Eating for Good Health – An Ayurvedic Perspective : Part 2

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krya on ayurvedic eating

As I had written in Prat 1 of this article, many Ayurvedic diet prescriptions do not go with modern notions on health and nutrition. In fact, they seem contrarian and sometimes weird or even “unscientific” as per modern and often western expectations.

However, as I have always maintained, good health reflects in great skin and hair. At krya we get many queries every day on tackling skin & hair care problems, which cannot be solved with the just use of external products alone, so we do end up gently nudging people to take a second look at their diet and lifestyle.

So here is part 2 of my post on eating sensibly according to Ayurveda. As with all new information, please read this with an open mind.

IMPORTANT NOTE :This article does NOT discuss the ethical consideration behind these food choices as some of the Ayurvedic prescriptions use animal derived products. At this point of time, I am simply talking about how Ayurveda analyzes each food choice in terms of its dosha and how it would impact human health alone.

1. Ayurveda follows a holistic approach to eating. There is no measurement of micro nutrients or break up of food into the terms we measure today like protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals etc.
Instead, Ayurveda and all traditional medicine talks about eating a balanced meal. And is concerned about eating local and seasonal food that is right for each dosha type. This cannot be compressed into a simple diet chart but has to be worked out according to the needs of the individual, their current state of health and the environment they live in and the nature of their work, etc.

So for example, the diet prescribed for me, a Pitta-kapha type would consist of foods that are cooling but do not cause mucous. So if I am prescribed milk, I would be asked to have it unsweetened. Milk is considered as “Madura rasa (sweet taste)” which means it is already high in kapha qualities. As milk calms pitta but can also increase kapha – I might also be asked to drink with a pinch of turmeric, and drunk warm to ensure that my dosha is not aggravated. I would also be asked to have only native cow’s milk and not buffalo milk, as cow’s milk is lighter and does not have the quality of tamas that buffalo milk has .

I might also be asked to cut down completely on consuming jaggery and sesame if my pitta dosha is aggravated or during summer . Both increase pitta, and would perhaps not be ideal for me to eat given my constitution. I would also be asked to include shitali pranayama as part of a yoga practise to cool down my body.

Someone with a high kapha dosha, who often gets mucous filled coughs and colds, would be asked to cut down dairy completely. They would also be asked to cut down sweets, perhaps eat millets for a meal instead of rice, and do brisk exercising or surya namaskar to melt excess kapha in the body and encourage its release.

2. Ayurveda and many new lifestyle diets or ethical diets do not go together. So there is no Vegan Ayurveda. Or Gluten free Ayurveda. Or Paleo Ayurveda. Or Grain free Ayurveda.

Ayurveda prescribes the use of limited quantities of dairy products for good health. This is non negotiable among 3 classes of people: children, people above 60 and pregnant women. For everyone who falls in between, certain kinds of dairy can be avoided as long as they are in good health. Ghee appears to be universally prescribed for everyone as it is considered extremely good for the body and useful to bring down both vitiated pitta and vata.

Many Ayurvedic medicines are made using ghee, honey and sometimes curd and even bone marrow. Each medicine has been formulated keeping the health condition in mind and depending upon what medium will deliver the medicine fastest to the patient.
In certain conditions like vitiated vata, ghee is used extensively to quickly bring down vitiated vata. Every fat is treated separately in Ayurveda, and the qualities of taila, ghrita and majja (oils, ghee, bone marrow) have been extensively documented. In cases where ghee is required, it is cannot be substituted with a vegetable oil, even with coconut oil.

In cases of extreme emaciation, the text books recommend giving very weak, debilated patients mamsa rasa (meat soup) to quickly build up strength. I have seen documented evidence of this treatment working, and working well.

Again here, Ayurveda does not treat plant protein and animal protein as the same. Both are said to have different qualities and are used in different situations. For example, plant protein like lentils is considered as high in vata. So in cases where patients are suffering from vata vitiation driven weakness and emaciation, animal fat like ghee or in extreme cases animal soup (which is considered higher in kapha) is given to build strength.

3. Raw food, is considered as difficult to digest and is considered as stressful to the digestive system. Also, raw food is considered extremely high in vata, and the quality of the food changes depending upon how it is cooked.

So foods already high in vata like cabbage, cauliflower, millets, bread, cornflakes must be eaten only after their basic nature is tempered by the way we prepare them. The texts suggest that these foods should not be eaten raw, and should be cooked in fats like ghee or coconut oil, and must be eaten warm and not cold to bring down their vata increasing effect. Spices like turmeric and jeera should be added to make it easy for the body to digest them. And they should be eaten at peak digestive capacity which is during noon and not after sunset.

