Fall 2015: Sourdough Bread, A Well-Bred Loaf

For an easy-to-read pdf copy, click A Well-Bred Loaf


Some years ago, my dear friend Ellen Arian, www.ellensfoodandsoul.com, taught me the art of making sourdough bread.  Ever since, I regularly feed starter, mix dough, and bake bread.  It is part of my regular rhythm, second nature, and a richly satisfying, rewarding habit.  Sourdough bread made with heirloom flour is a mainstay in my diet and anchors most every meal.   I like to make several loaves at a time and give some to friends.  Sharing bread has led to requests for this newsletter, an effort to outline some of the steps to using sourdough starter (see instructions, Spring 2015) to make sourdough bread.  The ideas and instructions below derive from Ellen’s wisdom and my own reading, research, and baking experience.


A Well-Bred Loaf:  Putting Culture, Complexity, and Nutrition Back into Bread

  • Keeping Sourdough Starter, “Day 1” (see Spring 2015 newsletter)
  • Making Dough, “Day 2”
  • Baking, “Day 3”

Developing complexity, nutrition, and taste both in a sourdough culture and sourdough bread require time, not so much our time, but rather time for yeast and bacteria to wake from their dormancy and go to work on the sugars in flour to create carbon dioxide bubbles and a vast array of flavor compounds.  If your goal is taste and nutrition, it is best to allow three days for the entire process of feeding a sourdough culture, making dough, and baking bread.   Yes, you can rush these steps if time is short, so feel free to experiment, but you will meet with the best success in terms of taste and nutrition if you allow enough time for fermentation to work its magic.


These instructions may at first seem daunting, but with practice, as with music, before long you will be playing without a script.  Soon, working with starter, preparing dough, and baking bread will feel effortless.  With practice…


  • You will learn to “read” starter and know just when to feed it more flour and water in order to maintain a balance of healthy yeast and bacteria to sustain a vibrant culture for your own baking needs.
  • You will develop your own “feel” for dough so that you can adjust the amount of water, flour, folding, and fermenting time to create bread dough with just the right consistency, pliability, and strength.
  • And, you will know how to blend flour in a mix that suits your family’s preference for texture and taste.


Tapping into the invisible world of yeast and bacteria.  By keeping sourdough starter and making dough, we are really putting to work the ever-present, invisible world of wild yeast and bacteria that circulate about in our home environment—this magical, mysterious world of the Universe that slips our daily notice.  It is in mixing together flour and water that these wild invisibles are first captured.  Then, once they establish a stable, symbiotic ecosystem of yeast and bacteria (a sourdough culture) we can put these wild microorganisms visibly to work.  Whenever we feed a healthy sourdough culture flour and water, the yeast and bacteria begin to feed on the starch in the flour and multiply exponentially.  We do this in Day 1, creating a pre-ferment of flavor compounds to create dough in Day 2.  On Day 2, the starter and water helps transform heirloom flour into a yeasty, light, easy-to-work mass of dough.


Science explains what is happening:  Bacteria and yeasts eat sugars in flour and throw off helpful by-products—Bacteria create ethanol and acids to give flavor and reduce the blood sugar impact of flour; meanwhile, yeasts produce carbon dioxide to give lift to dough and eliminate the need for commercial baker’s yeast.


Developing Taste—Water, Time, Sourdough Culture, Heirloom Flour, and Salt

Water, time, temperature, sourdough starter (a “pre-ferment” that adds an extra day of flavor and fermentation), and heirloom flour are all factors that contribute nutrition and taste.

  • Water (chlorine-free) sets chemical reactions in motion, allowing yeast and bacteria to freely move about to set fermentation in motion.  The more water, the faster the reactions.
  • Time is key to developing flavor:  The longer dough ferments, the greater the flavor.
  • Temperature—both kitchen temperature and the temperature of the ingredients when mixed—also influence the rising time and hence the flavor.  Colder temperatures slow fermentation to create more flavor, but too long a fermentation can weaken dough and make it “wobbly” and hard to handle.
  • Sourdough starter is a “preferment” cultivated the day before making dough that adds both leavening and a whole day of extra fermentation time and flavor.
  • Heirloom wheat and rye flour provide nutrition not found in commercial flours that are milled for a long shelf life.   Heirloom Grains=Taste=Nutrition
  • Salt adds taste and strengthens the gluten matrix to support the structure of dough when it is kneaded and when it expands.  Salt also slows fermentation, which is why it is added as a later step after ingredients have been mixed and left to ferment.  Salt also retards mold and spoilage to prolong shelf life.


