Artificial sweeteners are typically off the list of foods recommended by holistic nutritionists for many reasons. Historically these have largely been to do with neurological, metabolic or carcinogenic concerns.
Here’s a new mouse study on Sucralose (trade names Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren, Nevella) which says that it probably does cause or contribute to tumour growth. As we have been learning in recent years, gut bacteria in the human microbiome are instrumental in protecting us from pathogens, including carcinogens.
Which is one of the problems with the speed of knowledge advancement in science. We’ve only been aware of the importance of the human microbiome for a matter of years, not even decades, so it’s no surprise that public health policy can’t keep up.
So really. If these synthetic substances are probable carcinogens, cause glucose intolerance, and are harmful to our own gut bacteria, it seems pretty irresponsible to be sharing them with the wild aquatic and bacterial populations in our environments. A failure of holistic thinking, as usual, at work here, as we also don’t know to what extent these substances will work their way through the food chain, or what effects there may be upon the ecosystems affected.
The only viable alternative to artificial sweeteners, so far, is stevia extract, but even here there are cautions. Avoid highly processed, flavoured or alcohol-based versions: go for the purest version you can find. You may even wish to grow it yourself, and dry and grind the leaves.
Are you getting muscle cramps? Palpitations? Constipated? There are a number of causes for such symptoms, but one of them may be a common and easy-to-fix culprit: potassium deficiency.
Potassiumis an essential mineral, and one of the electrolytes upon which our bodies depend to convey electrical messages across our cell membranes. They are essential in muscle and nerve function. Other electrolytes include sodium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate. For good health, electrolytes, like so much in our bodies, must be in balance, and the best sources are from food. Deficiencies and excesses are common in these ill-fed times.
Electrolyte imbalances can occur with age, dehydration (from exercise, heat exhaustion or inadequate fluid intake), eating disorders, vomiting and diarrhea, or chronic conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Because of the link to muscle function, heart disease and stroke have a strong association with electrolyte imbalances, and potassium deficiency in particular.
Imbalances in sodium and potassium are the most common in North American diets, where we typically consume more sodium than we need, and too little potassium. Because we rely on our kidneys to filter out excess electrolytes, people with kidney disease or impaired kidney function – such as the elderly, people with high blood pressure and/or diabetes – are at particular risk of imbalances. People on blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors or beta blockers as well as over-the-counter painkillers such as Ibuprofen or Aspirin may have excess potassium, while thiazide diuretics, steroids and laxatives deplete it.
Overall, potassium is needed for proper function of the heart, kidneys, muscles, nerves, and digestive system, and helps to regulate fluid balance, the body’s acid-base balance, bone health, and blood pressure.
It seems few adults reach the RDA of 4700 mg potassium/day. This will be particularly true for those eating diets high in processed foods and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, since processing depletes foods of potassium, and it’s not commonly added to processed foods. Moreover, there’s a gender gap. According to the World Health Organization,
Women consistently have lower levels of potassium intake than men, but both groups commonly consume a level that is below current recommendations.
Getting the balance of all electrolytes right is, as usual, down to eating a balanced, varied diet, and drinking enough water. Supplementationisn’t normally recommended, because you may not know if your kidneys are under-performing, and because of the complicating factors of medications and undiagnosed conditions.
Most people know that bananas are a good source of potassium (an average of 422 mg for a medium-sized one) but even better sources are potatoes (610 mg for a smallish one) or sweet potatoes (694 mg) – both with skin – or a cup of butternutsquash (600 mg). A large raw carrot is around 233 mg, while a cup of avocado has 727 mg.
Fish/animal protein sources are relatively high too: 3 ounces (=84g) of fish such as salmon (528 mg) or halibut (490 mg) or chicken (around 550 mg); a pork loin chop (700 mg) or 6oz rib eye steak (around 600 mg). A cup of plain, full-fat yogurt is 380 mg;
Vegans and vegetarians can depend on protein sources such as beans; pinto (616 mg/cup) are highest (tofu is pretty low, at 121 mg per 100g). 100g of hazelnuts (about 2/3 cup) is 755 mg; same amount of almonds is around 700 mg.