For this reason, if your vata dosha appears to be high, eating cornflakes or toast for breakfast would be an absolute no. Both would further aggravate vayu. Instead, you might be best served eating a rice and mung dal pongal / khichdi, or a rice based upma.

4. The ideal meal plate in Ayurveda – would vary by season but would consist of a higher proportion of grain and lentil and a smaller proportion of mainly cooked, seasonal vegetable. This is in direct contrast to what many of us believe – in fact a lot of us consume a much higher proportion of both raw and cooked vegetables than rice/ wheat or lentils. Ayurveda believes that the essential nature of many vegetables and lentils is that it is high in vata. So it must be balanced by eating rice which is laghu (easy to digest), madura (sweet and kapha promoting) and which helps balance the vata nature of lentil and vegetable.

A meal which consists only of vegetables, or vegetable + lentils or only fruits would be extremely unbalanced according to ayurveda and promote vata.

5. Food combinations and prohibitions: The Charaka Samhita mentions many improper food combinations and restricted food, which is unhealthy and sometimes downright lethal to your body. I have listed a few basics below.

• Curd – considered very high in heat and difficult to digest. Only very young people and people who do a lot of high physical exercise are considered strong enough to eat curd. As it is high in heat, curd can be eaten in limited amounts, only in extremely cold weather, and that too only during the day (when the digestive system is very strong). Prohibited in pregnancy, other seasons, at night, and for people with high pitta dosha.

• Heating honey or honey in hot drinks – honey is an amalgamation of flower nectar sourced from many types of flowers, plus bee saliva. Some of the flowers from which nectar is collected could be mildly toxic. When honey is heated, it breaks down to its individual combinations and could release these toxins and become poisonous to the body. So honey is never used in cooking or heated in any way. So drinking honey in hot water is absolutely prohibited. As is adding honey to hot liquids like tea or coffee.

• Drinking large amounts of tea and coffee (even green tea) – tea and coffee are high in vata and are astringent in nature. They should not be consumed at all, and can only be consumed y people who live in regions where they naturally grow. They should definitely not be consumed immediately after meals.

• Drinking large amounts of water – puts a strain on the kidneys and removes nutrients from the body. Water should be drunk when you are thirsty (unless you work in an unnatural environment like an air conditioned office, in which case you should monitor your water consumption).

• Dairy with fruits / vegetables – Dairy is considered heavy to digest and a meal in itself. Most fruits have the opposite qualities of dairy, so by combining them, we are putting a strain on our digestive system. For example, a banana or chikoo milkshake is an absolute disaster.

• Milk with a meal – milk is considered a meal in itself. And difficult to digest. So when milk is prescribed, it should be consumed as a separate meal. And you should give your system atleast a few hours to completely digest it before eating the next meal

This list does attempt to be a complete prescription or a substitute to visiting a qualified Ayurvedic Vaidya. This is merely a starting point to think about what you put into your body and your health. As with everything, your body and your health are unique and what works for you is something you will have to evolve with time and experimentation.

As always, do remember that good health has no shortcuts. You have to eat your apple everyday and not seven on Saturday night to keep the doctor away. Great skin and hair comes from every meal you eat and every liquid you drink.

click here for part 1 of the article .

 

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Eating for Good Health – An Ayurvedic Perspective : Part 1

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Reading Time: 11 minutes

I am often asked what Ayurveda prescribes as a healthy diet. I hesitate to write down a fixed diet plan for many reasons: there are many diet fads these days which have become accepted as healthy diets (for example the vegan diet, keto diet, millets diet, etc). Most of this is contrarian to the principles espoused in the texts.

1. universally healthy

The second is that Ayurveda is the ultimate customised medicine. The texts opine that health, regimen and medicine should all be customised to the individual, and what works for one individual is especially unique to him / her. Therefore, what works for you is a customised blend of your food culture, what you are used to your prakriti, and where you live.

2. customised approach
The third is a very interesting reason: Ayurveda recognises the importance of “patterns and habits” in the way we eat, behave and live. The Acharyas tell us that even a great diet. Or a set of behaviours considered universally healthy cannot be suddenly introduced to the system, as the system, which has reached a sense of balance with whatever it is doing, will rebel in shock. So for someone who has persisted on a diet of fried bacon, bread and no vegetables, cannot be suddenly asked to substitute fish for fried bacon and introduced to a whole lot of vegetables. The Acharyas tell us that for the system that has been used to food which we consider unhealthy will react to healthy food (if introduced suddenly) like it would react to poison!

