Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Wheat, a global staple. Or is it?

Wheat is on my mind. I remember a delicious whole wheat bread loaf that my grandmother kneaded by hand as one of the healthiest foods out there; especially with the zucchini, carrots and other garden treats baked in. Whole grain cereal, wheat bran, whole grain pasta, these are all products sold as health-conscious eating choices, but recent research tells me they may not be. Is wheat good for us, or is it an unhealthy snack in disguise?

Wikipedia tells me that in 2010 wheat was the third most produced cereal, next to rice and maize. My last trip to the grocery story validates this fact. A closer look at food labels tells me that in North America wheat is in almost everything. It appears that we, at least in North America, depend on wheat to function. If this is true, why hasn't the news that wheat could be unhealthy hit the grocery stores or our dinner tables? I took some time to research what is wrong with wheat. Here is what I found: 

Wheat is heavily modified

What we know as wheat is in fact a hybrid or a mix of many different plants. Wheat plants have been selectively bred (crossed) to remove certain undesirable traits and to increase desirable ones. For example, wheat has been bred to make it short. I've seen this done to coffee, it makes it easier to pick. So far not so bad. But, wheat has also been hybridized (cross-bred) with non-wheat plants to introduce different and new genes into a wheat plants' DNA. Now, I'm getting a little concerned. What plants' (or animals') genes am I eating in my morning toast? Another - and more sneaky - form of modification is the process of chemical mutation. Scientists have exposed wheat seeds to radiation and chemicals, such as the toxic-to-humans sodium azide, to change the make up of this plant. The use of sodium azide on wheat was done to produce a herbicide resistant form of wheat called Clearfield wheat. The wheat we eat now is nothing like what my great grandfather was farming in the late 19th century. 
Spanish officers inspecting bread in France, taken circa 1918 (National Library of Scotland)

What do these modifications mean for our health? 

I can’t find a list of impacts and maybe there is a reason for this. But, after some digging, I found Dr. Davis’ hypothesis, that the 1985 introduction of modern semi-dwarf, high-yield wheat was followed by a surge in weight gain and a diabetes epidemic for United States of Americans. Dr. Davis attributes weight gain other health problems to modified proteins in wheat. For example, research over the past 30 years suggests that one of these proteins, gliadin*, is thought to be modified in our intestine to create bi-products that may increase the human appetite. *Gliadin is a protein found in gluten.

Another factor is gluten. Gluten is made up of various proteins and is found in wheat (along with rye and barley). You may have heard of gluten in relation to celiac disease, an auto immune reaction to partially digested gluten (gliadin to be specific). If you have celiac, you avoid wheat gluten. But, should even the non-celiac person consider avoiding the gluten found in wheat? 

Over the last 100 years for example, the amount of gluten found in wheat has increased 10-fold; now 90 % of protein in wheat is gluten. Even if you don't have celiac, 90% of this hard-to-digest (and potentially harmful) protein is a lot for a digestive system to handle.

A 2009 study in the Journal of American Medical Association, found that if you are a non-celiac person, but have problems digesting gluten, you may be at high risk for many inflammatory conditions such as heart disease. This was enough for me to test my gluten tolerance (using a food elimination and reintroduction program). After detecting I do have a mild gluten-intolerance, and after reading the potentially-harmful wheat breeding practices, I think I am ready to eliminate wheat in my diet for good. 

I think a few readers may say that eliminating wheat is an extreme measure. Everything in moderation is a good life-philosophy, right? I agree. But what happens when you try to eat in moderation while some people are secretly changing your food? Can you really assess moderation if you don’t know what you are eating? 

Don’t hold me to the accuracy of this next example (I can’t find the citation), but it was helpful for me to understand what it means to be eating gluten-enhanced wheat. I read that because gluten in wheat has been substantially increased, eating two pieces of bread now would be like eating 17 pieces of bread say in the late 19th century. Now that is something I need to digest.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Yerba Mate, Mate de Coca, what are they?

Yerba Mate, a tea made from the tree Ilex paraguariensis, met my palate this afternoon when I was searching for an alternative to my bottomless coffee cup. I found Yerba Mate on a list of loose teas offered at my local coffee shop. The name Mate brought me back to the year 2000. That year, I was also sitting in a coffee shop sipping Mate, albeit at a much higher altitude. I was in La Paz, Bolivia and there Mate is referred to as Mate de Coca. Mate de Coca is a refreshing and energizing tea made from steeping the leaves of a different plant, the infamous Coca plant (Erythroxylum coca). I'm indebted to the Bolivian Coca plant and one Bolivia lady who helped me cure an allergy with Coca leaves. The Bolivian lady taught me to bite the Coca leaves to release medicinal components and place them on my face where I suffered from this allergy, the picture below shows the severity. I was allergic to alpaca fur but I mistook my allergy symptoms for those of a common cold. As my allergies became worse, ironically, I kept warm by hiding in layers and layers of alpaca-fur coats and blankets. If I'm ever near Alpaca again, I'll carry Coca leaves with me!

