Comfort Foods I: Take Back Taco Night

There have been many times along this REAL food journey when I’ve felt momentarily deprived of a beloved or “comfort” food, but with a little ingenuity I’ve yet to find one that I can’t tweak and make healthy…or at least acceptable.

Taco night has always been a family favorite.  I remember as a kid looking forward to it.  In my mind’s eye I can still see the individual bowls of cheese, lettuce, tomato and beef laid out on the table, and I remember the frustration as my carefully prepared taco fell over on the plate or shattered on the first bite.  It’s a great memory and one that I wanted to share with my kids.  Once I started reading the ingredients on the taco kits though, I thought that might never happen.  Then I remembered that people were eating tacos long before Old El Paso ever put together a kit!  I admit I felt a little silly and melodramatic for thinking I would never be able to have taco night again…but this is taco night we’re talking about, a little drama was totally justified!

So if you turn one of those taco kits over and start decoding the label, you are most definitely going to see MSG in some form as well as some pretty undesirable vegetable oils.  I haven’t done an official post about these yet, but I will soon.  Short version…more and more research is linking hydrogenated vegetable oils to all of the health problems that we blamed on butter and eggs for so many years.  Funny that once we stopped eating butter and eggs we became a country with an obesity epidemic and rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketed…but I digress.  So my advice…take back taco night!  With just a little bit more time you can make a healthy taco which honestly tastes even better!

First, you’ll have to season the meat yourself which really only takes a minute longer than ripping open that MSG pack that comes in most kits.  I put a recipe below, but use this as a guide, add or take away to make your own perfect seasoning cocktail.  Next, you’ll have to decide on a shell or wrap of some sort.  Most of the store bought shells are loaded with those pesky vegetable oils or refined flour with its anti-nutrient properties.  If you want to try something really amazing, make your own corn tortilla or plantain chips.  While you’re browning the meat, heat some stable animal fat (such as lard or butter) in a pot on another burner.  Cut up a stack of corn tortillas into little triangles (like you’d cut a pizza) and fry them.  Here is a cute video showing the process.  If you are not feeling that ambitions just use the corn tortilla as a wrap or go paleo and have a taco salad.  Finally, the toppings!  The possibilities are endless.  See how much color you can get in there.  Don’t forget to include avocado and cabbage.  Maybe some red pepper and onion.  Mango, cilantro and cucumber are nice additions as well.  Top with grated cheese, creme fraiche or full fat, grass fed sour cream and fresh salsa and guacamole.

Colorful Taco Salad

TACO MEAT

  • 1 lb grass fed ground beef
  • 1 TB garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 TB cumin
  • 1 TB chili powder
  • 1/4 cup salsa (watch the ingredients in this too!)

Brown the meat in a skillet and then add all seasonings and salsa and cook just a bit longer until everything is absorbed and it begins to thicken a bit.

Eat Well, Be Well,
April

    Decoding Food Labels II: MSG

    I know almost immediately when I’ve eaten something containing MSG!  After one bite I get the distinct feeling that I could eat the entire bag, box… whatever.  I scan the label and sure enough find monosodium glutamate or hydrolyzed protein or glutamic acid or glutamate or monopotassium glutamate or calcium glutamate or monoammonium glutamate or yeast extract…you get the idea!  It’s a sneaky little ingredient that goes by many names.1  Those listed above are just a few actually.  So why does it need to be so devious?

    MSG was developed in Japan in the early 1900s but came on the market in the US in the 1940s.  In the late 1950s scientists began doing research on the effects of MSG.   Severe intolerance and toxic reactions were reported in humans and far worse effects were found in laboratory animals.  In the 70s the glutamate industry organized and began doing some major damage control.  They formed several nonprofits and funded their own research to “prove” that MSG was safe.  Based on these extremely biased studies, MSG currently has GRAS status by the FDA.  GRAS means “generally recognized as safe.”  I don’t know about you, but this phrase does not fill me with confidence.  The FDA is a government organization, and sadly food (and pharma) lobbies have the cash to influence those who decide what we can and should eat.  In my opinion GRAS status is cop out.  The FDA can’t really be held responsibly because they never actually said it was safe.  Meanwhile trusting Americans are consuming large amounts of a known toxin.

    In 1969, John W. Olney, M.D. published a paper on his MSG research in which he described the “hypothalamic lesions, stunted skeletal development, and obesity in maturing mice which had been given the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate” as neonates. Olney also commented on observed pathological changes found in several brain regions associated with endocrine function in maturing mice.”

