Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Two Observations

1. I crave strange things. Sugary things. I think this is a side effect from eating lots of candy for so long, and then, all of the sudden, not eating much any more. Some things I used to love that I don't pick up now--Jelly Bellies, donuts, gummy bears, scones, Raisinets, $1.99 cake slices from Kroger (well they put it right at the checkout!), most cookies, and hot chocolate. It's sort of a freeing feeling to look down the cookie aisle at the grocery and realize I can't have, and don't want, any of it. At the same time, I have observed that my body misses that sugar, so it's freaking out a little bit. I can eat eleventy billion pounds of vegetables and it won't change the sugar craving. This will be a slow adjustment.

2. At the same time, my hunger cravings generally tend to be more reasonable. With most of the food I am eating now, I can eat it and stop whenever I want. I have been less liable to overconsume because something tastes great or has a nice crunch. In the past, forget it! Two Oreos easily became twelve. This kind of thing has nearly never happened since I've started eating all-natural. I still get hungry, but it's the "hey, my tummy is empty" kind of hungry, rather than some kind of weird chemical craving; you know what I'm talking about. My brain and my stomach seem to have come to an understanding. The other day I ate a Big Sky Bread Company chocolate chip cookie and didn't want another one afterward. Although, hm, that sounds tasty about now...

More Project Notes

Second realization of project. Eating all-natural is not necessarily eating healthy.

Three great examples of this happened today.

First, I had to choose between Sun Chips and All-Natural BBQ Chips at lunch. The Sun Chips had less fat and salt, and more fiber and whole grains. When one compares the nutrition facts, Sun Chips win. However, Sun Chips ingredients list showed it had three types of FD & C dye, including Red 40. So, I happily ate the BBQ chips but consumed more fat and salt.

Second, I ate a great sounding salad at lunch, consisting of spinach, portobello mushrooms, eggplant, feta cheese, and tomatoes. I picked at the mushrooms and eggplant, which were slimy, and ate mostly clumps of spinach and feta.

It was more of the same around dinnertime, when I bypassed a bag of raw cauliflower and broccoli for a large bowl of potato chips doused in vinegar.

So far I have been eating whatever I want, whenever I want, but now that I am discovering more all-natural junk food options, I will have to be more conscious. After all, many simple carbohydrates and fatty foods are all-natural.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I've seen an ingredient called "vanillin" in some chocolates, and know it's on the Whole Foods list of unacceptable ingredients. Anything that limits my chocolate intake deserves researching.

At first, I thought the difference between vanilla and vanillin was kind of like the difference between music and muzak, ham and Spam, Paris Hilton and Perez Hilton. It turns out that is not the case.

Vanillin, C8H8O3, is one of many chemicals that is naturally extracted from a vanilla bean (1). In a fermentation process, the vanillin molecule increases in concentration and crystallizes outside the bean(3). However, vanillin is one of many chemicals that is "extracted" from the vanilla bean. Natural vanilla extract contains the vanillin molecule as well as several hundred other organic molecules that are produced when the bean pod is cured. It is the combination of these chemicals that gives vanilla extract its flavor. (2)

In and of itself, I found no real evidence that vanillin was harmful. So why should we be nervous if we see the ingredent "vanillin" on a food package?

Because vanilla is in high demand, vendors often create imitation vanilla (1). Chemists can create a series of reactions, none of which have to do with the vanilla bean, whose final product is the molecule C8H8O3. This is a cheaper and less-time consuming process (2). There are several different processes that produce vanillin or a vanilla-like flavoring, and herein seems to be the problem.

Lignin vanillin is derived from a chemical byproduct of paper-making (3). (Here's the patent for it.)

Ethyl vanillin can be produced using coal tar; this is done primarily in Mexico, where vanilla is a popular tourist item.

