Is there anything better than the smell of freshly baked bread? Ok, maybe freshly baked cinnamon rolls. But, even in your nearest shopping mall there’s the intoxicating smell of freshly baked dough, made into pretzel shapes. No matter how gluten-free some want to be, the fragrance of yeast-raised dough will make your mouth water, your tummy growl, and your memory recall Grandma’s baking. Well, maybe not the last – depends on your grandmother!

I grew up in an era when convenience foods were just popping up in the stores, and in an area where fast food was just a rumor. Even so, my mom did not bake bread. For sandwiches we had the white fluffy stuff hardly anyone wants to eat anymore, or at least won’t admit to eating. Mom even got to the point where biscuits were those pop out of the tube things. We loved ‘em! So novel, so easy, so cheap! Not that we didn’t have made-from-scratch desserts and meals, just that a few packaged items made their way into our kitchen, and bread and rolls were two of them.

So I surprised myself, and my mom, when I started to bake breads. I was married and had small children and was a stay-at-home mom, or homemaker as we were called. (Never ‘housewife’!) I had time and wanted to save money so I made a lot of our food from scratch; plus I started to look at the nutrition of our foods and wanted to avoid some of the additives. Not only were the homemade bread and rolls tastier, they were fresher and I knew what was in them. I made dinner rolls, breakfast rolls, bagels, doughnuts, French bread – all from yeast dough. And then there were the pies, the cakes, the cookies – I could go on. I was a happy baker!

For a long time after that baking did not fit into my life. Oh, an occasional foray into the baking pans, and certainly cookies at Christmas time. But not many breads or rolls. In the past few years I have rediscovered my baking passion. Mostly I bake our sandwich bread and buns, not very many sweet items. I am a simple baker, just want a quality loaf of bread for toast or a sandwich. It was challenging to find a simple, ‘clean’ loaf of bread in the stores, and the prices seemed outrageous for what was offered. There are bakers at the farmers market I go to but sandwich bread was too ordinary for these specialty bakers, who have some wonderful products but not what I sought.

I mentioned being a simple baker. For me, that means using store bought dry yeast to raise the dough. I know how to work with this type of dough, and at risk of jinxing myself, have always had success with it. What I am working on now is learning how to make bread from just flour, water, salt, and natural yeast. Natural yeast? Yes, the yeast that is in the air. I made a starter using just flour, water, and time – time to let it capture the yeast and develop. The starter is then combined with more flour and water and worked to develop the gluten (which gives it structure) and allowed to rise. This produces a much wetter dough than the more familiar method I have used for years. And that is where my problems start! I just haven’t figured out how to work with it, to get it from proved (fully risen) to baking pan without collapse. Hence, the loaves come out of the oven much flatter than they ought to be and very dense in texture, although the flavor is grand. Well, I do like a challenge and while it is frustrating to have such disappointing results, I will keep at it and find success!

In the meantime, if you are a bread baker and want a solid recipe for a good loaf of bread, here you are. (If you haven’t baked bread before, give it a try. Very rewarding. I recommend looking for a copy of The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown for detailed directions that are easy to follow.)

Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

Makes 2 loaves

Combine 2 cups (c.) whole wheat flour and 2 c. unbleached white flour (You can use all whole wheat flour but I like the texture when I use some white fl_our.)

Dissolve 1 package or 1 Tablespoon (T.) active dry yeast in 3 cups warm (~90°) water. Stir in 3 T. honey (or agave syrup or sugar). Stir in the flour, mix well, then beat about 100 strokes to develop gluten. Scrape down sides of bowl, cover with a clean towel, and set in warm place to rise for about an hour. This is the sponge and is quite wet.

After the sponge is risen, sprinkle 1 T. sea salt over the top, and drizzle 3 T. oil (organic canola, avocado, olive oil, or melted butter) over it. Gently fold these into the sponge. When incorporated, fold in 3-4 c. whole wheat flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls together and comes away from sides of the bowl. (Optional: I also add 5-6 T. vital wheat gluten as I add the flour; this helps the rise as whole wheat flour has less gluten by volume than white flour. The ratio I use is 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup whole wheat flour.)

Now knead the dough on a floured board, using more whole wheat flour but only enough to prevent it sticking. Knead about 10-15 minutes – I always do 15. Place in lightly oiled bowl, cover with towel, rise 50 minutes. Punch down, let rise 40 minutes. Cut dough in half; on floured surface roll each half to a rectangle, then tightly roll the rectangle like a jelly roll and pinch seal edges. Place in oiled bread pan and cover. Let rise about 30 minutes. Preheat oven during this final rise to 350°. Place pans in center of oven and bake 50-60 minutes. I always check at 50 minutes and find the loaves are done. If your oven has hot spots, you may need to turn the pans halfway through, etc. Let the bread cool in the pans only 5 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

I slice the bread when it is all the way cooled, pack loosely in a long, heavy plastic bag, and put in freezer. Once frozen, I can compact it a bit more but not squish it. This way I can take out just the number of slices I need and don’t have to thaw the whole loaf. There are only two of us and we don’t eat it fast enough to not store it in the freezer. It keeps a long time when frozen.

