Category Archives: Food News

Your cooperation required: Food choices

foodshed

Do you believe that intuition is a valuable tool for anticipating events? I do! And I think that sometimes intuition works beyond our personal lives. Before you start to think that I’m getting into fortune-telling or something, let me explain.

Have you ever anticipated a trend? I have, and I suspect a lot of you have as well! So maybe there were “hints” in the environment or in the culture, and we didn’t even realize we were picking up information that fed our intuition.

What if intuition turns out to be an early warning system of sorts? Let’s look at the example of our changing food culture.

Once upon a time the overriding issue for what we ate was survival. It is still the most basic fact today. We eat to live, although you sometimes wouldn’t guess that from the way we eat. There was a time when we had to do what we could with what was geographically accessible and seasonally available. These facts limited and shaped food choices.

What happened when the weather was bad one season or when the climate changed? Diets changed because they had to. People migrated. Those species that survived over time adapted and learned to live and eat differently.

Today we aren’t dependent on our location or the climate or time of year. Choosing what we eat is both simpler and much, much more complex than in earlier times. Even though we have constant availability of everything, we shrink our choices in so many ways: no conventionally raised meat, chicken or fish; no meat, chicken or fish at all; no gluten or no grains at all; no dairy; no eggs; no white potatoes; no nightshade plants; no corn; no sugar; no carbohydrates; only organic produce; no GMOs; no animal products that have antibiotics or hormones in their history; only seasonal produce; only local produce. If we removed from our diet all the things we think we shouldn’t eat in our current environment…we’d eat nothing at all.

This voluntary diet shrinkage is a feature of modernity and of privilege. As our options increase, our food denials increase right along with them. When options were fewer, we ate what was available. Shelves weren’t lined with diet books explaining with authority why the best way to eat is the one described in that book’s pages. We just ate.

Of course many of us make dietary choices for conscious reasons, but many others follow trends for . . . well, a variety of reasons, conscious and unconscious, or for no reason at all. Curiously, in our modern world, those who contribute most to environmental degradation, the most privileged, are the same people who practice the most stringent dietary denials. People living in poverty typically don’t make these decisions of privilege.

What if this dietary shrinkage is an expression of intuition? Are those of us who participate at the highest levels in unsustainable living recognizing that our lifestyle is simply not sustainable and casting about for solutions before they are forced on us?

In National Geographic’s eight month series, Future of Food: Why Food Matters Now More Than Ever, Dennis Dimmick, Executive Environment Editor at National Geographic Magazine, points to our rapid worldwide population growth, 2.1 billion people in 2000, 7.1 billion in 2013, and a projection of 9.7 billion by 2050, mid-century. He also points to the difficulty of supplying that population with food. Today, in the U.S. alone, 45 million people require food assistance, people in rural, urban and suburban environments.

Another speaker in the series picks up that last theme as he speaks about 1 billion people worldwide who are food insecure. At the same time that our population grows at such a rapid rate, there is a rising demand for animal protein. People all want to live like the most privileged. If the world population stopped growing, this dietary affluence would still cause an unsustainable demand for an increase in the food supply.

In addition to population growth, we are all well aware by now of climate change. Many scientists and agencies consistently predict a planetary temperature rise of at least 3.5 degrees centigrade within this century. Guy McPherson of the University of Arizona says of that kind of temperature increase, “If we see a 3.5 to 4C baseline increase, I see no way to have habitat…This (increase) guarantees a positive feedback, already underway, leading to 4.5 to 6 or more degrees above ‘norm’ and that is a level lethal to life. This is partly due to the fact that humans have to eat and plants can’t adapt fast enough to make that possible for the seven to nine billion of us — so we’ll die.”

And here, I return to the issue of intuition and dietary shrinkage among the most privileged in the world. I believe there is some part of our preoccupation with limiting dietary choices that has to do with an often unconscious awareness that we are at the edge of profound changes that will impact our ability to survive on this planet. Perhaps at some level, our self-prescribed limitations are pro-active steps toward avoiding extinction. Certainly for some, the changes are purposeful in that direction.

Dietary changes I’ve made in my life were directed primarily toward humane considerations and only secondarily to environmental considerations. I always considered these changes my personal activism toward making the world a better place and thought my contribution sufficient. As I learn more, I begin to think perhaps it is not.

All of life is interdependent. Our survival depends on respectful, cooperative relationships, not “rugged individualism” or financial growth without regard to human and planetary costs. Every aspect of our lives must express this principle of cooperation. Our survival now, as was the case for our ancestors, depends on it. “United we stand, divided we fall” is a global reality and imperative. Every decision each of us makes must reflect that understanding.

