2 - Low carb ingredients
References to particular brands and presentations of ingredients and where to obtain them relate predominantly to the UK and may not be relevant to other parts of the world.
Looking for rhubarb to make our yummy Christmas pud? Waitrose, Sainsbury and Tesco may still have raw rhubarb, or get Hartleys unsweetened tinned rhubarb at larger Safeways.
- 'Healthy eating' or 'light' products usually focus on low calorie/low fat. This often means that fat content has been removed and replaced by sugar or other refined carbohydrates, so they may not be particularly helpful to low carbers.
- In 'diabetic' products the 'normal' sugars are generally replaced by different forms of sugars which have a less rapid effect on insulin and blood sugar levels. However these sugars still count as carbohydrates and such products are not generally therefore of benefit to the low carber.
Granular and powdered forms contain fillers and vary in carbohydrate values. In terms of sweetening strength, granular sweeteners give the same amount of sweetness as the same volume of sugar, ie 1 t granular sweetener replaces 1 t sugar. (If measuring by weight, 0.5 g granular sweetener replaces 5 g sugar.)
Liquid sweeteners are usually carbohydrate free, and generally give the sweetness of 10 times the volume of sugar, ie 1 t replaces 10 t (or 50 g) of sugar.
Certain artificial sweeteners lose their sweetness when heated, so it is important to check the label if intending to use in cooking. It is also preferable when cooking to use a sweetener which does not contain phenylalanine as this is believed to break down into harmful chemicals. Sucralose is a new sweetener which claims to avoid these problems. Using different types of sweetener together has a synergistic effect, individual brands often containing a mixture of sweeteners for this reason.
Most large supermarkets have a reasonably large selection of granular sweeteners to choose from. Liquid sweeteners are more difficult to find but can often be ordered through high street chemists.
Those who have been avoiding sugar and other sources of sweetness for some time will probably find that they do not need to use as much sweetener as the above conversion rates suggest when adapting 'normal' recipes. They may even have lost their desire for sweet things in general. This is no coincidence, as avoidance allows the taste buds to regain their former sensitivity and breaks what is for many an addiction to sweetness. Very recent converts to a low carb way of eating may therefore find some low carb foods lack sweetness.
The carbohydrates and additives such as riceflour or wheatflour in shop-bought baking powder can be avoided by low carbers and those with food intolerances by mixing two parts cream of tartar to one part bicarbonate of soda.
Unsweetened chocolate (to which artificial sweetener can be added) gives the lowest possible carbohydrate count but is not readily available in the UK. However, plain chocolate brands with 75% or more cocoa solids are becoming more popular, some containing as little as 24 g carbohydrate per 100 g. These are increasingly seen in the larger supermarkets. 'Diabetic' chocolate is not an appropriate substitute as it still contains a high level of carbohydrate.
The unsweetened kind (10.5 g carbohydrate per 100 g) can be found in most supermarkets.
A constituent of many low carb baking mixes and sweet treats, desiccated coconut is found in most supermarkets, although it pays to shop around for the larger packets. The unsweetened kind contains 6.4 g carbohydrate per 100 g.
Fats and oils
All pure fats and oils are carbohydrate free, but trans fats (hydrogenated oils) as contained in some margarines and frequently present in processed foods of all kinds are now generally regarded as harmful and therefore to be avoided. Which fats or oils are best for health is still a subject for debate but olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats, seems to find most favour by researchers. Extra virgin is considered to be preferable for salad dressings but the refined kind is best for cooking (and is also considerably less expensive). Other healthy oils are considered to include rapeseed (canola), grapeseed, walnut, soybean, sesame, sunflower and safflower. Current advice is that polyunsaturated oils such as corn, soybean and sunflower should not be used at high temperatures or allowed to brown or smoke.
Fibre and thickeners
Xanthan gum can be used in low carbohydrate cooking as a thickener for sauces, to improve texture in foods such as ice cream, and to help replace the 'glue and stretch' normally provided by gluten-containing flour in baking. A little goes a very long way. Xanthan is obtainable from specialist health food shops or online.
Psyllium husk, a recommended fibre supplement for those on very low carb diets, can also be employed in low carb cooking. Best used for thickening foods such as mince bolognese rather than smooth sauces, it is sold in health food shops in powder and capsule forms. Both are equally convenient for cooking purposes.
Also known as linseeds, particularly in the UK, flax seeds can be obtained from health food shops. It is much cheaper to buy these in 500 g or 1 kg packs than the little packets. They are most useful in low carb cookery as a constituent of baking mixes. Once ground, the flax meal must be refrigerated and used quickly, so it is better to grind the seeds in small quantities, as and when needed.
An important constituent of many low carb baking mixes, ground almonds (called almond flour in the US) are available in most supermarkets, although it pays to shop around for the larger packets.
All olive oil-based salad dressings are valuable to the low carber, as long as they are sugar-free. However, if mayonnaise is the preferred dressing, avoid 'low fat' or 'diet' versions, which are higher in carbohydrate - it should be possible to find brands with a carbohydrate value of no more than 1.3 g per 100 g.
Low carb milk products such as ricotta, mascarpone and cream cheeses can vary tremendously in carbohydrate content from brand to brand, so it is important to check the label and adjust the carbohydrate count if necessary. 'Low fat' versions often have a higher carbohydrate value.
Brands with no added sugar are becoming increasingly available in health food shops and large supermarkets.
Many brands, particularly those aimed at the body-building market, contain added carbohydrate. However it is possible to find brands containing negligible amounts. Unflavoured protein powder derived from casein can usually be found in (or ordered through) high street chemists and can be used as a constituent of baking and breading mixes. Vanilla flavour protein powder with negligible carbohydrate can increasingly be found in health food stores and large supermarkets and is particularly useful for sweet or semi-sweet bakery.
Sesame seeds are available in most large supermarkets. They are particularly useful, when ground into meal, as a constituent of low carb baking mixes.
Increasingly available at health food stores, soya bran contains significantly less carbohydrate than wheatbran.
Soya flour is widely available at health food stores. A carbohydrate value of 15 g per 100 g is usually given, although some brands claim to be only 12 g. When used to replace wheatflour in bakery recipes, extra liquid (between one and one and a half times the weight of the soya flour) must be added.
Soya milk is now seen in most supermarkets. Many types are available, with great variation in carbohydrate values due mainly to added sweetening agents such as sugar or apple juice. The type that is unsweetened with a carbohydrate value of 0.6 g per 100 ml is probably the most suitable for general use in hot drinks. The unsweetened variety may not always be in stock but as packs are usually long-life they can be bought and stored in bulk. Opened packs keep in the fridge for at least a week, if not longer.
Dried soya milk can be found in some health food stores, particularly in the summer, when demand is stronger. However it is expensive and is not very successful for use in adding dry to tea and coffee.
Stock cubes vary in carbohydrate values but when chosen carefully are valuable to the low carber for flavour and ease of use. Home-made stock can probably improve on the carbohydrate count if it has not been made with high carbohydrate vegetables such as carrots and onions.
Tahini, or creamed sesame seeds can be found in health food stores and many large supermarkets. Carbohydrate values vary, but it should be possible to find a brand containing no more than 5 g per 100 g.
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