Are Processed Foods Okay as long as They’re Gluten-Free?

A study is about to be released that will directly track back the cause of metabolic syndrome to the sugar we consume. Metabolic Syndrome is a combination of medical disorders that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and liver disease.*

You may respond to this news with a shrug thinking you’re immune to the problem because you limit desserts, don’t spoon sugar into your coffee, avoid soft drinks, and never touch a doughnut. Before you get too comfortable, take a moment to read the labels on the packaged gluten-free pizza, bread, rolls, muffins, scones, cornbread, bagels, tamales, chicken broth, deli meats, crackers, pretzels, seasoning packets, jams, jellies, and cereal that you eat along with the labels on your juice drinks and sodas. If you see the words glucose, dextrose, fructose, galactose, high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup, sucrose, maltose, or lactose then the food contains sugar.

If a label contains words like sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates then the food contains sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are often found in foods labeled sugar-free. Even though they are not sugars, these items are carbohydrates and may trigger the same deleterious effects as sugar such as raising your blood sugar level.

If you employ a gluten-free lifestyle, none of these items will trigger the autoimmune response your body has to gluten. That makes them healthier for you than a gluten containing equivalent. It does not make them healthy.

According to the American Heart Association, the current recommended daily allowance of sugar in a healthy diet is no more than 6 tsp for women and 9 tsp for men.** That might seem like a lot of sugar if you’re eating it straight out of a spoon, but not like much at all when you drink a 12 oz soda even though the soda contains 8 tsp of sugar.

If you want to be as healthy as possible, you can carefully read labels making sure to add up all the sugars listed so that you don’t exceed the recommended number of teaspoons per day. Because most labels list sugars in grams, this can become a confusing and time consuming task. The easier thing to do is to phase processed foods out of your eating plan.

I’m not suggesting that you should never, ever eat a bowl of cereal, packaged pasta, or crackers, but if you make these rare treats rather than everyday staples, it will be much easier to keep your sugar consumption at a minimum. It will also facilitate lowering your sodium intake, and it won’t hurt your pocket book either since gluten-free convenience foods are often priced significantly higher than their gluten-containing counterparts.

lamb chops
Lamb Chops are Gluten-Free

Don’t worry about not having enough gluten-free choices when you phase out processed food. Fresh beef, pork, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit, herbs, and spices have never contained gluten. By combining these ingredients you can make a seemingly unlimited number of delicious and healthy combinations.

More fresh food means less risk for Metabolic Syndrome. Let’s phase out that processed food, get out those aprons, and start cooking to thrive!
*For more information, see these resources:
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/metabolicsyndrome.html

Lustig, Robert. Fat Chance.; Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2013. Print.

••http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Sugars-and-Carbohydrates_UCM_303296_Article.jsp

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Don’t Like Peeling Butternut Squash? Then Don’t!

I love butternut squash.  I like it oven roasted, mashed, as part of a tart, as a soup, boiled in beef stew – you name it, I’ll gobble it up.  I love it in spite of the fact that my knives always seem to be dull and it has a tough covering.

Some of my friends tell me they avoid cooking this squash because it’s just too much trouble to peel.  To this I say, then don’t peel it.  A moderately sharp knife should cut a butternut squash in half when you use a little elbow grease. Once you’ve managed that, you’re well on your way to using it in some tasty preparations like these:

One of my favorite ways to prepare butternut squash is to oven roast it. I preheat the oven to 425º, clean the skin, remove the seeds, and cube it in one-inch cubes with the skin left on. Then I place the squash on a cast iron baking sheet skin side down, drizzle with olive oil, top with a few sprigs of fresh thyme and roast for about 40 minutes. The skin gets brown and adds some pleasing texture to the squash.

Oven roasted squash is delicious by itself, but it becomes decadent when I take the hot squash from the oven, remove the thyme, then toss the squash with bleu cheese crumbles and Sahale Valdosta Pecans. This pecan blend contributes a bit of tart, sweet, and spice to the dish with its addition of cranberries, black pepper and orange zest.

If you like to share, this combination makes a great choice for a potluck contribution. You can roast the squash while you’re getting dressed for a party, then toss with the cheese and pecans just before you walk out the door.

Yesterday, I included butternut squash in some beef stew that I simmered for about an hour before serving. I prepared one-inch cubes in the same manner I described above, leaving the skin on. After an hour of cooking, the skin was perfectly tender and added enough body to the squash for it to hold its shape and keep from disintegrating into the broth. Because I had added a significant amount of red pepper, it was nice to have the natural sweetness of the squash to balance the heat.

