A Kashmiri Romance With Bread

Through the changing landscape of Kashmir, one thing has remained constant — the Kashmiri love affair with freshly baked bread. Mehk Chakraborty learns the rules of engagement, sharing tea and bread with the locals.

Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food

By Jo RobinsonMay 25, 2013

WE like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.

This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.

Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.” A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple has a staggering 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets.

Were the people who foraged for these wild foods healthier than we are today? They did not live nearly as long as we do, but growing evidence suggests that they were much less likely to die from degenerative diseases, even the minority who lived 70 years and more. The primary cause of death for most adults, according to anthropologists, was injury and infections.

Each fruit and vegetable in our stores has a unique history of nutrient loss, I’ve discovered, but there are two common themes. Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.

The sweet corn that we serve at summer dinners illustrates both of these trends. The wild ancestor of our present-day corn is a grassy plant called teosinte. It is hard to see the family resemblance. Teosinte is a bushy plant with short spikes of grain instead of ears, and each spike has only 5 to 12 kernels. The kernels are encased in shells so dense you’d need a hammer to crack them open. Once you extract the kernels, you wonder why you bothered. The dry tidbit of food is a lot of starch and little sugar. Teosinte has 10 times more protein than the corn we eat today, but it was not soft or sweet enough to tempt our ancestors.

Over several thousand years, teosinte underwent several spontaneous mutations. Nature’s rewriting of the genome freed the kernels of their cases and turned a spike of grain into a cob with kernels of many colors. Our ancestors decided that this transformed corn was tasty enough to plant in their gardens. By the 1400s, corn was central to the diet of people living throughout Mexico and the Americas.

When European colonists first arrived in North America, they came upon what they called “Indian corn.” John Winthrop Jr., governor of the colony of Connecticut in the mid-1600s, observed that American Indians grew “corne with great variety of colours,” citing “red, yellow, blew, olive colour, and greenish, and some very black and some of intermediate degrees.” A few centuries later, we would learn that black, red and blue corn is rich in anthocyanins. Anthocyanins have the potential to fight cancer, calm inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain, and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

EUROPEAN settlers were content with this colorful corn until the summer of 1779 when they found something more delectable — a yellow variety with sweeter and more tender kernels. This unusual variety came to light that year after George Washington ordered a scorched-earth campaign against Iroquois tribes. While the militia was destroying the food caches of the Iroquois and burning their crops, soldiers came across a field of extra-sweet yellow corn. According to one account, a lieutenant named Richard Bagnal took home some seeds to share with others. Our old-fashioned sweet corn is a direct descendant of these spoils of war.CreditNoma Bar

Up until this time, nature had been the primary change agent in remaking corn. Farmers began to play a more active role in the 19th century. In 1836, Noyes Darling, a onetime mayor of New Haven, and a gentleman farmer, was the first to use scientific methods to breed a new variety of corn. His goal was to create a sweet, all-white variety that was “fit for boiling” by mid-July.

He succeeded, noting with pride that he had rid sweet corn of “the disadvantage of being yellow.”

The disadvantage of being yellow, we now know, had been an advantage to human health. Corn with deep yellow kernels, including the yellow corn available in our grocery stores, has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene than white corn, valuable because it turns to Vitamin A in the body, which helps vision and the immune system.

SUPERSWEET corn, which now outsells all other kinds of corn, was derived from spontaneous mutations that were selected for their high sugar content. In 1959, a geneticist named John Laughnan was studying a handful of mutant kernels and popped a few into his mouth. He was startled by their intense sweetness. Lab tests showed that they were up to 10 times sweeter than ordinary sweet corn. 

Mr. Laughnan was not a plant breeder, but he realized at once that this mutant corn would revolutionize the sweet corn industry. He became an entrepreneur overnight and spent years developing commercial varieties of supersweet corn. His first hybrids began to be sold in 1961.

Within one generation, the new extra sugary varieties eclipsed old-fashioned sweet corn in the marketplace. Build a sweeter fruit or vegetable — by any means — and we will come. Today, most of the fresh corn in our supermarkets is extra-sweet. The kernels are either white, pale yellow, or a combination of the two. The sweetest varieties approach 40 percent sugar, bringing new meaning to the words “candy corn.” Only a handful of farmers in the United States specialize in multicolored Indian corn, and it is generally sold for seasonal decorations, not food.

We’ve reduced the nutrients and increased the sugar and starch content of hundreds of other fruits and vegetables. How can we begin to recoup the losses?

Here are some suggestions to get you started. Select corn with deep yellow kernels. To recapture the lost anthocyanins and beta-carotene, cook with blue, red or purple cornmeal, which is available in some supermarkets and on the Internet. Make a stack of blue cornmeal pancakes for Sunday breakfast and top with maple syrup.

In the lettuce section, look for arugula. Arugula, also called salad rocket, is very similar to its wild ancestor. Some varieties were domesticated as recently as the 1970s, thousands of years after most fruits and vegetables had come under our sway. The greens are rich in cancer-fighting compounds called glucosinolates and higher in antioxidant activity than many green lettuces.

