Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ingredients and Where to Buy Them

I'll never forget the first time I walked into Whole Foods in search of some exotic ingredients I needed to start making healthy treats.  It was downright scary!  Luckily, there were many helpful employees who led me through the aisles and answered all of my questions.  Hopefully this little guide will help you to walk into any natural foods store with confidence.

First, let's talk about sweeteners.  There are several problems with white, refined sugar.  It has been highly processed and stripped of any nutritional value.  So it's basically just a bunch of empty calories.  It's also very high on the glycemic index (GI).  What is the Glycemic Index, you ask?  Ill let Ania Catalano (a wonderful cookbook author) explain:  "The GI ranks foods according to how quickly they are processed into glucose in the body.  Pure glucose, with a GI of 100, is the reference point:  The lower the GI, the more slowly the food is processed and the less dramatic the fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels.  Health experts agree that controlling these levels is an important component in lowering risk for heart disease and diabetes, reducing cholesterol levels, and managing weight."  White sugar has a GI of 60-65.  It raises blood sugar quickly which can lead to disease and also to aging in the body (think sagging and wrinkles people!)  So the sad truth is that we'd all be better off without eating so much of the white, refined stuff.  There are some wonderful substitutes out there:

Agave Nectar:  This is one of my personal favorites.  Agave is a liquid which has a bit thinner consistency than honey.  Agave has a GI of 55 or below, depending on the manufacturer.  Blue Weber agave is in the 19-39 range.  Agave is considered safe for diabetics because of this low GI rating.  Agave comes in both a "Light" and "Amber" color.  Unless a recipe calls specifically for the Amber color, I use the Light.  You will love, love agave!  You can substitute it for sugar in many recipes.  I buy my agave at Vitamin Cottage (for all of you who live in the Denver area).  It's cheapest there.  Mudhava is a great brand, and you can get a 46 ounce container for about $10.00.  Agave is more expensive than regular sugar, but totally worth it!!  Whole Foods, Sunflower Market, and even King Soopers has agave but I find that it's more expensive there.  By the way, some of my friends use agave straight from the container as pancake syrup!

Maple Syrup:  You want the pure stuff here, baby!  The fake stuff just won't do the trick.  The GI of maple syrup is about 54 and it's high in minerals.  Maple syrup comes in 2 grades:  A and B.  Grade B has been boiled longer so it has more flavor and nutrients than Grade A.  I buy my maple syrup at Whole Foods.  They have a "365 Everyday Value" Brand which is priced well.  I usually buy the Grade B, and a 32 ounce container is about $17.00 (don't gasp too hard--it'll last you awhile).

Sucanat ( dehydrated cane juice):  This is cane sugar that has not been refined.  It is a brown color and the granules are larger than it's refined, white counterpart.  Dehydrated cane juice contains micronutrients (which always makes me feel better about eating it).  Sucanat is simply a brand name for dehydrated cane juice.  You can buy this at Whole Foods but I find it's cheaper at Vitamin Cottage.  They sell it in bags in their "bulk foods" aisle for $1.75 a pound.

Dates:  These little babies are full of good things:  fiber, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, Vitamin A, and antioxidents including tannins and beta-carotene.  That's a pretty impressive list!  I buy my dates at Whole Foods in their bulk food aisle (this is where all the bins are and you just help yourself to how much you want).  Dates dry out pretty quickly, so I only buy what I need for the week.  Whole Foods carries several varieties including Medjool and Deglet Noor.

Let's move on to a few other ingredients I use a lot.

Tofu:  Tofu is made out of soybeans.  It's a great protein source for vegetarians and vegans.  You can buy it 2 ways:  In little tubs of water in the refrigerated section of any grocery store, or sealed in little boxes that don't need to be refrigerated (Mori Nu is the most popular brand).  Tofu comes in firm, extra-firm, and silken varieties.  The firm stuff you buy in the tubs is used in a variety of ways--you can marinate it, grill it, steam it, scramble it (if you add some tumeric it ends up looking like scrambled eggs), etc.  The Mori Nu stuff is used for desserts and in baking (this is the silken tofu, and it's consistency lends itself to baking and things like pudding).  Tofu is CHEAP!  So it's a great meatless way to add protein to meals.  While it looks white and funny, it will take on the flavor of whatever you mix it with so it's incredibly versatile.

Flax Seeds:  These little seeds are full of fiber, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids.  They're also very low in carbohydrates.  Now I must admit that, alas, I don't love the taste of flax seeds.  I know there are some who sprinkle them on everything from cereal to salads because they want the amazing health benefits that these seeds provide.  I am not one of the those people.  But I do use flax seeds in baking, which masks the taste.  Flax seeds are also an egg replacer used in vegan baking.

Spelt Flour:  I'll quote here from another fabulous cookbook writer, Ricki Heller:  "Spelt and kamut, both distant relatives of wheat, are ancient grains that have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the past few years.  While both do contain gluten, they have less than wheat, and they haven't been hybridized the way wheat has over the years.  As a result, spelt and kamut are often tolerated by people who are sensitive to wheat.  Spelt is now available in both wholegrain ("whole" spelt) and partially refined ("light" spelt) varieties.  While light spelt does retain less of the whole grain, it looks and acts much like all-purpose flour and is great in recipes requiring a lighter texture...Wholegrain spelt is made from the entire grain ground up, and looks and acts much like whole wheat flour."  So there you have it.  I buy my spelt flour from Vitamin Cottage.  They have a refrigerated section full of bags of flours, nuts, and other good things, all at very good prices.  You can also find spelt flour at Whole Foods in their bulk foods section.

Cashews:  These are full of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, vitamins, protein, and the "good" monounsaturated fats.  They are also used in many unexpected ways in the world of healthy cooking.  For example, you can soak them and then blend them with water and you end up with "cashew cream" that adds richness and thickness to soups and desserts.  Amazing!  Cashew butter is also used in recipes.  When you buy cashews, buy the "raw" unprocessed ones.  Vitamin Cottage is where I get mine.  And cashew butter I buy from Whole Foods (it's over by the peanut butter).   

That's it for now.  I'll be adding to this list as we go along.  Here's one more definition though:

Vegan:  A vegan is someone who doesn't eat ANY animal products.  While vegetarians stay away from meat, they do eat eggs, milk and dairy products.  Vegans don't eat anything that comes from an animal.  Am I a vegan?  No.  Although I have cut way back on the amount of meat I eat and am tending more and more towards full veganism.  It's a process for sure.  I do know that I feel great when I'm eating a lot of vegan meals.  And for those of you who have to avoid dairy products, vegan recipes are for you!


  1. Thank you, Wendy! This was so helpful!

  2. Wendy, I love this post. It is so informative. Love your blog!