    “Since 1969, many scientists have confirmed Dr. Olney’s findings of damage to the hypothalamus from MSG with resulting obesity. Go to the National Library of Medicine website, www.pubmed.gov, and type in “monosodium glutamate, obesity” (without the quotation marks). As of May 13, 2004, you’ll find 151 studies listed in addition to Dr. Olney’s study.”2

    Jack Samuels of truthinlabeling.org reports that “neuroscientists believe that the young and the elderly are most at risk from MSG. In the young, the blood-brain barrier is not fully developed, exposing the brain to increased levels of MSG that has entered the bloodstream.  The elderly are at increased risk because the blood-brain barrier can be damaged by aging, by disease processes, or by injury, including hypertension, diabetes, hypoglycemia, and stroke. Throughout life, the blood-brain barrier is “leaky” at best. MSG has now been implicated in a number of the neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s disease.”3

    Buyer Beware:  Not only is MSG present (in some form) in most processed foods, but it can also be found in shampoo, sunblock and insect repellant.  It is sprayed on many crops (including some organic crops) and in this case it will not be listed on any product label.

    My advice…do your best to avoid this ingredient and take another step toward improving your health.  Here is a great printable to fold up and put in your purse or wallet as a shopping guide.

    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April

    For more information on MSG
    1.  Truth In Labeling
    2.  Weston A. Price Foundation
    3.  Weston A. Price Foundation

    Defining Grassfed Beef

    Cows expressing their “cow-ness”

    “Grassfed” is becoming a household phrase much like “free range” did almost a decade ago.  Is it just a new fad or is this the direction in which we are moving?  Too soon to tell I suppose.  Hopefully as more people learn about the benefits of this practice, they will put pressure on farmers to respect the “cow-ness” of the cow, as Joel Salatin says.

    Grassfed Beef is Healthier
    You’ve surely heard the saying “you are what you eat,” but the truth is you are what what you eat eats!  The nutrient content of any animal food is dependent upon that animal’s diet.  Cows who are free to graze and forage are eating what ruminant animals were meant to eat…grass!  Unlike humans, they are able to ferment this grass (think sauerkraut), converting the cellulose into protein and fats.  About 75 years ago someone figured out that it was cheaper and faster to feed cows corn.  They fattened up and could “go to slaughter” three to four years faster than their traditional grassfed counterparts.  Enter…Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  Today the vast majority of beef is grain fed and the conscientious consumer must search out grassfed beef in most areas of the US.  Michal Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma states.

    “Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.

    A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”

    Because of this vulnerability, farmers are forced to feed antibiotics to their animals on a regular basis and these antibiotics get passed along to those who eat the beef or any dairy product from made from the milk of these cows.  This, of course, leads to the antibiotic resistance that we’ve heard so much about in recent years.

    The prevalence of E.coli is also a result of feeding grain to cows.   Because human stomachs are much more acidic than that of a cow, our stomach acids are able to kill the bacteria in the meat and dairy.  As stated above, however, grain fed cows have unnaturally acidic stomach very close to the  acidity of the human stomach.  Therefore bacteria that come from these cows (such as E.coli) are resistant to the acidity, making humans much more susceptible to this deadly bacteria.  “By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.” (Michael Pollen)

    Aside from not containing these obvious dangers, grass-fed beef also has a better nutrition profile.  It is lower in overall and saturated fat…almost three times less than grain fed beef, in fact.  It is much higher (50% – 85%)  in omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer as well as the prognosis of those with cancer.  Omega-3’s are also known as heart friendly and brain healthy fatty acids and are often recommended for those who have heart conditions, depression,  schizophrenia, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, or Alzheimer’s disease.  According to a study in the Journal of Dairy Science, “the meat and milk from grassfed ruminants are the richest known source of another type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA.  When ruminants are raised on fresh pasture alone, their milk and meat contain as much as five times more CLA than products from animals fed conventional diets.”  CLA may be our body’s best defense against cancer.  A Finnish study showed that women who had the highest levels of CLA in their diet had a 60 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels of CLA. Finally, grassfed beef is as much as four times higher in Vitamin E a potent anti-oxidant which protects the cells in the human body from free radical damage.


    Grassfed Beef is Better for the Environment
    Between fertilizer usage and transportation needs, the production of grain fed cattle uses an enormous amount of fossil fuel…almost 300 gallons per steer by some accounts.  Perhaps Michal Pollan said it best when he stated, “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.” 

    Farms that pasture their animals often have no need for chemical fertilizer.  The animal waste becomes nutrients for the soil and does not create the odor and pollution problems for which factory farms are infamous.  Now that’s sustainability!

    It goes without saying, that cows left to roam and graze are living under much more humane conditions than cows confined in feedlots knee deep in manure.

