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Mainely Tipping Points 33: GO WILD!

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Mainely Tipping Points 33

GO WILD!

 

Sandor Ellix Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION: THE FLAVOR, NUTRITION, AND CRAFT OF LIVE-CULTURE FOODS arrived last week.  I found myself dropping all other activities and reading it straight through. 

By noon the next day I had a ball of cloth-wrapped cheese hanging from a kitchen knob, dripping away the last of its whey. 

In two days’ time I had a quart mason jar filled with fermenting kale leaves, or Gundru, a Tibetan ferment.  (You can’t imagine how many kale leaves it takes to fill a quart jar once you’ve wilted them in the sun and pounded them so that they release their juices—the leaves of about eight kale plants.)  And now I’m eyeing the crocks over my stove, bought for decorative purposes mostly, and wondering what from the fall harvest I can ferment next. 

Katz, who is a charming writer, would say “lots of things.”  And, indeed, Katz discusses how to ferment vegetables, fruits, beans, dairy, grains and breads, beverages, wines, beers, and vinegars.  “Fermentation,” writes Katz, gives us many of our most basic staples, such as bread and cheese, and our most pleasurable treats, including chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer” (2).

Microscopic bacteria and fungi, or microflora, are, writes Katz, agents of transformation; they feast upon decaying matter and shift dynamic life forces from one creation to the next (2).  That’s why “fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition.  Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced,” like “stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso [made traditionally, which can take several years], smooth sublime wines.  Human have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi” (5).     

But, why should we home cooks ferment anything?  First, fermented foods we make for ourselves are guaranteed to be very rich in enzymes. 

You might recall me writing in earlier Tipping Points essays about Edward Howell’s theory on enzymes.  Howell, who died in 2000 at the age of 102, spent his life studying the role of enzymes in health and disease.  He posited that if one does not eat enzyme-rich foods, the body has both to use existing stored enzymes and to work harder to digest foods, all of which takes a toll.  Ron Schmid, in THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILK, notes Howell’s assessment that humans have lower levels of starch-digesting enzymes in their blood than other creatures and higher levels in their urine, which means their resident enzymes are being used up faster.  And, as Schmid notes, based on various studies, it’s clear that diets deficient in enzymes result in shortened life spans (101-105).  Certainly this assessment is a piece of the growing body of information pointing toward the health problems associated with starchy carbohydrate-heavy diets. 

Second, fermentation removes toxins from foods.  All grains, nuts, seeds, and tubers contain inhibitors (phytic acids) which block human absorption of nutrients.  These inhibitors are inactivated by traditional food preparation methods that involve soaking in acids, like whey or lemon juice, which begins a fermentation process, or by sprouting (101-105).  Few, if any, commercial foods have been properly prepared so as to inactivate nutrient inhibitors while, at the same time, preserving nutrients.  Thus, unless you are properly preparing these foods, your body isn’t getting all of the nutrients in these foods and is, to add insult to injury, struggling to digest them. 

Fermentation can remove toxins as powerful as cyanide from cassava, an enormous tuber used in tropical regions of the Americas and, now, in Africa and Asia.  Other toxins fermentation can eliminate or reduce include nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides (7). 

Third, fermentation preserves food because it produces “alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all `bio-preservatives’ that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.”  Hence, highly perishable foods, like vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, and meat, can be stored after harvest for consumption in leaner seasons.  Or, as Captain James Cook discovered during his eighteenth century explorations, preserved fermented sauerkraut prevented scurvy during long ocean voyages (5).      

“Microscopic bacteria and fungi,” writes Katz, “…are in every breath we take and every bite we eat.”  These microflora are “in a symbiotic relationship” with humans.  They “digest food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, protect us from potentially dangerous organisms, and teach our immune systems how to function” (2).  Most importantly, writes Katz, “we need to promote diversity among microbial cultures” in our bodies because “biodiversity is increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems” (11).        

Not all fermented foods are alive when you eat them.  Bread, for instance, must be cooked.  But, the most nutritious fermented foods, such as yogurt, are consumed alive (7).  Or, such as sauerkraut, which I make by the half-gallon and keep in our refrigerator as a ready “asset” to compliment a meal.  I used red cabbage for my current batch, and it is the loveliest deep ruby color.   