Even though butternut squash is a winter squash, I find it in the supermarket all year long. That means it’s available in the summer for a bit of barbecue variety. Just clean the skin, slice in half, remove the seeds and core, then slice in large wedges, season, and throw on the grill.

The more experience you gain wielding a knife against this pale orange nemesis, the more comfortable you may become peeling the squash. That will open the door for a whole new set of preparations. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to throw one in your shopping cart.  It doesn’t have to be peeled to be delicious!

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun!

Some of you are probably reading this just to see how really crazy I am.  I get it.  Your initial thought when hearing the word cook may be more along the lines of: time consuming drudgery, additional work, pots & pans to wash, a disaster waiting to happen, or too much trouble…blah!   I’m with you. Those phrases don’t sound fun. So where is the fun to be found in cooking? Let’s explore the possibilities!

 In addition to providing sustenance, cooking can lead to compliments, camaraderie, spoon licking, new creations, toys, play, shopping, new friends, and chances to learn about other cultures.  Much more appealing terms to be sure, and really…is there anything better than licking the spoon?

 My fun often begins before I ever reach the kitchen. I’ll grab a reusable shopping bag and walk to the local farmers’ market.  If, like me, you enjoy fresh air, sunshine, walking, and the smell of seasonal flowers blooming, you’ll be having fun as soon as you hit the door.

 Most farmers’ markets are filled with an assortment of brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are mouthwateringly appealing. Some also offer grass-fed meats.  Others have live bands performing and sell handmade baskets, jewelry, soaps, and clothing.  A morning of shopping and people watching often gives me enough funny stories to last all week.  At the very least, I know I’m supporting the local economy and going home with beautiful, healthy ingredients.  

 Farmer's Market Produce

 Shopping at an outdoor market can add fun when you travel as well.  I once drove through the North Island of New Zealand in an RV.  Along the route were incredible outdoor markets full of kiwifruit, silverbeet, asparagus, and oranges.  Not only were these items fresh, flavorful, and inexpensive, they provided a unique chance to meet people.  On the edge of every town was an RV park with a community kitchen.  The kitchens were stocked with pots and pans larger and more numerous than the RV kitchen could carry.  They also sported industrial size sinks and running hot water for doing dishes.  

 These $15 per night RV parks also offered electrical hookups and large community bathrooms with showers.  They were affordable and popular.  That usually meant sharing the kitchen with several locals.  There’s no better way to find out where the trout are biting, what kind of flies to use to catch them, and where you can buy the best flies.  Even though I’m not a big one to chat with strangers, the common denominator of food made it easier to strike up a conversation.

 Shopping and cooking in a foreign country can leave you with a rich cultural experience that you will never forget.  One of my favorite things to do when I travel outside the US is to visit indigenous grocery stores.  I notice the similarities to, and differences from, what I experience at home.  Some European package design is totally charming making me want to buy products on which I can’t even read the labels. 

 In the same vein, I find it fun to visit the ethnic markets in my town.  I recently tried Milk Cake upon the recommendation of the checkout girl at the Asian market.  A combination of buffalo milk and sugar, this cake is moist and dense.  While it didn’t turn out to be my favorite dessert ever, it provided a good deal of entertainment at a neighborhood dinner party when I took it in the original packaging.

 Some of us could shop ’til we drop, but then we’d never get any food on the table.  Perhaps it’s time to move on to the fun found IN the kitchen.  For those of you who love gadgets, the kitchen can offer an endless supply of specialized toys.  There are blenders, mixers, openers, graters, grinders, peelers, processors, choppers, skewers, colanders, sifters, tenderizers, muddlers, ballers, mortars and pestles, mandolins, juicers, whisks, knives, rolling pins, tongs, herb mills, thermometers, corkscrews, molds, cutters, stones, smokers, and special grapefruit knives.  Available in electric and unplugged versions, many of these can be purchased in bright colors for an additional element of fun.  If you love toys, you’ll love playing with them too.  I’m ready to chop, puree, macerate, pound, slice, cream, cut-in, muddle, grind, juice, measure, smoke, mix and match.  Whew!  Recess was fun.  Is it nap time yet?

 Coming up with new flavor combinations or preparing familiar foods in an unfamiliar way offers entertainment for both your mind and your palette.  My grandmother used to grow radishes in the garden.  She would cut the sides part of the way through to form the petals of a radish rose.  These roses formed a garnish on many of her salads.  I don’t like the bitter-hot, biting taste of radishes, and I’ve never voluntarily used one in the kitchen…until last month.  

