On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Josey Baker’s Awesome Adventure Bread (gluten free!)

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I figured a gluten free recipe might be a nice balancing gesture after Erik’s gluten post of last Friday. We love our gluten intolerant friends, and want to feed them well.

We are also continuing our love affair with Josey Baker’s new book, Josey Baker Bread. While Erik is the Bread Master in our house, I step up to the oven sometimes, when I really want to try something.

One thing I really wanted out of this book was a loaf of what Baker calls “Adventure Bread” which by the photo looked to be trail mix in loaf form. Baker says he developed it in response to the many requests he received for gluten-free bread. Wisely, he decided that instead of trying to replicate real bread without gluten, he’d make something entirely different.

It works. It’s made of nuts, seeds and oats, moistened with oil and water and held together with chia and psyillium husks…

[Psyllium what? We’d never used psyllium seed husks before, but they are apparently used in gluten free baking to help bind ingredients–like chia, they are mucilaginous. We found them in the dietary supplement section of Whole Foods, for what it’s worth. Be sure to get the husks, not powdered psyllium seed, which is a laxative.(!) ]

…No yeast. No grain other than oats. It is tasty and moist and sliceable. Better still, its easy to make! Seriously, it’s foolproof. If you have bread baking anxieties, just leave those behind. Making this “bread” is easier than making cookies.

In texture, Adventure Bread  could belong to that camp of dense Nordic/Germanic breads, like Vollkornbrot, but its nutty nature sets it apart. The only thing I don’t love about it is the pumpkin seeds–I don’t like their slippery texture so much in this context. Next time I may switch those out. I’m going camping this weekend, and am taking this “bread” with me. Now that I’ve baked it, I suspect I could take this bread and nothing else to eat, and I’d never be hungry.

Geek moment: You know how in the Lord of the Rings the Elves have a travel food called lembas? One bite will fill a man’s stomach, etc.?  When I cut the first slice of this loaf, I cut the slice in half and gave one piece to Erik. It was first thing in the morning, before breakfast. We both nibbled our halves thoughtfully, and then I said, “Well, I guess I don’t need breakfast.”  It’s that filling. It’s our lembas.

(N.B. Despite being tall and skinny, Erik has the stomach of a Hobbit and managed to eat our lembas bread and breakfast that morning. And second breakfast. And elevenses.)

legalos with lembas bread

The heartiness of this bread drove me to an Internet calorie calculator to figure out how many calories I might be downing with every slice. The loaf weighed about 2lbs, 11 oz./1230 g. (I have to guesstimate because we ate a slice before I weighed it.)

Adding up the calories for all the ingredients for one loaf,  I arrived at 4974 calories. As a comparison, a plain loaf of bread made with 500 g. of whole wheat flour has about 1667 calories.

Figuring out the number of calories per gram for the Adventure Loaf, and then weighing a 1/3″ slice of the bread, I arrived at a calculation of roughly 300 calories per slice. So yeah, lembas.

But this is good! This is healthy, efficient eating. Thing is, if you eat a slice of this stuff,  and you seriously are done with food for a while. It’s not like lesser foods which you just keep eating and eating, searching for satiation. Nor is it something your stomach will burn through in an hour or so, sending you back to the kitchen for more snacks. No siree. One slice of this and you’re good to go for a long time.

For the actual recipe, I’m going to direct you to davidlevoitz.com, because he got actual official permission from the publisher to reproduce the recipe–and as a bonus, there’s also a write up on Baker himself. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

Update after living with loaf for a few days: I second Baker’s recommendation to serve it thinly sliced and toasted, smeared with a little something sweet. It’s best that way. But I did just get back from a camping trip with the bread, and it’s fine un-toasted. It got a little damp in the cooler, and so lost some charm, but still fed me very well. It shows no sign of getting stale, or even knowing the meaning of “stale.”

Continue reading…

Gluten Intolerance . . . Is It All In Your Head?

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As a co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers I go to a lot of public events where someone will walk up to me and announce that they are gluten intolerant. Their stories of getting off bread have the flavor of a religious conversion. My defensive reaction (I help run a bread club, after all) smacks of religious zealotry.

We know with a great deal of certainty that gluten intolerance in the form of celiac disease effects slightly less than one percent of the population. That actually makes it one of the most common allergies disorders related to food. But a much larger percentage of people self-diagnose as gluten intolerant who do not have celiac disease. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, kicked the gluten intolerance self-diagnosis trend into overdrive with a 2011 study that showed a large percentage of the population (those without celiac disease) as having a problem with gluten.

Gibson decided to take another look at gluten intolerance and construct a much more rigorous study in which all the meals were provided to the subjects and all urine and feces were analyzed. An article at Real Clear Science summarizes the results:

Analyzing the data, Gibson found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. Reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas all increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Even in the second experiment, when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, subjects reported a worsening of symptoms! The data clearly indicated that a nocebo effect, the same reaction that prompts some people to get sick from wind turbines and wireless internet, was at work here. Patients reported gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause. Gluten wasn’t the culprit; the cause was likely psychological. Participants expected the diets to make them sick, and so they did. The finding led Gibson to the opposite conclusion of his 2011 research:

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

Nocebos, incidentally are placebos with a negative effect. If I tell you you are going to get sick there’s a good chance you will. All human beings are highly suggestible. How powerful are placebos/nocebos? A recent study showed that placebos/nocebos work even if you tell research subjects they are taking a placebo/nocebo.

