February 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Once again, I’ve been attempting too much around here (baking all our bread, making every meal from scratch, leading after-school activities, learning to bungee-jump in my spare time, re-grouting the bathroom blindfolded) and it started to get to me again. The other night I went to bed at 9PM! Which to my mind means that pretty soon I’ll be showing up for the early-bird special at the all-you-can-gum buffet. Beyond feeling old, I’m feeling incompetent too, because it seems that nothing is getting done around here except the things that don’t stay done for more than a few minutes.
Let me give you a for-instance: on Sunday I mixed up a nice batch of no-knead bread, only to have to pitch it last night when I discovered it fermenting in a soup on top of the toaster-oven, a good 24 hours after I should have turned it out onto a lightly-floured surface and let it rise an additional two hours before baking for 30 minutes at 450 degrees. Instead of a lovely loaf of crusty chewy bread, I got a slimy mess to scrape into the trash, before piling the gooey bowl on top of the desert island of dirty dishes we’ve been amassing in the sink.
Meanwhile, our family has been much anticipating our special Valentines Day dessert. Our family-agreed upon once-a-month confection being… (drumroll please): chocolate mousse! Now, I’ve never made chocolate mousse before, so this places more than a little bit of pressure on the chef… I mean, what if it turns out awful? Or deflates? Or does whatever it is that goes wrong with mousse? As one of only twelve official desserts of our family’s YEAR, that would be, to put it mildly, an enormous disappointment.
Nonetheless, I set out Monday night— after a long day schlepping to BJs warehouse to push around a shopping cart larger than a Volkswagen and read ingredients with a magnifying glass, then leading a two-hour after-school activity, and finally driving two additional kids to their corresponding homes, while picking my younger daughter up— to find the only chocolate mousse ingredient my pantry lacked: heavy cream.
Dutchie’s in West Pawlet? Closed Mondays. Sheldon’s in Pawlet? No heavy cream. Mach’s Market down the road? Yes! Heavy cream hiding on the top shelf behind the half and half… score! We hurried home so I could heat up the potato pizza leftovers from the night before and concentrate on making a beautiful Valentine’s Day dessert to show my family how much I loved them and make their tummies feel all happy and full. Despite the deprivation of the “Mommy’s idea” no-sugar project, this was one of only twelve nights this year I could indulge my affection for my family in the form of a sugar-containing treat.
That was when my older daughter Greta, in an effort to be helpful, read out loud the pivotal part of the recipe that I had somehow missed: “must chill for a minimum of two hours.” I stopped. I wilted. The dish mountain in the sink loomed at me like Kilimanjaro. The potato pizza had not been a hit the night before and was not likely to inspire more confidence on it’s second trip to the dinner table. There was no bread. No time to make dessert. And everyone was hungry.
I wanted to lie down on the couch and cry, but it was covered with a huge pile of unfolded laundry. So instead, I stood still in the middle of the kitchen and looked lost. Fortunately for me, Steve came home at precisely that moment, recognized the look on my face and took over: he took steaks down from the freezer for dinner, heated the potato pizza for a side dish, and handed me a pink bag with a pretty pink dress in it: Happy Valentine’s Day. He might as well have been wearing a cape and tights.
We all felt much better after eating dinner, despite the fact that the laundry and the dishes didn’t magically disappear. The kids were disappointed that our special dessert would have to wait, but I explained to them that- sugar project or no sugar project- there is only so much that Mommy can do.
Remind me to write that on my mirror, or my forehead, or something, would you?
February 11, 2011 § 4 Comments
Okay! I’ve done my homework and you get to be the beneficiary of that morning-long endeavor, unless of course I have got it all backwards in which case I am here to mislead you terribly. After watching Dr. Robert Lustig’s “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” on YouTube for the third time, as well as doing further slogging around on the internet, I’ve gotten to what I hope is a slightly better understanding of the “ose” question. Here is what I have come up with, which is very likely a gross oversimplification of the matter:
Sucrose– is processed table sugar in all it’s many forms: raw, white, brown etc. It is made up of both glucose and fructose and is harvested from sugar cane or sugar beets.