    Cooking Grassfed Beef
    Grassfed beef cooks very differently than grain fed beef.  Here is a great tutorial on how to prepare your pastured beef.

    “Feeding grain to cattle has got to be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.”
    John Robbins 

    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April

    NOTE:  Grassfed does not mean organic and organic does not mean grassfed.  If you are buying your beef from the store look for a label that says both.  It may also say “sustainably raised.”  If you are buying straight from the farm, talk to your farmer about his or her farming practices.

    Movie Night: Meat Glue & Poultry Paste

    From now on, I’m dedicating Friday posts to sharing videos that have to do with REAL food issues.   Many of the videos I choose may be a bit dated and therefore old news to some of you.  However, the impetus of this blog is to recreate my journey from healthy eater to REAL foodie, helping guide those new to the movement.  So here are a couple of great videos to kick off Movie Night.

    Although this video is from Australia, this practice is widely used in the US as well.  Also called transglutaminase, meat glue has received GRAS status from the FDA meaning that it is “generally regarded as safe.”  Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple states:
    there’s got to be something in PubMed that justifies their conclusion… right? Well, I searched far and wide and while there is a ton of research on culinary and industrial applications of transglutaminase, there was nothing about the safety thereof. Nothing good, nothing bad. It simply wasn’t there in any direction.

    Click here to read more of his great post on the subject.

    Beef is not the only mystery meat out there.  Chickens didn’t want to be left out!  Introducing “poultry paste.”  Chicken of the future…actually the present.

    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April

    Weston A. Price: The Man Behind the Movement

    Since I often mention the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) in my posts, I thought it was about time that I devote a post to the man behind the movement.  Dr. Weston A. Price was a prominent dentist of the 1920’s & 30’s who became frustrated with the dental problems and disease he saw in his patients.  Western children were suffering from frequent infections, allergies, anemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of coordination, fatigue and behavioral problems in numbers that were troubling.

    At this time, it was well established that there were groups of “primitive” people throughout the world who “exhibited a high degree of physical perfection and beautiful straight white teeth” despite no dental care.   The general consensus was that these groups were genetically “pure” and that western disease was a result of “race mixing.”  Dr. Price did not believe this to be the case, however, and he decided to take his work into the field and he began traveling the globe to study dental-health in pre-industrialized populations.

    In his travels, Price found 14 traditional cultures that experienced little to no tooth decay or dental deformity.  These groups, he discovered, were also relatively free from disease (both physical and mental) and reproductive problems.  As he continued his study, Price realized that members of these traditional groups who had moved away and adopted the western diet began to experience health problems.  Despite having the same genetic inheritance, those who became westernized exhibited dental decay in the first generation removed, and in the second generation, the children were born with narrowed facial structure and subsequently experienced orthodontic problems.  This generation also began experiencing degenerative health problems and disease that was previously not seen within the culture.  Meanwhile, “mixed race children whose parents had consumed traditional foods were born with wide handsome faces and straight teeth” thereby discrediting the “racial purity” theory.

    Melanesians who began eating a Western diet
    Melanesians of Fiji still eating a traditional diet

    Following this realization, Dr. Price began to examine the native diets of these groups more closely and he found that their diets were quite different from one another.   The Swiss mountain villagers  subsisted primarily on unpasteurized and cultured dairy products, butter and cheese as well as whole-rye bread. The Dinkas of the Sudan ate a combination of fermented whole-grains with fish, along with smaller amounts of red meat, vegetables, and fruit.   The Bantu tribe of Africa were primarily farmers whose diet consisted mostly of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes along with small amounts of meat and dairy.  The Masai, another African tribe, consumed virtually no plant foods, but lived on beef, organ meats & raw milk, and were well known for drinking cow’s blood.  Despite the many dietary differences, Price found that these diets had several things in common.

    • These diets contained no white flour products, refined sugar, polished rice, jams, canned goods or vegetable fats
    • These diets contained some animal foods:  meat with its fat, organ meats, whole milk products, fish and insects
    • These diets had high nutrient density:  they were very rich in vitamins in minerals, especially fat soluble vitamins A, D & K2

    When Dr. Price put these diets under a microscope (literally) he found that they contained four times the water soluble vitamins and 10 times the fat soluble vitamins A & D than the Western diet of the 1930’s.  Price described vitamins A & D as “activators” which allow all other nutrients (protein, minerals and vitamins) to be assimilated in the body.   Price also discovered a third fat soluble vitamin that was an even better activator or catalyst for nutrient absorption.  He called this “Activator X” and found that all of the traditional groups had this vitamin in their diet.  Many considered foods containing the X factor to be “sacred” and these foods were often eaten to promote fertility.  Activator X is now believed to be vitamin K2 and like vitamins A & D, it is “found only in animal fats–butter, lard, egg yolks, fish oils and foods with fat-rich cellular membranes like liver and other organ meats, fish eggs and shell fish.”