Pre-Measuring and Blending Heirloom Flour, a First Step to Creating Dough:

The amount of whole wheat, rye, and other flour you choose will affect the taste, rise, and pliability of bread.  So, it is good to understand how different flours influence a loaf in order that you can blend flour to suit your own personal preferences. 

I purchase heirloom whole wheat and rye bread flour from Anson Mills in 20 or 25 pound bags.  Ordering in bulk is an economical and efficient way to have flour on hand if you bake frequently as I do, but lugging heavy bags of flour from a chest freezer to the kitchen each time you make bread can be tedious and cumbersome.  For this reason, I like to keep in reserve in my refrigerator or freezer several wide-mouth Ball jars (or re-sealable plastic bags) filled with blended flour—in my own case, a combination of Anson Mills Abruzzi Rye; Einkorn; and Red Fife Whole Wheat.  If you keep several jars filled for future baking, you will always have some mixed and ready for use.


To suit your family, you can choose any combination of rye, whole wheat and artisan white.  Dough made with some white flour will require less water and the bread will have a lighter taste and texture.


Because flour packs down, a more accurate way than using measuring cups is to measure flour with a kitchen scale.   If you do not have a kitchen scale or find weighing flour tedious, you can use measuring cups, but the ratio of water and sourdough to flour will be less accurate and the result less predicable.  For those of you who may not have a kitchen scale, the tables below give measurements both by weight and by cup measure.


       One Loaf Bread (1 Qt Jar):                       Two Loaves Bread (2 Qt Jar):       

Abruzzi Rye

125 g

1 cup

250 g

2 cups


63 g

½ cup

125 g

1 cup


Red Fife

310 g

2 cups

620 g

4 cups




490-500 g

3 ½ cups


980-1000 g

7 cups



Creating your own blend:  Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you want to experiment using a different blend of flour than what is given above…

  • Wheat:  Wheat is higher in protein and gluten (for dough strength) than rye, so bakers choose it as the primary flour when making bread.  When dough is kneaded, two of wheat’s four proteins, gliandin and glutenin, form a gluten matrix to make dough strong and pliable.  Whole wheat:  Whole wheat flour, while more nutritious and delicious than white, results in a denser loaf because particles of bran, a portion of the whole-wheat kernel, interfere with the formation of the gluten network.  Also, heirloom whole wheat and rye have less gluten than modern wheat varieties and they contain oils that, like bran, also disrupt the gluten network.  Therefore, a dough made with 100% heirloom whole grain flour, while more nutritious and delicious, will be denser than if you mix in some white flour.  It is also good to note that commercial whole wheat that sits on a grocery store shelf may not be what the label suggests:  The USDA does not regulate the “whole wheat” label—flour can be labeled “whole wheat” as long as it contains 51% whole wheat flour.  Artisan white:  Adding some white flour to a blend will give a more open crumb and a loaf lighter.
  • Rye:  Rye imparts its own rich flavor.  Rye is also high in lysine, one of the deficient amino acids in grains.  So, the more rye you use and the longer you allow fermentation to enhance lysine, the more you boost the complete protein content of your bread.  Rye, however, has less gluten and more sugars than wheat so it is dense, gummy, and tears easily.  The more rye you use, the stickier your dough will be and the more challenging.


If you want to speed the fermenting time on Day 2, remove your jar of blended flour from the refrigerator the night before making dough so that it is at room temperature when you begin the mixing steps given below.


Day 2:  To make dough for one loaf of bread (double amounts for 2 loaves):


1.  In a large mixing bowl combine the Starter, Water, and Maple Syrup.  The table below gives amounts measured one of three ways, grams; ml, or cups; and for one or two loaves:

