Iron Woman: Reducing your risk of iron deficiency

I thought I’d give you a sneak peak of another article that I’ll be having published in Oasis Magazine (March Issue).  Enjoy!

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iron

When it comes to women’s health, most people are aware of the importance of calcium for maintaining strong bones, but did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world?  According to the World Health Organization approximately 30% of the world’s population have anemia, many due to iron-deficiency.  That’s nearly 1 out of every 3 people on the planet!

Iron is an important nutrient for many functions within the body.  Perhaps the most important function is in red blood cells, where it acts to transport oxygen throughout the body.  If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, your body won’t make enough red blood cells and you can develop anemia.  Iron also plays an important role in brain development, energy metabolism, immune function and DNA synthesis.

Women are at particularly high risk for developing iron deficiency anemia due to blood loss from their monthly periods.  It’s true that iron deficiency is more prevalent in households with lower incomes, but because a woman’s requirements are more than double that of men it’s still something that all females need to guard against.

Symptoms of iron deficiency

Mild iron deficiency may not present itself with any obvious symptoms at first but if left unchecked for long enough iron deficiency anemia can develop.  The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia are fatigue and weakness.  Other symptoms can include dizziness, headaches, pale skin, shortness of breath and chest pain.  The only way to properly diagnose iron deficiency is through a blood test, so it’s important to see your doctor on an annual basis for blood work.

Who’s at risk?

Anyone who isn’t meeting the Daily Recommended Allowance (DRA) for iron is at risk for developing iron deficiency.  Requirements vary greatly depending on age and gender.  An adult women’s daily iron requirements are 18 mg/day, whereas an adult male’s is only 8mg/day.  Children and adolescents requirements can range from 7-15 mg/day.  *For more details on iron requirements check out the websites found at the end of this article.

There are several other subgroups of people who are at higher risk for developing iron deficiency.  It is especially important for the groups below to ensure they consume enough iron in their diets.

  • Pregnant women – Pregnancy increases a mother-to-be’s iron requirements to 27 mg/day due to increases in her blood volume and because of the needs of the developing baby.  Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk of delivering a premature or low-birth-weight baby.
  • Vegetarians/Vegans – People who practice vegetarianism are at higher risk of iron deficiency because they do not consume meat, a rich source of iron.
  • Athletes – It has been estimated that athletes who engage in intense endurance training require 30% more iron than they otherwise would.
  • People with gastrointestinal diseases – Autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease can cause damage to the wall of your intestines.  This can impair the body’s ability to absorb iron.

Prevention

The best way to prevent iron deficiency is to ensure you are eating a balanced diet containing a variety of iron rich foods.  In foods, iron is found in one of two forms; heme iron and non-heme iron.  Heme iron is only found in meat, poultry, fish and shellfish.  Non-heme iron primarily comes from plant sources.  Some good sources of non-heme iron are beans (including pinto, kidney, soybeans and lentils), dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, enriched rice, whole-grain and enriched breads, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and eggs.

It’s important to note that heme iron is much easier for the body to absorb than non-heme iron.  In fact, the body absorbs 2 to 3 times more iron from animal sources than from plants.  To increase your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron you can eat vitamin C rich foods, like citrus fruit, tomatoes, peppers, berries, kiwis, broccoli or cauliflower with your meals.  Conversely, the polyphenols contained in tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron, so it’s best to avoid these beverages during mealtime.

Be aware that more is not necessarily better when it comes to iron in your diet.  Consuming iron in excessive amounts can lead to toxicity, which actually increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.  Iron toxicity has also been linked to several neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.  So, unless prescribed by a doctor, it is not advisable to take iron supplements.

For more information

For more information about iron deficiency and how you can prevent it, check out the links below:

http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/iron.html

http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/anemia.html

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Evolutionary eating

evolution

Don’t worry.  This isn’t going to be a post extolling the virtues of the Paleo-diet.  Nor will it discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of eating for your blood type or to correct your “hormonal imbalances”.

