Food Politics

Minerals: the salts of the earth

Minerals are essential. They may only comprise 4% of our body weight, but they are necessary elements for all the functions in the body, in one way or another. I’ve heard medical practitioners claim that every single disease we experience can be linked back to a mineral or vitamin deficiency – that’s pretty powerful! That’s why minerals are one of the core components that we look for when determining the nutrient density of a food.

In the process of doing research for Superfood Cuisine, I came across reference after reference that sited vast mineral depletion in farm soil (a concept that I delve into more detail in the book … and also a large reason why I’m such a strong proponent of the superfood philosophy in the first place). Each study I read summarized the same thing: our produce has only a fraction of the minerals it once had. This concept is easy to understand once you look at modern farming practices, but it’s also one of those nebulous ideas that is hard to make tangible, unless you’re a scientist. That is, for me at least, until just a couple days ago.

No, I didn’t become a scientist, but this week I did have the pleasure of visiting a nearby biodynamic farm (if you’re not familiar with the practices of biodynamic farming, you can read more about them here). Biodynamic farming is pretty admirable, for although it takes some extra work, a give-take natural relationship with the soil and the environment is of the highest importance in this form of agriculture. As for the resulting biodynamic produce, my experience was that at first sight, it was clearly different. Colors seemed more vibrant. The leaves felt physically stronger. Most of the vegetables were a little smaller than store-bought, but this is usually just a sign of less empty-calorie fiber/mass (in other words, smaller/younger healthy produce is often a sign of greater nutrient density). I was astounded by the variety and abundance of edibles, coming from about just ten acres – truly incredible. But the biggest shock of all came from the greens.

“Here – have a bite of this kale,” the farm owner said to me, handing me a leaf. It’s safe to say I’ve had my fair share of kale in my life, but one bite of this kale and I knew something was different. My eyes got big as I experienced the flavor. “It’s… salty,” I said. The owner nodded as he helped himself to another leaf. He chewed slowly, and replied, simply, “Minerals.” Minerals. The salt I was tasting was minerals! Of course!

Sweat is salty because of minerals. Blood is salty because of minerals. And I was tasting kale that tasted salty because this kale was an example of what kale should taste like (and likely, what produce did taste like before we muckied up the soil environment … which is reversible to some degree, so don’t get too sad.) Ever had a salt craving? That’s your body’s red flag that it’s yearning for more minerals. Sodium chloride being one mineral of course, but also potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, trace minerals, etc. Although adding salt undoubtedly brings out the flavor in food and makes it more delicious, it’s the salt = minerals idea that also is one of the key reasons why we instinctively love the taste of salt so much. It’s an interesting idea to think that the foods we add the most salt to, often are the ones with the least amount of minerals.

My favorite dish that I made out of this special produce was also the simplest -  a delicious lightly cooked greens dish. So basic, and yet so beautiful in flavor! I could serve this dish to Wolfgang Puck and he’d ask me what my secret was. My answer? Minerals. Of course.

Simple Steamed Greens with Roasted Garlic & Hemp Seeds

Depending on the size of the produce you are using, you may want to adjust the oil/vinegar quantities accordingly. You can roast the garlic ahead of time — it’s so delicious to have on hand, I like to make several extras at a time to enjoy for future endeavors.

INGREDIENTS:

1 whole head garlic

1/2 teaspoon coconut oil

1 large bunch kale, stems discarded and leaves chopped into large pieces

1 small bunch baby beet greens, soaked in ice water for 10 minutes to remove any grit, and chopped into strips

2 tablespoons hemp oil

1 tablespoon ume plum vinegar

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

a little unsalted vegetable broth or water, if needed

DIRECTIONS

First, roast the garlic. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Chop of the head (point) of the garlic – about 1/4-inch down to expose the top of the cloves. Place on a piece of aluminum foil, and spread the coconut oil on the top. Wrap up loosely with the foil, place on a small pan, and roast for 30-35 minutes, or until garlic is soft inside. Remove from the oven and let cool. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of its husks onto a small plate (discard the husks). With a small immersion blender or small food processor, blend the hemp oil, ume vinegar and roasted garlic together. If you need a little liquid to blend properly, add a bit of broth or water — a couple spoonfuls at a time — to get a smooth and creamy consistency.

