ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Behind the Taste and Health Quotient of Whole Grains

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Image: Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, source Washington Post.

Truth be told, I was a little worried by the recipe testing I did for my story, "Whole New Ballgame for Whole Grains," in the WaPo. I was baking out of Kim Boyce's recently published Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours, which represents a kind of culinary watershed in whole grain baking, because she takes a dozen underused grains from amaranth to teff in entirely new directions. 

But Boyce, a former pastry chef at Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles, does not shy away from butter. Now I like butter, but in baking muffins, scones, pancakes and waffles steadily for about three weeks, I was eating a lot of the stuff. (Yes, it adds incomparable flavor to baked goods). I was also eating more sugar than I usually do, though Boyce relies on dark sweeteners like brown sugar and unsulphured molasses, though does not shy away from white sugar when needed. Here's the nutritional information for the rather large-size whole wheat chocolate chip cookie pictured above: 240 calories, 7 grams saturated fat. And yes, it tastes phenomenal.

Cookie So does this defeat one of the oft-stated purposes of whole grains, which is to boost the health quotient in your diet? As we know, whole grains add fiber, minerals, antioxidents and vitamins, most of which are lost in refined white flour.

I have two thoughts about this. Yes, the added saturated fat and sweeteners do reduce the health  of the baked good. On the other hand, they do end up higher on the health spectrum than a baked good made with white flour, butter and white sugar. And this is especially true of baked goods that you buy in the store, which I often find are far more loaded with sugar than these recipes

But, more importantly, consider the purpose of Boyce's exercise. She wasn't aiming to make a health cookie. As I wrote in the article, "Although purists might bristle at her use of white flour, butter and sugar, it's important to remember that Boyce is not aiming for low-fat and sugar-free. She is aiming for taste: a new kind of taste arising from these under-used grains." And that emphasis on taste may open the uninitiated to the flavors of these grains.

The bottom line -- these pastries are delicious, the kind of thing you'd make on the weekend or a special occasion. The carrot muffin would be a slam dunk on Mother's Day, for example. But there are healthier ways to get whole grains, through porridges and breads that  Boyce also dabbles with in the book. Another direction, try the risottos or salads or stews that Lorna Sass has in Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way. It also includes good basic information on cooking whole grains. 

I consume whole grains largely through breads, made with a mix of flours, water, salt and yeast or sourdough starter. But I often make barley risotto (high in soluble fiber) and usually have cooked whole grains in the refrigerator that can be easily added to a salad. I'm also starting to experiment with sprouted whole grains. And I'll be posting on a spelt pizza dough recipe so check back soon.

By the way, I was also thrilled that my friend Barry Estabrook (aka Politics of the Plate) was right next to me in the food section. He just won a well-deserved Beard Award for his story on slavery in Florida's tomato fields

- Samuel Fromartz

School Lunch: You Call This Food?

Ed Bruske has another great post over at the Slow Cook. He's incensed about the lunch served recently at his daughter's school in D.C. He also found out that his in-depth report on the cafeteria program had repurcussions -- for the personnel, not the food. The principle got reprimanded for letting Ed in for a look. Here's his picture and post.

Is anyone home at D.C. Schools Food Services? I was ready to have a perfectly civilized discussion–blog-to-blog–with Sam Fromartz over at ChewsWise on the subject of what we can do to get kids to eat better when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the lunch being served at my daughter’s elementary school here in the nation’s capital. Look at the photo above and tell me what you see. Do you see the same thing I do? French fries, a bag of Sun Chips, and an 8-ounce carton of strawberry-flavored milk.

Read the rest: You Call This Food? | The Slow Cook.

On another topic, thanks for all the great suggestions stemming from the last post about how to feed kids good food. (See the comments section). 

And if you can't relate because you just don't have kids, read Tom Philpott over at Grist on why you should care about school lunch.

