Category Archives: thought for food

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

The Hacking of the American Mind — a review

Some may know the author from his book, Fat Chance, or one of his many youtube presentations about the compelling dangers from the dramatically increased sugar consumption in our diets.  In his new book The Hacking of the American Mind, Dr. Lustig takes a different tack exposing not only the complications of sugar and why we want more of it but also our appetite to stimulate the biochemical receptors that give us pleasure.  More specifically, the book is about the science behind pleasure and happiness, how most of us confuse the two, and how government and business knowingly blur the difference between them at our expense.

In January, I wrote a post entitled Accumulating Pleasure Moments.  At the time, I was treading the hazy space of fusion between pleasure and happiness without realizing the difference.  Pleasure, I deduced, could be the opposite of pain.

It could be a pleasure spending a day, or days, lounging on a beach. Or is that happiness?

Dr. Lustig goes into great detail to explain the chemical differences between the neural pathways that pleasure and happiness take.  Pleasure, it seems, evoked by a dopamine response, can fool us if we are not careful.  One of the downsides of constantly seeking pleasure, he says, are addictions, which in turn decreases our happiness quotient.

I’m not sure I agree with the author’s point that pleasure moments last for one hour then they are gone.  I was recently upgraded to first-class on a trans-pacific trip. The resulting pleasure lasted well over 16 hours.  Then again, perhaps I was interpreting the delight of the flight incorrectly.  Now I know to be cautious least the anticipation of an upgrade happens too frequently or I could become addicted.

In narrating, Lustig has a somewhat peculiar way of emphasizing prepositions at times, especially “the.”  But his passion for the subject is evident, and the net effect of his reading the book is a plus.  It was also reassuring to hear that even he has fallen prey to the grips of pleasure, i.e., coffee (daily) and ice cream (on rare occasions).  In fairness, he explains, pleasure isn’t all bad, and at times, even intersects with happiness (contentment).  But given that the dopamine effects of pleasure are so powerful, it behooves us to recognize its intoxicating influence, both physically and emotionally.

In short, I found the book highly informative and well worth the read, or listen, for anyone seeking to reap the benefits of pleasure and happiness by managing them so that the former does not dampen the latter.

Meanwhile, when I make it from point A to point B on my new commuter cruising skateboard without landing on my ass, I’ll be satisfied to be pleasantly content.

Free-range Humans

At one time we were.  And in some way, we’ve circled back, except that we’ve spiraled around and landed on a different prairie.

Our new free range is an amplified ability and willingness to stretch and distort definitions to suit a wide variety of purposes.  The hijacking of words and dilution of their authenticity has become commonplace.

Not long ago, a US president demonstrated our new grazing land when he said, under oath, “it depends on what the definition of the word is, is.”  The economic meltdown of 2008 occurred, in part, because financial institutions went as far as roaming off the range by packaging garbage, then labeling and selling that junk as triple-A solid, pixie-dust lined, investments.

Our free-ranging technique of twisting the truth is especially blatant in food marketing.  Two, of many, recent examples: 1) In 2009 Kellogs Rice Krispies claimed the cereal would “support your child’s immunity.”  2) Nutella ads stated that their hazelnut spread “is a nutritious part of a kids breakfast.”

With our penchant for free-ranging food claims, what could natural flavors mean as a food ingredient? Bull testicles and sheep lips are natural, so is arsenic and formaldehyde.  Our legal definition of natural flavors is wide open according to the US Code of Federal Regulations and could include the aforementioned items.

Exaggeration and hyperbole have been used since there was language.  But when accuracy is elongated to harmfully fool others, then those doing the bending are better off put out to pasture.

The marketing campaigns labeling chicken and eggs as free-ranging and cage-free is a more literal example.  We’ve grown a sizeable appetite for chicken.  A few short generations ago, chicken consumption in the USA per person was, at best, a poultry few per year.  Today we gobble down, on average, more than 27 bloated, steroid & antibiotic-infused, mega fowl per person annually.  That’s not counting eggs (w/added synthetic yolk colorants).

The same dynamic chicken euphoria is happening around the world.  Travel anywhere, to any airport, any major city, and there is no shortage of chicken anything.

Chicken is the cheapest, most efficient form of meat to produce.  Chicken producers want us to feel good about eating more fowl because production has turned intensive.  It’s estimated that the planet is pumping out at least 50 billion chickens annually.  But where are they all?  Hmm,…there must be a reason they are hidden, tucked away, and out of sight.