An organic chemical called Coumarin is also used as a vanilla substitute. It is not C8H8O3 (vanillin), but has an aroma similar to vanilla extract. It occurs naturally in many plants such as lavender and licorice, and scientists have observed that coumarin acts as a natural pesticide for these plants. Coumarin is an anticoagulant(4). It is also used when preparing rat poison, because high doses of an anticoagulant kill the rats (6). In 1954, the FDA banned the use of coumarin in foods after rodents who were fed the chemical sustained liver damage (5).

The problem with synthetic vanillin seems to be twofold. First, imitation vanilla extract does not have the hundreds of additional substances that real vanilla extract does, thereby diminishing vanilla flavor.

Second, buying imitation vanilla, especially from other countries, means you never know exactly what you're getting. In 1993, scientists performed a thin-layer chromatography test of Mexican and Puerto Rican vanillas that claimed to be pure etract. They found the vanillas had artificial ingredients, including ethyl vanillin and coumarin. (5) (Here I cringe, as I remember a suspicious bottle of vanilla I bought in Veracruz a few years ago.)

When the carbon atoms in lignin vanillin are compared with that of naturally occuring vanillin, there was a difference in carbon isotopes. Natural vanillin has more C-13 atoms than lignin vanillin (2). I am not sure if that is significant, but I do know that isotopes of carbon differ in radioactivity level. If anything, Carbon 12 is the more stable of the two.

The vanilla extract/imitation vanilla problem is a classic example of a really nuanced food question that is rightly subject to skepticism. "Sure, enough of anything will kill you." "Sure, if you feed rats enough of anything they're going to blow a gasket."

Today I made banana muffins and added one teaspoon of vanilla extract for about two dozen muffins. What if I had used lignin vanillin? Isn't C8H803 just that, no matter if it comes from a bean or from the byproduct of papermaking? What if my vanillin was really coumarin? Is 1/24 of a teaspoon of either substance going to be harmful?

It's helpful to remember that nutrition, at its simplest level, is a conversation between cells and molecules. Tiny amouts of substances do have an effect on the body, and most of what you eat passes through your gastrointestinal system into other body systems. Have you ever had a fleck of something suspect in your glass of water? Did you drink it anyway?

Vanillin on the Shroud of Turin?

1. http://www.3dchem.com/molecules.asp?ID=307
2. http://mass-spec.chem.cmu.edu/vmsl/vanillin/details_1.html
3. http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/vanilla.htm
4. http://www.microscopy.fsu.edu/phytochemicals/pages/coumarin.html
5. http://www.springerlink.com/content/v255vw22u8g21023/
6. http://www.herbs2000.com

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Successes So Far

In an event to dissuade you, reader(s), that this blog is a list of everything I must now deny myself due to an absurd commitment, let me list some of my culinary successes on this happy Christmas Eve.

1) Homemade wheat bread thickened with steel cut oats, flaxseed, and toasted cracked wheat, moistened with maple syrup and olive oil, finished with an egg brushed on top just before baking.

I made four loaves on Tuesday, one of which has already been gobbled up by family members. The downside to the bread was that it was very expensive. I spent $16 on ingredients. The cost could be cut if some of the pricier ingredients, such as ground flaxseed and maple syrup, were substituted or eliminated.

2) Hummus, a family staple, which I have been enjoying on top of my homemade bread (instead of margarine).

3) Trader Joe's Macadamia (I spelled this Macademia at first and thought of a decent joke about nuts and professors) Nut Popcorn Clusters, whose caramel is colored with Beta-carotene instead of FD & C dye.

4) Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Tea, which has a spicy bite and a sweet aftertaste. A nice hot chocolate substitute.

5)Dark Chocolate Oranges, the kind of chocolate that comes in slices and you have to crack on a table before unwrapping and eating.

6) My brother Charlie's homemade banana bread with real butter on top. Yum!

Two Duds:

1) All-natural chicken sausage. Tastes exactly like Whole Foods smells. I salted it.
2) Organic mild cheddar cheese. May as well be lard. Salted this, too.

Meanwhile, I continue to feel fantastic, more focused, more energetic, less blimpy, all in spite of the fact that I haven't run or worked out in nearly two months. That's a project for January, I guess...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

FD & C Red #40

Oh no!

