Tangerine Cabbage Salad with Kimchi Miso Dressing

Tangerine Cabbage Salad with Kimchi Miso Dressing

The incredible role our resident bacteria play in our health is becoming more and more illuminated these days. From digestive health, to our immune systems, to our mental health, to our metabolisms, our symbiotic microorganisms are make-or-break actors. The good news is, healthy bacteria can be found in countless delicious fermented foods, from yogurt and sauerkraut, to the miso and kimchi that we will be using today!

In my next couple of posts I will go into some of the amazing research being done into the microbiome, but for now, let’s just enjoy a delicious recipe!

Cabbage Tangerine Salad with Kimchi Miso Dressing

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 1 TBSP rice vinegar
  • 2 TBSP miso paste
  • 1/2 cup kimchi, drained and finely chopped
  • 4 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 smallish cabbage, shredded (approximately 5 cups)
  • 5 tangerines
  • 4 green onions

Combine the vinegar and miso in a large mixing bowl, stir until miso is dissolved. Drain and finely chop the kimchi. Add the kimchi and olive oil to the bowl and mix well.

Finely shred the cabbage, enough to equal about 5 cups. Peel the tangerines, cut the segments in half and pull them apart. Finely slice the green onion.  Add the cabbage, tangerines, and green onion to the bowl and toss well with the dressing.

Recipe adopted from New Season’s Market.

Kimchi

Kimchi! Make sure to get a raw, fermented version. This one was bubbling  when I opened it, a sure sign there is happy bacteria in there! You can also experiment with making your own. Continue reading

Brave New World of Probiotics

Digestive Health Tortilla

I found this little packet of tortillas at the grocery store recently. The words “Digestive Health” will always catch my eye, but what exactly do these words have to do with a white flour tortilla? Well, these tortillas have probiotic cultures in them, specifically, a patented strain called GanedonBC30.

In spite of dearly loving all things probiotic and fermented, I have some reservations about this product! Let’s look into it.

First of all, these tortillas call to mind one of Michael Pollan’s central guidelines to healthy eating: “Avoid food products that make health claims”. As he explains in his book In Defense of Food, a product that has a health claim must first have packaging to put the claim on, and that fact alone means it is more likely to be a highly processed food product than a whole food. In addition, marketing claims typically originate from the strength and influence of the marketing departments of big food companies, rather than being based on reality… thus explaining how the FDA and organizations such as The American Heart Association have allowed their stamp of approval on foods such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs.

Sure enough, this product is highly processed, truly a “food product” rather than an actual food. Let’s take a look at the ingredients:

Enriched Bleached Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Vegetable Shortening (Interesterified and Hydrogenated Soybean Oils), contains 2% or less of: Salt, Sugar, Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Distilled Monoglycerides, Enzymes, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Fumaric Acid, Maltodextrin, Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086, Calcium Propionate and Sorbic Acid (to maintain freshness)

Bleached white flour, preservatives, thickeners, distilled monoglycerides? I think our guts would be better off without the probiotic, if this is its vehicle. Ironically, wheat flour, preservatives, and thickeners such as guar gum have been shown to negatively interfere with our gut health and gut microbes. (This will be subject of a future blog post.)

In addition, although these tortillas proudly advertise that they have “0 grams of TRANS FAT PER SERVING”, one of the very first ingredients is “interesterified and hydrogenated soybean oils”, which is the new replacement for partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), and is likely just as bad as, if not worse, than its precursor. (Check out my previous post about this topic.)

Now back to Pollan’s point about the heft of the marketing power of large food companies. Let’s take a look at the website of Ganeden, the company that makes the probiotic found in these tortillas. In their FAQs, they explain that their GanedonBC30 is the “only spore-forming probiotic to receive FDA GRAS” – which means FDA approval that it is safe. Does this mean that this is the only safe probiotic? No… it just means that “only the big food companies have the wherewithal to secure FDA-approved health claims for their products and trumpet them to the world” (Pollan 154).

GanedenBC30 is made from bacillus coagulans, which is a spore-forming bacteria. Ganeden has used this spore-forming trait to create a product that can withstand the “harsh processing” that our modern food goes through. Ganeden has a “Probiotics 101” lesson on their website that has some questions to consider when “choosing a probiotic”:

  • Does it survive the extremes of manufacturing?
  • Does it survive the shelf life of the product?

This illustrates that the intent of GanedenBC30 is to be a probiotic product that can withstand the extreme processing that much of our food undergoes, as well as the lengthy shelf life that often results from said processing. This is great for food companies, but not necessarily so great for consumers. Why?