World population is growing strong, and so is our appetite for more chicken.  China is the chicken heavyweight.  Stats show they produce more chickens than the next four chicken producing countries combined (USA, Indonesia, Brazil, India).  The KFC outlets, saturated throughout most China cities, stay more jampacked with hungry chicken customers than overcrowded industrial henhouses.   The Chinese also produce a mind-boggling 500 billion eggs annually.  And those hens are not free ranging.

Not enough of us care yet about the quality of what we stick in our mouths.  Just keep the buckets of nuggets coming.

But in fairness, some do care, a tiny bit, which is why demand for free-range is on the rise.  But in fairness to fairness, this is just free-range marketing.  The image of chickens running around, foraging and pecking the ground as is their nature, living part of their life in the sun, makes (some of) us feel a little better about eating them and their eggs.  No problem, we are free-range humans.  We simply expanded the definition of free-range to include the addition of a popup window to a giant, industrial overpacked chicken coup, containing thousands of birds. As long as the window is open for a few minutes per day, even if only a hand-full lucky enough to be near the window have a glimpse of the outside, voila, we have free range chickens — and free range eggs, and a warm & fuzzy image as a bonus.

But soon, thanks to,

  • a growing movement to improve the environmental impact of industrial chicken production,
  • an eagerness to significantly upgrade food quality, and
  • a new, determined focus to raise the standards for the humane treatment of animals,

a good portion of the world’s chicks destined for meat and eggs will soon be free-ranging, roaming the earth for real….along with fairies, leprechauns, and free-range humans.

4 Capitals — 10 days

There are a couple of places in the world where you could visit four capitals of different countries in 10 days with reasonable time for exploring each and one of those is touching the western Slavic area of what was once Czechoslovakia.  It helps to have a car, although you could probably train it.

One amenable option is flying into Budapest, Hungry, hanging for a couple of days, with plenty of time to crisscross the city on foot while slurping down homemade goulash and rich local brew.

After BP, you could head to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, about five hours away, with a several-hour stop in route exploring Bratislava.  In comparison to the other capitals, Bratislava, Slovakia, is by far the smallest, making the trip to Prague an easy one-day journey.

Following a few days consuming paprika-laced grilled sausages, roasted pigs knuckles, and tasty frothy beers in Prague, you could zip down to Vienna, the capital of Austria, only a 3.5-hour drive, to round out the tour.

Buda and Pest

It’s a relatively tight circle.  And although all four countries are part of the EU, you’ll need three different currencies as Hungry, and the Czech Republic have resisted submitting to the euro.

However you might “do” the trip, it’s worth the investment of 10 days just for the food and drink.  Throw in the impressive architecture, the walking culture of each city, and easygoingness of the local inhabitants, and it makes for a sensory-filled, non-stop, yet relaxing and memorable excursion.

 

Budapest, split by the Danube River

Backstreet Bratislava

A small window looking down at Prague city center

Along the river toward central Vienna

Always a time & place for exercise

Goulash, paprika, fresh peanuts and home brew make the “For Sale Pub” an ideal lunch spot in Budapest.

And an image of building art from Chelsea, NYC for good luck.

Biodynamics to the rescue

While somewhat of an obscure farming method, even though it’s been around for decades, biodynamic, not to be confused with organic, has been slowly creeping into vineyards, orchards, and farmer’s markets.

There is no question that the demand for organic food has been on the rise.  The proof is in its availability.  You can now find organic edibles in many local markets. Organic is mainstream.  Even in rural China, organic specialty foods have made an appearance.  But is organic worth the purchase?  There is no shortage of opinions on both sides of that question.  The answer may be, “it depends,” and also whether we care about ecosystem sustainability, nutrition, flavor, long-term biodiversity, residual synthetic chemicals in our bloodstreams, yadda, yadda, yadda.

from field to store, JD manages a certifiable process

As we were chomping down on rare cooked, organic, 1.5-inch thick grass-fed sirloin steaks during a small family gathering recently, discussing the relative value of animals (humans included), the topic of organic crops came up.  Nephew JD, who works as a produce broker, coordinating business between large grocery retailers (such as Whole Foods) and dozens (or hundreds) of small SE Pennsylvania farms, enlightened us about the smoke-and-mirrors of organic.  Perhaps because I’m a tail-end product of the hippy generation, I’ve been somewhat trust-worthing-ly naive about the “certified organic” label. Throughout the 80’s/90’s organic foods gain popularity as a valid alternative food source.  The standards in those days, I’m told (by Waldorf University agriculture students), for Certified Organic were stricter.  During the last two decades, with lobbying from the food industry, compliance for organic certification have been relaxed considerably.  As JD pointed out, organic food can be sprayed with pesticide and still be certified organic.  The pesticide may not be (as) synthetic as conventional farming, but it’s a pesticide nonetheless.  Additionally, organic has different standards internationally.  An organic tomato from Mexico is different from an organic tomato from the USA. 