Recipe adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown

Image courtesy of phasinphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Well, I survived the month of WFPB – whole food plant based – eating! Ha, it wasn’t hard really, just that others around me thought it would be. As I indicated in the last update, the hardest part was eating out and having to ask questions about the choices offered. At home I was fine and tried a number of new recipes, several of which are keepers and will be repeated.

Will I stay with it? This was an experiment to see how easy/hard it would be to eat only plant-based foods. I don’t have health problems driving me to seek a better way of eating; I am not opposed 100% to consuming the produce of animals; and I already was choosing options that minimized the effects of consuming animal products. We eat a lot of meatless meals and even when a meal includes meat the portions are smaller than most people would use. I always try to buy from sources that use humane practices or fish sustainably. I know there are many people who will say that any consumption of animal produce caused pain and suffering, and I do understand that. To those people, one cannot justify the choice to not be plant-based. Still, I do feel pretty good and attribute at least some of that to focusing on my diet, so honestly I have not decided whether to stick with it or not.

“Focusing on my diet” may be what stops some folks from considering WFPB eating. By that I mean – it can be challenging since this is a whole food and plant-based (WFPB) way of eating. The emphasis is on little or no refining, eating the whole food, eating real food not replacements full of artificial or food-like contents. Did all my choices live up to this? No, I ate at a few restaurants and I use store-bought condiments at home, so not all the foods were 100% whole. But all in all, I felt like the month was mostly WFPB. I cook a lot and don’t use a lot of prepared foods, so it was less challenging for me. Of course, for people short on time to cook there are many ways to shortcut, like making extras and freezing or preparing items ahead of time on days off work. For people who don’t cook there are good options if labels are read and choices are carefully made, but many of the ready-to-eat foods are heavily refined and contain ingredients that are better to avoid. I did feel like there was more planning involved in preparing a meal that would satisfy all parties.

A few of our dinners:

                Everything Salads (all the salad veggies & fixin’s I have on hand)
                Pasta and Broccoli Leaves in Toasted Walnut Sauce (not a keeper!) with sautéed asparagus
                Veggie Pot Pie (awesome!!)
                My version of  Otro’s Inca salad
                Spicy Curry Vegetables, Black Pepper Saffron Rice, Cucumber salad
                A pinto bean-chopped veggies salad
                Veg stir fry

A lot of non-animal products exist, so one can eat plant based, but not necessarily healthy. I always tell people potato chips and sweet tea are plant based but as a steady diet not so healthy! Of course, unhealthy diets are not exclusive to vegan, or plant-based, ways of eating. Anyone can make poor choices on a regular basis. My recommendation is always to eat a variety of foods, preferably minimally refined, and eat in moderation. Want an ice cream or that decadent chocolate cake? Have it, enjoy it, share it if you can, and don’t make it a frequent habit. Not ready to give up meat or dairy products? Ok, but maybe skip the fried and scorched meats, avoid highly processed meats, and don’t have cheese on everything.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying this way of eating. If you have health issues or a family history of heart disease or cancer, it would be very worth your while to see how it works for you. Removing animal products from the diet may help you live longer and avoid killer diseases. Even if you feel you can’t cut them out completely, look for ways to minimize them in your diet. Your friendly neighborhood health coach is there to help!

My last post was about embarking on a whole food, plant based way of eating. (Again, it’s basically a vegan diet but with the emphasis on whole foods, foods in their most complete state.) I wanted to see how well I would do avoiding all animal and seafood protein, all dairy, and eggs. I did promise weekly updates but March has been a very busy month so I missed updating my progress last week.

I had stated I would try this for the month of March but actually started February 26. So it’s been three full weeks as I write this. How do I feel? Physically I feel great; lighter, not so dense. I notice I have longer periods of satiety and don’t feel the need to snack between meals. The occasional intestinal issues have improved. I may have lost a bit of weight, although that was not my aim. I believe I was not eating enough in week two since I found myself feeling lethargic, so I made sure to eat more food to get the calories I need for my activity level. Eating WFPB doesn’t mean restricted intake, I was just finding my way around a different way of thinking about meals and what to prepare, and not eating enough.

Mentally I’m a bit frustrated. The mental frustration comes from two areas. One is not having a partner in the experiment, someone to support the transition and share ideas with. Like a health coach, you ask? Well, yes, that would be a help, lol! Or someone to travel the path with me since it’s harder when those close to you aren’t willing to give it a try and don’t really understand why you want to do this.

