January 9, 2009

Say What?: Sweet (In)justice

Although Top Chef is one of my favorite competition-based reality shows, the two previous seasons have led to blog postings in which I express my frustration at the contestants' and producers' misunderstanding of basic nutrition concepts.

This current season is no exception.

This week's "quickfire challenge" -- a 45 minute challenge that grants the winning contestant immunity at the episode's elimination ceremony -- consisted of making a sugar-free dessert.

Before introducing the challenge, host Padma Lakshmi showed the contestants a cart loaded with the various sugars found in the Top Chef pantry -- white, raw, confectioners', brown, etc. -- which she wheeled out of the kitchen once the challenge began.

"This will be interesting to watch!" I thought.

Well, the first red flag went up when the concept of sugar-free desserts was referenced in the context of producing healthy, low-calorie options.

Really? Because, often times, sugar-free varieties of cakes and pies use higher quantities of fat -- mainly saturated -- to make up for lost texture and taste.

Consequently, it is not at all odd to find that a slice of sugar-free cake has just as many calories -- if not more! -- as the traditional version.

Although "sugar-free" can sometimes be healthier and lower-calorie (i.e.: quick-cooking plain oatmeal is a healthier, lower-calorie alternative to pre-sweetened varieties,) you should never automatically make that connection in your head.

Then, once the challenge was underway, I saw contestants using honey and agave. Oy.

Apparently in Top Chef land, the word "sugar" is taken very literally -- it only refers to a granulated sweetener that comes in large bags.

Honey and agave are forms of sugar.

Yes, it usually takes less agave to match the same level of sweetness of a certain amount of sugar, but a dessert made with agave or honey is NOT sugar-free!

One contestant even used a chocolate coin in her dish. I immediately thought she would be disqualified, since any chocolate product contains sugar. Alas, the judging panel didn't seem to have a problem with that.

Top Chef execs: how about consulting with a Registered Dietitian when creating rules for nutrition-related challenges?

No comments: