Fishing for change

Restrictive diets, diets that limit foods to certain types whie eschewing others, seem to be on the rise. While vegentarianism is a classic example (along with various religion-associated diets that disallow certain meats), gluten-free diets (even for those without gluten sensitivity), sugar-free diet, and so-called “paleo” diets  are on the rise.

My attitude toward food has traditionally been that I’ll try anything, not wanting to deprive myself of any cuisine. As with many things in life, it’s not so simple. For a meat-eater, it is easy for meat to become the centerpiece of the meal, and for vegetables to be relegated to the role of an afterthought accompaniment or side dish. In a real way, restricting your diet forces you to be more creative working within the constraints to avoid an overly narrow repertoire. I’ve debated about trying various diets for years, but ultimately was pushed to act by seeing my children limited in their vegetable tolerance and facing the mounting evidence of potential deleterious effects of high levels of meat intake, particularly over the long term (fortunately, the news about coffee seems to be all good).

Despite this, I knew a vegetarian diet would not be an easy thing to take on, particularly without annoying my family members. I had already moved toward an essentially meat-free breakfast and lunch, but dinner was a greater challenge. I decided a reasonable next step would be pescatarianism: I would try to stick to a mostly vegetarian diet, but seafood could be added in from time to time. So far, it’s worked. My family has played along (my wife has been quite supportive, and my kids seem happy as long as cheese is still on the menu). No one has complained about the uptick in our pizza consumption (perhaps not the best example of health food, but at least it’s homemade). It may be largely placebo effect, but I do feel healthier and less weighed down by meals.

A vegetarian-centric diet isn’t necessarily healthier. You can eat poorly on any diet, but it has helped me increase the amount and diversity of legumes, nuts, and various grains. Since we rarely eat out, the transition may be easier for me than it is for some, but I have not yet found it excessively trying to find interesting vegetable dishes, particularly when seafood is permitted.

Barring Bars

After diving into a taste test of a wide array of protein bars, I’ve decided it’s time for a detox. The body can only take so many concoctions of whey protein and fiber additives before crying for mercy. My wife has taken to not so affectionately referring to my collection as “frankenfood”. The background is that I’m working to shift to a more vegetarian, or at least pescatarian, diet and have had the associated (and likely misguided) anxiety about protein intake that many carnivores have in this situation. 

If anything, this experimentation has opened my eyes to the potential for replacing many foods in my life with more healthful alternatives. After trying (and being impressed) with a few granola bar recipies (more to come), I’ve decided to take on what seems to be a more rarely pursued feat: homemade breakfast cereals. 

If I am to take on reproduction of cereal, I might as well do so by starting with the greatest cereal of all time. I am, of course, referring to Cracklin’ Oat Bran. The healthy-sounding name belies its true identity as sweet, flavorful, crunchy cereal that is more like a crunchy cousin of a oatmeal cookie than any sort of nutritious food. My online search came across this recipe, which seems to be the most popular reproduction. I found it far too buttery and sweet, even more so than the original version. Despite this, it clearly had some of the elements correct, and came across as a cousin of the original rather than just a member of the same species.

Armed with a nutrition analyzer and an ingredients list, I sought to modify this version to achieve two goals: bring the ingredients more in line with the original version and improve its nutritiona profile by reducing the fat and sugar while maintaining fiber and protein.

Here’s the ingredient list from Kellogg’s version, along with my comments about each:

  • Oats – a must have
  • sugar – brown sugar seemed to be the best for the flavor profile here
  • wheat bran – to simplify the recipe, I just stuck with oat bran (below)
  • vegetable oil – I used coconut oil 
  • oat bran – of course, it’s two of the three words in the name!
  • corn syrup – it may be irrational, but everyone is scared of this ingredient, so I left it out
  • wheat starch – didn’t have any of this on hand, but I figured some whole wheat flour could replace this along with the wheat bran
  • coconut – yes, the linked web version didn’t have enough of this
  • molasses – sure, why not
  • malt flavor – I have plenty of barley malt syrup for bagels, so let’s toss some in
  • cinnamon – and lots of it
  • salt – just a little bit
  • baking soda – sure
  • soy lecithin – Amazon has not yet delivered my shipment, and it has that artificial sounding name; I hoped that flax meal could substitute for binding and added fiber
  • flavoring – so mysterious
  • nutmeg – a little bit goes a long way

I reduced the total amount of ingredients so I could experiment with modifications without wasting too much (or pushing this on every friend and relative in sight). Here is what I ended up with:

  • 80 g oats
  • 30 g oat bran
  • 25 g brown sugar
  • 25 g unsweetened coconut
  • 30 g whole wheat flour
  • 15 g flax meal
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 14 g coconut oil
  • 10 g barley malt
  • 10 g molasses
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

This proved to be too dry and was missing some sweetness, so I added

  • 30 g water
  • 10 g honey

I spread this onto a small sheet pan into a layer about 1/4 inch thick and baked at 325 °F for 25 minutes. I let it cool and then  cut it into squares. In the picture at the top of the post, the old version is on the left and the new version is on the right. 

