The Miracle of the Moringa Tree

My  Moringa tree sprouted new feathery branches this spring.Early in the spring of 2013 a good friend sent me a bag of large brown seeds, each covered with a papery membrane. They looked like they might have been Jack’s magic beans. In fact they were seeds for growing another type of tree of almost magical properties. I planted one and over the next few months I watched a Moringa tree push up and send out feathery leaves. Fall and frost rolled around, and the tropical tree, now about a foot and a half tall, had to be moved indoors.

I don’t need to tell anyone in the northern hemisphere about the brutally cold winter we just endured. I lost a few of my garden herbs to the harsh conditions. The houseplants also suffered as sub-zero temperatures outside turned the windowsills frosty. My Moringa tree dropped its leaves, and the stem turned from bright green to withered brown. Giving it up for lost, I was just waiting for warmer weather so I could clean out the pot.

Spring arrived finally with sunshine and longer days. To my surprise the Moringa showed signs of life. The stem began turning green again from the top down, and leaves appeared and unfurled. Over the next few weeks this amazing tree slowly returned. Now it is back on the patio soaking in the sunny days, a miracle of rebirth.

The Moringa tree (moringa oliefera) is native to northern India but it now grows all over Africa, Asia and South America. Besides being able to weather a cold house in a New York winter, this tree can survive very hot and dry conditions. It grows well in some extreme desert climates like sub-saharan Africa.

In English the Moringa is sometimes called horseradish tree, radish tree and drumstick tree. I have seen it referred to as the never-die tree, which is especially true to my experience this spring. In the many languages and dialects of Africa, Asia and South America it is known by dozens of different names.

Moringa for Medicine and Nutrition

Resilience is only a small part of the amazing properties of this plant. Moringa is a nutritional powerhouse with substantial amounts of protein, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and several B vitamins. It has significant amounts of the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and iron.

Moringa is used as traditional medicine in Asian, African and South American countries. It is used to control glucose levels, as a remedy for diarrhea and dysentery and a headache remedy. Moringa can expel intestinal worms,  increase milk production for nursing mothers and act as an antiseptic for the skin. People have used moringa to treat inflammation, earache, toothache, hysteria, warts and ulcers, and more.

Moringa has an array of phytonutrients including glucosinolates, isothiocyanates, several carotenoids, flavonoids and the simple sugar rhamnose. These chemicals give the plant antioxidant, antibacterial and cancer fighting properties.

Every Part of Moringa has a Purpose

All the parts of the Moringa tree can be used. Here are just a few of the things people do with moringa.

The leaves are dried and made into a powder which is used in cooking or as a nutritional supplement. Flowers are cooked and eaten, and taste a bit like mushrooms. They should not be eaten raw. The pods are boiled or steamed, and taste like asparagus. You can find canned Moringa pods (known as drumsticks) in Asian food stores.

Seeds are ground into a powder which acts as a natural coagulant to bind with solids in turbid water. This process can remove upwards of 90% of bacteria in the water. They can also clarify honey and sugar cane juice. The oil is pressed from the seed and is edible, or can be used on the skin or as a base for cosmetics. The remaining seed cake makes a good fertilizer.

The wood of the tree yields a blue dye, the sap has been used in printing. Crushed leaves are sometimes used in Africa to scrub cooking pots. The wood pulp can be used to make paper, and the fibrous bark is useful for making rope.

The Miracle Tree booklet by Lowell FuglieLowell Fuglie and his Moringa Project

I first learned about the Moringa tree from the late Lowell Fuglie, whom I knew as a friend and classmate while growing up in Nigeria.  In the 1990s Lowell spearheaded a pilot project which was a collaboration between Church World Service and AGADA, or Alternative Action for African Development in Senegal. He tested the theory that products of the Moringa tree can prevent or cure malnutrition in Senegalese women and children. This highly successful effort showed the Moringa tree has a great potential to treat the problem of malnutrition in tropical countries.

Fuglie published details of this project in a booklet called The Miracle Tree: Natural Nutrition for the Tropics. This booklet has since been republished by Church World Service under the name The Miracle Tree: The Multiple Attributes of Moringa.

A Practical Guide for Getting Moringa in Your Diet

If you don’t happen to live in Africa, Asia or South America where fresh moringa is available, how can you get this nutrient-packed food into your diet? Those who live in warm, sunny climates can grow their own trees, which will probably do well enough to harvest leaves and pods. I don’t think my tree will ever get big enough for that, but there are still  plenty of moringa products available out there.

Many Indian or Asian markets sell Moringa Green Tea.

Dried Moringa leaf powder is easy to find online. You can use it to make hot or cold tea and smoothies or add it to soups and stews.

Look for the pods or drumsticks in Indian and Asian markets. They may sell them fresh, canned or frozen. The young, smaller pods are similar to green beans. Large pods have a hard outer skin, and should be sliced lengthwise after cooking, so that the soft pith inside can be scraped out. The outer skin is generally too tough to eat.

Have you ever eaten Moringa? Tell us about it in the comments.

New leaf growth on a Moringa tree.