The other area of frustration is eating out. Restauranteurs for the most part cater to omnivores, and understandably so since they are the majority. But could restaurants please, please have an entrée other than salad that is fully plant-based? One that I do not have to ask – “Is there milk in that?” or “Please omit the cheese.” One where there is flavor without resorting to ‘fake’ meats, cheese, or eggs. Certainly there are some restaurants that are all plant-based or have many options for vegans, but not often the kinds of places my dining partners want to go to. And some of those places do rely too heavily on highly processed ‘meat’ replacements – not something I want. Trust me, I understand the whys of this and trying to please a variety of palates and encouraging reluctant omnivores to try meatless eating. But I would also like to be able to go to the places we like to go and know there is something to order without a fuss. Maybe like-minded people will keep asking for better options as interest in WFPB eating increases and that will encourage chefs to add an item or two.

Have I been successful? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I am trying new recipes and some new foods, I feel great, and I know I am balancing my nutrition needs. I had one oooops! And one deliberate choice due to the frustration I mention above. The oooops was in the lovely spring lasagna I made early on – it used pesto rather than marinara sauce and I used a store-bought pesto (Kirkland’s from Costco – best stuff ever!) quite forgetting it has cheese. Oh, well. Then this past weekend we wanted to watch some of the March Madness at a local pizza place. NOTHING on the menu was cheese-free, and leaving the cheese out of any sounded tasteless and troublesome so I ordered pizza. A Margherita so there was no meat but there’s the cheese. I was quite ready to quit the whole experiment but a clearer head the next day told me to keep on it!

Has it been difficult? Well, no and yes is the answer here too. I am not a big meat eater anyway so that has not been burdensome for me. Maybe a little tiresome for my husband, as he misses some of his favorites that have chicken or fish. And I stopped using most dairy products long ago, although cheese had crept back in to our meals a little. I miss eggs more than meat or cheese. And of course avoiding cheese in restaurant meals has been a little tough. I think it does take more planning and effort to cook meals that satisfy hunger to the same extent a hunk of animal protein does. Much more prep work than popping a chicken breast in the broiler and tossing a quick salad! Here are some of the dinners I’ve eaten since the last post:

  • ‘Mexican’ salad cups – quinoa, beans, raw zucchini, tomatoes, salsa dressing in lettuce cups
  • Lasagna with beet greens filling, marinara, tofu, and vegan mozzarella-style cheese; simple side salad
  • One Pan Farro with Tomatoes; sautéed cauliflower
  • My ‘Everything’ salad – bits of all the vegetables I have on hand that work in a salad
  • Italian restaurant (veggie panini, hold the cheese)
  • Thai Noodle salad – lettuce, carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, red bell, rice noodles in spicy peanut-ty dressing
  • Vegetarian sloppy joes on whole grain buns; cabbage slaw
  • Broccoli with udon noodles in spicy peanut sauce; Roasted Brussel sprouts in Momofuku sauce
  • Crunchy Salad – lots of crunchy vegs like raw carrot, celery, daikon radish, toasted seeds
  • Creamy carrot and sweet potato soup; spicy garbanzo fritters
  • Mexican restaurant (veggie taco, arroz side)
  • Pizza restaurant

I try to alternate hot meals vs. chilled salads, all veggies vs. veggies with beans or grains, eating in with eating out, and of course, what works with other plans on a given day. As well, the weather turned hot this past week so appetites go down. More salads will appear on the menu.

I would say a word about the meat replacement products. They can be a bridge to switching to a plant-based way of eating, especially for someone concerned about missing out on certain favorites or about not feeling full after a meal. But there are so many plant foods and so many ways to prepare them, that looking for ways to replace meat with a meat replacement may keep you from fully exploring all those plant foods and methods. Also, be careful of the replacement products – some are full of ingredients you really don’t want to eat and are highly processed. Read labels and know what you are buying.

All in all, I’m feeling good about this process and what we’ve been eating. By the end of the month I believe I’ll have the hang of menu-planning, which will simplify my food shopping. Right now I have an overabundance of vegetables in the fridge! Will I stick to it for life? I can’t say for sure, maybe I’ll know by April 1. Stay tuned for more!

What is it? Whole food, plant based eating. Basically it’s a vegan diet but with the emphasis on whole foods, foods in their most complete state. Less processed, not stripped of goodness and nutrition. Why am I writing about it? Because I decided to embark on this eating plan for the month of March! I want to see how well I do avoiding all animal and seafood protein, all dairy, and eggs. I think you will be reading a lot more about this way of eating if you haven’t already.