The taste? I think my version is closer to the original but less sweet. It has a bit more of a grainy texture, perhaps due to the flax seeds, which may also bring out a touch of bitterness. Overall, though, I think it’s pretty good. It still needs a bit of work. Right now the texture is a bit too crumbly, so I could imagine it turning into cereal dust if a large batch is knocked around a box. Some more moisture would probably help, or some natural binder to help it stick together (this may be where the soy lecithin comes in). More experimenting to come.

Review: Combat Crunch Cookies and Cream bar

Cookies and Cream has become a mainstream protein bar flavor, and is usually a successful one. Who doesn’t like Oreos (other than, say, Donald Trump). I’ve posted before how Clmbat Crunch bars are generally one of the better ones on the market. Unfortunately, their Cookies and Cream flavor is not one of the better options. 

The flavor is reasonable, but the problem is the texture. While the trademark crispy top layer is still there, the interior is a bit too tough and chewy. The whole appeal of cookies and cream is the crunch of the cookie, which is wholly lacking here. It’s not a terrible bar, but the other Combat Crunch flavors (with a few exceptions, like Birthday Cake and Chocolate Brownie) are much better. 

Review: Fit Crunch Cookies and Cream

Like the Pure Protein bars, the Fit Crunch bars are small relative to their competition. In contrast, however, they have a more interesting layered construction with different texture. There’s a cookie-like layer, a soft filling layer, and a bit of chew. The bars are sweet and candy-like, but don’t have the artificial chemical sweetener aftertaste that many competitors have. As long as you don’t mind the sweetness and small size, these are one of the better tasting bars on the market.

Review: Mission1 Chocolate Brownie

I have mixed feelings about Mission1 bars. They are relatively balanced nutritionally, not excessively sweet, and have reasonably well-chose flavors. They can also come across as a bit bland and uninspired. The best of the bunch is the Cookies and Cream variety. While a bit on the dry and crumbly side, it avoids the tough and chewy texture that soils so many protein bars, including their own Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavor

Chocolate Brownie falls somewhere in between. Others have liked it to a large Tootsie Roll, which is a reasonable description. It is not quite as tough and chewy, but it’s a close call. The dense chocolate flavor is similar, and there is a textural homgeneity that is a bit boring. While the flavor is distinctly chocolate, there is nothing remotely brownie-like in the texture. Pass on this one. 

Review: Combat Crunch Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup

Chocolate Peanut Butter is a standard flavor among protein bars, and with good reason. The combination of a chocolate coating with a peanut butter filling is a classic combination from the candy world, and works well most of the time in protein bar format. Combat Crunch’s solution is no different. There is a bit of the protein bar excessive chewiness, but this is offset by a softer coating and a crunchy topping. No one is going to be fooled into thinking that they are eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup: this is far less sweet and the peanut flavor could stand to be a bit stronger. It’s not Combat Crunch’s best flavor, nor is it the worst. It’s a middle of the road standby that is reliable. Like all Combat Crunch bars, it is substantial and filling, despite having a similar nutritional profile to smaller bars.

Review: Grenade Carb Killa Chocolate Cream

Many nutrition bars have silly names, but “Grenade Carb Killa” certainly is in contention for the most ridiculous. The bar itself is also somewhat unusual. Lacking the taffy-like texture of most high protein bars, Grenade is soft and considerably less sweet than its competitors. The flavor is quite mild, perhaps excessively so. The chocolate cream flavor has a layer of soft white filling reminiscent of a very mild cream cheese.  This gives the entire bar a cheesecake-like impression.

I give the bar credit for being different than many others. Of the bars I have sampled, it is closest to the Pure Protein line, but the sweetness is more muted. Unfortunately, so is the flavor. It’s benign, but ultimately not worth a repurchase. 

Review: Combat Crunch Chocolate Brownie bar

This may not be a fair review, but this highlights the risks in potentially low-turnover “limited edition” bars. I purchased two of these bars, and both were by far the worst I have tasted. They were dry, chalky, hard and essentially inedible. Maybe I got a bad batch, but both bars tasted the same. I had to throw them out after two bites. Steer clear. 

Review: Premier Protein Fiber – Peanut Butter Caramel

These Premier Protein bars have a considerably higher sugar content than many of the competition, and this is reflected in the sweetness. I have yet to be disappointed by any of the flavors, and the Peanut Butter Caramel is no exception. Many protein bar flavors are mimicked by other companies, which can lead to some monotony in the choices available. However, Peanut Butter Caramel is not one of them. It is one of the few flavors to offer an interesting combination that does not include chocolate. If you are not a fan of sweet bars, however, you may want to steer clear of this line.

The bars themselves have a bit of a crisp texture along with a soft caramel layer. The taste is very much like that of a traditional candy bar, with only a slight chemical aftertaste.

Review: Pure Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter bar

The Pure Protein bars are dense and compact, considerably smaller than other brands. This version, like most of the others, are soft and easy to chew. The texture is similar to a Three Musketeers bar, and the popular combination of a chocolate coating with a peanut butter filling is well done. They are not excessive sweet, nor do they have a particularly dominating flavor profile. The main drawback is the texture is relatively unexciting, and at times they can have a mild chemical aftertaste. They can also seem a bit unsatisfying given the small size, even when compared with other bars with a similar calorie profile. I would not go out of my way to buy these, but they are reasonable. 

One consideration is that they eschew the trend of including massive amounts of fiber. If you are…sensitive to this issue, it’s worth a consideration.

adventures in food and technology