3. gradual is better

Obviously our notion of what is healthy food ad not healthy food will have to vary by region, season and availability of food. So if you live in a dry, hot desert I cannot tell you to eat broccoli all the time, despite the fact that it is considered a nutritional superfood.

 

So rather than speak about specific foods to eat, we focus our posts on how to eat. We saw a post this week on eight Ayurvedic eating techniques, and how chewing food well, eating on time, eating when hungry, etc are timeless principles of healthy living. We saw how even the right foods eaten wrongly can cause distress to the body.

 

Speaking further on foods to eat, here is our 2 part series on Ayurvedic eating for good health. Again, these posts are in the form of eating principles, and cover aspects of eating like ethical diets (vegan / vegetarian), eating timings etc. These are atleast as important as what you eat, so do read on.

 

As with all new information, please read this with an open mind. The science of Ayurveda has evolved over thousands of years and is extremely sophisticated in its understanding of both food and its effect on human beings. Many of the things I have written down may seem contrarian to what we believe in now – but the system has survived and thrived for thousands of years

  1. Timing is everything (in health, food & life)

The time of eating is at least as important as what you eat and depending upon your body’s condition, it is sometimes more important than what you eat.

Every organ system is said to have a particular time to cleanse itself and do necessary repairs. For example, the liver, the seat of pitta in our body, cleanses itself around midnight. Cleansing of organ systems occurs ONLY after digestion is through, nutrients have been extracted and toxins have been removed from the body. So if you are eating dinner at 11 pm, your organ systems will NOT cleanse themselves, and will wait until the next available time slot to do so. Which means your body will feel dull and sluggish the next morning (especially if you are consistently eating late).

This does not mean you can get away with eating junk food like a burger everyday at 7 pm for dinner. Do read point 2.

This is corroborated by many systems of traditional medicine. TCM opines that the window to eat breakfast is between 7 am – 9 am. When you consistently eat breakfast after this window, your chi energy or stomach fire energy gets weak and dampened. This in TCM is said to lead to digestive disorders, high production of gas in the system and an inability to digest foods leading to a high accumulation of toxins.

4.damp agni

 

  1. Ideal food is local, freshly cooked, lightly spiced and eaten warm. No spoiled food should be eaten. And no food should be stored, re-heated and eaten.

Ayurveda frowns upon the wonders of modern food preservation. In fact, the Charaka Samhita specifically says that for good health one should not eat too much of pickles, traditional papads or even traditionally salted and preserved vegetables (like vadagam and vathal).These references are to HOME MADE preserved vegetables, lentils and fruits. So this definitely rules OUT eating preserved, commercially processed foods like biscuits, sauces, etc which have a shelf life of 1 year or more (so most of the time we are eating stuff that has been made at-least 6 months ago in a factory and would contain several harmful chemical preservatives).
5. processed food
Local in Ayurveda means something that not only grows naturally within 100 miles of where you live. It also means eating foods you and your digestive system are accustomed to. So if you have grown up eating rice, rice will suit your system the most. Not quinoa. And not even millets. Any new food must be slowly introduced to your digestive system. (This does not take away from your responsibility of sourcing high quality food. Most of us grew up eating untainted, pesticide-free food – so this naturally means you should source the same now. And not just buy the first available pesticide sprayed pack of rice you find in the supermarket).

6. local food
The point about spoiled food is an interesting nuance and goes to our food culture. For example cheese eating is not a practice that is universal to many parts of India. It is usually common only in cold and hilly regions. In hot and humid regions, fermenting a dairy based food will quickly lead to rot, mildew and fungus. However the same food is very well preserved in a cold, hilly region.

Cheese, especially aged cheese, tends to be very salty, sharp and concentrated. In Ayurveda, this has all the makings of a pitta food group. So it makes sense to eat this food, if it is eaten traditionally, in a cold, hilly region where the atmosphere is low in pitta dosha. The pitta in the food is welcome to stimulate digestion.

7.cheese

However in a hot, humid city like Chennai or Hyderabad, where the atmosphere is full of Pitta, the pitta dosha from the cheese would over stimulate pitta dosha. Which is probably why in practice, it does not form a part of traditional food.

If you live in the city of your childhood, it is probably best to stick to your traditional food practice. If you live in a foreign city, it is still better to stock to your traditional food unless the weather and climate is dramatically different from what you are used to. If you are living in an utterly foreign land, it makes sense to slowly acclimatise and add foods and eating practices local to where you live, while continuing to eat traditionally most of the time.

 

  1. An ideal food for you is something that is digested quickly by you and puts the least amount of stress on your digestive system. This can differ from person to person.

