Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ice Cream Dreams

I vaguely remember a time when Memorial Day signified the start of summer. But after three consecutive days of wind and rain and no sign of the sun it was up to me to prove to my visiting friend from steamy NYC that Seattle still has some summer treats to offer. After feasting on brunch at Portage Bay Cafe, it was time to pull out the big guns and off we went to Molly Moon's.

I remember the first time I drove past Molly Moon's - it had reminded me of the first time I walked past Magnolia Bakery in the West Village. With a line wrapping around the block, anticipation seemed to be an important part of the experience. This time there was still an impressive line given that it was gray and rainy. Waiting subjected us to the smell of freshly baked waffle cones, oppressive to my gluten-free gut. Undecided between two flavors, my friend settled on a split scoop sundae while I spied a vegan flavor on the menu and, despite no intent to purchase anything, requested a taste that was so unexpectedly delicious I walked out with a pint to store in my freezer for a sweet fix.

For most of my life I would have said that my favorite food was ice cream. As a kid my school bus dropped me off at Baskin Robbins every day and I had a single scoop cone every afternoon as I walked the three blocks to my apartment. I was also introduced to homemade ice cream at Eddie's Sweet Shop in Queens, where I was rewarded after my weekly soccer game. Looking back it seems I was conditioned to enjoy ice cream after just about anything -school, games, the beach. During college I made a daily trip to Max and Mina's for creative and bizarre ice cream creations. Now that I'm dairy and soy-free my ice cream fancy is less frequently tickled but Molly Moon's certainly hit the spot. So when I came across this piece today about a Brooklyn-based ice cream shop opening a location in Rwanda, I had to share. The shop will provide economic opportunities to Rwandan women and will source its ingredients locally, all of which sounds like a noble enough cause. But while I love ice cream and certainly believe in aiding with economic growth in Africa, is this really the best small business model they could come up with? There's a part of me that is somewhat cynical about this venture - ice cream, really? And then there's the part of me that remembers how much ice cream has been a part of celebration in my life and hopes it can bring some joy to parts of the world who have never sampled its sweetness.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Food Justice (Part 2)

Round these parts casually mentioning Monsanto is like a J.K. Rowling character uttering the name Voldemort in passing. To some it evokes the very notion of evil itself and so a brief reference to Monsanto in Part 1, begs revisiting.

Monsanto gained notoriety in The Omnivore's Dilemma (I can't promise I won't refer to this book again and again) but it first captured my attention when I watched the documentary, The Future of Food. Ominously narrated, the film focuses on genetically modified crops and how large argobusiness is affecting the agricultural landscape in America. Using biotechnology, Monsanto created and patented Roundup Ready seeds that enable it to grow even while Roundup herbicide are sprayed on it to remove the threat of weeds. Each year the seeds must be purchased anew which locks in consumers and Monsanto has sued several farmers who have saved seed or have used their seed without authorization. The latest and perhaps greatest problem is the emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds. These are some of the reasons Monsanto's generous seed donation to Haiti has met with such - pardon the pun - resistance. Farmers there are threatening to burn the seeds to make a statement about their interest in food security, sustainability and sovereignty. For more about this check out last week's post from an oddly eponymous blog I came across for the first time today: La Vida Locavore.

As an interesting counterpoint in corporate philanthropy, Wal-Mart has recently pledged a whopping $2 billion donation to food banks across the country - one of the largest corporate gifts on record. This is big news at a time when more and more Americans are relying on food banks. To their credit, Wal-Mart has been donating significant amounts to food banks for years, but is now allocating a third of their donation to provide for fresh foods. Since fruits and vegetables have shorter shelf lives and require refrigeration, the company is focusing its resources toward improving food banks' ability to provide these important foods to customers. For the past two years I've been involved with food banks and have seen that the foods they receive from corporate and private sources tend to be those foods that are cheap and somewhat less desirable. When I go in for my monthly visit and there's a specialty item - sometimes as simple as oil - that we can provide to homebound seniors, it's an exciting day. Not to say that general donations aren't worthwhile or appreciated; many of the non-perishable items collected provide basics for customers: canned fruit, vegetables, peanut butter, in addition to the items like bulk grains that food banks purchase from wholesale distributors. But from what I've seen, most prized are the donations from grocery stores, bakeries and natural food markets that provide brightly colored fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and freshly baked breads. These are the items that disappear quickly and on days when I can grab some for the clients I work with, I feel really good about the food bank system. I look forward to seeing an increase in the availability of fresh foods and commend Wal-Mart on taking a step in the right direction.

