Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Grains - Friend or Foe?

There is a great deal of debate these days about grain products--wheat, in particular, and its primary product, bread. Is grain healthy? or not? Is bread the "staff of life" or the vehicle for chronic illness?

In ancient days, bread had a completely different life cycle than our modern version. The grain was ground into flour, mixed with its other ingredients, formed into a loaf, raised, baked, and eaten in the same day.  There was no bag of flour sitting around for weeks or months. There was no refrigerator or freezer for the left-overs. And there was no such thing as chemical preservatives. 

But more than that, the grain itself was a completely different animal than the wheat we know today. Ancient wheat had names like "spelt," "einkorn," and "kamut." They had significantly different chemical makeup and nutrient profiles. 

For instance, as noted in Einkorn Ancient Grain,
"The ancient grain einkorn (triticum monococcum) is packed with nutrition. It is a rich source of the beta carotene lutein, a powerful antioxidant. Einkorn has the highest amounts of lutein of any other variety of wheat. Einkorn is also a rich source of tocotrienols and tocopherols, powerful antioxidants and forms of Vitamin E. Compared to modern wheat varieties, einkorn has higher levels of protein, crude fat, phosphorous, and potassium."
And from Ecomall regarding spelt grain,
"There are many reasons why spelt is easier to digest than common wheat. The gluten in spelt is water soluble; it is degraded by heat and is easily broken down by mixing action. Wheat gluten, in contrast, does not break down in water and only relaxes when exposed to heat and seems to get stronger as it is mixed – bakers refer to it as “developing the gluten.” If you over mix spelt, it will break down. If you over mix wheat, it will get stronger. Something similar happens within the digestive system. Spelt’s relatively fragile gluten is easily broken apart during the chewing and mixing action which allows the enzymes and acid secreted during the digestive process to work on the surface of the food. During the digestive process, wheat forms a bolus which remains a ball making it harder to digest."
You can see there are some significant differences in the old bread grains as compared with our new, "improved" wheat grain.

Our modern wheat has been engineered over the past century not to be more nutritious, but to make finer, lighter bread. And in the process, it has become a storehouse of health problems.

For starters, celiac disease has mushroomed over recent years. It is estimated that three million Americans are afflicted. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is thought to be genetically predisposed, but triggered by the gluten in grains. With gluten in so many processed foods (not just bread), the increase in celiac should be no surprise. Many more people who may not have full-blown celiac disease suffer from gluten intolerance. Some experts think as many as one in twenty may suffer from some form of it. There's no test for gluten intolerance other than eliminating it from your diet completely for a period of time and then reintroducing it to see how your body responds.

But gluten isn't the only problem with grain. Grains contain anti-nutrients, like phytic acid, and enzyme inhibitors in the outer seed coat. Phytic acid binds with minerals and prevents your body from absorbing them, which can lead to mineral deficiencies. Enzyme inhibitors block enzyme function, which can lead to a host of problems, including pancreatic malfunction, inflammation, impaired digestion, allergies, immune problems, and declined mental function.

Some of the toxic affects of grains can be eliminated by soaking and sprouting the grain, which neutralizes the anti-nutrients and releases the nutrition stored in the wheat germ. You can sprout the wheat yourself, or you can buy sprouted wheat flour. Of course, any flour you buy will already be stripped of most of its nutrients. Ninety percent of the nutrition in wheat is contained in the wheat germ. But once it is milled, the vitamins begin to lose their potency almost immediately through oxidation. In addition, the oil in the wheat germ becomes rancid very quickly. In order to get the full nutrient value from the flour, it must be used pretty much like the Manna from heaven -- the same day it's made.

It's no surprise that our ancestors benefited from eating bread. Properly prepared, it contains protein and a bundle of good vitamins and minerals. Modern bread, however, has none of the above...or, at least, very little-- even if you make it yourself from store-bought flour. Plus, it is nearly all "simple" carbohydrate, which breaks down into sugar, which contributes to insulin production, which contributes to fat storage and weight gain. Too much constant insulin production leads to insulin-resistance and diabetes. Hence, lots of bread every day equals poor health.

So the choice of whether to eat bread or not comes down to this-- how much of a bad thing is acceptable? And to what lengths are you willing to go to make it as least-bad as possible? The best policy is to bake your own bread from freshly ground sprouted grains. But considering the fact that in our culture of abundant food, there are plenty of better sources available for protein, vitamins and minerals that don't contain the anti-nutrients and carbohydrates present in grains and that are much less trouble to prepare -- like a good grass-fed steak, for instance -- bread is really a "non-essential" food. Fiber can be had in abundance in berries, and green vegetables. There's no really good reason to eat bread... except for the most obvious one -- the TASTE (and it's very good for holding butter).