Ayurveda believes the more effort the body has to take in digesting your food, the more energy is diverted away from your organ systems. Also, depending upon your state of health, if your food is difficult to digest, there is a possibility that your body will not complete the job of digestion within the allotted time. The longer your food sits in your body without being processed, the more poisonous it becomes to your body.

8.putrefecation

 

Food that is undigested and sits around in your body becomes “Ama” or undigested waste + toxin. Ama prevents the healthy functioning of your organ systems and leads to faster aging and illness. Ama can accumulate across every organ system, but is linked primarily to an improperly functioning digestive system, brought on by eating improper food.

Now how your digestive system will respond to your food group is completely unique. Some of us can easily digest fried food, and can eat copious quantities of this without losing sleep or productivity. Others are extremely sensitive to certain food groups: a single Chinese meal can set us back by 2 – 3 days when we feel dull and sluggish.

9.digestive ability
These digestion patterns tend to change as we age, and by season. They also change when we are under a high amount of stress. So it is important to listen carefully to your body and develop a sense of what works for you. Limit food experimentation to a window where you can take the consequences, and always plan for “cheat” or “treat” days.

  1. Many foods we think are healthy and should be eaten in copious quantities are considered unhealthy in Ayurveda

Many foods that we now consider healthy and are eating a lot of are considered difficult to digest in Ayurveda or are considered unbalanced as they are very high in one particular dosha: these include raw vegetables (yes salads!), raw sprouts, millets, brown rice or cereals with a high amount of husk on them, fermented foods like idly and dosa, cheese, curd, milkshakes. These must be eaten with the proper preparation and caution and at times when the body is capable of digesting them.

Example 1: Fermented foods like idly and dosa are considered high in pitta as they are sour foods. Eating them every day for breakfast will mean your pitta will increase. It is important to balance them with something like a coconut based dish as coconut is both cooling (and high in kapha) and will balance the pitta in the idly / dosa. (Please note that this does not apply if you spike your coconut chutney with an impossibly high amount of green chillies). Eating a fermented food with another pitta heavy dish like a Sambhar high in tamarind or acidic tomato based chutney will not be balanced.

10.idly

 

In this there is obviously a gradation. Freshly fermented idlis are lower in pitta dosha than 3 day old batter. Batter made at home is obviously superior to something bought from outside, because we can guarantee that no other additives like baking soda have been added. Idlis eaten in cold winter season are better for the body compared to idlis eaten in summer.

 

This is because in winter, the heat of the Idlis through Pitta dosha is opposite to the cold produced by the winter – so the load on the body is less. But an idly eaten is summer is far more stimulating to Pitta dosha.

 

When you are suffering from an intense imbalance of Pitta dosha, eating an idly everyday for breakfast can throw you out of gear and is not advisable.  The key, as always is finding balance.

 

Example 2: Raw foods are considered “lekhaniya” (scraping quality), and depending upon what kind of raw foods we are describing, they may be “rooksha” (dry), rough, and “guru” or difficult to digest.

 

An example of a “guru” raw food is raw beetroot. An example of a “rooksha” and “guru” raw food are raw sprouts. From a western, raw food perspective, eating raw food is considered healthy as we get access to many nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are destroyed when cooking. So eating the raw food as a juice, smoothie or as a salad is considered health boosting.

11.raw
Ayurveda however says that the process of digesting this raw food dampens or weakens Agni, hence this food is not properly digested (especially when consumed in quantities that are much higher than what we are used to). So despite eating healthy foods, we could be increasing the ama in our body as the act of digesting this healthy food has weakened Agni.

 

Seasonal fruits and fruit juices are not necessarily a part of this list. But even here, temperance is advised – you cannot suddenly force the body to eat, digest properly and assimilate a very large quantity of fruit juice of fruit salad. Depending upon your constitution this can aggravate Agni, leading to diarrhoea, or leave you feeling sluggish and listless.

12.fruits
Example 3: Millets are now extremely popular across South India as a healthy replacement to rice. Ayurveda however considers many Millets as dry and difficult to digest, which makes sense as they are traditionally dry land crop. Substituting rice completely with Millets will mean that your vata dosha will increase. This is welcome if you have a health condition like diabetes where kapha dosha is high – so here the vata of the Millets will balance excess Kapha. In fact, millet is prescribed in diabetes for just this reason instead of rice. But if you have no such health conditions and have decided to substitute rice completely with Millets, you will be drying out your body, especially if you do this very suddenly.

13.millets
The benefits of Millets must of course be experienced by you. But this should form a part of your experimentative 10% and must be prepared using the correct format and in doses where your body does not rebel or where other symptoms like aggravated vata dosha develop.

