The Dorito Effect

Hot Off the Skillet Food Links


Whoa. I meant to do a post on interesting food links monthly, but a quick scroll reveals I haven't done a Hot Off the Skillet since early January. There's always exciting news in the food and nutrition world, beginning with this link I saw today! Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a daily cup of tea may reduce heart attack and cardiovascular risk? Beginning in 2000, they followed 6000 study participants, who were free of heart disease at that time. Eleven years later, it was the tea drinkers who showed 1/3 fewer incidences of "heart attack, stroke, chest pain, or...other types of heart disease." Yay, Earl Grey!

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In other happy news, you'll remember I wrote about my favorite food/nutrition book of 2015, Mark Shatzker's The Dorito Effect. Because I also follow him on Twitter, I heard about his recent Epicurious article, holding out the promise of better-tasting real food in the future. As he discussed in the book, for years folks bred supermarket food for looks and speed and durability, letting actual flavor go by the wayside. Hence the baseball-hard tomatoes that taste like drywall and grocery-store chicken with all the flavor of tofu, only with a texture even more revolting. But, joy of joys, flavor is making a comeback, and not just the flavors found in a chemistry lab. Agricultural think tanks are working on breeding flavor back in--the old-fashioned way, by crossing plant varieties and hoping for good results.

Like heirloom tomatoes, but wish they were sturdier? Now's your chance to get tomato seeds for Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, two new varieties which are already winning taste contests! For a small donation to the University of Florida's Klee Laboratories you'll receive 15 seeds of each kind, just in time to get them started indoors.

And lastly, as we find ourselves in a strident political season, I always like to show bipartisanship. Having referenced the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen produce lists in the past, I now present the other side, in which our supermarket produce is found to be very, very clean, according to USDA pesticide sampling, as reported in Forbes. The author makes a couple good points, including the fact that pesticide residue can be found in both conventional and organic produce (some organic countermeasures are allowed but act similarly to regular pesticides). I would love to believe our fruits and vegetables more than meet the EPA's tolerances. What is a tolerance? "The tolerance is generally 100 times less than a dose that could cause any ill effect. The allowed residues are also lower than the levels of natural pesticidal compounds that many crops make to defend themselves." (As Mark Schatzker also discussed in his awesome book, plants do produce natural toxins so they don't get eaten or eaten at the wrong time by every Bird, Cow, or Billy Goat Gruff.)

Tolerable produce still doesn't address the issue of agricultural workers who are exposed to higher levels of pesticides, however, in producing the crop. Nor does it dispel that niggling memory I have of the potato farmer in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, who farmed conventional potatoes for all of us, but only fed his family from the small organic plot behind the house... But, hey, it's still good news for when we can't resist that out-of-season basket of berries. Berries below tolerance!

May it hold us until Opening Market Day.



Dump the Paleo Diet and Do a Little Family Research

Everyone has one: the friend doing the Paleo diet who comes for dinner and eats all the meat meant to feed six people and leaves the starch. Well, next time, before you invite Pete Meathog over, have him read this book:

Because author Nabhan points out that, when archaeologists sift through the soil of early hominid camps,

they seem less certain that there is a single discernible dietary pattern evident among excavated sites. Some scholars have begun to doubt whether Java Man or other populations of Homo ever kept to a uniform diet; some even wonder if ancestral diets contained more or less the same proportions of fats, proteins, sugars, and fiber.

Heck, even the primate populations living today "less than one hundred miles away from one another" demonstrate considerable dietary and genetic variation, so who's to say what Paleolithic man ate?

Nabhan builds a stronger case that diet and genetics have had an active interplay over the last several thousand years, resulting in different ethnic groups evolving in response to their typical diets and in response to environmental pressures (e.g., prevalence of malaria, rate of meat spoilage near the equator, etc.). Folks used to believe evolution took eons, but now we understand that natural selection can operate much more quickly, making significant changes in a few hundred generations. Of course, not everyone lives in the land of their ancestors anymore, eating what their ancestors had developed to eat, and

the forcing of ethnic populations to abandon either their homelands or their traditional diets has inevitably led to epidemic rises in diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and allergies, among other maladies. Because some people have been untethered from the foods to which their metabolisms are best adapted, some 3 to 4 billion of your neighbors on this planet now suffer nutritional-related diseases (italics his). 

Sure, let's be friends--just don't try to poison me with your food

The studies and cases covered by the book are fascinating. Why do some Sardinians suffer from seasonal symptoms, when fava bean pollen is adrift? Why do the highland Cretans eat three times the fat of Americans, but the Americans sampled had a coronary death rate forty times higher? Why are some families more prone to alcoholism than others? Why do many ethnic populations who shift to a "Western" diet see their diabetes levels skyrocket?

