Back in the US – Crazy Food. Part Two: the “Healthy” Kind, or Not.

Part One was about fast-food.

Novelties for foreigners and Americans who have lived overseas for a while.

We were posted overseas for eight years back-to-back (Africa, Mexico, Asia, Europe – I know Mexico is not a continent), never having participated in language training. We took home leave three years ago, but lived like tourists so did not fully appreciate all the novelties. Perhaps these novelties did not even exist three years ago during our last home leave. Here is a small sample of the foods that have been marketed recently to make people buy more of what they don’t need, often disguised as healthy – and most often not.

We finally resettled in the United States, and as for each move, I dedicated myself to exploring the neighborhood and its resources. I do not like wasting my time shopping, but wish to make sure I discover the best quality and deals of my neighborhood. In a new country I always visit the surrounding supermarkets so that I can narrow down where to shop for what, and the same applies to the U.S. For example, good beef cuts are hard to find in supermarkets in Budapest or very expensive at the butcher, but Metro (a Costco-style place) offers good quality beef at reasonable prices.

While searching for the best fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits, I discovered many new food offerings that flabbergasted me. It is possible that long time American residents will have not noticed either because when you shop, you usually know what you want and look just for that so you might have not noticed the weird new offerings. They exist in every single aisle. You can eat them or drink them. They pretend to be healthy or not, and are, or not. From milk to chips, trail mix snacks to vegetarian burgers, welcome to new foods. Including pork rinds and pork crackling …

Milk
We knew that besides cow milk, you could have goat milk – so last century. To care for the lactose intolerant and vegan crowds, marketers packaged soy milk and rice milk. Even almond milk and coconut milk existed three years ago. You can now add cashew milk, almond-cashew milk, hazelnut milk, and my discovery of the day: quinoa milk and hemp milk. Hemp is a seed. It is not the marijuana drug. It does come from the plant species Cannabis sativa hence some confusion.

Asian food
Sea vegetable flakes ‘agar agar’ – Kombu the vegetable of the sea” features a happy fish dubbed “Sea Snax”. Its expiration date is in 15 months from now. How many preservatives and chemicals do you need to add to this ‘snax’ to achieve such a longevity.

Remember when Ramen noodles were the cheap meal for students – at $0.99 a pack? Now you can go organic on your Ramen with the Koyo brand, or fancy with the Lotus Foods brand which proposes Forbidden rice ramen noodles, Jade pearl ramen noodles, millet and brown rice ramen noodles. Not the same price at all.

I love ‘pho’ (pronounce ‘fuh’), the legendary Vietnamese light soup. I discovered kits to prepare it yourself. But did they need to come flavored? “Zesty ginger,” “garlic goodness” or “shiitake mushroom?” I can add the ginger, garlic and mushroom myself! I just needed the right blend of spices. The Happy Pho brand which offers the kit also makes the noodles out of brown rice.

Seaweed has become a fashionable snack these days. They used to be a favorite of Japanese people and it seemed that it would be hard to penetrate the American market. Ah – but someone had the idea to make seaweed “American” by injecting them with a good dose of “Texas BBQ flavor!” And why not propose a sea salt flavor as well since sea salt is so popular these days that you can even find it in chocolate. To remain in Asia, seaweed is also proposed with a sriracha flavor – just in case seaweed alone had an unpleasant taste …

At the Good Fortune Asian store in Little Vietnam/Eden Center, I found a drink called Essence of Chicken with Cordyceps extract near black-skinned chickens. As adventurous as I am, I didn’t dare try. The names for herbal teas made me laugh. Besides the common Relax, Cholesterol, or Immune, there were the less romantic Menopause and PMS! The produce section was very colorful with cucumbers that look like crocodiles, round white or purple eggplants smaller than a tennis ball, taro, and the unusual yampi and ratalu, both deformed roots.