 

Here are some of the ways you can experiment with Millets:

Changing the format of the cereal changes how your body digests it – In millets, flour is easier to digest as you have broken down the cereal physically and are not depending upon your digestive system to do this job. So if you would like to introduce Millets into your diet, perhaps Millet flour is a better first step instead of the millet grains.

13.millet flour
The timing of eating is everything, especially for a difficult to digest food. Noon time, when the sun is at its peak, is considered the time when your digestive system is the strongest. So this is the time your body can handle the rigors of digesting a difficult to digest food. Like millets. OR Quinoa. (After preparing it properly).

14.lunch
This list which I have compiled is by no means complete or a prescription in itself. This merely represents a starting point to think about your diet and your health. As with everything, your body and your health are unique and what works for you is something you will have to evolve with time and experimentation.

Part 2 of this post will tackle more of what Ayurveda says about food. In the meantime, do remember, there are no shortcuts to good health and good looking skin and hair. It is built meal by meal, and choice by choice.


Krya’s range of skin care products for pitta prone, normal to oily skin can be found here. Our skin range for vata prone, normal to dry skin can be found here. Our anti acne skin care products can be found here.   Apart from this, we have a range of products for Sensitive Skin (skin that is eczema, dermatitis & psoriasis prone) and for Sun Tanned skin . We also have a large range of Abhyanga-Snana products. 

9-ubtan

Our products are inspired by Ayurveda. completely natural, toxin free and extremely effective. If you would like help choosing the right Krya product for your skin, please call us (075500-89090) or write to us.


 

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Urban Survival 101 : the science of reading food labels

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Reading Time: 14 minutes

We speak about label reading in this article in response to many queries we received after our last posts on toxics in cosmetic products, especially those sold for children. One mother went as far as to describe her children’s complete skin care regimen with brands used and asked me for a thorough audit to eliminate toxins. And the brands she mentioned were premium, with claims of safe, natural ingredients.

We usually do not write about food on the Krya blog, as we work on household and personal care products. However food choices play a fundamental role in many skin or hair related conditions that affect people. Apart from food taken internally, the external environment and personal care products used also affect health and well being. Therefore this post has 2 parts to it: the first part We post today, talks about reading food labels and the second part We will post on Monday, will talk about label reading in cosmetic products.

A vital skill in our world today is the science of reading product labels and interpreting them to suit your requirement. A local supermarket would contain more than 5000 products ( in stock keeping units) and your family would use most of the categories over the years. So reading food labels is a survival skill.

What a product chooses to declare or not declare gives you a fundamental insight about what the company is really about : both about the kind of products it would like to create and how transparent or ethical it would like to be to its consumers.

The Rapid food label reading program – (especially for parents of young children)

As soon as my daughter returns from school, she runs to the dining table to open her casserole for her welcome back home snack. She takes great pleasure in opening the casserole herself to examine the contents and looks forward to the treats inside. The snacks vary from idlies, to fruit filled whole wheat appams, and sometimes on a busy day a quick set of sourdough bread toasties with generous dollops of homemade peanut butter.

Most of the food she eats is homemade, fresh and using whole organic ingredients. The peanut butter she ate yesterday was made from four ingredients: organic heritage peanuts, whole unprocessed dark jaggery, organic cacao powder and cold pressed organic coconut oil.

14. Aztecs storing maize also invented peanut butter

The Aztecs are credited for giving the world peanut butter

The texture of the peanut butter I made was very very different from the processed peanut butter I have eaten in my youth. The store bought peanut butter was very smooth, even, creamy , extremely sweet and with a very long shelf life. In contrast, my home made peanut butter is not as creamy or even as store bought, as it has limited amounts of oil. Even with what I think are generous amounts of jaggery, homemade peanut butter is nowhere as close to how sweet a store bought peanut butter is. And its shelf life is notoriously short –even a slight amount of moisture in the jar can cause mould formation.

What makes this vital difference between store bought and home made products? Why is one so unhealthy vs. the other? What should we be reading / looking for in our food labels?

The basics of a food label:

Green, brown & red

The green dot tightly framed inside a square, displayed on product labels prominently and proudly conveying vegetarian, is a recent phenomenon that has gone viral. It now appears in curious places like toothpaste and soaps. By contrast, products containing egg and meat are represented by the brown dot. There is a common misconception that a red dot on the label indicates the presence of meat, although there is no standard set by the government involving a red dot.

These dots have been formally mandated under the Food Safety and Standard Regulations 2011, regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. ( www.FSSAI.gov.in) .These regulations specify strict and clear guidelines on the information that any food manufacturer is bound to declare on the product label. However, little progress has been made in helping consumers decode the vast tracts of information on the product labels, since the dawn of the dots.

