Curious Cook: Tales from a food diary, part 1

  • Food News
  • Sunday, 14 Jan 2018

Black liquorice wheels. Eating the sweet in access may not be healthy for people over the age of 40. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

As with most people, my interests are varied and do not only cover food items – though I really like news and inspirations about food as they are often quirky and interestingly diverse. Friends and family also ensure that I constantly have a rather huge backlog of videos, articles and research to review about many subjects so there is seldom enough time to cram every-thing in.

But I diligently always try to stay abreast of things, and here are some items that caught my eye in the the final week of October 2017 (Halloween week) and it is my habit to jot down any curious titbits and thoughts in a diary. From the logs of the food-related items in the diary, there is sometimes the seed of a new article worth researching further – but as you will see, the stream of information is rather ceaseless and often overwhelming.

food diary - liquorice
Black liquorice wheels. Eating the sweet in access may not be healthy for people over the age of 40. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

Black liquorice

A science magazine suggested that black liquorice should not be consumed in excess by people over the age of 40 because it contains a compound known as glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhetic acid) – this chemical can reduce potassium levels in the body to the extent it can cause arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm).

A little research established that glycyrrhizin causes this effect by inhibiting the 11-ß-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzyme (type 2) resulting in the adrenal gland releasing a special class of hormones called mineralocorticoids – the nett impact of these hormones is to cause an imbalance in the water and electrolyte content in the body, basically increasing sodium and significantly reducing potassium levels in the body. Low levels of potassium, known as hypokalemia, are problematic as the metal is an important electrolyte for maintaining the electrical balance of the heart. The number of deaths annually attributable to black liquorice is not known but I probably will not get another pack of the stuff anytime soon.

Cherry Blossom meat

While mooching around a boot sale in a distant village, I passed a butcher shop with a quaint sign proclaiming that it is also a “boucherie chevaline”. This brought up some thoughts about hippophagy, or the eating of horse meat. You see, I once had a dish called “Sakura-Niku” (which translates as Cherry Blossom meat) during the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season in Tokyo – and of course, I soon discovered that “cherry blossom meat” is raw horse meat sashimi. I had not known it before ordering – the dish was suggested by the only English-speaking (and somewhat eager) Japanese businessman at the next table in an underground restaurant in Shimbashi Station.

Interestingly, the nutritional profile of horse meat compares very favourably with beef, having less than half the calories, a quarter of the fat but roughly the same in terms of most minerals, slightly higher in essential fatty acids and roughly twice as much iron. So it was really odd that so many people (especially in Britain) were upset when they found out that many beef burgers contained some added horse meat – which by the way, also tends to be produced using less intensive farming methods. In many ways, horse meat is simply a better meat than beef.

Also, nobody had noticed the horsemeat in the burgers for years before it was detected so the general public revulsion demonstrated was quite curious – it personally did not bother me at all, but then I very seldom eat fast food burgers anyway.

food diary - horsemeat
People in Britain were upset when they found out that many beef burgers contained some added horse meat. Photo: Reuters

What did bother me were a few skewers of satay I bought from a lady holding a baby on the roadside in Yogyakarta. I had been walking through the Pasar Burung (Bird Market), and pangs of hunger had hit me after smelling the enticing aromas of the roadside satay hawkers grilling skewers on tiny BBQs just outside. I had noticed a very hardworking lady carrying her infant fanning away at her grill and thought it would be nice to try a few sticks of her satay. It was after about the third bite that it occurred to me with some trepidation that although the meat I was eating was quite tasty and well-seasoned, I had no idea what animal it was from. It certainly was not pork, chicken, beef, lamb or goat – and consequently I confess that I left the rest uneaten. It was not because I was squeamish – but rather it could be somewhat dangerous if the meat was from some polluted rat. Also I was thinking it might have been dog meat though someone assured me later that it was impossible as dog meat would be too expensive.

Assuming it was not polluted rat meat, this does bring up the issue of why we would eat certain meats but find other sources of animal proteins unacceptable, perhaps even to the point of disgust. As an example, a rather adventurous ex-colleague was in Peru where she witnessed live guinea pigs smashed between bricks and then immediately deep-fried as the main course for dinner. She thought they actually tasted quite good, but reported that several people in her tour group had simply refused to eat them.

There are very curious belief systems embedded within many human societies – one classic example is that it is fine to eat certain animals but not acceptable to eat others. How this came about is somewhat unclear – but it is worth some deep reflection. For example, in France it is perfectly acceptable to eat all the normal farmed animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, lambs, various fowl and goats plus horses, frogs, snails, tiny songbirds (ortolans), et cetera, while drawing a firm line at creatures such as dogs, cats, whales, insects, and so on. The English typically would not even con

food diary - fried guinea pig
Deep-fried guinea pig. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

sider any meat other than the farmed animals. On the other side of the coin, when presented with desperate efforts to rescue dolphins, tigers, rhinos, bears and various endangered species from extinction, many Chinese (especially from the mainland) would probably get agitated, bang their chopsticks on their dinner bowls and shout, “Hey, save some for me (to eat)!”

Donkey skins

Talking about the Chinese reminded me about the peculiar global crisis regarding donkey skins – in fact, my eldest daughter had sent me an article some time ago but I had dismissed it at the time because it sounded so dubious.

However, I finally got around to reading her suggested article and a little research established that millions of donkeys around the world are really being killed for their hides. The hides from the donkeys are then shipped to China where they are boiled and rendered down to a gelatin called ejiao, a product much prized by the Chinese for no really good reason apart from some documented use by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners during the Qin and Han dynasties, some 2,000 years ago.