Ode to Jamie Oliver or How to Feed Kids Good Food

Well, the early results of Jamie Oliver's experiment at reforming school lunch are getting some attention -- because they have been so dismal. When given  a choice, the kids in Huntington, W. Va., prefer the chicken nuggets, breakfast pizza, and fries to his Food Revolution, by a wide margin, according to a West Virginia University study (pdf)


As a result, school meal purchases declined, as did milk, which Oliver had switched to plain skim from chocolate and strawberry. 

Having a six-year-old daughter, I have some thoughts about these results. I pity the star chef, because in a culture of snack and fried foods, it's hard to introduce anything that is remotely healthy -- and then get kids to choose it -- in a few weeks.

We have veggies and/or fruit at every meal and eat a wide range of foods, such as legumes, pasta and whole grains along with fish and meat. But given a choice, salty crackers, cured meats, olives and pickles always win the day. None of those are objectionable in moderation, but that can be a difficult concept for a six-year-old. And given a choice, my daughter will always pick my home-made baguette over a whole grain loaf, which is why I don't make baguettes so often. Sugary flavored milk is not an issue, because it's not a choice. Never has been.

And that's the key. Like Michelle Obama, who declared French fries her favorite food, nearly anyone will make the choice for fried, salty, fatty if they don't think about it. Kids in particular tend to choose what is familiar. It's not easy to get them to try new things, especially if they are brown or green.

But if you feed kids a wide range of foods, repeatedly, they will eat them, especially if they don't have a choice. Exposing kids to foods at an early age also helps. (Oliver introduced new foods to 60% of the kids at the school). Our daughter favors broccoli and salad over meat because we routinely eat those foods. She has never liked cheese (ever), which opens her to a lot of options outside the usual kid universe of pizza and mac 'n cheese.

And here's a plug for school gardens. Last year, we planted lettuce from seed with my daughter's kindergarten class. The class nurtured the plants indoors, transplanted them to the garden, watched them grow over several weeks, then harvested the full heads.

And guess what? When it came time for the kids to eat the salad they grew, they did -- even those who had an aversion to the stuff. Planting changed the story, which changed the meal.

But I commiserate with Oliver. He's trying to change ingrained habits and tastes in a few weeks. The odds clearly aren't in his favor - at least yet.

"Three to four months is not enough time to see if this program is going to be successful," says principal Patrick O'Neal, who has embraced healthier eating, dines with the children and has shed 20 pounds since October.

"I think it's a spark to start a bigger fire," O'Neal says. "I don't see it as a failure, and I don't see it as a true success yet. It's going to take some time for it to ignite nationwide."

Do you have tips on how to get kids to eat good food?

- Samuel Fromartz

School Lunch Revolution: A Battle on the Front Lines

It's one thing when Jamie Oliver arrives at a West Virginia town and attempts to reform its school lunch policy. It's quite another thing when a teacher without a television crew tries to do the same thing on her own. As Ed Bruske details at The Slow Cook, this teacher in Colorado was told to cease and desist. Wonder if she'll end up on national TV, too.

Mendy Heaps, a stellar English teacher for years, had never given much thought to the food her seventh-graders were eating. Then her husband, after years of eating junk food, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure and suddenly the french fries, pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria at rural Elizabeth Middle School outside Denver, Col., took on a whole new meaning.

Heaps was roused to action. She started teaching nutrition in her language arts classes. She bombarded colleagues, administrators and the local school board with e-mails and news clippings urging them to overhaul the school menu. She even took up selling fresh fruits and healthy snacks to the students on her own, wheeling alternative foods from classroom to classroom on a makeshift “fruit cart,” doling out apples for a quarter.

Finally, the school’s principal, Robert McMullen, could abide Heaps’ food crusade no longer. Under threat of being fired, Heaps says she was forced to sign a personnel memorandum agreeing to cease and desist. She was ordered to undergo a kind of cafeteria re-education program, wherein she was told to meet with the school’s food services director, spend part of each day on lunch duty recording what foods the students ate, and compile data showing the potential economic impact of removing from the menu the “grab and go” foods Heaps found so objectionable.