 Ben has been building greenhouses for an organic garden.  One day he showed up with some arugula and some tender young radishes.  Feeling appreciative of the gift, I wanted to eat the radishes rather than give them away.  Since I knew I wasn’t fond of them raw, I decided to try a sauté. The result was a delicious change of pace.  I quickly consumed two servings and thought of several variations I wanted to try. I requested more radishes from the garden.  

Sautéd Radishes
Sautéing Watermelon and Red Radishes

 The next bunch arrived with the most beautiful green tops.  I decided to see if the greens are consumable.  They are!  Now I had another challenge – what to do with the greens.  I don’t know about you, but I love learning and I love puzzles.  I needed to learn more about the greens, and I had a chance to put together the pieces of a taste puzzle.  I was excited to see what the resulting dish would be.  Creating something new in the kitchen is supremely fun for me!

 The only thing that makes creating something new in the kitchen more fun is to compete with my boys in a cooking challenge.  The informal rules are that we will all cook the same main ingredient in any way we chose as long as we make the recipe up as we go.  We gather in the kitchen and the chaos begins.  We can all be quite competitive and we’re used to combining lively conversation with meal preparation.  The atmosphere in the kitchen is light-hearted and electric.  

 Last Thanksgiving, James and I had a pie cook-off.  Maybe it was supposed to be a piecrust cook-off, but it turned into a full-fledged competition.  Luckily, James wanted to make whipped cream for his sweet potato pie.  I say luckily because he makes the lightest, fluffiest whipped cream ever.  He always puts the bowl and whisk in the freezer before he starts, and he always lets me taste test when he adds the sugar.  Both of us won in the compliment department, but James’ pecan pie beat my parsnip pie as the favorite.  That’s okay.  Next time I’ll challenge with my lemon meringue pie.  And who won was not as important as the camaraderie in kitchen.  I think it’s safe to pronounce that all family fun should be topped with whipped cream!

James' Pie
James Won the Pie Contest with this Pie

 Relaxed family time can provide many moments of fun in the kitchen.  When the kids get excited because they get to ice the cupcakes and then lick the knife, when they jump up and down because you let them add the chocolate chips to the cookies, when your daughter’s friends want to eat at your house because you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, how can you not feel good about cooking? 

 I know that sometimes you’re too tired to cook.  Don’t force yourself.  Eat gluten-free cereal and milk or yogurt and fruit, or tuna straight from the package and a banana. Giving yourself a break when you really need it will leave you free to remember the fun of cooking.  Forcing yourself to perform in the kitchen when your heart isn’t in it will leave you resentful and less likely to get back in there and have fun another day!  

 Just be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that you “can’t” cook, or it’s ALWAYS drudgery, or it HAS TO take way too much time.  Sometimes it’s easier to say these things than to face our real feelings about food or to recognize that we miss the love we felt in our grandmother’s kitchen when we raided the cookie jar. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge that we feel pressured to DO so many things, we don’t relax enough to find the fun in the routine activities that fill our days. Please recognize that every time you stop yourself before you start, you may be missing out on a chance for a rewarding connection with yourself and with your family and where’s the fun in that?

 Cooking engages all our senses:  sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.  It can feed our intellectual curiosity, our desire to collect or create, our desire to make order from chaos, or our desire to get our hands dirty.  Best of all, it offers many paths of connection to the earth, our communities, our friends, and our families.  When it comes to cooking, the possibilities for fun that satisfies the body, mind, and soul are truly boundless.  

 Next up The Benefits of Cooking Part 3: The Fixin’ in which we’ll explore the skill sets we master when we cook.  Don’t worry if you’re too busy having fun in the kitchen to read it immediately, you can always go to the archives and read it later.

 

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1: The Food

One of my kids recently asked why we’re called Cooking2Thrive rather than Eating2Thrive? Given how much all of us like to eat, it’s a valid question. Not only that, but say the word cook and lots of folks want to run for the hills ’cause it sounds time consuming and difficult so why would we want that in our name?

Since the question has been posed, I’m going to answer it with a series I’ll call The Benefits of Cooking.

So here goes – The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1

The Food

I like to focus on rewards, and one of the rewards of cooking is having great tasting food to eat. When I say cooking, I am referring to the act of preparing food using basic ingredients like meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice, polenta, honey, herbs, spices, milk, cheese, and yogurt. If you grew up eating home-cooked meals, your mouth may start watering just thinking about Sunday dinner. It’s hard to argue that food made from fresh ingredients does not taste better than food that has been processed to stay consistent in appearance through weeks or months of transportation and shelf-life.

