Edamame or pea and mint dip

Everyone is different; we look, sound, feel and act differently, and so it follows this is reflected in what we choose to eat, from what we just love to something that may potentially be lethal if we’re allergic to it. Food choices are influenced by a whole multitude of factors from family, religion or health to income, location or social standing. It’s a fascinating subject.

When it comes to food allergies or intolerances, anything goes – there’s no end to the variety of substances people can be allergic to. This could be due to the makeup of a person’s microbiota, the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in the gut. In the same way a person has their own characteristics externally, their internal makeup does too! It’s an exciting area of research, but not really that new as ‘alternative’ therapists have been going on about gut health for decades!

Despite our individual differences, there are a number of foods that people are more commonly sensitive too – the ‘Big 8’. Top of that list is dairy, followed by eggs, fish and shellfish, then nuts and peanuts, wheat and finally soybeans. Interesting that most of these are used in processed foods in some form, either as a main ingredient or a chemical derivative. Another good reason to avoid the ready-meal aisle!

I often get asked my opinion about soya products; it’s amazing how controversial a small bean can be! One of the biggest issues is that in the US, the vast majority of soya products come from genetically modified crops. Living in Europe, we don’t have the same problem but I always aim to buy organic soya products if possible, or check where in the world it has come from to avoid GM – consumer choice.

Soya is a key feature in a lot of vegetarian food, whether as tofu or tempeh, textured protein or in vegetarian or vegan products or ready meals. This is often used as a criticism of a more plant based diet, particularly as an increase in growing soya crops is responsible for deforestation and the devastation of tropical rainforests. What’s interesting though, is that about 75% of soya crops are actually used for animal feed, not human consumption. So you may avoid eating soya directly, but if you eat meat, unless it’s grass-fed, you’re also consuming highly processed soya. The world of food production is a complicated place these days!

Another issue with soya products is that it is thought to be a hormone disruptor, particularly for the thyroid gland. For some people, this may well be true. As I mentioned above, we’re all different, and foods can harm as well as heal, so it’s good to be aware if your thyroid function is compromised, but then there are lots of factors that might be involved, far to many to talk about in a blog post. Current research has found little correlation*, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Soya contains isoflavones, phytonutrients that can help balance hormone levels, good for ladies of a certain age suffering from hot flushes due to oestrogen fluctuations! But maybe another reason that soya may be associated with disrupting hormones is the type and volume of pesticides and insecticides that are used on non-organic crops. Chemicals and humans don’t tend to go together well, even when deemed ‘safe’.

Personally, I do include soya in my diet. It’s a great source of plant based protein, fibre and minerals and as well as phytoestrogen, it has other isoflavones beneficial for health. I don’t eat it every day, I check it’s source and tend to avoid highly processed ready meals, so mainly have it in the form of soya milk, yoghurt, tofu and edamame beans. But that’s my choice, which won’t be right for everyone!

If you don’t have a problem with soya but haven’t ever tried edamame, do give them a go. These are young, unprocessed soya beans. Bright green, fresh and packed with flavour, I love eating them straight out of the pod as a snack or starter at Japanese restaurants. This is soya at it’s most unprocessed, and so in my mind it’s healthiest – all the fibre and nutrients remain intact rather than lost in processing. Edamame have to be cooked otherwise it’s poisonous but only takes a couple of minutes, so no big deal. They can be added to salads, stews or just eaten straight from the pan. Alternatively, try this super tasty and simple dip to get a mouthful of flavour and bellyful of nutrients. If, however, you know that soya’s not for you, then peas work just as well – still lots of protein and fibre, just a slightly darker green. Enjoy!

Edamame (or pea) and mint dip
1 cup edamame bean or peas – defrosted if frozen
juice of 1 – 2 limes depending on size
20g fresh mint leaves
salt and pepper
flaxseed oil

Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the beans or peas for a few minutes until cooked. Drain and refresh with cold water. Leave to cool.

Place the beans or peas in a small food processor with the mint, lime juice and salt and pepper. Blitz until smoothish – a little texture is good – adding more lime juice or a dash of water if too thick. Add a glug of flaxseed oil, blitz again and taste. Add more lime juice, mint or seasoning if needed. Keeps in the fridge for up to 3 days.

* https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16571087

 

No dairy, no calcium?

We are taught from an early age that milk is an essential part of our diet. If we drink lots of it, we grow up big and strong. Without it, we will have weak bones and teeth. Milk and dairy products are the best source of dietary calcium, as well as other essential nutrients – this is the message put out by dairy producers and successive governments.

So being dairy intolerant, how do I get enough calcium? This was a big concern form me when I first cut dairy from my diet. What I’ve come to realise is that eating a wholefood plant based diet, it’s easy to consume fantastic amounts of easily absorbed calcium to keep my bones and teeth healthy and strong, maybe even better than dairy.

Although the marketing says otherwise, cow’s milk is not the best dietary source of calcium. For example, it has about a 10th of the calcium levels as sesame seeds and only 30% of the calcium in milk is absorbed by the human gut, whereas with seeds and nuts it’s much higher.

So where do I get my dietary calcium from? Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are the best source. 100g of watercress contains 151mg of calcium, compared to 120mg in the equivalent of milk. Oats, beans, chickpeas (there they are again!) and tofu also all have good amounts, so it’s really not too hard to reach the recommended daily intake of calcium of 800mg. A large green salad has as much calcium as a glass of milk, plus it’s well absorbed (as long as there’s not too much spinach in it, as this can block calcium absorption). A bowl of porridge made with rolled oats has 100mg of calcium – add some fortified soya milk and some dried figs, and it’s getting up to half your daily dose, just in one bowl!