Beyond the vegetarian mark, any food product label would have five categories of information that need decoding. These five categories are

  1. Allergy warning information
  2. Ingredient listing
  3. Food additives : colours , flavors, preservatives, stabilisers.
  4. Nutritional and calorific information
  5. Organic certification
  6. Product Claims

1. Allergy Warning Information

In recent years, certain common foods are thought of as  allergens. These are nuts, soy, gluten (a protein commonly found in Wheat) and milk. The food label should have a separate box with the information that “this product contains nuts, soy, wheat and milk”. What is rather interesting is the fine print on products that do not contain these allergens, which can be written in two ways. One is the rather vague warning “May contain traces of nuts, soy, wheat, milk”. This does not help a person with a known food allergy make a decision. The other variation of this is “made in a factory that also processes nut, soy, wheat and milk”. This means that despite the best efforts, allergens could be present in the product, usually because of common containers and machines used.

Example 1: If the muffin you are looking at contains a brown dot, it is usually made with egg. If a cake you are eyeing at your neighborhood bakery has a red dot, it probably contains gelatin (an ingredient made from the skin, bones and connective tissue of several domesticated animals like cows, chicken, pigs and fish).

2. Ingredient Listing

The law mandates that an ingredient list in food products should be in descending order of contents by weight or volume. This is really useful in decoding product claims. The regulation also stipulates that if a claim is made about an ingredient, for example, whole wheat, then the food label should also provide the actual percentage of whole wheat inside. So with these two pieces of information the consumer can decide for themselves how brown their bread really is.

Example 2: You buy a loaf of whole wheat bread which is all the rage today. The front label says “whole wheat bread. But you turn to the back and see that the ingredient list is as follows

  1. Flour
  2. Water
  3. Whole meal / whole wheat flour
  4. Oil
  5. Salt
  6. Preservatives, stabilizers etc

Whole wheat is only ingredient # 3 ,  means that flour ( or Maida) is the major ingredient.

5. a neighbourhood italian bread selling bread circa 15th century

A depiction of a 15th century neighborhood Italian bakery – breads made fresh with long rise and whole grains

The Maida madness
Maida today has rightfully connotation of junk food and is hidden on food labels behind names like “Flour”, “White flour” or “Refined Flour”. So in this case, your whole wheat bread is simply a regular Maida bread masquerading as the healthier version, with some amount of whole wheat thrown in. Maida finds its way into many “treat foods” we eat: Parathas, Pizzas, Puris, and the ubiquitous Kuthu Parotta or the Malabar Parotta we find in South India.

12. Maida parotta

The South Indian Parotta – made with super refined white flour / Maida

Commercial Maida is made from starchy white endosperm after removing the bran. It is finely milled. Originally yellow in colour, it is then bleached with azo di carbonamide, chlorine , benzoyl peroxide or other bleaches. Benzoyl peroxide is now banned in China & EU for food uses. Maida also contains trace amounts of alloxan, which is the by-product of the chemical process of making it soft and white. In lab tests on rats, large amounts of alloxan were found to destroy beta cells in the pancreas causing diabetes mellitus.

  1. Food additives: Colours , flavors, Preservatives, Stabilizers etc.

The next part of Label reading is usually found towards the end of the ingredient list where words such as “ stabilizer “ , “nature – identical  food color” “ acidity-regulator” with an E-number such as “E-621” in brackets make their appearance.  These are chemicals that are permitted for use in food products and form a shockingly large range. The E-number specifically is an international labeling system that originated in Europe (hence E) which makes it easy to identify these chemical additives by anyone in the world. For example E-621 stands for the flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

The range of legally permitted chemicals is bewildering and their number quite shocking. It raises the question, am I eating real food or debris from a lab explosion? These chemicals with the E-numbers have come under serious scrutiny in recent times as potentially harmful for health. The debate, though not yet conclusive, serves as a reminder not to gloss over the E-numbers on any food label.

6. Caramel colouring - found in fake whole wheta bread and colas

Caramel colouring: found in cola drinks. Also used to colour white refined bread and pass it off as the healthier “Whole wheat” version

How much lemon is really there in Citric Acid?

Commercial citric acid is a very common preservative used in food. Citric acid, originally derived from the citrus family of fruits has a healthy connotation. Citric acid from fresh lemon juice is a natural preservative.  We think we are eating a substance extracted from lemons or oranges, which doesn’t sound too unhealthy.