So there you have two sides of the big business coin: both illustrate attempts at food justice on a macro scale. But there are ways to see it play out on a micro-level every day. Most of us are concerned about our own health and will spend money on quality foods for oursleves, but perhaps it's time to extend that offer to others as well. About a month ago I was volunteering at a rock concert/can-drive and on my way there I grabbed a can from my pantry. When I placed it on the table I received comments about my can, an Amy's Organic soup and I joked that if I choose to eat organic, shouldn't I be willing to give someone else that opporunity? In all honesty, I'm not all that pious - I grabbed this soup because it had wheat in it and I don't eat wheat, which may then beg the question, what about gluten-intolerant food bank customers?

But back to the point, since low-quality foods have created many of the health problems that now threaten our health care system and economy, how can we break this cycle if we only provide low-quality foods to the poor and hungry? I am fortunate to see this cycle broken regularly: through my CSA which specifically purchases shares and donates extra produce a local shelter with a teen feed program, through farmer's markets that donate leftover items to Seattle area food banks, through gleaning programs that invite farmers and even individuals with fruit trees to contribute to hunger programs. Small efforts like these that can make a food desert bloom.

Food Justice (Part 1)

Hail to the farmer-in-chief; he's done it again! In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan tackles the rise of the food movement, fragmented though it may seem. True journalist that he is, Pollan traces the roots of the current movement back to the 1970s when critics of industrial ag began to vocalize their discontent with the future of food. At the same time as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz changed U.S. farm policy to subsidize commodity crops (hello corn and soy!), small pockets of dissenters began to rally. Forty years later their voices are finally being heard in the form of various advocates - those interested in sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of animals, environmental concerns, organic farming, slow food, local food, school lunch programs, public health and nutrition - each focus may be slightly different but their message is ultimately the same: our food system is broken.

You may have read earlier works like The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Pollan examined farm policy in the U.S. Or if books aren't your thing, films like King Corn, The Future of Food and Food, Inc. all drove home the message that commodity crops have caused us more harm than good. Sure they afforded us food that was cheap and easy, but the dark side that has slowly emerged is what is fueling the movement today. As he notes,
"Perhaps the food movement's strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system."
And here he touches on a key point: that the rise of obesity and chronic disease has only become a major concern because of its economic toll. Finally we have some insight into the consequences of our food system, and that is why the food movement is finally gaining some ground speed.

There are many lessons we can learn from looking back at what led to this downward spiral, and in the next few days I hope to explore them further. But it's interesting to briefly take a look at another country concerned with its food future. In the past few months the world's eyes and hearts have turned to Haiti, already impoverished and now devastated by natural disaster. In effort to help farmers rebuild, Monsanto pledged a donation of $4 million in seeds. Haitian peasant farmers, however, are refusing this handout, recognizing that it jeopardizes any future they may have for food sovereignty. Similarly, it's been proposed that, if not properly specified, a U.S. bill offering $2.8 billion in emergency funding to Haiti may be counterproductive. I mention these current events because I think they're signs we're headed in the right direction. Just as foodies are shunning what is cheap and easy by encouraging a return to slower, more methodical methods of cooking and eating, the questions around aid to Haiti show foresight and a concern with measured approaches toward food, agriculture and sustainability so that forty years from now we don't have to look back and learn such painful lessons.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dairy: Good for the Jews?

As a nutrition student, I often consider the many issues surrounding dairy. There's the treatment of the cows. Bovine growth hormone. Homogenization. Pasteurization. Fortification. Raw milk, goat's milk vs. sheep's milk vs. cow's milk. But this week when I think dairy I think of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Most Jewish holidays involve lots of meat. Chicken soup. Brisket. Stuffed cabbage. But not this one. One of the lesser known ones, Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and involves staying up all night and eating cheesecake, blintzes and all things milk-derived. In traditional Jewish dietary laws of kashrut meat and dairy are not consumed together so this holiday becomes unique in shunning meat altogether. It's something of a joke too, since Ashkenazic Jews are not known for tolerating lactose particularly well. In my house, for example, my mother used to place a bowl of Lactaid pills in the middle of our holiday table. For an interesting read about the complicated history of Jews and dairy, check out this article from Tablet.