    Sadly, Price’s work has been all but forgotten despite the fact that current scientific research continues to prove the accuracy of his findings.  It is now taken as fact that “vitamin A is essential for the prevention of birth defects, for growth and development, for the health of the immune system and the proper functioning of all the glands” and that “vitamin D is needed not only for healthy bones, and optimal growth and development, but also to prevent colon cancer, MS and reproductive problems.”  Price knew this and used foods high in vitamins A & D, such as spring butter and cod liver oil to treat a variety of degenerative diseases and failure to thrive in children.  Price always advocated the use of animal fats, which we now know is the only way for infants and children to get an adequate supply of vitamin A as they are unable to convert the precursors (such as carotenes) to true vitamin A.  Unfortunately, many nutritional “authorities” now advocate low-fat diets for children and those with degenerative disease essentially robbing them of essential vitamins and the activators necessary to absorb other nutrients.

    As parents, we must sift through so much information and try to figure out what is driven by truth & evidence and what is driven by politics & money.  At times, this seems like a full time job, as it takes an enormous amount of cunning & discipline to protect our children from “those displacing products of modern commerce that prevent the optimal expression of their genetic heritage–foodstuffs made of sugar, white flour, vegetable oils and products that imitate the nourishing foods of our ancestors–margarine, shortening, egg replacements, meat extenders, fake broths, ersatz cream, processed cheese, factory farmed meats, industrially farmed plant foods, protein powders, and packets of stuff that never spoils.”

    But the time has come for all of us to stand up for the purity of our food supply and to look to those who came before us…those who ate instinctually and were not influenced by all of the trappings of the modern food supply.  We owe it to ourselves and to our children to return to “traditional whole foods that are organically grown, humanely raised, minimally processed and above all not shorn of their vital lipid component.”  To quote Dr. Price, “Life in all its fullness is mother nature obeyed.”

    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April

    All quoted text came from the article Ancient Dietary Wisdom for Tomorrow’s Children by Sally Fallon Morell.

    For more information, please read Dr. Price’s book.

     

    Mardi Gras Paleo Style

    Mardi Gras Jambalaya

    I’ve been studying and practicing the Weston A. Price dietary guidelines for many years now and while this recipe is certainly within the realm of WAP, I’m dedicating this post to my “Paleo challenge” friends out there.  Hope this fills you up and helps with some of those carb cravings!

    If you are reading this and you’ve never heard of the Paleo diet, it is an ancestral diet similar to WAP, but with some major exceptions.  Whereas WAP advocates consuming properly prepared grains & legumes and raw dairy, these are no-no’s in the Paleo world.  Paleo (short for Paleolithic) basically advocates eating what you can (or once could have) hunted or gathered yourself.  It is a pre-agrarian diet which is very low carb.  I’m am definitely not a Paleo expert, so that’s my very basic, very brief explanation.  From what I’ve read, there are things about the diet that I really like and things about it that concern me a little.  My personal belief is that it’s a good short-term diet for reaching very specific health or weight loss goals.  However, any time that you completely eliminate entire food groups I start to ask questions.  Questions about biochemical individuality mostly.  Chris Kresser a Paleo “expert” (but not a purist) believes that after following a strict Paleo diet for a period of time, those without food sensitives may benefit from properly prepared grains & legumes and raw dairy.  So for the record, I think you should still learn to properly prepare grains and legumes and should consider the health benefits of raw dairy; however,  I also think that removing these things from your diet for short periods or even a few days each week is not a bad idea.  But I digress…so on with the recipe!

    INGREDIENTS

    6 slices bacon (cooked and crumbled)
    4 links sausage, sliced (I used Italian, but Andouille will work well too)
    1 onion, diced
    1 red pepper, diced
    1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (more if you really like spice)
    1.5 TB chili powder
    2 TB Cajun seasoning
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 15 oz can diced tomatoes (or 1 3/4 cups fresh)
    1 cup stock (chicken or beef)
    1 lb shrimp (I used baby shrimp)
    In a dutch oven or large pot, fry the bacon and remove it from the pot and set aside.  Using the bacon grease, cook the sausage, onion and red pepper.  Add the spices, tomatoes and stock and simmer for about 30 minutes until it reduces slightly.  Add the shrimp & crumbled bacon and continue to simmer until shrimp is pink/opaque.
    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April