Read the rest here: A Teacher Crusades for Better School Food and Gets Stomped | The Slow Cook.

The School Food Revolution Will Be Televised

In an interview with Brit chef and self-styled food revolutionary Jamie Oliver, John Hockenberry over at the Takeaway says "I can't decide if you're the Kung Fu Zen master or The Beatles invading our shores."

What Hockenberry's referring to of course is Oliver's "The Food Revolution," which began airing last Friday on ABC and has its second episode tomorrow. The conceit: Oliver visits Huntington, West Virginia, a town of 50,000 that ranks highest in obesity in America, and tries to change its eating habits through the entry point of the school cafeteria.

The reception Oliver receives is neither one a Zen master or The Beatles would expect. Instead of quiet disciples or cheering teen-age girls, the chilly school lunchroom staff wonder just what the hell he's up to. I sympathized with them, after all, the idea that Oliver is launching a food revolution in the U.S. is, well, a tad overplayed, ya think? Regardless, he has a point to make, one which needs to be made given the sad state of our diet.

By the looks of it, Huntington is eating a lot of junk, through really no more than the rest of country. What sort of "food"? Pizza for breakfast at school, chocolate and strawberry flavored milk (which The Slow Cook pointed out was nearly indistinguishable from Mountain Dew), chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders. The only real food on the school menu is the fresh-baked bread the school kitchen makes but most of which sadly ends up in the rubbish bin, as the Brits call it. Mashed potatoes form when water is added to a pearly substance. When Oliver makes roast chicken -- gosh! real chicken, not frozen stuff - the staff is nearly in shock but the kids don't bite. They go for the pizza, again.

When Oliver pitches his plan to local radio host DJ Rod, he's nearly spit-roasted. "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," Rod says. "Who made you the King?" What Rod doesn't seem to get is that his neighbors are dying more quickly because of what they eat. But maybe he can't get past the messenger.

Oliver clearly has his work cut out for him. In one home, he cooks up the mom's usual daily fare -- pizza, chicken tenders, corn dogs, donuts, etc., etc., without a fresh vegetable in sight. The family ends the scene by burying the fat fryer in the backyard.

Oliver's not alone here. In fact, the series coincides with the rather rich debate going on over school lunch and childhood obesity. You have Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, the passage by a Senate panel of a modest increase in the school lunch budget, the enormous and significant work of Renegade Lunch Lady Chef Ann Cooper, and on and on. For another take, check out Fed Up with School Lunch, which features daily offerings at a Chicago school cafeteria by an anonymous teacher who's actually eating the stuff, every day! Clearly a revolution is underway, but it's only just getting going.

The first episode of The Food Revolution is on Hulu if you missed it. When you get finished watching Oliver's trials, check out this talk Chef Ann gave three years ago at TED.

- Samuel Fromartz

Closing the Gap Between TV Food and Real Food

Food is highly entertaining, no doubt about that, and television is perhaps the best medium to really show how to cook something, outside of joining a class. But as many others have pointed out, as food has soared as entertainment, viewers' cooking skills have continued to decline.

In a highly recommended post over at Civil Eats, Mollie Katzen (author of the seminal Moosewood Cookbook) discusses this dichotomy. She says:

The gap between celebrity and real food being cooked is huge. People are watching TV, but there’s so few people cooking good, honest food. That is the stuff of daily life. If you know how to cook you’ve got a skill. Long after the TV’s off, you’re still going to need to eat.

This statement made me think of a proposal Marc R. has over at Ethicurean, challenging Top Chef to take up the ultimate challenge: school lunch.

