I’m Going Nuts

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Maybe it’s the fact that I collected 80 essays today, or the mountainous mounds of clean, unfolded laundry lounging on my bed, or perhaps it’s the endless paperwork and errands surrounding our upcoming move to New Zealand, but one thing is certain:  I feel a wee bit overwhelmed lately, slightly nutty. Which got me to thinking about, well, nuts, and how much they enrich my life.  

It sounds like a silly, simple thing, but nuts are the vegan’s secret (energy) weapon.  Unfortunately, for those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, nuts were considered of the Dark (ie, Fat) Side.  Instead of munching on a handful of almonds, walnuts, or cashews, I was the TCBY worker’s worst freaking nightmare, asking to taste all eight “low fat” or “fat free” flavors.  I would have done well to note that Seventh-Day Adventists — many of whom consumed record-breaking amounts of all kinds of nuts, but walnuts in particular, were some of the oldest living humans on earth.  (I’m sure avoiding hard drugs helped their longevity, too, but really, it’s clearly about the nuts.)       

Protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy fats — nuts have them all, baby!  Before you take a spatula straight to that jar of natural peanut butter, however, let me remind you that nuts are like tiny power bombs, so a few go a long way.  Which nuts are best?  Simply put, all nuts are good for you, so experiment — toast hazelnuts to add to your hot cereal, try chopped walnuts and pecans on salads, and crush cashews or peanuts on Pad Thai and savory stews.  Blended raw cashews with water creates a creamy sauce that can be seasoned in endless ways, and combining finely chopped walnuts, rice, lentils, onions and simple seasonings can a very fine vegan meatball make. A few nuts add incredible texture and flavor, turning a simple dish into a masterpiece.

One confusing side note about nuts: should we eat them raw, or roasty-toasty?  In terms of health benefits, it’s best to either eat nuts raw or roast them yourself at low heat, and not too long (take it easy, Iron Chef).  Apparently roasting nuts at high heats for too long kills off many nutrients and can also create carcinogens — aside from tasting like charred gravel.  Certain bacterias can thrive in raw nuts (especially almonds) and toasting or blanching them reduces the risk of contracting a food-borne illness when you’re trying to eat like a health goddess. 

I will post more nut-related recipes soon. Until then, my friends, I’ll be folding laundry. And going nuts. Join me?   

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Yes, I’d Like it My Way – Hold the Dough Conditioners!

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I realize it’s been said that man cannot live by bread alone, but I’ve generally interpreted that very literally – as in men may be able to live without bread, but not the ladies. I know plenty of women who can indeed subsist quite happily on baked goods, thankyouverymuch. (And maybe coffee.)  My long-term love affair with baked goods has been deflating, however,  as I’ve discovered just what keeps many of our favorite billowy treats so predictably fluffy and chewy. 

I’ve often considered bagels from a well-known chain or a Subway sandwich the least objectionable (and easily vegan) fast food options while traveling; I mean, Subway bakes their own breads, right?  Well. Don’t be fooled by the fresh aromas and hot ovens — Subway dough is highly processed and delivered daily from a factory, each roll uniformly pre-formed and programmed to puff up perfectly and without any large holes every time. How do they do this?

The bread your sandwich is served on at Subway and most other fast-food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Jack in the Box, to name a few) usually contains “dough conditioners,” including a chemical known as azodicarbonamide (please repeat this four times, fast), which is also used to make yoga mats and the soles of tennis shoes. Yes, that’s right – you’ve been ordering and eating gym equipment all these years.  As if this weren’t bad enough, when heated to a certain temperature, azodicarbonamide breaks down into several products, one of which is urethane, a known carcinogen. Are you lovin’ it??  Subway has recently announced that it is phasing out this particular binder, and I certainly hope they do, but really – don’t we want to be able to pronounce and recognize all of the ingredients we’re putting in our bodies? Wouldn’t you trade a seemingly-immortal, perfectly-uniform roll for a natural product? Of course. The problem is that this information is not widely known.

