Archive for February, 2011

Kitchen Experiments: Kefir

February 9, 2011

Full of calcium, beneficial bacteria, and - apparently - alcohol.

A buddy from Los Angeles was visiting last week and, as is his habit, he left some bizarre, apparently-good-for-you stuff in my refrigerator. This time, it was kefir. I’m late to kefir, the thick fermented milk drink with origins somewhere in Central Asia.

Like yogurt, it’s full of beneficial bacteria to say nothing of calcium and all those other nutrients of which we rarely get enough. It’s also, according to Harold McGee, ever-so-slightly alcoholic. Even that, however, wasn’t enough to make a  fan of me.

Part of the reason – actually, all of the reason – is the texture of the stuff. I like yogurt but I don’t try to drink yogurt from a glass. Kefir, not quite as thick as yogurt but hardly thin enough to drink, wasn’t much of an improvement. Or at least it wasn’t until it occurred to me – staring at the bottle Ed had left behind – that I could thin the stuff out.

I poured a glass about two-thirds full and then added some water, just enough to thin it out and make it gulpable. It occurred to me, too, that I could add fruit juice as well. Suddenly, the funky white stuff in my fridge wasn’t quite so off-putting anymore.

I drank the kefir-water mixture, pleased with the improved drinkability and the flavor – like yogurt, it’s tart, tangy, and lightly sweet – and then put the bottle back in the refrigerator. A few drinks more and I was nearly out.

I liked the stuff. I would buy more, I decided, but then I realized I could also just make it. The recipe couldn’t be much different from making buttermilk, for instance. Keep a small amount of the kefir to use as a starter, add it to milk, and let it ferment.  So I did.

By the next day, nothing had happened. I opened the bottle – the same bottle the kefir had come in – and found about a liter of regular ol’ milk. The problem, I figured, was that it needed to be warmer. I broke down and looked up directions for making the stuff on line – indeed, it needed time at room temperature to let the bacteria grow. I pulled the bottle from the refrigerator and left it on the counter. The next morning, about 18 or 19 hours later, I checked again. It was still thin.

Disappointed, I considered throwing the mixture away but didn’t. Instead I placed it back in the refrigerator. Some of the information I had read said kefir, developed at a low temperature, would happen and given the slow fermentation, would actually taste sweeter. I really didn’t want to wait a week, however, and removing the bottle from the refrigerator again, placed it back on the counter.

A few hours later, I had kefir, thick and tangy. Actually, I wasn’t sure how it tasted at first.

It might have just gone bad, I thought. It might taste, well, sour and not pleasantly so. I put the now-thickened mixture back in the refrigerator and then, a few hours later, looking for something to have with breakfast, I decided to give it a shot.

It was just fine.

Apparently, kefir culture is really only good used this way a few times. If I want to continue making kefir, I’ll need to buy starter. For now, it’s a nice novelty and I’ll keep it going for a little while longer. If I like it enough after that, I may track down some starter.

Diet, IQ Development, and Willful Ignorance

February 9, 2011
Aneta Blaszczyk, Stock.xchng

Too many Funions and she'll end up working the cash register in a convenience store.

As if raising a child or, simply, growing up weren’t all ready complicated enough, more and more research suggests those early, formative years before the age of 3 are crucial in a child’s later development. Most notably, diet plays a significant role not only in a child’s physical development but in his intellectual growth, as well.

Or, as the Telegraph tactfully headlined it: “Will junk food make your child stupid?”

If a question like that doesn’t strike guilt and fear into the hearts of any parent currently slipping her 2-year-old anything other than a whole-grain, organic, flax-seed and quinoa biscuit (no processed sugar, please) what will? In a story that’s been getting attention all over the place, researchers at Britain’s University of Bristol have linked diet with brain development in children under 3-years old.

“A diet, high in fats, sugars, and processed foods in early childhood may lower IQ, while a diet packed full of vitamins and nutrients may do the opposite,” a press release from Bristol University announced.

The report is just one of many from a long-term study of children born to 14,000 British mothers in 1991 and 1992. Parents of 3,966 of the children were asked in a questionnaire to detail the types and frequencies of foods their kids ate when they were 3, 4, 7, and 8-and-a-half years old.

“We have found some evidence to suggest that a diet associated with increasing consumption of foods that are high in fat, sugar and processed foods in early childhood is associated with small reductions in IQ in later childhood,” lead researcher Kate Northstone, a research fellow in the department of social medicine at the University of Bristol, told Bloomberg Business Week.