There are many reasons people decide to forgo eating the produce of animals: Animal rights and protection from cruel mismanagement; a person’s own health; not liking the taste or texture of flesh; religious restrictions; and some more, I am sure. I have been reading many articles on why a plant based diet is better for human health, and I want to see for myself how it affects me, if at all. I am in good shape, with a good weight, ‘good’ blood levels, and overall good health. So I don’t look for a major shift in any of that. Yet, will I lose weight, which I do not want to do? Maybe I’ll gain weight, which would be ok (as long as not too much!). Will I feel less energetic, more tired? Will my occasional intestinal distress clear up? Will I feel hungry all the time or more satiated than on my present way of eating? Will it be a lot more work cooking and planning meals? I’ll post updates each week so you can see how it goes for me. A well-rounded plant based diet does require some planning to make sure one is getting a full complement of nutrients and sufficient calories – potato chips and soda make a ‘vegan’ diet but not a healthy one!

My eating plan this month will consist of many vegetables, whole grains, beans and pulses, seeds, nuts, and fruits. My last post was about raw food diets not being for me, so will have a mix of raw (salads) and cooked vegetables. I have a wide repertoire of recipes and there are thousands more available on the web. Most can be adapted to solely plant based. We eat a lot of meatless meals already, so my husband is accustomed to it. He is not fully on this ride with me, but agrees if he feels the need for meat, he can get it when we go out for dinner, about once a week. Probably the hardest thing for me to skip will be eggs – I don’t eat a lot of eggs but they can be a quick and satisfying meal or snack, so I will miss them. We are about 98% dairy free, with just the occasional buttermilk for a dressing or biscuits or maybe a little cheese now and then. So going 100% dairy free will not be tough for us. I do have some processed foods in my kitchen but not a lot and even those are minimally processed. Got to have a little convenience! Breakfast and lunch have not really changed for me. I usually have oatmeal and toast or a breakfast ‘cookie’ and fruit in the morning – I just switched to coconut oil or peanut butter in place of butter on my toast, for instance. Lunch is mostly meat-free anyway for me, consisting of leftovers or maybe a veggie patty from the freezer. I actually began the WFPB on 2/26 since Sunday starts my week of menu plans. So far our dinners have been:

  • A salad of spinach and lettuce topped with red rice, sliced celery, shredded carrot, slivered almonds, dried cranberries, and vegan mayo mixed with curry powder and mango chutney
  • A variation of Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Tex-Mex salad of lettuce and cabbage, black beans, corn, tomatoes, onion with an avocado based dressing
  • A veg-full soup with lentils and lots of spices
  • A veggie stack plate from a local restaurant (pita stacked with hummus, beets, garbanzos, quinoa, more)
  • Pasta with a fresh tomato sauce; sautéed broccoli leaves; sautéed asparagus
  • Red rice and black bean filled corn tortillas, enchilada style, with homemade enchilada sauce; a broccoli salad with cherry tomatoes, avocado, and spring onion in a light lime dressing; and a roasted kale, fennel , and delicata squash dish
  • Thai food from a local restaurant (Asian restaurants make eating veg easy!)
  • Spring Lasagna from Mollie Katzen’s Heart of the Plate cookbook; side salad
  • Roasted Beet and Spinach salad with walnuts

 

I am not stating everyone should give up all animal produce for all time. Humans are omnivores, meaning we can digest and assimilate food from animals and plants. Each person must decide for themselves. However, the way too much of our animal or fish protein is produced today makes the quality far inferior to the meat our grandparents ate. Factory farms where cattle, pigs, or chickens live in filthy, overcrowded conditions, are fed with feed not suitable for anyone’s consumption, and dosed with hormones and antibiotics whether needed or not and fish farms where the water is extremely contaminated, the fish are overcrowded, and again the feed is not suitable – these conditions are not how animals should live. The animals are stressed and therefore their flesh is of poor quality and reduced amounts of vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Plenty of studies point to improved health and lower risk of modern lifestyle diseases in people who eat plant based diets. Reductions in diabetes, obesity, and some heart disease are most often cited. Some people simply don’t like the look, smell, mouth-feel, and taste of meat. And some religions prohibit eating the produce of animals. Whatever your reasons, if you have thought about ‘going veg’ give it a try, it could be interesting. Commit to a reasonable length of time – no less than two weeks – and see how you feel. I’ll post updates on my progress as the month proceeds!

I’ll begin with a confession – adopting a raw food diet is not for me! So why write about it? Well, I know there are many high-profile proponents of this style of eating so I wanted to understand it better in case clients ask about it. And since I learned some things, I thought you might like to also!

The raw food diet basically means eating foods that have not been cooked or at least not heated over ~115°F. There is no *one* raw food “diet” – the ways of following vary among adherents. Even the maximum temperature that foods can be warmed to without being considered ‘cooked’ varies. There are those who eat 100% raw food and those who eat 60-85% raw, with the remainder of their diet cooked foods. Raw meat (think sushi, sashimi, steak tartare, and some cured meats), raw (unpasteurized) dairy, and raw eggs are included by some raw foodists; many avoid these foods altogether. Some eat soaked or sprouted grains and others stick to only vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. All of the plans I read about exclude processed foods, refined flours and sugars, all or most vegetable oils, and coffee. Most stress using organic produce as much as possible. One person writing on being ‘fully raw’ stated one should not eat vinegars, salt, oils, or spices, and should limit good fats like avocados and nuts, and frozen or dehydrated fruits and veggies.

