Monday, September 28, 2009

I Suppose Smart is a Relative Term

Really? Since when are Fruit Loops and Diet Pepsi smart nutritional choices?

I'm with you on this one, Mark. Last time I checked, anything that comes in a cardboard box is generally not a healthy choice. But let's review the specific cases he mentions:

Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry doesn't contain a single ingredient that I fully know the origins of. What is phosphoric acid? potassium citrate? calcium disodium edta?? It comes close with carbonated water, but I'm not quite sure how water gets to be carbonated, so even this has some mystery behind it.
Generally, the mystery bag is not a smart choice.

As for Fruit Loops, I do have to grant that they don't contain high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame. BUT sugar is the #1 ingredient. Again, last time I checked, pouring solid sugar mixed with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and a whole slew of randomly numbered coloring agents into your milk wasn't a healthy choice. Also, it contains something called pyridoxine hydrochloride! Seriously? That sounds terrifying.

What does Smart Choice mean? It's supposed to point out products with less fat, cholesterol and sodium. It's also supposed to contain nutrients like calcium, fiber and magnesium and certain vitamins like Vitamin A, C and E.
The Fruit Loops aren't too bad on this front. They do contain about 10% of daily fiber and Vitamin A, and 25% of Vitamin C. 6% of daily sodium and 2% daily fat are also pretty decent, but I'm still not sold on all that sugar.
Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry is a completely different story. I don't even understand how it made the Smart Choice list. It has more sodium and the same amount of fat (none) as its non-diet counterpart. No vitamins, no minerals. Lots and lots of processed ingredients, including one (aspartame) that is seriously debated as being toxic.

Companies that participate in the Smart Choice program include Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft and Pepsico. If that right there isn't a tip off that "smart" choice is a very misleading term, I don't know what is.

Relevant cartoon I found on Ezra Klein's blog:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Food for Thought (Literally)

You should care about omega-3s. I just learned a bit about them. Like: they make you smart. And keep you from having heart attacks.

Some interesting facts:
  • Green plants and algae create these essentially fatty acids in their cells.
  • We get these vicariously through the animals we eat. Or at least we used to, back before industrial agriculture perverted our food system so much that it barely resembles what nature intended it to be...(yes, I'm bitter)
    • Factory-farmed animals are fed diets not of grass, which is what they evolved eating, but of a combination of corn, antibiotics and growth hormones, and the animal fat byproducts of slaughterhouses (yes, that steak you had for dinner last night ate cow fat back when it was still a cow...augh). No grass=no green plants=no omega-3s. 
    • One of the reasons we consider fish to be one of the best sources of omega-3s is because a lot of our fish still eat more or less their natural diets. But, there's no telling how long this will last, as scientists are already in the process of teaching factory-farmed salmon to eat corn (or maybe they already have?). It fattens them up faster.
    • Side note about corn: the carb content of corn (about 80% of the calories in corn come from carbs) that makes it so appealing as a diet for our beef cattle doesn't just 'work its magic' on our animals...through their meat, its effects continue within our bodies. So all of those taboos about eating too much red meat aren't really about the meat itself, as much as the unhealthy, fattening diet the meat once consumed.
  • Omega-3s promote healthy neuron growth. But not in a vague this-is-somehow-good-I-guess kind of way. In a damn-are-you-serious kind of way. Consider:
    • Pregnant women who get extra omega-3s have children with higher IQs
    • Kids who don't get enough omega-3s have more learning and behavioral problems
    • Puppies who get a lot of omega-3s are easier to train
    • Low levels of omega-3s have been linked to depression in adults
  • It's not just the amount of omega-3s that we consume that's important, it's also the ratio to another essential fatty acid, omega-6s. Omega-3s thin blood and omega-6s make it clot. Ideally, we should have equal parts each to keep everything in balance.
    • Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we had an equal balance of both fatty acids. Now that we eat so much meat (and corn-fed meat, at that), the ratio is more like 10:1. This is bad. This is very bad. Such a high ratio severely increases the risk of heart disease. Again, so many of the health problems attributed to red meat can be traced back to the corn. 
All of this is courtesy of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I'm currently reading. I really like the book, despite it being depressing as hell. I like it because I find all this info on food and nutrition fascinating. I find it depressing because all this info just paints an ever bleaker picture of the state of our agriculture here, and it seems the only way to really eat healthy anymore is to grow all my own food or buy it from farms. And that is just such an inconvenient truth.

