Monday, March 29, 2010


Painting by Santiago Proaño.


Hamburgers, French fries, hot dogs, pizza, breakfast cereal, doughnuts, candy bars, chicken nuggets, potato chips.

Q: What do these foods have in common?
A: You can eat them with your hands.
Q: What else do these foods have in common?
A: For the most part, they are fast foods and processed foods.

Jamie Oliver, a chef in England, traveled to the U.S. and has taken on a town in West Virginia, challenging them to eat better. If you’ve seen his TV show about this challenge, Food Revolution, you know it is going to be an uphill battle. At a local elementary school, Jamie asks the principal and the school lunch staff where the forks, knives and spoons are so that the school kids could eat the healthy meal he had prepared for them (pasta with vegetable sauce and a salad). He was astonished when the staff said that they didn’t give kids any forks, knives and spoons because they were dangerous (I suspect they were referring here to the knives and forks, especially). The other reason why they aren't given silverware is obvious if you've watched the show - everything the kids are fed is processed or fast food. Everything they are fed can be eaten with their hands!

Processed and fast foods were created for the sake of convenience. Setting aside the ridiculous government standards about what constitutes “food” in a school lunch program, the kids are fed fast and processed foods because it is easy to heat up (notice, I didn’t say “cook”) and it is easy to dish out to the kids. However, fast foods and processed foods are filled with unhealthy stuff – lots of fat, lots of salt, lots of sugar or other artificial sweeteners (like high fructose corn syrup), lots of artificial chemical ingredients, lots of food coloring and lots of poor quality protein (the discarded parts of animals which is smashed up and revamped with artificial stuff to look like something edible).

Take the chicken nugget. You’d think that a chicken nugget could be made with a small piece of chicken (say the chicken tender) and maybe a dusting of whole-wheat flour which is then either fried with a little bit of olive oil or baked, right? Well, Michael Pollen, in Omnivore’s Dilemma, describes the 38 ingredients that make a Chicken McNugget at McDonalds. Here’s what he writes:

“The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.”

All I read is “blah, blah, blah.” I can’t pronounce a lot of the words even! I do see that there is some type of lighter fluid in there. There is more corn in the McNugget than anything else. The word "chicken" only comes up twice – “pulverized chicken meat,” (aka, discarded pieces of the chicken all mashed up) and “chicken broth.” Yippee!

My point is not to pick on the McNugget (though there is obviously plenty to pick on). My point is that similar ingredients go into many fast or processed foods – all of which have in common that they don’t require the use of a fork, spoon or knife. To keep fast food and processed foods “fresh,” you have to put in a lot of preservatives, mostly artificial. To make some foods look and taste appealing, companies add artificial flavors and artificial colors. These foods – hotdogs, goldfish crackers, frozen pizzas, breakfast cereals – can all be eaten with your hands.

So, let’s start incorporating this simple rule when we eat – pick a meal that requires you to use a fork, a spoon or a knife – baked chicken, sautéed or roasted vegetables, a crispy green salad with nuts and fruit. Chances are with this simple rule, you will have picked a far more nutritious meal for yourself.

***NOTE: There are definite exceptions to the rule of choosing foods where you need to use a fork, knife and spoon. Ethiopian food is such an exception. It is cooked with whole food, it is delicious and good for you. But Ethiopians do eat with their hands, using injera, a traditional bread which looks like a spongy tortilla, to pick up the food and sop up the juices. Some South Asian cultures also use their hands to eat delicious, nutritious and whole foods. And don’t forget, nature’s fast food – fresh fruit!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Last night we had a wonderful dinner at a local Oakland restaurant. It was a delicious 4-course meal inspired by none other than Julia Child! Julia’s infamous Boeuf Bourguignon was on the menu along with her classic French Onion Soup and many other tasty dishes. For dessert, we all had Pot de Crème. It wasn’t served in a huge bowl as we Americans have grown accustomed to. It was served in an itty-bitty pot and so you didn’t feel like a piggy for licking the whipped cream off your spoon.

