Learning to Love Microbes

Fermentation. The ideas that this word brings to mind aren’t necessarily the most pleasant: rot, mysteriously bubbling liquids, putrid stench, sourness. When my professor told us that we would be fermenting our own vegetables and eating them, one of my classmates was absolutely horrified by the thought. To ferment is to decay, to decompose, to die – surely we shouldn’t eat spoiled food!

But fermented food isn’t spoiled: it’s pre-digested. Specifically, as Michael Pollan describes it in his book Cooked (now a four-part Netflix series), “To ferment food is to predigest it, in effect, breaking long chains of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates our bodies might not be able to make good use of into simpler, safer compounds that they can.” In the simplest terms, fermenting is cooking without heat.

Beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, miso paste, fish sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and even chocolate are all common examples of fermented foods. Nonetheless, describing them as what they are, fermented, still makes some people’s skin crawl. In the hyper-sterilized culture of westernized society, the process of encouraging bacterial growth sounds unsafe if not flat-out disgusting. We trust the manufactured versions of these products to be sanitized by industrial food producers to meet government standards to keep us safe. On the flipside, we no longer trust the process of fermentation itself, which has nothing to do with the most notorious foodborne threats of salmonella, listeria, and E coli. “Bacteria” have just been given a connotation of disease and death, such that we perceive them as menaces to be eradicated rather than recognizing their beneficial, natural role in our bodies.

Pollan writes beautifully and thoroughly about how detrimental processing and pasteurization have been to our microbiome, the communities of bacteria thriving in our bodies. Basically, we have deprived our bodily systems of a lot of beneficial microorganisms that humans have historically received from fermented and other foods. The combination of a) a lack of gut bacteria and b) the nutritional imbalance of our diets, heavy in fats and carbohydrates and low in fiber, has been linked to the rising prevalence of gastrointestinal disorders and possibly other autoimmune diseases.

Hold on – didn’t I write a post about the dangers of raw milk just two years ago? “Others still believe [raw milk] to be a good source of healthy bacteria – but, really, it is safer to look for probiotic dairy products, which have been pasteurized and then had beneficial bacteria added to them.” I look back on that post now and laugh at myself for having such blind faith in industrialization. The fact that manufacturers deliberately kill the naturally-occurring bacteria in our foods only to reinject some of them with live cultures for the sake of boasting a “probiotic” label is ridiculous. Thousands of microorganisms are lost in the process, so the effect on our bodies is markedly different. For instance, many sources will tell you that kefir made from live grains contains at least 35 strains of beneficial bacteria, yet store-bought versions boast a measly 12 active cultures.

Don’t get me wrong: pasteurization is extremely important to ensure the safety of mass-produced milk products. However, I highly recommend trying to incorporate unprocessed fermented foods to your diet, if you can find them. If you have access to organic produce, you can even try your hand at fermenting with recipes like this – it’s shockingly easy!

As Hokuma said in a recent post, let’s see food as a living and breathing ‘thing’ that interacts with our body.” I’d like to build on that: let’s see our insides as living things that interact with our food. It doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s the truth that gives us life.

Eva

This is their story

1. Summarize your project/business in one sentence.

MealFlour is an environmentally sustainable social enterprise that provides training to build mealworm farms, raise mealworms, and turn them into protein-rich flour that can be incorporated in local staple foods or sold to bakeries and markets.

2. How long have you been in business/running your project?

We (Elizabeth Frank, Gabrielle Wimer, and Joyce Lu) have been working on the idea of MealFlour since December of 2015. In the summer of 2016, we began our pilot in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (also known as Xela). We are based in Xela, but we work with the communities on the outskirts of the city; our first community is Candelaria.

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3. Why did you decide to start the company/project?

MealFlour started out as a thought experiment. We had all worked in community and global health and wished that more programs and social enterprises would take a holistic approach to improving health. We hoped MealFlour, with its emphasis on not only improving nutrition, but also on raising income and reducing waste, would be a more well-rounded approach to improving well-being. After we entered a few social enterprise competitions, earned enough seed funding, and confirmed local interest at our pilot site community, we realized that this thought experiment could actually become a reality, so we went for it.