Eating purposefully is fundamental to shaping a more cooperative mode of being in the world. In Woodstock, we have wonderful opportunities to live out our commitment to the principle of cooperation. Two food-related opportunities that come to mind are the Woodstock Farmers Market and the Foodshed Coop, well underway to realization.

In addition to other choices we make at each moment to contribute to the survival of life on this planet, supporting these cooperative food-focused organizations is an important one. If you would like to think more about food choices, please join me for  a class at MCC beginning March 9, Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Let’s Bring Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution to Our Local Grocery Stores

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Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day 2015: An Addendum

Do Food Products’ Labels Tell Us Anything?
Have you ever noticed that there’s lots of “nutritional” information on all the items in the center part of your local grocery store and NONE on the real foods around the periphery of the store? Of course, this information is required on the commercially created food products in the center of the store, and I imagine we assume it’s not needed for the real food. I mean, a carrot is a carrot, right?

I also notice that those items that do carry nutritional information display it in very small print on the back or bottom of packages, as if it were an afterthought or at least not a very proud thought. On the other hand, those same packages often proudly display nutritional claims in big letters on their fronts, claims like:

  • Heart healthy

  • 0 Trans-fats

  • Low Glycemic

  • All Natural

  • High Fiber

Well, the devil is in the details, and the details, as we remember, are on the backs and undersides of those packages in the Nutritional and Ingredients Labels – so IF you can see the small print and IF you want to take the time while you’re shopping to make your own decisions about what’s healthy and what’s not, you’ll likely find a mismatch between front and back. Or at least a mismatch between the description, “health claim” and the reality of what those claims are.

Health claims on the front are nothing more than advertising, and they have little to do with the real health of the product. Low Glycemic. OK. By now we all know it’s a good idea to eat lower in the glycemic index, but did you know that high fructose corn syrup is a low glycemic index sweetener? Does that make it healthy? And then there’s “All Natural.” Did you know the FDA has declined to define what this label means?

As for the unreadable Nutritional and Ingredients Labels, what do we do with the fact that there are at least 56 names for sugar that manufacturers use to hide added sugars in their foods? The information about sugar may show up in some form on the labels, but you will probably need a Ph.D. in nutrition to figure out where it is and what it means to you.

A Fun, New Approach to Labeling and Real Food Shopping
So how can we make shopping a more satisfying, educational, useful experience?

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Jamie Oliver, British chef, popular food guru and creator of the Food Revolution

In February 2015, British chef and popular food guru, Jamie Oliver, circulated a petition for a Food Revolution Day 2015. He gathered almost 1,600,000 signatures in 196 countries, and I was one who signed.

The purpose of Food Revolution Day was to make compulsory practical food education part of the school curriculum. “With diet-related diseases rising at an alarming rate, it has never been more important to educate children about food, where it comes from and how it affects their bodies.” You can read more at http://www.foodrevolutionday.com/campaign/#SRQYHj7fBeMHEoV0.99.

I support this effort whole-heartedly! I’m surprised at the number of times I check out of the grocery store, and young (and sometimes older!) cashiers aren’t certain what a fruit or vegetable is, even though they are surrounded by these products all the time in their work environment. Kids have no idea where various real food items come from and more often than not have little more ability in a kitchen than to open the microwave and put in one of those packages with the tiny print Nutritional and Ingredients Labels on the back.

To return to the issue I started with, I’d like to add a dimension to this struggle to require food education in the schools. Let’s start by introducing it in supermarkets! Here’s a word picture, a picture I would like to see as a reality some day.

Let’s call those Nutritional Labels on the packaged foods in the center of the store pretty much what they are: unreadable and not particularly useful as presented. Let’s ban those bogus health claims on the front of packages, and let’s move the Nutritional and Ingredients Labels to the front of the package and enlarge the font size. Or make pictographs of them. Let’s place large signs or videos in these sections of the supermarket that explain why this information is important and what it tells us.

Then let’s move onto the periphery of the store and develop a visually attractive system of labels for each item, telling what it is, where it comes from, what nutrients it has and how those nutrients help us. Don’t put it ON the foods (we hardly need glue added to the list of substances that has touched our real foods): put it on great-looking labels over the section for that item.

Let’s place regularly changing recipes near each item. Let’s place large signs or videos at various places that explain, in an interesting visual way, aspects of human nutrition and how real food is the critical component of a healthy lifestyle.