With school lunch being debated on Capitol Hill, "Top Chef" should get in on the action and focus some kitchen challenges on school meals. One challenge could have each contestant try to cook a collection of delicious and healthy meals (breakfast and lunch) that spend less than $1 on food per meal. Another might be to cook in a real school, perhaps H.D. Cooke Elementary School, the setting of The Slow Cook’s excellent multi-part series on school meals, or use the actual school kitchen staff as assistants, though this one might be getting a bit close to the upcoming Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC. The contestants could also integrate ingredients from local farms with USDA-provided material.

Washington and the school lunch community also offers plenty of interesting possibilities for guest judges: First Lady Michele Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Chef Ann Cooper (the "renegade lunch lady"), or a room full of cute and opinionated schoolchildren.

What a terrific idea! It would be one small step in making television food real for the ultimate judges: kids. But here's a thought on the ground rules: no pizza, fries, hot dogs or cupcakes. If you're wondering, What's left for kids to eat? That, my friends, is the heart of the problem.

- Samuel Fromartz

Whole Foods to Emphasize "Health"

In an interview with the WSJ, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey unveiled a new health emphasis at the company, saying the company is going back to its roots and away from its 15-year emphasis as a foodie Mecca. (Frank Talk From Whole Foods' John Mackey -

Mackey: The biggest thing that is going to happen is beginning in the fall. We're going to begin a Healthy Eating Education initiative. We've just added a seventh core value (to the company's mission), which is Healthy Eating. Basically, we used to think it was enough just to sell healthy food, but we know it is not enough. We sell all kinds of candy. We sell a bunch of junk. There will be someone in a kiosk to answer questions, they'll have cookbooks and health books, there will be some cooking classes. It will be about how to select food, because people don't know."

WSJ: Will you get rid of the unhealthy items? You have aisle after aisle of absolutely delicious looking candies and chocolates and fudge and cakes and then you'll have someone up front at a kiosk looking through cookbooks?

Mr. Mackey: "Customers, we hope, are going to vote them out. You're just seeing the most tentative efforts at this point because the details are not ready for public release. You need to be fair. I've got to plan the revolution."

The key statement -- "customers, we hope, are going to vote them out." It's clear in the current recession that people are holding back from the more expensive food items, but my question is whether they will actually shift towards the whole foods and bulk bins that Mackey notes were a key component in the company's early days. Now those foods represent just 1% of sales and he recognizes that people aren't cooking -- hence, the plethora of prepared foods that the company also sells. In a nearby store in Virginia, for example, the prepared foods section now takes up perhaps 20% of the store, far bigger than it had until a renovation in the past year. Will bulk foods now be given more store real estate and be easier to navigate? Will the company reduce the number of packaged goods?

To push this initiative, Whole Foods will also have to become more transparent on the contents of its prepared food  items (like providing calorie labeling in addition to an ingredient list at its salad bar and prepared foods counter). That seems like an easy fix, with more information steering people towards healthier choices.

As Mackey says, "Americans are sick of being sick and fat." That's true but whether this sentiment will prompt them to cook -- as Michael Pollan advocated in his Times piece this Sunday -- and thus lose weight is another issue altogether. I, for one, hope so, and will be curious to see how Whole Foods fares with this new strategy.

- Samuel Fromartz

Organic Study Making Waves Has Shortcomings

A study by British researchers finding no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods has caught the media's attention. No doubt, detractors of organic food -- a powerful lobby -- are singing the praises of the study. Critics of the study also found it ignored significant nutritional elements.

I think a few things should be kept in mind:

The nutritional quality of any foods is affected by the soil in which its grown, the breed of the particular crop and the time between harvest and consumption. Grow two types of tomatoes in different fields, then test one at harvest and another a day later and the differences in nutrient quality will be dramatic. And not all the studies cited controlled for these variables.