 

The Purple Richness of Grape Pie

Frosty Concord grapes growing on a fall day.I am blessed to have a family member with a large grapevine in her backyard. In the fall I can fill up a huge bag full of juicy Concord grapes, with thoughts of grape pie and jelly running through my head. Jelly is delicious, but I don’t have the time to spend my day sterilizing and canning, and we can only eat so much of it. What better comfort food is there than the flaky pastry and purple richness of a grape pie?

Grape Pie: Yes, it’s a thing.

You may not have heard of such a dish, but it happens to be a specialty of the upstate New York region where I live. Naples, a town in the Finger Lakes, holds a Grape Pie Festival, where thousands of pies are baked, eaten and sold. Folklore says that the recipe for grape pie came from German immigrants, and was adopted by this wine-producing area with its abundance of Concord grapes. 

The most time-consuming part of a grape pie is processing the grapes. Once this step is done it is the simplest pie in the world to prepare. This year I processed most of the grapes and put them in  the freezer, to be pulled out in the dead of winter, or in the early spring when it feels like the iron grip of winter will never let go.

Processing the Grapes for a Pie

  • Peel the grapes. You need to do this to get at the seeds so they can be removed. Later you will A bowl of Concord grapes.  Without their skins they are green.add the peels back to the grape pulp, so make sure you do not throw them away. You can peel the grapes by simply squeezing them gently between your fingers until the skins pop off. Not all grapes are this easy, but the thick, loose skin is a characteristic of the Concords. Collect the skins in one bowl and the green globular grape bodies in another.
  • Cook the grape pulp. Heat the pulp in a large saucepan and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. This will loosen it up to make the next step easier.
  • Remove the seeds. Put the grape pulp through a sieve or food mill to remove the seeds. You can throw the seeds away.
  • Reunite the grapes with their skins. Stir them right into the pulp and return the mixture to the saucepan. Bring it back to a simmer for another ten minutes or so. You can break up the skins a bit with a potato masher. The skins will give the mixture its lovely purple color, and also many of the phytonutrients are in the skin.

Now your grapes are ready for whatever you decide to do with them next. You can make jam or jelly, straining the skins back out again at the end if you want it to be smooth. You can put the pulp in the freezer to use at a later date. Or you can surprise your family with a scrumptious grape pie for supper.

Grape Pie Recipe

You will need two crusts for a 9 inch pie. You can use storebought pie crusts if you must, or you can make your own easily using the recipe below.

For the crust

  • 1 cup vegetable shortening (such as Crisco) plus 2 tablespoons
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 8-12 tablespoons cold water

Cut in shortening with pastry blender.This recipe makes two pie crusts, both of which you will need for your grape pie.

  1. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the shortening into flour mixture with your pastry blender.  To do this you just keep working the shortening and flour through the pastry blender until it is evenly dispersed and the pieces are no bigger than peas.
  3. Sprinkle water into flour mixture, one tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork until flour is moistened enough to hold together and form a ball.  Do not add any more water than necessary.
  4. Gather pastry into ball.  Divide in half.  Place the first half between wax paper and roll flat with rolling pin until it is large enough to fit in and overlap your 9 inch pie pan.  Peel off the top layer of paper.
  5. Invert the crust over the pie pan, peel off the other layer of paper, and press into the pan.  Cut off the excess crust about 1 inch over the edge of the pan.  Prick the bottom of the pie crust with a fork, and set aside.
  6. Roll crust between wax paper.Now, roll out your second crust from the remaining dough the same way.  Put this crust aside until you are ready to assemble the pie.

Assembling the Pie

Preheat your oven to 400°.

  • 4 cups grape pulp with skins, seeds removed (see process above) You should start with at least 6 cups of grapes to have enough for this recipe.
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca
  • two 9 inch pie crusts
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  1. If you pulled your grapes from the freezer, make sure they are thawed and heat to a simmer in aA grape pie being assembled, waiting for the top crust. saucepan. Add sugar and tapioca to the warm grapes.
  2. Let grapes stand for at least half an hour so the mixture can cool and thicken.
  3. Pour grape mixture into prepared pie crust.
  4. Dot the top of the crust evenly with small pieces of butter.
  5. Place top crust over filling. Seal edges together and crimp them with a fork or use your fingers to make a fluted edge.
  6. Place pie in oven with a large piece of aluminum foil underneath. The filling drips out of this pie while it is baking, and this will prevent you from needed a massive oven cleanup.
  7. Bake at 400° for 20 minutes, then lower over to 350° and bake for 30 more minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling out.

It is best to let this pie cool before you eat it, so that the filling sets up a bit.

A slice of grape pie oozes with rich fruity filling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Side of a Colorful Diet: Artificial Colors in Our Foods

Sugar cookies with colored icing.The nutrition experts tell us that we should be eating a colorful diet.  We can choose from bright red, green, yellow, orange, blue, white and purple fruits and vegetables. It is the pigments in foods that contain the phytonutrients which give us excellent health. There are some colors, though, that we are better off staying away from. For decades the food industry here in the United States has been serving us a rainbow of foods powered by synthetic chemicals. Even though these are approved by the FDA, they are not necessarily safe and healthy.