Steam the kale lightly, until it turns bright green (about 5-7 minutes) – do not overcook. When the kale is ready, transfer to a bowl, and toss with the fresh beet greens immediately. Mix in the blended garlic mixture to taste, and sprinkle with hemp seeds.

Serves 2-4

Here’s a list of some biodynamic farms across the US. They’re worth seeking out.

 


Hemp History Week is here!

via HempHistoryWeek.com

Personally, I don’t need a “national chocolate day” to find an excuse to celebrate my love for the sweet stuff; nor do I need an “earth day” to remind me that I should turn off the lights when leaving a room. But Hemp History Week – which is this week – is different. Here’s why…

At one time, not so terribly long ago, hemp was essential to the very fabric of our society. Literally. With over 25,000 uses, the tremendous versatility of industrial hemp includes the production of cloth, paper, building materials and fuel; as well as a plethora of food items made from the hemp seeds themselves. Hemp was so fundamentally useful that in the 1700′s, it was a mandatory, subsidized crop in some of the first American colonies before the United States was even a country. In 1942, the US government issued a short film, Hemp For Victory, to encourage farmers to grow more hemp during World War II to stimulate the economy (hemp is a very profitable crop).

George Washington grew hemp, the American Constitution was first drafted on hemp, and the first Ford prototype ran on hemp fuel, and the amazing list of hemp history goes on.

Today however, hemp is illegal, by federal law, to grow in the United States. We can buy it, but we can’t grow it. Due to a series of strategic moves by competing industries, hemp was marketed and eventually classified as a restricted drug (hemp is not the same thing as marijuana and will not show up on a drug test). I’ll leave the conspiracies around this unfortunate de-legalization at the door, and focus on what’s really important: getting this crop back.

Canada (where the US gets most of its hemp from) grows hemp. Much of Europe grows hemp. In fact, countries all around the world grow this cash crop for food and resources. Except … the US. As a result, Americans have to pay more for imported hemp products, while instead expending homeland agricultural resources on B-rate crops like corn, canola, wheat, and soy.

From a food standpoint, hemp is a real-deal superfood with exceptional benefits. It’s an excellent source of easily digested complete protein, and also one of the richest vegetable sources of the Omega 3 & 6 Essential Fatty Acids (in an ideal ratio to support human health). Hemp seed is also a plentiful source of fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium. Unlike many other nuts and seeds, the hemp seed is not known to be a food allergen. I love its versatility in products: it can be made into premium protein powders, beautifying culinary oils, blended into creamy milks, and the shelled whole hemp seeds are deliciously versatile in recipes and just by the handful. This Hemp Hummus recipe is a staple in my house … it comes with a magic trick of quickly disappearing.

Which brings us back to Hemp History Week. Hemp is not a crop to be forgotten, and until it’s legal to grow again in the US, we do need the reminder of its history and value. As you see health food stores across the nation celebrating this healthy and sustainable message, I hope you’ll consider treating yourself to a hemp product – try something new that’s made with hemp, or just pick up some classic hemp seeds to jazz up everything from cereal to salads to ice cream. Hemp is healthy, sustainable, and the larger the demand becomes for industrial hemp products, the stronger the US re-legalization cause.

Please join me in signing this legalization petition and take action at Vote Hemp. Here’s to home-grown hemp!

Is agave syrup good, bad, or just kinda tasty?

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Light your torches, there’s a new witch hunt in the grocery store. The target? Agave syrup. After hitting the mainstream several years ago as the new “healthy sweetener of choice,” agave recently has been under fire with negative backlash all across the health-food spectrum, with many companies even considering pulling agave from their products due to the extent of customer concern.

But is agave really that bad? Can it be compared to high fructose corn syrup? Should we go out of our way to avoid it? Let’s take a look.

What happened with agave?
It really wasn’t all that long ago that many people were just beginning to fall in love with agave – using it often in the place of cane sugar, corn syrup and honey for its intense and clean-tasting sweetness. Agave’s brief history in the North American marketplace has relied upon being marketed as a “raw healthy sweetener.” This sweet syrup extracted from the agave cactus proved especially valuable to the diabetic community, who embraced agave’s low glycemic index.  Then, suddenly, agave was everywhere – in recipes, in drinks, in packaged foods, in restaurants, and of course, in desserts. Between a solid stamp of approval from the health food community, and a new excuse to get simply get some sugary goodness on, the mantra of healthy sweet food became “no sugar . . . just agave.”