However commercial citric acid is made by feeding cheap sugar solutions to cultures of Aspergillus Niger fungus. After the mould is filtered out, it is precipitated with calcium hydroxide to get calcium citrate. This is then treated with Sulphuric acid to finally recreate citric acid.

So a simple ingredient like citric acid on a food label could have a long chain of unwholesome events behind it. If you are really interested in eating wholesome food, it is worth your effort to know these ingredients for what they really are.

Example 3: I recently bought a brand of soy sauce to be used sparingly on Asian stir fries. I found 3 brands of soy sauce available on the shelf. The sauce which I finally picked up had this written on the label.

Water, wheat, soy bean paste, salt, sugar and sodium benzoate. No artificial colours. Permitted food flavors added. While sodium benzoate was clearly listed as a preservative, the added flavors used were not identified.

I must add that this label listing was only for the premium version of this product. The non premium version had acidity regulators, MSG, and a smaller percentage of soy bean extract in the sauce.

While I picked up what my label reading told me was the least offensive soy sauce, this still does not compare to the real thing. Commercial soy sauce is made using a quick fermentation process. The artisanal, home fermented version of Soy sauce made in traditional homes across Asian countries can take upto a year to ferment and mature fully before it is used. This fermentation is done in special wooden casks and these are left sealed to ferment slowly in the sun.

 

4. traditional korean sauce fermenting in earthen jars

Traditional Korean soy sauce fermented in earthen jars

Prepared this way, the soy sauce is no longer an additive or a taste enhancer – it is real food.

  1. Nutritional and Calorific Information

Every food product label must specify nutritional information per 100 gm or 100 ml serving equivalent. The chart must cover

a)      Energy value in Calories

b)      Amounts of protein, carbohydrates (specific quantity of sugar) and fat in grams or ml

c)       The amount of any other nutrient for which a health claim is made

The WHO reference guideline of approximately 2000 Calories per day for an adult gives real perspective to the amount of Calories present in any processed food item. The guideline number of 2000 is a very narrow definition that does not talk about the source of the Calories. It is now possible to get 2000 Calories per day just from a few colas and a bag of chips, which leads to the whole debate on “empty Calories”.

Example 4:  I looked at this food label which is a health drink served to children. While the drink is marketed as a vitamin fortified balanced drink for children, a quick scan of the nutritional information reveals that 100 g of this health drink contains 47.6 grams of sugars. The sugar here acts like a  preservative and also makes the drink irresistible to children

The first ingredient listed in this products label is skimmed cow’s milk. Other ingredients are maltodextrin, oil and sucrose. You might think this product is not too bad for your kids.  Only a close reading of the nutritional information gives you the complete picture.

Even though skimmed milk has been listed (presumably to give you a sense of how healthy and fat free the product is), the combination of sucrose and lactose sugar from the milk adds up to nearly 50% of the product. Just the from the point of view of sugars , this product appears to be a highly sweetened beverage. Here we are not even getting into the perils of the other ingredients like maltodextrin on the list.

  1. Organic Certification

Unless otherwise mentioned, every food product contains ingredients that were grown with the help of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The standards for organic production in India are governed by the APEDA (www.apeda.gov.in).  When a product carries this label, it means that at least 95% of the products by weight are of certifiable organic origin.

However everything organic is not necessarily good (although you may be excused for believing it is). The same permitted food colours, and preservatives can be used in processed organic food products. You can also have super refined organic food products.

 Example 5: Several popular organic brands organic maida – which is super refined, stripped of nutrition white flour. While the source of the wheat is organic, this food is certainly not wholesome or nutritious. Also available today are junk foods like chips made from organic potatoes. So while organic is great, organic junk food is not.

 6. Product Claims

This last category of food label information is also the toughest one to decode. The food safety standards issue only broad ethical guidelines that a nutritional or health claim of a product should not be false or misleading. Therefore food manufacturers are free to advertise any claim for the product that they are confident of defending under the law.

Example 6: Any regular brand of orange juice from the supermarket would contain the following claims prominently on the label, “No preservatives, No added sugar, No added colors”, all on a lush background of images of beautiful oranges. Now, all the above claims are true but do not represent the true picture.

Elsewhere on the label, away from all the action, you would find two phrases that need deeper investigation. Firstly, all these juices are actually not fresh but “reconstituted orange juice”.

What is reconstituted fruit juice?

To preserve seasonal easy to spoil food products like fruit juice, especially when the harvest is extremely bountiful, a common method followed by large food companies is to separate the constituents of natural fruit juice.

This is also done because as farmers would attest, fruits do not ripen all at once – different fruits even on the same tree ripen at different times. However picking, sorting and grading is done all at once, to save time and effort. In this scenario, you will get a variety of both ripe and unripe fruits which cannot be juiced and sold together.

