What I learned Today …

This lessons spans a few days.  A couple weeks ago I heard this story about the rise of urban bee keepers.   This increase is a good thing for bees and agriculture, but the uncoordinated effort of keeping bees in urban areas where there may not be enough food for them is also problematic.  So before you decide to get your own colony, you want to find out how many other colonies are in the area.

thIf you have been completely sheltered around 2006 or so, then it could be possible that you don’t know about the decline of bees.  Researchers still aren’t completely sure on what is going on, but there does seem to be a link with pesticide use, and pollution.

Then today, I heard a TED Talk about the importance of bees and the cause of their recent decline.  I knew bees were important, but I didn’t know that 1/3 of food in the U.S. is grown with the help of bee pollinators.   This talk gives a simple way to help bees.  Plant more flowers!  This will give more food for the colonies to thrive and bee keepers can keep their colonies.  And it will make our neighborhoods more attractive too.  Who wants to mow the grass, and

Almonds rely solely on bees to product their nuts, many other fruits and vegetables.  Maybe you can live without brussels spouts, but personally I don’t want to give up my watermelon, avocados, or kiwifruit.  Oh yeah, don’t forget about delicious honey!  It’s an essential ingredient in your favorite breakfast cereal, Honey Nut Cheerios.  It’s not just our food that relies on bees.  Next time you’re eating meat or dairy, that hay or alfalfa to feed the animal was grown with bee pollinators.  Now we listen to Noah Wilson’s TED Talk and he explains his research on how to make bees healthier.

You know what else helps our crops grow?  I can’t even bring myself to write the name of this byproduct of natural decomposition.  Let me just say, the millions of gallons of this byproduct was shipped from NYC to Colorado because it was so helpful on the farm.  But now, it’s cheaper to add it to a landfill.  I think it’s safe to say, you make a little everyday yourself.  It’s the same idea as this description of how whales complete the circle of life and produce the nutrient that their own food needs to thrive.

Watch Out – Stop Eating Microwave Popcorn!

So someone ingeniously figured out how to make popcorn more dangerous and charge more money for it. And most people foolishly bought Microwave Popcorn, including myself.

There are potentially/confirmed dangerous chemicals in the butter for microwave popcorn. Half the corns doesn’t pop, or gets burned while trying to pop a decent amount in the bag. Trust me, the only thing worse than stinking up the office with popcorn smell, is stinking up the office with burned popcorn smell; which for some reason clings to my hair and clothes to remind me of the awful decision to make a quick snack. And thats all the single serving bags are good for, i can’t get a serving of edible popcorn from it. I’m not a big fan of too much butter or salt either.

Now that I have a gas stove again, I’m back to popping corn in a pot with a little bit of oil, over medium heat. Kids are fascinated by this alternative popcorn production. But I could also get an air popper and save money and my health that way too.

Healthy Grains: Wheat Germ and Flax Seed – and the best Zucchini Bread ever

Whole Wheat does not mean that it’s whole grain, you have to check the package listing of ingredients.  Multi-grain can also be misleading.  All (wheat) flour comes from wheat, it’ just has been stripped of the most nutritious part of the wheat kernel.  Some prepared foods use a little bit of whole grain in

the ingredients, but still have more bleached flour in the recipe.  You have to look for 100% whole grain to get the most healthy version.  This is why people sometimes add wheat germ to a recipe.  Sometimes they use unbleached flour to make it look healthier, but the flour is otherwise the same as white flour.

Because I don’t care much for fish, I add ground Flax Seed to my smoothies to get Omega 3’s.  As people try to cut back on the 3 whites (salt, sugar, flour) ground flax seed is added to baked goods, cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, pancakes, and meatballs/meatloaf.  You must grind flax seed before consuming because the hull of the seed is not digestible and you will not absorb the healthy nutrients.

NOTE:  both flax seed and wheat germ will spoil easily when ground, so keep them in an airtight container in the refrigerator and use within a few months.  Since the whole grains keep longer, you may wish to buy them whole and grind yourself when preparing a recipe.  Flax seed oil can also be used (some people think the oil does not contain the health benefits), and will spoil even faster than ground flax seed.  (I also wrote a little about using flax seed oil, vs. butter, vs. shortening etc.)

My favorite Zucchini Bread recipe (see below) includes Wheat Germ, so I started looking into that too.  It’s used in some baked goods or cereal and smoothies to add protein, folic acid and other minerals.  A little does go a long way – if you put too much it will give a strange (kind of bitter) taste.  I’d say the first time, try subbing 1/4 cup of flour for 1/3 cup of wheat germ in baked goods.  Replace 2 tablespoons of flour with wheat germ in a standard pancake recipe calling for 1 1/2 cups of flour.  Increase that amount if you enjoy the rich taste.  Replace up to 1/4 cup of flour with wheat germ for each loaf of quick or yeast bread. You can also replace two tablespoons of flour with wheat germ in a cookie recipe.  Other recipes with wheat germ.