Artificial Colors in the US Food Supply

There have been a total of 24 artificial colors allowed in US foods over the years.  Seventeen of these have been listed as unsafe, the first in 1918 and the most recent in 1978.  Public Citizen Health Research Group has some great charts showing details. That leaves 7 petroleum-based food colorings still at large in our food supply.

The colors we find on labels today are Blue 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue 2 (Indigo Carmine), Green 3 (Fast Green), Red 3 (Erythrosine), Red 40 (Allura), Yellow 5 (Tartrazine) and Yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow). (Two other dyes sometimes included on other lists are Citrus Red 2 and Orange B. Orange B was approved for use in sausage casings but has been pretty much discontinued by the industry. Citrus Red 2 is permitted only for coloring the skins of oranges.)

Artificial colors can be divided into two groups: dyes and lakes. Dyes are water soluble compounds that can be used in any product with enough moisture to dissolve the dye.  Lakes are combined with a salt to make a compound that is not soluble. They are used to color dry products that contain fats and oils.

Sugar sprinkles come in a rainbow of artificial colors.The Harmful Effects of Artificial Colors

Artificial colors contain harmful substances such as lead, mercury, arsenic and benzidine.  They get approval from the FDA because the toxins are present in small enough amounts. As part of the agreement to allow these substances in our food, manufacturers have to get each batch of dye tested to make sure it is below the level of contaminants allowed. This means there are official records of how much dye is being produced every year by the food industry. The numbers show that the amount being produced is five times higher than it was in 1955. You may think we don’t need to worry about something added to foods in such small amounts, but the average American child is eating literally pounds of these substances by the time he is ten years old.

Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40 and Yellow 6 have all been linked with cancerous tumors of various organs. Rats and mice have developed cancer of the brain, bladder, adrenal glands and thyroid in experiments with these chemicals. In addition to this, scientists are concerned that the contaminants in food dyes may cause toxicity and organ damage, allergies, birth defects, hyperactivity and behavior problems.

In the early 1970s Benjamin Feingold, an allergist from San Francisco, made the observation that certain artificial colors could cause hyperactivity in children. He recommended putting kids on an elimination diet to pinpoint the source of their behavioral problems. Many people had a great deal of success with the Feingold diet. In the years that followed his claims sparked a good deal of research.

In 2004 Schab and Trinh published a meta-analysis of the research on food dyes and hyperactivity. They selected fifteen studies, all double-blind placebo-controlled trials. You can read their paper here. They concluded that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between artificial colors and hyperactivity in children.

Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks is an excellent paper detailing the health risks of each of these chemicals. It was published in 2010 by Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Other Countries Ban Artificial Colors

A study conducted in Southampton, England in 2007 tested mixtures of several food dyes and sodium benzoate, a preservative, and concluded that these products caused increased hyperactivity in children in the general population. The dyes, known as the Southampton Six, have been banned in UK since 2009. The European Union has required products to carry warning labels stating they may be linked to behavioral problems in children.

Red 40 and Green 3 are banned throughout the European Economic Community. Blue 1 is banned in France, Finland, Austria and several other European countries. Blue 2 is banned in Norway. Yellow 5 is banned in Norway, Austria and Finland. Yellow 6 is banned in Finland and Norway. Red 3 is banned in Norway. The Food Intolerance Network has an informative page listing artificial colors in use around the world.

Many products in Europe and United Kingdom are specially made with natural food colorings, even though the same product in the United States contains artificial colors.  In the  UK, Fanta orange soda is colored with pumpkin and carrot extracts while the US version uses Red 40 and Yellow 6. McDonald’s strawberry sundaes are colored only with strawberries in UK, but Red 40 is used in the US. European packaged foods were reformulated to include natural colors rather than require a warning label.

You Can Eat Foods That Are Free of Artificial Colors

Even in the United States, where artificial colors seem to be everywhere on the grocery shelf, you can still keep them out of your diet. Become a label reader, and be aware of what you are buying and eating.  Even foods that are not brightly colored might still have artificial colors. You can find them in things like pizza dough, ice cream, white marshmallows, granola bars, and pickles. Avoiding them will narrow down your choices considerably, but you will be buying healthier foods. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that your dollars are not supporting the companies that use these chemicals.

I have found that as time goes on more companies are providing foods (and other products such as laundry detergent and medications) with natural colors, or free of color altogether. For example, Annie’s provides an alternative to Kraft macaroni and cheese, and Kozy Shack makes a delicious line of puddings using natural colors.

If you are a proactive type you can write letters and use social media to ask food manufacturers to get rid of food dyes, or start a petition. Two food bloggers recently sent a petition to Kraft asking them to remove yellow dyes from their macaroni and cheese products. They had some success as Kraft announced they will be removing the dyes from three of their products. Even if the government does not regulate these chemicals, consumer pressure can have the same result.

If you are lucky enough to live near a Whole Foods Market, they list artificial food dyes as one of their unacceptable ingredients for food. Trader Joe’s is another grocer with a healthy slant, and their private label products contain no artificial colors.

What are your favorite foods that use natural colors?