So here, each fruit is juiced and separated into its individual components. The pulp is separated from the juice and processed into even sized and shaped gummy, particles which have the texture of cooked tapioca pearls. The liquid is spray dried to get a powder. In this process, the volatile vitamins like Vitamin C are lost and of course the natural taste and flavor of the fruit.

When the juice is “manufactured”, the pulp and the spray dried powder are blended together with added sugar, added “nature identical” colour, “nature identical flavor”, acidity regulators to keep the pH at a certain level to ensure long shelf life and preservatives.

Reconstitution is the method to ensure orange juice availability throughout the year, anywhere in the world. This reconstituted juice can at best be described as a watery, over sweet imitation of natural fruit juice.

1. Mexico_City_merchant_with_his_freshly_squeezed_orange_juice_March_2010

Freshly squeezed orange juice sold by a Mexican vendor – no funny business or added pulp!

Why is my quick delivery pizza giving me a headache?

Food flavoring is a multi-billion dollar industry and enters our bodies in many hidden ways. The toppings used by most pizza companies, owe their taste to food flavors. Central processing of vegetables means that the tomato you eat on your topping could have been cut more than a week ago and would have been frozen until you dialed in and ordered your pizza. In this time, the delicate aroma and natural flavor of the tomato would have been lost. So a nature identical flavor is added back to the tomato before it is baked. This usually explains why a home-made pizza does not have the weirdly intensive flavors and tastes a store bought pizza does. And why you usually have no adverse reactions (headaches, bloating) to the home made pizza.

Conclusion

An observant reader may conclude that through this article we are making a case to avoid mass produced, processed ready to eat foods as much as possible.

In our food culture, ready to eat products do exist. Traditionally we have utilized the bounty of nature and pickled, jellied, or dehydrated fruits and vegetables when in season. A recent update on facebook group had a gentleman describing the brining technique to be used to preserve Indian gooseberries or amla which are now in season. The stability of Vitamin C in the Indian gooseberry is well known. Unlike other sources of vitamin C like other citrus fruits, a dried or pickled Indian gooseberry retains a large amount of its Vitamin C which is heat resistant.

So a home made Amla pickle displays stellar good sense. Similarly our food preservation techniques are also driven by a need to store and use fruits and vegetables  for lean seasons like Winter when a large selection of fresh produce is not readily available.

Pickling is a part of food cultures across the world. Pickling across different countries utilises abundant fresh produce, preserves vital nutrients and introduces good probiotics into the body.

10. Traditional korean kimchi

Kimchi – Korean fermented and pickled vegetables

In our home, our preservation and shelf life extension techniques are limited to the use of oil, salt, vinegar and sugar, a gentle heating or cooking process, and a culture that reveres the purity or sanctity of these preserved foods. Traditional homes were always built with an ante room with restricted entry to keep these preserved foods from spoiling.

7. traditional pickled lemons

Traditional pickled lemons

These were the only ready to eat foods in a traditional home. Homes across India added to this repertoire “ready to fry” food that consisted of salted and lentil / cereal cooked vegetables that were used to make papads, vadams and salted vegetables like vathals. These were fried and added back to dals or sambhars to enhance taste and to introduce a vegetable which was not seasonally available.

These foods constituted a small portion of our plate. They were used as seasoners or taste enhancers and no one would dream of eating a lunch solely comprising of pickles or vathals.

Yet this very same sensible, thrifty food culture has now given way to a time when a lot of what we eat has been made with short cut techniques, using high amounts of salts and sugar, and with the addition of several suspect chemically derived ingredients. In a broad sense, many of us are eating a plate of pickles every day for lunch or dinner!

We hope that a course in basic label reading, which we have outlined, will help you make better eating choices for you and your family.

But we fall back to the words of Michael Pollan as we conclude this article on food products and their labeling.

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.  Don’t eat anything that is incapable of rotting”.

This article is a part of Krya’s series on toxics in household and personal care products. Through this series, we hope to inform, educate and inspire you to look around your home and detox it and yourself from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today. The natural world is full of safe, environmentally sustainable, cruelty free options to care for yourself and your home, and our series will try to present atleast a small part of this exciting world to you. 

If you would like to explore our series further, here’s what We’ve written before this piece:

  1. An introduction to the series
  2. Common carcinogens implicated in breast cancer found in your home
  3. Is it a conspiracy? A pre-planned genetic supremacy race? Or simply misinformation? Some reasons behind common toxics & why they continue to be used
  4. Are we putting our children at risk by using these products on them? Here are 3 toxins that plague children through the products we use on them.
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