February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”
February 19, 2013
In the culinary world, it’s clear that the last decade has been a fairly salt-centric one. In the early 2000s, chefs returned to the tradition of salting meat several hours to several days in advance of cooking it. And Thomas Keller, famed French Laundry chef, called salt “the new olive oil.”
“It’s what makes food taste good,” said Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. And they’re right, of course; salt is an easy win, whether you’re cooking at home or in a professional setting. But has our love for the stuff gone too far?
In this meditation on American chefs’ love of salt for TIME Magazine, written around the time a New York state legislator proposed banning it from restaurant kitchens, Josh Ozersky wrote:
The food marketplace is under constant pressure to make everything tastier, more explosive, more exciting, and salt is everyone’s go-to flavor enhancer because it opens up the taste buds. It’s basically cocaine for the palate — a white powder that makes everything your mouth encounters seem vivid and fun … The saltier foods are, the more we like them. And the more we like them, the more salt we get.
How do we slow down the treadmill? Well, for some, it’s not a choice. Take Jessica Goldman Foung – a.k.a. Sodium Girl. She’s been on a strict low-sodium, salt-free diet since she was diagnosed with lupus in 2004 and faced kidney failure.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” she recalls. “I could be on dialysis for the rest of my life, or I could try to radically change my diet. I already knew food was very powerful healer, so I figured I would try that first.”
Using the few low-sodium cookbooks she could find, Goldman Foung taught herself to cook. The books were helpful, but they were also written for an older population.
“They looked like text books, there was no color photography,” she says. “These were recipes that would prevent congestive heart failure, but they weren’t what you’d pull out before having dinner guests over.”
When she started blogging and writing her own recipes (and occasionally finding ways to visit restaurants, with the help of some very generous chefs), Goldman Foung decided to take a different approach. “I didn’t want to apologize for the fact that it was salt-free. I wanted to make something so good, the fact that was salt-free would be an after-thought.”
So Goldman Foung went about experimenting with ways to build flavor without sodium, all while keeping a detailed record on her blog. And this month, as collection of recipes and tips called Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook will appear on shelves, where she hopes it can impact the larger conversation around sodium.
Rather than just getting rid of the salt, Goldman Foung has also developed a finely-tuned sense of how sodium work in all foods.
Goldman Foung has experimented with a range of spices, but before she does that, she looks to whole foods for a variety of flavors. “You don’t even have to go to the spice rack. You can get peppery taste from raw turnips and radishes, you can get bitter taste from chicories, and natural umami from tomatoes and mushrooms. And you can get actual saltiness from a lot of foods themselves.
“Understanding where the sodium comes from helps you reduce it, but it also helps you utilize it to really increase flavor in your cooking,” she says. Beets and celery, for instance, are naturally higher in sodium than other vegetables, so Goldman Foung began using them to impart a “salty flavor” in things like Bloody Marys, pasta sauces, and soup bases. But they’re not the only foods have some that contain sodium. Take cantaloupes; it has 40 mg of sodium per serving, “which is probably why it pairs so well with Proscciuto,” Goldman Foung adds.
She also recommends playing around with other unlikely ingredients – oils, beer, etc. — and modes of cooking (think roasting or smoking) if you’re looking to eat less salt. Her latest fascination has been tamarind paste, which she uses to make a low-sodium teriyaki sauce (see below).
As Goldman Foung sees it, most Americans have developed a dependence on salt, and other high-sodium ingredients, without realizing it. But a gradual decrease in their use can open up a sensory realm many of us are missing out on.
“Once you really do adjust to less salt and actually start tasting your food, it’s a pretty stunning experience,” says Goldman Foung. “After tasting, say, grilled meat or a roasted pepper for the first time after losing the salt, you need very little else.”
The recipe below has been excerpted from Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook.