                1 Loaf of Bread (1-Qt Jar):              2 Loaves of Bread (2- Qt. Jar):     


230 g

250 ml

~ 1 cup

250 g

500 ml

~2 cups


280 g

300 ml

~1+ cup

560 g

600 ml

~2+ cups

Maple Syrup

20 g

20 ml

1/16+ cup

40 g

40 ml

1/8+ cup


2.  Add Flour Mixture (~490 grams for one loaf) to the wet ingredients above, and stir well to combine.

                       1 Loaf of Bread (1-Qt Jar):         2 Loaves of Bread (2- Qt. Jar):     


230 g

250 ml

~ 1 cup

250 g

500 ml

~2 cups


280 g

300 ml

~1+ cup

560 g

600 ml

~2+ cups

Maple Syrup

20 g

20 ml

1/16+ cup

40 g

40 ml

1/8+ cup


Add Flour:

490-500 g

815 ml

3 ½ cups

980-1000 g

1630 ml

7 cups



3.  When the flour is combined with the wet ingredients, make note of the time.  This time defines the “Start Time” used in the steps that follow.



Once the flour is mixed in well, cover the bowl and let it rest on the counter about 20-30 minutes in a warm kitchen.  [Alternatively, and especially in a cold winter kitchen, you might want to use a proofer set at 80 degrees.  A proofer will help you control the temperature for more accurate timing of the following steps.]


It is easiest to keep track of the next steps in forming your dough by jotting down the “Start Time” and then the times when you will do subsequent steps.  If your day is busy, having these written on a scrap of paper will prevent confusion.


As an example, let’s use 9:00 a.m. as a start time.  The next steps (as explained below) would be…


9:00   Start Time

9:30   Add Salt and Knead

10:15  First Fold

11:00  Second Fold

11:45  Third Fold and 15 Minute “Bench Rest” (optional)

Noon   Place Dough in Refrigerator to be Baked the Following Day


9:00 (Start Time): 

After mixing in flour, let dough rest for 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, lightly oil a rectangular baking pan with olive oil.  Also, measure 20 grams (~ 1 generous tablespoon) of fine Celtic sea salt into a small cup and add just enough water to moisten.  Stir the salt mixture and have it ready.



Uncover the dough, add the sea salt and hand-knead the dough for five minutes until dough becomes sticky.  You may want to use a pan of water and a dough scraper to scrape sticky dough from your hands and the sides of the mixing bowl.  [Alternatively, dough can be kneaded with an electric mixer on the lowest speed using a dough hook.  Knead until dough gathers around the hook and clears the bowl.}


Transfer dough to the lightly oiled rectangular pan and let the dough rest for 45 minutes, either on the counter, cover, or in a proofer.


                      1 Loaf of Bread (1-Qt Jar):             2 Loaves of Bread (2- Qt. Jar):     


230 g

250 ml

~ 1 cup

250 g

500 ml

~2 cups


280 g

300 ml

~1+ cup

560 g

600 ml

~2+ cups

Maple Syrup

20 g

20 ml

1/16+ cup

40 g

40 ml

1/8+ cup


490-500 g 815 ml 3 ½ cups 980-1000 g 1630 ml 7 cups

Add Salt/H2O:

20 g

20+ ml

1+ Tablespoons

40 g

40+ ml

2+ Tablespoons



First fold (folding strengthens dough):  Using water to wet your hands and a scraper for scooping and folding, leave the dough in the oiled pan and gently fold it by doubling it over itself.  Rotate the pan 90 degrees and continue folding the dough from the middle over itself again until you have completed a full circle, folding the dough a total of 4 times. [Folding helps redistribute remaining sugars and adds strength to the dough.]  Gently smooth the dough into a ball.  Let the dough rest another 45 minutes on the counter or in a proofer.



Second foldRepeat as in first fold, folding dough from all 4 directions, rotating the pan each time to make a full circle.   Gently shape the dough into a smooth ball.  Let dough rest and proof for 45 minutes.



Third fold/shape boule:  If making two loaves, cut dough in equal halves and place each on a lightly oiled counter top.  Gently fold from 4 sides as before, once around.  Then shape boule:  gently smooth dough and tuck under to form a smooth ball of dough.  Cover dough and allow to rest ~5 minutes.


Meanwhile, using ~1/8 cup rye flour generously dust a brotform bread mold (or a smooth dish towel that you have stretched out on a counter).  Gently invert and transfer the dough to the brotform (or the center of the pastry cloth and use the cloth to lift the dough into a 10” round bowl).   (The surface of the dough at the top of the bowl will be the bottom of the loaf that you will bake on Day 3; and the floured surface at the bottom of the bowl will be the top of the finished loaf of bread.) Dust the exposed surface of dough lightly with rolled oats and cover (I use beeswax cloth).


