When Sonja L. Connor served the low-fat version of old-fashioned meatloaf to her family, her husband was thrilled. But her son was appalled.
For her husband, it was a treat to eat something that was typically thought of as a forbidden food.
For her 18-year-old son, it was blasphemy.
"It was like I put a boar's head on his plate," Mrs. Connor said on a recent book tour to Baltimore. "After the meal, he asked me to never serve anything that disgusting again."
This is the same son who at age 9 was shocked at what he considered strange eating habits: "You won't believe this," he told his mom while they were living in Australia, "they actually eat the yolk of the egg."
And then there was the time he came home screaming because he was sure that the neighbor was trying to poison him. She had given him 2 percent milk instead of skim milk.
Not the story at your house where the family fights over cheeseburgers and fries?
Well, Sonja Connor, a registered dietitian, and her physician husband, William, have collaborated on a new book that they hope will make your house a little bit more like their house. She is research associate professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Clinical Nutrition at Oregon Health Sciences University. He is a professor and head of the Section of Clinical Nutrition and Lipid Metabolism at the same school and is a former member of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their book, "The New American Diet System" (Simon and Schuster, $22.95), is based on a formula they call the Cholesterol-Saturated Fat Index, or CSI. The Connors developed the CSI so consumers can look at a single number that instantly ranks foods by their ability to raise the cholesterol level in the blood -- a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The higher the CSI, the more cholesterol, saturated fat or combination of the two the food contains. The lower the number, the more healthful your food choice.
Their formula, based on a five-year dietary study of 233 randomly selected American families, was subject to peer review in The Lancet, a medical journal, and the Journal of the American
"It is not a weight-loss diet," Mrs. Connor said. "It's a
health-maintenance diet that you need to go on. I see the usefulness of the CSI as a way to direct yourself to choices. Hopefully it will be a motivation for people to try different low-fat cheeses and desserts as part of a new eating style."
But obtaining a new eating style hasn't been that easy. The Connors developed the index because they say Americans are confused about what foods they should eat for a healthful diet. Advertising claims that have appeared on packaging during the past few years have added to the confusion in the marketplace.
For example, a Food and Drug Administration survey found that 42 percent of those polled believe that if a food is labeled "cholesterol free," it is also low in saturated fat. That's not always true. Likewise, foods that are high in cholesterol may not be bad for you.
"By focusing entirely on cholesterol, many people are overlooking an equally dangerous dietary component -- saturated fat," according to the Connors.
"Many assume that cholesterol and saturated fat are the same thing. They are not. Many of the food products that are now being advertised as 'reduced cholesterol' or 'cholesterol-free' often contain significant quantities of the saturated fats that, every bit as much as cholesterol, contribute to increased blood levels that lead to coronary heart disease and strokes."
Consumers can cut through the confusion by checking the charts in the back of the book, which list the CSI for 1,000 foods, including fast foods and lower fat, lower cholesterol adaptations of favorite recipes. More than 300 recipes are provided in the book, including 190 repeats from their 1986 book, "The New American Diet," which urged people to eat a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in complex carbohydrates and fiber to help reduce risks of cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Nearly everyone -- except children under age 2 who need fat for proper development -- should try to obtain a lower CSI, according to Mrs. Connor. Strive for main courses with a CSI of 9 or lower per serving; snacks and appetizers with 2 or lower; and desserts with 5 or lower.
Here is how the CSI can help you find more healthful foods:
* It's true that cholesterol is found in animal fats, but not all vegetable fats are created equal. Some fats from vegetable sources -- such as palm and coconut oil -- contain no cholesterol but are high in saturated fat. The CSI tells the story: one-half cup of palm oil rates 54, and the coconut oil is 95. Compare these with the oil with the lowest score -- canola -- with a CSI of 9.
* For years many people avoided shellfish -- a food with one and one-half to two times more cholesterol than poultry and red meat. But shellfish are lower in saturated fat, making lobster a better choice than steak. A 3-ounce serving of lobster has a CSI of 3, compared with filet mignon with 15, center cut pork chops with 9 and chicken white meat (no skin) with 4.