 Live yogurt and sauerkraut couldn’t be easier to make, and I have time-tested recipes for both in the recipe section of this blog.  I have not yet tried Katz’s recipe, but it has some really exciting suggested additions.  Plus, Katz’s sauerkraut lives in a crock in a cool place and does not require refrigeration.   

 Fourth and finally, fermenting is a political act, an act that stands in stark opposition to what Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation, who wrote the introduction to WILD FERMENTATION, describes as “the centralization and industrialization of our food supply.”  Real culture, writes Fallon, “begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans.”  Many commentators, notes Fallon, have said that America lacks culture.  But, “how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed?” (xii).  Food artisans ferment food, and they are increasingly being regulated out of existence by the government in the name of “food safety”—which is nothing more than industry’s power in a so-called “free market” to eliminate all its competitors.    

Katz writes the following:  “Thinking about mass food production makes me sad and angry.  Chemical mono-crop agriculture.  Genetic engineering of the most basic food crops.  Ugly, inhumane factory animal breeding.  Ultra-processed foods full of preservative chemicals, industrial byproducts, and packaging.  Food production is just one realm among many in which ever more concentrated corporate units extract profits from the Earth and the mass of humanity” (163). 

 Katz encourages us to “draw inspiration from the action of bacteria and yeast, and make your life a transformative process.”  Wild fermentation, he writes “is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake in your home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial cultures present there to produce your own unique fermented foods” (21).  

Take back your power, Katz urges, to “use your fermented goodies to nourish your family and friends and allies.  The life-affirming power of these basic foods contrasts sharply with the lifeless, industrially processed foods that fill supermarket shelves” (166).  Remember that “wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body,” so that you become “one with the natural world” once more (12).       

Don’t wait, like I did, to get a copy of Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION.

GO WILD now!  

Mainely Tipping Points 15: Rearranging Deck Chairs on theTitanic: The Proposed 2010 USDA Food Guide

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Mainely Tipping Points 15

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic:

The Proposed 2010 USDA Food Guide

 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly released the proposed 2010 food guide to a fire storm of criticism.  But first, let’s review recent government food guide history.   

 The USDA presented a new food guide plan and pyramid design in 2005.  It will be considered current until the 2010 guide replaces it.  The 2005 graphic is fronted by a triangle composed of colorful triangular stripes representing five food groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans).  Some triangles are bigger than others.  The front triangle is backed by a triangular set of steps with a stick figure climbing upwards.  A USDA web site (www.mypyramid.gov) allows an individual to enter personal information so that one of twelve personal pyramids is assigned.    

 Luise Light, hired by the USDA to design the 1980 USDA food guide, published WHAT TO EAT:  THE TEN THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO EAT WELL AND BE HEALTHY in 2006, which in part describes how USDA  political appointees manipulated Light’s proposed guide to favor industry.  Light warns that with the 2005 food guide the USDA is trying to please everyone, makers of junk food and proponents of nutritionally important foods.  The 2005 guide, warns Light, is built around calories, which translates that “all foods are good foods.”  One has only to count calories, even junk food calories, to be healthy. 

 But, Light explains, by shifting “the emphasis away from best food choices to a new food democracy where every food is equal,” the USDA ignored “research over the last ten years” that shows “the types of foods, ingredients, and eating patterns that are beneficial for health and weight” (85-86). 

I believe this strategy also removes responsibility from industry for producing unhealthy foods.  By emphasizing individual choice, it becomes the individual’s responsibility not to eat that which makes him or her fat or sick—even though highly processed fake foods, tainted foods, and chemically poisoned foods fill national supermarkets. 

Light explains that “more than half of all consumers in a nationwide survey” responded that they were confused by the new pyramid.  Yet, the USDA allocated no funds to promote the new guide.  Rather, the USDA planned to task industry with helping to educate Americans about food choices.  Light notes that the Idaho Potato Commission immediately announced that carbohydrates, including potatoes, are the best fuel for muscles. 

 But, Light reminds, in reality, the food guide was never meant to be “a tool for health promotion based on the latest scientific studies about healthy eating.”  And, she asks if it isn’t time that nutritional questions are “answered by knowledgeable, independent authorities without a vested interest.”  Right now, people are “told different things at every turn by physicians, teachers, dietitians, the government, and food marketers” (85-86). 

