Tag Archives: eating healthy

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.

fruit for thought

Fruit is good stuff. Everyone knows that. We should all eat whole fruits because they are alive with ingredients that benefit us, as long as they are clean, inside and out.

Unless you live in a climate like Thailand, Peru, or Costa Rica, eating good quality whole-fruit year-round is not so easy.  In climates where winters dip near zero, available (fresh) fruit must come from somewhere else, which means they are harvested before their time and artificially ripened in transit.

Dragon fruit from Taiwan, just down the road a piece

Dragon fruit from Taiwan, just down the road a piece

When fruit is picked prior to its natural ripeness, the nutrient growth is halted.  Additionally, once fruit is plucked from the limb where it bloomed, nutrients begin a shelf-life decay.  A ripe peach has more nutrients the day it is picked than it does a week or two later.

these asian pears are packed to withstand a little jostling in transit

these asian pears are packed to withstand a little jostling in transit

But really, we might be splitting peach fuzz.  We’ve been selectively cross-pollinating seeds for thousands of years, since we started farming.  It’s something we humans do with just about every type of plant and animal — we alter them, over time, to make them better.  We do that breeding dogs, horses, and chickens.  And we’ve done that with just about every fruit and vegetable known to man.  (Luckily, we have not started doing that to ourselves yet.)

there is no papaya grown around these parts

there is no papaya grown around these parts

Point is, most fruits are selectively larger and hardier now than they were hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Many didn’t even exist then.  Now, most fruit can withstand thousands of miles in transit — giving us a non-stop, wide variety to select from.

no worries about washing this fruit

no worries about washing this fruit

Because fruit has such a high water content, they are as good as the water that helped them grow.  When I lived in Lima, I was told to eat only the watermelon from certain areas, as the fruit from low-lying areas was fed polluted water.  When I travelled frequently to Madagascar, I was told to avoid eating the strawberries because they were bacteria ridden.  Where I am in currently, I’ve heard that some of the fruits may be suspect, as the rivers and streams used for irrigation are a little tough to keep clean when 1.3 billion people are using them. Enough of the inside.

Dear Ole Dad taught me years ago the value of washing fruit well, especially those who’s skin is consumed, like grapes, tomatoes, cucumber, and apples.  We’ve all seen fruit drop on the floor and be picked up again, and used.  Rinsing with tap water removes most of the dirt, but not wax and not all of the oils from the fingers of those who have handled the fruit.  A wash with a natural cleaner is ideal.  I’m amazed by the amount of people I see in stores popping unwashed grapes or strawberries in their mouths.

there are lots of different versions of natural fruit and vegetable wash, but not so easy to find where washing is not deemed important

there are lots of different versions of natural fruit and vegetable wash, but not so easy to find where washing is not deemed important

When we buy fresh cut fruit, we like to think that it was prepared in a sanitary condition.  In Colombia, I watched many street vendors handle delicious looking, fresh-cut mango and pineapple with bare hands, while they changed money in between peeling and cutting.  Just this morning in a relatively nice supermarket, I watched a girl in the produce section preparing peeled grapefruit by handling the meat of the fruit in her bare hands, and in between, doing other projects.  No washing, nor gloves.

gift-wrapped grapefruit

sub-tropical, gift-wrapped grapefruit

I’m a New Yorker, where not much fruit is grown.  For that reason, and many of those above, I’m a frozen fruit fan — especially organic frozen.  Frozen fruit is picked when it is naturally ripe, then washed and flash frozen, all within a very short time period of being harvested.  Fortunately, within a block of where I live in NYC, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Fairway markets all carry a variety of organic whole frozen fruits.

these grapefruit sections had their white skin pulled off by fingernails

these grapefruit sections had their white skin pulled off by fingernails

Unfortunately, where I am now there is zero frozen fruit in any of the markets. Well, almost zero.  I did find frozen blueberries and blackberries in a market catering to foreigners, but they are so freezer-burnt, which you can see through the packaging, that it’s a wonder anyone would buy them.

While frozen fruit may not seem fresh, it’s probably more fresh than whole-fresh, and likely to contain more nutrients.  But who is counting?  Transported fruit is better than no fruit.  But dirty fruit may not be.  Anyway, it’s just fruit for thought.

let’s talk turkey

Or better yet, let’s talk fowl.

I recently finished a book titled Eating Animals,  by Jonathan Foer.  Mr. Foer spent several years investigating how the animals we eat are raised and slaughtered.  Funny thing, when he started his research he was not a vegetarian.  He is now.  His exhaustive work compliments many other investigative reports I’ve read over the past decade.

Several years ago, the context escapes me, but I wrote to a niece about the subject of eating meat and her partial response was “I’m a full-fledged carnivore.”  Indeed, most of us are.  Most humans, on all continents, since the beginning of humans, have eaten and eat flesh of some form.  We grew up eating flesh.  It’s become an integral part of our diets because it’s everywhere AND, more recently, it’s cheap.  A few generations back, animal flesh was not nearly as prevalent or as cheap.  A plate of chicken tenders today is cheaper than a head of broccoli.