A lot of what Nabhan had to say about the both medicinal and toxic effects of plant chemicals dovetailed well with Mark Schatzker's book THE DORITO EFFECT, which I talked about here.

I only wish Nabhan concluded with a giant map of "traditional" diets across the world. What would be his best guess for what different ethnicities should be eating, if you weren't one of the few groups discussed in the book? Some diet company could tap into a goldmine here. They could run a genetic test on clients and then hand them a printout of the diet their body is tailored to. Anyone? Anyone?

As it is, I'm left to do some sleuthing on my own. (I'm no scientist, so nobody quote me!) But, as a person of Chinese ethnicity, I notice a few things:

  • According to the American Diabetes Association, of the 29+million Americans who had diabetes in 2012, only 4.4% were Chinese.
  • In 2010, according to the CDC, rates for coronary heart disease were lowest among Asians/Pacific Islanders (3.9%).
  • While Asian/Pacific Islanders have only the second-lowest number of cancer incidents among the ethnic groups, they have the lowest death rate from cancer.
These things suggest some possibilities: either Chinese-Americans don't do so horribly on the Western diet; or Chinese-Americans continue to eat a higher proportion of their traditional foods, even in America; or some combination of the two. In our household, we only eat Chinese-ish food maybe once a week, and, apart from Sugar-Free January, we eat probably half the sugar a typical American family eats. (That is, we eat dinner dessert but don't drink soda or eat sugary cereal or pack cookies in the lunchbox.) So I'm going to guess Chinese-Americans are evolutionarily suited to survive the Western diet, which is heavy on grains, and they are further benefited by liking things a little less sweet than other tasting groups. (Sadly, I don't seem to have passed this latter characteristic to my half-Chinese kids. I can't bear to eat my husband's Christmas fudge--too sweet!--but my kids like it just fine.)

So I did a little research on traditional Chinese agriculture on the internet and discovered the legend of the Five Grains, mythical stories that explained the dawn of agriculture in China, about 9500 years ago. While accounts differ on the original five grains, some main contenders pop up: millet, rice, wheat, soybeans, hemp, adzuki beans, and barley. Which means my body has benefited from thousands of years of evolutionary adjustment to those items. Score! 

Now I just need to figure out how to keep the hub and kids alive, they being much more genetic mutts. This might mean I have to pull out that genealogy from crazy Great-Grandpa Dudley, who once traced the family back to the Virgin Mary. Yes, you read that right.

I'll keep you posted.

Saying No to Synthetic Flavors

Did you notice there were Concord grapes at the Market last week?

I was thrilled to see them, since we rarely see grapes at farmers markets on our side of the mountains. And, while Washington grows plenty of wine grapes, most table (and other) grapes are grown in California. Moreover, if you've ever had "grape juice" or grape-flavored cough syrup or grape-flavored what-have-you, the grape flavor chemists were imitating was that of the Concord grape. So, in clever reverse-marketing, I asked my twelve-year-old Sherpa daughter if she wanted to taste some grapes that tasted like fake grape flavoring. Of course she did.

Here is what we learned about eating Concord grapes:

  1. They're addictive, once you figure out the proper way to eat them.
  2. Concord grapes have both seeds and a bitter skin, rather like plums. Popping the whole grape in your mouth and chewing it up is not a pleasant experience.
  3. My trick was to let them get nice and ripe on the counter. Then I "squirted" the grape into my mouth (minus the skin), being sure to get the juice, key to the "fake" grape flavor. You then chew up the pulp and spit out the seeds.
After going through the trouble of eating these grapes, I see why chemists zeroed in on an easier way to produce the flavor. But I want to argue that the process involved in eating them increases your enjoyment. Rather like having to shell pistachios. It also slows consumption.
And anyhow, ever since I read Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect, I've been on a personal crusade to avoid synthetic flavorings and to enjoy the real deal, with all its attendant health benefits.
As I mentioned in a previous post, there's good evidence that flavor in nature is linked to that voodoo that real food does so well. When we recreate those flavors in a chemistry lab, we decouple them from their benefits. Synthetic flavors (which include both "natural" and artificial flavors) encourage us to eat bland, nutritionally bankrupt food we would otherwise get bored with, thus robbing ourselves of the nutritional variety and the satiety indicators that an array of real food, full of real flavors, provides.
So skip the grape-flavored candy and "fruit snacks" and try everyone out on the real McCoy.
Genuine flavors abound, this time of year. Check out this recipe for stuffed tomatoes we've already had twice this week, and which I've also managed to burn twice because I had to leave them on an oven timer while I ran carpool. The good news is, they still taste wonderful with burnt topping! (An asterisk * indicates ingredients available at the Market.)
Tomatoes Provençalish
(adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

4 medium or 8 small, ripe tomatoes*
3 garlic cloves*
1/2 c chopped fresh parsley or cilantro*
2-3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil*
3/4 c bread crumbs from torn-up bread*
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Butter a dish large enough to hold all the halved tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half around the equator and dig out the seeds with your finger. Chop the garlic and herbs and mix them with the bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Top the tomato halves and set them in the buttered dish. Drizzle some olive oil over their tops. Bake for 30-35 minutes, depending on the size of the tomatoes.

