Curious Cook: Some observations for 2019

Perhaps 2019 will be the year walkabout dinner parties come back into fashion. — Didriks/Flickr

New Year’s day marked the first time I consciously began a year as a vegan. My daughter had entered the popular Veganuary Challenge and that meant we all had to eat vegan for the month of January. I did not mind it much, especially as wine is considered vegan, though I can see myself over the month gravitating from vegan to vegetarian to flexitarian, which would be my normal state. Overall, I still regard being flexitarian as probably the optimal nutritional strategy for humans, despite some overbearing pressure tactics (mostly by vegan zealots) to denounce/condemn anything to do with animals.

Good News, Bad News

At least these are positive signs that people in 2019 are finally serious about cutting down on meat consumption. An informal supermarket survey indicated up to 12% of the UK population now claim to be vegan or vegetarian, with another 20% considering themselves flexitarians. This survey however contrasts starkly with the facts, which estimates that the world produced 335 million tonnes of meat in 2018, a new record – this means that on average, every person on Earth would have consumed 43.7 kilos of meat last year, despite a global population increase of 83 million. Unsurprisingly, the country with the highest subsidies for meat production also consumed the most meat, well over 100 kilos of meat each on average for all 326.8 million US citizens in 2018 (another record) – roughly translated, this is equivalent to over two hamburgers a day for each American.

Despite a growing shift towards veganism, meat consumption went up in 2018. Photo: Marius Boatka/Flickr

Experts are at a loss to explain the increase in global meat consumption, which is happening despite increasing environmental awareness and the growing popularity of veganism/vegetarianism in the US and around the world. Oddly, poverty and wealth may both be factors – in the US, it is often cheaper to eat meat due to the heavy subsidies and in other emerging countries, meat is preferred as a sign of affluence.

The bad news is meat production and consumption are still forecast to increase in 2019, though the degree of increase is expected to drop somewhat, especially with beef – however the estimates are far from reliable. Another study suggests meat consumption rates in half of the world’s largest 20 meat-eating countries are falling, and some rates are falling quickly. Meat consumption in many EU countries have dropped significantly over the last decade (and there are several initiatives to tax red and processed meats), so there is hope for longer-term and much needed environmental improvements.

The End Of Silly Proteins?

It seems the debate regarding the benefits or harm of high carbohydrate versus high protein/fat diets will continue into 2019. Regarding fats, there is a further sub-discussion regarding the health aspects of unsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats.

Investigating these points is interesting as there are a lot of over-simplifications of the issues, but not many genuine attempts at clarity in the media, which seems to enjoy setting up camps of viewpoints against each other.

However, the facts are straightforward and are readily available in scientific papers. Regarding carbohydrates, this is a wide classification of foods and a simple scientifically-based strategy is avoiding all processed carbs such as refined sugars, fibre-deficient modern flours, etc. Wherever possible, skip processed or tinned foods and eat natural plant foods instead (preferably uncooked) to help the intestines and gut bacteria. If this becomes standard practice, the health debate about carbohydrates will end instantly, provided you do not consume over 70 grams of fibre a day. In short, all the negative press about carbohydrates concern almost exclusively processed carbs and foods cooked or saturated with industrial oils.

Regarding the debate over the fats, it can be broadly broken down into (a) decomposition of oils and (b) Omega-3 content. Put simply, saturated fats do not decompose readily under heat whereas unsaturated and polyunsaturated oils readily break down into carcinogenic free radicals when heated to cooking temperatures. Hence saturated fats are generally safer or healthier, especially if used in cooking. There are often stories about how ratios of LDL and HDL in different oils affect cholesterol but this may be considered trivial relative to ingesting free radicals. For more information, see my article A Fat Lot Of Good.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid needed to balance the overabundance of Omega-6 fatty acids in modern diets and therefore we should consume more Omega-3. More information can be found in my previous article on the subject, A Fat Lot of Good - Part 3.

In 2019, it is feasible that people will finally acknowledge the waste and futility of over-eating proteins. It was one of the top fads last year, making lots of money for food manufacturers (as it allows them to re-package waste by-products as protein bars, drinks, snacks, etc) – and it is pointless.

And it is ridiculous because our bodies need so little protein on a daily basis – just 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight. This comment therefore also applies to ketogenic diets, where consumption of animal proteins and fats overrides all other classes of foods. After the focus on carbohydrates and fats over the years, perhaps 2019 will finally put the spotlight on feckless proteins. Some notes are in my article Food, Proteins & Googly Eyes on Fish.

If you are looking for a healthy, optimal diet for 2019, have a read about the optimal flexitarian diet in my article Anthropocene Diet - Part 2.

Pizzas Need Not Be Round

As the awfulness of the world’s largest economy being presided over by an orange man (who has somehow managed to bankrupt himself running casinos) starts to sink in deeper, there are expectations of financial turbulence this year. The silver lining is that people plan to cook more at home in 2019 rather than dine out – and this can be a significant improvement for human health as well as lowering the cost of living. In every country where fast food dominates nutrition, there are heavily-correlated increases in early mortality and diseases such as heart problems, diabetes, obesity, cancers, etc.

No, pizzas don’t have to be round. They can be rolled into rectangular shapes to fit baking trays. Photo: IA Hilltopper/Flickr

Home cooking means control over the quality of the ingredients in food. This usually means eating better meals instead of dining out where raw foods are normally bulk-purchased at the lowest prices, seasoned artificially and potentially cooked in overused oils.

One example is pizza which can be cooked at home at a fraction of the dining-out cost. Pizza dough is just flour, yeast, olive oil, water plus some standard kitchen condiments – and can be prepared and left in the fridge overnight. When rolling out on a flour-coated surface, there is no need to make round pizzas as you can roll the dough into rectangular shapes to fit steel baking sheets. Spread on tomato paste, cover with grated cheese, then ingredients such as vegetables, salami, chopped onions, sausages, seafood, other cheeses, olives, etc. Then cook in a pre-heated oven at 200°C for 25-35 minutes and serve with fresh salad leaves on top – that is enough for a family dinner. If making dough is too challenging, there are good frozen pizza doughs available, and you can even vary the tomato paste with Thai or Indian curry sauces.

Walkabout Dinners

At this point, I would like to suggest an old practice from Berlin – it might come back into fashion in 2019, or at least, it would be nice if it did.

Years ago, residents in my block of flats used to host “walkabout” dinner parties every few weeks. People living in different flats would get together and each flat would elect or draw lots to cook one dinner course — e.g. entrées, mains, desserts/cheeses. So we would all have starters at one flat, move on to the mains in another flat, march on for desserts at a final flat before staggering home happily. Courses would be switched around for the next walkabout dinner, and we ended up with more people wanting to join in than could fit on dinner tables – it was genuinely a lot of fun and variety.

The advantages were that we got different wines for each course, we only had the effort of preparing one course (properly), the ambiance changed for each dish and there was not much washing up. The downside was the evenings tended to run for a long time, due to food re-heating or final prep work, extended social drinking, etc. However, we each only had the ingredients cost for one dish but got to dine out on a full dinner carefully crafted by friends, complete with well-selected wines.

Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

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