Are Snack Foods Secretly Healthy?

31 08 2009
Sprinkling the Seasoning on the Corn

Sprinkling the Seasoning on the Corn

Snack Away!

Snack Away!

Studies presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society extolled the newly found virtues of popcorn and other whole grain crackers and snacks, because they have “surprisingly large” amounts of antioxidants known as polyphenols. “We found that, in fact, whole grain products have comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables,” said lead researcher Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Note that they said Whole Grain. Popcorn has always been a whole grain, even when it is doused in butter. The antioxidant info is not all that new-I cited a study from Cornell when I was writing The New Whole Grains Cookbook, in which the antioxidant levels of wheat and corn were found to be the same as those in spinach and broccoli. That was back in ’05, and antioxidants are still hot.

The thing with whole grains is that they were always known to be part of keeping you healthy, but it was the fiber that got all the credit. Nature’s Broom, taking away all the bad stuff, that was the role of whole wheat bread. And fiber could be gotten in fruits, veggies, or powder form, so why bother. Now we get the whole picture-the fiber and the antioxidants and nutrients work in synergy to protect you from the inside out.

In fact, according to Leonard Marquardt at the University of Minnesota Department of Science and Nutrition, the synergy between all the elements in whole grains is lifesaving. Basically, when whole grains enter the digestive system, the fiber absorbs the bad stuff and moves it along. As that is happening, all the antioxidants and nutrients are protecting the body from any toxins that are being swept away. At the same time, starches in the grains feed good bacteria and create a healthy pH in the gut, as well as breaking into compounds that are associated with lowered risk of many cancers. That’s the miraculous truth about whole foods- you can’t take them apart and make them into pills or extracts and expect the same results.

We were made for real food.

So here we are, with a secretly healthy snack, popcorn. I know, it is awfully good drenched in butter, fluorescent yellow cheese products, caramel and other high-calorie coatings. And when faced with snack choices, sometimes a bag of cheesecorn is actually a little better than potato chips. A drizzle of sweet on a big bowl of popcorn can head off a sugar craving and fill you up. With all those antioxidants, no less!

So, if you want a fresh tasting snack that just seems like misbehavior, try this vegan-friendly corn, which can also be made with cheddar powder. Expect to get messy, it seems to work best to eat right over your own bowlful.

Olive Oil and Herb Popcorn

I dug out the hot air popper for this-I prefer to hot air pop and apply oil after it is done. That way I get the flavor and adhesive quality without burning my good xvoo. If you don’t have one, just pop in a small amount of oil and proceed.

1/2  cup  popcorn

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast or cheddar powder

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/4  teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using cheese, taste for salt when done)

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic chopped

Set up to pop the corn. In a small cup, mix the yeast or cheese and the herbs and salt (if using.) In a small saucepan, put the oil and garlic over low heat. Pop the corn, keeping an eye on the garlic- just bring it to a sizzle but don’t let it color. Take off the heat. In a big bowl, drizzle the oil over the corn and toss, then sprinkle on the seasoning and toss again. Serve hot.


Does Economic Anxiety=Comfort Food=Obesity?

23 08 2009
grass fed local butter, local cheese, market veggies

grass fed local butter, local cheese, market veggies

whole wheat mac with veggie rich sauce

whole wheat mac with veggie rich sauce

grass-fed butter is as yellow as corn, rich with carotenoids from plants

grass-fed butter is as yellow as corn, rich with carotenoids from plants

Comfort. In these times of global anxiety, we all crave a little bit of escape. Even vegetarians and health conscious eaters are feeling it.

According to the Food Marketing Institute’s US Shopper Trends Report for 2009, we have all changed where our food dollars are going this year. 55% of respondents have cut back on dining out, and 66% say they are buying store brands instead of name brands, all in the name of saving money. The unsettling trend is that a good number are also cutting back on healthy foods in favor of splurges on indulgences like ice cream and chocolate. Hmm.

Of course, there are other folks who think we can get all that under control with a “fat tax.” In July 2009, a non-partisan group, Urban Institute, released a report about the 20 billion dollars that we spend each year in health care costs for obese people, and how we could reduce the rate of obesity if we taxed certain foods, and used the tax money to subsidize fruits and vegetables. As much as my rebel food friends despise the idea of anyone telling them what to eat, we have done this with tobacco pretty successfully.