Noon:  Place the brotform or bowl filled with dough in the refrigerator to proof until the next day.


Day 3:  Baking Sourdough Bread

  1. Preheat a 3-quart flat-topped Lodge Pot in the oven heated to 500o.   Remove dough from refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature.
  2. Assemble the equipment you will need:  razor blades, a misting bottle filled with water, oven mitts, additional rolled oats if needed, a baking rack, and parchment paper cut in a ~11”-12” square.
  3. When the Lodge Pot is warmed and the dough is at room temperature, uncover the dough and sprinkle surface with more oats, if needed (rolled oats prevent the dough from burning on the bottom.  Place the parchment paper on a counter.  Carefully invert the brotform or bowl over the parchment paper so that the dough falls into the center of the parchment paper (bottom side down).  [If you used pastry cloth and a bowl rather than a brotform, gently peel off the floured cloth.  It can be washed, dried, and used again.]
  4. Score the dough in a tic-tac-toe pattern:  From one direction using a razor blade held at a 45-degree angle, carefully score the dough off its center in two parallel lines.  Flip the blade to its clean side and score the dough from the other direction twice again to form a “tic-tac-toe” design.  Scoring the bread allows it to rise and expand from within and prevents the surface crust from tearing when the dough bakes.
  5. Transfer the dough and parchment to the flat 10” bottom portion of the Lodge Pot.
  6. Mist the dough, cover Lodge Pot with the dome, and place the Lodge Pot in the oven.   Set a timer for 15 minutes.  Allow the bread to bake.
  7. After 15 minutes, turn down the oven to 450o. and allow the dough to bake an additional 15 minutes.
  8. Carefully remove the dome cover and allow the dough to bake 3-5 minutes more to brown the crust.
  9. Remove Lodge Pot bottom and bread from oven.
  10. With heat-resistant spatulas, transfer the bread from the Lodge Pot to a cooling rack.  A thermometer inserted into the loaf should read ~200-207o.
  11. Allow bread to rest for about 2 hours before cutting.


Equipment you will need:

  • 2 quart Ball jar; wooden spoon and spatula…for starter (see separate instructions)
  • Large mixing bowl; 1-2 brotforms or 1-2 ~10“ diameter bowls, material to cover
  • Dough scraper
  • Rectangular baking pan and olive oil for oiling surfaces
  • 3 Quart Cast Iron Combo-Cooker Lodge Pot for baking, hot pads or oven mitts
  • Parchment paper; razor blades; misting bottle, rolled oats
  • Kitchen timer
  • Brod & Taylor folding proofer, kitchen scale and baking thermometer (all are optional)



Reading Resources:

Ellen Arian, www.ellensfoodandsoul.com

Emily Buehler, Bread Science

Lisa Raynor, Wild Bread


www.Pathways4Health.org,:   Spring 2015: Keeping a Sourdough Culture to Meet Your Baking Needs;

                                                             Sourdough Recipes and How to Add Starter to Your Favorite Recipes


Copyright 2015, Pathways4Health.org


Summer 2015: Traditional Whole Grains for Good Health and the Prevention of Chronic Disease

For an easy-to-read pdf copy, click Traditional Whole Grains for Good Health and Chronic Disease Prevention


This newsletter is written in honor of Annemarie Colbin, PhD (1940-2015), founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute, author of Food and Healing (1986), and mentor to many people in the field of food and nutrition.  Among her pioneering ideas, Annemarie recognized how systems theory from the field of physics applies to foods—the concept that whole foods as systems ideally support our own bodies as systems.  In the 1970s and 1980s, when the food industry was pushing fractured foods such as refined flour, refined vegetable oils, and high fructose corn syrup because they were cheap and had a long shelf life, Annemarie’ counter-cultural message advocating the health-supportive role of whole foods was an important one.  As she noted, “The pendulum can swing only so far…” and in part through her voice, a chorus of others, and the legacy she left behind, we witness today a reawakened interest in whole foods/whole grains and the role that they play in supporting good nutrition and health.


In similar spirit, I want to recognize my friend Ali Berlow, founder of Island Grown Initiative, and her new book, A Food Advocate’s Handbook (2015).  Ali wrote this “how to” inspirational guide to outline the many ways in which we can support the whole foods movement by advocating, collaborating, and educating to build sustainable food systems in our own local areas.