Rather, the topic I wanted to discuss today is the evolution of our individual eating habits.  I figured I’d start with a look back into my own history.

When I was a kid health or nutrition wasn’t always of primary importance in our household.  It’s not that I’d say my parents didn’t care about the types of food we ate, I just don’t think the nutritional quality of food was always front of mind.  I remember my school lunches regularly consisting of a sandwich with some sort of deli meat (bologna and mock chicken loaf with that bright orange “casing” were particular favorites of mine), a fruit roll-up, a chocolate covered granola bar and a juice box.  On the weekend I remember enjoying frozen chicken nuggets reheated in the oven with BBQ sauce.  Looking back as a dietitian, it’s difficult not to cringe at many of my eating habits at that time.

Fortunately, my mom did get my brother and I involved in the kitchen at an early age.  As my regular readers know I strongly believe that developing cooking skills is one of the most important things you can teach your child.  When we were younger, I distinctly remember that my mom would often get us to help her with her baking.  When we were older we’d also be expected to help prepare dinner before my parents got home from work.  I wasn’t a chef by any means, but by the time I left home I knew my way around the kitchen and had several recipes in my repertoire.

I’ll admit that my eating habits didn’t change all that dramatically during my first couple of years at university.  Due to budgetary constraints I was forced to cook more on my own, but I still ate quite a bit of processed food.  Like many students, Mr Noodles and Kraft Dinner (aka Mac n’ Cheese for Americans) were still staples in my weekly menu.

It was really during the latter years of my undergraduate degree that my eating habits first started to evolve.  Given my degree program (Kinesiology), I began to become more conscious of the food I consumed and the health implications of a poor diet.  This new knowledge didn’t necessarily prevent me from going out to the pubs on a weekly basis where I indulged in far too much alcohol and bar food than would be considered healthy, but at least I was starting to recognize that doing so probably wasn’t all that good for me.

After graduating, my girlfriend (and now wife) and I moved west to Calgary.  In Calgary we got into running and hiking and began to limit our visits to restaurants, particularly fast food joints.  For some reason fast food just didn’t seem nearly as appealing as it used to.  It was in Calgary that we started to cook from scratch more, relying less and less on processed foods.   That said, at this time I would still regularly take frozen entrees to work for lunch (albeit, accompanied by fruit and yogurt now instead of fruit roll-ups and chocolate covered granola bars).  We’d also still fall back on the occasional frozen lasagna or pre-made pasta sauces when we were short on time.  It was far from perfect, but still a significant step up from my university days.

Our eating habits continued to evolve when we moved to Edmonton so I could return to school to pursue my Registered Dietitian certification.  By the end of our time there, we had almost eliminated all processed foods from our diet.  The only thing you’d find in our freezer these days was bread, meat and frozen veggies (and maybe ice cream :-)….).  We also tried to get more and more of our meat and produce from farmer’s markets.  It wasn’t necessarily because it was organic.  It was more because we recognized that fruit/veggies/meat that didn’t have to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles before you ate it tended to taste better.  And if it tasted better, we were more likely to eat more of it.  We also experimented with having our own patio garden so we’d have access to our own vegetables and fresh herbs.

And now we’re in Egypt.  Here we make almost everything we eat from scratch, including things like sauces, dressings and dips.  On most days we get our recommended servings of fruits and vegetables and unhealthier pork products, like bacon, sausage and salami, are out (admittedly, not entirely by choice).

It’s still not perfect.  We still probably eat take-out pizza too often.  I have a weakness for ice cream (my wife’s is chocolate).  And we could both still try to eat more veggies and whole grains.  But when you look at the difference between how I eat now and how I ate 15 years ago, it’s night and day.

The funny thing is it’s hard to think of anything I quit eating “cold turkey”.  Looking back on it, we simply began to phase out the unhealthier foods because for whatever reason they weren’t as appealing as they used to be.  Over time we formed new habits.  Those new habits turned into more new habits.  And then all of a sudden without really understanding exactly how we got there, we realized we’re doing pretty good when it came to eating healthy.  Not perfect by any measure, but on the whole pretty darn good.