What’s important to note about the nocebo effect is that it results in real physical ailments. Ioan P. Culianu, professor of divinity at the University of Chicago used to quip, when asked about the subject matter of his research (Renaissance magic and the occult), “It’s all in your head.” And then he would wink. His point? We don’t take seriously enough the life of the mind. We dismiss the placebo/nocebo effect as, “just being psychological.” And because it’s “psychological” it’s not “real.” We forget that what goes on in our heads has real world implications.

I think, many people are having a spiritual crisis as a reaction to their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the modern world and the industrial food system. This system is making us sick both physically and spiritually. This crisis is manifesting as non-celiac gluten intolerance and other real health problems. The placebo/nocebo effect was known to the Renaissance magicians that Culianu studied, such as Giordano Bruno. It’s known to all shamans and spiritual healers. It should be taken seriously.

Manipulation of feelings and emotions in realm of our minds (done everyday through advertising, by the way) can  be used for both good and bad. Bruno even wrote a treatise on the subject, De vinculis in genere (On bonding in general). But Bruno and other philosophers of his time took metaphysical matters seriously. In our modern world we value only the material, which is how our lack of awareness of the nocebo effect can get us into trouble. The only people truly aware of the power of the placebo/nocebo effect in Western culture are advertisers and they are largely black magicians. Advertisers harness the nocebo effect of our gluten fears, reinforce those feelings and then use them to sell us products we don’t need.

The nocebo effect raises some thorny questions. If I open a toxic waste dump that creates a psychological feeling of unease that in turn causes people to get sick am I a “psychological polluter?” Am I liable even if I don’t leak any toxic waste? Again, the illnesses are real and the people getting them aren’t crazy.

Back to gluten, there may still be a gastrointestinal problem with wheat, Gibson is careful to note. But he doesn’t think it’s gluten. Ever in defensive mode as a bread enthusiast, I have an unproven theory that the way we make bread may be contributing to the problem. Perhaps the pre-digestive power of sourdough cultures, ancient wheats and baking bread longer may have an effect on how our bodies process bread. But there’s no research yet to back up my idea.

As to the power of the mind, like sourdough it’s also about culture, but culture in the non-physical sense. On that note, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Thankfully we can harness the placebo effect to do a lot of good. That will have to be the subject of another post.

Josey Baker Bread: One Bread Book to Rule Them All

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I’ve been teaching bread baking for a few years now through both the Institute of Domestic Technology and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. When students ask what book they should get I have to hold up half a dozen. Not any more. Now I can send students to just one book: Josey Baker Bread.

The appropriately named Josey Baker (who used to work with another baker named Dave Miller–who mills his own flour, naturally) has written a perfect bread baking course in book form. Everything I’ve figured out about teaching how to bake is in here–start with a simple white bread, graduate to sourdough and then start baking with whole grain. Having trouble shaping a loaf? Bake in a loaf pan instead! Stretch and fold instead of kneading. Simulate a commercial bread oven by using a cast iron pot. And use a damn scale! There’s even the browned butter chocolate chip cookie trick I learned from a friend who owns a restaurant. Has Josey Baker wiretapped my phone?

The book is written in an amusing and breezy bro-speak. Here he is truth telling in the introduction to his scone recipe,

Most scones suck. Why do they suck? Because they’re dry as hell. Don’t act like you do’t know what I’m talking about! When was the last time you had a scone and didn’t say, “I don’t know, this is just a little dry for me.” Or maybe you haven’t even had a scone in a long time, because the last one you ate was so crappy. . . Are they healthy? No, they are not. But what the hell, exercise feels good, so eat as many as you want and then go ride your bike, baker.

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My successful attempt at the Dark Mountain Rye recipe.

Speaking of healthy, I’ve been concentrating on the recipes in the sourdough-based whole grain section of the book. Like Baker, I believe that a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant might just be allergic to mass produced supermarket bread. Baker’s Dark Mountain Rye is an example of how whole grain bread should be made and it’s and easy to bake.

In addition to the conventional breads Baker covers, there’s an interesting method of baking pizza in a home oven, a gluten free loaf that I’m going to try and some simple pastries. I also like the flexibility Baker builds into the recipes. Many can either be baked in a loaf pan or shaped into a boule. And there’s always the option to retard the dough in the refrigerator to give more depth of flavor as well as flexibility in when to fire up the oven.

Josey Baker Bread will appeal to both beginners and experienced bakers. Finally the collective wisdom from the recent bread revolution is in one book. If you want healthy, good tasting bread in your household Josey Baker Bread is a great place to start.

From the Archives: Loquat Leather

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Judging from the reaction to Mrs. Homegrown’s post yesterday it looks like some folks have a loquat obsession. Welcome home brothers and sisters.

At the risk of tooting my own loquat horn and repeating an old blog post, Mrs. H neglected to mention my controversial 2012 loquat leather experiment and recipe. You’ve still got to de-seed the damn things but at least there’s no need to skin them. Plus it makes use of booze.

I’ll admit it’s not a thrilling fruit leather but it’s not too bad.

Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

My philosophy is simply that if one is going to go through the trouble of making fruit leather, preserves, pies etc., one should use outstanding fruit. The flavor tells in the end. After all, the starving times are not upon us. Even Erik can’t get super excited about this fruit leather–as I recall it tasted mostly of lemon and booze.

Then again, some people may have outstanding loquats–it sounds so from the comments on the last post. The ones we have access to just aren’t fantastic for preserving–too watery, too light. I just learned that there are over 800 cultivars of loquats, so there’s going to be lots of different loquat experiences.