Interestingly, this story appeared just as two other stories are making the rounds as well. One suggests that switching your infant to solid foods before the age of 4 months can contribute to obesity later on, and another reported by NPR, looks at the very real problem of food deserts, those areas in cities and rural areas where people simply don’t have access to food.

The connection between that latter story and the issue of junk food and intellectual development being, of course, the fact that many children simply don’t have access to good food because there isn’t any available to them.

All of this brings to mind Sarah Palin’s criticisms last year of Michelle Obama’s efforts through Let’s Move!, Palin’s insistence that programs like Let’s Move! and recent legislation for safer, healthier food somehow infringes upon the rights of people to make their own decisions about what they eat. She’s wrong, of course. As one columnist in Huffington Post noted last year:

[Palin’s] critical comments fail to recognize that, in too many instances, parents have become prisoners of school and community environments that restrict their child’s access to healthy food and physical activity options.

Has anyone explored the connection between a poor diet and willful ignorance?

A Note from the FSIS

February 3, 2011

The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has released updated guidelines for exporting to and importing from several countries, including Egypt. This is really only of interest because of the air of mystery it lends all ready mysterious products:

“Whole frozen poultry (chicken, turkey, and duck). Further processed poultry products that can no longer be physically identified as a poultry part, such as luncheon meat or turkey bacon, are permitted.”

Condom Cuisine

February 3, 2011

And for the starter, I'll begin with the primordial soup...

Edible condoms might seem to undermine the very reason for using a condom to begin with but, in this case, it’s for a good cause. Hong Kong Chef Alvin Leung, Jr. unleashed a new raincoat-themed dish at a recent food congress in Milan: Sex on the Beach. SF Weekly described the plate of prophylactic goodness like this:

The edible “condom” is made by dunking a metal cigar tube into a food-grade polymer. It’s partially filled with a milky fluid of honey and Yunnan ham emulsion, arranged on powdered shiitake mushrooms (i.e., the “sand”).

What? No dental dams? Proceeds go to a local AIDS fund.

The Happy Meal of Our Discontent

February 3, 2011

This is precisely the sort of thing McDonald’s and, by extension, various other fast food chains had hoped to avoid. Legislation proposed in Nebraska seeks to ban the use of toys to promote unhealthy foods to children.

Introduced in January by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, LB 126 “would prohibit toy giveaways in children’s meals that have more than 500 calories or in the case of breakfast meals, 400 calories,” according to a story from the Associated Press. “Meals with toys also could not have more than 640 milligrams of sodium and must contain at least one cup of fruit or non-fried vegetables.”

Similar legislation has all ready passed in two California communities: San Francisco and Santa Clara County, which was the first to pass such a law. Whether the Nebraska legislation passes or not, the fact that legislation like this is now making its way from the Left Coast to the Heartland is exactly what companies like McDonald’s have hoped to avoid.  Back in October, 2010, a fair amount of media attention was focused on San Francisco’s ultimately successful efforts to place restrictions on the use of toys to promote fast-food to kids.

“The big surprise today was that the San Francisco supervisors have taken the ‘happy’ out of Happy Meals,” one McDonald’s franchise owner told Food Safety News on the day the city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 3 for the legislation. The issue drew jokes and criticism from all over, especially those decrying what they said was an infringement on the rights of parents.

McDonald’s, clearly unhappy with a second successful effort to curb what has been a massively successful ad campaign as well as a threatened lawsuit by Center for Science in the Public Interest,  issued a statement describing how proud the company is of the quality of its Happy Meals:

We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals.   We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet.

That’s fine and there should be no debate about parents’ decisions concerning which foods they feel are appropriate for their kids. That misses the point, however. The argument isn’t about whether parents should take their kids to McDonald’s; the debate is over how McDonald’s presents itself to a potentially lucrative demographic incapable of making sensible decisions about its diet, namely, children.

The bill, Avery told the AP, is about restricting how corporations “push their least nutritional . . . food products on our children.”

Toys aren’t aimed at parents. They’re aimed at kids who are rarely paragons of rational thought. They’re intended to convince the child she should want a Happy Meal and, clearly, they’ve been an incredibly successful draw. McDonald’s understands the importance of building brand loyalty very early on and it’s this kind of legislation in places like San Francisco and, now, Nebraska, that presents such a challenge to their way of doing business.

Will the bill in Nebraska go anywhere? Most people would place their bet on the bill going down in defeat, assuming it even makes out of committee, but it’s never safe to underestimate the Midwest. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Avery, is regarded as too liberal by  Tea Party groups which targeted him in the 2010 election. That, alone, is probably enough to make many in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature shy away from it.