Fructose– This is the naturally occurring sugar present in fruit, fruit juice, honey, etc.
Glucose– This is the “breakdown product of ingested carbohydrates and the form of sugar that the body uses for energy.” Also known as dextrose.
The quotation above comes from livestrong.com which had several helpful articles on the “ose” question, which was good, because Dr. Lustig’s talk makes the assumption that his audience already knows the difference between these terms.
As a side note, I have to say that I was once again dumbfounded at what an incredible, informative and persuasive talk “Sugar” is… Maybe it’s just me, but then again it has been watched, as of today, 766,122 times on YouTube, so I guess I’m not the only one to find it compelling. And this is despite the fact that he bandies about terms such as “hepatic steatosis” and “dyslipidemia” with unsettling ease.
One of the most striking, if complicated, parts of this video is where Lustig goes through and, point by point, details exactly what happens in your body biochemically when one ingests two pieces of white bread versus a shot of bourbon versus a glass of orange juice. You might be surprised to see his very clear demonstration that the glass of orange juice (fructose) behaves in one’s body most like the alcohol, with the exception that alcohol is processed by the brain while fructose is processed by the liver. Acute toxin meet chronic toxin. As Lustig puts it:
“You wouldn’t think twice about not giving your kid a Budweiser, but you don’t think twice about giving your kid a can of Coke. But they’re the same. In the same dosing. For the same reason. Through the same mechanism. Fructose is ethanol without the buzz.”
Whoa. And that goes for fruit juice too, by the way. Pediatric patients coming to Dr. Lustig are advised to drink only milk or water. And by a funny coincidence, that’s exactly what you are left with after omitting all drinks containing either sucrose or fructose.
So the only question that I’m still ruminating on for the moment is that of dextrose specifically: is added dextrose okay on the No-Added Sugar Project as Devised and Implemented by Eve? After all, it isn’t sucrose and it isn’t fructose. According to just about everybody it’s glucose– which Dr. Lustig describes as “the energy of life.” So, does it matter that it’s added as an ingredient, rather than manufactured by my body after eating a piece of bread? Or, is it like other ingredients such as artificial colorings or preservatives, ie: better to do without, but not expressly prohibited under No-Added Sugar? And if so, does this mean my kids can eat the french fries at the skating rink again, resulting in my popularity as a mom going up by about ten-thousand points?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
“So we are being poisoned by this stuff and its been added surruptitiously to all of our food; every processed food.”
-Dr. Robert Lustig – “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”
You’d think it’d be simple to exclude sugar from your diet, right? Not easy perhaps, but at least reasonably simple. You wouldn’t have to be an Einstein. Just look at the ingredients, and then when you find sugar- don’t eat it. Simple.Yet lately I’ve been running into some ingredients that have been defying my supposedly fool-proof plan. Dextrose for one.
Flashback to last week: for several days I wasn’t feeling so well, and as a result I was behind: behind on my cooking, behind on my shopping, behind on my meal-planning. Somehow we muddled through, but one night when I was feeling particularly desperate, half-ill and starving, I hauled out an industrial size bag of frozen “Bertolli” chicken with cream sauce and bowtie pasta. Okay, the ingredient list was longer than my arm, and appeared to have been at least partially written in some unknown foreign language, but this was a food emergency. At least there was no sugar; I had purchased this on my first “no sugar” BJ’s run a few weeks ago.
Of course, silly me had to double check, which as we have already thus far learned can be a big mistake if you’d like to actually eat anytime in the near future. What I found was within the chicken ingredients of meat, water and seasoning, the first sub-ingredient under “seasoning” was: “dextrose.” Dextrose? %^&*#$!
