Food Review: Perk!er Gluten Free Foods Saturday, Aug 2 2014 

After experiencing some bloating induced (I thought) by bread and pasta, I started dabbling with gluten free foods. Whether the bloating is down to genuine gluten intolerance or just being a bit of a piggie I still can’t say. However, reducing one’s gluten intake can never be a bad thing, as it’s said to contribute to increased energy levels, fewer stomach cramps, and less bloating. If you do decide to reduce the amount of gluten in your diet or even go completely gluten-free, the bulk of your diet should still consist of natural foods, such as fish, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, and naturally gluten-free grains (like quinoa). Nonetheless, even those going gluten-free are only human, and will occasionally miss things like pasta, bread, and cake. While I’m still experimenting with this, I hear that Dove’s provides a good range of gluten-free flour, and I’ve had promising results so far with gluten-free pasta from a French supermarket brand, Carrefour.

As the gluten-free market gains traction, more and more brands are appearing to satiate people’s desires even while cutting out certain foods. Perk!er is one of these brands, and they very kindly sent me some of their gluten-free products to test recently. For breakfast, their golden syrup porridge pot – perfect for the road – and their apple, cinnamon and raisin box of porridge oats, for mornings when you have a bit more time. The porridge pot is a mere 230 calories per pot, so brilliant for those watching their weight, as it’ll keep you full for ages without the bloating while still delivering a hit of sweetness. At between £1.25 and £1.50 a pot depending on where you buy (Ocado, Tesco or Asda are your main choices), it won’t break the bank either and is comparable to the price of other porridge pots.

The ‘slow food’ breakfast option is equally promising, with the cinnamon, apple and raisin porridge box providing a satisfying start to your day. It’s tasty, healthy, and will keep you full without stomach cramps threatening to spoil your morning. However, as it has no added sugar, some people may find it’s not sweet enough for their tastes, so feel free to add a cheeky spoonful of honey or fructose if you like. At £4.25 a box, though, this is significantly more expensive than many other boxes of similar weight, so perhaps this is one to be bought more sparingly (although Tesco are currently offering 25% discount, so maybe it’s worth looking out for offers).

Finally, for those ‘naughty but nice’ moments, I was sent a pot of Perk!er’s Rocky Road Bites. At 59 calories per ‘bite’, these are comparable energy-wise to ‘normal’ Rocky Road, but encouragingly seem to contain far fewer ingredients than traditional recipes. Again, at around £2 a pot, these won’t make your wallet scream and are not a million miles away from the price of the usual products. They are also DELICIOUS (very important), and as with all of Perk!er’s products, you wouldn’t know they were gluten-free from their taste.

I’d therefore perhaps eschew the porridge boxes unless I could find them on offer, but would definitely go for the porridge pots and snack pots for healthier and affordable alternatives to traditional products. Thanks, Perk!er 🙂


New year’s food Wednesday, Jan 1 2014 

New year’s food can mean one of two things. It can mean indulgent food like this, with just a few examples of the kind of food I’ve consumed yesterday (and will consume today):

…and so on. We tend to welcome in the new year indulgently, which seems a logical culinary continuation of Christmas (the season of many Quality Streets and the usual casual alcoholism). And very enjoyable it is too.

However, with the inevitable return to work comes the return to reality. Gym membership numbers soar as the nation dusts off their bathroom scales, and with all the Christmas chocolate cleared, it seems like a good time to start afresh. With many people feeling poorer in January, too, this makes for another good reason to cut back on the ready-meals and processed foods, and bulk up on the veg, complex carbs, and oily fish.

Stuck for menu plans? Here are the homemade healthy delights that I’m planning for the next few days:

  • Sweet and sour veg with sticky Thai rice
  • Oven-baked salmon with new potatoes and peas
  • Quinoa with spinach, sweet potato and tamarind
  • Slow-cooked beef with black-eyed peas

Breakfast and snacks don’t need much altering: the former is normally porridge with honey and berries, or a protein like eggs. Snack-wise I’ll continue to rely on seeds, dried fruits, nuts, unflavoured popcorn, and flapjacks. Lunchtimes need taking to another level away from packet soups, so I’ll be trying to batch cook my dinners so that I have plenty of leftovers, and breaking out some Hairy Bikers ideas for luxurious lunches. Beyond this, vending machines and supermarkets need to be avoided due to the evil sugar-filled temptresses that lie within!