I guess at the end of all this, that’s my point to the story.  If you’re thinking about starting to eat healthier, it doesn’t have to be all at once.  New habits take time to form.  You can’t expect to make any real long term sustainable change over night.  I kind of like to think of it as working toward some sort of “ideal”.  You may never actually reach it.  Heck, it may not even really exist.  But every step you make along that path is a move in the right direction.  And that’s a good thing.

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Redesigning Nutrition Facts

With the recent report that the FDA would be redesigning the Nutrition Facts labels found on all processed foods in the US, it got me thinking – What would I like to see on the new updated labels?

nutrition fact sample canada

First, let’s begin with some of the problems with the existing labels:

1.  Serving sizes are not reflective of what people are eating.

For me personally, this is one of the biggest issues I’ve encountered as a dietitian.  I hate how soft drink companies are able to get away with listing the nutrition information for a 600 ml bottle of pop based on a “serving size” of only 240 ml (or 8 oz).  When the average consumer looks at a Coke nutrition label, they’re not identifying that there’s actually 2.5 servings in their 600 ml bottle and thus if they plan to drink the entire bottle (which almost everyone does), they need to multiply all the quantities/percentages found on the label by 2.5.  It’s not just soft drinks either.  Chips, cookies, cereal and crackers are just a few of the other culprits when it comes to this sort of thing.  This practice is clearly misleading and contributes to the public’s confusion regarding the calorie content of certain foods.  If this recent NY Daily News article is true, fortunately this is one of the changes currently being considered.

2.  % Daily Value is too generic

While I understand the purpose of including a % Daily Value on the label (ie. to give the public a sense on how much of a particular nutrient is contained in each serving relative to their daily requirements), unfortunately it oversimplifies a rather complex issue.  Individual daily requirements, particularly caloric daily requirements, can vary tremendously among individuals.  The % Daily Value is calculated based on a 2000 calorie/day diet.  Adult caloric requirements can range from 1500 calories/day to 3500 calories/day (and beyond) depending on gender and age.  The % Daily Value found on nutrition labels is of little value to the active 185 lbs, 25 year old healthy male OR the sedentary 110 lbs elderly female.  So if the % Daily Value is only applicable to only a portion of the population, it begs the question, why is it even there in the first place?

3.  Trans fats

This is another pet peeve of mine.  Consumption of trans fats has been strongly linked to increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease by increasing cholesterol levels.  Unfortunately at present, in Canada trans fats have not been eliminated from our food system (and as far as I’m aware ditto for the US), but that’s an issue for another post.  Anyways, trans fats are listed on the nutrition label of all foods, which is a good thing, but the problem is that it’s possible for trans fats to be present within a food yet not show up on the nutrition facts label.  This is because if the trans fats are in small enough amounts (ie. less than 0.5 grams), the total amount will be rounded down and will show up on the label as 0 grams.  In fact, the only way to know for certain if trans fats are present within a food is to look at the ingredients list and determine is anything listed has the word “hydrogenated” in it.  In my opinion if they’re going to be listed on the label, the public should be properly informed about their exact quantities.

4.  TMI (Too much information)

More information is not always better.  While it’s been demonstrated that the public is generally able to use nutrition labels to evaluate basic nutrition information, they struggle when they are asked more complex questions.  Not surprisingly, people in lower socio-economic groups tend to have the poorest understanding of the information presented on nutrition labels, which is unfortunate as this is a group that often stands to benefit the most from such information.  Researchers have also found that when asked consumers regularly request a simpler more straightforward presentation of nutrition information.