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this eating style? Proponents believe that cooking destroys vital nutrients and enzymes in food, and even causes toxicity in the food, so they believe raw food has more nutrients. They believe a raw food diet helps with weight control, and that it will help new followers lose weight. It’s thought eating raw fruits and veggies can reduce acidity in the body and help alkalize it. And there are claims that raw food is easier to digest and moves through the digestive system more quickly than cooked food. Some writers made other claims about protection from other diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It is said people eating raw have more energy, better skin, and lower blood pressure. Disadvantages include the difficulty of eating out, whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant; the additional prep time needed to make a meal – more chopping, blending, sprouting, dehydrating, etc.; limitations on what can be eaten; it is more difficult to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need in the right proportions; increased risk of food borne illness and pathogens from commercially sold produce; and a follower must understand how raw differs from cooked in foods like broccoli and cauliflower, which contain compounds called goitrogens. Goitrogens may block thyroid function but are deactivated by heat, so eating lots of raw cruciferous veggies could lead to thyroid problems.

As with most health topics on the web, this one has believers and deniers, wild claims for and arguments against. I saw a whole lot of claims with no explanation of their basis in fact. I read an article of how eating this way nearly killed someone. Well-known doctors speak up for it and others speak against it. Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda both promote cooked rather than raw foods. My take? I think the general guidelines for a raw diet are good, in that they include a lot of vegetables and fruits, little or no animal protein, no processed ‘junk’ food, and no refined sugars or flours. They promote organic, whole foods. Raw or cooked, eating this way is way better than the typical western diet. The plans seem flexible so they allow people who want to call themselves “raw foodies” can eat mostly raw but maybe include some lightly cooked food. And for those who do want some cooked foods, the recommendations are for light, gentle cooking – not fried or grilled to a blackened state. I question the claims of easier digestion, and this is one claim that was made without any citations of studies to back it up; in fact, articles weighing pros and cons were more likely to offer explanations of how this is not true. Claims of enzyme and vitamin loss from cooking were perhaps over-stated. Produce loses much of its nutrition the longer it waits past harvest and certainly cooking can add to that loss. Many cooking methods do not appreciably destroy nutrients, and even enhance some nutrients. A few articles stated that cooking makes food acidic, but this is not always true; also, our body determines our blood PH from many factors and constantly regulates it, and food does not change that. However, reducing some naturally acidic foods like meat, cheese and some grains is good for you, just not for your PH balance.

This way of eating is not for me because while I eat a fair amount of raw vegetables and fruits, I also like steamed veggies, hot soups, casseroles. And bread and pasta. I think the human race made giant strides in evolution because we learned to cook food, and those strides wouldn’t have happened if cooking destroyed nutrition. Many diseases that have become common in western, developed nations are due to poor eating habits, over-processed foods stripped of nutrition, and over- or under-consumption of foods due to ever changing food guidelines.

What do you think? Would you want to eat this way, or do you already?

Today I want to dive into Michael Pollan’s famous quote of “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” On the surface it is pretty simple, and I do like simple! But as I listened to some videos of Michael discussing food topics I realized I may not fully understand the depth of its wisdom.

Eat food. Sounds easy.  But by this he means actual food, not food processed into something else that resembles food but is very far removed from its origin. Would someone from 100 years ago recognize the food? “Food” means it is not full of hydrolyzed protein, mono-glycerides, natural flavoring, saccharine, etc. We should seek food items grown the way nature meant, not by using industrial methods that strip the earth of nutrients, pollute the ground and water with pesticides, degrade the lives of animals in feedlots and factory farms, and give cause for deforestation. “Pasteurized processed cheese food” is not food in the context of this quote, for instance. We should eat corn – fresh off the cob or frozen, or as cornmeal, perhaps – grown by a real farmer, not by a corporate conglomerate, and not turned into one of the hundreds of ingredients you would not suspect are derived from corn. Choose meat as close to how it came from the animal, like a steak or chicken breast and not the ground up bits mixed with cellulose to produce ‘lunchmeat’ or ‘chicken’ nuggets. Yogurt is milk cultured with specific strains of bacteria, that’s all – not necessary to include added sugar, fruit, gelatin, probiotics, and more. Oats are easy to cook – there’s no need to process oats to death so they can come in a little envelope with “real and artificial flavorings” added.