Soothe a Head Cold with Healing Foods

If you live in the northern hemisphere this is a most dreary time of the year. Temperatures in many parts of the United States have plummeted down into negative numbers that are downright scary.  The snow keeps coming down, and to add to the discomfort, many of us are suffering from colds and flu. Here are some gentle healing foods that can help relieve your snuffly stuffed up head and cough.

Dark Chocolate

Yes,  I said dark chocolate. Is there anything that it can’t do? A study at the National Heart and Lung Institute in London has shown that theobromine, a chemical found in cacao, can block the action of the sensory nerves which cause a cough reflex. If you have an annoying scratchy cough that pops up at inconvenient times during the day, or are just trying to stop coughing so you can get to sleep, this is a delicious remedy to try. This does not cure the cough, which will come back until the root cause of it is gone, but it is a more effective temporary suppressant than cough medicines on the market today, with less side effects.

A little over two ounces of unsweetened dark chocolate will give you the amount of theobromine used in the experiment, so to get the benefits you should eat dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao content.

Dark chocolate also contains a small amount of caffeine, so if you are very sensitive to this it may not be a good idea to eat dark chocolate at night.

Ginger Tea

Ginger makes a spicy tea which will stimulate and cleanse your system and warm your body. Oriental medicine prescribes Fresh Ginger Rootwarming foods for those who have a cold. Makes sense, right? One of the phytonutrients in ginger that has medicinal effects, gingerol, has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is being studied for its abilities to inhibit cancer growth. Ginger is very commonly used as a remedy for nausea, seasickness, and diarrhea. Just the aroma of a cup of ginger tea can help to clear a stuffy head, and in my family we are convinced it takes less time to recover when you have a cup of ginger tea before bed.

Do not eat a lot of ginger or drink ginger tea if you are on blood-thinning medications, as ginger can interfere with blood clotting.

Ginger tea is a decoction, meaning you actually boil the ginger in water. Slice up a piece of fresh ginger into 7 or 8 thin slices. Put it into a small pan and add as much water as you will need for your tea, and then another quarter cup, because some will boil away. Bring the whole thing to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Your tea will be light brown and spicy. Add a spoonful of honey and some lemon. The honey is good for a sore throat, and lemon will give you a shot of vitamin C and help mellow out the spiciness.

Sliced fresh ginger stored in a jar of white wine.

Ginger is one of the healing foods that I keep in my fridge all the time to throw in a stir fry or brew up a tea. I cut my fresh ginger into pieces about 2 inches long and store them in a little jar filled with white wine. They will keep for months like this, and you end up with a nice ginger-flavoured wine at the end.

Saltwater

Gargling with salt water is an amazingly easy way to speed along the healing of a sore throat.  Just add 1/2 teaspoon of table salt to about 8 ounces of warm water.  Stir it up really well until the salt dissolves.  Gargle the whole glass of water away.  The salt will make a really hostile environment for those bacteria that are living in your throat and on your tonsils.  If you do this several times a day it will disorient the bacteria enough that your body will be able to overcome them.  If you need to actually know HOW to gargle, try this site from ehow.com.

Sage, Rosemary and Thyme Tea

Sage and rosemary both contain rosmarinic acid, which has antiseptic properties and can be used to treat sore throat.  One of the phytonutrients in thyme is thymol, an antioxidant with more antiseptic properties.  Thymol is actually used as an ingredient in medicines such as Listerine and Vicks VapoRub.  Inhaling thymol can loosen phlegm and relax the respiratory muscles.  Thymol has been used as an ingredient in cough medicines in the United States and Europe.

Fresh herbs are best for making tea.  I realize the dead of winter isn’t the best time to be going out and picking fresh herbs from the garden, but you may have a rosemary plant spending the winter in your windowsill.  If fresh isn’t available the next best is dried.  This tea is an infusion, meaning you don’t actually boil the herbs in the water, but let them steep.  Take 1 or 2 teaspoons each of the dried herbs or 1 or 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh, pour boiling water over them and let it all sit for 15-20 minutes.  Strain out the herbs, sweeten the tea with honey if you like, and enjoy.

Chicken Soup

Whoever wrote the old English song Scarborough Fair, a long time ago, must have been sitting at home eating chicken soup.  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are the classic chicken soup seasonings.  Sure, having a bowl of hot chicken soup just makes you feel better, but it also gives you some real benefits from the phytonutrients.  I already discussed sage, rosemary and thyme above.  Parsley contains volatile oils like limonene that can inhibit growth of tumours.  It also has lots of flavanoids, phytonutrients which act as anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants.  The chlorophyll in parsley has disinfectant properties, and it’s loaded with vitamins like C, A and K.

It’s easy to make your own chicken  soup.  If you have some leftover chicken on the bone,  boil it down until you have  a nice stock.  You can throw in a few onions and garlic cloves for extra flavour.  When you have boiled the daylights out of this, strain everything out.  Pick the chicken meat off the bones, cut it up and add it to the stock.  Then add your parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.   Use fresh herbs if they are available, especially parsley, which you can usually find year round in the grocery store.  You can throw in whatever vegetables you like –  onion, garlic, celery are my standards.  Add a handful of noodles, rice or corn if you want a heartier soup.