More details about these two grains from the Fresh Food Perspectives blog

Details on Wheat Germ and adding it to recipes on eHow

Recipes and detailed information on Wheat Germ Blog

Whole Foods guide to Grains and Flours

More discussion on Whole Grains:  The Sweet Beet, Mizzou Nutrition Busters,

Green Street {inspired} Zucchini Bread
3 eggs                                                  2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
1 cup salad oil                                      1/2 cup wheat germ
2 teaspoons maple flavoring             1 cup finely chopped walnuts, opt.
1 cup each granulated sugar and firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups coarsely shredded unpeeled zucchini (about 3 medium-size)
2 teaspoons each baking soda and salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup sesame seeds

Beat eggs until frothy; add oil, sugars, molasses and maple flavoring, and continue beating until mixture is thick and foamy. Stir in shredded zucchini.  In a separate bowl, stir together flour, wheat germ, soda, salt, baking powder, and walnuts (if using) until thoroughly blended; stir gently into zucchini mixture just until blended.

Spoon the batter equally into 2 greased and flour-dusted 9 by 5-inch loaf pans. Sprinkle sesame seed evenly over top of each.  Bake in a 350° oven for 1 hour or until bread begins to pull away from sides of pans and a wooden skewer inserted in center comes out clean.   Let cool in pans for 10 minutes; then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Biscuits with Flax Seed

1 cup flour                        1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup ground flax         3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt                       2/3 cup milk

Mix the flours, flax, baking powder, salt together. Add milk and mix. Knead a few times on floured surface, roll and cut out biscuits. Cook at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

Using Flax Seed in Recipes

Flaxseed Meal in Recipes-
You can use Bob’s Red Mill flaxseed meal as a stand in for some or all of the oil or shortening called for in a recipe. Cooks recommend a 3:1 substitution ratio. For example, 3 tbsp. Of flaxseed meal added to a recipe can replace 1 tbsp of the butter, margarine or cooking oil. When flaxseed meal is used instead of oil, baked goods tend to brown more rapidly.

Vegetarian Baking-
Bob’s Red Mill Flaxseed meal mixed with water can replace an egg in selected recipes like pancakes, muffins and cookies. These baked goods are gummier and chewier than usual, and the volume is decreased. When using replacement formula, test a recipe first to determine if it meets your expectations.

Egg Replacement Formula-
1 tbsp Bob’s Red Mill flaxseed meal + 3 tbsp water = 1 egg
Mix Bob’s Red Mill flaxseed meal and water in a small bowl and let sit for one to two minutes. Add to a recipe as you would an egg.

Baking with Butter, Shortening, Oil, or Applesauce

Fats are important for creating the right texture and flavor in baked goods.  And the order of mixing and the type of fat to used can change the final texture.  During Christmas Cookie weekend, I decided to investigate the reasons for baking with shortening since both the recipes I used include that ingredient instead of butter or oil.  So what is the difference and which is better to use?

Butter:  Is usually preferred for the flavor.  Because butter naturally has a little bit of water, this causes cookies to flatten and to come out a little crispy.

Shortening: Is hydrogenated (same process as peanut butter that you don’t have to stir) vegetable oil, and now is available without Trans Fats.  Margarine is also hydrogenated vegetable oil.  The aerated shortening and lack of water cause the cookies not to flatten and make a softer end product.

Salad Oil:  Usually chosen for dairy free baking and had a lighter flavor that won’t compete with the main flavor of the baked goods.

Applesauce:  Recipes designed to use applesauce are going for a low fat content (does little to reduce calories) without loosing the moisture.  Applesauce is often used to reduce the oil and/or egg  ingredients but cannot perform the same function so look for proven recipes.

Flax Seed Oil:  Many people are into using flax seed to get more Omega-3’s.  A friend of my substituted 1/2 of the butter quantity with flax seed oil in my pumpkin bread recipe.  From what I have read, the beneficial fiber and antioxidants are not found in the flax seed oil, but they are retained in ground flax seed.  The oil does have the Omega-3’s and can tolerate up to 350 degrees for up to 2 hours according to wikipedia.  The oil decomposes easily and ground flax seed will go rancid in a few weeks in cool conditions but will keep 2-3 months in the refrigerator.

Eggs are also a binding ingredient and help make baked goods light and fluffy, but there are plenty of recipes without eggs for those who are allergic.

I love to check in with America’s Test Kitchen for scientifically researched recipes designed to work for modern chefs and bakers.  They also research cooking and baking tools, as well as the comparison quality of ingredients.