Red hots, which I have been eating gobs of since youth, have this dye as one of their ingredients.

The Whole Foods unacceptable ingredient list includes all FD & C dyes (Food, Drug and Cosmetic). I did a little internet research on Red #40 but didn't find information on any reliable sites. Many hummingbird owners were upset that this dye was in commercial nectar. Many sites mentioned parents who have correlated their children's consumption of Red #40 with aggressive or attention-deficit behavior.
Red #40 has been tested on animals, along with several other red dyes. It was given to animals in a dose several thousand times stronger than a human would consume and there were conflicting results. Some studies found reproductive and nerological damage, some studies did not. Scientists observed DNA damage in the digestive organs of mice in several studies (1). Red #40 has been banned in many European countries.

As one website puts it, we are not sure of the harmful effects, but we can be sure it is not a necessary ingredient. Looks like I'll have to steer clear of the Rudloph Christmas cookies.

In other news, I have been eating all-natural for a few weeks now and find my grain intake is lacking. I get carbohydrates and sugars from fruits, but have eaten nearly no bread, crackers, or chips, and frankly, I miss the crunch! I find myself craving sugar as well, a side effect of downing junk food as an afternoon-pick-me-up for so long. I am also concerned about my fat intake, which has increased due to frequent consumption of cheeses, nuts, and cooking with real oil and butter instead of cooking spray and margarine. In other news, I still have no desire to exercise.

1. http://www.trochilids.com/dye.html

Monday, December 21, 2009


The sandwich bread at my house has many mystery ingredients. I decided to make some bread of my own. The recipe called for iodized salt, which listed dextrose as an ingredient.

From my research, it is one of two types of glucose, called d-glucose. Dextrose is a simple carbohydrate with a high glycemic index and is used as cellular fuel(3). It has a chiral partner, L-glucose, which cannot be metabolized by the body (1).

Dextrose is a product of photosynthesis but is also created commercially from starches (1).

Dextrose is also marketed as a medication; it is injected into the body to treat hypoglycemia (2).

The University of Maryland Medical Center reported no side effects for dental or mental health (2). Though a simple carbohydrate, it seems to be an important sugar.

This leads me to the question, "Why is a scary-sounding sugar in my salt?" Good thing the Morton Salt website includes this on their Frequently Asked Questions page. According to Morton, the dextrose-salt ratio is 1 milligram dextrose to 2500 milligrams iodized salt. This small amount of dextrose stabilizes the sodium iodide molecole. (4)

1. http://www.3dchem.com/moremolecules.asp?ID=423&othername=Dextrose
2. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/drugs/dextrose-038800.htm
3. http://www.abcbodybuilding.com/magazine03/dextrose.htm
4. http://www.mortonsalt.com/faqs/food_salt_faq.html#q5


Home for Christmas, I find it more difficult to avoid foods I easily forget about when I live and eat alone. My mom made Italian Beef for dinner, something I have been eating since childhood. The beef is slow-cooked with jardiniere and beef boullion cubes, then served over French bread.

I bagged the bread and was able to slice into a loaf of homemade white bread our friend had given us. The jarndiniere didn't have any preservatives, to my relief, but the beef boullion was something else. Reading just the nutrition facts, one might rejoice at the zero calories and wince at the high sodium content. But check out all the ingredents wrapped in one Wyler's Instant Beef Flavor Boullion Cube:

MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (the infamous enemy of Chinese food lovers everywhere),
LACTIC ACID, SILICON DIOXIDE (this is "glass" for those of you non-chemists),

Shucks. As I read this in the late afternoon, I realized my dinner meat had been marinating in this bouillion broth most of the day. I didn't want to hurt the feelings of my mother, who plans meals when us older kids come home. Eating just the salad for dinner would have been rude. I ate the beef and avoided the juice as much as possible.

Which ingredient to research first? There are so many to choose from. How about the acronym.