The taxes that were imposed on tobacco were used to educate the public on the dangers of smoking, and the percentage of the population that smokes went from 42.4% in 1965 to 20% in 2007.

And there is a good case for taxing sugary sodas, now that the results are in. States that imposed special taxes on soft drinks did see reductions in their use. What was telling was that states that repealed their soda taxes were 13 times more likely to see an increase in obesity.

France, by the way, taxes candy, chocolate and margarine at 19.6%, while other foods are at 5%. And these are the French, who riot in the streets over farm policy-something Americans might want to emulate. The Urban Institute proposes a 10% tax on candy, soda, and other junk and estimates that the revenue over 10 years would be $530 billion, paying at least half of the costs of reform.

If you have been paying any attention to the health care debate, you may have noticed that when industries are making alot of money on something, they are very reluctant to stop doing it. The soda and candy industries would pump billions into lobbying against any such changes, and with all the problems our country faces, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

So what’s a vegetarian shopper to do? We can economize and still eat healthfully, if we put our minds to it. Acknowledging that we need some comfort foods and picking them mindfully is far better than pretending we don’t and then mindlessly stuffing ourselves when snack sized candy bars go on sale at the drugstore.

The farmers market is the place to be these days, with kale so tender that even kids like it, sweet corn that tastes like candy, and peaches and apples that genuinely do hit those comfort zones. You know what your comfort foods are- whether it is ice cream or mashed potatoes, chocolate or mac and cheese. Try making them in smaller quantities and balancing them with more veggies. And if you are stressed, looking for times to get some exercise is a really good way to work that out while burning off the extra carbs you might ingest in pursuit of comfort.

Summer Veggie Mac and Cheese

OK, cut back on some things, but I used grass fed butter, a local gem from Pastureland, and that one tablespoon adds great flavor to the organic skim milk. Lottsa fresh seasonal vegetables and whole grain pasta round out a healthy but comforting meal.

8 ounces whole wheat elbows

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 ear of corn, kernels cut off

1 cup diced zucchini

1/2 cup diced carrot

1/2 cup diced shallots

2 tablespoons unbleached flour

2 cups organic skim milk

1 pinch each nutmeg, cayenne

1/2 teaspoon salt, lots of freshly cracked pepper

4 ounces Sarvecchio (Wisconsin Parmesan) or other aged local cheese, shredded

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil for the macaroni. In a 4 quart saucepan, melt butter, then saute all the vegetables together for about five minutes over low heat. Cook the macaroni and drain.

Sprinkle the flour over the veggies and work in with your spatula. Cook over low heat for a couple of minutes, then take off the heat and gradually stir in the milk. Put back on medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, just until the sauce thickens and starts to bubble. Season with nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper, then take off the heat and stir in the cheese.

Transfer the mac to a casserole and stir in the sauce. If desired, top with more cheese and bake until bubbly, or eat the way it is. This is a good one to make on the weekend and bake off later in the week when you need a fast meal.

The Four Legged Table of Health

16 08 2009

It gets redundant sometimes, writing and talking about health. And yet, we all seem to need to be reminded, and have things put just a little differently before they hit home.

That’s basically the way it is with the study released in the Aug. 10/24 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers looked at four lifestyle factors, and found that by doing four very simple, obvious things, people reduce their risk of all chronic disease by 80%. That means cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, all avoidable by these magic behaviors. Want to know what they are?

1. Never having smoked

2. Keeping your body-mass index below 30 (the threshold for obesity)

3. Exercising for a minimum of 3.5 hours per week

4. Eating healthfully, as evidenced by a diet high in fruit and vegetable intake but low in meat.


Like, everybody knows they should be doing these things, right?

“We’re talking about relatively straightforward behaviors that pretty much everyone knows about already,” said study author Dr. Earl S. Ford, a medical officer with the U.S. Public Health Service and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But there’s unfortunately a gap between people realizing what’s good for them and doing what they might want to do.”

If you need to rank them, the study showed that the one of the four that influenced health the most was obesity. And that following all four reduces Type 2 Diabetes 93%. Obesity was more destructive than smoking, a close second. I guess that is news, since we accepted a long time ago that smoking is unredeemably bad for your health.