So what will you be doing this new year to make your food even more fabulous this year? Feel free to leave your comments 🙂

Shirataki style Tuesday, Mar 19 2013 

When browsing the Holland and Barrett website to take advantage of their 1p sale recently, I came across packets of shirataki noodles. Although they weren’t in the 1p sale, I was intrigued, and did a bit of reading around. The reason for my intrigue? They claim to be calorie-free yet filling, and so the perfect diet food. While not currently dieting, I’m always looking for low-calorie fillers that also taste nice, so thought I would give a packet of these a whirl.

But what are shirataki noodles exactly? The love child of rice noodles and angel hair pasta, they’re translucent noodles made from yams. This means they consist entirely of fibre and water, and so have virtually no flavour of their own. They have a long shelf life (up to one year), although tofu-based versions are also now becoming popular, which have a shorter shelf life and need to be refrigerated.

Today I took out my packet and awaited the moment of truth as I followed the cooking instructions, which stated that rinsing under warm water and then boiling for 4 minutes was required. Very easy – no issues here. However, from a little more reading around, I have also discovered that for a more pasta-like consistency, it’s also possible to dry-fry the noodles in a wok. Once you have cooked the noodles, you then serve them with your sauce of choice. As mentioned above, the lack of flavour in the noodles themselves mean they’ll only taste as good as the sauce you serve them with. I opted for leftover pasta sauce (tomato and basil, if you’re interested) with extra sweet chilli sauce.

Flavour, therefore, was not a problem. However, the texture may put some people off: the noodles don’t stick in your throat or mouth, but thanks to their stiffer and more elastic texture, do take longer to chew and do not always feel pleasant in the mouth.

The noodles do, however, deliver on their ultimate promise, which is to make you feel fuller for longer. Whether they would allow you to lose weight long-term, though, depends on how often you would be willing to consume them (or the shirataki pasta, which is also available), and nobody likes monotony in their diet: even if I were to vary the sauces you used, I’m still not sure that I’d want to eat noodles (or pasta, or even a mixture of the two) every single day. Only time will tell if this type of ‘diet noodle’ will continue as a popular trend, or fade into obscurity.

Food TV Review: Weight Watchers – How They Make Their Millions Tuesday, Jan 29 2013 

the wedding day!

As you may already know, I’m a former adherent of the Weight Watchers programme. I turned to it to shed the extra pounds before my wedding, and to my mind, it worked: I think I lost around a stone in total, was able to shimmy into the most gorgeous dress I’ve ever worn in my life for the big day, and have kept most of the weight off in the (nearly) 2 years since I got married. So I was very interested to see what Dispatches would come up with in last night’s investigation into the world’s biggest weight loss company, which aired on Channel 4 and is now available to watch on 4od in case you missed it. Ironically, it appeared that in the spirit of things, Dispatches decided to do a “diet” version of its programme, which yesterday evening only lasted thirty minutes (most episodes of Dispatches last an hour). On the one hand, I was disappointed by this, as there was so much more scope for further investigation than this ultimately rather superficial episode allowed; but on the other hand, I was relieved, as it was possibly the worst episode of Dispatches I have ever seen. It was packed with spurious reasoning, and the slightly arrogant presenter Jane Moore seemed determined to find fault at every turn. This was obvious right down to her tone of voice in the voiceovers.

So what were the allegations exactly?