You may want to put down your bagel for this next negative nutritional nugget: Dunkin Donuts, Dominos Pizza, and Einstein Bros use another type of dough conditioner in their baked goods, an ingredient called L-Cysteine, which is — I can’t believe I’m typing this –usually made from duck feathers and/or hog hair.  I probably have a streak of gray in my hair, an ulcer, and three new large wrinkles in my forehead from digesting this information. For some reason I thought all humans were on the same page re: the sacredness of bread.  Sadly, my friends, this is not the case. 

Luckily, natural bakers abound.  You need look no further than the health food section of your grocery store (Ezekiel 4:9, Dave’s Killer Breads), the farmer’s market, local bakeries, or your own kitchen for baked goods full of healthy, whole ingredients you can pronounce and feel good about eating.  I will be the first to admit I have not baked my own bread for years, but I’m about to start grinding my own flippin’ grains!  I’ll post some bread recipes soon. 🙂

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Coffee, How I Love Thee. . .but dost thou need to be organic?

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So many coffees to sample. So little time. Love love love! (insert crazy face)

Ever since the American Revolution — when tea and powdered wigs were officially deemed un-American — coffee has been our hot beverage of choice (we also consumed insane amounts of whiskey and rum during our early years, but that’s for another time, as is the health effects of huge vats of coffee).

Today Americans consume about 400 million cups o’ java per day — over 4 billion dollars worth of imported coffee beans a year – and I’m afraid I’m responsible for more than my share of these staggering numbers. We actually have a coffee budget in our home, which I blatantly disregard whenever I encounter a beautiful coffee shop, and my students have been known to raise their hands and ask me to slow down if I’m in caffeine-induced super-fast-lecture mode. (Hmmm . . . is this bad?) 

I love my morning (and who am I kidding – late morning, early afternoon) cup of coffee, but I haven’t always paid attention to whether or not I’m buying organic coffee.  It’s not on the Dirty Dozen list of organic foods, and therefore easy to overlook for many of us, but after doing a bit more research into the topic — and finding out that coffee is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world — I’m planning to cut back to one cup a day and make sure I’m drinking an organic brew.  

Most of our coffee today comes from Latin America.  Farmers would like to grow coffee organically, which is cheaper and better for the environment and people’s health. However, because coffee is such a massive market, if we’re not willing to pay a bit more for our beans, they’re going to continue to produce most coffee laden with pesticides and chemicals – to the tune of 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers per acre (yes, you read that correctly!).  A high consumption of pesticides has been linked to various cancers, miscarriages, and all kinds of other nasty health problems, so I think we’re all in agreement that we’d like to avoid them when possible.

But, wait – isn’t your favorite coffee at the ubiquitous Starbucks “Fair Trade Certified”?? This does not necessarily mean farmers are using organic growing methods, but it does ensure they were treated fairly and paid well, which is also important. Unfortunately, only 1.6% of the coffee Starbucks purchased in 2012 was organic. What the what, SB?  Your best bet is to only and always purchase coffee labeled “Fair Trade Certified” and “Organic.” 

Here’s to a beautiful, pesticide-free, fairly-traded day, my friends! 🙂

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The Not-So-Sweet Impostor: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

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‘Tis the Season for immune issues, tooth decay, and metabolic syndrome, right?  Well, in America, where each of us now consume on average well over 60 pounds of HFCS per year, it seems that these sweetener-induced health issues aren’t just treats to be enjoyed once a year anymore.  

Since you’re probably not guzzling corn syrup out the bottle (please PM me if this indeed describes you), how exactly are we getting so much HFCS in our diets?  HCFS is in almost all sweetened beverages (fruit juices and sodas, in particular), most store bought baked goods (I can hear your collective screams), canned fruit, packaged cereals, and dairy products (think sickeningly sweet yogurt and ice cream). Further, HFCS is often added to low or nonfat products  — along with other preservatives, chemicals, and thickeners  — to boost flavor and prolong shelf-life.  Basically, if a food is highly processed and contains absolutely no nutritional value, you can be sure HFCS is on the ingredients list. 