Tamarind “Teriyaki” Chicken Skewers
Long before I discovered my love of sashimi, I fell in love with the viscous, sweet taste of teriyaki. With anywhere from 300 to 700mg of sodium per tablespoon, however, teriyaki chicken from the local takeout is now out of the question. So, to meet my cravings, I let go of the original dish and focused on finding a substitute with a similar color, thick coating, and unique flavor. The low-sodium answer lay in tamarind paste — a sweet and tart concentrate made from tamarind seed pods. It is popular in Indian, Middle Eastern, and East Asian cuisines, and can even be found in Worcestershire sauce. Its acidic properties help tenderize meat, and in Ayurvedic medicine it is said to have heart-protecting properties. Or in Western medicine speak, it may help lower bad cholesterol.
While it is no teriyaki, this tamarind sauce sure makes a convincing look-alike. The savory sweetness of the tamarind will delight your palate. If you have any leftover herbs in your kitchen, like mint, cilantro, or even some green onion, dice and sprinkle them over the chicken at the end for some extra color and cool flavor. And to make a traditional bento presentation, serve with a slice of orange and crisp lettuce salad.
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute with pomegranate molasses)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons molasses
1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
3 garlic cloves, diced
3⁄4 cup water plus 2 tablespoons
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 teaspoons sesame oil
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1⁄2-inch-wide strips
White toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
2 green onions, thinly sliced (everything but the bulb), for garnish
+ In a small pot or saucepan, mix together the first 7 ingredients (tamarind paste to 3⁄4 cup water). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to low and cook for 10 minutes.
+ In a separate bowl, mix the cornstarch with the 2 tablespoons of water until it is dissolved and smooth. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pot and stir until it is well combined and the sauce begins to thicken like a glaze. Continue to cook and reduce by one third, 2 to 3 minutes. Then turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pot with a lid to keep the sauce warm.
+ In a large skillet, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add your chicken pieces and about a quarter of the sauce and cook for 5 minutes without stirring. Then toss the chicken pieces, doing your best to flip them over, adding another quarter of the sauce. Cook until the inside of the meat is white, 6 to 8 minutes more.
+ Remove the chicken from the heat and allow it to rest until the pieces are cool enough to handle. Weave the chicken onto the bamboo skewers, about 4 per skewer, and lay them flat on a serving dish or a large plate. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the skewers and sprinkle with white toasted sesame seeds and the sliced green onions. Serve and eat immediately.
+ Sodium count: Tamarind paste: 20mg per ounce depending on brand; Molasses: 10mg per 1 tablespoon; Chicken thigh (with skin): 87mg per 1⁄4 pound.
January 14, 2013
Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, “Are we a nation of soul food junkies?” The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” premiering tonight on PBS.
The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food’s history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant’s early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother’s collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That’s how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family’s cultural culinary traditions but it’s also a big part of my “family.” If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you’ll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it’s persisted and is so popular?
Well, it’s a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It’s hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what’s going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
Where does some of the resistance to change come from?
I think the sentiment that a lot of people have is that this is the food that my grandmother ate, that my great-grandfather ate, and my great-great-grandfather ate, and if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me, and why should I change something that has been in my family for generations?
How were you able to make the change?
Through education and awareness. There was this woman I was interested in dating years ago, when I first graduated from college. So I invited her over to my apartment and I wanted to impress her so I decided to cook her some fried chicken. I learned how to cook fried chicken from my mother.
She came over and I had the chicken seasoned up and ready to put into this huge vat of grease that had been cooking and boiling for awhile. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Are you going to put that chicken inside that grease?”
That was the first time that anyone had sort of challenged that. To me it was normal to cook fried chicken. Her mother was a nutritionist and so she grew up in a household where she was very educated about health and nutrition. So she said, this is not healthy. I had never been challenged before, she was someone I was interested in, so from that day forward I started to really reconsider how I was preparing my chicken.
When she challenged you, did you take it personally at first?