Chips and Crunchy Snacks
With The Better Chip brand, we can indulge in chips (typically unhealthy) that are supposedly healthy because they are made with beets or spinach & kale, radish & chia, chipotle or jalapeño – whatever is in fashion. Not only the photo makes you believe you will eat pure beet, there is even a magnifier to show you the rings inside of a fresh purple beet. Its number one ingredient is whole grain masa flour – not beet – are you disappointed? Before you switch from crackers (‘bad-unhealthy’) to veggie chips (must be good since it’s veggie), check the facts. For the recommended serving size of one ounce (28 grams) these veggie chips bring 140 calories and 8g of fat when evil crackers bring 120 calories and only 3.5g of fat (Triscuit for example). Which one is evil?

Chips can also be made out of beans instead of potatoes, and the first ingredient is beans (yeah!), then rice and oil. Alas it does contain 7 grams of fat per serving and still 140 calories.

On this ever expanding healthy snacking (oxymoron intended) market the brand Hi I’m Skinny is a “new healthy alternative to snack food.” Instead of chips they propose sticks in healthy options: quinoa, sweet potato, and ‘superfood’ described as ‘mean & green’ in case you have no clue what a superfood might be (I remain clueless). Unfortunately, per serving size of one ounce (28g), you will get 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2g of protein and a tiny gram of fibers (Quinoa Sea Salt version). I’m staying with my evil regular cracker!

All is good in pork. Indeed, this ‘snout to tail’ commitment to use the entire animal is a great incentive for ranchers to raise their animals in a better environment. Delicacies such as pig ears, easy to find in Asia or on the markets of central Europe, is now modernly packaged in several flavors: the ubiquitous sea salt & pepper, maple bacon, or BBQ (no jalapeño yet). If I say pork rinds (skins) or pork cracking (fried-out pork fat with attached skin), it sounds very unhealthy and fattening. Yet, for the same amount of our earlier veggie chips you ‘only’ get 160 calories – not that big of a difference.

I knew of brownies and chocolate chip cookies that we don’t bake anymore, we purchase them in a box. I did not know the same could be possible with pies. A pie seems like a messy snack to give a child. Not with Nature’s Path proposing toaster pastries (filling is inside the dough) in many different flavors from Granny apple pie to wildberry acai and chocolate for example.

Mac & Cheese

A Kraft packet costs less than $1 (even in DC), supermarket brands cost half. But if you cannot boil water and add pasta, milk, and orange powder like it says on the package, Whole Foods has prepackaged the easy already-cooked version for $6.49 per serving!!! At this price you cannot even use a microwave since it is presented in an aluminum dish.

Yogurts

The brand Dreaming Cow proposes yogurts made with milk from barn-free, grass-fed cows and these yogurts only have natural ingredients (whole milk, agave nectar, pure vanilla extract and live active cultures for the vanilla-agave flavor) and 92 calories/4oz, 2 more than a low-fat Dannon Activia fruit yogurt. The non-fat Activia Light yogurt boasting only 60 calories needs to incorporate many ‘horrors’ to give it some taste: non-fat milk, blueberry puree, water, modified food starch, inulin, acacia gum, modified corn starch, kosher gelatin, carmine, pectin, sucralose, calcium lactate, malic acid, milk calcium, acesulfame potassium, and xanthan gum.

Vegan friendly

September 2017, I discover “pluots”. As the name indicates clearly, it is the contraction – and combination – of plums and apricots. Not called “aprum” because it tastes more like a plum than an apricot!

For vegans and vegetarians who need their “meat fix,” marketers do wonders. Vegan burgers made of beans or soy are well-known. Now they manage to imitate to perfection the look and texture of meat balls, sausages, or breast of chicken. The brand Gardein proposes “chick’n scallopini.” The photo is great, the ingredients much less apetizing: water, soy, protein isolate, expeller pressed canola oil, methylcellulose, organic vinegar, tapioca starch, yeast, cane sugar, potato starch, … color added, …

Unfortunately, when you want to drink something as natural as raw cow’s milk, the producer needs to label it for cats and dogs because State authorities have decided that humans can’t have it! Can you smell the power of lobbies behind all this?