HFCS lurks in many fast food items as well, including that bizarre non-melting shake, ketchup and florescent nugget dipping sauces or dressings, burger buns, pancakes, all desserts, maple syrup, and of course in that gigantic super-sized soda.  Fun fact: a 20-ounce soda or HFCS sweetened drink has the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar. (To put this in perspective, our ancestors used to consume about 20 teaspoons of sugar per year.) 

The people who make HFCS want you to believe it is a natural product and interchangeable with cane sugar (“sugar is sugar!”), and yes, HFCS is derived from corn, but the highly-processed final product is anything but just another sweetener.  Basically, natural cane sugar is glucose and has to be digested, while HFCS contains industrially-engineered fructose (not natural fruit sugar), which is absorbed directly by the liver, hence immediately spiking insulin levels. This “free” fructose can actually make small holes in our intestinal lining, triggering inflammation and a host of health problems: insulin resistance and diabetes, fat deposits in your liver and elsewhere, heart disease, various types of cancer, dementia, metabolic syndrome, empty calories (=junk in your trunk), teeth decay, and a speeding up of the aging process (yours for free!).  The manufacturers of HFCS are extremely secretive about the processes used, and for good reason. High fructose corn syrup is laced with contaminants and toxins, including mercury. Not exactly a glowing report. . .unless we’re talking about a potentially radioactive glow?   

Obesity rates have tripled over the last few decades, and our diabetes rates are up seven fold. Certainly HFCS is not the only culprit, but since its invention in 1957 some of the numbers are indeed startling. And it is no coincidence that many fast food chains replaced real sugar with HFCS as it became readily available – and extremely cheap — due to highly subsidized corn in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

In a (corn)nut shell, we should all avoid high fructose corn syrup like the plague it is. Do yourself – and your intestinal lining – a favor; eat more whole plant foods, and when you buy processed foods, check the labels and eat smart. 🙂 

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Just Say NO to Factory-Farmed Meat

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of food lately, and about factory farming in particular, and my reading list has reflected this trend (Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, and several articles on CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations), including Rolling Stone‘s “In the Belly of the Beast” (http://www.rollingstone.com/feature/belly-beast-meat-factory-farms-animal-activists). Then the other night I watched the documentary “Blackfish,” which chronicles the captivity and exploitation of orca whales by Sea World.  I was in tears by the end of the film, but not just over the treatment of the majestic, beautiful orca; I was thinking also of the American system of meat production – this “cycle of destructive extravagance” as Maureen Ogle calls it — that currently slaughters over 10 billion land animals per year in only 13 slaughterhouses.  So here’s my question: When are animals smart enough to warrant human consideration and respect?  Pigs are as intelligent as a 3 year-old child, and cows as emotionally complex as dogs.            

Americans — who now on average consume over 200 pounds of meat annually — have long demanded cheap, abundant meat, and government subsidies and mass production keep the official costs low.  A Big Mac today costs $4.00 and a cheeseburger $1.30, while a hamburger made from humanely raised, grass-fed beef runs about $7.25 in a casual restaurant (when you can find it). Individual monetary costs alone do not begin to account for the health issues and environmental problems that come as unavoidable sides to your burger and fries, however.  And, of course, every piece of meat comes from a living, breathing creature – and therefore, I think it should be eaten sparingly and conscientiously. Meat is expensive, even if we don’t see the immediate costs at the cash register.   

The more I read about our modern meat industry, the more sickened and critical I become.  I truly believe that people want to eat well, and ethically, but there is so much secrecy and misinformation swirling around that giving up – or not looking for the truth — becomes the easier option.  This vague sense of cows frolicking on a family farm somewhere is no accident. Slaughterhouses do not want you to see your next burger collapsed in its own waste.  Michael Pollan writes, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.”  I am increasingly convinced that factory-farmed meat is wrong – on every level, and for everyone. 

You don’t need to know much to take a stand against this cruel industry, and you don’t have to become a vegetarian, either.  We simply need to educate ourselves about how most meat is really produced in this country and understand the effects it’s having on our society, our health (both individually and as a whole), and our environment.  The system is entrenched, but could be changed if enough of us refused to eat factory-farmed meat.  If you choose to eat meat, please consume only humanely-raised animals.  I agree with Jonathan Safran Foer when he argues that “when we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own.”  

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