I think I was a little embarrassed. It was like she knew something that I didn’t know, and she was sort of rejecting something that was really important to me, so I felt a little embarrassed, a little bit ashamed. But I wasn’t offended by it. It was almost like, “Wow, this person knows something that I don’t, so let me listen to what she has to say about it,” and that’s pretty much how I took it.
How would you describe your relationship with soul food today?
I do eat foods that are a part of the soul food tradition but I just eat them very differently than how I ate them growing up. I drink kale smoothies in the morning. If I go to a soul food restaurant, I’ll have a vegetarian plate. I’ll typically stay away from the meats and the poultry.
The film looks beyond soul food to the issue of food deserts and presents a lot of people in those communities organizing gardens and farmers markets and other programs. Were you left feeling hopeful or frustrated?
I’m very hopeful. There are people around the country doing great things around food justice and educating people who don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables on how they can eat better and have access to foods right in their neighborhoods…I think that we’re in the midst of a movement right now.
How are people reacting to the film?
I think the film is really resonating with people, especially among African American people because this is the first film that I know of that speaks directly to an African American audience in ways that Food, Inc., Supersize Me, King Corn, The Future of Food, Forks over Knives and other films don’t necessarily speak to people of color. So this is really making people talk.
July 19, 2012
Beating the lazy, mid-afternoon summer heat with a cold energy drink?
Energy drinks are a staple among active Americans, who substitute the canned, sugary beverages for coffee or tea and have launched brands like Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar to the top of a $7.7 billion industry. Not only do energy drinks pack a caffeine-punch, they are filled with energy-boosting supplements.
It’s a tough call whether the benefits associated with supplemental boosters outweigh all the unhealthy sugars that give energy drinks their sweet flavor. Red Bull contains 3.19 grams of sugar per fluid ounce, Monster contains 3.38 g/oz. and Rockstar has 3.75 g/oz. Marketed as health drinks, energy drinks are as high in sugar as classic Coca-Cola, which contains 3.25 g/oz. of sugar.
So what exactly are those “energy-boosting natural supplements” that supposedly set energy drinks apart from other sugary beverages — and how do they affect the bodies of those who consume energy drinks?
Taurine: Although it sounds as though it was dreamed up in a test-lab, taurine isn’t foreign to the human body. Its name stems from the fact it was first discovered and isolated from ox bile, but the naturally-occurring supplement is the second-most abundant amino acid in our brain tissue, and is also found in our bloodstream and the nervous system.
The taurine used in energy drinks is produced synthetically in commercial laboratories. Since excess taurine is excreted by the kidneys, it’s improbable that someone could overdose on the supplemental form. To be on the safe side, one expert recommends staying under 3,000 mg per day. Animal experiments have shown that taurine acts as an antioxidant and may have anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic properties. Some studies have even suggested that dosages of the amino acid may help to stave off age-related bodily degeneration.
And taurine’s anti-anxiety effects might be useful when consumed as part of an energy drink; the amount of accompanying stimulant found in popular beverages is capable of causing some seriously anxious jitters.
Guarana: The caffeine component of many energy drinks is guarana, which comes from a flowering plant native to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most people in South America get their caffeine intake from the guarana plant rather than coffee beans. Guarana seeds are about the same size as a coffee bean, but their caffeine potency can be up to three times as strong.
Both coffee and guarana have weight-loss inducing effects through the suppression of appetite, a common side-effect of caffeine. Although caffeine can improve mental alertness, it can also cause dizziness, nervousness, insomnia, increased heart rate and stomach irritation.
Ginseng: Some of the most interesting, if not debatable, effects come from supplemental Panax ginseng, which is included in 200mg doses in several energy drink brands. As a traditional herbal treatment associated with East Asian medicines, ginseng has many folkloric uses — although many of those uses are not proven scientifically. Rumored uses for ginseng have included improved psychologic functioning, boosted immune defenses and increased sexual performance and desire.