I expected these two similar sounding teas to taste alike. To my surprise Yerba Mate tasted nothing like Mate de Coca. Unlike Coca's mild flavour, I found Yerba Mate to be bitter with a hard to describe aftertaste. For lack of a better comparison, the Yerba Mate aftertaste vaguely resembled the flavour of tobacco. 

Because I am fascinated by where plants come from I couldn't pass up the opportunity to find out what plant I was drinking. With the help of wikipedia's invisible scholars, I learned that Ilex paraguaiensis (Yerba Mate) is a forest plant found in the southern parts of South America, in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. When you order a Yerba Mate, you are likely savouring leaves from tea plantations or from trees planted in their native forest habitats. Like the popular green tea, Yerba Mate leaves are processed before they hit your teapot. The main difference between Mate and green tea is the drying method. Mate is dried slowly using wood smoke and green tea is dried fast at high temperatures. 

Content to know what I was drinking, my curiosity turned to the human beings who first found this plant and decided it was good to drink. I'm rarely successful finding this type of information online, and this time was no exception. I'm convinced we rarely read about the people behind plants because those writing about ethnobotany are mostly  pharmaceutical researchers. As an ethnobotanist, I am often associated with pharmaceutical work too. For example, just in the last week a few people have assumed I work for a pharmaceutical company when I mentioned I'm an ethnobotanist. 

From the little information available, I read that Yerba Mate tea was first used by the Guaraní people of South America. I can't be sure of my sources, but it appears that when this tea was discovered by Jesuit priests, these priests tried to stop Indigenous peoples from drinking it (maybe because of its perceived demonic properties). However, the Jesuits that came in contact with Yerba Mate must have liked something about it because this tea made it all over Europe, quick. The desire for Yerba Mate is a story waiting to be told; I think it would make a good project for Michael Pollan and his work on the Botany of Desire

Although its medicinal properties were no doubt clearly known by the Guarani people, western science has found Yerba Mate to be good to treat parasites, high cholesterol, and inflammation; it also has caffeine in it so I guess this wasn't my best choice for a coffee substitute.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Mountain Foods: Kefir

Kefir Grains (photo courtesy of luxomedia)
I usually get get a good source of calcium and micronutrients from hearty green vegetables. In Costa Rica I had a backyard supply of wild fiddlehead ferns. Back in Canada, greens don't grow well in the winter, so I challenged myself to get a replacement source of nutrients. Kefir is the replacement I found.

Although I tend to write about plants and forests, kefir is neither of those. Kefir is a yoghurt like drink made from kefir grains, a.k.a, tiny balls of bacteria and yeast. Kefir grains look like tiny cauliflowers. It is thought that kefir was crafted by people dwelling in the Caucasus mountains (separating the Caspian and Black seas) over 2,000 years ago. 

Here is what happened when myself, an aspiring plant harvester, experimented with bacteria...

1. Online, I ordered one tablespoon of kefir grains from a company that imports Greek strains of kefir bacteria.

2. I placed these grains in some organic whole milk (kefir likes to eat fat, sugar, and lactose, and won't grow without them).

3. I babied the kefir, changing the milk multiple times to make sure my kefir was adjusting well to its new - far from mountain like - sterile conditions in my cupboard.

While I cared for kefir, I thought about how well this bacteria-yeast organism has adapted over the years. People once hung kefir on their doors; it was mixed when people opened and closed the doors and goats graciously provided their skin as a home for this drink. Today I'm using pasteurized milk and a glass jar to grow these creatures. If I were kefir, I would prefer the goat-skinned home rather than the glass one, but for now, I don't have a good source of goat.
Photo courtesy of Dom, who writes extensively on how to make kefir 
4. After a week or so, I strained my kefir grains into a glass and was left with a thick milky mixture. My kefir looked like yoghurt, smelled a little sour but not enough to turn me off, and tasted pretty good. All encouraging for my first attempt!

Pros: I learned about an ancient mountain-food, hopefully filled with micronutrients, calcium, and immune-system boosting probiotic bacteria. I am excited of the possibility to keep growing kefir using milk from local goats or cows, and even coconut milk. 

Cons: Kefir put me to sleep. I don't know if it is the fact that I'm not used to the pasteurized whole milk (I've been virtually dairy-free for years) or it's the new bacteria and yeasts I'm adjusting to. Something has me thinking it was the latter because my partner was also knocked out by the kefir. We've decided kefir should be recommended for anyone with insomnia, graduate students I'm talking to you! 

If you want to grow your own kefir, here are a few sites with great advice: freestyle farm, Dom's Kefir Encyclopedia, and SimplyKefir.

Need kefir grains? Try asking people you know. If that doesn't work, there are many sites that offer good grains, my preference is to order from small-scale kefir makers. I liked a few sellers on Etsy and I also think SimplyKefir is a good source of grains.