4. What has been your biggest achievement so far?

One of our biggest concerns was finding out where to start.  Insects are eaten in 80% of countries around the world, including parts of Guatemala, but raising mealworms in this way is something new. When we pitched the concept to the group of women from a community in Candelaria and gave them samples of the mealworm products, they were excited to learn more and wanted to try out farming themselves.

5. How do you measure success?

Each week we discuss MealFlour’s progress with the farmers to receive their continuous feedback. In order to improve the program as it evolves, we track how many families are farming mealworms, how often they are eating mealworm flour, who in the family eats mealworm flour, open ended questions about attitudes towards mealworm farming and mealworm flour, and ease of uptake of the program. Success means that the women are still farming mealworms long after we have left, so it is important that we are constantly collaborating with farmers to build a business model that works for them.

It is also important to us that the flour they are producing is both improving nutrition in communities and creating new sources of income for the farmers (mostly women with young children). To measure this, we will be analyzing anthropometric data, conducting regular focus groups and surveys, and monitoring flour production and income.

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6. What have you learned in the process?

Don’t be afraid to ‘make the ask’. This is advice we have gotten from a few different people along the way and (most of the time) it has really paid off – you’d be surprised how many people agree and want to help you.

7. What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the (nutrition) industry/get involved in (global public health) work/start a (social enterprise)?

Global health is about getting an intimate understanding of the local context, integrating insights and developments from around the world, and continuing to learn from communities. We chose Guatemala because Joyce worked there for three months in 2015 and got to know the community well. It was important to us that we didn’t integrate into the community without having a close relationship with them first. We also think carefully about each step moving forward with MealFlour. We have a plan and timeline for what we hope to achieve each month, but we are also really flexible to the changes that inevitably come with listening to what the community wants and determining what actually works in practice.

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8. What’s next?

Next is where the real work begins! We spent almost a year laying groundwork, doing research, optimizing the farming technology, raising money, and developing partnerships. Now, starting October 2016, we will begin our first official classes on farming and begin to put everything we’ve been planning into practice.

9. Anything else you want to add?

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and check out our website and sign up for newsletter for more information!

Also, while MealFlour is working in the western highlands of Guatemala, we are really part of a larger, global movement towards sustainable agriculture  and edible insects. If you want to build your own farm at home and make delicious protein packed treats, find out how on our ‘DIY‘ page.

10. Fun question: what was the best meal you ate this week?

Homemade chapati bread and macaroons, both made with mealworm flour from mealworms taken straight from our farm and grown by co-founder Gabrielle Wimer!

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Preventing Waste vs. Eating Healthily: Is There a Conflict?

People need to learn how to eat better. Poor diet contributes to the two leading causes of death worldwide – heart disease and stroke – as well as a slew of other medical problems including obesity, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Without a doubt, promoting proper nutrition is one of the most important food policy focuses of our time. However, it is by no means the only issue.

I recently spoke with someone who is not entirely convinced of the importance of saving food. She understands the principle of preventing waste but cares far more about getting people to eat healthily. Her example: if a person were deciding between throwing away a half-eaten bag of potato chips or saving them, she’d say to throw them away. It’s not worth salvaging junk food that can wreak so much damage on our bodies, her logic goes. chips

As someone whose life’s mission is to fight food waste but also cares deeply about nutrition, I needed a moment to wrestle with this argument. Since I used to overeat in the name of preventing waste (here’s my reflection post about it), I know how the pretense of saving food can clash with healthy eating intentions. Many weight loss diets even explicitly say that people shouldn’t eat everything on their plates, since portion sizes tend to be excessively large. So, does trying to avoid waste mean making poor dietary choices? In a word, no. The keys are storage and smart decisions.

Back to the potato chip example: I say the eater should save the chips as leftovers. That way, the next time the person has a craving for salty, fatty food, he/she can have more chips from the bag, rather than buying a new bag (i.e. giving more money to junk food companies). Plus, with half the chips already eaten, the portion size is limited, whereas a brand new bag would present the temptation to devour all the chips at once. Alternatively, the remaining chips could be shared with friends or served at a party.

nutsBringing leftover junk food home seems like it just invites bad choices; but that’s where my “smart decisions” point comes in. Once food is in the home, it can lose some of its novelty, making it easier to moderate intake. Since the food will still be there tomorrow, there’s less temptation to overindulge now. Unhealthy cravings can be sated in moderation. Moreover, the root of the problem is buying potato chips in the first place. If you don’t want to consume so much sodium and fat, buy a healthier snack!