Shavuot begins on Tuesday night and I will be celebrating, for the second year in a row, dairy-free. After two years of celebrating Passover gluten-free (ie. no matzah), I wonder if something of the tradition is being lost and if so how can I recoup it. So this week I am hosting dinner at my house, dairy and all and invite you to join in the celebration which will include a cheesemaking workshop. I will also have plenty of dairy-free options (thank goodness for Coconut Bliss!). And maybe I'll put out a bowl of Lactaid. After all, it's tradition.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say...

This morning a kind friend forwarded along an article from the NY Times, that begins, "Many people who think they have food allergies actually do not." The piece goes on to say that allergies are IgE mediated, resulting in immune system responses ranging from sneezing and watery eyes to full-on anaphylactic shock. What many people refer to as allergies then, are actually intolerances.

Part of the confusion is over what is a food allergy and what is a food intolerance, Dr. Fenton said. Allergies involve the immune system, while intolerances generally do not. For example, a headache from sulfites in wine is not a food allergy. It is an intolerance. The same is true for lactose intolerance, caused by the lack of an enzyme needed to digest sugar in milk.

Some say allergy, others say intolerance. Really it's a question of semantics. And while there is a physiological difference between the two, I am wondering why, during Food Allergy Awareness Week a designated week intended to help people "respect every bite," the Times felt it so important to exclude people who only have food intolerances, a no less unpleasant reaction to food.

Maybe it's that the issue hits too close to home. As someone with several food intolerances, for ease sake I occasionally tell people it's an allergy. Otherwise I worry that I won't be taken seriously. Because while some less severe allergies result in symptoms like hives (an allergic response), intolerances or sensitivities can cause everything from migraines to acne, GI distress, inflammation, weight gain, mood and brain fog.

Certainly patients should be educated to understand the severity of their reactions - whether an allergy or intolerance - in order to make smarter decisions about what to eat. One of my nutrition kitchen lab partners, for example, is allergic to strawberries and develops an itchy mouth after eating them. But two weeks ago in our cooking class we made such a delicious-looking dessert with strawberries that she decided the risk of slight discomfort was worth a taste. I, on the other hand, chose not to partake when we made a wheat-full dish, unwilling to endure my gut's reaction.

While the Times article acknowledges intolerances as actual conditions, it seems to be trying to discredit their severity. Still, it does highlight two important points. The first is how inaccurate food allergy testing can be, something not too many people know about. Secondly, it mentions something called a "food challenge" where a patient is given the food they are supposedly allergic to, in a disguised form. One doctor explains the limitations of this approach as being time consuming and potentially threatening if you present a patient with a food to which they might have a very strong response.

And that brings me to the Elimination Diet, which takes the concept of food challenges to a whole other level. It was really only a matter of time before I brought it up here. If you live in Seattle or have ever seen a naturopathic physician, you likely know someone who has done an elimination diet, someone who is doing one now or maybe you've done one yourself. The idea of this "diet" is to cut out all potential allergens (or, you could argue, "intolerance-inducers?") for a few weeks and then slowly reintroduce one food at a time and closely monitor the body's response. It asks a lot of you and can be very challenging. Cutting out the usual suspects means no gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts, and sometimes other possible offenders. It can put a damper on your social life - going to a potluck with 20 dishes and none that meet these criteria - going out to eat and finding maybe one suitable item on the menu. On the plus side, it can be a very effective way to identify which foods are causing your inexplicable symptoms, remove them from your diet and feel a whole lot better. And an intolerance may be temporary or it may be for life. Kind of like an allergy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Bad Chemical Romance

Am I the only who saw the portentous 1981 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman? Starring Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin, the film tells the story of a housewife who begins to shrink in size until she is just a few inches tall. The cause: a toxic chemical mix of regular household products. She can no longer do her household chores and, as she is the size of her children's toys, she is unable to perform any parenting duties, but becomes an iconic figure and national hero. And though it is a tale of science fiction, it has the faint lemony Pinesol scent of something undeniably true and relevant today.

