sized bowl. Stir well. In a separate bowl, combine the vanilla, butter, pumpkin, and milk. Whisk thoroughly. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the oats. Stir until combined.

Divide mixture evenly between 4 individual sized ramekins. Place ramekins on a baking sheet (this makes it easier to move in and out of the oven.). Bake at 375 degrees F for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the ingredients for the topping. After the oatmeal has baked for 10 minutes, remove and divide topping mixture evenly between the ramekins. Bake and additional 7 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes before serving. Top with a splash of milk and raisins, if desired.

Spiced Pumpkin Bread

  • 2 cups honey, maple syrup, agave nectar or pureed dates
  • 1 cup unrefined coconut oil, slightly warmed until liquid
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour - or other grain flour of choice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (optional)

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Beat sugar and oil in large bowl to blend. Mix in eggs and pumpkin. Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in walnuts, if desired.

    Divide batter equally between prepared pans. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Using sharp knife, cut around edge of loaves. Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

    Aunt Maria's Balsamic Chicken

    On request, here is my Aunt Maria's Balsamic Chicken recipe. Maria made this for us when we visited her in Atlanta earlier this year, and it has since become a favourite!

    I dished this up last week with a kale, leek and roasted beet sauté. (Roast beets for 30-40 mins in oven first - wrapped in foil, then the skin comes off easily in your hands. Next simply saute kale, leeks and beets for 4-5 minutes in a little olive oil and salt and pepper). It was a healthy, delicious meal! Enjoy!

    2 tsp olive oil
    2 large red onions
    6 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin
    8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (I used boned, and cut skin off myself as this is how its sold at the Farmer's market)
    1 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp oregano
    1/2 tsp marjoram
    1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
    2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
    1/3 cup sherry *optional (I didn't have this, so I used a little red wine that had been on the counter for a few weeks, and it worked perfectly)

    1) Sauté onions & garlic in large pan, covered so they don't brown too much, on medium heat with 2 tsp olive oil.

    2) While that cooks, season chicken, both sides, with salt, pepper, oregano and marjoram.

    3) When onions are soft & light red, place chicken in pan (cover with the onions) and sprinkle with the 1/4 cup of vinegar and sherry.

    4) Turn heat down and cover the pan. Cook for 25 mins, turning once, until done.

    5) Remove lid and turn up heat a bit. Add remaining 2 tbsp of vinegar and cook until liquid is almost absorbed - about 5 mins.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    Freezer Friendly Recipes

    Those of you following Blossom on Facebook will have seen that I recently invested in a chest freezer (despite the fact that many would think this was a crazy idea in my tiny, but well-used, little kitchen).

    We have been talking about getting a big freezer for years, dreaming of preserving some of our favourite summer farmer's market treats for year-round enjoyment. This year, the deciding factor was that Little Woods is coming, and its important to me that we are able to keep our healthy, homecooked, whole foods based diet going even if things get a little crazy around here! So... I have spent the last week buying up huge amounts of fresh food, cooking up a storm, and hubby and I even went blackberry picking (a little late in the season)! Surely this is a nutritionist's way of nesting!!!

    Below are some of the basic, but lovely recipes which have filled our freezer to the brim. Whether you have a newborn at home, or struggle to get dinner on the table after a long day at work - these meals can be a lifesaver. The secret here is to cook up a massive amount of each to really get the most out of your time investment. Then freeze in dinner sized portions (I made some lunches too), and viola!

    Mixed Bean Vegetarian Chili


    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 medium onion, chopped
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
    • 1 tablespoon salt
    • 2 stalks celery, chopped
    • 2 bell peppers, chopped
    • 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped
    • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 2 (4 ounce) cans chopped green chile peppers, drained
    • 3 (28 ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
    • 1/4 cup chili powder
    • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
    • 2 (15 ounce) can kidney beans, drained (I used dried, soaked them overnight, then simmered for an hour in water before use...saves $$)
    • 1 (15 ounce) can other beans of choice, drained (I used dried, soaked them overnight, then simmered for an hour in water before use...saves $$)
    • 1 (15 ounce) can black beans
    • 1 (15 ounce) can whole kernel corn


    1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, and season with bay leaves, cumin, oregano, and salt. Cook and stir until onion is tender, then mix in the celery, green bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, garlic, and green chile peppers. When vegetables are heated through,reduce heat to low, cover pot, and simmer 5 minutes.
    2. Mix the tomatoes into the pot. Season chili with chili powder and pepper. Stir in the kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and black beans. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer 45 minutes. Stir in the corn, and continue cooking 5 minutes before serving.