I realize my counterargument isn’t perfect, but neither is our food environment. Ideally, junk food wouldn’t be so prevalent, nor portion sizes so large, that we have to debate saving unhealthy food for later. Teaching people how to eat well can only go so far as long as we’re surrounded by unhealthy options.  Nevertheless, the pursuit of good nutrition does not have to undercut food waste reduction.

Food Deserts: The World’s Scariest Landscapes

Most people associate ‘malnutrition’ with simply not having enough money to buy nutritious food. The image that comes to mind is of an impoverished family only being able to afford a loaf or two of bread or a sack of potatoes. However, what if the issue wasn’t a lack of funds so much as a lack of availability? What if the only fresh fruits and vegetables were at least an hour’s drive away?

Source: USDA (Department of Agriculture)
Source: USDA (Department of Agriculture)

Welcome to the horror of food deserts: generally low-income areas – urban or rural – that lack sources of fresh, healthy food. Rather than being peppered with grocery stores and markets to sell nutritious foods, these areas tend to be filled with fast food joints and convenience stores that only stock packaged and processed goods. Families are forced to derive their nutrients from boxed mashed potatoes, the scant lettuce and tomato slice on a burger, and fruits canned in corn syrup. Unsurprisingly, people stuck in food deserts are likely to develop obesity and/or diabetes due to their diets’ lack of nutrients and high sugar, salt, and fat content.

I’m surprised that I’d never come across this term until last winter, when I was reading Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table. Sure, I’d passed through plenty of bleak towns where the only restaurants were McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts and there were no grocery stores in sight; but I had never actually considered what it must be like to live in those places. I’ve always been fortunate to have access to at least one grocery store with fresh products, not to mention higher-quality restaurants and organic markets. food desert market2When promoting all of the benefits of eating both healthily and sustainably, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that nutrition is, in some unfortunate places, a commodity. Not everyone has the garden, time, or knowledge to, for instance, grow their own vegetables, which would otherwise be my first recommendation to someone without a fresh produce source. Even cooking from scratch with unpackaged ingredients has become a luxury. There are glimmers of hope, at least, in the growth of the sustainable food movement and the continuous spread of nutrition science, both of which have called attention to the food desert problem. Food is Power’s page about food deserts describes how some American communities have demanded change, such as by launching fresh food co-ops or setting a limit on the number of fast food restaurants. There have also been reports from various regions of the UK analyzing the problem and suggesting solutions.

This Thanksgiving, remember to be grateful if you can buy an organic turkey, roast fresh butternut squash, or even mash your own potatoes. Recognize how precious good food is.

Eva

Eat Right, Sleep Tight

Get ready for another post about two of life’s greatest pleasures: food and sleep! My last post focused on how mindful eating can (hopefully) prevent distressing dreams, but there are tons of other ways that the right foods and eating habits can help guarantee a restful slumber. For instance, while it’s fairly common knowledge that warm milk helps you sleep, what’s really interesting is the science behind its and other foods’ soothing effects.

Melatonin

sleep cherryThis is the hormone that causes us to fall and stay asleep, regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. Darkness, namely due to nightfall, triggers the pineal gland into secreting melatonin into the bloodstream to cause drowsiness. Blood melatonin content then stays high for roughly 12 hours before falling back to virtually undetectable daytime levels.

What to eat:

  • Tart cherries or cherry juice
  • Pineapple
  • Chickpeas, soy products, wild Atlantic salmon, and other foods rich in Vitamin B6, which boosts melatonin production
  • Calcium (warm milk!), which also helps produce melatonin

Serotonin

A neurotransmitter that is essential to the sleep cycle because it gets synthesized to create melatonin. Serotonin levels drop during REM, allowing the brain to be more active and dream, but low serotonin levels, often due to stress, can cause sleep disruption and disorders. Similarly, serotonin deficits have been linked to depression and increased aggression, which is why it the chemical is also considered to be a mood balancer.