* Scandic Mini Chol, a white cheese that has the same total fat content as Cheddar and Monterey Jack, has much less cholesterol and saturated fat because it is made with soybean oil. Scandic's CSI is 2, compared with 6 for Swiss and 8 for Cheddar and Jack.
* When you have a choice of frozen desserts, go for non-fat frozen yogurt with only a trace of a point on the CSI scale, compared with store-brand ice cream with a CSI of 15 or the super-premium brands like Haagen-Dazs and Frusen Gladje with At this point, you have to buy the book to know what the CSI of a food is, but the Connors would like to see the CSI on every food label. They make a pitch for the labeling in their book and on the book tours.
"If the CSI was on the food label, it would be the last word," according to Mrs. Connor.
But others think the last word has been spoken already by Congress, which voted recently to make food labels less confusing. Congress has ordered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create a list of allowable claims that are based on scientific evidence. New rules will also require more nutritional information -- percentage of calories from fat, amount of fiber, amount of saturated fat and cholesterol. FDA regulates those foods that do not contain meat or poultry products.
Virginia Wilkening, a nutritionist in the FDA's Office of Nutrition and Food Science who is working on the implementation of the new legislation, says it is unlikely that the CSI will be added to the food label because the only request so far has come from the Connors. But the new law may be make the question moot.
"The new legislation does put a lot of qualifiers on what we call descriptive claims -- low cholesterol, fat free, etc," Ms. Wilkening says. "Once those changes have been implemented there will be less chance for consumers to be misled. For instance, if there was a 'cholesterol-free' claim, it would be immediately apparent how much fat and saturated fat are in the product."
But not even consumer groups are backing the CSI.
Bonnie Liebman, nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says she respects the Connors' work and the CSI an informative system, but she's nervous about adding something else to the label which will have to be explained and may cause even more confusion.
"It's sort of a moot argument," she adds. "The law has already been passed and it's not likely that FDA will try to tinker any more with the label than Congress has forced it to."
The following recipe for scallops in creamy sauce is a low-fat version of the famous Coquilles St. Jacques. Each serving has 218 calories, 6 grams of fat and a CSI of 4. The traditional version has a CSI of 34.
Scallops in creamy sauce
Makes 4 servings
1 pound bay scallops (small ones)
1/2 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup water
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons margarine
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon paprika
Dash ground pepper
1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
Paprika, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Put scallops, sherry, water and bay leaf in skillet. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes on top of stove. Remove scallops, drain and reserve broth. Cook and stir onions and mushrooms in margarine until onions are tender and mushrooms are brown. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or until bubbling.
Stir in reserved broth, lemon juice, paprika and pepper. Heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Add scallops. Pour into casserole dish or divide among individual scallop shells. Sprinkle bread crumbs and cheese on top. Garnish with a sprinkling of paprika for color. Bake until golden brown and heated through, 5 to 15 minutes.
Serve this mock hollandaise sauce over steamed vegetables. Each serving has 90 calories, 7 grams of fat and a CSI of 2. The traditional homemade version has a CSI of 16.
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup lower-salt chicken broth
4 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons margarine
1/4 cup grated low-fat cheese
Mix cornstarch with a little broth to a smooth paste. Add the remaining broth, lemon juice and margarine. Heat slowly to boiling, stirring constantly. Cook 3 minutes longer, stirring occasionally; add cheese and stir until melted.
Each serving of this simple brownie recipe has 133 calories, 5 grams of fat and a CSI of 1. Traditional homemade brownies have a CSI of 15.
Makes 9 servings
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sifted powdered sugar (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar, water, oil and vanilla; stir well. Add egg whites and beat. Combine flour, cocoa and baking powder. Add to sugar mixture, stirring well.
Pour batter into a lightly oiled 8-inch-square baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired. Cool and cut into squares, 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches each.