BHA, Butylated hydroxyanisole, is a mixture of phenolic compounds, benzene rings with different phenol groups chemically bonded at different points. This is a chemically altered agent that keeps fatty foods, mainly meats, from becoming rancid. (1)

A division of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer consideres BHA and its counterpart BHT carcinogenic. BHA has been named a cancer-causing agent in California, and the National Cancer Society lists it under "Known and Probable Carcinogens" (2).

Whole Foods has this ingredient on the unacceptable foods list. Dr. Janet Starr Hull has listed this as an additive to avoid (3). I agree.

Read More: http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Antioxidants/BHA-BHT.htm

1. http://chemistry.about.com/od/foodcookingchemistry /a/bha-bht-preservatives.htm
2. http://www.cancer.org/docroot/PED/content/PED_1_3 x_Known_and_Probable_Carcinogens.asp
3. http://www.sweetpoison.com/food-additives-to-avoid.html

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Initial Notes

First realization of project. Oh no. I can't eat anything.

Pretty much all food at school has become off limits. No more Splenda in the coffee, morning scones, cookies during cookie break at school, lunch meats, cafeteria food excepting the salad bar, candy or chocolate excepting some organic varieties, or fast food. Most regrettably, I can't indulge in Chik-fil-a and Subway, which I previously considered healthy.

At school, I can have fresh fruit, items from the salad bar (luckily this includes an oil and vinegar as a dressing option and several types of beans and nuts) and some steamed veggies, and the edamame and almonds I keep in my desk. It's amazing how little I crave the other stuff. The problem is, one can only eat so many dried soybeans. My meal and snack options keep turning into dead ends.

Sound the death knell as I walk through the aisles at Kroger. Everything contains a lurking ingredient. Even iodized salt has a bizarre anti-caking agent whose name escapes me presently.Pretty much all bread products are off limits, simply because I haven't found a variety that doesn't include something weird in the name. I was able to find some Whole Foods brand corn tortillas of simple corn meal and no preservatives, which I ate with eggs for dinner. Then, half the bag molded and I had to toss them.

Did you know packaged sushi at the grocery contains aspartame? So much for that natural, fresh dinner idea. I drove home and had an organic burrito.

First conclusion of project. I must find all natural food recipes, and fast.

First positive side effect. I thirst. My body tells me when it needs water. I think before I was misinterpreting this for a food craving, or quelling my palate with a diet soda. Now, in the afternoons, I drink about 20 oz. of water without being forced, and feel better for it.

The Savage Palate

Here's the plan. It's sloppy, but this is an invent-as-you-go kind of project.

All Natural: I will eat all natural foods for one year. I will not eat any food with artificial ingredients or additives.

Minimally Processed: What I eat will be as minimally processed as possible. Since I don't really know what processed means, I will get back to you on what that looks like.

Focus on the Ingredients: Instead of looking at packaging design or even nutrition facts, I will focus mainly on the ingredients label when buying food. If I don't know what an ingredient is that's in my food (such as soy lecithin, which has come up a lot so far), I'll research it and post my findings on this blog. Then I'll decide whether that ingredient makes the cut. This may seem arbitrary, but I'm committed to doing my own research and not following a particular diet, and hoping it turns out somewhat cohesively in the end.

Cooking vs. Raw: I will include copious amounts of uncooked fruits and vegetables in my diet. But I make no promises to "go raw," as cooked food feels warm and pleasant in my tummy. And I love baking. What's most important is what exactly is IN the food.

Exceptions: I will make exceptions to this plan for situations in which the food selection is beyond my control, such as if I am in the woods and need to survive on hardtack and s'mores (unlikely), or situations in which my food scrupules would cause social strain, such as ordering restaurant food or receiving food as a gift (likely).

Today is December 21, 2009. So this project will last until December 21, 2010. On this blog, I will report ingredient research, food choices (and, sniffle, sacrifices), workable recipes, and observable health changes.

Bon appetit!