If you don’t have time or just don’t feel like making your own soup, and no one has been kind enough to bring you a pot of homemade soup, canned is the next best thing.  Just add a few extra herbs yourself to give it more medicinal properties.

Honey

Honey is a sweet way to soothe a sore throat.  You can mix it with tea or warm water, or eat a spoonful.  A study at Penn State College of Medicine showed that if you give children honey at bedtime they will cough less during the night.  However it’s very important not to give honey to children under 1 year old, since it contains a form of botulism that can be fatal at this age.

What is your favorite food for treating a head cold?

The Beauty of Romanesco Broccoli

A head of romanesco broccoli shows the spiral pattern of the florets.When you are browsing through the fresh vegetable section of your grocery store or farmers market in the late summer, you may spot something that draws you over for a second look. Romanesco broccoli makes it’s glorious appearance during a short time window of late summer and early fall. This unique vegetable is native to the Mediterranean, specifically Italy. Today it grows in several other countries including the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Romanesco and Perfect Math

Like the other cruciferous vegetables, romanesco broccoli is from the genus and species Brassica Olercea. It also goes by the names of Roman cauliflower, broccoflower, romanesco cauliflower and even romanesco cabbage. The florets of romanesco are arranged in spirals, and each spiral is made up of groups of smaller spirals. As you get into a smaller scale the spirals still look the same. This detailed pattern that repeats itself as it gets smaller is called a fractal pattern. You can find similar patterns in sunflowers, pine cones, ferns, and snowflakes. The florets are also arranged in spirals that follow the Fibonacci number sequence. This is a mathematical phenomenon where the next number is found by the sum of the two preceding numbers. The sequence starts out as 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Sunflowers and pinecones display classic Fibonacci spirals.

 

Nutrition in Romanesco Broccoli

A close up view of the florets of romanesco broccoli.

This vegetable is not just a beautiful centerpiece or mathematical wonder. It is also delicious with a mild, nutty taste, and packed with enough nutrients to qualify as a super food. Like its close cousin broccoli, romanesco only has about 25 calories per cup. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, especially if you eat it fresh and with a minimal of cooking. It is packed with fiber, and high in carotenoids such as beta-carotene, which your body uses to make vitamin A. Romanesco contains many different minerals and vitamins but is a particularly good source of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K and folate.

Like the other cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, to name a few), this food has several phyto nutrients that are powerful antioxidants and cancer fighting chemicals. Just a few of these are isothiocyanatesindole-3-carbinol, flavonols such as kaempferol, and compounds needed for your body to make glutathione.

 

 

 

How to Prepare Romanesco

A head of romanesco with the florets sliced off.

You can cut the florets off the stalk of a romanesco plant just as you would cauliflower or broccoli. Then slice the large ones lengthwise to make smaller pieces. The taste is milder than cauliflower or broccoli, and the florets don’t fall apart as easily when you cook them. This vegetable can be incorporated into all sorts of recipes where you would use broccoli or cauliflower. The simplest cooking method is to steam it or boil it lightly until it is just tender, and then toss with a bit of olive oil and some seasonings. Romanesco is a natural paired up with pasta. The recipe below is a quick, easy and delicious introduction to romanesco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasta Romanesco

  • 1 head of romanesco, cut into bite-size florets
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 pound campanelle pasta, or another similar variety with some thickness and bite
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • grated fresh parmesan cheese

1.  Lightly steam the romanesco until it is tender.

2.  Cook pasta according to package directions, drain and reserve.

2.  Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic, red pepper flakes and simmer for about 5 minutes, taking care not to let the garlic burn. Add tomato paste and mix well. Add lemon juice and stir.

3.  Add romanesco florets and pasta to the oil mixture, and toss to coat all the ingredients. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

A bowl of pasta with romanesco looks good enough to eat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can Have Dark Chocolate without Guilt

A stack of dark chocolate squares.Theobroma Cacao  is one of the richest and most seductive tastes we can find.  It represents luxury, love, sex and guilty pleasure.  We feel like we are addicted to chocolate, even though there are no addictive chemicals there.  If chocolate tastes so good, it must be bad for you, right?  Well, maybe not. There is growing evidence that adding dark chocolate to your diet can actually be beneficial.

Can dark chocolate really be good for you?

Chocolate, or the cacao seed that it is made from, actually has quite a few essential nutrients and phytonutrients.  While nourishing your body, it also releases chemicals that can make your mind feel pretty darn good.  What about the calories and fat you get from eating chocolate?  The trick here is in choosing the right kind of chocolate, so that you are maximizing the nutrients without loading up on the unhealthy added ingredients that will just weigh you down.

History of Chocolate

The cacao fruit was cultivated in Mexico, Central and South America for hundreds of years before Europeans came to this part of the world.  We know this because archaeologists  have found cocoa residue in the cooking vessels from this area.  Cacao seeds were not only consumed, but used as money and accepted as a payment for taxes.