First up was the cost – firstly of the meetings, and then of the products themselves. Of course they didn’t talk to anyone who found that they got value for money out of the cost of membership, and their comparisons of Weight Watchers food product prices with ‘normal’ product prices missed the point also. All brands have different price points; Weight Watchers is no exception. Plus, as is mentioned in the programme but just as quickly glossed over, nobody has to buy the products: it’s perfectly possible to thrive on the plan without touching a single one, and the presenter herself admits that it’s laziness in calculating ProPoints values that drives her towards the Weight Watchers products during her week-long experiment with the system (more of which later). I admit that I have bought some Weight Watchers products in my time, and that they taste nice, but that as they can be a tad on the expensive side, I only buy them at Poundland at times when I know the same product would cost me more than this at a leading supermarket. Even if you don’t want to shop at Poundland, the programme also failed to mention that many supermarkets frequently have offers on Weight Watchers products, which increases value for money somewhat (at Tesco, for instance, you can buy any two Weight Watchers bread products for £1.40 at present, which sounds a darn sight better than the 95p a loaf cited by Dispatches). In the end, too, the purchase of diet foodstuffs is just another of the many buying decisions we make each day. To my mind, people spend hideous amounts of money regularly on all kinds of stupid things, such as cigarettes, nightclubs, and jaw-dropping mobile phones – so who is anyone else to judge if a person wishes to pay a small premium for a multipack of Weight Watchers baked beans?

The sales structure of Weight Watchers also came under Dispatches’ scrutiny, with the idea of Weight Watchers staff being paid commission for product sales, signups, and even users’ weight loss amounts being criticized. This is no different to any other sales job (including Avon, where I used to work). In fact, many sales companies employ far more immoral tactics, and pay their employees far more for it (Weight Watchers staff make a modest average of £27,000 a year). The criticism of these methods of making money seemed like little more than an anti-capitalist diatribe from the programme makers. The best part of the programme was perhaps the bit when Jane Moore didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for from a member of the public when she revealed the difference between the price of a Weight Watchers loaf and that of a Hovis loaf: he just shrugged and said something to the effect of “that’s marketing for you”. As mentioned above: if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay. Information abounds online about how to follow the programme without paying the monthly membership fee, the Weight Watchers cookbooks are accessible to all, and you don’t have to buy the food products.

Jane Moore with a selection of Weight Watchers products

Next it was the health value of the products that came under fire. While Haagen-Dazs ice cream was revealed to have only five or six quality natural ingredients, the Weight Watchers ice cream was shown to have a list of ingredients that looked more like a chemistry lesson. This is the case for most diet products, and no secret has ever been made of the sweeteners and chemicals that are pumped into such products to give them fewer calories while still delivering the same level of flavour. It’s also not as if Weight Watchers have ever claimed to produce fully natural products. Again, the Weight Watchers products are optional, as you can easily work out the points value of any food you wish to purchase thanks to the various methods of calculation available (I’ll come back to this). But in short: anybody who thought this was new information or was in any way shocked by it must have been living on Jupiter for the past few years. Plus, I’m betting that anybody following Weight Watchers probably isn’t famed for putting the purest of the pure into their bodies in the first place.

One of the aims of the Weight Watchers programme is that we do increase the healthiness of our diets. This message is emphasised in several ways: firstly, that most fruits and vegetables are zero points, so you can eat them in abundance. Secondly, the concept of the one-point snack is highlighted as a reasonable way to manage cravings when the munchies strike. Thirdly, there are several points calculators available so that you can see exactly how many points are in the food you want to consume. Once you’ve worked this out, you can then make an informed decision about whether or not you still wish to eat it. The electronic points calculators are greatly derided in the programme, mainly due to their cost of around £10 – no mention at all is made of their efficacy. However, what the show also fails to mention is that free slide rules are distributed during Weight Watchers meetings. I have one of these and use it far more than the electronic calculator. It’s incredibly quick and simple to use, as well as being portable and discreet, so that you don’t feel like a weirdo when doing your food shopping. Arguably even more discreet is the free ProPoints mobile phone app, but naturally this is only given a passing mention by Dispatches. In the face of this, Jane Moore’s claim that the system is not easy to follow doesn’t stand up quite so well – especially given that her trial of the Weight Watchers programme was over in the blink of an eye with practically no analysis. This, along with the impression that she didn’t try very hard, makes her unconvincing.