Scallions, or green onions, are jewels of nutrition hiding in plain sight. They resemble wild onions and are just as good for you. Remarkably, they have more than five times more phytonutrients than many common onions do. The green portions of scallions are more nutritious than the white bulbs, so use the entire plant. Herbs are wild plants incognito. We’ve long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they’ve not been given a flavor makeover. Because we’ve left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact.

Experiment with using large quantities of mild-tasting fresh herbs. Add one cup of mixed chopped Italian parsley and basil to a pound of ground grass-fed beef or poultry to make “herb-burgers.” Herbs bring back missing phytonutrients and a touch of wild flavor as well.

The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.

We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.

Correction: June 2, 2013

An opinion essay last Sunday about the reduced nutritional content in many modern fruits and vegetables referred incorrectly to the origins of supersweet corn. The corn was a result of a natural, spontaneous mutation, and was not created through radiation.

Paris Pastoral: A City Recultivated – NYRB

“Past the faceless concrete housing projects, the kebab joints, the corner stores, the bus stops, and the tramlines of the city of Saint-Denis in metropolitan Grand Paris, the sheep snatch at plants on weedy strips between the sidewalk and the street. Urban shepherdess Julie-Lou Dubreuilh, curly-haired and ruddy-cheeked, dressed in black jeans and a royal-blue down jacket, clicks the end of her long staff on the pavement, urging her flock along with low cries of “ehh.” The sheep quicken their pace, ivy yanked from chain-link fences disappearing into their mouths like strands of spaghetti.”

URL: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/01/16/paris-pastoral-a-city-recultivated/?fbclid=IwAR0mkN45rWjSOidKe05qrKoDJbdCctq61cgktPisOx9cFFrh83q3q4c1BUM

Why is there so much food in my skincare? – The New Food Economy

From avocado jelly masks to almond cookie shea soufflé, cosmetics have taken a surprisingly gastronomic turn. What’s behind the beauty industry’s obsession with selling products “good enough to eat”?

May 31st, 2018
by Hillary Bonhomme

The last time I went to replenish the staples of my nighttime skin care regime, I noticed something odd. Full disclosure: It had been a little while. I’m daunted by the array of oils, serums, and peels available at the average pharmacy or makeup store, and I try to shop for essentials—moisturizer, cleanser, maybe a face mask—no more than once a year. But when I logged onto Sephora’s website, something had changed since I’d last stocked up. The offerings had taken an unmistakably gastronomic turn.

I saw an air-whipped moisturizer “packed with leafy superfoods”—kale, spinach, and green tea. An eye cream fortified with cucumber extract. A sleep mask with pumpkin and papaya enzymes. A coconut lip balm enriched with a “blend of apricot kernel, black currant seed, and grapeseed oils.” There were so many food items in the product names, I almost felt like I was shopping for groceries.

When, I found myself wondering, did food become the center of the skin care conversation?

a collage of skin care products, each is marketed using food language

Link: https://newfoodeconomy.org/food-skin-care-natural-makeup-marketing/




I made to the cover of Yemek ve Kültür, food & culture quarterly from Turkey.

I am proud to be writing in such a respected journal with major names from the field.

See my piece on the political economy of technological solutions to food scarcity and abundance problems at Yemek ve Kültür fall 2018 issue!


Here’s why your body stores more fat in certain places

We’re talkin’ bout sex (hormones), baby.

Every January, fat’s in the crosshairs of health columnists, fitness magazines, and desperate Americans. This year, PopSci looks at the macronutrient beyond its most negative associations. What’s fat good for? How do we get it to go where we want it to? Where does it wander when it’s lost? This, my friends, is Fat Month.

the painting the birth of venus

Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus demonstrates the female propensity to store fat in the thighs.

Google Art Project

We’re a little obsessed with moving fat around. And no, we’re not talking about stealing bags of liposuction leftovers to make soap.

As a society, we seem perpetually unhappy with wherever our body chooses to store its lipids. Pop music keeps telling us we should exercise enough to get “little in the middle” while maintaining, as they say, “much back.” Countless workouts promise to target only “problem areas.” And then there are the more drastic means of fat reallocation: The Kardashians move it from their stomachs to their butts, while others take it from their thighs and stick it in their breasts. They turn to these surgeries because nature is just too good at stashing away our excess energy in the form of flab.

And it’s hard to fight nature.

If you tend to pack the pounds on your tummy or your butt or your upper arms, you’ll continue to tend to put fat there. Forever. Sit-ups and squats can help shape our bodies differently, but no amount of diet or exercise will turn you into a person who naturally stores lipids in a different place. In fact, there’s really only one way to do it: change your hormones.