Still, the point is we tend to think organically grown is healthier.  In many cases though, if it is, it could be marginal.  JD assured us though, that while the label isn’t what it seems, we were still not throwing our money away by buying organic.

To be fair, he explained, conventional farmers must go through a multi-year process, purging the soil of synthetic fertilizer to achieve organic certification.  Once they do though, their reward is a higher price yield. Still, organic has become marketing at its finest.

Biodynamic to the rescue.  Maybe.

A few years ago GV and I went to a wine tasting close to home in NYC where one of the California vineyard owners proudly and passionately served us samples of his biodynamic wines.  “They are alive,” he said.  One test, he said, was to loosely cork an unfinished bottle without the need to vacuum it.  After a couple of days, unlike traditional wine, it would be as vibrant and flavorful as the day it was opened.  He was right.

Union Square farmer’s market in NYC

In NYC’s Union Square farmer’s market, a few local farms now label their products certified biodynamic.  Apparently, this is a stricter level of certification where no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used.  Moreover, biodynamic farms must be regenerative, not degenerative.  In other words, there must be little to no reliance on imported (to the farm) products.  The idea is a holistic, ethical approach to farming and raising food, where systems are considered interconnected, the ecosystem balanced and diversified.

Are there critics of organic and biodynamic foods?  Sure.  There are plenty of studies showing doubt about various benefits of both, but none looking at long-term effects of pesticides or the subtleties of food language.  No studies are looking at the molecular makeup of what is produced and how it affects us over a lifetime.  We are finding out that what we put in our mouths passes chemical information to our cells from what they contain.  So if a plant or animal was raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, then those coded messages are passed along in what we eat.  It’s subtle, it’s deep, and more than likely, beyond most of our conversations.  It’s beyond the guy writing this post.

I’m a sucker, trusting this marketing bait

I bought fish last night labeled organic because it sounded healthier, although it’s more likely I was caught in a hocus pocus marketing ploy. [Hint: organic fish ≠ wild caught].  However, I remain hopeful that certified organic still means the absence of hormones, antibiotics, and GMO ingredients (GMO being another worm, er.., rat hole).

As in last week’s post, our decision to eat conventional, local, natural, organic, biodynamic, or growing our own, boils down not only to how we grew up and what we’ve learned along the way, but also to a healthy dose of our own self-constructed (sometimes quirky?) logic, combined with a dash of gullibility, with a pinch of trust.  For now though, when I see an organic or biodynamic label, I’m a certified sucker.

Logic didn’t make this chart

 

Oil logic

More specifically, food oil logic.

Most of us are not food experts.  After all, we are products of the post-industrial age.  We don’t know any better.  We’ve become ok with GMO, foods grown with pesticides, meat containing antibiotics, sugar infused anything, and, foods cooked in and laced with vegetable and seed oils. In short, we’ve become expert at making dirt cheap food, not necessarily making and delivering the most nutritious.   

It’s the vegetable and seed oils that have confounded me recently.  I hadn’t given two thoughts to seeing canola. sunflower, or soy oil in an ingredient list of prepared salads or dressings/sauces until reading about the potential downside.  Nor have I batted an eye about eating foods cooked with these oils.  We’ve grown comfortable with many of the prepared foods we eat.  And most have oils of some sort as an ingredient.

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been mass-producing cooking oils.  These new oils, such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola, had never been used on the scale we use them today.  They’ve become a large part of our diets, whether we realize it or not.

No food market is without a generous selection of vegetable oils, a recent essential staple

What many studies are recently revealing is that the cheap, highly processed oils have undergone molecular restructuring, essentially making them more unstable.  What that means, the studies show, is they cause oxidation stress by way of excess free radicals.  When we use them for cooking, the results are compounded.  In other words, what these studies show is that most processed oils, which have had their chemical make up manipulated, are, in effect, toxic.

The problem is, many smart nutritionists and advice givers say that vegetable oils are good.  Then there are others who now say they are bad.  What, and who, to believe?  I’m not a biochemist, so I, like most of us, can only make decisions based on logic.

