Archive for January, 2008

Commonsense eating: grains of energy.

loaf.JPGThere’s nothing so controversial these days as a loaf of bread.

Is it the staff of life?

The harbinger of fat?

A miracle of fermentation?

A veritable gluten-laced poison?

Are grains even fit for human consumption? How can we untangle this mess?

Humans are omnivores. We eat all kinds of food. We eat animals, we eat plants. And we eat the seeds of plants.

Something like 10,000 years ago, humans in various parts of the world developed an intimate relationship with grass plants. We began to cultivate them (or they began to cultivate us) for the sake of their energy-rich seeds.* In Mexico, the grass was corn (maize). In Turkey, wheat and barley. In China and India, rice.

Elaborate food cultures grew up around these grass seeds. In South India, rice is ground and fermented to make dosas and idlis. In Mexico, corn is soaked and simmered with lime or wood ash to make nixtamal for tortillas. Traditional Turkish flatbread is made with a long-fermented sourdough. Each culture revered its central grain, often as a goddess. Think of Ceres/Demeter in the Mediterranean, the Aztec Chicomecoatl. In South India, Lakshmi is associated with rice.

Sounds perfectly lovely, doesn’t it? So why are people worried about grains?

Well, first of all, we don’t seem to revere grains much these days. We used to grind them between two stones; now it’s high temperature, high speed steel roller mills (goodbye enzymes and vitamins). We used to eat whole or roughly polished grains; now our industrial machinery can remove every “extraneous” bit of fiber and color. We used to soak and ferment our grains; now we don’t have time for that sort of thing.

Complex traditional recipes have been supplanted by industrial processes. There’s a serious difference between packaged “sourdough” bread (whipped up in a matter of minutes with rapid rise yeast and a dash of vinegar) and the real thing, which needs a full day or two of fermentation before baking. There’s a serious difference between a bag of “tortilla” chips (ground up corn fried in vegetable oil) and tortillas made from real nixtamal, fried in natural lard.

Those old slow recipes weren’t backwards technology. The old processes make the food more digestible, the nutrients more accessible. (Oh, and they make the food taste better too.)

So, we eat all our grains the old-fashioned way and we’ll be fine, right?

Not quite so fast.

Grains are a high-energy (carbohydrate) food, but they don’t give us too much in the way of protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Most of us use a lot less energy than our ancestors did. (How many of your ancestors sat around staring at an inanimate object all day?)

A diet too heavy on grains can leave us swimming in energy, but still hungry for the nutrients we’re missing. That doesn’t work out so well. Eat a high-energy, low-nutrient diet for long enough, and you’ll end up depleted and insulin-resistant. Trust me, you don’t want that.

So what’s to be done?

First, remember what I said before: The food that’s good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another person. Any “advice” I give is to be taken with your own personal salt shaker.**

That said, here’s my take on the grain situation:

1. Always eat grains with more nutrient-dense foods. (Butter your bread!)

2. If you don’t lead an active life, don’t eat too much grain.

3. Respect your ancestors — eat traditionally prepared grain foods.

4. Avoid highly processed grain-based “food products” (fat-free / low-fat crackers and chips are the worst).


Feel like baking some lovely old-fashioned bread now? Jim Lahey’s recipe (as told by Mark Bittman) is the best place to start. It’s exceedingly simple, you don’t have to knead anything, and it makes incredible, crusty, flavorful bread. All you need is a heavy, oven-safe pot. (The recipe uses white flour, but you can use whole-grain. I’d start with a mix of half and half, though, at least until you get the hang of it.)

Don’t forget the butter!

* Here’s a summary of the various theories about how and why humans started farming. The latest (and my favorite) suggests co-evolution of humans and plants, each adapting to the needs of the other. (And yes, I know, grains are technically fruits rather than seeds. I just like to call them seeds — it’s more poetic, somehow.)

** In my work as an herbalist, I’ve come across people who are so sensitive to carbohydrates that they can’t eat any grain at all, even old-fashioned grain. These people find that even a small serving of grain puts them on a blood sugar roller-coaster that leads to weight gain and all sorts of health problems. How do you know if you’re one of these people? Try it out. Stop eating grains (and sweets) for a while. See how you feel.

(Geeky aside: I have noticed that many of these highly carbohydrate-sensitive people were bottle-fed babies. I think there might be a connection. Here’s a bit of rat-research food for thought.)

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Barking up the wrong tree.

The New York Times ran an interesting piece today on the fact that the reduce-cholesterol-to-treat-heart-disease theory is possibly terribly flawed.

Yes, that’s the theory that sells many billions of dollars worth of pharmaceutical drugs every year.

Yes, that theory just might be totally wrong.

Apparently the FDA has been so confident in the veracity of this particular theory that it hasn’t required proof that new heart disease drugs actually affect heart disease—proof of a cholesterol-reducing effect has been enough to get a drug on the market. Oops.

It turns out that some cholesterol-lowering drugs affect heart disease and some don’t. Some even make heart disease worse.

How did this happen?

Well, there was money to be made, for one thing.

And then there’s the fact that scientists are social beasts, too. If everyone seems to think something is so, it’s hard to be the one who says “Well, maybe not.”

Further reading from the Times archives:

Gary Taubes: Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

John Tierney: Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus

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Tell the USDA what’s what.