Many people today avoid bread, grains and grain-based products due to fears of gluten, weight-gain, and/or environmental pollutants such as arsenic, a carcinogen sometimes found in rice.  Avoiding grains is understandable if we consider that the majority of grains we consume today are refined, often genetically engineered, and linked to intolerances and chronic disease.  But, omitting grains from our diet means we can miss out on the many vital nutrients and health benefits that traditional whole grains have long provided to support and sustain cultures throughout time.


In writing this newsletter, I hope to contribute to your understanding of refined grains and the way that science and innovation have rapidly altered traditional grains, stretching our adaptive capabilities beyond their limits to increase the likelihood of chronic disease.  I would also like to discuss the important roles that traditional whole grains play in supporting good health and nutrition.


Above all, I want to inspire you to emphasize whole grains in your diet if you do not already do so.  Scientific studies suggest that traditional whole grains significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, gastrointestinal issues, AND obesity.1     Interestingly, too, of all the plant foods that we consume, only grains provide all the macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber required to sustain life. [As evidence of the nutrition packed into whole grains, many prisoners in World War II were able to survive on a simple diet composed only of whole-grain bread and water.]


Whole grains are complete.  A traditional whole grain is a powerful, integrated holistic system, a complex web of macro- and micronutrients, antioxidants, and phyto-chemicals that work together synergistically to sustain good health.  In addition, when eaten with fruits and vegetables, the phyto-chemicals in whole grains work in similar synergistic fashion with the nutrients in fruits and vegetables to support well being.


Part of the power and health-supportive nature of traditional whole grains relates to the life force energy and variety of nutrients that are programmed into every kernel, something nature designed to support the life of a new plant.  For centuries, whether eaten as whole kernels or ground into flour to make bread, civilizations consumed grains in their whole form, with the germ, bran, and endosperm eaten in the same proportions present in the intact kernel of the plant.


For traditional cultures, whole grains represented not only nutritious energy but also security and power.  A single grain of rice, for example, could in three years multiply exponentially to yield 10,000 new grains, the equivalent of seven tons of rice!2  Rice was a sacred grain worshipped in Asia for its power to provide energy and satisfy hunger, just as wheat and corn were in the Americas.


Today, in times of greater “calorie security,” traditional whole grains are still important to support health:  Because they are loaded with B-vitamins, whole grains are ideally suited to help us sustain mental focus and cope with our modern lifestyle that is marked by information overload.   The rich complement of B vitamins in whole grains also helps us deal with the stresses inherent in our fast-changing world.


Refined Grains, Genetically Modified Grains, and High Fructose Corn Syrup in an Evolutionary Context

To appreciate whole grains, let’s first consider how in the short space of recent decades the food industry and science have fractured and genetically altered grains.  As in past times, grains still account for the majority of calories consumed by people in most parts of the world, but today the majority of grains are consumed in fractured form.  This is true whether we are talking wheat, the major gain of the United States and Russia; rice, the staple grain of India, China, and Japan; or the maize and rice of Central and South America.


As suggested earlier, refined flour as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon.  White flour dates to the roller mill, which was developed in Hungary in the late 1860s and early 1870s and soon replaced the grist mill.  Unlike grist mills that invariably left behind some particles of the whole grain’s fibrous bran and perishable germ, the roller mill was able to grind grains to easily separate the bran and germ from the starchy endosperm to produce a true white flour.


Refined flour, with its long shelf life, helped launch the modern food industry while it also answered the preference of individuals for light, “fluffy” bread and bakery products.  With the roller mill, the 100-year interval between the 1870s and 1970s brought about a major shift in demand from whole to refined grains, whether as refined flour for home baking or as bakery products created in endless innovative ways by the food industry.


In contrast to the centuries-old traditional whole grain diet of our forebears, today the typical American consumes 6-7 servings of grains a day, of which 5-6 servings are refined grain products.  Bread accounts for slightly more than a quarter (26%) of all grains we eat, followed by pizza (11%), grain-based desserts (10%), tacos/tortillas/burritos (8%), pasta (7%), and chips and crackers (7%).  Surprisingly, ready-to-eat cereals, which take up voluminous shelf space in super markets, account for less than 3% of all grains Americans consume.3  Of course, we also ingest grains in the form of high-fructose sweetened drinks (and indirectly through grain-fed poultry, beef, lamb, pork, and fish).