So when the story broke that agave was actually not healthy at all and was actually comparable to corn syrup, it’s no wonder there was a strong outrage. After all, agave was sold to us as a “healthy sweetener,” and we were paying a premium price tag to enjoy its benefits. Health advocate Dr. Mercola released this adamant and influential article,  which was posted and reposted in just about every health-oriented nook and cranny. Suddenly agave was the bad guy, leaving consumers feel betrayed . . . and confused.

Is agave really worse than high fructose corn syrup?
Most of us understand that high fructose corn syrup is something we should avoid entirely.  And it’s true that both syrups have very high levels of fructose (the type of sugar that is primarily found in fruit), making the comparison understandable. But high fructose corn syrup is really quite bad – it’s a (mostly) genetically modified, highly processed product that often contains mercury. In comparison, agave is much a less processed product (depending on the source), not to mention free of toxic mercury.  Plus, it’s also about twice as sweet as corn syrup – so even though ounce per ounce the fructose levels are the same, you can get away with using significantly less thereby reducing the total sugars.

Unfortunately, using half as much has not been in the game plan for most people. Initially influenced by that “healthy sweetener” tag, liberal use of agave became acceptable and even celebrated — we seemed to forget that at the end of the day, agave syrup is really just a highly concentrated liquid sugar. Clearly, agave was marked misleadingly as “healthy,” but at the same time many companies and individuals failed to use restraint when including it in foods. Sugars – fructose included – are not bad; we just don’t want an excess of them.

If there is one food philosophy that I connect with more than any other it is simply making better choices — which is where agave takes a seat in my kitchen. I find “better choice” agave exceptionally useful in some recipes because it is so efficiently sweet . . . but I avoid using it in large quantities, and try to get away with using as little as possible when formulating recipes. Often, I will use agave in conjunction with another healthier sweetener like stevia to help round out the sweetness, while allowing the other sweetener to do most of the legwork. For healthy culinary purposes, agave ranks amongst the lowest of the sweeteners. But that still doesn’t mean it’s bad — agave just has to be used more consciously then many of us have been accustomed to using it in the past.

Alternative useful sweeteners for a healthy kitchen:
There’s no need to be as obsessively dependent on agave as we’ve become, because let’s face it — there’s a treasure trove of other healthy sweeteners which each bring their own unique benefits to the table. Fresh or dried fruit is always a first option sweetener because it has nutrients and fiber that it brings along for the sweet ride. But fruit simply doesn’t “work” in every recipe, which is why we’re so lucky to have variety. Here’s a short list of some other sweeteners I find particularly useful in making healthy, natural recipes:

  • Stevia
  • Palm Sugar
  • Date Syrup/Sugar
  • Yacon Syrup/powder
  • Maple Syrup/Sugar
  • Jerusalem Artichoke Syrup

The Bottom Line
Agave is not what I would consider to be a “best choice” sweetener – that’s where fruit and stevia step in – but it is unquestionably still a “better choice” in comparison to refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup (which make up 99.9% of the sweetener choices that occur every day). As for the best choice in the pursuit of optimum health, perhaps simply maintaining a healthy perspective on the role of sugar in our diets is the most important and beneficial practice of all.

For further reading on why agave isn’t as bad as it seems, I highly recommend this detailed and well researched article: The “Agave Is Bad For You” Fallacy.

The “Dirty Dozen:” when eating organic matters most


Undoubtedly: eating organic foods is a good thing. With every organic bite, you’ve just made such a friendly action towards both the planet and your own personal health. I also love that through funneling the money in our food budget towards companies and farmers who respect the earth, we get both a healthier product, and we diminish the amount of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical pollution that leech into the delicate ecosystems around us.

But is it necessary to eat foods with organic standards all the time? Well, ideally, yeah. (And in a perfect world the idea mixing chemicals and food would be absolutely egregious in the first place). However, if a tight wallet, lack of availability, or just unfamiliarity with the organic movement is an issue, chuck the idealism at the door and instead start out by taking on baby step #1: saying NO to the Dirty Dozen list – the worst of the worst non-organic offenders. Sounds kinda like a group of serial killers . . . (just sayin’).