A cup of tomato juice is around 430 mg, half a cup of prunes is about 700 mg, and a large fresh peach is 333 mg. Best of all, you’ll get 500-700 mg from a 100g bar of chocolate (dark – with >72% cocoa solids – has more than milk chocolate, and of course adding nuts will increase the value further!)
I had a low carb dinner party last weekend as I’m trying out some new recipes to suit people trying to lower their carb and sugar intake. It worked well, despite the nail-biting and ill-advised practice of trying out untried recipes on dinner guests, and I share with you the menu. Which also happens to be gluten-free.
Starters (shown): Almond-rosemary-parmesan crackers (around .25g net carbs/srv); cold-smoked Spring salmon (0g carbs/srv), Daikon radish slices (1g carbs/srv), red peppers (3g/half cup), turkey liver mousse (0.7g/srv). For the mousse, I adapted this beautiful recipe with its parsley and fennel frond gelée. It was very good on both the red pepper and the crackers. The crackers were based on this recipe (but I used whole egg, added some almond meal – unblanched unpeeled almonds – as well as ground flax and poppyseed to give it a bit more fibre and oomph).
Moving right along, for the main course, we had a sausage, bean and collard casserole (about 17.2 g net carbs/serving), with cauliflower mash (1.6g/srv) and a fennel and blood orange salad (5g/srv). The casserole was based on this slow cooker recipe (but wouldn’t fit in my small cooker, so was baked in a 325f oven for an hour or so). I mashed the cauliflower with butter, sour cream and a dash of whipping cream, plus a pinch of cumin, salt and pepper. There was also a not-very-low-carb-but-very-popular side dish, the highly delicious Squash with Chile Yogurt Cilantro Sauce (20 net carbs/srv) from Ottolenghi’s Plenty More cookbook (the recipe says 4 servings – I’d say more like 8). Which I have been eating all winter for breakfast, lunch or dinner, using butternut and hubbard squash as the base. So high in vitamin A and potassium you can forgive it its sweet more-ishness.
I added almond flour-based seed buns (about 9.3 g net carbs for 1/4 of the recipe) to the table, which was very well received. It didn’t rise as high as the first time I’d made it, no doubt due to the extra seeds and almond meal I’d added to the recipe. I soaked the seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame) overnight to reduce the phytic acid content (I’ll try soaking the almond flour and meal too next time). Doesn’t matter if it’s somewhat flat – it’s very good. (And very expensive to make, with the price of almond flour nowadays!)
The disappointment was the dessert, which was a low-carb Chocolate Souffle Cheesecake (about 8.2 net carbs/srv, made with semisweet baking chocolate). It was dry and crumbly, but edible with whipped cream and toasted walnuts (another gram or so of carbs). Before I give up on it – and how can I with 4 ingredients, no added sugar and all those health benefits? – I’ll try undercooking it in a deeper pan. And will be using a better quality chocolate (at least 70% but ideally, to my taste, more around the 80% cocoa solids).
One of the most entertaining depictions I’ve seen of the whole cholesterol debate, from Fat Head. It explains how the lipid hypothesis (saturated fat = heart disease) gained popularity, and shows how inflammation in arteries causes plaque, not cholesterol. Essential viewing for those being told to cut fat from their diets.
Naughton did, it must be said, succeed in losing weight over the course of his film by eating only McDonald’s. That doesn’t make it a recommended diet, but it raises uncomfortable questions, as the film says, for people who blame fast foods – and the people who eat them – for the cultural rise in obesity. It offers a few alternative theories for that trend: the downward change in the US definition of ‘obese’, the percentage rise in the US of populations genetically prone to higher body fat, the increase in sedentary behaviour (this after previously citing Gary Taubes’ finding that exercise – though recommended for all kinds of reasons – does not play a part in weight loss), the higher average age of the population, the increase in snacking, and the increase in consumption of sugary drinks. And both films rightly point to carbs and sugar as being in excess in fast foods.
This is one of the loveliest valentines boxes I’ve seen. What says love more enduringly than a whole garden’s worth of seeds?