Others interviewed for the programme also apparently failed to see the value behind the points system, figuring that you can’t be on such a system for the rest of your life and that such a system will not help you to make wiser dietary choices. Theoretically you could remain on the system indefinitely if you wanted to. But it’s as with the Weight Watchers products – nobody is asking you to. Plus, as anyone who has actually followed the system for a reasonable length of time is aware, it does encourage healthy choices, since (as mentioned previously) healthier foods contain fewer points. As someone who eats a lot normally, you’re focused on trying to get as much food out of your points as possible, and you quickly realise that you can do this by sticking to the lower-value (and thereby healthier) foods.

A further bone of contention lay in the fact that the NHS spends millions of pounds on sending people on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses, which are paid for by primary care trusts. Funnily enough, only the tabloid newspapers really seized on this with any fervour in Britain when this was made known to the public. It makes me wonder if people would feel better if the NHS went through a different diet company for its referrals: is it just Weight Watchers people love to hate, or the diet industry in general, or something else entirely? In addition, I feel it’s more profitable to spend money on twelve-week Weight Watchers courses for those who need them, rather than spending the same money on gastric bypass surgery, or treatment for obesity-related illnesses. Why not spend the money on giving people the chance to change before they need more severe and ultimately more costly treatment?

It’s true that the system is not easy to sustain long-term (say, for more than six months), and that’s probably why I’ve just joined the ranks of the guilty and signed up for a gym membership recently. However, no diet programme is easy to sustain for this amount of time, and it depends how much effort and commitment you are willing to show. I’ll put my hands up: I stopped putting in as much effort, and so I have put back on a little of the weight I initially lost. But this is like with anything in life: if you slacken your effort, it will show in your results. Studies of the effectiveness of the Weight Watchers programme show good short-term results – and to me this shows honesty, as most people will not attend the Weight Watchers meetings on a long-term basis (although I hear that you can attend for free forever as long as you stay within 5lb of your target weight), and individuals’ motivation after they cease to formally follow such a programme is very difficult to measure. Dispatches therefore blames Weight Watchers for individuals’ choices when discussing the apparent lack of long-term weight loss engendered by the system.

The studies are also criticized by Jane Moore and co for their lack of accessibility (of the 80 or so studies that have been done, only around 10 were available to the Oxford researcher featured in the programme), the presence of self-reporting in the studies, and the fact that some of the studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers themselves. Weight Watchers rebuts the first point by stating quite legitimately that journal access is governed by the journal publishers themselves, and that accessibility is therefore outside of their control. I believe this to be the case – but feel that to counteract doubt, they could surely arrange to make PDF copies of the studies more available after a certain period of time has passed. In terms of the second point, the reliability of self-reporting is going to pose problems with any kind of fieldwork, meaning that the same cracks could show up in other fields of research, rather than being unique to the Weight Watchers efficacy studies. Thirdly, Weight Watchers funded six out of the ten studies the Oxford researchers could access. While I can see how this may lead to the selective publication of positive results only, Weight Watchers was not the sole research fundraiser in any of these cases, so this is an unlikely outcome. Even if it were a likely outcome, they would not be the first brand to indulge in this practice: many high-profile beauty brands in particular are also extremely selective with which results they publish. I don’t condone this in any way – but mention it only to point out that Weight Watchers would hardly be alone in this. I also don’t believe that funding automatically has to equal bribery – but this is the conclusion that Dispatches leaps to.

It therefore dismays me that people may have watched this programme and been taken in by the ill-informed claims presented within its thirty-minute time slot. But all I can do is urge people to fully research any diet plan they may consider embarking upon, so that their decision can be balanced and considered. People will always have good experiences with a brand or product, and people will always have bad experiences with the same brand or product – but I’d like to think that the ability to help people make such choices is one of the main reasons why I started blogging, and why I still enjoy it.