Serve carefully, and remember these suckers are hot when they come out of the oven!

Here's what you'll find if you leave them in an extra ten minutes and then come rushing in to rescue dinner:

Have no fear. Still tasty and so flavorful! We'll see you this Thursday or Saturday at the Market, where real food and real flavors abound.

Seven Reasons to Bypass Big Food for the Farmers Market

I had a wretched meal the other day. One so bad I feel I have to tell you about it. See, what with family trips and unavoidable commitments, I hadn't made it to the Bellevue Farmers Market in weeks. Our meat supply in the freezer dwindled to one package of bacon. Our fresh fruit and vegetables were reduced to the tomatoes in my husband's garden and some mint struggling to survive in a pot on the porch. Desperate times.

So I went to the supermarket and bought some organic chicken to throw on the grill. I even made homemade barbecue sauce. How bad could it be, right? Grilling makes everything awesome, especially charcoal grilling.

It was t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e. The meat was both too chewy and flavorless, in spite of my doctoring. My 14-year-old son, never one to hold back on criticism (or on eating protein), told me, "Never make this again." He needn't have worried. As I chewed and chewed just for the heck of it, I made a vow that, the next opportunity I had, I would stock up on pastured, Market chicken, that such a fate would never befall us again.

It was only when I began reading my latest food-related book that I understood why that meal was so abysmal.

Read this book!

Author Schatzker thinks about the familiar problems of rising obesity and its attendant ill effects from a new angle: that of flavor. How has the increasing lack of flavor in our high-yield crops and livestock, and the simultaneous manipulation of synthetic flavor to compensate, led to our weight issues? He calls this the "Dorito Effect," after that original taco-in-a-chip product that first fooled our palates into thinking we were eating one thing, when we were actually eating another.

This book is chock-full of fascinating stuff, and I'll probably say more in the future, but for the time being, I just want to list "all the ways the Dorito Effect appears to be turning us into nutritional idiots." Or, as I would subtitle it, "Seven Reasons My Chicken Was Dreadful," or, "Seven Reasons to Bypass Big Food for the Farmers Market."

  1. Dilution. With industrial livestock, it's been a race to produce the biggest animals the fastest and the cheapest. As Schatzker points out, we now effectively eat bloated babies fed high-yield grains coated in synthetic flavors to boost consumption. Since flavor in meat depends on what the animal ate and its age, we've experienced a decline in flavor.
  2. Nutritional decapitation. Synthetic flavors (which include both "natural" and "artificial" flavors) imitate the tastes we find in our favorite foods, without being also able to imitate the nutritional value of those foods. No fiber, no antioxidants, no vitamins, no minerals.
  3. False variety. Animals left to themselves crave variety in foods to ensure they get what they need and avoid what they don't need. (Ask me about my consuming craving for barbecue beef ribs during my first pregnancy--I'm forever low on iron.) Synthetic flavors fool our mouths into thinking we're getting this variety.
  4. Cognitive deception. Is there really any fruit in that yogurt? That snack bar? Or are we just being led to think so (and pay as much) by the added fake flavors and marketing?
  5. Emotional deception. Our favorite foods usually have great memories and feelings attached to them. When we hijack the flavors and attach them to something else (usually not as nutritious and high in calories), we assign this heightened pleasure to something not nutritionally deserving.
  6. Flavor-nutrient confusion. While the synthetic flavors may fool our palates and encourage us to eat more, our bodies are not satisfied. We still need what we need to function, after all. So we eat more. And more. And more.
  7. Feeding ourselves like livestock, with the attendant results. Because animals don't like to be penned up and fed the same bland grains and soybeans day after day, farmers have to dress up the food with "palatants." Fooled by the new yumminess, the animals gorge and fatten up nicely. Well, as Michael Pollan pointed out way back in The Omnivore's Dilemma, humans also eat plenty of corn and soy in our processed foods (and because our meats ate them). And, just like the livestock, we add fake flavor to make it taste like a host of different things, so we don't get bored. And, just like the livestock, we've fattened up nicely.
Bust out of bland! Dive into deliciousness, naturally. Nestle into nutrients. Hit the Market this week and bypass Big Food. I'll be there. Tasty as my husband's tomatoes have been, I've got a hankering to diversify our diet.
Homemade pico de gallo