ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Salt, sugar and a Berlin farmers' market

Just a few days ago, Wal-Mart announced that it would push to cut the salt and sugar content of its processed food products. In the debate over this announcement -- was it enough? -- Jane Black hit the right note. Cutting sugar and salt from foods too quickly won't work because people are hooked on them. The effort will take time and the five-year timetable doesn't seem unreasonable. However, as Tom Laskawy points out, it makes no sense to leave national nutrition policy up to companies.  

Which brings me to Berlin, where I happened to be this past week on research for my book on bread. A chef I met told me that when he visited the U.S. he found food exceedingly salty. Made me think of those restaurants which rely on specialty salts to season their dishes right before they're served: the bright note highlights certain flavors ... or does it? Salt can also be a culinary crutch, a quick fix to entice the palate. And I've got to say, in eating around Berlin, in take-away joints, pubs and sit down restaurants, the food is less salty and no one seems to have a problem with it. 

Now, back in DC, I eat most of my meals at home and don't rely on processed foods. I try to be rather judicious with salt, but even so, I've had food here that tasted under-seasoned. I had a wonderful split pea soup at the farmers' market in Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin, for example, and found it very mildly seasoned, but it was richly flavored with spices and dill. Instead of salt there was vinegar at the tables where people stood and ate and it did the trick when I added a few drops. (Soup at a farmers' market? Actually there were few farmers here -- mostly venders selling prepared foods and drinks, from wine to olives, soups, bread and handmade Turkish flatbread with fillings). 


Smoked fish is also usually very salty when you buy it in the states but I've found it less so here (he said, just having consumed a bagel, frischkase und lachs -- cream cheese and lox). It's not that they avoid salt, but people appear to use less of it. I'm finding the same thing with sweets too. Though I haven't consumed many, the afternoon cakes I've had were not cloyingly sweet.

The thing that doesn't seem to be in short supply is fat -- butter, of course, and the fat in meat-based products like sausages and brots that are extremely popular. What doesn't seem to be served much are greens and salads. I miss them. I've had enough cabbage and root veggies for awhile.

The bread -- or, rather, I should say, the hand-made artisan breads -- are also wholly different. They are filled with hefty whole grains, which is why I'm here. Eating a slice or two in the morning (with a bit of butter) will keep you going for a long time. This isn't like the airy baguettes or ciabattas everyone seems to like these days but exceedingly dense loaves spotted with coarse grain and seeds. Mixing these doughs at the bakery where I worked was eye-opening, since they hardly appeared like wheat-flour doughs. They were like whole grain breakfast cereals shaped into loaves. In fact, my idea when I get home is to try making them with a seven-grain mix and whole grain flour and see how they turn out.

We have gotten used to a lot of sugar, salt and refined flour in the U.S. -- which contribute to many diseases. But it doesn't have to be that way. And it doesn't mean the food will be bad, or lacking in taste, if we shift away from them. But it will be different and it takes time to get used to the change. But here's the thing -- once you do change, the old stuff just doesn't taste the same any longer. Once you've crossed over, highly refined carbs taste like what they are: treats not staples, and ones that are often too salty.

- Samuel Fromartz 

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