Then the schools can do their part. Why shouldn’t kids learn about food in the environment that for most of them IS the source of it? The grocery store! Teachers can use the tools that supermarkets and grocery stores provide as the basis of curricula they can develop. It can include field trips to supermarkets, homework assignments that involve trips to supermarkets and interactions with the kids’ parents and siblings, and followup work back in the schools.

We do these kinds of things with museums and consider it the best kind of education — why not with supermarkets? Home schoolers could be in on the venture, tapping into this public environment. Tired working parents shopping at the end of a day would find it easier to shop healthfully for their families with truly useful (and entertaining) information at their fingertips.

Everybody wins, including the supermarkets and grocery stores who create this kind of shopping environment. We’re all going to love hanging out in those real food sections of stores, finding out what’s there this week and learning about what we can do with it and what it will do for us! And that’s a very good thing.

All we need now is an operating food co-operative. Hmmmm… that’s right, the Food Shed Co-op is coming, just as soon as you sign on!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

Cooking Dried Beans

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As a vegetarian now progressing toward veganism, I have always eaten a lot of beans. It’s a good thing I love them!

Until this past summer, I never had any digestive difficulties with any foods at all including beans.  During the summer of 2014, I was unfortunately sick for four months, and my digestion and eating patterns were severely disrupted.  Now I’m back to normal — almost. While my difficulties aren’t severe, my digestion isn’t quite what it used to be. In particular I have some unresolved issues with beans.

Years ago, I used a particular routine for cooking beans:

  1. Rinse the beans and soak them in water overnight.
  2. Pour off any excess water, rinse the beans again and place in a pot with water to cover.
  3. Bring the beans to a boil, remove from heat, pour water and beans into a colander to drain, return beans to pot.
  4. Repeat step 3 at least one more time (twice if there wasn’t time to soak the beans the night before).
  5. After the final boil, return the beans to the pot, cover with water, bring to a simmer and cook until done.

While I was working with my vegetarian Cafe, I didn’t have time for this process and usually just rinsed the beans, put them into a pot covering them well with water, brought them to a boil then turned the heat to simmer and cooked them until they were done.

When I continued to have difficulty digesting my own food after I was sick, I thought I might return to my old method and see if that helped. It did! One day in particular I noticed that I had considerable digestive difficulty after a visit to a favorite restaurant where I can enjoy vegan burritos. The next day I made a bean dish in my own home preparing them as I described above, and I had no difficulty at all.  Sounds like a good discovery, right?

I decided to check out the science of my own experiment. There must be an explanation for my experience, right? Among others, I read an article from the LA Times called: “Don’t Soak Your Dried Beans – Now Even the Cool Kids Agree!” I didn’t let the title put me off — soaking isn’t essential to my method. Boiling and throwing off the water multiple times before cooking will work just as well. I saw right away that the article contained the scientific explanation I was seeking:

“…beans contain complex sugars called alpha-galactosides. The human body does not produce enzymes to digest these sugars. Mainly raffinose and stachyose, they pass through the stomach undigested until they reach the large intestine. There they ferment, producing gases…It was thought that soaking beans in cold water leached these sugars out of the bean. Throw away the water and you throw away the gas…”

That information coordinated well with what I learned through going on the Low FODMAP Diet of Monash University in Australia over the summer: some sugars in carbohydrates can cause difficulty for some people. Although I never had been one of those people before, I was at the time I found the Low FODMAP Diet, and the diet helped me tremendously. Never mind that the next sentences of the LA Times article stated: “Unfortunately, it isn’t true. These sugars are part of what the bean uses for nourishment as it grows into a plant, and the bean does not part with them gladly.”

OK, I can accept that and eliminate the soaking overnight. But then boiling briefly, allowing to stand and soak for a couple of hours, then pouring off the water and repeating the process does remove those pesky alpha-galactosides, at least 90% of them. Aha! That explains it.

The article went on to note, however, that this blanch-soak, blanch-soak method did not consistently reduce intestinal distress. Furthermore, the method reduces flavor slightly so is not preferred. The author of the article recommends just rinsing and cooking beans.

I’m left, though, with the experiential fact that when I eat beans that have not been boiled and the water thrown off multiple times, I experience intestinal distress. When I prepare the beans properly, I don’t. Maybe my former excellent digestion will return some day — but for now, I will prepare all my beans like this:

  1. Start with dried beans. Place them in a colander and rinse.
  2. Move the beans to a heavy pot with a lid. Cover well with water.
  3. Bring beans to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for 3 minutes.
  4. Allow beans to stand and soak (the article recommends 2 hours – I shorten this time, sometimes to just a few minutes – seems to work for me)
  5. Pour beans into colander, draining water.
  6. Repeat the process.
  7. After the second blanch-soak procedure, place beans in pot and cover with water.
  8. Bring beans and water to a simmer. Cook on low heat until done.