Oils we buy are processed in one of two ways, they are either,  1) cold pressed (actually pressed or centrifuge), such as olive, avocado, coconut, or peanut, or 2) extracted through heat processing.

Why not take olives and add a dash of corn?

Logic says that if we squeeze or cold press food to extract its oil, then the oil may be nearly as good as the raw food, the nutrients remaining relatively intact.  Olives, for example, a fruit, have been cold pressed for thousands of years.  It’s well known, that extra-virgin cold pressed olive oil, unheated, is quite healthy, rich in antioxidants.

On the other hand, oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola are processed to extremely high temperatures, washed with petroleum solvents, bleached, then deodorized.  Because we can produce these raw materials so abundantly and cheaply, the resulting oils are ounce for ounce, considerably cheaper than cold-pressed oils.

Industrial food companies are not studying the health risks of long-term use of manipulated, processed foods.  Rather food companies are profit centers.  Like those of us in the apparel business, food enterprises look for the cheapest way to make something.  The long-term consequences are off the radar.

In North and South America, as well as most of Asia, cheap oils have become a kitchen staple, at home and in virtually all restaurants.  We can’t live without the stuff.  In China, no home is without a 3 or 5-liter bottle of soy or corn oil.  Restaurants use the stuff by the boatload.  Almost all foods are cooked with these oils, which, just a couple of generations ago, were not available.

There are no shortages of food experts with opinions all over the place.  Therefore, it’s not easy to know who to trust.  We’ve got to rely on what makes logical sense.   And logic says that oils intended for human consumption that are washed with solvents at high temperatures, bleached, deodorized, colored, and perfumed, are best left avoided.

A slice of half-baked pie

It’s tricky being in the advice business, especially the “what is right to eat” one.  There are thousands of diet books enthusiastically embracing a “correct way to eat.”  I’ve read a few recently published, written by smart, educated, scientific minds, several with medical degrees — strongly advising us what we ‘should eat’ to be our healthiest, giving us our best chance to avoid disease.  They all agree on one thing:  we should be eating real whole food and avoiding highly processed (junk).  That makes sense to any dummy.  Eating an apple, they agree, is healthier than a Snickers bar.  Duh.  

Since we are all so “food group” conscious, what the books don’t agree on are the ideal proportions of those whole food groups.  Some are polar opposites over saturated fats, particularly from meats and dairy, whether they are good or harmful.  One camp exposes a strictly plant based diet, showing studies of how animal fats are directly related to our maladies.  Others point to similar studies showing why animal fats and good dairy may help cure them.  Some champion low fat in general.  Others high fat.  Some encourage whole grains, yet others endorse avoiding them.  There are loads of conflicting beliefs and recommendations.  How can smart, educated, studied, professionals be so at odds about what whole foods we should eat?  They all can’t be right.  Or can they?

We’ve all been somewhat dimwitted when it comes to what we’ve been sticking in our mouths over the last century as we’ve radically changed our diets away from natural whole to processed food.  We gain weight and have health problems, then try to reverse years of bad habits, so we listen to what we hope is smart advice.  The thing is, most well-intentioned smart, nutritional advice givers, dedicated to helping people, don’t really know what is the best formula for eating. They can only look at slices of the pie.

We know that our bodies are a collection of atoms, too numerous to put a number to.  We’ve learned that atoms join together to form molecules and that these molecules are in constant communication with each other.  Life at the molecular level is highly dynamic and interactive.  What we eat and breath, ends up communicating with our cells, made up of those molecules.  Throw in coded messages from our non-stop thoughts and the quality of sleep, and our internal systems, from brain to toes, are constantly buzzing with vibrant interactions.

In affect, the advice-business folks make blanket claims about what is good or bad with blinders on.  We are learning that our molecular messaging system is so complex that  effects are sometimes not known for decades, or even generations, leaving us little choice but to make assumptions by looking at slices.

As a complex species we are somewhat the same, but each with unique messaging systems.  Is there a “best diet” for everyone?  From a logical perspective it’s highly unlikely.  At the same time, what is also logical is that food (including the food’s source) which has been manipulated (altering the original intended message) is most probably sending less-than-desirable information to our cells, whether that food is processed, whole fruits and vegetables, or animal origin.

So a hearty thanks to those doing the hard research and giving sound advice, particularly those warning that vegetable oils and sugars are highly toxic.  At the same time, it might be helpful for certain advise givers to qualify their advice and offer caveats, that studies have limitations and that their advice may not be for everyone.  Anything less is a half-baked slice of delicious home-made pie.