Myths aside, ginseng does offer some attractive benefits. Studies have indicated positive correlation between daily ginseng intake and improved immune system responses, suggesting ginseng has anti-bacterial qualities in addition to boosting a body’s “good” cells.
Ginseng has also been shown in animal and clinical studies to have anticancer properties, due to the presence of ginsenosides within the extract of the plant. Ginsenosides are a type of saponins, which act to protect the plant from microbes and fungal and have been described as being “tumor killers”. Scientists are still working to understand the effects of ginseng supplements for use in preventative and post-diagnosis cancer treatment.
Energy drinks may be overhyped as a source of supplemental substances. All of the supplements found in energy drinks can be bought individually as dietary supplements, which allows consumers to ingest the substances without the complementary sugar load found in energy drinks.
Please, though, if you’ve ever sprouted wings after chugging back an energy drink, we’d like to be the first to know.
April 30, 2012
In 1933, James Hilton, a British novelist who read about travels in Yunnan Province in National Geographic magazine, wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which describes a mythical kingdom set far, far away from the rest of time: Shangri-La. Three years later, Frank Capra turned Hilton’s paperback best-seller into a film. The place entered our lexicon as an earthly retreat from the worries of modern civilization.
The fictional Shangri-La appears to be an amalgam of Yunnan Province and Tibet. But the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan became, in the American mind, the closest thing to the real-life incarnations of the people of Shangri-La. The Hunzakut people reportedly lived to be 100 and had a practically illness-free existence in an inaccessible mountain valley. Paeans to healthy Hunza proliferated. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist reported that Hunza men could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. In 1960, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial extolling the virtues of the Hunza diet as a harbinger of hope for human longevity and modern medicine.
“Hunzaphilia” is one of the many compelling (if a bit chronologically disordered) stories in historian Harvey Levenstein’s new book Fear of Food. The natural, edible fountain of eternal Himalayan youth fit into a long line of claims about exceptional longevity—except that, at least among the Hunzakut, it contradicted the truth. One Japanese doctor, Levenstein writes, reported “rampant signs of poor health and malnutrition—goiter, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis—as well as what seemed to be horrific levels of infant and child mortality, which are also signs of poor nutrition.”
Nonetheless, the idea that these healthy people cut off from the rest of the world could live practically forever would persist, Levenstein writes, thanks in part to an ex-I.R.S. employee named Jerome Irving Rodale. Like Hilton, he had never traveled to the Hunza Valley, but Rodale was well-versed in the robust genre of books touting the Hunza—including both Robert McCarrison’s 1921 Studies in Deficiency Disease and G.T. Wrench’s 1938 The Wheel of Health, one of the basic texts of the health food movement.
Rodale’s book The Healthy Hunzas attributed their longevity to whole grains, dried apricots and almonds, as well as breastfeeding, relatively low alcohol use and plenty of exercise. “They are a group of 20,000 people, none of whom dies of cancer or drops dead with heart disease. In fact, heart trouble is completely unknown in that country! Feeble-mindedness and mental debilitations which are dangerously rampant in the United States are likewise alien to the vigorous Hunzas.”
Later, Rodale founded Prevention magazine, and Levenstein writes, “It regularly used the Hunza as examples of how eating natural foods could ward off the illnesses caused by the over-civilized diet.” By avoiding modern science and with it the ills of modern society—all on the basis of what it was not—Rodale’s exaltation of a more “primitive” people paved the way for the Paleolithic Diet, the Primitive Diet and the modern natural foods movement as a whole.
Yet Hunza health and longevity remains apocryphal, and Rodale himself left us with one of the movement’s more dramatic cautionary notes. One week after telling Wade Greene, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, “I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” Rodale went on the Dick Cavett show, served some asparagus boiled in urine, and then died on Cavett’s couch. He was 72.
Image: Wind-powered apricot cracker via Nigel Allan/Geographic Review, 1990.