I do agree that some flavor is lost. I check the seasoning and adjust it at the end. I find I also need to adjust the water content of my dishes. Most of my recipes from the Cafe are designed around just rinsing and cooking the beans. When I use the blanch-soak method, I reduce the liquid content of recipes somewhat. I can always add it in again at the end if I want to thin a soup or a dish.

So…my current recommendation for cooking beans: just rinse and cook if they don’t cause you any difficulty. If beans do cause you difficulty, don’t soak overnight but do blanch and soak (for some amount of time) at least twice.

Waste-not: mother of invention

sandwich_kefta06

This morning I read an article posted to Twitter from New York Eater titled “Blue Hill to Transform Into Food Waste Pop-Up.” It intrigued me as a cafe owner in the process of rethinking how the food business works. As part of my rethinking, I am experimenting in a smaller frame, my own home.

The article directly connected to my experience last evening in using up a few post-prime items I had stored: the last few pieces of spelt challah remaining from a batch I made a week and a half ago, part of a red cabbage that has been in my crisper bin for . . . awhile, two lonely pieces of roasted pepper remaining from a full batch, and the remains of the Red Lentil Kefta I made early this week as a Cafe special.

I decided to make a sandwich.  My thought in putting these items together into a sandwich was that if each individual food item was delicious and well-made, putting them all together might be awesome – and it was! Here’s my story in photos:

First I brought the 10-day old challah back to life with a little sautéing to crisp the crust and soften the rest:

sandwich_kefta01

Then I thought it could use something tasty and squishy. The leftover roasted peppers were perfect, sliced into strips:

sandwich_kefta02

Then I added some sliced avocado for richness. My first attempt used a vegan mayo, but I didn’t much like the texture, and it didn’t add anything to the flavor:

sandwich_kefta03

Next came the leftover kefta, which was really the point of the whole exercise. I crumbled the delicious little balls of red lentils and cracked wheat:

sandwich_kefta04

And finally a sautéed/roasted red cabbage “steak.”

sandwich_kefta05

You have the final result at the top of this page. OMG. It was really delicious! And it pleased some folks who aren’t the least bit interested in being vegan. Just a really good blend of tastes and textures.

And I felt really good about making it all from little bits of things that might otherwise have been thrown away, adding to the 35 million tons of food thrown out yearly by Americans (2012 estimate, most recent available).

Gluten: Public Enemy #1?

rolls rising

I’ve been cooking from scratch with whole foods for more than forty years. I have been vegetarian several times, most recently for more than 15 years. Now I am experimenting more with vegan foods.

During these forty plus years, I have tried to stay current on what we know about food and its relationship to our health. I have watched food “issues” come and go, including eggs, on the “hit list” for so many years, now not necessarily. If I were to eliminate every food that we’ve been told to eliminate, either by the medical profession or alternative health gurus, there would probably be nothing left to eat.

In this country of plenty (for many), we are particularly prone to demonizing categories of food, and someday I will write a post about the impulses behind this self-deprivation. I think of Der Hunger Kunstler (The Hunger Artist) by Franz Kafka.

Still, I am considering a next step. As I contemplate removing another class of food items from my own diet, namely eggs and cheese, I am sometimes frustrated and sometimes amused by an ever-growing list of forbidden foods. Grains and gluten are just two of the more recent on the food hit list.

I continue to consider grains my friends, despite the fact that most have gluten. I eat and enjoy wheat, oats, barley and more with no debilitating after effects even though grains are theoretically new to human consumption entering our food supply just 10,000 years ago. That appears to have been long enough ago for my system.

One day in my cafe, I was told by a customer who requested gluten free products that everyone suffers gluten sensitivity nowadays. This surprised me, since I definitely do not. I couldn’t help but think of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story I read as a child. Did I dare to contradict what is increasingly becoming universally accepted truth, that we are all suffering from gluten sensitivity? Could I possibly suggest that the emperor might be naked, or at least partially so?

Still, I believed I owed it to my customers and myself to go beyond the evidence of my own body and read up on what the issues may be for others. I did read as many articles as I could find dealing with the issue of gluten and grains from all sides and perspectives. I read reviews on the articles to be sure I wasn’t led astray by the hype on this issue coming from all directions. I spent many days on the project but in the end found little that sounded credible or made any sense to me. For every statement, there was a counter statement that made at least as strong an argument.