Specifically, your sex hormones. Testosterone and estrogen are two of the biggest drivers of fat storage—they’re the whole reason that men and women tend to have different body shapes when it comes to chub. Biologically female bodies stash the stuff in thighs and butts, whereas male bodies tend to pack pounds onto the stomach. This is also partly why men tend to have more cardiovascular problems. Abdominal fat exacerbates metabolic issues and triggers all kinds of metabolic changes that have a negative impact on your cardiovascular system.

But it’s not as straightforward as “testosterone makes you put fat in your belly.” In fact, it’s men with low testosterone who start storing lipids there, which is why, as they age and their natural testosterone levels decrease, they generally start getting that potbelly look.

Both testosterone and estrogen actually promote leanness overall, and androgens (that’s the class of sex steroids including testosterone) seem to have very different effects depending on sex. It’s a complex system, and is made only more complicated by the fact that it’s very hard to study differences like this—the majority of people in the world remain either biologically male or biologically female for their entire lives. This means there are only a few windows where we can see how a significant change in sex hormones impacts body fat.

The most obvious is puberty. As teenagers’ hormones kick into high gear, they undergo all kinds of bodily changes because testosterone and estrogen (and, to a lesser degree, progesterone) are responsible for a lot of our secondary sex characteristics. Women develop wider hips and breasts. Men can suddenly put on muscle, especially in their chests, and their voices deepen as their testicles mature. Everyone starts growing body hair and experiences confusing new feelings of lust and romance that inevitably lead to some heartbreak.

And during this time, we also start to develop body fat in those characteristic places: men in the stomach, women in the thighs and butt. This is because adipose tissue in different parts of our bodies have receptors for different kinds of hormones. The fat in our stomachs, especially that visceral fat that surrounds our organs, seems to respond well to androgens (i.e. testosterone), and researchers think that’s because visceral fat cells have androgen receptors. Subcutaneous fat, which is the stuff you develop just under the skin, has estrogen receptors.

As a fun bonus, subcutaneous fat also produces and stores estrogen, so the more fat you have, the higher your overall estrogen levels tend to be. This is part of why people with very low body fat percentages can stop menstruating—without enough estrogen around to control things, their hormonal cycles get screwed up.

This might be part of why women start having a higher body fat percentage when they hit puberty: More estrogen prompts the growth of more fat cells.

The same thing seems to happen in transgender people who undergo hormone therapy to assist their transition. Those assigned female at birth who begin taking testosterone also switch to growing visceral fat in their abdomens, rather than subcutaneous fat in their thighs and bums. They even develop a higher risk of heart disease, since that adipose tissue is what strains their metabolic systems. People assigned male at birth who take estrogen therapy have the opposite experience. It’s from these studies that we get a lot of our best information about how sex steroids influence body fat, since it’s the only time that people actually switch their prevailing hormones rather than ramping the levels of their innate hormones up or down.

As we age, though, we do undergo a slower transition from high to low levels of hormones. Men have lower levels of testosterone as they age, and since testosterone promotes leanness and abdominal fat, this lessening seems to have the overall effect of adding a potbelly. But confusingly, drugs that artificially lower testosterone (like the androgen-blocking meds that some men with prostate cancer get) tend to shift body fat away from the stomach and towards a more feminine distribution.

Oddly, it’s also true that having too much testosterone makes you more likely to have belly fat. There’s a kind of perfect zone where most men fall for most of their lives, but going too far outside it in either direction causes many of the same metabolic symptoms. Men with hypogonadism, who have too-low testosterone, slim down when given supplements. But male athletes who abuse those same supplements increase their risk of heart disease and have a higher tendency to accumulate fat in their stomachs (it’s just not apparent because most of them are fit).

Menopause causes a much more drastic drop. As estrogen levels plummet, women get to experience puberty in reverse as their bodies adjust to a new balance of hormones. There’s a whole host of symptoms that come along with this transition, among them a shift to storing fat in the stomach and an overall tendency to gain weight in the first place. This is why postmenopausal people have more of what we call an apple shape than a pear—fat moves to the abdomen. Interestingly, those who get hormone therapy to ease symptoms also tend to delay the body-fat shift. Cardiovascular disease risk also increases around this time. It may be that the drop in estrogen allows natural androgen levels to have a larger impact on the body.

You can see a similar pattern in those with polycystic ovary syndrome, who have elevated androgen levels and also tend to store fat in their abdomens. In fact, most diseases that affect sex hormones also affect body fat. Women with Turner syndrome, who have just one X chromosome, have distinctly different fat distributions than women with two X’s. Men with Klinefelter syndrome, who are XXY, have a fat distribution much more in line with biologically female bodies.

But it doesn’t necessarily take a genetic abnormality, disease, or transition to shift hormone levels. Some women simply have higher testosterone, and some men have a naturally lower level. There’s a huge, totally normal range that can affect your fat distribution, at least to some degree, which is part of why you can’t pick where you store fat. You’re stuck with what you’ve got, barring surgery or hormone therapy, so learn to accept your flab now. You can lose weight for your health or for your self-esteem, but you’re never going to make your body stop giving you those cute little love handles. They’ll be with you through thick and thin, so you might as well learn to love them back.