So if you add obesity and the diet part together, though, you get to the real power of food. Too much and the wrong kind, ouch. Lotsa veggies, not much meat, good. Exercise and obesity are linked, too.

So let’s all get a little inspired to eat a nice big salad and put some fruit on tomorrow’s bowl of cereal. And get out and move.

You don't even have to cut them up.

You don't even have to cut them up.

My Life in the Corn

9 08 2009

Corn is big business. Thanks to Michael Pollan and films like King Corn and Food Inc, public awareness about the politics and pervasiveness of corn is growing. Current government subsidies are at 4 billion a year, basically paying farmers to keep corn cheap. Cheap corn has given us a 1000% increase in the amount of high fructose corn syrup that we consumed between 1970 and 1990. A quarter of the products on your grocer’s shelves contain some form of corn. HFCS producers now run ads insisting that corn syrup is perfectly good for you, even as experts point to the parallel tracks of our consumption of it and our obesity epidemic.

(link to a trailer for the movie King Corn)

With all the debate about corn, I am always reminded of the years of my life that were spent in an ocean of it. A recent trip home was spent driving up and down the state to visit relatives, often on roads lined solidly with acres and acres of corn, as far as the eye can see. This is the landscape of my mid teens, when the corn became as much a presence in my life as the sky and water.

With a grand total 102 human residents, our town was just a cluster of houses on a short road between the fields. All the roads were laid out in neat squares, so that the fields were tidy. At one end of town was a grain elevator, where all the trucks lined up at harvest time. During the last months of summer, corn kernels lined the street like gravel. At the elevator, where we hung out after dark sometimes, there was a thick mat of corn, moist, sprouting, and fermenting slightly, that sprung back when you walked on it. Birds circled constantly, although large amounts of poison were put out to keep the massive rats to a minimum.

Summertime was when kids could make some money working in the fields. I got a job on a detasseling crew. Detasseling, as I was to come to understand, is part of the big corn business. You see, when all those fields and fields of corn are planted, they are planted with copyrighted genetic material. No farmer can save seed or plant something that is not licensed and controlled by one of the big agri-corporations. To achieve this control, the system is set up for hybrid corn.

Two kinds of corn are planted in every field, 6 rows of “female” corn and rows of “male” corn between them. No corn is really male or female, but to create sterile, bybrid seeds, the six rows of female corn must have their pollen-producing tassels removed, so that the chosen pollens of the male rows will fertilize them.

It certainly seemed like a weird system, once I got a grasp on it, to a kid transplanted from the city to the bucolic countryside. It was also my introduction to hot, hard work. A school bus picked us up in front of the church at 3 am, and we entered the fields in near darkness. The dew made the soil into thick muck, which covered your shoes and dried as the day went on. By lunch it was hard as rock and we all spent some time cracking and stomping to drop the pounds of clods that were slowing our pace. Walking between the female rows, we reached up and pulled the top section off of each corn plant. They made a little squeak as they separated. We threw the unnecessary pollen organs to the ground and kept moving. The leaves of the corn struck back in protest, their sharp edges cutting any skin they could reach, and each day my arms were an object lesson in a death by a thousand cuts. By noon, the sun was merciless, so you had to choose between covering your skin and working in sweat drenched long sleeves. We all wanted a tan, anyway.

I’m sure that the work is done by migrant workers now. Looking back, every year the first week saw three or four kids downed by the heat. The managers just put them on the bus to lie down while we finished our day. There was no way anybody was getting a ride home.

Like the rest of the kids, it never occurred to me to turn down the work. Everybody was doing it. It felt really good to lie in a cool bath when the day was over, and I bought some clothes for school with the money. I was just a tiny cog in the machine of big corn, all those years ago.

So if you are ever driving through or flying over all those oceans of corn, remember, that is as copyrighted and controlled as a McDonalds burger or a Disney character. Those little signs at the edges of the fields identify the hybrid, and you had better not try to eat any. It’s all inedible, fit only for processing into High Fructose Corn Syrup or animal feed. Take a turn into a small town between all that fertile ground, and you will find only chain restaurants, serving processed food from far away.

At least it all contains corn.