So what I’d like to see…

Now that we’ve got my issues with existing nutrition labels out of the way, I think you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what I’d like to see going forward.  For starters, I think the information presented on labels has to be simplified significantly.  While RDs like myself (and other educated folks) tend to appreciate the plethora of information contained on nutrition labels, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t fully understand or misinterpret at least some of the information on nutrition labels.  Rather than catering to a few select groups, it probably makes sense to cater towards the majority in this instance.  What could be neat is to have additional information easily accessible for those who want it (perhaps via a QR code?).

In keeping with a more simplistic presentation, I think that % Daily Values should probably just be done away with in favour of a simpler way of indicating if a food is high or low in a certain nutrient.  I obviously think that more accurate portion sizes should be used and if a container/package contains more than one serving, it should be mandatory to indicate how many total servings are found in that food.

In fact, I very much like this example of nutrition labeling that I found online.  I believe it is used in the UK.  It still lists percentages, which I’m assuming are based on the same 2000 calorie/day diet used for calculating % Daily Value and I’m not exactly sure what the criteria they use for the LOW-MED-HIGH contents, but this seems like a much more straightforward presentation than we have now.

nutrition facts sample Whatever the new labels end up looking like, I commend the people tasked with coming up with the new format.  It’s by no means an easy job and one of those things that will be criticized no matter what the redesign look like.  I’ll be pretty happy if they can sneak in just one or two of my recommendations!

Is there anything that confuses you about the existing nutrition labels?  Are there any changes you’d like to see implemented on the new label?….

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References

Campos S, Doxey J, Hammond D.  Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review.  Public Health Nutr. 2011 Aug;14(8):1496-506

Embracing different

“As we grow in awareness of one another – whether two people beginning a romance or two disparate and far-removed strangers taking an interest in the other’s culture – a wonderful thing begins to happen: we begin to care for the other as if the other is part of us. This is the magic of life that our ancient teachers have bid us to see; the invisible filaments of interconnectedness that bind us together in love and appreciation.”
— Scott A. Hunt

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Embracing different.  It’s a phrase my wife and I have said pretty regularly to each other this past year.

As expats living in Egypt in order for us to enjoy our time here embracing differences is essential.  As you might imagine there’s been a lot of things we’ve needed to get used to.  It’s not only the obvious things either, like the culture, weather or religious practices.  It’s the little things too.  In Egypt you need to make sure you always have cash on hand for when the guy comes to your apartment to collect your monthly electricity payments.  Here the supermarkets often don’t have the items you purchased last week in stock anymore.  Here you should always try to have small bills when you go into a store because many vendors don’t carry a lot of change.  So many things are different than what we’re used to in Canada.

And never was “different” highlighted more so than our our recent trip to India.  Coming from North America there’s not much that can prepare you for how different it is just to walk down a street on the subcontinent.  The honking horns.  The cows walking amongst the cars, bicycles and rickshaws.  The unfamiliar smells, both pleasant and otherwise.  And always having to fend off touts or haggle for the best price for something.  

There are times when all this “different” can wear you down.  It’s so much easier when you know what to expect when you enter a situation – especially situations that at least on the surface feel familiar.   For example, it’s nice to know that when I order pizza in a restaurant, it tastes like I expect it too.  Heck, there’s a reason a restaurant like McDonalds has been so successful over the years.  You can walk into a McDonalds anywhere in the world and order a hamburger and it will always taste exactly the same (well, except for maybe India, where they don’t have beef on the menu!).

But here’s the thing that I think so many people fail to recognize.  Different does not inherently mean wrong or bad.  It simply means different.  The way of doing something that you’re used to is not automatically better by default.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat so to speak.  And there’s lot’s of ways to get from point A to point B.

