August 26, 2009

Sugar Gets a Beat Down

Anybody remember this Sesame Street bit on sugar beets? You know,"beet, beet, sugar beet, sugar beet beeeeeet." That's literally the whole song. It was one of my favorite segments back then, not only because I loved mixing cups upon cups of sugar into pitchers of Kool-Aid, but also because it just seemed so wholesome. The little kid pulling up the plant, the tractor, the dirt. And the mustached guy at the end, priceless! But I get the feeling that's not exactly how most sugar is made these days, or even back then.

Yesterday the American Heart Association released new guidelines on recommended daily added sugar intake, and they're surprisingly low. For an organization that has long toted saturated fat and cholesterol as the main culprits of heart disease, and even endorsed sugary foods, it's an interesting development. Basically they recommend less than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 37.5 grams for men. A can of Mountain Dew has 46 grams if that gives you any point of reference.

I don't even drink soda and my regular sugar intake is still over their daily recommendation. Considering how often guidelines like this change and the kind of science they've been based on in the past, I'm probably not going to strictly abide by the AHA's recommendation every single day. But I do think it's an interesting health challenge to see where I can cut sugar from my diet and how much I really miss it. It's one of the few food components that we truly don't need in our diets (if that tells you anything about it's nutritional value) and historically we haven't consumed all that much of it (I picture Laura Ingalls Wilder getting a special treat of an orange once a year on Christmas.)

I decided to start with breakfast - almost every day I have coffee with half and half and about two teaspoons of sugar, along with Greek yogurt with at the very least (although probably more...) two tablespoons of honey.

I started skipping the sweetener in my coffee altogether. Equal and Splenda totally ruin the taste of coffee for me, and it turns out that just sticking with cream isn't so bad. The coffee even tastes...creamier, what can I say. Yogurt is a different story. I love me some yogurt. I switched to Greek yogurt when I realized its breakfast-approved resemblance to frozen yogurt products like Red Mango, but it's very sour on it's own. I like that it has fewer sweeteners and artificial ingredients than most yogurts, but it's a bit pucker inducing straight up. So I've been adding half a cup of frozen blueberries (about 8 grams of natural sugar) and I'll see what other fruits or nuts I can try.

Believe it or not, that's actually 38 grams of added sugar gone right there! Hopefully that will give me enough wiggle room for the occasional fro-yo or strudel since I generally like savory foods for the rest of my meals. I haven't really missed my breakfast sugar yet, and assuming it's not psychological, I even feel a little more energetic throughout the day.

I can't help but wonder whether it's a coincidence that these recommendations were announced just a few days after processed food manufacturers urged the Department of Agriculture to raise the quota on imported sugar, lest we virtually run out of the stuff. Who knows, but I find it hilariously ironic that perhaps we don't need all that added sugar after all, so take that you processed food manufacturers, you. And speaking of things that are hilarious, I leave you with this clip of food writer and nutritionist Marion Nestle discussing the sugar "crisis" on The Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sugar Shortage - Marion Nestle
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests

The American Heart Association's guidelines
"Food Firms Warn of Sugar Shortage"
Wall Street Journal 8/13/09
Marion Nestle expands on her Colbert appearance
"Stop eating so much sugar, American Heart Assn. says" LA Times 8/25/09

August 14, 2009

Manifesto: Healthfully

I thought I'd do a series of posts on each of the adverbs in my tag line to give you a better idea of what I want this blog to be about. Let's start with healthfully.

First and foremost, why strive for a healthy lifestyle? It seems to be all the buzz, but I came up with some interesting answers when I paused to consider why being healthy is personally important to me. I want to live for a long time and in the best health possible. I want to have enough energy to make it up a flight of stairs when I'm 65, I want to celebrate my 60th wedding anniversary, and I want to spend as little time as possible in hospitals and popping pills in my later years and as much time out there enjoying life.

I don't know if it's a coincidence or not, but the foods I really love are the ones I understand to be the most healthful: vegetables, dairy, whole grains, naturally-raised meats. "Unprocessed," to throw in one of them buzz words.

So “healthfully,” in my book, does not mean low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-anything really, except for maybe keeping my calorie intake to the general amount my body needs to sustain itself. Personally, I'm intrigued to the more recent findings that discredit the notion that a low-fat, high-carb diet is the way to stay healthy (although I do recognize the irony in trusting in research that discredits other research, since who knows when your personal brand of information will be the next to go.) Now that doesn't mean I'm about to go all deep-fried crazy - I do, however, own a deep fryer and gosh darn it if I'm not going to use it - but in general, I think that it’s hard to argue that diets of whole foods that have kept people around the globe alive and free of Western diseases for generations could be harmful, whole dairy and pig fat and all.

I saw a really interesting segment on Oprah (yes Oprah, don't knock the Queen) about communities across the globe whose members regularly live past 100. It featured a researcher who identified nine behaviors found in all of the communities, among them eating whole foods and lightly exercising, that seemed to promote long, healthy lives. I plan to read his book, but to me it already makes sense: this is what we were designed for. However you think human beings got on the planet, whether by a divine hand or sheer evolutionary coincidence, you can't deny that nobody planned on us being parked in front of the boob tube every night eating Cool Ranch Doritos, driving to the store for more next time we run out.