So you know what? I felt crappy. I was starving. And there was pretty much nothing else in the kitchen at that moment that seemed even remotely appealing. I cut open the bag, dumped it into the non-stick pan, cooked it for the requisite ten minutes and we ate it anyway… dextrose or no dextrose.
Upon completing our meal my first thought was that something was amiss- what was it? I realized it seemed really odd to me how quickly our meal had come together- I mean, a meal like chicken and bow-tie pasta with spinach and cream sauce doesn’t just happen all by itself! How long would a recipe like that normally take me? At least an hour but very likely more, not to mention all the dirty dishes that would result from washing spinach, separately cooking chicken, carefully simmering the cream sauce in a pan while boiling the pasta in another pot.
So it occurred to me that this meal had been sponsored: brought to you by dextrose! (As well as its friends isolated soy protein product and sodium phosphate!) The inverse correlation was very clear: the fewer chemicals and additives, the greater amount of meal prep/ cooking and clean-up time, and vice versa.
But it had also become clear to me that there are so many pseudonyms for sugar and it’s variants that I need to do some homework. When I look up “dextrose” on the internet I find a host of confusing answers: “Better known today as glucose, this sugar is the chief source of energy in the body.” While another advertisers hail dextrose powder as “Corn sugar!” that is “30% less sweet than pure or refined sugar.” So, forgive me for being dense, but which is it? Is it something that we create in our bodies to provide energy, or is it an added sugar?
True confessions time: biochemistry was not my best subject. Can you tell? So what is sugar? What are the differences between terms like sucrose, glucose and fructose? And where the heck does dextrose come in? Are all “ose” words sugar-related? What about bellicose? Today I happened upon a website of diabetes information that listed a frightening amount of “reduced calorie sweeteners” to look out for, without so much as an “-ose” ending to tip us off:
…found primarily in packaged foods such as cookies, gum, and candy. Reduced-calorie sweeteners include sorbitol, mannitol, lactitiol, maltitol, xylitol, isomalt, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.
Am I the only one who is starting to break out in a sweat just trying to define “sugar” in a list of ingredients? Probably. I don’t know too many other people who would worry whether their food contained isomalt or not.
It’s clear to me that sometimes I’m splitting hairs, because I have to. I put back a box of cereal in the supermarket because it contains “two percent or less” of molasses or cane syrup, and yet how sure am I really that the waitress in the restaurant knows there is no sugar in the tortillas? Did she check for isomalt? Or xylitol? Of course not.
So I’m off to watch Dr. Lustig’s talk “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” for the third time, in hopes of decoding the mystery of the “-ose.”
January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
Restaurants are getting interesting. For one thing, I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to start being a much bigger tipper. For another, I’m going to to have to get much better at planning. Gone are the days when we could simply go to a restaurant, on the spur of the moment. Take last night, for example.
It was “date night” for my husband Steve and I, and we had big plans to grab a bite to eat and squeaking in to the 7 o’clock showing of “True Grit.” The key was going to be being quick about the food issue. Unfortunately we were late getting out of the house (usually the sitter has to forcibly shove me out and slam the door while I am still making sure she knows our cell phone number for the fourteenth time) and so time was even more tight. But we had a plan: Panera was right across the way from the theater and has been our non-so-fast-food-y fast-food of choice for some time. Even if we couldn’t eat most of the sandwiches on the menu- we suspected sugar in the bread, sugar in the deli meats, sugar in the condiments- we could surely get a quick salad, right?
Well, if I learn anything at all from my year of no sugar it will be to never assume anything ever again. We were delighted to be the only folks at the counter- no line! No waiting! We’d make this movie yet. We ordered two chicken Caesar salads.
“Would you like baguette, apple or chips with that?” asked the young lady manning the cash register.
“Does the baguette have sugar in it?” my husband asked. The young lady said she could check and proceeded to haul out the plastic three ring binder I have recently become aware exists in most chain restaurants on a shelf just under the counter. She paged through the plastic sheets. Yes, it did.