Mostly plants. Meaning the edible parts of vegetables, fruits, grains, mushrooms, and even flowers. Simply prepared fresh vegetables are most delightful. Eat whole grains like brown rice, farro, and wheat berries rather than grains ground into flour; although whole grain flour is more nutritious than bleached white flour it still impacts blood sugar and insulin levels. Enjoy all of the apple or an orange and not just the juice that can be extracted. Edible flowers add color and flavor to a lovely fresh salad. These foods provide us with almost all the nutrients we need for health, and with the variety of colors and textures to be found they are satisfying for our aesthetic taste buds as well. There are so many different plant foods and so many ways to combine them into delightful dishes, I think it would take a lot of years of cooking meals to ever repeat the same dish if you didn’t want to! Pollan stresses that humans are omnivores and some of us will not find satisfaction with a strictly plant-based diet. Yet if western cultures ate more plant foods and less animal foods, we’d have better health, our land would have better health, and the world would see less environmental damage.

Not too much. Don’t eat until you are stuffed, stop before you feel full. Many cultures, where food scarcity is not a problem, teach their young to eat only until they are 2/3 full or 4/5 full or until they no longer have hunger. Be mindful of portion size; many of us were taught to clean our plates, so when we overload it to start with, we are set up to overeat. Don’t feed your boredom, anxiety, or depression by mindlessly snacking or eating when you aren’t even hungry. Sit at a table when you eat and pay attention to what you are eating – you will derive more satisfaction from the meal and become more aware of how much you eat. It will help you learn when to say when. Consider sharing an entrée with your companion at restaurants, especially those whose portion sizes are large. Eventually they may get the idea of reducing portions to normal size. By eating this way, you not only help your own health, you help reduce food waste.

So, sound and simple advice. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Common sense, really. No need to count calories, fat grams, carbs. No need to worry about the next bad-for-you-food story, because you are eating a moderate amount of a variety of foods and skipping controversial additives. You are eating a balance of fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Add water and exercise and you’ll be in the pink!

Considering that this time of year many people are doing or thinking about doing a ‘cleanse’ I thought I’d write about a ‘cleanse’ for pantry and fridge. After all, if you continue to have less-than-healthy food products around, the cleansing of you won’t have long lasting effects! I have a friend who dislikes using the word ‘clean’ when talking about food – he says he expects all the food he eats is clean, meaning not dirty. Of course, in the world of better eating/good nutrition ‘clean’ means something else and he knows that. I get his point but haven’t found a better word to describe what is meant. So I want to talk about cleaning your food choices up. Cleansing your kitchen may mean replacing some food with better choices, removing some altogether, and adding in some new items. It many also mean switching food storage containers to avoid certain elements.

So what is ‘clean’ food? Generally it means food as close to its origins as possible, optimally organically grown. Minimal processing, few added ingredients of unknown purpose. Raw, plain nuts rather than those covered with questionable flavor coatings. Applesauce made from apples, period; no need for sugar, salt, preservatives. Pure sea salt, not highly-refined salt with anti-caking additives and stripped of trace minerals.

Let’s start in the pantry. Because I like to cook my pantry has a lot of basic ingredients –nuts & seeds, various grains and beans, flour, cocoa, honey, oils, vinegars. Not too much in the way of prepared foods but a few things. If you are like me, there are products you grew up with, that your mom trusted to feed you and that you buy for your family. A certain peanut butter, specific saltines, a particular soup brand. Maybe you buy it just because of its history in your family, maybe you tried some other brands and they never lived up to the one. Even so, chances are the formulation of that tried-and-true brand is not the same as it was when you were 10. I know I have been disappointed when returning to an old favorite only to find it was very changed, or my tastes had outgrown it. Well, products can change and your tastes change too. So let’s look at what you have. Does the peanut butter contain palm or peanut oil? Sugar? Why? Don’t peanuts produce oil; is there a need to add oil? Why would sugar be added – to feed our addiction to sweet? Heck, you’re gonna put jelly on the sandwich anyway. (Just kidding, of course!) Look for a brand that is made from peanuts, maybe with salt. Personally I prefer it unsalted, but if you are more accustomed to salt in your peanut butter, go ahead and get that one. You can always ease into unsalted peanut butter. How about the salsa? (Yes, I know fresh, homemade is better, but it’s not always tomato season.) Is there sugar added to the salsa? Again, why? Isn’t salsa supposed to be spicy? The tomatoes have naturally occurring sugar; adding sugar just feeds the craving for sweet things, and increases the sugar load in your day. I just noticed the tomato soup I have in my pantry has added sugar! Had not looked at the list carefully, but guess I’ll re-think this brand in the future. At least it doesn’t have: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Potassium Chloride, Flavoring, or Monopotassium Phosphate like a common national brand. Do you buy canned tuna or salmon? Hopefully you buy it packed in water not oil. Fish has its own oil, doesn’t need vegetable oil for flavor or stability. Again, I like it without added salt but that can be hard to find. Do you make your own pasta? No? Neither do I! What’s in the packaged pasta you buy? More than the durum wheat or grain it’s made from, and water? That’s really all pasta needs. I grew up with what I think is an iconic saltine cracker – crumbled in tomato soup, buttered with chili, smeared with peanut butter. That brand at least has unbleached flour although it is enriched, meaning the wheat is stripped of the bran and germ so has to have nutrients added. Yet they use soybean oil (GMO?) and cottonseed oil. I never buy products using cottonseed oil as it is not a food crop so who knows what it was sprayed with? Have chips? Some are better than others as far as being clean; taste obviously is too subjective for me to make any claims on it. But if the chips you buy are made from corn or contain soy or canola, even as oil (“… and/or vegetable oil”), be sure they are organic chips to avoid genetically engineered ingredients. Whole grains or potatoes, oil, salt and maybe sugar – all that’s needed for tasty chips. Obviously your pantry may have more items than these few, but hopefully you get the idea of what to watch for. So take an hour or so to review what you have and which may need swapping for a better choice.