As for my own use of the Weight Watchers programme, I’m not adhering to it strictly at present, but perhaps needless to say, I haven’t been put off it completely. My slide rule has already had one use this evening and the points book with the values of different foods is never too far away. And at the moment, I’m looking forward to March, which will bring with it my next trip to England, and Poundland – where I can stock up on batteries, toothpaste, and – you guessed it – Weight Watchers crisps.

On a Quorn-style quest for a higher-quality life Tuesday, Mar 20 2012 

We’re always being told that we are what we eat. On the one hand I am naturally sceptical of this: having suffered with acne for nigh on 15 years, and having found that no change in diet seems to have helped the spots at all, I have no real reason to believe in it. On the other hand, I spent a little over a year as a vegetarian, giving up only when I got myself a French boyfriend (now husband) and realised a move to France (the land of the carnivore) was a real possibility. During that time, not only did my food bill go down, but I was also slimmer and had more energy. Even now that I eat meat again, I am still a vegetarian sympathiser and don’t see the need to eat meat or fish every day at all.

There are plenty of health-related reasons to go veggie – as stated above, even without any meat substitute, my energy levels were through the roof and I enjoyed a slim yet pear-shaped figure (just “slim-ish” these days!). But what about those days when you just really, really miss sausages? Meat replacement products like Quorn can be helpful in this situation (although not in France, where I now live: even though the situation is improving, I have in the past picked up “meat replacement” products here to find chicken in the ingredients list). For those of you who aren’t aware, products like Quorn are made up of mycoprotein, which is a protein that chiefly comes from a fungus named fusatium venenatum. And this protein/fungus has a lot of benefits – basically, it is a superfood.

  • It’s got all 9 essential amino acids, which are classed as ‘essential’ because the body doesn’t make them – so we have to put them in. These strengthen muscles, are good energy sources, help you to stay in a good mood (yes, really – they are precursors for the magical serotonin and dopamine), and help keep your red blood cells working properly.
  • It’s low in fat, which can be good for slimming. 
  • It’s an alkaline product (other alkaline products include herbal teas, carob, and whole grains). This is good for your overall health: our diets should be 70% alkaline as our bodies find it harder to digest acids.
  • It contains minerals, including selenium (which protects cells from damage), zinc (repairs bones, celles and tissues, protects you from disease, and is essential for fertility and digestion), iron (important for muscle protein), magnesium (for body temperature regulation and energy production), and calcium (which is good for strong bones, hair, teeth and nails – which is great news if, like me, you don’t consume much dairy).
  • Quorn also contains plenty of B vitamins, which help with eye health, help with wound healing, and even reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Shepherd’s pie, made with Quorn (sadly not by me). Yes, really.

All of this made me wonder why I hadn’t tried it (or at the very least, hadn’t tried it for a very long time; I genuinely cannot remember if I ever sampled it during my vegetarian days, as I cooked a lot from scratch). I therefore set about trying to find some in France, which is as good as impossible. A shame, as I had (in a funny sort of way) been quite looking forward to sampling it. But it’s certainly affordable (£2.09 for 2 quarter pounders, for instance), and could be a good, healthy way of satisfying a meat craving without actually eating meat. All other ingredients in your recipe stay the same, so it’s hassle-free too. And if it helps your weight, your energy levels, your mood, or your digestion, so much the better, surely!

To set off on the road to a more beautiful and varied life couldn’t be easier; there are plenty of recipes to get you going on the Quorn website and elsewhere. And let others know how you get on, be it here or on my other site, Bianca’s Beauty Blog (where I discuss the beauty benefits of Quorn): make dishes! Upload pictures and recipes! Share your tips and experiences! You can also do the same on Quorn’s Facebook page.

It looks as if I’ll need to try Quorn in England if I’m ever going to (somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to convince my carnivorous French husband to become some sort of elaborate Quorn rustler on his trips to Belgium – where it is sold). But hopefully with the majority of my readers being in the US and UK you’ll find it easier to come by – and will be able to report back on its effects on your skin, your health, your mood, and your life.