“What about the chicken salad?” I asked. “would you mind looking that up for us?”
“Oh, it’s no problem” she said, paging some more. First she looked up the Caesar dressing. “Dextrose?” she said uncertainly.
“What about just the salad itself, minus the dressing?” I asked. Now there were people waiting behind us. The list of salad dressing ingredients took up almost an entire typed sheet of paper, and the chicken salad, when she located it, was worse. There were dozens of ingredients in the “chicken salad.” Would it be too much to ask, I wondered, that the ingredients of a salad with chicken be salad… and chicken?
We were starting to feel really self-conscious now. The lady at the counter was still being very nice to us and I felt bad for her, as if we were the two cranky old people who come in at rush hour and hold up the line for twenty minutes trying to ascertain whether there are any poppyseeds in the poppyseed muffins. Steve turned to me, defeated, and said quietly, “There’s no way we’re making the movie.”
Meanwhile she handed us pages from the book to peruse to the side while she helped some other customers and as I stared at the page of four million ingredients I realized he was right: no movie. And as it seemed, no dinner either. What a total bummer of a date night. We thanked the young lady, returned the plastic pages and left in despair. For the first time since beginning the sugar project I wondered how a year of no sugar would affect our marriage.
Food, food was everywhere, but not a thing to eat. McDonald’s, Burger King, all the usual fast-eating suspects were right there, and Steve and I were both starving. Fortunately, after several rounds of driving in circles and sniping at one another, we settled on a nearby German restaurant, where I was fairly confident some sausages and sauerkraut would fit the no-sugar bill. This was much more encouraging. After informing the waitress that I couldn’t have a meal with sugar as an ingredient, she checked and found that the weiner schnitzel and the spaetzel noodle side dish did not have sugar in them.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We would both have that. Oh, and we get soup and salad with our dinners, what soup and what dressing would we like? We asked if the chowder had sugar in it, and Steve asked if the blue cheese dressing had sugar.
“Wait,” she said, “You can’t have sugar either?” Whenever I ask about the presence of sugar, I tend to just ask, as politely as possible, and not explain very much. I figure, if people assume I have a dietary restriction due to some health concern they are far more likely to be accurate and truthful than if I tell them I’m doing this for a lark, or just to be completely annoying. This works, of course, until Steve asks too, in which case my cover is blown and he starts to tell our waitress about my blog and hopes for a book.
“Oh, how cool,” our waitress enthuses, which is very polite of her because I’m fairly certain she doesn’t think it’s cool at all. We chat about the omnipresence of sugar and such for a moment and how hard it can be to avoid sugar entirely. After a minute she genuinely asks “Why?”
“To see if it can be done,” I say. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.
So it turns out, in fact, all three of the soups on the menu contained sugar, as well as the blue cheese dressing. Of course.
January 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Yesterday we had our (drumroll, please…) our first official dessert of the month– chocolate cupcakes with “strawberry” (well, okay, it was pink) cream cheese icing. And it was good. Just good. Not amazing, not oh-my-God good, but good. Fine. The unfortunate thing about waiting two weeks to have dessert is that once you finally have it, you’ve got a fairly high probability of being disappointed. The icing was very good, the cake was a little on the dry side, and my favorite part was the strawberry pieces on top- but hey- I can have those anytime!
Well… not anytime anytime. Ahem. In my effort to supplant real sweets for fake ones I have filled our house with fruit: apples, bananas, cherries, watermelon, clementines. It looks a little like Carmen Miranda exploded in our kitchen. However, we all know what too much fruit can do… right? Well, let’s just say we’ve had to be a little bit careful in the fruit department lately.