There’s little doubt, too, that McDonald’s will respond to this bill with far more resources than it did in San Francisco because a successful strike against advertising to children in a place like Nebraska means the fight has moved to an entirely new level.

Food Safety Law Won’t be Cheap, Industry Lobbyist Warns

February 2, 2011

As the Food Safety and Modernization Act kicks into motion, expenses to carry out its mission will also begin to pile up, as well. It won’t be cheap. According to a story in the ag weekly, Capital Press, expenses could require more than $1.6 billion in federal spending between this year and 2015.

Fees from food producers are expected to cover some of those costs but only some: less than $250 million. Other federal spending will cover another $335 million but the Food and Drug Administration could end up picking up at least $1.3 billion of the tab. Critics of the bill seem to be warning that the success of the new law could hinge entirely on just how generous the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are with funding and there’s little reason to expect they will be.

Concerns about the federal deficit will likely prevent full funding of the law, Capital Press reported John Bode as saying. Bode, a former USDA official and a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, McDonald’s, and various other companies and organizations, was speaking at a trade show in Portland, Ore., last week.

In addition to the sheer cost of the undertaking, the new legislation will entail devising and codifying new rules for the safe production and harvest of foods and crops both for domestic and foreign producers. The FDA, Bode said, will have to develop responses for substances that aren’t even currently regarded as contaminants.

Girl Scout Cabal Begins Shakedown

February 2, 2011

They show up at your churches and temples, on street corners and grocery stores, even at your front door. They have one goal: to shake you down while forcing you to consume life-threatening trans-fats. They are, of course, the Girl Scouts of America and they’ve begun to mend their evil ways.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Girls Scouts have removed trans fats – a product of partially hydrogenated oils – from five of their popular cookies. That doesn’t mean the trans fats aren’t there, however. What it does mean is that the levels of trans fats are below the FDA-mandated allowance enabling a company to label its products as trans fat-free.

“When it comes to fat, trans fat is considered by some doctors to be the worst of them all because of its double-barreled impact on your cholesterol levels,” writes Web MD. “Unlike other fats, trans fat — also called trans-fatty acids — both raises your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol.”

Which of the eight are the three offenders? They happen to include two of the best ones: Samoas, Thin Mints, and the less-fabulous Tagalongs. Apparently, “a person who eats eight [Samoas] could be taking in nearly 2 grams of trans fats – a substance the National Academy of Science says cannot be safely consumed in any amount,” reported the Tribune.

What goes into a Girl Scout cookie? In the case of Samoas, vegetable shortening is the fourth ingredient (Samoas are called Caramel deLites in this particular instance). There’s plenty of high fructose corn syrup and 6 grams of saturated fat. A single serving size is two cookies. Yeah, right.

Maybe it’s too early but there was nothing posted in response at the Girls Scouts’ web site. Or, maybe, trans fats consumed in Girl Scout cookies don’t count and we can eat them to our heart’s content.

Good Eats with Fox

February 1, 2011

Photo: Charles Thompson, Stock.xchngMichelle Obama, after praising the barbecue in Charlotte, N.C. – the site of the 2012 Democratic convention – is taking hits from Fox.

“Not Known to Be Diet Food, Michelle Obama Hails ‘Great Barbecue’ in N.C.” reads Fox’s headline, which goes on to slam her for, well, enjoying good barbecue. The problem with that? Apparently, it conflicts with the image they’ve created of her as a food Nazi, dictating that everyone should eat nothing but celery sticks and tofu. Never mind the fact that anyone would be hard pressed to find a single statement, in print or on video, of her even suggesting such a thing.

But it also raises the question as to whether the food reform movement is conveying accurately its message that good food – real food – doesn’t have to be crap made from corn derivatives and starches and gums. If anyone is serious about good food, the message is pretty clear but to someone whose diet is comprised of convenience foods, it seems like a personal affront.

When you tell a parent, for example, that the frozen Tyson chicken nuggets they’re serving their children really aren’t that good for them, you’re doing more than just suggesting there are better alternatives: you’re telling them they don’t care enough about their kids; you are telling them they’re lousy parents. They have every right to be offended.

It’s a shame for so many reasons, not the least of them is that Obama’s important message, her realistic message, is lost in the cacophony of ideology, intentionally undermined by institutions like Fox, less intent upon informing the public than pushing a particular agenda.

And, for the record, good barbecue isn’t made with high fructose corn syrup or corn starch or caramel coloring. Clearly, the folks at Fox are shortchanging themselves if they believe otherwise.