miércoles, 3 de febrero de 2010
Food as Sustainer
One of the reasons I like food is that it touches on so many other things; that it is so much more than just what we eat. Food means much more, and works on so many different levels. It is the chicken soup that helps restore us back to health when we are snivelling with a cold or the flu. It is the grapes we eagerly shove in our mouth at midnight as we enter a new year, hoping it will bring us luck and prosperity. It is the birthday cake we share to celebrate, topped with flickering candles. It is the salty, crispy fish and chips, scoffed on the beach at dusk. Food is an establisher and strenghtener of social connections. It is also a link between us as humans and our place on the earth, our environment. It relates us to the soil, to the grass. Your morning toast, that raspberry sorbet, that melted cheese on your onion soup; all of them are the product of the earth, of the ground and the energy from the sun.
But yet more than this; food is our sustainer, we must eat it to live. It nourishes us, it brings us health, energy and goodness. Or rather it does in theory.
The nutrititive aspects of food are perhaps emblematic of the fact that in many places, and for many people, food is losing touch with its origins and being pushed out of its secure place as a mediator between us and our social and natural worlds. And this is having a very recognisable effect on our health and the health of the land. As asparagus travels the world over so we can eat it in winter, grasslands and forests are turning a deathly quiet as the bugs and little beings cease to exist, knocked out of balance by continuous tides of fertilisers and pesticides. A Valencian colleague of mine told me that the frogs she and her brother used to hunt as small children have simply disappeared, taking with them on their permanent holiday the worms, the flies and all the other creatures that had previously co-existed, carefully balanced within their ecosystem.
One important aspect of this increasing gap between us and our food comes in the form of a growing ignorance about it. It's now seen as normal to feed cows grains, rather than nourishing them with their natural foodstuff; grass. It's now seen as normal that bread should have an ingredients list of twenty-odd components, half of which we have heard the names before, but without having any idea of what it actually is. As food is increasingly produced 'elsewhere' we lose contact with it, with the processes used to grow and nurture it and with the traditional practices that our ancestors used to treat it; practices that might appear to us longwinded and unnecessary, but that are actually bound up with a great deal of common sense. Practices, for example, like 'nixtamilisation', the traditional technique of soaking dry maize in an alkaline solution so as to separate the outer hull, which simultaneously improves the protein and vitamin content availability; calcium, for example, can be increased by as much as 750% (1).
These half-forgotten processes of soaking and fermenting contain valuable lessons that we need to apply to the food we eat if we want to be healthy. Whilst it is widely accepted that white flour is an empty food, not many people know that wholegrain products need specific treatment if they are not to bring us their own array of problems; digestive issues such as IBS, Crohn's disease or celiac disease.
This is because wholegrain foods contain various antinutrients which act as inhibitors to our bodies' ability to absorb the vitamins and nutrients in our food. One such antinutrient is phytic acid, a substance that binds to phosphorus and combines with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc in the intestinal tract to block their absorption. This is the reason that diets high in wholegrain foods or frequent consumption of bran can lead to digestive problems, mineral deficiencies and bone loss.
The good news is that removing phytic acid in grains is really pretty simple; overnight soaking in a slightly acidic, warmish, liquid; cider vinegar and water, or buttermilk for example. In the case of bread, phytic acid content is reduced by a long sourdough fermentation. These treatments increase the vitamin content and break down the inhibitors, meaning nutrients are easier to digest and absorb. A global view will perhaps prove the point; Ethiopian injera bread is only made after the grain, teff, has been fermented for several days; porridge was traditionally soaked overnight before cooking; Indian rice and lentils are left to ferment for two days before making dosas (2).
Just a small difference to the way you cook, and a little planning can mean a whole lot more nutrients for our bodies, and perhaps a step closer to understanding our food again.