Finally I came across an article on the Weston Price website (www.westonaprice.org) that had a ring of truth for me. It fit with my general ideas about the source of problems in our food supply: processing. Titled “Against the Grain,” it explores in some depth how grains have historically been prepared for consumption and in contrast how little of that correct preparation goes into them in contemporary times:

“Grains comprise a wholesome category of foods that must be respected for the complexity of nutrient contributions they can make to the human diet, and must always be prepared with care to maximize those nutrients’ availability as well as neutralize naturally occurring antinutrients. . .

“Growing and preparing food ought to be a sacramental service. It should not be based on violence, as is most of modern agriculture, factory animal farms and factories that produce finished food items like bread. All those processes are based on “conquering” the food item and forcing it into a form defined by commerce. There are no more subtle energies in these debased foods, let alone mere measureable nutrients or soul-satisfying taste and vitality.

“Food is holy. Its preparation and enjoyment constitute a daily opportunity to experience happiness, satisfaction and gratitude.”

Specifically grains have always been fermented (including raising breads several times) and/or cooked for long periods of time before use. In modern day processing, however, chemicals are used to advance the process.

Speeding the process has not always been a function of chemicals either. We all think sugar (a “natural” substance) is required to feed the yeast if the bread is going to rise properly, right? Actually, there are plenty of sugars in the grains, and no added sugar is required — yet try to find a bread on the supermarket shelves without sugar. Why? Because sugar will make the process go faster. Similarly, little or no yeast is required for bread to rise. Wild yeast is available in the air, and with time, dough can pick it up and will rise without added yeast — yet packages of yeast have almost a tablespoon in them. Why? Because more yeast will make the process go faster.  In factories, bread is rammed through the rising/fermentation process in almost no time.

It makes sense to me that our need for speed has made us neglect some age-old, important techniques in the handling of grains and development of the gluten in our bread. As I read this article, it occurred to me that those who suffer what they perceive to be gluten reactions may actually suffer from abuse to their systems from years of eating manufactured bread products. I also wondered if my own lack of issues with grains is because I have eaten whole grain breads for the last 40 or more years, most of the time made at home and raised the old-fashioned way?

Another experience in my life gave me more insight into the gluten issue. This summer I was sick for four months with an intestinal issue caused by antibiotics. Initially my doctor recommended a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast).  The rice and the toast were both to be white.  This is considered a “low-residue” diet and theoretically puts as little stress as possible on the digestive system. It was kind of fun to eat store-bought white bread for the first time in forty years, and I ate it with relish. It made me sick. Suddenly I was very sympathetic with what all those gluten free people had been telling me.

Eventually I came across a diet that did work for me called The Monash University Low FODMAP Diet. FODMAP is an acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are “dietary sugars that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine and fermented by bacteria to produce gas. Current research strongly suggests that this group of sugars contributes to IBSS/FGID symptoms.” (from the App, available in the ITunes store). Many grains, including wheat, are excluded in this diet because they are high in FODMAPS. Bingo!

It seems to me likely that between improper handling of grains and the difficulty of digesting sugars in some carbohydrates there may be the beginning of an explanation for some of our problems with the staff of life. As some have said, casting a wide net over gluten products has probably taken an important element out of the diets of many people who didn’t necessarily need to remove that element. A vegetarian diet without grains is hard to do, vegan even more so.

The good news about the Low FODMAP diet for me was that it allowed me to be selective in a scientifically tested way about what I excluded from my diet instead of casting that huge net over so many foods. The even better news is that not all four sugars cause difficulty for everyone, so in time, it is possible to bring some foods back. Sometimes it is even possible to restore all the foods that were removed from one’s diet.

An excellent article I read recently in the New Yorker pointed to the same two pieces of the gluten puzzle that were verified by my own experience: “Against the Grain” discusses the improper grain handling described in the Weston A. Price article of the same name and the discovery of offending sugars in the Low FODMAP Diet from Monash University.

And now I’m going to go and enjoy one of my delicious 7-grain spelt muffins. Spelt is a type of wheat that is low FODMAP and therefore easier to digest. It makes a beautiful loaf, and although I can eat and enjoy regular whole grain bread, I enjoy experimenting with spelt. Sourdough, with its long fermentation and wild yeast, is better yet since the yeast “eats” the offending sugars.