For additional substitution ideas to reduce the fat content see Cooking Light.

For some guidance on using applesauce in baking check out www.wisegeek.com.

For a scientific explanation of the function of fats in recipes check out about.com.

More detail on the effects of baking with butter vs. shorting check out Enlightened Cooking.

Culinary Confusion – Again

Cilantro

Parsley

I did it again, I have confused another pair of ingredients when shopping at the store.  This time I purchased cilantro when I wanted parsley.  I could have easily noticed my error in advance because I strongly dislike the smell and taste of cilantro, but I had relied on a sign above the display and did not investigate on my own.  Also, the tie around the cilantro bunch was properly labeled so I know to check that next time.  These ingredients can be used as a substitute for each other in some recipes.

Cabbage

Last time I remember purchasing the wrong ingredient was in high school.  While shopping for taco ingredients I picked up cabbage when I wanted a head of iceberg lettuce.  There are subtle differences between these two and they are not typically individually labeled.  For tacos I wouldn’t mind the substitution, but my father was les than pleased with the idea.

Lettuce

What does “Fair Trade” mean?

There are so many marketing terms on food and beauty products, suggesting those products are better for the environment and/or better for society.  Some of the terms and labels are regulated to verify that the company follows the ethical practices.  But some terms are not regulated at all, and we may not meet our expectations for these terms.  The terms “Fair Trade” and “Ethical Trade” are certified from different groups that have different requirements.  “All Natural,” “Green, ” and “Environmentally Friendly” mean not be what you expect.  The concern is where advertising is misleading and unethical practices continue without reform.  Some companies claim to be socially responsible, but they continue to source materials from unethical producers.  If the company is not willing to submit for certification of defined practices, how can we trust their claims of socially responsible.

Here is a simple definition of commonly used terms:

  • Fair Trade – greater equity in international trade by offering better trading conditions and securing rights for marginalized producers and workers.
  • Ethical Trading – fair labor and socially responsible practices reaching throughout supply chain.
  • Social Responsibility – being accountable for actions and decisions on others and the natural environment.
  • Sustainable Consumption – making and/or using a product with concern about environmental impact.

The FLO International Fairtrade certification system covers a growing range of products, including bananas, honey, oranges, cocoa, coffee, shortbread, cotton, dried and fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, nuts and oil seeds, quinoa, rice, spices, sugar, tea and wine.  The Fair Trade Certified Mark is regulated by Fair Trade USA. It appears on products as an independent guarantee that disadvantaged producers in the developing world are getting a better deal.

The Ethical Trade Initiative (UK based) has a list of member companies but does not have a logo for certified companies.  One of my favorite brands of tea includes a logo and the term “Ethical Trade” but is not included on the member list.  This term is not regulated or certified in the US, so it will take more research for me to verify the claims by this tea company.

The Eco Trade Logo is certified by a North American group and their standards can be reviewed here, and in general certifies that production addresses multiple environmental attributes throughout the entire life cycle of the product or service.  The terms “Green,” “Natural,” and “Environmentally Friendly” are not regulated and do not provide a similar assurance of ethical practices.

Socially Responsible does not currently have a certification.  ISO 26000 or simply ISO SR was just released by the International Standardization Organization and only offers guidance, not requirements.

Social Accountability is regulated by Social Accountability International 8000 SA8000 which defines the set of principles to meet certification.

How to Verify this information:

Other Blog Posts on this subject:

Check out Good Guide for an evaluation of health, environment, and social impacts for a particular product.

Weight Gain around the Holidays is a Natural Cycle

Courtesy of MinniePauz.com

In the last few years I have repeated a cycle of weight gain at the holidays and weight loss the few months following.  I really enjoy food and there are so many holiday treats that I wait all year to make.  Thanksgiving dinner alone is my favorite meal, and now thanks to a group of friends who celebrate “Practice Thanksgiving” the weekend before, I get to enjoy it twice a year.  So with all the bread, potatoes, cookies, etc. I tend to get a little chubby by the end of the year.  Luckily this weight gain is followed by some weight loss in January and February.  For some reason this is the easiest time for me to lose weight.  Maybe it’s the cold temperatures and I burn more calories creating heat.  Or maybe I don’t have as much activity (social and physical) and so it’s easier to resist food.  By the time spring comes around and I increase my exercise, I don’t really lose more weight.

A friend of mine who is a biologist recently described to me the natural cycle of the human body is to put on weight in the fall, when fruits and produce is harvested, and then lose weight in the winter months when food production is more scarce.  This has likely been developed throughout centuries of evolution.  The natural cycle of weight gain likely is a root cause to having so many traditions in the fall associated with food.

So I can embrace this cycle and enjoy my favorite food traditions, as long as I keep a balance with healthy habits following the holidays.