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget an event from a few year’s back when we were travelling in Scotland.  Being the Harry Potter fans that we are, my wife and I decided to ride the Jacobite train (aka the “Hogwart’s Express”) from Fort William to the village of Mallaig and back.  The train had an unusual method for numbering their seats where the seat numbers changed depending if you were on the outbound or return ride.  While this numbering system caused us some initial confusion, once we figured it out we were fine.  Unfortunately for the American family sitting in the berth next to us, it wasn’t that simple.  Upon arrival they seemed to have a tough time figuring out their seats even after we tried our best to explain things to them. They ended up sitting in the wrong seats and were asked to move when the owners of the seats eventually arrived.  Mom wasn’t happy and let Dad know about it.  She couldn’t understand why it had to be so “complicated”.  I remember feeling sorry for the guy as he was obviously the one who booked the tickets.  Anyways, on the return trip essentially the same thing happened and the mom lost it.  She tore a strip off her husband again and let the poor train attendant have it too.  As all this was happening, I remember thinking to myself – “We’re in Scotland.  It’s not the same as the US.  Just roll with it”.  She wasn’t able to do that and it essentially ruined what would otherwise have been an amazing time for that family.  I often think about that incident whenever I feel myself getting frustrated in a situation that isn’t playing out the way I’d expected it to.

So what are the advantages of embracing different, aside from just saving yourself the odd frustrating situation?

Embracing differences allows us to look at things from a new perspective.  It can challenge our preconceived notions and help us to have empathy for others.  It can also open up a whole new world to us that would be otherwise undiscovered.

If we only ever do what is comfortable or familiar, how do we ever learn?  When we decided to move to Egypt, it wasn’t just about being able to see the Pyramids.  It was also about being able to learn about a new culture that was quite different than ours.  I wanted to better understand things like why they Egyptian people forced a revolution 3 years ago.  Or the role that religion plays in their daily lives.  Or the local cuisine.  The list really goes on and on….

If you’re not willing to embrace something different, it’s a little like putting your head in the sand to the world around you.  It leads to close-mindedness and intolerance.  Not exactly qualities anyone should be aspiring to.

I’ll readily admit that embracing differences can be a challenge at times.  Humans are creatures of habit.  Familiar is comfortable.   But this shouldn’t hold you back from embracing the differences when you encounter them.

It doesn’t mean you need to travel the world to experience differences as me and my wife have chosen to do (although I’d highly recommend it!).  It’s more than possible to embrace differences that you have in your regular daily lives.  Because really, what’s the downside?  At worst, maybe you realize that something is not for you.  But at best you end up with a completely rewarding experience that makes your life fuller for having done so.

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I have a dream…

dream

I thought I’d use the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to jot down 20 nutrition/health-related dreams that I feel would improve the lives of millions.

  1. New diets will not be judged on the flashiness of their claims but the validity of their recommendations
  2. People with zero nutrition expertise will stop providing nutrition advice
  3. Governments will force big food to stop advertising to children through regulation rather than relying on them to do so voluntarily
  4. Eating out at restaurants will be viewed as a treat, not the norm
  5. “Health-washing” of junk food will be eliminated
  6. Kid’s menus at restaurants will consist of something other than pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries or burgers
  7. Governments will first and foremost always put the public interest at heart when developing health policies
  8. Everyone will have the ability to cook healthy meals from scratch
  9. Trans fats will be eliminated from the food system
  10. School cafeterias will provide the same types of foods that are taught about in health class
  11. Politicians will use real evidence when developing healthy public policy instead of uninformed opinions
  12. All health professionals will be given nutrition training as part of their schooling
  13. Healthy food options at children’s events will outnumber unhealthy ones
  14. The value of an individual will not be determined by their weight
  15. Charitable organizations, particularly those geared towards improving health, will refuse to accept funding from big food corporations looking to improve their image by association
  16. Alternative practitioners will be held accountable for their outlandish claims
  17. People will recognize that losing weight is more than just a matter of “wanting it bad enough”
  18. Food rewards, especially those for mundane accomplishments, will cease to exist
  19. Bariatric surgery will be available to all those that need it
  20. All people, at all times, will have access to the food they need for an active and healthy life

Now I’m not sure how many of these have a realistic shot of happening anytime soon, but a man can dream, can’t he?….:-)

Do you have any health/nutrition-related dreams that you feel would make the world a better place?

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Favourite foods from India

For my last post on India, I thought I’d highlight the best foods I ate while on my recent trip there.