I was reminded of this movie after reading Nicholas Kristof's column this week, "New Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer." I read this piece with a big fat "duh!" in mind, as he reported that the president's cancer panel report was "eye-opening" and suggested taking steps toward cancer prevention:
such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.
Eye-opening? Really? Because if you've been hanging out in the world for the past sixty years - or if, like me, you watched the Channel 11 Sunday afternoon movies growing up and caught The Incredible Shrinking Woman - this would not be news. Do we need to see mushroom clouds to believe that chemicals can impact us on the cellular level? Ignoring the toxic behemoths like Agent Orange and Chernobyl, we have linked chemical exposures to all sorts of ailments. And you don't have to watch the news or read the Times online - if you've seen some of the specialty films like Judith Helfand's A Healthy Baby Girl or Blue Vinyl or even mainstream Hollywood movies like Erin Brokovich and A Civil Action you'd already be well aware of the chemotoxic threats we face everyday in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the produce we eat.

Jumping off my Dr. Bronner's soapbox, I figure that rather than tell you what to do, I'll tell you what I do. As a health-conscious nutrition student at a school of natural medicine, I'm often held up to higher standards. That said, I don't always meet these standards for a host of reasons - cost, time, convenience...did I mention cost? Here are a few of my top concerns lately and I'm curious to hear your ideas and reactions.

1. Eating organic
Ah, the big question of organic. Intuitively it makes sense not to ingest chemical pesticides used to kill other living beings but what the FDA labels as organic has been the subject of great scrutiny as has the issue of sustainability. Could a solely-organic agricultural system in this country still provide enough food for the population? Hmm, I don't know. What I do know is that the Environmental Working Group has taken a lot of the work out of deciding when to purchase organic. Check out their list of the Dirty Dozen - these are the items I stress when buying organics. And I happen to patronize many natural foods markets where most of the items are organic, and come summer I will receive weekly deliveries from my CSA, all fresh, local and organic.

2. Beauty and household products
Just to touch on a few of the highlights: upon reflection I realize that every part of my morning routine involved topical use of products that could be toxic. After having gum sensitivity issues I switched to an SLS-free toothpaste, which seems to have done the trick. SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) is the foaming agent found in most toothpastes on the market and you have to look carefully to find ones without it. I also try to use lotions and moisturizers that are paraben-free and petroleum free. After years of swearing by vasoline as the best lip balm out there, I finally decided that ingesting even small amounts of petroleum on a regular basis was something I could give up. Dare I discuss deodorant? For years researchers have been examining the connection between aluminum in antiperspirants and increased risk of breast cancer. While the results are inconclusive I chose to give it up after my mother had breast cancer. Instead I use the natural deodorants on the market - admittedly none are as effective without the aluminum - but I reapply if necessary, shower regularly and welcome the fragrant aroma that generally accompanies a long run, an intense hike or a hard bike ride in the manner of the Europeans who just don't seem to give a damn.

3. Drinking Water
Having long ago developed a taste aversion to soda-like beverages, water and teas constitute most of my fluid intake. On an average day I probably drink somewhere from 2.5-4 L so I should probably be concerned about what's in my water. Recent reports around the country have been reporting high levels of contamination in our tap and this is very alarming. For years I drank only bottled water, convinced that the water quality and taste was superior. As I grew more aware of the realities of bottled water (how Dasani and Aquafina, for example, simply sell us purified tap water), grew slightly more environmentally conscious (for more on this see The Story of Bottled Water) and more financially frugal, I gave up bottled water and jumped on the Sigg train a few years back, embracing the flavor and variety of water from the tap. Then came the big BPA scare of 2008. I moved on to a BPA-free Camelback bottle and haven't looked back. But now I worry that the high levels of chemicals found in my water are just as toxic. I occasionally consider buying a water filter, but as a renter in an old house I wouldn't be able to hook one up to my tap. Instead I've put it on my to-do list for the future.

4. Teflon
Oh the wonders of the non-stick pan! As someone who absolutely hates washing dishes, Teflon means the difference between preparing my own food and ordering take-out. Since they are so easy to clean I am more inclined to cook with Teflon-ware. But it's been five years since the EPA blew the lid on the carcinogenic effects of this brilliant creation, and yet I'm still using them. They're cheap and convenient and sometimes that takes priority. The next set of pots and pans I buy will be stainless steel and cast-iron (did you know that these can boost actually iron content of your food!) but until then I shamefully use my Teflon pans, careful to use only wooden spoons.

5. Sweat!
I've never been one of those girls who didn't like to sweat. With the exception of waiting on the platforms of New York City's overly humid subway, I love pretty much any activity that will cause me to perspire. As it happens, skin is the largest organ in our body and is a major detox organ, a way for our body to release some of the harmful chemicals we've ingested, so sweating can be really good for you (another reason to eschew antiperspirants). This is of course assuming that you stay properly hydrated with electrolytes and all, but that's for another post.