*What to eat:

  • Dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa
  • Walnuts
  • No caffeine, which is a serotonin depressant

*some research suggests that serotonin doesn’t cross the “blood-brain barrier,” meaning that consuming food containing the chemical won’t actually affect the brain. What seems to have more effect is tryptophan, explained below.

Tryptophan

You might have heard of this amino acid with reference to turkey on Thanksgiving. Tryptophan contributes to melatonin and serotonin production and is said to help people fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Vitamin B is especially helpful in converting it to serotonin.

cereal healthyWhat to eat:

  • Carbs (oats, whole grain breads, etc.), which cause a spike in blood sugar that triggers insulin and clears the bloodstream of tryptophan-inhibiting acids
  • Protein (turkey, bananas, peanut butter, milk, eggs, and cottage cheese)
  • Carb-protein combinations! Try low-sugar cereal with milk, cheese and crackers, or peanut butter sandwiches.

Magnesium

This vitamin reduces muscle tension, helping the body relax to fall asleep. Not to mention that it is known to combat high blood pressure and has been tentatively linked to reducing risk of developing diabetes, migraine frequency, and the intensity of PMS symptoms.

What to eat:

  • Leafy greens
  • Brazil nuts
  • Bananas

Bonus mythbuster: a glass of red wine before bed? Well, alcohol is a depressant and might make you feel tired in the short-term, but it can also cause disruptive internal gas and prevent you from achieving REM sleep. So, if that’s your sleep aid of choice, make it a small glass.

Hope you enjoyed this short guide to sleep-science jargon!

Sweet dreams,

Eva

The History of American Food Culture

‘How did food become a moral issue in the United States?’ That is the question Helen Zoe Veit must have been asking herself when she began working on Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Twentieth Century. Using extensive evidence from the period, she persuasively argues that the first two decades of the 1900s witnessed a dramatic transformation in the American diet and public perception of food and health. In fewer than 200 pages, Veit manages to trace the roots of modern American food culture, including foodieism and body image standards, to the developments and, more importantly, the ideals of the Progressive Era.

Cottage Cheese AdFor most of history, people have appreciated food as something more than a survival necessity. Humans have learned how to make eating pleasurable, such that ‘cooking’ doesn’t really mean ‘preparing food so it is safe to eat’ so much as it implies ‘making food that tastes good.’ It wasn’t until the late 19th-century, however, that nutrition science began to emerge, informing people about how their diets affected their health and development. This coincided with the advent of Progressivism, which sought to identify and rectify social problems by turning to experts for solutions. The Progressives valued rationality and morality synonymously, meaning that doing something that Tapeworm Dietmade logical or practical sense was considered ethically sound and vice versa. Veit shows how this rational-moral mentality led people to scrutinize their own diets as well as those of the people around them in a whole new way. Increasing awareness of how food affected the human body not only led people to strive to make healthier choices but also had social implications, such as that excess body fat – once valued as a sign of wealth – was now considered a sign of irrationality, reflecting ignorance, greed, and/or a lack of self-restraint. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the development of the modern thinness ideal.

With the onset of the First World War, food also became highly politicized, as the government urged people to cut Sugarless Recipesback on eating certain items so that they could be shipped to European allies. With the Progressive ideals of moral rationality in mind, many Americans were eager to practice self-discipline as a reflection of their intellect. Progressives embraced the food conservation movement because it encouraged self-restraint for the greater good, such that the way a person ate was seen as an indication of his or her patriotism and humanitarianism. Food waste, for instance, was considered an extreme moral transgression of gluttons who dared to endanger the starving Europeans only because they could not control their ‘animal appetites.’ As discussed in one of my previous posts, preventing waste was central to the war effort for practical reasons of conserving supplies; but it, like all things related to food, was also given ethical and, consequently, social connotations. ‘Rational’ pertained to the health of both the individual and greater society, such that ‘rational foods’ included nutrient-rich foods as well as what would have once been considered waste.

I have only touched on the bare bones of the book, which also elaborates on ideas of dietary racism, the emergence of home economics and how it changed transformed views of domesticity and women’s roles, and the incorporation of and fascination with foreign foods in the American diet. Using a variety of historical sources and examples, Veit makes a compelling argument for how people came to understand and obsess over food the way they do nowadays. Far from being a dry historical text, the book is a fascinating exploration of the historical underpinnings of modern food culture.

Keep reading and eating,

Eva