Turning to the refrigerator, what’s hiding in there? Mine is packed pretty full but I keep a pretty good mental inventory. Mostly right now, a few days after market day, it’s got a lot of produce. This I have to monitor carefully so it doesn’t spoil on me.  What’s the rest? Condiments, almond milk, soy creamer, white wine, and some jelly, among other things. What am I looking for in these products? For starters, I avoid carrageenan, which is prevalent in non-dairy products like plant milks and creamers. I don’t understand the need for sugar in most condiments, but confess that the ketchup and the barbeque sauce I have both have sugar added. I recall not finding a single offering of ketchup without sugar when I last looked, and do not feel like making my own! I do skip those that still use high fructose corn syrup, and would always stay away from any with artificial sweeteners.  See ‘Sweet Addictions’ for more on why. Currently there are no pickles in our fridge because I am on a quest for good tasting, well-made pickles with basic pickle ingredients – cucumbers, vinegar, spices. Some brands have so many preservatives, which is what I thought the process of pickling did – preserve foods. Why add chemical preservatives? If you buy cheese, be sure to get real cheese and not “processed cheese food”; if you buy non-dairy varieties watch for carrageenan and non-organic soy and corn (starch).

Last thing to think about, in both pantry and fridge, is the containers foods come in or that you use to store foods. Use glass bowls or jars to store extras or leftovers, or use stainless steel. Avoid canned foods unless the can is labeled ‘BPA-free’. Some companies have moved away from BPA linings in canned foods, which were put in to protect the food from corrosion on the metal can and extend its shelf life. While some claim there is little or no risk to humans from BPA, many studies point to it being an endocrine disruptor and possible cause of cancer. Not worth the risk when there are products without the risk. Avoid buying foods in plastic containers, especially numbers 3, 6, and 7. Avoid re-using plastic water bottles – invest in a stainless steel bottle you can refill as needed. Throw out your old plastic bowls that melted in the microwave and are flaking, and don’t heat food in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave. Also be careful of storing or cooking food in aluminum foil. I know, I know, we’ve all done it. But it can leach aluminum into the food, especially acidic foods or those cooked at high temperatures, and too much aluminum in our bodies is considered a health risk.

I am not telling you to throw away what you currently have on hand, but as you need replacements, keep this in mind. It could mean having raw ingredients on hand to make your own spaghetti sauce for instance, or being more discriminating when buying ready-made. Read the labels, and if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, look it up. You may need to move on to a different choice. Even if you aren’t doing a ‘cleanse’ of your food intake, cleaning up what you keep around the house will help you stay healthier.

Hydroponics, Aquaponics, Vertical farming. What are they? Can these methods of growing produce be deemed “organic”? The USDA’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) met recently and this was one question they considered but tabled for later review. I don’t know about you, but I have been confused by these terms and I’ve also read some claims about these methods and wondered what was true and what was marketing material. Are these methods of growing produce going to save the world from starvation? Is the produce really organic, as some producers claim? Are they really better for us and the earth than field farming? Is the vitamin and mineral content of plants grown without soil is as good as field grown crops? So I decided I needed to learn more about them. I’ll start with some definitions and then talk about pros and cons. Note that my research was focused on produce grown commercially, not home gardening.

  • Hydroponic growing is probably the best known to most of us. It’s been in commercial use for a long time, and you no doubt have eaten produce grown this way many times. (You know those tomatoes and strawberries you eat in January?) “Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Terrestrial plants may be grown with only their roots exposed to the mineral solution, or the roots may be supported by an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel.” [1]
  • Aquaponics is a newer method and from what I could find, not widely commercialized. It “is the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in.” [2]
  • Vertical farming is the newest method to get widespread attention although it has been around a while too. It “is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container. The modern ideas of vertical farming use indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where all environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases…) and fertigation.” [3] Vertical growing uses generally the same setup as hydroponics but in stacked trays.