When Columbus discovered the New World he brought the cacao plant back to Europe where the wealthy adopted it as a drink.  Around 1828 a cacao press was invented, which produced cocoa butter.   Add a few extra ingredients and this could be made into a dark chocolate bar, cheaper and more widely available than the cocoa drink of the elite.  In 1876 the Swiss took it one step further and added milk to the bar, producing the more palatable milk chocolate.   You know the rest of the story.  Chocolate today is available in just about every form of confectionary, and combined with almost every flavouring you can dream up,  including passion fruit and chili pepper.

Chocolate is chock full of nutrients.

Unsweetened chocolate is 40-50 % fat, from three types of fat:  palmitic and stearic acids, which are saturated, and oleic acid, which is mono-unsaturated.  A heart healthy diet is made up of more mono and poly-unsaturated fats, so the oleic acid is good.  However studies have shown that stearic acid, the saturated fat in chocolate, does NOT raise blood cholesterol levels.  So as part of your daily fat intake, the type of fats in that are found naturally in chocolate can be beneficial to your health.  When you add milk, butter fat and other ingredients to your chocolate, you have tipped the balance over to ‘”bad” fats which you shouldn’t be eating.

Chocolate is a very good source of magnesium, potassium and iron.  All of these are essential elements we need in our diets.  They help regulate your fluid balance, your heart beat, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and many other functions.  Read more about these essential elements.  Chocolate also has some zinc, copper, calcium, manganese, vitamin A and a handful of B vitamins.

The cacao plant takes it’s name from theobromine, a phytonutrient which can lower blood pressure, relax the bronchial muscles, relieve a cough and acts as a diuretic and a stimulant.  There is a small amount of caffeine in chocolate, but only the equivalent of drinking some decaf coffee.  There are large quantities of phytonutrients in chocolate  known as flavonoids.  These flavonoids are powerful antioxidants, and are present  in greater quantities than red wine and green tea.  One flavonoid, epicatechin mimics the action of insulin,  and can lower the risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes.

A word about flavonoids, flavanol and flavonol.  Flavonoids are a large family of phytonutrients, found in plants.  They include chemicals such as anthocyanidins, flavones, flavanols, flavonols, isoflavones, and yes, even flavanones.  This can get really confusing, and you will see these words misused continuously.  The one we find in chocolate, epicatechin, is a flavanol, which is in the broader category of flavonoid.

An amino acid in chocolate called tryptophan can trigger an increase in serotonin levels in the brain.  Serotonin plays many roles, but one important finding is that low levels of this chemical can lead to depression, anxiety and anger.

Cacao seeds contain a chemical called anandamide which resemble THC, the active chemical of marijuana that gives you a high.  This chemical was named for the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss.  Anandamide works on the same receptors as THC, to give you a feeling of well-being or even a brief euphoria.  I think we’ve all experienced it while eating chocolate!  You won’t get high from eating chocolate, though, because anandamide breaks down much more quickly than THC.

Another brain altering chemical in chocolate is phenylethylamine, or PEA, which is related to amphetamines.  This is also known as the “love drug” which gives chocolate its reputation as an aphrodisiac.  PEA releases dopamine, and temporarily increases blood pressure and blood glucose, creating a feeling of alertness, maybe of passion!

Chocolate and the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is widely recognized now heart healthy, and it seems every week a new study comes out about the benefits of this style of eating.  One such study which was completed in February of 2013 allowed the participants who followed the Mediterranean Diet plan to eat as much dark chocolate as they wanted. This group had a 30% reduction in the risk of heart disease during the study.

A practical plan for getting a daily dose of chocolate.

A one ounce square of bittersweet or semisweet baking chocolate has a minimal amount of sugar added,  just enough to make it delicious.  It has about 140 calories, compared to 210 calories in a Hersheys chocolate bar, 280 in a Snickers bar, 350 calories in a normal-sized piece of chocolate cake with icing, and 290 calories in a Dunkin Donuts chocolate cake donut.  This can easily be worked into your calorie allotment for the day.

Baking chocolate is a concentrated powerhouse of chocolate flavour, and it goes a long way towards taking away any cravings you have for other sweets.  You can also choose from plenty of gourmet dark chocolates on the market which advertise 70% cocoa content, but these are much more expensive.  They are also thin, whereas baking chocolate usually comes in a thick chunk that really takes a while to eat.  Baking chocolate can be had for less than 50 cents an ounce.  Eat it slowly, maybe dipping it in a hot drink and licking the chocolate away as it starts to melt.

Baking chocolate and dark chocolate have more of the healthy antioxidants and phytonutrients than milk chocolate.  Real cocoa is better than hot chocolate mixes, but Dutch cocoa has a lot of flavanols removed in the “dutching” process.  So choose your chocolate wisely, and then enjoy it without a trace of guilt.

Bakers baking chocolate pieces on a white plate.

References and other delicious chocolate web sites:

Nutrition Facts about Chocolate
Chocolate: Food of the Gods
Healthy indulgences: The benefits of chocolate and wine

 

A Gluten Free Label is Good News

A plate of gluten free chocolate chip cookiesThe gluten-free food section at my local store keeps growing, and more and more companies are offering this choice, or simply reminding us that their product doesn’t have gluten. However up until this month there were no rules for this type of labeling. Anyone could claim that their food did not contain gluten. Now the FDA has finally ruled on exactly what a gluten free label means.