But the biggest drawback in the study was what it failed to consider: the impact of pesticides used in conventional agriculture, which has been the most significant reason that people have chosen organic food, especially for children. As the study stated:

All natural products vary in their composition of nutrients and other nutritional relevant substances for a wide variety of reasons, including production method. Production methods, especially those that regulate the use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides may also affect the chemical content of foodstuffs. Certified organic regimens specify the production of foodstuffs with the strictly controlled use of chemicals and medicines. The potential for any benefits to public and environmental health of these actions would certainly warrant further systematic review, but was beyond the scope of the current report.

Studies have consistently shown that organic foods have less pesticide residues than conventionally grown foods. Do those levels make a difference? That depends on the degree and length of exposure and the health and age of the subject. While it is known that chemicals have the most dramatic impact on fast-developing organisms (infants and children) the effects potentially develop over decades. 

While conventional producers have, in some cases, reduced chemical pesticide use in favor of more measured applications, other indirect effects are still prominent -- fertilizers poisoning drinking water sources being a prominent one in the Midwest. 

In short, the study will hardly be the last word on this issue. 

- Samuel Fromartz

Doctors Rx at AMA: Eat Local and Organic

A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker had a fascinating article on McAllen, Texas, a  county that ranks among the highest in the nation in health-care costs. Funny thing is, the outcomes of the patients in the system weren't any better than places that spent far less. The moral of the story, by physician and writer Atul Gawande, was that you must control the culture of spending (and earning) to contain out-of-control health care costs.

What he spent less time on was the make-up of the county, which ranks high in alcohol consumption, diabetes and heart disease. The per capita income, he noted, was $12,000 a year and the Tex-Mex diet contributed to a 38% obesity rate (the national average is 34%). While acknowledging these social causes of illness, Gawande didn't take the next step and consider diet as a cost-efficient way to rein in health costs. Obviously, costs have to be contained in the system, especially one that rewards doctors for every test, procedure and visit. But why not include or integrate factors outside the health-care system that breed disease in the first place? Why not change the playing field so there are, in effect, fewer patients for doctors to over treat?

If Gawande didn't consider this argument, I was surprised that the American Medical Association did this week. In a fairly remarkable development, the AMA voted at its convention to support "practices and policies within health care systems that promote and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system."

"Preventing disease is paramount in the provision of health care.Hospitals, physicians and nurses are ideal leaders and advocates for creating food environments that promote health. This policy is an important contribution to a prevention-based health-care delivery system," said Jamie Harvie, director of the Health Care Without Harm Sustainable Food Work Group.

This statement wasn't just your usual "eat your fruits and vegetables, cut down on fatty food and exercise" type of recommendation. It was a blanket endorsement of organic and local foods, recognizing that the way food is produced effects health, the environment, even the conditions of workers. The resolution, in turn, was based on a report by its Council on Science and Public Health, which presents an informed view of the current nutritionally deficient food system. The report (pdf) states:

The current US food system is highly industrialized, focusing on the production of animal products and federally subsidized commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. This has resulted in a highly processed, calorie-dense food supply, instead of one rich in a variety of fruits vegetables, and whole grains ... The poor quality diets supported by this system contributes to four of the six leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.

The report then describes the way industrialized food production has actually threatened health. "These methods have contributed to the development of antibiotic resistance; air and water pollution; contamination of food and water with animal waste, pesticides, hormones and other toxins; increased dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels (including fertilizers)," the doctors' report says.

It also adds the clincher that I wish Gawande had considered: "Clinical approaches to addressing diet-related health concerns are costly and not sustainable."

The resolution passed this week states:

  • That our AMA support practices and policies in medical schools, hospitals, and other health care facilities that support and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system, which provides food and beverages of naturally high nutritional quality.
  • That our AMA encourage the development of a healthier food system through the US Farm Bill and other federal legislation.
  • That our AMA consider working with other health care and public health organizations to educate the health care community and the public about the importance of healthy and ecologically sustainable food systems.

Industrial food producers are already in a tizzy over the documentary Food Inc., but I bet they didn't expect to be facing the nation's doctors.