Chana Masala – Other than knowing it was a vegetarian curry, I didn’t even know exactly what this was when I ordered it from Dolphin Restaurant in Varanasi on our first day in India.  As I was to find out, it was one of the best vegetarian dishes I ate on our entire trip.  For the record, chana masala is a curry made of chick peas, with a slightly sweet and spicy onion/tomato based gravy.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Baby Shark – Shortly after arriving in Goa I overheard another patron at our hotel describing to her companion that she was able to try baby shark earlier that day.  At that moment I knew I’d have to give it a shot before I left.  Seafood is quite popular in Goa and many establishments will lay out the day’s catch on a table at the front of their restaurant.  As customers enter they can simply choose their evening’s meal and let the server know how they’d like it cooked.  When the time came to try shark, I went with the server’s recommendation to broil the shark with garlic butter.  It didn’t disappoint.  The texture is difficult to describe, but I’d say it’s probably similar to, but softer and less rubbery than scallops.

Baby Shark

Baby Shark

Chicken Lababdar – After spending New Year’s Eve in a taxi on the road between Bikaner and Jodhpur, my wife and I celebrated the new year the following night at Indique Restaurant.  We opted for the chicken lababdar and rogan josh for dinner.  Both dishes were excellent, but I have to give the edge to the lababdar.  Chicken lababdar is quite similar to butter chicken, although the chicken is grilled rather than fried, which adds an awesome spin to an otherwise familiar dish.

Enjoying me some chicken lababdar

Enjoying me some chicken lababdar

Jhal Muri – I had first heard about this dish while watching an episode of the Food Network’s Eat St. last year.  This particular episode featured a somewhat eccentric guy who would set up a tiny little table in downtown London and make this Indian snack for his customers.  I even found this video on youtube.  Anyways, when I walked by a similar setup outside Jaipur’s City Palace, I had to give it a shot.  The version I tried had rice crisps, peanuts, chick pea noodles, diced tomatoes, onions, chili peppers, cilantro and curry spices.  Awesome.

Trying out Jhal Muri

Trying out Jhal Muri

Red Ants – Okay, this wasn’t exactly a favourite food, but it was probably the most interesting.  I mentioned this in my previous post on Spice Farming.   Ants are apparently eaten by locals in the form of a paste that can be spread on  bread/crackers.  I know, that description doesn’t make them sound especially appealing, but I must admit, their lemon-like flavor wasn’t nearly as offensive as you might think.

Mmm... red ants.

Mmm… red ants.

These were the best of the best foods from our trip.  Overall the food was pretty amazing, but I will say that the food in the north tended to be a lot blander than I was expecting.  I also wasn’t expecting vegetarianism to be quite as common (again, especially in the north).  And I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive that masala and paneer filled “donut” we ate from a food cart in Jodhpur, the effects of which were felt for 2+ days. 🙂

Spice Farming in India

In recent years I’ve become a little obsessed with how the food we eat is produced.  The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” and “Food Factory” were staples in our house before we left Canada.  There’s just something incredibly interesting about how raw ingredients are transformed into the types of food products that we find in the supermarket.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me?

Well, on our recent visit to India, my wife and I had an opportunity to visit and tour the Tanshikar Organic Spice Farm.  I must admit it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Tanshikar is located about 35 km from Palolem in the jungle of southern Goa.  When we arrived it was explained that the Spice Farm tour package included lunch and an optional guided hike to a local 75 m waterfall.  That sounded great to us.

We started with the waterfall hike so we’d be back before it got too hot.  The guide spoke no English and set a brisk pace (especially through the boulders of the mostly dried up river bed!), but after about an hour we eventually emerged at the waterfall.  It was pretty awesome.

Mainapi Waterfall

Mainapi Waterfall

Upon our return we sat down to our traditional Goan lunch.  It consisted of rice, chapati bread and several vegetarian curries and salads.