    Basic Vegetable Quiche You can pretty much swap out the feta and chard here for any combination of cheese and vegetable that appeals to you. Just make sure whatever veg you choose is chopped.

    1 storebought pie crust, pressed into a pie dish 3 eggs 1 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup feta cheese 1/2 onion, sliced and sauteed in olive oil, 3-5 minutes until soft 1 bunch kale or chard (washed, chopped, and sauteed in garlic and olive oil) 1 zucchini, shredded or other vegetables of choice (I used mushrooms!)

    salt and pepper to taste


    Preheat oven to 375°F. Prick the bottom of your pie crust with a fork and pre-bake it for 8 minutes. While it’s baking, whisk together milk, half-and-half, eggs, and some pepper. Remove the pie crust and sprinkle the cheese, onions, and half the vegetables on the bottom. Pour most of the egg mixture on top, then add the remaining vegetables, stirring gently so they are partially immersed in the egg mixture. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top hasn’t turned that appealingly golden brown color, broil for a few minutes at the very end.

    Chicken Soup

    1 onion, chopped
    2 carrots, peeled and sliced
    2 celery ribs, sliced
    1 teaspoon oil
    leftover chicken or turkey carcass or 3 pounds of chicken pieces
    1 or 2 bay leaves
    salt and pepper to taste
    1/2 cup rice or 2 cups noodles

    Heat oil in large pot. Place chopped onion, celery and carrots into pot and fry gently for about 5 minutes, until they are soft but not carmelized.

    Add chicken or turkey carcass or pieces and bay leaf. Add water to cover, about 2 quarts, but this varies with the size of the carcass or amount of meat you use. Just make sure it is covered.

    Add salt to taste. Boil for 2 hours, checking near the end of the cooking time to see if you need more salt. Add pepper at that time.

    Remove meat and bones. Add rice or noodles and cook for about 20 minutes more. Cut cooled meat into small pieces and add back to the pot.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Take Back Your Lunch Break

    Check out the September edition of the StayFitAnywhere newsletter. This month's edition includes lots of great fitness tips for staying in shape, even during the busy work week!

    In the nutrition section, I highlight the importance of taking your lunch break, and eating well throughout the day:

    Take Back Your Lunch Break

    If you work in downtown Vancouver, the lunch scene is pretty grim. Even if you don't personally follow this norm, you have seen it: Professional X gets up, leaves desk at 12pm, takes elevator, then escalator down to an underground food court, purchases Chinese, Greek, Indian, or a sub, maybe sushi, heads back to desk. Food is consumed in ten minutes or less before the next meeting. A couple of hours later, another trip to the underground food court might yield a latte and a piece of banana bread to help keep the brain ticking until dinner time.

    Maybe this isn't you - maybe you jog the seawall at lunch, pack a lunch and sit somewhere away from a computer, near a window or (gasp!) outside for your break? If not, what's stopping you? It shouldn't be your employer - in fact, poor diet (ahem, food court!), lack of exercise and rising stress levels have lead to increases in long-term sickness, absences and lack of productivity. Noting this, the Province of Nova Scotia has launched a 'Take Back Your Lunch Break' campaign to encourage healthier habits among workers!

    So set an example for your co-workers, friends and children. Take a break, step outside, and choose foods that will give you energy all day, rather than caffeine, refined carbs and sugar that leave you reaching for more when you start to nod off around 3 o'clock. Make enough at dinner time that you can pack leftovers for lunch. Or put together a homemade sandwich using 100% whole grain breads purchased at a local bakery, smoked salmon or grilled chicken and lots of vegetables for added crunch. Pack yourself some snacks too - be realistic about what you need to get through your day so that you don't wind up at the vending machine. Go for plain yogurt, whole fruits, hummus and veggies, whatever you prefer. And remember, eating lunch underground, or by the light of a laptop is not what mother nature intended! Take Back Your Lunch Break!