But anyways, now you see the significance of these random little things called omega-3s. They make you smart and happy, and they keep your heart from stopping. Very good things. Unfortunately, very good things that we get very little of because of industrial agriculture's need for faster output (i.e. cows that get very fat very fast).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tis the Sneeze-on

So sick. Oy. It's been one of those days when your nose won't stop running and your ears are plugged so you can't hear well, and your voice keeps getting caught in your throat, and you're kind of just wandering through the day in a haze. It's 11:30 now and I'm thinking I might just crash, though going to bed this early seems outrageous to me; then again, I did only sleep 4 hours last night. Damn English papers.
Currently fighting the urge to go smoke a cigarette on the front porch. That can't possibly be good for my sore throat. Instead, I've been drinking hot green tea like nobody's business. Which brings me to my point: everyone seems to be getting sick lately, and I've been wondering what foods are supposed to help us all feel better.

Here's a few I've discovered:

1) Hot soup (obvious). Hot liquids soothe the throat, but apparently the salt in soup also makes you less likely to dehydrate from a fever. Go figure, and all this time I thought salt was supposed to dry things out...
It's best to choose broths over creamy soups. Also, apparently there is actually some scientific evidence backing the whole chicken soup remedy.

2) Vitamin C (also nothing new). There's evidence that this can cut the length of your cold in half. Obvious sources are oranges and OJ, but it's also plentiful in sweet potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and red peppers.

3) Speaking of peppers: Hot peppers. You know how when you're sick and stuffed up and you eat something spicy, your nose immediately starts running and clears up for a while? That's due to capsaicin, a natural compound in hot peppers.

4) Lean meat. Iron helps the immune system. Go for red meat, chicken and fish.

5) Garlic. This can actually make your cold disappear sooner because it contains antioxidants, as well as a compound called allicin, which helps clear up a stuffy nose. Use it fresh or dried. So this is why my dad would eat a clove of garlic with breakfast every morning...

6) Oh Honey, you such a sweet thang. We all know this one, I'm sure. It coats your throat, helping a sore throat go away, at least for a little while. Try swallowing 1/2-1 t, especially before bed. It's incredible.

7) Green tea. Already kind of mentioned this one. It contains anti-oxidants that help the immune system. Also, if it's warm-hot, it soothes your throat. And I like to put my face over the mug and let the steam wash over me for a couple minutes. It relaxes my muscles, which helps my headache, and it clears up my sinuses a bit.

8) Toddy. This is a combination of whiskey, lemon juice, and hot water. The alcohol can help bring down a fever, the heat (as I mentioned) clears sinuses, and bitter citrus flavors are supposed to be especially good for you. Finally, a semi-valid rationalization for Thirsty Thursday...

9) Eat less. I know, it sounds backwards. Apparently when you fast, the balance of two immune system-regulating chemicals in your body shifts, which can make your cold go away faster. If you try this, make sure the food you do eat is really nutritious.

10) Echinacea. Yeah, I've never heard of it either. It's a Chinese herb that Asians have been using for centuries and swear by. Endorsed by the World Health Organization.

11) Hot water & salt. My parents always made me gargle hot water with some salt in it when I was little. The salt water kills the bacteria, which can shorten the length of the sore throat and of the cold.

12) Another Russian remedy: Gogol Mogol. This is what my Russian teacher used to call the concoction of warm milk, a raw egg, and honey that she'd try to force down my throat every time I coughed in Russian class. Needless to say, I tried my damndest never to cough. (I have to admit, though, that when I couldn't hold them in any longer, this drink actually did soothe my throat.)

12) Last but never least, H20. Obviously water is good for us no matter what, but especially when we're sick because it helps reduce headaches and soothe a sore throat. Also, flush out your body.

(Thanks to The Seattle Times, How to be Fit, and some traditional Russian wisdom for the info)

So far, I've been sticking with green tea, honey and water. Day 3 since I started sneezing, and symptoms have only gotten worse so far. Hopefully my current state is as bad as it's going to get. Dare I say...swine flu?!

Anyone else got any remedies?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Guy Finds More Than He Paid for in His Lung

And here I thought that was just an ice cube in my milkshake...

My favorite part:

"I know I didn't chow down on a spoon!"
"He explained that there was an object down there, and it had writing on it," Manley said. "It spelled out 'Wendy's' on one side and 'hamburgers' on the other, and I was a little floored."
So were his relatives, who, when they were telephoned with the news, were eating ... Wendy's.