I’ve been loving the fruits of my garden this (pre-)spring: the kale, the leeks, the collards, celery, parsley and mustard greens that have overwintered and become sweet and nourishing. I can’t wait for the exquisitely tender spring shoots and flower heads that will soon start branching off those brassicas. All these things that are best eaten straight from the garden, rather than after weeks in containers and warehouses – since storage diminishes the vitamins and enzymes you find in freshly-harvested foods.
Feed myself with leafy greens though I may, I wouldn’t say I’m the most gifted gardener on the planet. (If I were I might not have chosen a house with a north-facing garden encircled by Garry Oak trees!) But I have been blessed with exceptional teachers, friends and neighbours who’ve shared their wisdom, seeds, seedlings and techniques.
Nutritionists, chefs and environmentalists have long recommended against the use of Teflon cookware, especially when scratched. Its negative effects are magnified by heating, so cast iron, stainless steel, pyrex and other more stable materials have always been preferred options. Why? Read on.
But now Teflon’s chemical component, perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, PTFE or C8, has received much more scrutiny recently, thanks to a curious and dedicated lawyer who followed the chem-trail for us. New information is surfacing about its role in a host of medical problems: bladder cancer, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
The problem for 21st century consumers is that Teflon has slipped into every aspect of our lives. It’s made life easier, more convenient in many ways. Its qualities – slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable (though not in all aspects, as we now know), and with an extremely high melting point – are unsurpassed by safer substances. Its harmful effects have been uncovered gradually in the years since its discovery in 1938.
It’s not just found on frying pans (and cooking without it requires skill – in a generation already lacking basic culinary know-how), but also on irons, bicycle chains, eyeglasses, skis, plumbing tape, cooking and industrial tools, ironing board covers, tennis racquets, medical devices, electronics, scissors, fabrics and of course muffin tins. (Tried to find a cookie sheet without nonstick coating lately?) All those items shed the coating over time (think about that worn-out frying pan – where did the coating go?) which we variously eat, breathe and absorb, or which finds its way into air, groundwater and soil.
Some estimate that the C8 already released into our environment will take about 2,000 years to disappear, were we to cease producing and using it now. But at the pointy end, manufacturers are phasing out production voluntarily. The only tool we have to avoid it from environmental sources is to use water filtration systems. I’d say it’s still worth doing a new year review of your cookware to lessen your home exposure thought.
Good to see The Lancet looking critically at obesity – which will cripple public health systems in the years to come, through its association with diabetes, cancers and other chronic conditions. Sugar taxes, the article notes, are not the only solution. (Personally I think they’d be a helpful start, given the rampant consumption of needlessly sweetened foods and beverages in the Western world. On the other hand, added sugars are only part of what the body metabolizes as sugar: processed carbohydrates are surely having an equal effect, and are harder for consumers to recognize as problematic.) Clearly dietary, environmental, commercial, metabolic, microbial and lifestyle causes and solutions need urgent study by government funders and health researchers.
The UK report referenced in The Lancet’s article, Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action (October 2015) lays bare a number of relevant issues and is worth a read. But even it ultimately bangs its head on the desk in dismay: no easy solution, it says. “No single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes. This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food.”
To put it mildly, as the Lancet does:
“Obesity needs much more serious attention than countries and global health organisations are currently prepared to give.”
We need to rethink our attitude to weeds. Wild greens are high in phytonutrients, the chemical compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories in human health. Many are deep-rooted and bring minerals and micronutrients into their leaves and flowers. Their dark berries and medicinal properties offer a compendium of nutritional or healing benefits cast aside with the advent of industrial agriculture and profit-oriented pharmaceuticals. Cretan cuisine, on which the Mediterranean Diet was modeled, features freshly gathered wild greens, which may have as much to do with the heart-protective effect of the diet as the olive oil, fresh produce and seafood. Having once experienced a wild greens forage in Crete, I was charmed to have the chance to experience an urban Victoria version.
Gather Victoria is the clever and creative partnership of two aspiring herbalists, Jennifer Aikman and Danielle Prohom Olson, whose mission is to share what they know about the wild edibles growing on our doorstep. To this end they offer periodic tours and tastings in Victoria.
So, last weekend, in the company of a dozen or so like-minded others, I braved a chilly damp afternoon picking weeds from lawns and alleyways.