And there are other reasons to beware of fruit, too. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal Vegetable Miracle, makes an excellent case for eating locally on the basis of environmental responsibility. Perhaps just as compelling is the knowledge that other countries aren’t going to have the same pesticide regulations we do, and likely won’t define terms like “organic” the same way we do either. Sure, I can buy local apples at the farmer’s market and often at our supermarket… but the list of other available local fruit at this time of year? Stops abruptly there.
So many people I know struggle with this impossible balancing act on a daily basis: should we care more about buying organic or local? What about price: does getting a great deal at BJ’s Warehouse trump buying local and/or organic? What about if the organic produce looks like yesterday’s dish-water? Were animals tortured in the making of this product? Were they made even mildly uncomfortable? We scan the labels for increasingly long lists of alarm-bell ingredients: does it have High Fructose Corn Syrup in it? Preservatives? Dyes? MSG? What about endocrine disruptors? Hydrogenated oils? Poison? Is there any poison in it?
Since beginning this project only two weeks ago, I’ve been confronted with these contradicting forces seemingly constantly. I grudgingly put the Morningstar veggie sausage patties in my cart, feeling annoyed that a “health food” product has stuff like “disodium inosinate” in it, even while being delighted that the hundred and 12 ingredients listed do not include sugar. I purchase the shredded wheat cereal, delighted to have found it, yet irked at the use of BHT “added to the packaging material” as a preservative, (“Some embalming fluid with your breakfast cereal, madame?”) I attend the weekly Farmer’s Market and try valiantly not to blanch at the prices, only to find that when I cook my hard-won organic produce that the spinach tastes funny and the brussels sprouts have mysterious “black spot” disease. Ew.
It’s really enough to make any sane person throw in the towel altogether.
But we’re not throwing in the towel, we’re managing and that is something to celebrate, even at this early stage of the game. Maybe especially at this early stage of the game.
So, to sum up, the best thing about our daughter’s sixth birthday party was that she loved it. She was happy, her friends were happy- and to seal the deal they all had cake. If that isn’t a special occasion, I don’t know what is.
January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
“People will eat what’s cheapest and most available, and what’s cheapest and most available right now is food that makes people fat and unhealthy.”
-Dr. Andrew Weil
(from interview in The Sun issue 421)
After topping off at the gas station the other day the digital screen graciously effused: “Thanks for using.”
“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Like I have a choice.” And I was struck by the thought that sugar in our culture works very much the same way. Like it or not; we’re all “using” as they say.
To live in our culture, shop in our supermarkets, and eat in our restaurants is to buy into our national, yet utterly silent addiction to sugar. Exhibit A: the Health Food store/aisle (dum dum dum DUMMMMM!)
Look closely folks, is this really an alternative? Well, yes, in some ways it certainly is. Want organic, non-genetically modified marinara sauce or wild-caught, dolphin-free canned tuna (to the tune of $7 a tin)? Want breakfast cereal that educates your kids about the rainforest or biodegradable toilet paper? Free-range chicken and growth-hormone-free milk? Even if these products aren’t local, their commitment to a world that is more responsible in terms of our environment, animal welfare and our bodies is laudible.
But don’t assume that this is a free ride, no matter how much that can of tuna costs you. Better isn’t perfect, I’m afraid, and in more cases that you can possible imagine we’ve apparently traded sugar and high-fructose corn syrup for things which just sound a lot nicer: unsulphured molasses. Dehydrated cane juice. Apple-juice concentrate. Brown rice syrup. Even in “hard core” brands that health food aisle veterans know and trust like Mothers and Barbara’s… seek and ye shall find, I’m afraid. I spent freaking forever in the health food cereal aisle yesterday and out of several dozen boxes came up with two- TWO- that had no sugar of any kind in them. Undaunted, (okay, maybe a little daunted) I pressed on to the regular cereal aisle, composed of perhaps a hundred different choices and found one more (hooray for good ol’ shredded wheat!)
I know that as we go on in our project it will get easier- I’ll know the items to go directly to, and my shopping will occur with laser-like precision and speed. In the meantime, though, going to the grocery store takes fifty percent longer, is twelve times more frustrating, and leaves me sorely needing a nap.