The government released the 2010 proposed food guide this spring and scheduled public hearings and organized a web site for public comments.  Criticism involves, in part, the fact that the proposed guide not only continues down the path that has produced a national obesity epidemic and chronic health problems, it ups the ante on its unscientific position regarding dietary cholesterol and saturated fats by further lowering recommended daily levels.  Under the new rules, one cannot eat an egg.  Or, cheese.  Yet eggs—nature’s perfect food–have sustained humans for thousands of years.  And, properly prepared cheese is a nutrient-dense food.              

Sally Fallon, President of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), in the winter 2009 WAPF quarterly journal WISE TRADITIONS, agrees that the 2005 guidelines were “not based on science but were designed to promote the products of commodity agriculture and—through the back door—encourage the consumption of processed foods.”  The 2010 guide, Fallon writes, is an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.”  Indeed, Fallon notes, “putting the USDA in charge of the dietary guidelines is like letting the devil teach Sunday school (“President’s Message,” 2-3).   (See www.westonapricefoundation.org for extended analysis.)  

Fallon notes that the “USDA-sanctioned industrialization of agriculture,” has resulted in “a huge reduction in nutrients and increase in toxins in the American diet.”  Government food guides “have caused an epidemic of suffering and disease, one so serious that it threatens to sink the ship of state.”  The 2010 proposed guide is “a recipe for infertility, learning problems in children and increased chronic disease in all age groups.”  And, Fallon notes, while a growing number of Americans are figuring out what’s wrong with government-sponsored nutritional guides, millions in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and schools are trapped in the “Frankenstein creation” which is “a tragic and failed experiment” (2-3).   

 The American diet, Fallon notes, contains widespread deficiencies in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E.  But, Fallon explains, “there is no way for Americans to consume sufficient quantities of these critical vitamins while confined to the low-fat, low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, low-calorie cage of the USDA dietary guidelines” (2-3).  

The WAPF argues that dietary cholesterol is a precursor to vitamin D and that our cells need cholesterol for stiffness and stability.  And, the WAPF warns that the USDA committee is ignoring “basic biochemistry” that “shows that the human body has a very high requirement for saturated fats in all cell membranes.”  If we do not eat saturated fats, the body makes them from carbohydrates, but this process “increases blood levels of triglyceride and small, dense LDL, and compromises blood vessel function.”  Further, high carbohydrate diets do not satisfy the appetite, which leads to higher caloric intakes, bingeing, rapid weight gain and chronic disease.  This diet is “particularly dangerous for those suffering from diabetes or hypoglycemia, since fats help regulate blood sugar levels.”

The USDA committee’s solution, Fallon explains, is to “eat more `nutrient- dense’ fruits and vegetables.”  But, Fallon notes, “fruits and v”egetables are not nutrient-dense foods.”  Nutrients in plant foods do not compare with “those in eggs, whole milk, cheese, butter, meat and organ meats.”

Fallon points out that some USDA committee members are concerned with “the choline problem.”  Choline is “critical for good health and is especially necessary for growing children.  If choline intake is too low during pregnancy and growth, brain connections cannot form.  And, if choline is abundant during developmental years, the individual is protected for life from developmental decline” (2-3) 

Excellent sources of choline are egg yolks and beef and chicken liver.  Fallon notes that the National Academy of Sciences recommends amounts of choline consumption that violate the USDA’s proposed cholesterol limits.  So, she argues, “while we watch in horror the blighting of our children’s lives with failure to thrive, learning disorders, attention deficit disorder, autism and mental retardation, the committee is sticking to its anti-cholesterol guns.”  

Analysis on the WAPF web site details how the USDA committee has swept “the dangers of trans fat under the rug by lumping them with saturated fats, using the term `solid fats’ for both.”  This categorization hides the “difference between unhealthy industrial trans fats and healthy traditional saturated fats.”      

Also, notes the WAPF, the USDA committee has promoted “an increase in difficult-to-digest whole grains,” without specifying that all grains, nuts, seeds, and beans need to be soaked to remove the powerful antinutrient phytic acid.  (More on this subject later.) 

I agree with the WAPF assessment that the 2010 guide should be scrapped and that “the committee members should be replaced with individuals who have no ties to the food processing industry or to universities that accept funding from the food processing industry.”  I’ll bet Luise Light does, too.