Unless you're intolerant, it's probably not going to hurt you to eat a piece of bread once in a while, but for good health, it may be wise to avoid eating it every day. And if you don't have the time or energy to bake bread the old fashioned way, but still want the sprouted wheat version, it can be had in the marketplace if you know where to look.

On the other hand, if you're having health issues of any kind, eliminating grains from the diet is a good starting place because of the inherent negatives associated with them. For more information on wheat and grain, check out these links...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Are They Doing To Our Bread?!

Have you looked at a bread label lately? I don't shop at the "regular" grocery store anymore, so when a loaf of our local grocery brand bakery bread showed up on the lunch table at work, I thought I'd check out the ingredients...out of curiosity. It was, in a word, disturbing.

When I was newly married, back in the stone age, I used to bake my own bread rolls. (They were delicious!) I know what should be in bread-- flour, water, yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, and (don't faint) lard. Of course lard was vilified years ago and replaced by shortening, which is much worse but has the good fortune of having an outstanding marketing program that hides all its faults and praises the fact that it doesn't come from an animal, so that's what I used before I knew better. Six ingredients for bread--that's it.

In today's world, however, there's a thing called "shelf life," which is currently sixty-seven and half years, give or take a decade, and to achieve this, a few additional ingredients are necessary.

Here is the makeup of that innocent-looking loaf of Vienna style "bread"...labeled "Fresh," in case you were concerned about that. Whereas my aforementioned home-baked bread is only fresh the day it comes out of the oven, they can label this bread "fresh," because it has been engineered to appear fresh indefinitely.
Wheat flour enriched with
      Reduced iron
      Thiamine mononitrate
      Folic acid
Malted barley flour
Vegetable shortening [partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and/or canola oil]

Diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono-diglycerides [DATEM]
Soy flour
2% or less of mono-diglycerides
Potassium bromate
Ascorbic acid
L-cysteine enzyme
Azodicarbonamide [ADA]
Fresh baker’s yeast
This isn't bread, it's a chemistry experiment!

Lets take a look at the additional ingredients. What are they? Why are they there? And what's wrong with them?

  • Enriched with...(five synthetic nutrients):  The refining process strips flour of its nutrients. Flour that has been enriched trades out the natural nutrients for synthetic substitutions. Synthetic vitamins may or may not be better than no vitamins at all, but understand that synthetic vitamins are not whole vitamins - they are isolated fractional parts of whole vitamins. Vitamins naturally occurring in your food are always better.
  • Malted barley flour:  Used as a dough conditioner to get a softer bread. It contains some tannins which may aggravate headaches in people sensitive to migraines.
  • Shortening:  contains trans fats (trans fats make you sick and fat)
  • DATEM:  a chemical emulsifier used to create a springy, chewy texture (no real health studies done, but "considered safe" by the FDA); often derived from genetically modified soy bean oil
  • Soy flour:  Soy beans are one of the largest agricultural crops in the U.S. We are producing so much of it, the soy industry is working hard to find as many uses for it as possible. Soy is one of the top eight food allergens and yet it is showing up in one form or another in nearly every manufactured food product. Even though soy is touted by its industry as a "health" product, there are many problems with it, chief among them its role as an endocrine disrupter. Soy flour is not a good bread flour, so its purpose in bread is likely as a filler.
  • Mono-diglycerides: These are emulsifiers that contain trans fats. We should all know by now how bad trans fats are. They are associated with heart disease, inflammation and obesity.
  • Potassium bromate:  A dough conditioner added to strengthen the dough and make it raise faster when low-quality flour (such as soy flour) is used. Potassium bromate is known to cause cancer
  • Ascorbic acid:  An oxidizer - produces a lighter loaf of bread, but reduces flavor; speeds the raising process.
  • L-cysteine:  Another ingredient to aid in the quick-raising of the bread, this ingredient very likely comes from China and is derived from human hair (from barbershop floors?), duck feathers, and hog hair.
  • ADA:  It's a dough conditioner that also bleaches the flour. It's banned in Europe because studies have shown it may cause asthma and allergic reactions.
  • Starch:  Wheat flour already contains starch; it's hard to say why this is an added ingredient-- you can decide for yourself whether or not it's an acceptable additive.

Fifteen additives to your loaf of store-bought bread.

But take heart. There are still purists in the world making good bread for those of us who just don't have the time or energy to make our own. Here is the ingredient list from a loaf of bread made in the bakery of my local "health food" store:
Unbleached hi-gluten white flour
And a light egg-wash
They also make an excellent sour dough bread and a wonderful spelt flour & flax seed loaf-- my favorites.