January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
You know, if I hadn’t been there myself, I would’ve said it wasn’t possible. But I am astounded to report that our now-six-year-old Ilsa had a lovely family birthday party Tuesday night, complete with presents, candles, her requested birthday meal, and a special dessert… which we really did do (drumroll please…) without sugar. YES!
Even better is the fact that she had no idea anything was afoot in the dessert department- which makes me SO glad. The last thing I want is to have my kids growing up feeling warped and deprived because of their crazy-ass mother’s hair-brained projects. Sure a “Year Without Sugar” means one thing to you and me- but to a six-year old? It might as well be forever.
On the other hand, it might as well be three seconds too. That’s the plus side- 99 percent of the time Ilsa forgets about the project entirely: she still asks for dessert regularly and tells me about eating cupcakes at school with an innocence that I find utterly charming. This morning we had oatmeal for breakfast, which I jazzed up by adding some lovely cut strawberries and blueberries. I was pretty impressed with myself, but she was not. After a few bites she said to me, “I wish we could have some maple syrup or something on this…” she thought for a moment, “But… we can’t? Because of the sugar…?” “Yes,” I said gently.
“But it’s not forever,” I added hopefully.
Now, promptly after this conversation I ‘m am fairly confident she went off to school and had her usual second breakfast of Frosted Flakes, (more about that in an upcoming post) so don’t fret too overly much on her behalf.
Meanwhile Greta, our ten year old, has a much more fully-developed consciousness about what it is we’re trying to do here and how she feels about all of it. Trouble is, that opinion varies from moment to moment. One minute she’s shocked, simply shocked that I am serving a frozen pizza to our family that has (gasp!) evaporated cane juice listed as the ninety-seventh ingredient… the next she’s eating Skittles at All School Meeting, or sneaking peppermints from the jar near a store cash register.
Hey- I’m no ogre. When Greta got that handful of Skittles, she reluctantly came over and asked me if she could eat them. She had been having an exceptionally hard day at school and a well-meaning soul had offered them in an attempt to cheer her up. I told her truthfully that I was going to leave it up to her- at which point she departed with lightning speed, presumably in case I decided to change my mind on that pronouncement.
I don’t think I’m going to though. We’re doing this project as a family, and for the most part the food of the family comes through one conduit: me. I do the vast majority of the menu planning, shopping and cooking in our house, not to mention lunch packing, so consequently the vast majority of what the kids eat is being affected by this experiment. In other words, while I am strict and very serious about sugar and it’s myriad faces, and following our rules to the fullest extent possible- am I going to be the Sugar Nazi? No. After all, this experiment is in part about teaching our children to make good, informed, conscious choices about what they put into their bodies. We have set up the guidelines, and already we’ve all learned a lot we didn’t know before about our food; but only they can figure out what this project specifically means for them.
Which for some reason makes a small victory like the other night’s birthday dessert all the more significant to me. After our traditional birthday meal of english muffin pizzas (after finding alternative, no-sugar brands of English Muffins and marinara sauce, or course) paired with some spinach, we stuck a candle in what I fervently hoped would be a delicious grand-finale… banana splits: bananas halved, banana ice cream (Steve’s famous single-ingredient recipe: frozen bananas he runs through the Champion juicer), topped with strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar (but omitting the called-for sugar), whipped cream (ditto) and a fresh cherry on top. PS- no added sugar.
It looked pretty decadent, but I was petrified. What if it was awful? What if it tasted like cardboard? I took a bite. Hey- wow! Happily, the girls were exclaiming as they ate- the banana ice cream was the key- perfect and sweet all on it’s own, creamy like the best gelato… and the cream and strawberries made it just the right amount more colorful and complex. I sighed a HUGE sigh of relief… and I began to think we might just make it through this project after all.