I would note a last bit of irony to this resolution. For years -- back in the 1950s and 1960s -- the AMA did battle with one of the earliest proponents of organic farming, J.I. Rodale. They investigated him, and brought complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (over Rodale's over-zealous promotion of vitamins). It took a few more years -- OK decades -- for the AMA to change its position and at least endorse one point that Rodale got right: That the way food is produced effects health. He realized this in the 1940s. The AMA acknowledges it today.
- Samuel Fromartz


Kenya Diet: Leave U.S., Stop Stressing, Eat Veggies, Lose 100 pounds

The WaPo had an interesting item yesterday about an African immigrant leaving the U.S. and going home because of the recession. But the thing that caught my eye was that James Odhiambo weighed 300 pounds when he was living in Dallas, and then lost 100 pounds after he went home. His wife went down four dress sizes. And it didn't seem like they were dieting. They just began living in a different country.

He wanted a healthier lifestyle for his family, less anxiety, fewer 14-hour days. So he recently traded his deluxe apartment, the pickup truck, the dishwasher and $4.99 McDonald's combos for life in a place he considers relatively better: sub-Saharan Africa.

"Right now I'm no stress, no anxiety," said Odhiambo, 34, relaxing in his family home in this western Kenyan city along the shores of Lake Victoria. "Think of it this way: When I was in the U.S., I was close to 300 pounds. Now, I'm like 200. The biggest thing for me was quality of life."

Why? No more fast food. His wife started buying veggies.

Instead of shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart, Odhiambo's wife heads to the local market and bargains for fresh tomatoes, onions and the Kenyan equivalent of collard greens, sukuma wiki. She has dropped four dress sizes.

Which is curious, considering this recent study highlighted by Marion Nestle that wealthier people eat better. That may be true, but what people buy is also influenced by availability, culture and geography. The Kenya couple, with their two kids, now live on about $5 a day.

But, okay, maybe you don't want to move to Kenya. Well Jane Black of WaPo reports on another encouraging development: doubling the value of food coupons at farmers' markets under a program developed by Wholesome Wave Foundation.

"The idea of doubling your money really resonates," said Daniel Ross, executive director of Nuestras Raices, a grass-roots community development group that helped administer the Holyoke matching program. "We've found in all our research that low-income people know what healthy food is, but because of price, they can't afford it. This helps them get the food they really want for their families."

Quick Bites - Alaska Quits MSC?

(Updated) Alaska Quitting MSC? -  The state of Alaska wants another party to arrange sustainable fish certification for its salmon fisheries with the Marine Stewardship Council, Sustainable Food News reports ($-sub). The state Department of Fish and Game has been the client which arranged for this service -- a rare role for a government body. Now,it is hoping another group, such as a fisheries industry body, takes over the role. Alaska is the largest certified sustainable fishery in US waters, if not the world. Fisheries pay fees to get certified by the MSC, which independently reviews fish populations, catches, management and fishing methods. But the state feels it has a higher standard than even MSC. More on this item over at

You Can Go Home Again - Vancouver celebrated the first return of a sockeye salmon to a lake in 100 years. "Seeing that first fish, it almost made us cry," George Chaffee, a councillor with the Kwikwetlem band, said.

Holy Jalapeno! - Turns out tomatoes weren't the culprit in the recent outbreak of salmonella. Instead the FDA has turned its attentions to jalapeno peppers. Tomato growers predictably were angry. "They will never say that tomatoes were not implicated, because to do so would [imply] they caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damages for nothing," Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, told the WSJ. The salmonella outbreak sickened 1,200 people across 42 states.

unHappy Meals - The WSJ also has an item on Los Angeles city council member's attempt to ban junk food in an area of the city with high obesity rates. The 32-square-mile chunk of the city is home to some 400 fast-food restaurants, where 30% of adults are obese, compared with about 21% in the rest of the city.