We here in the U.S. have a lot to learn from the French…and the Italians…and the Cubans…and the Indians…and the Thai…and the Ethiopians…and the… and the… Yes, we have a lot to learn from just about everyone else on this planet about how to cook using whole, seasonal and local ingredients. In France, every city neighborhood, every town and every village seems to have its farmer’s market. In Italy, cooks use ingredients found locally– basil, tomatoes, oregano, olives, fish for those living by the sea, lamb for those living inland. In Cuba, rice, beans, plantains and coconut feature for supper, as those are readily available on the island. Fast food and junk food is an exception, not a rule in most far-away places. In fact, the more removed a culture is from an industrialized place, the healthier they seem to eat. Just take a look at the photos from the book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, Part II by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. Compare the photos of the family in Australia and in Guatemala or the family in the U.S. and in India. Count the number of bottles and boxes (processed food) you see in each photo and compare it to the number of fresh foods you see. Which countries do you think eat healthier? How many soda bottles to the Mendozas of Todos Santos, Guatemala buy every week? How many soda bottles do the Browns of Australia buy weekly?

Strange though this sounds, it seems that the poorer a country is, the healthier their food! They may have far less food than we do but the food they do have is more nutritious, by far! A poor family in India may only live on rice, a few vegetables, lentils and hot tea. A poor family in the U.S. might live on canned soup, chips, doughnuts and soft drinks. Which family is eating a healthier meal?

We have a lot to learn about eating healthy from those who have far less than we do. Really study the photos from the Hungry Planet. Check out the book at your local library. You will be amazed at the pictures and at the articles you will find written there.

In celebration of healthy, ethnic foods, today we are posting recipes for fried plantains and coconut ice cream! You might find this dessert in Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Brazil and places in Africa even. These are both incredibly easy to make (though you do need an ice cream maker) and delicious beyond words! And, these recipes come from whole foods, have far less sugar than a traditional American dessert and have no artificial preservatives, sweeteners or colors in them. Make them and enjoy!


2 tbsp coconut oil
1 plantain, peeled and cut in ½ inch thick slices on the diagonal
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp organic sugar

Melt coconut oil in a large, shallow frying pan. Sprinkle tops of plantain slices with cinnamon and sugar. Place in frying pan and let sautee until they become browned and gooey on one side, about 5 minutes. Flip over and sprinkle with more cinnamon and sugar.
Cook another 5 minutes until browned and gooey on other side. Serve warm with coconut ice cream.


2 cans whole coconut milk
½ cup water
¾ cup + 2 Tbsp palm sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ice cube

In small saucepan, add water, sugar and salt. Turn on low heat and stir until sugar melts. Turn off heat and add ice cube to cool down the sugar-water (simple syrup). Open cans of coconut milk and place in a bowl. Whisk until coconut cream and water are thoroughly incorporated and it is smooth and creamy (if you think of it ahead, put the coconut milk in the fridge to chill it). Add vanilla extract to the coconut milk. Add simple syrup to the coconut milk and whisk until smooth. Place mixture in an ice cream maker. Turn ice cream maker on and let it do its thing for ½ hour. Enjoy!! If you have leftovers (LOL), put in the freezer immediately.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I Learned a Crazy Thing Just Yesterday . . .

Apparently our constitutional right to free speech is alive and well except when it comes to dissing the food we eat. Don’t disparage your food in Colorado or you just might get sued! Don’t talk trash about industrial farms that use pesticides on your bell peppers (which you firmly believe may cause you to get sick) or just might hear from their lawyers! If you don’t like that the way big agricultural corporations inhumanely treat animals, at the risk of your health and the health of the animals, keep it to yourself. Could this possibly be true?

Aren’t we living in the “land of the free?” Didn’t our Founding Fathers give us this sacred First Amendment right to voice our opinions, including when it comes to something as important as our fundamental right to safe and healthy food? Well, apparently not in Colorado and 12 other states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas). There, the big agricultural corporations have helped create laws that have scared people into keeping quiet about the connection between food manufacturing practices and food safety.

Veggie libel laws, formally known as food libel laws or food disparagement laws, were written by state legislators, with the help of big food corporations, to silence food advocates from saying things about a company’s food or food manufacturing practices which might cause the company to lose profits (what is called in legal terms, "a chilling effect"). These laws began to creep up after 1989, when CBS aired a story on 60 Minutes about a chemical sprayed on apples that was linked to cancer. The chemical company sued CBS arguing to the judge that the news story caused the company to lose $100 million in profits (the apple companies stopped using the chemical on their apples as a result of the story). In 1996, Oprah Winfrey, having just learned on her show about how most beef cattle is farmed in the U.S. (really they are factories, not a farms) said it had “ just stopped [her] cold from eating another burger.” TRANSCRIPT OF OPRAH SHOW. She was sued for that comment. After years of fighting in court, Ophrah was vindicated. Though the judge threw out the case, it was not until Oprah had spent millions of dollars defending her statement. Regardless, the lawsuit scared many people and organizations into keeping silent about what they believed to be health-hazardous practices of big agricultural corporations.