Non-profit research organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) does the bad-food-news homework for us. Each year, EWG puts together a list of the most atrocious crops – the ones that are truly must-avoids in a “conventional” state due to the scary-high amounts of chemical saturation they contain. The foods change a bit from year to year, so it’s not a bad idea to bookmark a site like this to stay in the know.

Sadly, this year’s list includes many of my personal favorite natural foods – but all the more opportunity to support local organic farmers. My general rule is to look for these in organic form, and if it’s not available, I consider a different produce substitution. I take the dirty dozen pretty seriously. Not buying these foods is a statement that this adulterated form of farming is unacceptable to be considered as “food.” And by directing the demand monetarily speaking, we promote the changes in our farming standards so that organic practices may become the profitable norm.

THE 2010 DIRTY DOZEN:
1. Celery
2. Peaches
3. Strawberries
4. Apples
5. Blueberries
6. Nectarines
7. Bell Peppers
8. Spinach
9. Kale
10. Cherries
11. Potatoes
12. Grapes

Two more foods I add on my “always organic list” — Soy and corn products. 90% of conventional soybeans are genetically modified, and above 60% of corn products are as well. GMO’s are a whole new level of dirty, and a person’s health is nothing to gamble.

Get the details on the “why’s” of the dirty dozen at Daily Green.

Edible environmentalism: a delicious change

sushi1
At this point in the game, if you’re seriously unaware there’s a full-swing green movement going on, I’d be hard-pressed to believe you even live under a rock — perhaps you’re under a sea of styrofoam packing peanuts, or maybe a stretch Hummer (with some obnoxious personalized license plate, I would assume).

For the rest of us, the question continues to nag: how can we most efficiently make a difference in cleaning up the environment? We’re all busy. But we’d also like to do something. So do the reusable grocery bags cut it? How about taking shorter showers? Buying a sweet new Prius? By all means, these are good, positive choices, and these efforts have good, positive effects. But there’s one solution that truly puts us on the fast track to a more sustainable lifestyle: stop eating meat.

Let’s put the ethics and health benefits of a plant-based diet aside for a moment. A recent major McLeans feature Save the planet: Stop eating meat explains just how extensive the environmental benefits of eating greener really are. Within the article, Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (Belgium’s largest vegetarian organization) explains, “If everyone in Flanders does not eat meat one day a week, we will save as much CO2 in a year as taking half a million cars off the road.”  Laying out the full toll of our fleshy fixation, the article continues, “livestock accounts for 18 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gases, more than those emitted by all forms of transportation combined, and is a leading cause of deforestation and water pollution.” And let’s not forget the inefficiency and waste in feeding nutritious plant-based foods to animals raised for slaughter, the disturbingly high amounts of toxic methane emissions released from our digestion-challenged cattle, and the increasing loss of farmland (which if used to grow plant-based nutritious foods instead of housing livestock, could alleviate much of the global food crisis).

Personally, I’m optimistic. Why?  Because doing something exceptionally good for the planet lies in one action step that most of us already have immense talent in: EATING. A cleaner environment is as simple as getting some seriously good chow on – with fresh, vibrant foods like portobello burgers, a bowl of cheesy broccoli, or protein-rich quinoa sushi. Swap out cow’s milk for some luscious hemp milk or rice milk in your next recipe. Or take a take a ride on the superfood brownie train and I’ll meet you in the land of gastronomic paradise. Environmentalism was seriously never so easy. And a healthier planet is served.

Jamie Oliver: Teach Every Child About Food

Chef Jamie Oliver is the newest recipient of the TED Prize, “One wish to change the world.” After recieving $100,000 to strengthen his battle against America’s obesity epidemic and dietary-related disease, Jamie says:

I wish for the TED community to create a movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and bring people together everywhere to fight obesity…..My hope is that millions more people will learn, as so many have already, that it is a happier, healthier life that is built around eating good food, together with family and friends.

With all my heart, I couldn’t agree more. Take a moment and watch Jamie’s impassioned acceptance speech, and his simple call to action. We are responsible for re-teaching one another the benefits of a natural diet, empowering the next generation with the fundamental knowledge of whole foods and organic cooking. Help others embrace responsibility of their health, and share the power of good food with those you love.

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