Many present practitioners of TCM are also the same people who think that rhino horn somehow has medicinal properties despite an investigation by Nature in 2010 which concluded that ingesting rhino horn is pretty much the same as eating your own fingernails – both items simply consist of a common animal protein called keratin.

Due to the dearth of valid research about ejiao’s properties, I cannot say whether the boiled hide of a donkey is somehow better than the boiled hide of another animal – but I am reminded of the peddling of radium tonics as an elixir in the early 20th century (after the discovery of radium by Marie Curie). This fad finally ended after a sobering headline in the Wall Street Journal in 1932 about the death of the rich industrialist Eben Byers who drank three bottles of the stuff every day: “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”.

By the way, I am not dismissing all TCM practitioners – after all, I had been forced to drink cockroach soup when I was young and I am still alive. There may well be some hugely beneficial aspects of TCM – it is just unclear at present while people still believe dried tiger penises can somehow promote human male erections. This might lead a rational person to think that TCM is the ultimate example of how the placebo effect can work as a form of medical therapy.

As an aside, whenever I mention “Peau d’Âne” (Donkey Skin) in France, everyone just thinks of a film about the French version of Cinderella, with rather odd connotations of incest and delirious infatuations. If you have never seen this film, it might be worth watching Jacques Demy’s depiction of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale – that is, assuming you like somewhat melodramatic French cinema.

Bad breath, heart disease

The University of Connecticut has claimed to find a link between the atheroma (fatty deposits) that clog up human hearts, and mouth bacteria. Analysing samples of atheroma from heart patients in an associated hospital, researchers were able to identify lipids (fats) within the atheroma which are not from animals but from a species of mouth bacteria called bacteroidetes. The fats from bacteroidetes are distinctive in that they have branched chains and odd numbers of carbon molecules (both attributes are not common in animal fats) and it seems that these bacteria can also produce significant amounts of these lipids – at least enough to show up in atheroma samples. The bacteria are normally implicated in gum disease and likely also bad breath.

This recent study is actually not as ground-breaking as it initially seems – back in 2006, researchers at Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, had already identified more than 50 species of bacteria in the atheroma of people with heart disease and these bacteria were notably absent in people with healthy hearts. The most interesting bacteria was chlamydia pneumoniae, found in over 50% of people with heart disease, though other species of bacteria such as staphylococcus, proteus vulgaris, klebsiella pneumoniae, and streptococcus were often also identified. Quite a few of these bacteria are also found in the mouth cavity where they can cause foul breath.

Curiously, the large diversity of bacteria led the researchers to conclude that it may actually be a bacterial “conspiracy” of several bacterial species that may be a possible cause of coronary heart disease.

However, the recent Connecticut study comes with another plausible theory about how bacteroidetes can actively worsen existing coronary heart issues – this aggravation is due to body enzymes which break down bacteroidete lipids into alien molecules which appear to be symptoms of bacterial infection and hence drive the body into producing an inflammatory response to the lipids. This inflammation then foments further damage to the arterial walls.

As a future article, this story may have legs – but at present, it would not be suitable due to the lack of a sizeable pool of research data plus the paucity of concrete evidentiary proofs and statistics. However, it is a tenable reason to avoid people with bad breath even more – for there is now the possibility that their halitosis may actually kill you in more ways than one.

food diary - fresh apple juice
How do you prefer your apples, raw or as a juice? Photo: Public domain

Juicing – why bother?

As some friends came around, I was moved to make a cocktail aperitif, which is usually pretty successful at dinner parties. It is simple: in a large jug, use four parts clear organic apple juice, one part good quality bison grass vodka (from Poland) and enough ice to chill everything down. For some strange reason, the cocktail develops the taste of a fresh coconut drink though I have not yet figured out why – try it and see if it also works for you.

Anyway, making this drink is one of the few times I use pure fruit juice. The reason is simple: juicing is a great way to extract liquids (mostly water) and sugar from fruits while leaving behind pretty much all of the plant insoluble fibre. Clear fruit juice (such as the apple juice used for my cocktail) even has most of the soluble fibre removed. It is simply not a very natural way to get goodness from plant foods.

For example, if you like eating apples, then probably you will be able to eat only one or two before stopping – your stomach will have expanded with the plant material which it now wants to digest. Large sweet apples can contain as much as 25g of sugar so you would be restricted to a maximum of 50g of sugar with two apples – that is roughly double the WHO guidelines for daily sugar consumption. But at least you will also be ingesting around 11g of fibre.

However, it is very easy to drink a few glasses of apple juice (with or without bison grass vodka) – and this can mean ingesting the sugar from perhaps four apples, or around 100g of sugar (FOUR times the WHO daily limit for sugar). Without insoluble fibre to buffer the absorption of so much sugar means that body insulin levels will spike (very) significantly – do this too often and it will mean that obesity and diabetes are probable future stops down the road. Note that apples are actually an average example – things are rather worse with fruits such as grapes and mangoes.

More from the week

Many things attract at least some interest each week, and the above items are only about half the thoughts from the last week of October 2017 as recounted from my diary.

The next part will discuss what else came up that week; for example, why some people (mistakenly) think smelling farts can help cells live longer, man-boobs (or moobs), chicken exports from China which are not from China, the curious idiocy of an American pizza chain and how I am surviving the French butter crisis (and why you should care).

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