Generally speaking, they are all based on the same principles. Provide a base for the seeds and seedlings, feed them nutrients, and provide light. They differ in the type of containers and different ways of providing nutrients and light, and even within the same category of method there may be differences in practice. These methods share some advantages over farming in dirt.

  • They use less water.
  • They are less likely to need pesticides.
  • It is possible to grow plants all year round, not just in warmer months.
  • Produce can be grown closer to the urban market, so less transportation costs, pollution, and time.
  • Plants grow faster and can be sold/delivered the same day as harvest.
  • Since all three methods can be operated indoors, production is less subject to weather events.
  • All these methods take less space than ground farming proportionate to yield.

But there are also negatives to these methods.

  • Primary is the high electrical usage to power grow lights, fans, pumps, and heating or cooling systems. To grow enough food using these methods to feed the populations adherents claim they can would take far more power than is generated today.
  • There’s a limit to what kinds of plants will grow in these setups; for instance root vegetables will not grow in these methods and producing large quantities of grain would require extremely large systems, so claims of being able to feed cities via these systems are overblown.
  • Hydroponics and vertical systems are not growing plants just in water; they need nutrient inputs which may not be organic and not better than synthetic fertilizers used on fields.
  • In aquaculture the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants but the fish still have to be fed, and most fish meal is made from ocean fish, which may have high levels of mercury or other contaminants.
  • The cost of produce grown this way puts it out of reach of many people it is intended to feed.
  • In hydroponic farming, periodic replacement of the solution results in large amounts of fertilizer-rich water to dispose of that can promote algal growth and be a threat to aquatic ecosystems.
  • Some people find that the flavor of crops raised without soil is watered down or less prominent than in soil grown crops.

Proponents of these methods claim their produce is organic because they don’t (usually) use pesticides. But that is not the only definition of “organic”. Cornucopia, staunch defenders of the organic label, state “Language in the Organic Foods Production Act and the current federal regulations clearly indicate that good soil stewardship is a prerequisite to qualify for organic certification. In 2010 the NOSB reinforced the soil prerequisite by passing recommendations that reiterated the prohibition of hydroponic certification. The National Organic Program never acted on these recommendations. Since then, an industry-friendly USDA has allowed some of the largest certifiers, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), to certify hydroponically produced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and berries at an alarming rate.” [4] This is very controversial, when one certifier would allow the label and another would not.

Vertical farming, or gardening as some refer to it, also gets a knock from opponents for its even more vast need of power for lights than the other methods. Since the trays of plants are stacked atop each other there is no chance of all the plants getting natural light even if the roof is clear and there are large windows, so all the plants need plenty of artificial life to grow. Is creating the amount of additional power that would be needed for large-scale operations the best thing for the environment? Some people claim solar or wind power could help, but the plants grown in these methods need continuous light so in areas where the sun or wind is inconsistent this would not help.

One of the arguments for soilless growing is that the world is running out of arable land. This is not quite true. Worldwide there is more than enough arable land to grow the crops needed to feed the world. But too much land has been devastated by poor management – overgrazing, too many chemicals, poor irrigation management, and modern agricultural practices. “(B)ecause agricultural land is often degraded and almost useless, producers keep on moving to more productive land. Globally, the land used and abandoned in the last 50 years may be equal to the amount of land used today.” [5] Another issue is confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), with thousands or tens of thousands of cattle or hogs confined to lots. These animals are fed grains which require vast acreage, dedicated to feeding animals which we will eat. If humans were to reduce meat consumption and not expect the price of meat at the grocery to be less than the price of tomatoes, land managers could restore all the land needed for growing food crops. The question of nutritional comparison is inconclusive – some studies find more nutrition in soil crops and some studies report more from soilless crops – there have been few objective studies done.

In conclusion, I do not think huge soilless operations are the answer to world hunger. Better management of what we already have is a more viable option, with soilless-grown produce supplementing field output. These methods also need continuous improvement to reduce the need for electricity and get prices to a level that less affluent people can afford. Finally, I could not consider these methods organic. I feel there is a symbiotic relationship between soil and plants that provides an overall better environment, and that is a big part of what “organic” means for me. How do you feel about this?

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroponics

[2] https://www.theaquaponicsource.com/what-is-aquaponics/?v=70f73ee5133f

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming

[4] https://www.cornucopia.org/2016/11/corporate-interests-nosb-wash-hands-organic-soil/?utm_source=eNews&utm_medium=email&utm_content=11.26.16&utm_campaign=HydroMORE

[5] Carey C., Oettli D. (2006) Determining links between agricultural crop expansion and deforestation. A report prepared for the WWF Forest Conversion Initiative.