I often hear people gripe that we live in a toxic world. From just these few examples you can see that maybe we do. But from where I'm sitting on a sunny spring day in Seattle, I can only think that the world is nothing short of magnificent. Time to get away from the computer and onto my bike. I anticipate breaking a sweat.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Great Salt Debate

It provides an essential nutrient that is naturally occurring across most of the earth's surface. It is one of the five basic flavors. It is cheap and tasty and is innocently sitting on my table right now, begging me not to betray it. But my dear salt, I must say, you have stirred up quite a controversy.

In the past two weeks salt has come under attack as the latest evil in our food system. Several years ago major cities across the U.S., including New York City and Philly, passed bans on trans fat in restaurants, and most recently the state of California jumped on board in effort to reduce the risks of obesity and heart disease. Now hypertension or high blood pressure is in the spotlight as a major risk factor for chronic conditions like atherosclerosis and kidney failure, among others. One of the real threats it poses is that it goes largely undiagnosed - many people don't know they're prehypertensive, so they don't take the necessary precautions to avert the full blown diagnosis. Reduction of sodium intake is one of the ways shown to reduce hypertension leading to arguments that propose decreasing the amounts of sodium in our food supply by federal mandate. For years the FDA has requested this voluntarily of food manufacturers, but with little compliance, increasingly bleak health statistics, and a new report issued by the Institute of Medicine, The Washington Post reported that the FDA may soon impose sodium restrictions.

Not surprisingly this has generated some outrage. It does set something of a bad precedent - oh now, wait, that bad precedent was set by Prohibition. Granted, this opinion piece in the New American crying "nanny state" is not entirely reflective of my beliefs (especially the reader comments), nor is it entirely correct, particularly in it's mention of kosher foods (no, kosher foods will not be supervised by federal authorities instead of rabbis!) but it does make the point that it can be a slippery slope when the government intervenes in personal health in this way (though, for the record, I'd be okay with federally mandated exercise). Since salt is only one in a host of factors leading to hypertension, the FDA is ignoring some other important facts.

Salt is essential to the body. It plays an important role in balancing fluids and other key minerals like potassium and calcium. The ban itself gives salt a bad name and that can be misleading to the public. I realized this the other day while leading a grocery tour (been doing a lot of these lately) and I pointed out the sea salt to a group doing a detox. "Salt is ok?" one of them asked. I explained that not only was salt okay, but sea salt contains many other minerals that were health promoting. And, I pointed out, your food tastes pretty bland without it. Not because adding salt makes it salty. Actually, one of the reasons salt is added when cooking is that it is a taste enhancer and modifier. If you've ever made a soup without any salt it probably tasted like ... nothing. You may see the vegetables or beans in it, but they haven't released their flavors. A pinch of salt while cooking could have saved your soup. Adding salt to a dish after it has been cooked only adds salt to your tongue registering "salty" on your taste buds. Salt is so important that Harold McGee devotes close to five pages to it in his encyclopedic tome, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. The ban is not meant to deter people from cooking with salt, in fact if you refer to the table in the Washington Post article, that only accounts for 5% of salt intake. Additionally, there are ways to prepare foods with herbs and spices that decrease the need for salt, so that a minimal amount is required. The intended target is the food manufacturers who account for 77%. Why is there so much sodium added to processed foods and why can't they reduce it? A quick glance at the IOM's prepublished report, Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States, provided this nugget:
Many foods prepared by manufacturers and in foodservice operations are necessarily highly processed; they are cooked at high temperatures for relatively long periods of time, and they must remain acceptable for extended periods. These contingencies may work against using certain flavoring techniques and fresh ingredients to reduce salt in some parts of the food supply. Further work to find alternative approaches is required.

So the question for the average American consumer remains: what's the deal with salt? Well, it depends. Are you at risk for hypertension? This is information worth knowing. Regardless, it's a good idea to decrease your intake of processed foods. But if that's not an option, a great way to offset sodium intake is to increase potassium which is found in plants. The Nutrition Action Newsletter offers some great ideas on how to defuse a salt mine by adding more vegetables to your meal. (A good rule of thumb when in nutritional doubt is to add more vegetables.) Increase your water intake, increase exercise and live healthfully. And then you can choose whether to add a grain of salt.