  • If the probiotic spores withstand such “harsh processing”, will it truly effectively leave the spore state and benefit our guts, rather than just passing through?
  • Assuming that it does, to what extent does eating the highly processed food in which GanedenBC30 is found obviate any health benefit of the probiotic?
  • There are countless beneficial effects of probiotics that cannot be encapsulated in one single hardy strain of bacteria. “Probiotics” have traditionally been consumed as fermented food (think yogurt and sauerkraut), not as pills or manufactured additives. With fermentation we get enzymes, increased nutrients, and improved nutrient absorption from the foods that have been fermented. We also get multiple strains of bacteria, not just a single one.

These tortillas serve as a reminder that marketing claims must be taken with a grain of salt. Ultimately, food companies are shamelessly taking advantage of people who want to take positive steps for their health. Yet in the end there is no substitute for whole, unprocessed foods, no matter what it may say on the packaging. Continue reading

Top Foods to Avoid Until 2018 (And Maybe Forever)

Pop Secret Trans Fat

Partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats, have been declared unsafe for human consumption by the FDA, and will be phased out of our food supply by 2018. This is both good news, and sobering news.

First the good news: trans fat has been shown to be very hazardous to our health, so this ban is estimated to save thousands of lives each year. The sobering news is twofold: First of all, the history behind this ban reinforces the fact that we cannot trust the FDA or USDA to make scientifically-sound nutrition recommendations that will protect our health. Second of all, the replacements that the food industry has developed to replace partially hydrogenated oil have their own set of problems. These problems include human rights and environmental issues, as well as health issues– that may actually turn out to be just as serious as those from trans fats. There is a lot going on with this ban, so let’s dig a little deeper so that we can be better prepared to make informed decisions at the grocery store.

Let’s start with a quick overview of what partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) and trans fats are. PHO begins its life as a liquid oil (eg. soybean oil) that is then transformed into a solid fat through an industrial chemical reaction. In this reaction, hydrogen atoms are forcibly attached to the fat molecules with the help of high pressure, high temperatures, and chemical catalysts. Some of the resulting fat molecules in the partially hydrogenated oil have a structure that is called trans— these are the trans fats.* PHO is a desirable ingredient in processed foods because it is shelf-stable, it is cheap, and the hydrogenation level can be controlled to yield the perfect texture in the final product. Continue reading

Sesame Asparagus Soup with Egg and Gomasio

Asparagus SoupWe are right in the heart of the spring season, which means that sweet spring-green sticks of asparagus are in season, and often on sale. This is the perfect time of year to make an easy asparagus soup. All you really need is asparagus, perhaps an onion, some olive oil or butter, and a bit of salt. Just add water, and these ingredients become a flavorful pureed soup that lets you enjoy the full flavor of the asparagus.

This soup base can then be adopted in innumerable ways. The version that I am sharing today is made with sesame seed oil, and is served with gomasio (sesame-salt), hard-boiled egg, and a squeeze of lemon juice.

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Triple-Ginger Dark Chocolate Macaroons

Triple Ginger MacaroonMacaroons have been popping up in the the end caps and special displays of the grocery store lately. This unleavened cookie is traditionally eaten for Passover, just around the corner. Seeing these fluffy little snowballs everywhere got me to craving them. This version is made with three different types of ginger, and is dipped in dark chocolate. Dipping things in chocolate is the best. I used a 70% dark chocolate bar, but you could also use bittersweet chocolate chips, or whatever chocolate you prefer. These are not very sweet, but the chocolate and candied ginger give them just enough sweetness. Macaroons are dairy and wheat free by their nature. They are typically made with egg whites, but it seems like a waste to throw out what is truly the best-tasting and most-nutritious part of the egg (the yolk) so these are made with the whole egg. This gives them a lovely tinge of gold. These are very good served with tea or coffee.
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Sage Delicata Squash with Hummus and Caramelized Shallots

Delicatta Squash

One of my favorite dishes this winter has been roasted delicata squash. It is a comforting dish that is very easy to make. You just slice it up and put it in the oven with some butter and herbs. You don’t even need to peel the squash first. It’s delicious on its own, or you can mix it up with whatever you have on hand. One of the best combinations I happened upon is serving it with hummus and caramelized shallots. Read on for the recipe!

I used sage because there happens to be a sage plant in the backyard that carries on during our mild winters. You could use any kind of herb you prefer, however, or use dried herbs.

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What Is Gluten Sensitivity? (Part 2: gluten and autoimmune disease)

Villi-Intestinal-Barrier-Cells

This is my second post in a series assessing the effects of gluten and the value of gluten-free diets. In my last post I mentioned the promising research about gluten-free diets to fight type-1 diabetes. Type-1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and in this post I will elaborate on the relationship between gluten and autoimmune diseases. Many of those with an autoimmune disease are helped by a gluten-free diet, and it is important to understand why, so that the treatments for these diseases can be improved.

(For reference, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) has an extensive list of autoimmune diseases. A handful of well-known examples are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s, psoriasis, and lupus.)