The list goes on and on, with marketers always eager to sell more processed food, when at the end of the day, if you wish to stay healthy, you just need to go “around” the supermarket, it is where the fresh food is, counter-clockwise in many supermarkets: produce, cheese, meat, and fish.

PS – I discovered all these new offerings while shopping for ideas to match with my new habits to successfully control my weight; read more in my post about Weight Loss. This post will have many sequels to help people lose weight, even after 50, and for free.

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Weight Loss in the Foreign Service

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How to turn a negative feeling into a positive result Joining the Foreign Service is similar to joining the army: you go where you are told to go.  Refusing a mission is resigning.  We have always been lucky to get … Continue reading

Interesting Gift: a Soldier’s Ration

At Christmas time, a thought about gifts, and an anecdote about a certain gift.

There are gifts that are like perfume samples, we do not use them either because we love them too much to consume them and see them disappear or we do not like them at all. Sometimes we want to keep the gift intact. With our Foreign Service nomadic life it is impossible to keep consumables without consuming them. Otherwise the result would be too many boxes on our next move. That day hubby reminded me that it was necessary to consume a Christmas gift that our son had received from his cousin now in the French army: a single day’s ration!  I found this an excellent idea, wishing to know what they feed soldiers.

The ration is packaged in a cardboard box half the size of a shoe box. The inscriptions are in French and English, but clearly it must be provided by a French supplier since there is a spelling mistake in the English, ‘NATO APPROUVED’. Packaged on 1 July 2014, the box promises that the included food can be consumed until 11 January 2018. Imagine the number of chemicals necessary to ensure such a long shelf life! Despite the menu description outside the box, it is not easy to picture what I will truly find inside.

There are many small boxes and cans inside but the entire amount seems to be more appropriate for a woman on a diet than for a young soldier who needs more than 5,000 calories a day – probably doubled during combat. Alas, none of the meal boxes mention any calories nor carbohydrates, fiber, fat, etc. We will have to speculate and guess. The heating device fits in a tiny box, the size of two decks of cards. It includes a disposable container, grasping pliers, matches, six fuel pellets, six water purification tablets and a garbage bag.

The menu is fittingly French! For the two main courses, we may feast on Marengo veal with potatoes and pork with mushroom risotto. As the veal is cooked in white wine, a Muslim soldier would go hungry. And, were our son a soldier, he would only have one main meal since he hates mushrooms.

The veal can comes from a ‘Daniel and Denise’ brand (absolutely unknown) and mentions that it is Joseph Viola, best cook in France, who created the recipe. Whoa! Will soldiers really care? Since we never buy canned meals I do not know if it is normal to find carrageenan in it. Never heard of it? Me neither. What I read on Wikipedia is instructive: “Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (galactane) extracted from red seaweeds and used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in the food industry.” It is notorious for causing diarrhea – not really the most comfortable condition on a combat zone – and it is also used in shampoos, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, etc. This meal also includes xanthan gum (a more familiar name) which comes from polysaccharides excreted by various soil microorganisms (including bacteria). Our appetite is now completely whetted!

The mushroom risotto includes pork cheeks and smoked bacon and its can mentions an even later potential expiration date – until March 2018. Its maker, House Larzul (unknown brand again), does not mention any dye, thickener, gelling agent nor preservative (is that legal?), yet the ingredients include butter and sour cream.

For appetizers, there is a small can of roasted chicken rillettes, branded Hénaff (a known brand), and a small can of melted goat cheese, also branded Hénaff. When I say small, I mean small. They are only 78 grams each (2.75 oz). Where am I to spread the cheese? On so-called ‘campaign cookies ’in French, translated in English by a plain ‘army biscuits’ – this does not sound as appetizing. They are packaged in a box, four sachets of two salted crackers and four sachets of two sweet biscuits. All of these contain 11 grams of fat per 100 grams which is bad from a nutritional point of view. There is also a sachet of instant dehydrated potato-leek soup.