As a relatively fit and healthy woman in her mid 40’s, I don’t have to worry too much at the moment about my bone health, but in 10 years time or so, once the menopause has hit big stylie, then calcium becomes more of an issue. Osteoporosis is a massive problem in the western world, and dairy is promoted as a necessity to keep bones healthy. However, it seems that maybe dairy might be part of the problem. Countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest number of people with osteoporosis – something to discuss another day.

Sesame seeds really are an incredible source of calcium – there is a fabulous 975mg in just 100g. However, being so tiny, that’s a lot of seeds to consume in one day! By incorporating them into a wholefood diet, it’s pretty easy. Being a hummus addict, I get a good dollop of sesame in the tahini, one of the key hummus ingredients. They can be added to cereals, baking, salads, stews and used in lots of Asian dishes. Sesame can be an allergen for some though, so it’s not for everyone which is a shame, as it’s also an amazing source of iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc. Quite something for such a tiny seed.
I have found an amazing ‘bread’ stick for dipping that not only tastes amazing (almost cheesy without the cheese) but is gluten free and contains calcium boosting sesame and chickpea all in one. Use it to dip in some hummus or other tahini containing dip, and your bones will be just zinging with strength and happiness!

Chickpea and sesame dipper sticks
1 cup chickpea flour (gram/besan/garbanzo)
3 tbspoon sesame seeds
1/2 tspoon salt
2 tbspoon fresh lemon thyme
1 tspoon olive/sesame oil
up to 1/4 cup water
Heat the oven to 180oC. You can toast your sesame seeds if you like to bring out the flavour, but the sticks work just as well untoasted.
Place the flour, sesame seeds, salt and thyme into a bowl and mix together. Stir in the oil then add the water a little at a time, stirring all the time, until you get a good supple dough. Knead for a couple of minutes until all the ingredients are incorporated, adding a little more flour if it gets a bit sticky. Flatten the dough into a disk, then place on a sheet of baking paper. Place another sheet on top and roll out until the dough is really thin – 3-5 mm if possible. Carefully peel off the top layer, leaving the dough on the bottom layer, and slice the dough into sticks with a knife. Prick each stick with a fork a few times so it doesn’t puff up when cooking. Place the dough and the baking paper underneath onto a baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or so but check after 10 –  you want a golden brown top. Too light and the sticks are not crispy, too browned and they’re a bit hard on your teeth! Once ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool. Then break up the sticks where you have previously cut them and they’re ready to eat. Happy dipping!
NB: these sticks soften after a few hours, so are best eaten soon after cooking. If you have any left over, leave out in the kitchen, not in a plastic tub, or they will sadly go soft.

 
 

Tastebud tales

There’s a BBC Radio 4 Podcast called the Kitchen Cabinet that I listen to in the gym, a kind of foodie question time. It’s full of fun facts and anecdotes about all sorts of food, and makes me laugh out loud less than Friday Night Comedy, which always leads to strange looks as I cackle away to myself on the treadmill!

On one recent episode, Peter Barham, the programmes resident food science expert, talked about tastebuds, and I discovered that what I was taught at school was completely wrong.

I was taught that the taste buds are grouped together on specific parts of the tongue, each area either sensitive to sweet, salt, sour or bitter. But that’s so last century! For a start there are now 5 recognised flavours – the previous 4 and umami, a savoury sensation, like Parmesan cheese. Some scientists are suggesting that fat is also a recognised flavour and I guess there may be more yet to be identified.

It’s now been recognised that our taste buds are scattered over the tongue, not grouped in one specific area – and this makes sense. Many poisonous foods and substances have a bitter flavour, so this is a protective mechanism as too bitter and we want to spit it out. Having bitter grouped at the back of the tongue as illustrated in my school days diagram would have been pointless, as by the time the offending substance was tasted it would have been half way to being ingested.

As with so many things in life, everyone tastes and experiences flavours so very differently. And it’s not only the density of tastebuds, but also smell, sight, texture and memories that influence the sensations that tingle our tongues. Apparently about 10% of people have a high density of tastebuds which makes them ‘supertasters’, perfect for a job in a chocolate factory!

Taste is yet another of the body’s amazing information channels. The tastebuds send signals to the brain telling it what to expect ie: sweet flavour means there’s some carbohydrates on the way, and so the brain tells the body how to respond appropriately. There’s an increase in salivary secretions, low levels of secretions in the stomach in anticipation and insulin is released to deal with the newly arrived sugar.

Also, the more we have of a flavour, the more we need to keep the same level of taste. So if you load your food with salt, you will gradually need more and more to produce the same level of flavour. Cutting out salt for a mere 2 weeks completely changes this. In the short term, food will taste quite bland, but once you reintroduce it again, you’ll only need a tiny amount to get the salty taste you require.

 

This new tastebud knowledge got me thinking about food intolerance and having to cut things out of your diet. People have said to me “how can you manage without milk, or butter, or sticky toffee pudding? I don’t think I could stop eating those things.” Dairy certainly produces some wonderful flavours. I realised I don’t really miss them. In fact I don’t know if I’d even like them any more as my taste have definitely changed, particularly with sweet. I used to trough the puddings quite happily, the sweeter and gooier the better, but now deserts taste too sweet to me and I seem to prefer the natural flavours of fruit or cut right down on the sugar if making cakes. Plus, if taste includes memories and associations, I equate dairy with having migraines and feeling rotten, and I certainly don’t miss that sensation!