Rates of autoimmune diseases have been increasing at a brisk pace, although it is not fully understood why. Autoimmune diseases are complex, and have been tied to genetics, viruses, environmental toxins, and more. They are all caused by the immune system attacking parts of the body instead of protecting it. They are often closely associated, i.e. someone with one autoimmune disease has a much greater chance of developing additional ones. Also, family members often have an assortment of different autoimmune diseases between them. Yet, the diseases vary so greatly in symptoms that they are difficult to diagnose, and any common underlying causes can be difficult to see.

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, it takes on average about five years and five different doctors to receive a diagnosis of  an autoimmune (AI) disease. In addition, 45% of people who are diagnosed with a serious AI disease were originally labelled as hypochondriacs or complainers. Even after diagnosis, current treatments are inadequate to say the least, and the drugs used often have severe side effects

The widely ranging symptoms of autoimmune diseases make them difficult to diagnose, yet it is also notable that 3 out of 4 sufferers of autoimmune disease are women. (This is due to differences in the immune system and in hormones.) In some diseases, such as lupus, 9 out of 10 sufferers are women, and predominantly minority women as well. Especially judging by our medical track record, this is undoubtedly part of the reason why these individuals are not always taken seriously, and it is a great reason to think twice before dismissing those who are gluten-free as hysterical fad-followers.

So what exactly ties autoimmune disorders to gluten?

We do not yet have a complete understanding, but one thing we do know is that a leaky gut is a common factor in all of the various autoimmune diseases, and may be the most universal of all factors. In fact, it has been shown to precede autoimmune disease, so it seems to be involved in the progression of the disease, and is not just a side effect that comes later. As described in my last post, gluten is particularly good at triggering a leaky gut, which leads to a heightened immune response (inflammation) as the gut wall is damaged and foreign particles enter the body. Autoimmune diseases are diseases of inflammation: inflammation directed at the body.

Gluten fragments also directly trigger the immune system, contributing to chronic inflammation. The impact of gluten on our gut health and microbiome (mentioned in Part 1) is also significant because our symbiotic gut microbes play a huge role in regulating our immune systems. The connection between our microbiomes and autoimmunity is a huge area of current research.

Another factor tying gluten to autoimmunity is that there are many protein segments in gluten that are very similar to proteins in the body. Thus, if the immune system begins to attack gluten protein fragments, it can then be “confused” and go on to attack similar proteins in the body as well. Other fragments of bacteria, viruses, food, etc., can also be similar to our own cells, and gluten can help these particle escape the gut and thus become a target of the immune system. This process, whereby our immune system learns to attack a protein and then also attacks other similar proteins, is called “molecular mimicry”  or “cross-reactivity” and is one of the leading theories about how autoimmune diseases develop.

Thus even though gluten is certainly not the only cause of an autoimmune disease, nor even the only cause of a leaky gut, it can be a powerful contributor. For people with autoimmune disease, who are already struggling with a medical system that generally does not know how to help them, it is important not to dismiss the potential of a gluten-free diet. It is troubling to think that misguided public opinion could keep people from ever trying what for many is an effective and safe treatment.

In my next post, I will talk about some of the problematic aspects of the gluten-free diet, and talk a bit about why it could be that gluten is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for people’s health.

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What Is Gluten Sensitivity? (part 1)

Bread for Ducks is Death for Ducks

Gluten is a big buzzword right now. More and more people are avoiding gluten, the gluten-free food industry is booming, and there are more gluten-free options than ever at restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores.

Public opinion has often come down against this movement, claiming that the majority of people going gluten-free are misguided and foolish. A couple of months ago there was a flurry of headlines claiming that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is “Just In Your Head“,  “Completely Fake”, “BOGUS”, and even “Bullshit”.  These stories are sensational and clickable, and quickly made the rounds on social media. Yet, they are examples of frankly terrible news reporting. They misrepresent the study being reported, while displaying both a lack of knowledge of the facts and a lack of consideration for people dealing with health problems.

The truth is, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has not been disproven, and to claim that it has been is simply wrong.

Those particular headlines were in response to one recent study that did not find a link between gluten and digestive symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. This was one study, that only examined one specific question about symptoms in IBS patients– thus it did not disprove the fact that a variety of diseases and harmful effects are still linked to gluten, as seen in a huge body of peer-reviwed scientific research and clinical results. In fact, only a couple of weeks after the study was published, the very same research lab published another study that found a connection between gluten and depression. As the head of the research group Peter Gibson said:

“we know that a lot of people go on gluten-free diets, [and] feel better. And that’s not imagination, that’s real.”

and:

“The story is ongoing. We produced a piece of evidence to say that gluten is being overly blamed, but we have patients who we still believe have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

This does not sound like someone “saying he got it wrong” about the existence of gluten sensitivty, as the media claimed. Rather, he is saying that this study is one piece in the puzzle of the various effects of gluten, and that there are still many more pieces to look at.