Lunch at Tanshikar

Lunch at Tanshikar

Finally, after lunch, the spice farm tour began.

Tanshikar practices “mixed farming” and grows no fewer than 15 crops at any given time.  You won’t find rows of one type of plant in a specific plot here.  Rather, all of the trees are mixed together.  The owner describes that this idea of mixed farming helps to protect against crop loss.  Also, having varied crops means that if weather/market conditions aren’t favorable for one type of crop, the farm has other crops to buffer its income.  Of course he’s sacrificing some profits in doing so, but he argues that his farm is more sustainable this way.

On our tour we seemed to just amble through the jungle.  To the untrained eye it was difficult to even identify the different spice trees.  At each new plant or tree we would stop and the owner would first get us to try to guess which spice tree we were standing in front of.  Sometimes he would even let us taste the leaves or seeds.  This was a lot harder than you think.  I only got about half of them right.  I was able to identify cardamom, vanilla, cocoa, pepper and coffee (only because we had seen it in Guatemala a few years back), but whiffed on nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.  It’s so strange seeing these spices in an entirely different form than we do back home.

After trying to guess the spice, we would get a brief description of the process of pollination, harvest and processing of each spice.  I couldn’t get over how labour intensive some of these were.  For example, the vanilla bean, requires pollination by hand or the fruit won’t grow.  The crazy part is that the flower only lives for one day before falling off, so workers need to be extremely diligent to make sure they don’t miss this crucial window.  And then after pollination it takes the bean just under 1 year to mature!  After which it is picked and requires another 2 months of processing, just to get the vanilla bean you can buy in the supermarket.  Unbelievable!

Vanilla beans - almost ready to be harvested

Vanilla beans – almost ready to be harvested

Very spicy chilies.  They are full grown size - about the length of my thumbnail

Very spicy chilies. They are full grown size – about the length of my thumbnail

Nutmeg fruit.  Nutmeg and Mace is obtained from the pit of the fruit.

Nutmeg fruit. Nutmeg and Mace is obtained from the pit of the fruit.

With this being an organic spice farm, no pesticides are used on site.  As we passed the cocoa tree, the owner pointed out some red ants which he described help to naturally protect the plants by eating harmful bacteria and fungi.  He mentioned that locals also eat these ants and that they have a lemon-like flavour.  I was skeptical, so he asked if I wanted to try one.  After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would.  How many times in life will I have the opportunity to eat lemon flavoured ants!  He told me to pinch the head and chomp down on the backside.  Lo and behold they did taste like lemon.  Apparently it’s due to the acidic venom stored in their bodies.

Tasting an ant - mmm....

Tasting an ant – mmm….

We finished our tour at one of the farm’s bee colonies.  In the past few years the farm has started raising bees primarily to help with the pollination of their plants and trees, but a second benefit is that they make several commercial products including beeswax and honey, which they sell mostly just at the farm.

Honey bees

Honey bees

The only small downside on the tour, especially from a dietitian’s perspective, was the owner’s non-science based claims of the health benefits for the spices he grew.  For example, he claimed that cinnamon was effective for controlling diabetes, yet this idea was dismissed in a recent systematic review1.  As I’ve described before, the perpetuation of nutrition myths, particularly by people with zero nutrition background, isn’t a good thing.

All in all though, it was a fantastic experience.  If you happen to find yourself in Goa, be sure to check Tanshikar out!

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References

  1. Leach MJ, Kumar S.  Cinnamon for diabetes mellitus.  Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12;9:CD007170. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007170.pub2.

Curry Mixology

As many friends and family are aware, the reason that I haven’t been blogging much lately, is that my wife and I have spent the past 3+ weeks backpacking through India.  We arrived back in Cairo safe and sound yesterday, so I’ll be spending the next week or so getting caught up on some blogging about this fascinating part of the world.

One of the big draws for me to go to India was definitely the cuisine.  And while I’m sure we only truly scratched the surface in terms of our culinary experiences, we were able to eat some pretty amazing (and not-so amazing) food.