And, not too get too technical (yes, I was a lawyer in my previous life), but don’t think that because you might live in California you are safe from these laws. If you speak out against a big agricultural company that is located in Idaho, for example, your living in California (and speaking out against them in California) is of little consequence. You may just find yourself in a courtroom in Idaho (in fact, that is exactly what happened to Oprah – her show is taped in Chicago, IL but she was sued in Texas).

It is important as Americans that we speak out when we know that something is harmful to us, to others and to our planet. Big companies cannot intimidate us into keeping silent. Remember to always do your research first. Make sure that you can back up what you say. Speak to experts who have researched the topic extensively. Read as much as you can about the issue. And if you conclude that the issue needs to be brought to the public’s attention, be the voice for those who can’t speak.

For more reading check out the First Amendment Center.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How do you stack up?

We have way too much sugar in our Standard America Diet (SAD). In fact, the consumption of sugar in the U.S. per person has risen exponentially. Historically, sweets came in the form of fruit and honey. Sweets, as we know them today, were reserved for the wealthy as sugar was very expensive. In the 1700s, the average American consumed less than 20 pounds of sugar per year. By the end of the 1800s, Americans consumed about 63 pounds per year per person (this had everything to do with the new availability of a cheap sugar source as the slave trade in the Caribbean made sugar production possible). Today, Americans shockingly consume over 150 pounds of sugar per year per person! That is the weight of an average adult in sugar!! Just plain freakish, don’t you think?

Well, consider this: Today, school-day breakfast might be a Pop Tart or sugary cereal. In many schools across the nation, vending machines crank out Snickers bars and Coke. There was a time when dessert after dinner meant a handful of cherries in the summer or a sliced apple in the Fall. Now, a sweet cake or ice cream seems to be standard dessert after dinner. We are bombarded with sugar!

And to complicate matters, if you are a label reader (and we encourage you to read labels and more importantly, to read the list of ingredients), you might not even find the word sugar in the product you buy. Why? Because sugar comes in about 41 different names! For example, these ingredients are all sugar: barley malt, beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered syrup, cane-juice crystals, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, date sugar, dextran, dextrose, diatase, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, glucose solids, golden sugar, golden syrup, grape sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, mannitol, molasses, raw sugar, refiner's syrup, sorbitol, sorghum syrup, sucrose, sugar, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar. PHEW!!

Finally, even if we do understand that we are eating or drinking something with sugar, do we really appreciate the amount of sugar in that food or drink? For example, you might know that Coke has about 40 grams of sugar. But do you know what 40 grams of sugar looks like? Check it out!

And did you know that the amount of sugar in your Pop Tart when stacked up, looks something like this?

Check out Sugar Stacks to get a sense of the amount of sugar you consume in the foods and drinks you enjoy.

Everyone knows or has at least heard that too much sugar causes an array of health problems like rotten teeth, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. It even causes fatigue because your blood sugar levels rise and crash when you eat too much sugar. So how do we kick our sugar habit? Sweet treats (food or beverage) should be a treat, not a staple. Michael Pollan recently spelled out a good rule of thumb in his new book, Food Rules: "No snacks, no seconds, no sweets - except on days that begin with the letter S." Replace desserts with a luscious seasonal fruit after dinner. Replace sodas and fruit drinks with fresh water, tea or coconut water. Replace sugary breakfasts with hearty, complex carbohydrates, good fats and proteins such as a whole grain tortilla with peanut butter and banana. You will all-around feel better! And, eating whole foods rich in the following nutrients will help stave off your craving for sugar: Chromium, B-complex Vitamins, L-Glutamine, Manganese, Panthothenic Acid, Vitamin C, and Zinc.

So, simply put, leave sugary treats for a birthday party or a weekend splurge. Don’t make it an everyday habit.


Overconsumption of Sugar Causes Fatigue

Profiling Food Consumption in America

Sugar: Toxic Invader #1

Who You Calling Sugar?