Hitchin' Chicken makes it to South America

A chicken gets to live his life as nature intended...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Whole Wheat Bread Recipe

Carbs (especially complex carbs, like those in whole wheat) are the basis for a healthy diet (despite what Atkins would have you believe) and should make up about half of your daily calories, so here's one of my favorite bread recipe to start this blog out right:

Two large mixing bowls
A spatula
A long, sharp knife
A baking sheet
A skillet without any plastic or Teflon (preferably cast-iron)
Some sort of bottle to spray water (I use a washed out dish soap bottle)

4 c unbleached bread flour
2 c whole wheat flour
2 1/4 t salt
1 3/4 t instant or active dry yeast
19-24 oz ice cold water
1 t sugar (if the yeast isn't instant)
A tiny bit of cornmeal or polenta

(1) If the yeast isn't instant, proof it (that means activate it) by mixing it with the sugar and 1/2 c of warm water. Stir it until the yeast is dissolved, then let it sit for a few minutes until you get a foamy layer on top. That means it's been proofed and is ready to use.
(2) Combine the flours, salt, yeast & 19 oz water (if you proofed the yeast, only add 15 oz) and knead the dough (it might be too sticky to knead by hand, so use a spatula or something) until the dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides. Knead in more flour or water if you need to.
(3) Pour a little bit of olive oil in a really large bowl & swirl it around, then carefully transfer the dough into it. Cover, and refrigerate overnight (at least 8 hrs, not more than 2 days).

(4) Take the dough out and let it finish rising, covered, until it reaches room temperature (2-3 hrs).

(5) Preheat the oven to 550° if you can, but if it only goes as high as 500°, that's okay. Put the skillet, nearly filled with water, into the bottom of the oven.
(6) Carefully turn out the dough onto a floured surface, trying not to deflate it too much. Divide it either into 6 baguettes or 2 larger loaves. When you cut the dough, make sure to use the knife as a wedge instead of a saw. If the dough is too sticky, try running the knife under cold water for a second, then coating it with some flour.
(7) Sprinkle the baking sheet with a bit of the cornmeal/polenta. Place the loaves/baguettes on the baking sheet and cover them with slightly wet plastic wrap. Let them sit for 10 minutes.
(8) Fill the spritzer bottle with cold water. Put the bread in the oven and spray the sides of the oven with the cold water. Wait 30 sec, spray it again. Do this twice more, so you've sprayed the sides a total of 4 times.
The reason for the water is that it creates steam, which, combined with the high temperature for a short time, is going to give you a really nice, crunchy crust.
(9) Turn the oven down to 450°. Let the bread cook until the bottom crust has hardened enough that you can separate them from the cookie sheet (~7-8 min for the baguettes, ~15-20 min for the loaves).
(10) Slide the bread straight onto the rack and cook until the bottom crust is solid (tap it to check) and the bread is a nice golden brown (~5 min).
(11) Let the bread cool & devour shamelessly!

This bread is an adapted version of a recipe for Pain de l'Ancienne from a bread baking book called The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Pete Reinhart.
I know it's kind of complicated, but trust me, the result is well worth it.
I picked it up when I was volunteering on an organic farm in the mountains in NC over the summer. They're building a mud oven in their yard right now. Needless to say, I wish I was there.

Enjoy :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Willkommen - Well, Come In

A statement of purpose:

When I go to bed at night, I'm often already looking forward to what I'm going to have for breakfast the next morning.

In class, when I'm zoning out, I'm probably dreaming up a delicious meal for dinner.

You get the idea. My point is, I love food. A great many of my thoughts center around it. And for damn good reason: you generally eat at least three times a day, and those mealtimes are (sometimes) a social activity, perhaps an exercise in creativity, or, at the very least, sources of health and, hopefully, of pleasure. In short, food is important. Very important. So never let me hear you say, "It's just food." It'll probably leave me speechless.

That said, you'd think I'd be speechless anyhow--I mean, how much can one person think about food before there's nothing left to say? Believe me, you'd be surprised. My thoughts have yet to run out. If anything, they only seem to increase in number as every question leads to about three more. It's like the damn Hydra.

One of the most fundamental acts of survival has innumerable levels of complexity. A question as simple as what to have for dinner involves a bunch of variables to take into consideration. What nutrients haven't I gotten today? How much time do I have to cook? How much money can I spend? Should I get organic or regular? How important are all those antioxidants, anyway? Should I be avoiding carbs? And this doesn't even take into account all the finer points, like specific vitamins. Maybe if I'm sick, I should try to get some more Vitamin C. I'm not saying I think of all these things before I eat. Who could? But you get the idea. It's unimaginably complex. And utterly exhausting.

So this blog is my attempt at delving into some of these issues as they occur to me, and in the process of sorting out my muddled menus, maybe helping some other people pick up some random tidbits, too. Because really, it's fascinating. Like did you know that flavonols, an organic compound that help give fruits and veggies their taste, are a type of metabolite created by plants to ward off bugs and bacteria? That's why organic food often tastes better--no pesticides means veggies have to fend for themselves, which means more flavonols.

Okay, here I go. Expect to find fun facts, tasty recipes, a whole plethora of whatever random tidbits I happen to come across, and whatever else my meandering ruminations on food may include. Please send me your favorite recipes (or anything else you find of interest)! Seriously. This is too big a topic to tackle alone. Besides, your grandma's oatmeal raisin cookies might be just the thing I need to get me through this week's reading in my Shakespeare class.