Guidelines for a Gluten Free Label

Foods that make this claim can have no more than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. This tiny amount is the lowest level that can be detected with the tools that are available to us today. Congress instructed the FDA to set rules for this type of labeling back in 2004, and the nine year process is finally complete.

What is Celiac Disease?

Gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is a condition where gluten in the diet causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. The intestine is no longer able to absorb the nutrients from many foods, and as a result a person with this condition can suffer symptoms of a whole range of nutritional deficiencies. The only treatment for this disease is to stop eating gluten, and this is why the gluten-free labeling is so important. Gluten intolerant people need to be able to trust that the foods they are eating are really free of gluten.

This rule will also apply to dietary supplements who choose to use gluten free labels. It only applies to food intended for humans, so animal products are still unregulated. The compliance date is August 14, 2014, which gives manufacturers a year to make sure that any foods labeled gluten free meet these requirements.

You can read the text of the final rule and a summary of all the comments and responses that were a part of the decision making process at the Federal Register.

Summer Days of Sunshine and Zucchini

A large zucchini waits to be cooked.If you have a thriving vegetable garden zucchini time can bring on a shower of emotions:  joy and amazement leading into horror and perhaps panic as the monster vegetables seem to multiply overnight. I don’t grow zucchini, but someone recently gave me one of these green giants of the summer. This is a versatile vegetable, with a mild taste that plays well with both sweet and savory foods. From soups to casseroles to breads to desserts, cooks and gardeners have come up with a myriad of ways to cook up their excess. Zucchini is unique among vegetables in the amount of recipes that pair it up with chocolate.

A Bit About Zucchini

The large squash family of vegetables originated in the Americas, and early European explorers carried seeds back to their homelands. Now different types of squash are used extensively in cooking all throughout Europe. The zucchini itself was first grown in Italy, and the name comes from an Italian word meaning little squash.

Zucchini is a good source of vitamin C, providing about a third of the daily requirement in a serving. It also gives you around 10% of your daily dose of vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B6. It contains many essential minerals including copper, molybdenum, magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc, phosphorus and iron. This vegetable provides is a good way to get the phyto-nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids with strong antioxidant properties. All in all this vegetable is a low calorie, low fat and low carbohydrate food packaged up with plenty of fiber and essential nutrients. The fact that it goes so well with chocolate is just an extra bonus.

A large zucchini sliced crossways down the middle.

Large round zucchini slices piled on a cutting board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking With Zucchini

Baked goods that use grated zucchini are deliciously moist due to the large water content locked up in the fibers of this vegetable. You want to grate it just before using, since the water will drain out if you let it sit around.  Breads and chocolate cakes, muffins, cookies and brownies made with zucchini are the stars of the kitchen during the late days of summer.

For an easy way to prepare a monster such as you see in the photos as a main dish, slice it into rounds about ½ inch thick and serve up individual portions of zucchini parmesan. This recipe makes eight large rounds, enough for four large or eight small servings, and it is easily adjustable.

 

Zucchini Parmesan

  • 1 large unpeeled zucchini, sliced into as many ½ inch thick rounds as you would like to serve.
  • 2 eggs, beaten (for about 8 large slices zucchini)
  • about 1 cup of cornmeal
  • olive oil for frying
  • a cup or two of good quality spaghetti sauce
  • 1/4 pound fresh parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated

Fried zucchini slices topped with spaghetti sauce.

Zucchini Parmesan topped with cheese and ready for the oven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Dip slices in beaten egg and then dredge in the cornmeal.
  2. Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet and fry zucchini slices until golden on both sides.
  3. Arrange the fried slices on a large, greased baking sheet in a single layer. Top each with a spoonful of spaghetti sauce, spreading to the edges.
  4. Combine the two cheeses in a bowl. Cover slices with cheese mixture.
  5. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until cheese is browned and bubbling.

 

A serving of zucchini parmesan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are your favorite ways to prepare zucchini?

Artificial Sweeteners and Your Weight

Two things have been on an upward trend in the United States over the past several decades. Americans who consume artificial sweeteners in foods increased from 70 million in 1987 to 160 million in 2000. During that same period obesity rates went from 15% to 30%. Obesity rates were above 35% in 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control, and judging from the amount of these products on grocery shelves I would guess consumption of these sweeteners has also been skyrocketing. If foods with ingredients like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, stevia and sorbitol have less calories, shouldn’t they be helping people to LOSE weight? Is there a link between non-caloric sweeteners and crazy weight gain?

Artificial Sweeteners and Energy Balance

A study that looked at the effects of saccharin on the energy balance of rats was published in the Journal of Behavioural Neuroscience in February 2008. The purpose was to test the hypothesis that when foods that taste sweet do not accurately reflect the amount of calories and the nutritive value coming into the body, then the bodies ability to regulate energy is compromised, and your body stops responding to sweet foods in the tightly regulated way of a healthy metabolism.

In other words, if you continually feed your body foods that taste sweet but don’t deliver the promised load of calories, you may be tampering with the mechanisms that digest sugar and extra carbohydrates.