Let us set this study aside for the moment and take a look at one glaring issue: even if this study’s implications are correct and the role of gluten in IBS has been overstated, gluten sensitivity is not just associated with IBS, and it is not even simply a gastrointestinal issue. In fact, one of the main ways that gluten affects the body is through the brain and nervous system, and gluten sensitivity is often exclusively neurological, with no digestive symptoms. Neurological disorders such as migraines, ataxia, dystonia, and peripheral neuropathy are all linked to gluten sensitivity. Psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD  are also tied to gluten sensitivity. Gluten has been strongly linked with autoimmune diseases, which I will talk more about in my next post. It has also been tied to other disorders such as fibromyalgia. This is not to say that gluten is necessarily the sole cause of all of these, but it is at least found to be a contributing factor.

Here are a few examples of recent research into gluten sensitivity:

  • Fibromyalgia is an elusive syndrome that is often associated with gut problems. In a recent study, 20 patients with fibromyalgia experienced remission from the disease on a gluten-free diet. They were all confirmed not to have celiac, thus the researchers concluded that non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be a cause of the disorder.
  • Depression has been shown to be much more common in those with celiac, and conversely, people who are depressed are more likely to have undiagnosed celiac. As I mentioned above, a recent study found that gluten caused depression even in people without celiac. There is also a recently published case study of a girl who had been on a gluten-free diet and suddenly became severely depressed after beginning to eat wheat daily. She did not have celiac disease. After going back to a gluten-free diet, her depression resolved.
  • Scientists have been exploring the links between wheat, gluten, and schizophrenia for decades, and many studies have shown that a gluten-free diet is effective for many patients. One recent fascinating discovery is that even after controlling for other variables, mothers who have a greater than normal immune reaction to gluten have greatly increased odds of having children who develop schizophrenia. The same did not hold true for an immune reaction to milk casein.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is tied with gluten sensitivity in multiple studies. It has been found that those with ADHD are much more likely to have celiac disease, and when the celiac disease is treated by a gluten-free diet, ADHD symptoms also improve.
  • Autism spectrum is a complex condition with many factors, but many children with autism are greatly helped by a gluten free diet. For example in one study that questioned 387 families with autistic children who were on a gluten-free and casein-free diet, those that reported the closest adherence to the diet also experienced the best improvement in symptoms. From a more biochemical angle, another study found that gluten causes a greater immune reaction in children with autism than in children without autism. Research is ongoing, and shows that gluten-free dietary interventions are promising for improving both symptoms and development in many patients.
  • Type 1 diabetes has been  linked to gluten in multiple studies. One recent study found that for diabetic mice, the risk that their offspring would develop type-1 diabetes was dramatically less when they ate a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and nursing. It has also been shown that if started early enough, a gluten-free diet can cause remission of the disease in humans: one recent case study described a young boy who was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes but was able to put the disease into remission with a gluten-free diet.

You may be wondering: how could gluten be a factor in all of these seemingly unrelated diseases? It is because gluten affects two very integral and vital parts of our bodies: our guts and our immune systems.

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Recipe: Simple and Versatile Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut

 

I have recently been browsing a wonderful book called  The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World, by Sandor Ellix Katz. It is a beautifully written book, and Katz’s expertise and passion for the subject are easy to see. One of the things I like about it is the relaxed, exploratory attitude he has towards the subject– for example there are no exact recipes, but rather general descriptions of the processes, with lots of detailed explanations and many possible variations. It is the “art” of fermentation, not the science, and it reflects the amazing variety of fermented foods around the world.

What is fermentation? Katz describes it as “The transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce.” Some of the most recognizable ones in the US are alchohol, vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, certain cheeses, and salami. One of the primary functions of fermentation is to preserve foods, and another is to increase health benefits.

Fermented foods have been highly valued in traditional cuisines throughout history and in every culture. Fermented foods that still have live bacteria are known as probiotics, and they are very important for our digestive health, immune function, and more. The importance of our microbiomes (the friendly bacteria that live on and in us) is a huge area of research right now, and we are only beginning to understand how very important they are. One amazing fact is that the bacteria cells living in our body outnumber our own cells about 10 to 1. (The bacterial cells are much smaller.)

The health benefits don’t only come from probiotic content, however. The fermentation of foods is essentially their “pre-digestion” by bacteria and fungi. As Katz explains, this breaks down compounds to make them easier for us to digest, and makes minerals and nutrients more available to our bodies. Fermentation can also break down substances that would otherwise be toxic. It can also actually increase the nutrients in foods; for example, it can increase levels of B vitamins and create helpful enzymes and other compounds. Continue reading