We started off with the easiest to identify – dandelion. Its leaves, in spring, before the flower buds, make excellent salad greens. Its roots, peeled and roasted, are a well known coffee substitute. But also, as Jennifer observed, the roasted root can add a boost to baking (we had dandelion-enhanced brownies later), and bitter leaves – added to smoothies or stir fries? – are helpful for the liver (stimulating bile production). She takes a daily tincture of dandelion root to this end. Danielle showed us cat’s ear, commonly confused with dandelion. Its (young) leaves are also edible, though a bit hairy, in salads, stir-fries or pesto, and its flower buds make good capers. The root can also be roasted.
We moved on to violets – like dandelion, introduced by colonists and now running rampant. Their flowers are versatile: handsome additions to salads that can also be crystallized into candies, infused and made into jellies and syrups. The mucilaginous leaves too can be cooked or added to salads. Yarrow, frequently confused with wild carrot, can be identified by its white (or pink) flower. Its leaves have many medicinal properties and as an herb it pairs well with meat and soups. German chamomile is well known as a tea (dried flowers and leaves); its leaves can be used in salads, and its flower centres pickled.
Mallow (Malva parviflora, “cheeseweed”) root can be infused as a remedy for joint pain; its greens are edible and somewhat mucilaginous, ideal for holding together veggie burgers. The fruiting heads (“cheese wheels“) are crisp and slightly gummy pea-like morsels. Mahonia (Oregon grape) has tart, edible yellow flowers and very tart blue-black fruit, which makes excellent jellies and syrups. We found an ornamental variety in full bloom; Mahonia Nervosa (wild variety) root has valuable medicinal properties.
Plantain is known by First Nations people as “White man’s footsteps” so merrily has it spread in the wake of colonists. Its leaves can serve as a spinach substitute or salad green, and the plant has an ancient history as a medicinal cure-all. We all know holly berries are toxic (a powerful purgative, in fact) but its leaves make a fine, astringent tea. Jennifer chops the leaves and steeps them overnight. Nettles are probably one of the best known wild foods, a popular tea, boasting its own springtime festivals, pesto and soup recipes. Jennifer recommends harvesting only the top buds, preferably in the spring, and never when the plant is going to seed; at that point, harvest the seeds which are adaptogens, and high in protein.
Chickweed is a fairly well known salad green, a little like a particularly flavoursome baby spinach; and Miner’s Lettuce seems to change its shape later in the season – lilypad shaped over the summer, surrounding its tiny white flower, it looks simply heart-shaped in fall. It’s been adopted by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste as one of Canada’s defining regional foods, so you are likely to find it on the menus of locavore restaurants. White clover, a legume which benefits our lawns by fixing nitrogen, is an edible flower which can be dried and ground into a high-protein pea flour with, yes, medicinal properties.
Curly or yellow dock seed is another source of flour: this wild buckwheat can be ground, chaff and seeds; its leaves used as pot herbs in soups and stews. The leaves do contain oxalic acid so should be consumed raw in limited quantities for those prone to calcium oxalate kidney stones, but cooking renders them a bit safer in this regard.
There was more, much more: daisy buds can be pickled for capers; milk thistle, shorn of spines, can be cooked as a green or used in soups and stews, its seeds a long-valued liver treatment; grand fir, its flavour like grapefruit, makes a tea or custard flavouring; elderberries, most famous for wine, make an excellent syrup to ward off colds, their flowers made into cordials; borage flowers can be candied, and leaves dried for tea; licorice fern root-infused honey can be used for coughs and the root dried for candy; sumac buds, soaked overnight make ‘sumac lemonade’; shepherd’s purse is a delicious salad or cooked green; and Hawthorn, which can be used (without seeds) as a tincture for cardiovascular health and blood pressure regulation, and as a fruit for jams and ketchups.
And at last we headed indoors, out of the chill, to warm ourselves on herbal teas and a magnificent spread of wild comestibles. My particular favourites were the hung cheeses (made from strained Greek Yogurt and flavoured with wild herbs) on fennel crackers with black hawthorn ketchup. An excellent afternoon’s work, and I’m much looking forward to the next gathering.