Remember the USDA Organic Standards debacle? (Summary: the USDA took over the organic “brand” and made it easier for industrial agriculture to make money on it.)

Guess what? They’re after the word “natural” this time.

The Ethicurean has a post about this nefarious business from Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham, Vermont (and a lovely place that is, too).

I’d encourage everyone to check out Walter’s post and to register an official comment on the matter with the USDA. (The last day to comment is January 28.)

(Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the “Commonsense Eating” series. I’ll post the next installment shortly.)

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Kitchen spices: cinnamon.

This month’s herbal blog party theme is “Kitchen Spices.” Our host is Dancing in a Field of Tansy.

These days, cinnamon is my favorite kitchen spice medicine.

Here are a few cinnamons from my spice shelf:


On the left, cassia or Chinese cinnamon. This is the most common cinnamon in the US—the one you can find in the grocery store, .

On the right, the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, . It has a more subtle aroma than cassia, and it’s not so sharp.

The powder is Vietnamese / Saigon cinnamon, . It’s intensely sweet, very spicy, and much redder than the other two.

(Confused about the botanical names? Been reading old-time herbals? Here’s a clue: C. cassia = C. aromaticum; C. zeylanicum = C. verum.)

All the cinnamons have a lovely balance of warming and stimulating and soothing qualities — they’re wonderful for people with cold constitutions. The classic indication for cinnamon is a tendency to cold hands and feet, a reminder of cinnamon’s powerful stimulating effect on blood circulation.

Cinnamon strengthens the circulatory system and gets blood moving out to the surface of the body. (David Winston uses cinnamon for Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition in which circulation is severely restricted in the hands.) But cinnamon’s more than a circulatory stimulant. Remember this: cinnamon brings energy where energy has been drained. So while it’s classic for weak circulation with cold hands and feet, it’s also one of the most valuable old-time remedies for passive hemorrhage, including hemorrhage after childbirth.* Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends a cinnamon-spiced wine to give strength to women in labor. Cinnamon strengthens basic vitality.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the indication for cinnamon is “deficient kidney yang.” Some symptoms: fatigue, aversion to cold, low back pain, cold hands and feet, abdominal pain, diarrhea /constipation, pale urine, white-coated tongue. Guess what? Most of these are indications of “cold” in European and American style herbalism. (I’ve also found that this list can be a pretty clear picture of some people diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS). And indeed, cinnamon is a classic remedy for digestive upset.)

Cinnamon is revitalizing for people who are cold and tired, drained of energy (think chronic fatigue). Now, don’t get any funny ideas: cinnamon is no substitute for rest. It is a supreme aid to convalescence, though: it’s capable of energizing tissue and getting tired or weak organs moving again. It’s also perfect for people who tend to “catch” every bug that comes along: increased vitality means increased immunity.

Cinnamon’s revitalizing power comes in handy these days, with so many people run down and drained by modern industrial “food.” Cinnamon helps the body use energy: it’s a specific for insulin resistance / metabolic syndrome. Consistent long-term use of cinnamon brings down blood sugar and triglycerides, those danger-signs of impending diabetes and heart disease.**

So, in case you didn’t get it yet, cinnamon revitalizes what is drained. It brings life to the pale, cold and weak. Not bad for your average kitchen spice, is it?

My favorite cinnamon tea (this week, anyway):

3 parts Cinnamon sticks

1 part Orange peel

1 part valerian, blackhaw or crampbark

1/2 part flaxseeds

Simmer as for flaxseed tea.

This tea is wonderful for increasing circulation, for “irritable bowel” and for menstrual cramps in people who tend to cold. (You can increase the valerian / blackhaw / crampbark for a stronger relaxing effect, but it won’t taste quite as good.)

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for cinnamon:

Parts used: dried bark or twigs.

Actions: stimulant, carminative, diaphoretic, hemostatic, antiseptic.

Affinities: circulation, digestion, metabolism, uterus.

Taste: sweet, spicy, aromatic.

Vitalist energetics: warming, slightly mucilaginous but also slightly drying. Hildegard said it best in 1150: “Cinnamon is very hot and its power is great. It holds a bit of moisture, but its heat is so strong that it suppresses that dampness” (trans. Throop 1998).

Michael Moore energetics: skin, CNS, upper GI, renal, reproductive stimulant; lower GI, mucosa sedative.

Tongue indications: pale, coated.

Specific indications: insulin resistance, bleeding ulcers (Michael Moore), passive uterine hemorrhage, menstrual cramps associated with heavy flow and a feeling of cold.

Homeopathic mental indications: “Sleepy. No desire for anything” (Boericke).

*King: “For post-partum and other uterine hemorrhages, it is one of the most prompt and efficient remedies in the Materia Medica.” Ellingwood: “Cinnamon . . . is a hemostatic of much power and is positively reliable in all passive hemorrhages.”

**In one study, researchers gave people with type II diabetes 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon per day. “After 40 days, all three levels of cinnamon reduced the mean fasting serum glucose (18–29%), triglyceride (23–30%), LDL cholesterol (7–27%), and total cholesterol (12–26%) levels; no significant changes were noted in the placebo groups. Changes in HDL cholesterol were not significant” (Diabetes Care 2003). And here’s a study for the extra-geeky.

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