Because of India’s diverse cuisine we had planned to do two cooking classes while on our trip – one in the north and another in the south.  However, a bout of food poisoning in Udaipur sidetracked our northern cooking class, so we only ended up doing one in the south.

We spent the last week of our trip in the state of Goa.  Goa is one of India’s most popular tourist destinations due to its phenomenal beaches, diverse wildlife and colonial-era Portuguese architecture.  After spending two weeks in the hectic north, it was the perfect spot to wind down and enjoy a much more laid back atmosphere.

After taking the afternoon to explore our surroundings (and enjoy the beach!), we decided to wander around Palolem village and see what type of cooking classes might be offered.  We settled on a class at the highly-regarded Spicy Bella Restaurant.  These classes were a little more expensive than others offered in town (2500 rupees/person or about 40 USD), but after meeting with the chef Kamal and seeing his enthusiasm for the local cuisine, I felt confident it would be worth it.

When we arrived for class the next day, we sat down with the chef to review our menu for the day.  It turned out we’d be making 3 basic curries – makhani (a tomato/cashew curry of butter chicken fame), palak (a spinach/onion/mint curry) and masala (an onion/garlic-based curry popular in the North).  From these 3 curry bases we could make approximately 30 different curry dishes.  Chef Kamal described what he’d be teaching us as “curry mixology”.

taking notes before the class

taking notes before the class

All 3 three curries were fairly labour intensive and as you might imagine, used a wide variety of ingredients and spices.  Unfortunately, the chef didn’t provide us with the recipes ahead of time, so we spent a lot of time writing down directions and estimating quantities throughout the session, which I must admit took away from the experience a bit.

spices and other ingredients we'd use for our cooking class

spices and other ingredients we’d use for our cooking class

We started with the makhani curry, which as I mentioned is made from a tomato and cashew base.  After boiling chopped cashews and watermelon seeds in water for a few minutes to soften, we added the tomatoes, fried onions, garlic and various spices and continued to boil until we reached the desired thickness.  After that we blended the mixture until it was smooth and then strained it to get out all of the little chunks of tomato skin and spices.  We were left with a smooth gravy that could now be stored in the freezer for months.  To finish off the makhani curry, we took the gravy and heated it again with oil, ginger, fenugreek, sugar, salt, milk (or cream) and butter (of course!).  Now if you want butter chicken, just add some cooked chicken to the mixture and you’re all set!

chopping onions for the makhani curry

chopping onions for the makhani curry

tomato-cashew mixture for makhani curry

tomato-cashew mixture for makhani curry

Makhani curry base

Makhani curry base prior to straining

Makhani chicken (aka Butter Chicken)

Makhani chicken (aka Butter Chicken)

After a quick break to sample our first dish, we were back in the kitchen making the palak and masala curries.  Both were made in a very similar manner to the makhani curry – you start out by cooking the bases (ie spinach/mint/onion OR onion/ginger/garlic), add spices and blend until smooth.  Once blended you reheat the curry and add a bunch more ingredients and spices and finish with whatever protein or vegetable you’re adding, in our case paneer (for the palak) and chicken (for the masala).

Palek Curry base

Palak Curry base

Palek Paneer and Chicken Masala

Palak Paneer and Chicken Masala

As the chef explained each curry can be finished with any number of ingredients, like chicken, beef, fish, seafood, paneer, vegetables or chick peas to name a few.  Some dishes even use a mix of two of the curry bases.  This makes each recipe extremely versatile, which is great because it allows us to create lots of new dishes from only a few basic recipes.

I’m really looking forward to trying these dishes out in the upcoming weeks.  For the most part, we should be able to buy most of the ingredients here in Cairo.  Anything we can’t find, we should be able to find close substitutes.  As soon as we buy ourselves a blender, we should be good to go!

Anyone else hungry? 🙂

Photo with Kamal, chef at Spicy Bella restaurant

Photo with Kamal, chef at Spicy Bella restaurant