Preface Part II

What happened in Spain, besides walking about 18 miles a day, was that I started to eat minimally processed food with natural ingredients.

It wasn't always healthy food--many a plate of Spanish French fries disappeared in front of me after a long day on the Camino. But I began to eat dried apricots and figs, which have no added sugar, as snacks. Dinners usually consisted of whatever ingredients were available at the market that day--large salads or egg and vegetable concoctions. Instead of having a low-fat salad dressing option, I used only oil and vinegar. I ate pure chocolate, homemade baguettes, and local cheeses, fresh garlic, tomato and avocado. I also drank about 100 oz. of water a day, and had coffee with whole milk and sugar, rather than skim milk and Splenda. The recurring theme here was that everything wasn't necessarily considered healthy, but it was almost all natural.

The contrast between my Camino diet and my American diet was clear and strong upon my return. I was faced with heavily processed foods. We went out to eat at restaurants whose kitchens were full of preservatives and artificial additives. I was offered heavy desserts. Overall I was aware of how many more chemicals I was putting into my body, even when I thought I was eating healthfully. To avoid these foods completely, I realized in dismay, would mean social isolation in the culinary scene. Did I have a choice?

In the fall, feeling "sick with America," as I came to call it, I began making small changes to my diet. Instead of having a pastry in the morning at work, I drank an Odwalla smoothie on the way to work. I immediately began feeling better in the morning. I was less sluggish and my appetite held until lunch.

Sometimes Odwalla smoothies were on sale at the Whole Foods store near school, and so I would stop by there to load up on the smoothies before the work week. At first I scoffed at the Whole Foods merchandise--overpriced shopping baskets woven out of hemp, vegetable products made to look like meats, even organic cotton bras--but all the while I noticed the general Whole Foods shopping population was cleaner and leaner than your average Atlantan.

Could there really be something to this natural eating thing? I looked at the smoothies in my basket, my fuel for each morning, thought back to the Camino, and looked at the glowing skin and hair sailing by me in the Whole Foods aisles.

I decided it was time for a change.

Preface Part I

All-natural eating?

Eating healthy has always been a priority. Growing up I watched all four grandparents succumb to lifestyle-related infirmities, and now witness many relatives whose eating habits have set them on the well-worn track to dealing with avoidable health issues such as cardiovascular disase, high cholesterol, musculoskeletal problems, and even some cancers.

As I approach 25, my creaky knees remind me I am not exempt from the blessings and curses of my genetic history, and at this very moment, my DNA is in conversation with my lifestyle choices, working out the body I have and will have. In addition to inheriting my Aunt Ruth's piano savvy and my Aunt Helen's tendency to kick her leg up and down when it's crossed, I might be subject to the health problems of my ancestors, especially the ones related to the heart. I am the steward of this body, a gift from God, and how I nourish my body enables me to do his work.

Eating healthy has not always been a successful project. College was a colossal failure, apart from the dining hall salad bar and stir fry line. My roommate kept frozen cookie dough in our dorm room freezer, and you can guess what happened to that and why she was mad at me for most of freshman year. Over summer breaks, one of my favorite things to do was down a gallon of fat-free no sugar added vanilla ice cream. It was too bad that the Notre Dame study lounge had a free Diet Coke fountain, and that I brought an empty Nalgene bottle with me to study. It was also too bad us students liked, frequently, to turn frisbee-sized dining hall waffles into two layer cakes with the help of the dessert bar.

My post-undergraduate service teaching experience wasn't a healthy eating milieu either. While community life was spectacular, the six of us were short on cash and time. This lent itself to a litany of processed meals: Easy Mac, Hamburger Helper, pizza, fried chicken, and disastrous dishes from the Three-Ingredient Cookbook like halibut with salsa and Fritos. An eater when stressed, I was also known to chug Diet Dr. Peppers and swing by McDonald's for a Big Mac after a really bad day at school.

Even with all the junk food and the occasional stressed-out eating binge, I felt my eating habits were plausibly healthy. Then I went to Spain, and something changed.