A French soldier has many choices for breakfast. He can choose between ‘cocoa aroma’ powder or two instant coffee doses packaged in 70s style which looks very cheap or two tea bags almost luxuriously packaged, Royal Ceylon and China tea with mint from Max Havelaar, all of them accompanied by two white sugar packets. For solid food the soldier can count on strawberry muesli manufactured in Germany, and Andros strawberry jam.

For snacks between meals the soldier gets a 70% dark chocolate bar, a coffee flavored rice bar, a fruit pulp bar, a bar of nougat with fruits, and four vanilla caramel candies. Finally, to complete this varied meal box, there is a powder to make an isotonic drink, a packet of tissues and two packets of salt and pepper from Alicante in Spain and written exclusively in Spanish.

Then our son returned and, as I was just finishing examining the contents of the box, declared that he refused to share his daily ration with us as an experiment. He stated that he had planned to eat it all when he goes camping with his friends. I already regret the sweet taste the carrageenan must have…

Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.
P1140171

OK – Not that crazy – this was in China!

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

Lunch at the Hold Street Market Hall

The market behind the U.S. Embassy on Szabadság Tér has changed tremendously in 2015. This little brother of the large Central Market opened in 1897 and feels inspired by Gustave Eiffel as well. Now fully renovated it offers a dozen restaurants for literally all palates: Hungarian, Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian, Scandinavian, etc. One person can choose Chinese, the other one Italian and you can eat together in the common area.

Last week we had the great surprise of finding also an offer of Vietnamese and Thai soups, Pho and Tom Kha Gai. Both were delicious and very authentic. 1,000 HUF for the small bowl and 1,400 HUF for the big one.

You pay at the restaurant A Séf Riksája and get served at the soup cart. This restaurant serves a Hungarian specialty changed daily. It is located with all the restaurants, upstairs, at the end of the market, near the very good Vörös Homár (the Red Lobster).

Vörös Homár also proposes, on the ground floor, the best quality fish and seafood you can think of, and if you don’t see what you need, they take orders.

Belvárosi Piac / Downtown Market
Hold utca 13 – Budapest 1054
www.holdutcapiac.hu/en

Pros and Cons of Living in Budapest

Pros

Cost of living
The best restaurants cost a fraction of what you would pay in DC. You can have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant for under $20. Fruits and vegetables cost much less than in the U.S., for example apples are 60 cents a kilo, oranges $1/kg. A kilo of pork is about $4. A maid costs less than $7/hour and she does more than vacuuming and dusting. She cleans windows, irons, cooks, etc.  Gas looks expensive but you get all the taxes back so it costs no more than in the U.S.

Endless travel opportunities
Hungary is so small you can reach most cities in two hours, perfect for a day trip or a weekend. Seven countries are neighbors (Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia) and four more don’t have common borders but are very close: Czech Republic, Poland, Bosnia, Moldova. There are endless possibility for weekends or three-day trips. Wizzair has also many connections from Budapest so you may fly to Italy or Spain for $50!

Food & Wine
Being foodies we are so happy to be posted here where food is delicious and abundant. Hungarian specialties are tasty (Goulash, grey cow, Mangalica pork, paprika, foie gras, beef cheeks, lecso, etc.). Hungarian wines can easily compete with French or California wines. Hungarians are also the best at making freshly squeezed lemonade, simple or with ginger, etc.

Public transportation
Being able to go everywhere by foot, sometimes with the help of a tram, bus or metro is bliss. No more car to park. We use our car only to travel outside the city. Public transportation is plentiful, regular, very safe, and decently priced – about $40/month. Budapest is bliss for teenagers who can go see their friends without needing their parents to taxi them around.

People & culture
From festivals in Mohacs (end of February) to Easter in Hollokö to many beer & wine festivals to music festivals (Sziget, Sopron), occasions are endless to share the Hungarian culture and meet friendly people. They also love dogs – you can take them to restaurants (they also have a ‘cat’ bar for cat owners).

Good  Schools
One American school, two British, 2 Christian, 1 French schools are used by the community at present but there are more international schools available. They are all very good.