    Soak Your Wild Oats

    Oatmeal really can be as healthy as Quaker advertises, but as with all food, quality of ingredients and preparation counts!  If you are currently eating your oats…good for you!  However, if it’s coming out of a packet and going straight into the microwave, you may be missing out on some of the health benefits while getting an unhealthy dose of sugar and artificial flavors to start your day.  By taking just a few extra steps, you can make a kid (and adult) friendly breakfast cereal that really does deliver some great vitamins and minerals as well.
    “What’s the problem with my oatmeal?”  Well, depending on what you are buying it may be full of sugars and additives that you don’t even realize are in there.  Check the label.  But even if you are buying the plain rolled oats, your preparation may be making the oats a nutritional washout.  Like seeds and legumes, oats contain phytic acid which is an anti-nutrient thatcan block mineral absorption (phosphorus, calcium, zinc, magnesium & iron) and lead to nutritional deficiencies.  Phytic acid also binds with enzymes necessary for digestion.  By taking a few extra minutes, you can help neutralize this phytic acid, making your oatmeal more nutritious and digestible.

    13 g of sugar + artificial color and “natural” flavor

    Oatmeal Preparation
    The night before, put one cup of organic old fashioned oats (not “quick” or “instant”)  and one cup of filtered water into a pot and mix in 2 TBS of whey.  If you don’t have whey you can use yogurt instead.  Let the pot sit out covered overnight.  In the morning add another cup of water and bring it to a boil.  Immediately reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  To sweeten, you can add a small amount of natural sweetener such as maple syrup or sucanat and sprinkle with cinnamon.  Pour a little bit of whole milk on top if you like.  You can mix in some grated apple or apple sauce, raisins, dried cranberries, nuts or seeds, coconut, ground flax seed etc.  The possibilities are endless.  Get creative and I’m sure you’ll find a combination that pleases everyone.


    Eat Well, Be Well,
    April



    Kid Tested, Mother Approved

    Kale Chips

    The search for snacks that the kids love and I’m happy with is never ending.  Kids love crunch, but crunch often comes with strings attached (refined flours & sugars, partially hydrogenated oils etc.).  These kale “chips” are easy to make and usually don’t  last 24 hours in my house.

    Kale is one of those amazing “superfoods” that you want to get into your family’s diet.  According to The George Mateljan Foundation for the World’s Healthiest Foods, “kale is a nutritional standout in three basic areas: (1) antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, (2) much-needed micronutrients (in which the average U.S. adult is currently deficient), and (3) cancer-preventive nutrients called glucosinolates.”  If you’ve tried to serve kale before and encountered some resistance, try again with this recipe.  The crunch will trick them into thinking it’s naughty!

    Kale Chips
    1 bunch kale
    sea salt
    olive oil
    spices (optional)

    Wash and spin the kale dry and remove the leaves from the stems.  Toss the leaves with olive oil and sea salt.  If you’re feeling dangerous add a bit of cayenne or any other spice that moves you.  These work great in a dehydrator but if you don’t have one set your oven to the lowest possible temperature and put it on the convection setting if you have that option.  You can also prop the oven door open a bit so that it stays cooler.  The optimal temperature to dehydrate these is 115° but before I got my dehydrator I did them in the oven as described above at 170° and they turned out great.  Be aware that you will lose the enzymes this way, so while still yummy, they are not “raw.” If you do have a dehydrator lay them out on the dehydrator sheets and dehydrate at  115° until crispy (12+ hours).  Enjoy as is and sprinkle the leftover crumbs over some homemade popcorn

    Eat Well, Be Well
    April

    Dry Bean Arithmetic

    So you’ve made the transition to properly prepared dry beans, but all of the recipes call for a 15 oz. can of beans.  What do you do?  Here is a cool little formula to help you out.

    Dry Bean Arithmetic 

    courtesy of WikiAnswers  We recognize that sometimes you want to use canned beans, sometimes dry, so here’s a handy chart to remind you of the various relationships between dry, cooked and canned beans:
    ** Dry beans expand to about 2-1/2 times their original size when soaked.
    ** A one-pound package of dry beans equals about 2 cups dry, or 5-6 cups cooked.
    ** One 15 ounce can (drained) equals about 1-2/3 cups cooked beans.
    From http://www.calbeans.com/beanbasics.html
    Using the information supplied above:
    1 2/3 cups of cooked beans (point 3 above) divided by 2 1/2 (the expansion factor in point 1 above ) equals:
    2/3 cup of dry beans cooks up to 1 can of cooked beans.