I grew up helping my grandmother in the garden. Every time I see a pale, hard, overly trucked tomato in the grocery store, I cringe as my memory plays the contrasting picture of a soft, dark red, full flavored tomato just plucked from the vine. You know, the kind that sends juice running down your chin when you take a bite! It’s the sort of memory that has many of us attempting to grow tomatoes on the porch when we don’t have a yard. I still miss my grandmother’s tomato juice canned in glass and sitting on a shelf in the basement. That tomato juice started with those vine-ripened tomatoes and ended up as a critical ingredient in my grandmother’s chili or sometimes disappeared as I gulped it thick and sweet from a glass when it was chilled.

tomatoes

The juiciness of a strawberry, the brightness of a sugar snap pea, the crispness of a golden delicious apple with tender skin – all are better when ripened before picking and prepared fresh. As a child, some of my favorite dishes were corn-on-the-cob, fried okra, baked sweet potatoes, green rice, and beef & noodles. Oh, and don’t forget the lemon meringue pie. I requested it for every birthday. My sister preferred cherry pie made with bing cherries from a tree in the yard. One year my mother discovered a fresh peach pie recipe. We bought local peaches in season, peeled them, sliced them, and placed them in a sweetened gelatin atop her flaky piecrust. Topped with whipped cream, this cold pie showcased the uncooked peaches perfectly.

These days I’m quite fond of boneless skinless chicken thighs seasoned with jerk spices, seared in coconut oil, and baked in a cast iron skillet with a little chicken broth, curried pork chops and polenta, mashed butternut squash, roasted cauliflower with a hint of crushed red pepper, steamed sugar snap peas, and my own version of my grandmother’s chili. Since cooking is the easiest way to consume my favorites often, I’m happy to spend some time in the kitchen.

Not only does freshly prepared food taste better, it makes it easier to avoid flavor enhancing chemicals, high sodium content, preservatives, and excess sugars. Even if you’re a great label reader, when you purchase processed food products, you may be consuming chemicals that are not required to be listed or specified on the label. Obviously, most of these won’t kill you on the spot or people would be dropping like flies, so there’s no need to be alarmist and say never ever buy prepared convenience foods from the store or eat what a friend is serving at a party, but it is naive to believe that these chemicals do not alter your body chemistry or affect your brain’s response to food.

And it may not take a large amount of an additive to change how you feel. A study cited in the April 2010 “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” reported that runners who rinsed their mouths with a carbohydrate solution right before and every 15 minutes during an hour-long treadmill session ran faster and further than those who rinsed with a placebo. The brain senses incoming energy “which may lower the perceived effort,” says Ian Rollo, PH.D. one of the study’s authors.1 Since it appears that a little dab will do it, here in a nation with increasing amounts of chronic disease, more studies of the potential negative effects of chemicals in our diet on long-term health are direly needed. In the meantime, it is up to you to decide how much risk you’re willing to take.

Cooking from fresh ingredients is also the easiest way to avoid allergens, gluten, and lactose or limit sodium, sugar, and starchy carbs. Of course, just because you cook the food doesn’t mean these items will magically be absent, but it does mean you have control over what’s included and it can eliminate the effort of reading and rereading labels.

If the word cooking scares you, remember that many fresh ingredients require little or no enhancement. Zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, lettuce, arugula, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, bell peppers, avocados, radishes, and snow peas for instance can be eaten with just a tiny sprinkle of salt or nothing at all. Fruit may only require peeling.

Even if you purchase water-packed tuna or smoked brisket from a BBQ restaurant and only “cook” a salad to go with it, you can add a tremendous amount of fresh flavor and nutrients to your diet. If that leads you to explore new combinations of flavors and preparations, then you’ll have captured the essence of being a cook. A little curiosity, a bit of practice, and a willingness to sometimes throw the whole thing in the trash are where most great cooks start.

And we all have near disasters or major failures along the way. Most of us burn ourselves, catch a dishtowel on fire, cover the floor in flour, burn cookies, leave out the baking powder, or put too much salt in something from time to time. Often it is from those failures that we learn the most.

I’m going to let this conclude Part 1. As you can see, the benefits of cooking include: Great tasting food and easy elimination of chemicals, allergens, inflammatory foods and lots of label reading. But wait, there’s more! Next up: The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun. If you think I’ve forgotten about baking, think again. This is a series, remember, we’ll get to that in a bit.

You’ll find the rest of the series right here at Cooking2Thrive. Look forward to having you back!

Sincerely,
Cheri

1 Rollo, Ian, Matthew Cole, Richard Miller, and Clyde Williams. “Influence of Mouth Rinsing a Carbohydrate Solution on 1-h Running Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: April 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 4 – Pp 798-804. American College of Sports Medicine, Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012..