Cons
It is hard for me to find real cons particular to Budapest.

Embassy community
Not as tight as what you get in Africa because there is so much to do here that people are constantly out of the city or the country.

Language
One of the hardest to learn after Chinese and Arabic. Extremely few cognates and rules that exist just to be broken on your next sentence. Illogical rules like using the singular when you use a number or ‘lots of’ in front of a name – obviously in English the name and the verb would be in plural form. Imagine that instead of saying ‘These five books are old’  you need to say  ‘This five book is old’.

VAT
The highest in Europe at 27%. Even food gets taxed that high. Few items like bread are taxed at ‘only’ 15%. By doing lengthy paperwork we are able to recuperate it in most cases though – so the con becomes a pro!

Weather forecast
While in most cities you can trust the forecast about one week in advance, in Budapest, even two days in advance it will not be accurate. Weather changes all the time. Yet we have more sunny days than in Barcelona so that is great.

Tons of work
Coming from Pakistan where it was common to work 50 to 70 hours a week we could not believe our colleagues when they said that Budapest was overly busy. Yet after two years we can attest to a level of work that is simply insane compared to other places. It is a small 10-million inhabitant’s country, yet it is in NATO between the West and Russia so it has more share of mind than its size might suggest. Also if you have a regional function and no direct flights to go to your destination due to historical Balkan reasons, travel time adds up.  I wish we could have time to produce better quality instead of always feeling we are running behind.

Budapest introduction: food first!

Late in August 2013, we started our journey to Budapest. Our first stop was Houston where we learned that our son’s luggage was going to Budapest but ours would not! We had to fix this in Frankfurt. Between Houston and Frankfurt our son was upgraded to business, we were not! At this point our dog decided to literally do what we thought … although I had taken her out to relieve herself she decided to let it go (all of it) only once we were back inside the airport. Right there, on the smooth marble floor.

We arrived in Budapest one plane later than planned and a very cold rain greeted us that Thursday night. Guess what our first introduction to our new home city was? Tesco!!! A British supermarket. Our house had furniture and was supplied with a welcome kit (sheets, towels, kitchen appliances) but the fridge was empty so the colleague who came to greet us took us to the supermarket.

It was actually a good introduction to the language. The vegetable and fruit section is like a children’s book: an image with a tag describing what it is. Everything was written in Hungarian only. Obviously. We were glad to discover that a zucchini is a cukkini and a lemon is a citrom. Almost the same. Alma means apple. Simple enough. It became trickier when we had to name the garlic: fokhagyma – pronounced fokhojmo. I immediately liked the tomato word because it sounds like paradise: paradicsom. Butter is vaj (pronounced voy), milk is tej (tey). Some things ended up in the caddy on the basis of their appearance without us having a clue what they were!

Early Saturday morning – that is to say about 30 hours after our Tesco adventure, our neighbor took us to Auchan, the French supermarket! Us? Me and my nine hours of jet lag … I was born and raised in France. I know Auchan. This is Budapest. I don’t know Auchan anymore. This supermarket was bigger than two regular Auchan in France. It had over 60 cashiers!  Between the size, the language and the jet lag it was overwhelming and after two hours I was lost, my caddy full but I still didn’t have what was on my list – sounds familiar? Just like home!

In the afternoon my husband and I went by foot to a tiny mall near our house called Hegyvidék Központ. The mall of the country hills. It is a gourmet center where one can find a wine shop, a fine chocolate shop, a baker, a butcher, a fishmonger, a deli selling high-end products – a bit like Hédiard or Fauchon. We learned a few more words at the butcher’s. Marha for beef, borjú for veal, barany for lamb, sertés for pork, csirke for chicken, kacsa for duck and liba for goose. Pork, duck and goose are staples here, beef not so much. Even huge Auchan and 24/7 big Tesco don’t really supply proper beef.

So 48 hours after landing I still had no idea what Budapest looked like but I was learning a lot of food vocabulary and in a sense Hungarian culture. Hungarians are gourmet people who love to eat good meals: a perfect country for us.