I don't want to live forever, or even necessarily to 100; personally I think there are some nice things in store after all this living on Earth business. But I only get to do it once, and I definitely want it to rock.

August 11, 2009

Tsk Tsk!

Dear Trader Joe's, please tell me that the pillowy soft hamburger buns I just served to my husband have not, in fact, been sitting on your shelves for two years:

Actually, considering the no artificial preservatives label, if they HAVE been sitting around that long that is quite a feat and I would like to be in on the secret. Especially considering that these only have 10 ingredients and the Pepperidge Farm version I checked out at Key Foods has 24, including sugar and high fructose corn syrup in addition to the preservatives.

But to whoever manufactures Techno Max razors, I just don't know what to say to you. I will certainly keep my razors away from meat and poultry though.

August 7, 2009

Overdue "Food, Inc." Plug

I don't know if this post is dated or what since the movie came out June 12, but if you haven't seen "Food, Inc.", I really think you should before it leaves theaters.

If you've ever wondered what a cow is supposed to be eating (it's grass, not corn) or why you might want to buy organic food, it is definitely the film for you. It's basically The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation rolled together in movie format and it's great for anyone who wants to know more about what we're eating but doesn't have a chance to extensively examine the issues.

And if you haven't ever wondered about that stuff, you should especially see it because your health is probably at stake! Bonus points for supporting my friend Don's company, Emerging Pictures. Check out the trailer and view NYC show times here. It's Friday night people, go!

August 6, 2009

Basil Project - Part 3

In light of all the depressing tomato news, how about a cheery basil update?

Tada! From teensy seeds to margherita pizza-ready plants in less than two months. I even found a worm chilling out in one plant when I transplanted them into the coffee tins. No clue how it got there, but thanks Mr. Worm! Now lets just hope the Cilantro Gang isn't a fan of pesto...

August 4, 2009

Late Blight Tomato Tragedy

I just watched an episode of Jamie at Home, a beautifully produced Food Network show (DVR it, folks!) and it darn near brought me to tears. I knew I shouldn't watch it, that it would be like watching "Father of the Bride" when I'd just been left at the alter, but I did it anyway and now my heart is wrenching even more so than it had been before, all because the episode was entirely dedicated to one seasonal food: tomatoes.

It just so happens that a few hours before I watched the show I received an email from my CSA reporting that all their tomatoes had fallen victim to late blight, a disease that specifically attacks tomatoes and potatoes and is currently spreading throughout the Northeast. Behold:

The agony. The horror. You think I kid. Seasonal tomatoes (not that pink Taco Bell crap) are among my top favorite foods, and they're really only available in late summer. Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella would be my last meal if it ever came to such a thing. When I first read about late blight, it struck me as an important issue, but other than paying a little more once tomato season rolled around, I didn't see it as something that directly affected me.

Obviously I wasn't thinking about my CSA membership. And truly, other than remembering to show up every other week to pick up my share of Hearty Roots farm's produce, I hadn't thought a lot about it. When I joined it seemed like an easy way to access fresh, seasonal veggies without leaving my neighborhood. I didn't give a whole lot of thought to the underlying idea - Community Supported Agriculture. But when I wrote them a check back in March, I was agreeing to receive a share of this summer's yield - no matter what that yield happened to be. Weather and pests and tomato killing fungi were now my issues too, whether I consciously thought about them or not.

To plenty of people, this is probably not the most economically efficient way to go about obtaining fresh produce. I could just as easily take the $250 or so that I alloted for the CSA to the grocery store and farmers' market each week and award that cash to whomever had done the best job growing whatever looked appetizing to me. Hopefully that would have included included several local farms, but if I wanted tomatoes later this season, the money would probably have to go to a grower outside my community. And while happy little me would have my Caprese salad, I would be a lot less interested in what caused the spread of this disease and what I can do about it (along with the wet weather, pathologists are eying unregulated garden centers at big box stores as the culprit.)

I'm not really a locavore (that's an issue I hope to explore later) but I do believe in supporting my local community to a sizable degree, especially when it comes to produce. While I'm certainly no economist either, I know that by paying a local farm upfront whether I receive a bountiful share this summer or not helps to ensure that next year, they won't be entirely out of luck and money because they lost this year's tomato profits. And if they stay afloat and I join next summer, hopefully I'll see some nice local tomatoes again. There's no way to tell exactly how much money I personally lost on tomatoes (which actually softens the blow a bit) but for now I'm okay with it.

On the home gardening front, I checked out detailed photos of late blight's symptoms and now I'm not even sure my Topsy Turvy plants are okay.

Only one leaf looks kinda funky (I pruned this one just to be safe) and the stem on that same plant has these brown bumps, but they don't match other photos of affected brown stems. It's hard for me to tell since this is the first year I've grown tomatoes. Any expert growers out there have any thoughts? I bought them from a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, not a big box store.

Speaking of the Greenmarket, yesterday it looked like a lot of farm stands were selling decent-looking tomatoes on the cheap, around $2.50 per pound with "today only!" signs. I don't know if it's related to late blight - maybe they're hoping to get some profits out of their current crop before the disease does any further damage? - but in any case, you might want to snatch some up while you still can.