Bread doesn't need chemicals. Yes, you'll probably have to freeze it and take out only what you will eat from day to day because this kind of bread, like grandma's, doesn't have a shelf life as long as, well... Grandma. When I get a loaf of bread nowadays, I pull out my parchment paper, tear off about five narrow strips, cut each into four squarish pieces and separate each slice of bread. Then I return the separated loaf to its original bag and stick it in the freezer. Easy peasy...every slice as fresh as the first. (Bread will keep in your freezer for a few weeks--much longer than that and it will dry out or freezer-burn.)

Actually, I'm still on the fence about bread altogether. There are real problems with white flour and what it does to the body. The best flour, of course, is freshly milled flour-- because the deep nutrition of wheat is in the wheat germ. And the wheat germ loses its nutrient levels very soon after being crushed-- within a day or two. Flour that has been milled, sifted clean of the wheat germ and stored for weeks or months will not have any appreciable nutrition. It will, however, still contain gluten, which is difficult to digest, carbohydrates, which are responsible for stimulating insulin production, and anti-nutrients (phytic acids that block mineral absorption) ... I will be talking more about this in a forthcoming post.

But who doesn't love the taste of real traditional bread. Warm from the oven or toaster, plastered with a thick slab of pasture butter. YUM! I don't think I'll ever be able to give it up completely.

At the same time, I will never again trust a loaf of bread without a label-- that I didn't make myself.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Natural?...When Words Lose Their Meaning

I couldn't believe the audacity when I saw this bag of chips laying on the table in the lunchroom of my workplace last week. Of special note are the words, made with "ALL NATURAL OIL." Of course I was curious as to what oil they were refering, and there it was in the ingredient list:  corn oil.

Can we have some honesty...even a teensy weensy little bit of honesty in the food business?

Here's how your "natural" oil is actually manufactured:

1. Corn kernels are dehulled, crushed with a grooved roller, and then steeped in water acidified with sulfur dioxide to separate the seed components.

2. The mash then goes through a heated screw press to expel the oil. About half the oil comes from this first step.

3. The leftover "press cake" is stripped of its remaining oil with the solvent hexane, a volatile by-product of gasoline production. Once that's done, the corn-oil-hexane solution is heated to vaporize the hexane.

4. The expelled oil and the hexane-produced oil are then combined to form the crude oil.

5. The crude oil is then filtered and degummed.  Degumming is done either by steam process or by alkali process. In the steam process, the lecithin and other gums absorb the steam and become heavy enough to separate from the oil in a centrifuge. With the alkali system, a heated sodium hydroxide solution absorbs the gums, after which the oil is "washed" in hot water to remove any soap formed in the process. Yes, that's right-- soap.

6.  Finally, the remaining product is "bleached" with clay. The clay absorbs color pigments, residual soap products and metal ions from the oil, after which the clay is then filtered out of the oil.

Does this sound anything like "natural" to you?

I would challenge you to try to make this natural corn oil from your own ears of corn at home...and someone has actually gone to the trouble to tell us how...How to Make Corn Oil At Home. Frankly, it doesn't sound like much fun, and if one was to actually bottle their own from this long and painstaking process, I would expect it to sell for a very high price, considering the time and effort required.

The point here is that oil from corn is just not natural, even when you factor out the inevitable GMO problem. (As of 2011, an estimated 88% of America's corn crop is genetically  modified.)  And it's disingenuous for Frito-Lay to say that it is. They would have us believe that because corn is natural, then by some perverse extension of that fact, anything made from corn is also natural.

Now that that's off my chest, let's talk about the problems with corn oil. Corn oil is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids that break down into free radicals when subjected to high heat. It should never be used for frying anything that you intend to eat. Research suggests that eating foods cooked with corn oil increases the risk of cancer. (It may interest you to know that most commercial french fries are fried in corn oil!)

So what, then, is a genuine natural oil? Probably the most obvious is olive oil. Oil has been made from olives for thousands of years. It's not only natural, but it's healthy--even according to the mainstream nutrition "experts." Another wonderful natural and healthy oil is coconut oil. Humans have been eating it for over 3,000 years. Both of these hold up well under high heat. Butter (my all-time favorite) is a traditional natural fat that's been around for a few thousand years as well, and you can't beat the taste. (By contrast, corn oil has been around a mere 115 years - since 1898 and the advent of industrialization.)

Natural oils don't require forty steps and complex modern machinery to produce. Companies like Frito-Lay are becoming painfully aware of the public trend toward healthy food. They are using every marketing trick in the book to make you believe that what they are selling will make you healthy or keep you healthy, and they will say whatever they can get away with, no matter how absurd.

Don't fall for the false advertising. Be wise, read labels, and question everything.

For a good tutorial on fats, see Know Your Fats