The sweet tasting but low calorie diet fed to rats in this study had several results that someone watching their weight does not want to see: increased caloric intake at a later meal, increased body weight, and increased body fat. Rats who ate the artificial sweetener also had a poor metabolic response, as measured by thermic or heat response to sweet-tasting foods. A lower temperature in the gut meant they were not expending as much energy to digest these foods as rats eating regular sugar. This lowered thermic response occurred even after they ate foods with a normal load of calories.

The Effects of Diet Soda

If you are wondering whether you should worry at all about experiments performed on rats, there have also been several studies on humans showing the adverse effects of diet soda. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 showed that both sugar sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages produced the same risk for type 2 diabetes. This study followed over 66,000 French women over a period of 9 years.

A study presented at the American Diabetes Association’s Scientific Sessions in June of 2011 followed 477 people over a period of about ten years, measuring height, weight, waist circumference and diet soda intake. The group that reported drinking diet sodas had a 70 percent greater waist circumference increase during that time period.  Some frequent diet soda drinkers had as much as a 500% increase in waist circumference!

In July of 2013 Susan Swithers, who headed up the rat research mentioned at the beginning of this article, published a paper in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and MetabolismShe summarized the accumulating evidence that artificial sweeteners can lead to what she calls metabolic derangement. This is a great name for the condition mentioned earlier where the body “forgets” how to respond to signals of sweetness in food, and doesn’t metabolize sugar properly.

Aside from any possible changes to the metabolism, sweeteners without calories are a poor choice for people who are trying to overcome a sweet tooth and develop healthy eating habits. They are many times sweeter than sugar, and continuing to feed your body these foods just encourages the craving and makes you want to seek out more sweetness.

Most of the research done with humans on this topic looks at diet sodas, but there are also many other foods that contain artificial sweeteners, including yogurt, ice cream, puddings, candy and cookies and those little packets you sprinkle into your coffee or tea.

Artificial sweeteners are already under scrutiny for their possible link with cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukemia, and have been for years. Now we can add obesity and diabetes to the list of reasons not to reach for that diet soda.

Do you depend on artificial sweeteners for that sweet taste you crave? If you are eating less sweet foods, what has worked for you?

More Good News About the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is not just all about delicious food, with its chocolate, nuts and olive oil. Research has begun to show that there is a definite health benefit to this type of cuisine. Lately I wrote about a study showing that the Mediterranean Diet is good for the heart.  Just last month several more studies were published showing it may help to slow down cognitive decline and the aging process, and even help with menopausal symptoms

The Mediterranean Diet and Aging

On April 24, 2013, the International Journal of Molecular Sciences published a review on how the Mediterranean diet can affect aging caused by oxidation. You can download the full text at their web site linked above.

Many of the diseases associated with aging, such as heart disease and cancer, may be caused by the long term effects of damage caused by oxidation. One type of damage is the breakdown of the endothelium, which is the thin layer of cells lining the blood vessels. Another is the accelerated shortening of telomeres, which are protein complexes located at the ends of chromosomes.  Telomere length can determine overall heath, lifespan and the rate at which you age.

These changes may be caused by genetics or things in our environment. Diet is one of the main ways we have to take in antioxidants that can alleviate this damage.  This review pulls together a number of studies that look at the effects of various foods and nutrients on oxidative aging. They cite studies on such foods as resveratrol (found in wine), high fiber diets, caloric restriction, marine omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), and extra virgin olive oil.

The Mediterranean Diet and Cognitive Decline

The second study was published in Neurology on April 30, 2013. The objective was to determine the relationship between Mediterranean Diet and ICI, or  incident cognitive impairment. They began with more than 30,000 individuals, older than 45 years and either white or black but non-Hispanic. By the time they had weeded out those who had a history of stroke or cognitive impairment already, or who did not fill out the food questionnaires properly, they were down to 17,478 participants.

One of the interesting aspects is that this study was conducted at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The subjects were from what is known as the stroke belt of the United States, and people in this area typically follow a most un-Mediterranean-like diet.

The study ran from 2003 to 2007, and most of the data such as health history and diet was self reported by the participants. After correcting for different factors such as environment, demographics, depression and other health problems, those that followed the Mediterranean Diet were 19 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment. An interesting finding was that if a participant had diabetes, as 17% of them did, following the Mediterranean Diet did not protect them from cognitive decline.

Granted, four years is not a long period of time to test cognitive decline, and such a young population might not be showing signs of dementia. They used a general test to measure cognitive decline which did not specify exactly what types of cognitive impairment were occurring. So it is too early to say that this diet will prevent specific diseases like dementia or Alzheimers.

You can download a pdf or read the text version of the study at the Cambridge University Press.

Help for Hot Flashes from the Mediterranean Diet

A third study published in April in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that women following a Mediterranean-type diet consisting of garlic, salad greens, pasta, red wine and various fruits were 20 percent less likely to report hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause. This was compared to a group of women eating a diet high in fats and sugar. Over 6000 women participated in this study over a nine year period. It would be interesting to know if there is a specific food that has this effect, or if it is  a synergy of several different ingredients. I might add a little more red wine to my diet if I thought it would help.

Have you tried the Mediterranean Diet?