When I travel and find myself in an airport and hungry, the easiest thing to eat, although I never do, is chicken something.  Chicken caesar salads, chicken sandwiches, chicken pasta, chicken this and chicken that.  Chicken something is everywhere.

We used to raise chickens on a farm.  They walked and ran around, outside.  They roosted. They used to have at least a few weeks of a normal life before they were whacked.  Not anymore.  The genetically engineered chickens we eat today grow from hatch to slaughter in 48 days and to twice the size a few generations ago.  The chickens of today, because they grow so unnaturally fast, can’t run around even if they had the space because their skeletal frame and organs cannot keep pace with, or support, their flesh weight.  Even if they could, they don’t have the space to walk because they are grown in sealed buildings packed between 30,000—50,000 bpb (birds per building).  They can barely ruffle their feathers let alone turn around.  We pump them full of feed they don’t naturally eat and antibiotics so that they grow, as quick as possible, to ideal production weight.

We’ve turned what was a farming practice into a factory operation.  Factory processing is all about reducing speed-to-market and squeezing out all unnecessary costs.  Forget that animals, even fowl animals, feel pain and are not permitted to live even close to what might be a normal life for them.

The numbers reveal that 99% of the chickens and turkeys sold in supermarkets or served in restaurants today are so severely genetically altered and harshly raised that to say each of those animals lived a stressful life would be a gross understatement.

But how the animal is raised is not something we think about.  We just know it tastes good, that it’s available almost everywhere, and it’s cheap.  Not enough of us give a second thought that what we eat matters, and that if it’s animal flesh, what those stress-filled flesh vibrations may be doing to us.  With some research, it’s somewhat obvious that the chickens and turkeys available in our supermarkets and restaurants were in some degree of less-than-optimal health when they were slaughtered.

Oh, but we buy ‘free-ranging’ fowl.  Not.  The term ‘free range’ is not defined by the USDA.  It’s a term left up to the manufacturers (not farmers) to define.  For chickens, they’ve decided that free-ranging birds are allowed 110 square inches maximum for their entire short lives vs 67 square inches.  That free-ranging space is barely larger than a standard size sheet of letter paper.  A chicken needs three times that much space just to flap its wings. Most free-range birds never see the light of day.  Sounds like a joke.  No, sounds like a legal scam.  Foer says that to believe a chicken or turkey is ‘free range’ is similar to believing in ‘starry and magical.’  Still, the USDA estimates that less than 1% of chickens are free-ranging, which means there is not enough good quality fowl flesh in the US to feed even a medium size city.

Most of us care where our food comes from.  If it’s flesh, we hope that it somehow arrives to our plate in a near ethical fashion.  But for those who suck down cans of soda pop, diet or otherwise, logic would say that the quality of their food is not so important.

The following is a quote from Foer’s book, “today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products, and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far.  Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model.  So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals, which encourages antibiotic resistance, which makes those indispensable drugs less effective in humans.  In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys we eat are making it harder to cure human illness.”  He goes on to say that we regulate possible destructive toys for children (externally visible) yet “we allow our children to eat cruel and destructive food products” (not visible).

But what Foer fails to mention in his book is the increasing number of farmer’s markets around the country, who raise and sell fowl products, not simply free-range, but free-running.  They don’t count bpb.  These small family farms will almost always welcome visitors who want to see how the animals are raised.  The pictures and images they post at the market stands and on their websites are assets.

For store-bought fowl, forget it.  It’s impossible for an outsider to see how intensively-produced chickens, eggs, and turkeys are raised and processed.  We are not permitted for good reason, because if we saw what went on, we might be sickened at the sight.  Pictures and images are a liability.  For more on the subject, check out Food Safety News, in which author explains that a few states have passed “ag-gag” laws, which makes it illegal to expose inhumane treatment of animals at a factory farm.  The law defies good common sense yet three states have passed such a law, Utah, Missouri, and Iowa.  A fourth state tried to pass the ag-gag law late last year, but the good people of Pennsylvania smartly voted it down (the law was introduced by a senator from Lancaster who aimed to protect the gross conditions at the Kreider egg farm in Manheim against an investigation by the Humane Society).

In his book, Foer also doesn’t give enough credit, even though he gives them a one-line mention, to stores like Whole Foods Markets, for sourcing and selling locally, organically raised birds, fowl that has the opportunity to nest, roost, to live in flocks of 30-60, in an environment natural to them.  WFM has a comprehensive certification program that prohibits intensive confinement, as well as hormones and antibiotics.

We want to eat wholesome, and most of us are even willing to pay more for ethically raised flesh.  But KFC’s buckets and McD’s nuggets are mighty powerful.  So are those chicken caesar salads at every airport.

Hey, I’m no vegetarian.  I’m just talkin fowl.  If chicken soup is what the doctor ordered, then you are better off choosing your chicken well.  Fact is, if you don’t know for sure that the chicken, turkey, or eggs you are eating are from organically grown, free roaming, ethically treated birds, then know that those animals were harshly and cruelly treated during their entire lives for your eating pleasure.  We are growing, processing, and feeding ourselves dirty birds, designed to look and taste like an economical and appetizing fare.

Next week, we’ll talk porky.  After that, lion and tigers and bears, oh my.