With regard to the health-related implications of this shift to refined grain products, the human body metabolizes refined flour even faster than sugar, a factor that creates blood sugar spikes, and with time can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and other chronic disease.   In addition, by refining out not only taste but also the complementary nutritional cofactors located in the bran and germ, consuming refined grains forces the body to tap into its own precious mineral stores (think osteoporosis, for one) to provide the missing cofactors needed to digest and assimilate refined grains.


As noted above, most grains that we consume today are in the form of prepared and packaged foods. Many of the grains used in these food products are not only refined, but also genetically manipulated.  Through genetic engineering, science has developed hybrid, high-yield varieties of corn and wheat that dominate our diet in a myriad of ways:


In the short space of the last 45 years or so, scientists developed “dwarf wheat” and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Dwarf wheat is a new hybrid variety of high-yield, elastic, high-gluten wheat designed to withstand the industrial processes involved in making modern factory bread.  Dwarf wheat causes gluten problems for many people.   During this same 45-year period, science and industry developed a processed grain product, HFCS as a cheaper alternative to sugar.  HFCS is largely derived from genetically modified corn; it spikes blood sugar in more extreme fashion than table sugar; and, HFCS contributes to weight gain in a greater way than table sugar.   HFCS is linked more strongly to diabetes, obesity, and chronic disease than refined flour or table sugar.


In an evolutionary context, traditional whole grains entered the human diet as a staple with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and for the last 3,000-4,000 years, grains have been a major component of the human diet.4  Along the expansive continuum of evolutionary time, genetically engineered corn, dwarf wheat, and HFCS are very new.


Why is this important?  Because grains, our major dietary staple, have been altered too rapidly and in ways that are too extreme to allow our bodies to comfortably adapt.  We see evidence of this in the major increase of chronic disease in our modern world.  Diabetes is a vivid example:  It is estimated that one-third of all Caucasians and one half of all Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians born after 2000 will develop diabetes.  It appears that given their genetic makeup, these latter groups have an extremely difficult time adapting to refined flour, GMO grains, and their derivative products.


In summary, refined white flour is a problem.  Genetic engineering of grains like corn and wheat for high yields and to resist pesticides is a problem.  And, so too is HFCS as a major sweetener in foods and soft drinks.  These push the body beyond its adaptive limits and create inflammation that leads to chronic disease.


Thankfully, in recent years, more governmental, academic, and other non-profit groups have started to encourage people to increase their consumption of whole grains.  In 2000, the USDA issued a special recommendation suggesting that individuals consume at least three 16-gram whole grain servings a day.  While only 5% of all Americans meet this guideline, this message appears to be gradually taking hold.  More Americans are demanding whole grains and the food industry is following suit.  We see more bread and boxed cereals prominently, and often deceptively, displaying the “whole grain” label, and individuals appear to be purchasing more “whole grain” products with each passing year.


The Anatomy of a Whole Grain and the “Whole Grain” Labeling Problem

A whole grain is composed of three major parts, the germ, bran and endosperm all encased in a protective outer husk.  The germ, the vital essence of the grain but only a small portion of its volume, contains the embryo, the life force of the plant.  The germ contains vitamins, minerals, and some fat and protein.  The bran, the outer layers of the grain that protects the delicate germ against water, pests, sunlight, and bacteria, provides vitamins, minerals, fiber, and organic compounds that defend against pathogens and parasites.  The starchy endosperm is the largest part of the grain and its role is to provide food for the seedling.  While mostly starch, the endosperm also contains some protein, vitamins, and minerals.


Unfortunately, a legitimate “whole grain” and what the United States allows the food industry to call a “whole grain” are not one in the same.  The American Association of Cereal Chemists uses a strict definition, a whole grain being the “intact, ground, cracked or flaked fruit of the grain whose principal components, the starchy endosperm, germ and bran, are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain.”  In contrast, the United States allows the food industry to label products “whole grain” as long as they contain at least 51% whole grain flour by weight as well as 1.7% dietary fiber.  When purchasing “whole grain” products, read labels carefully to get a better sense of the true ingredients, since food companies are required to list ingredient in descending order of importance.


Whole Grain Nutrients and Compounds Work in Synergy as a System to Prevent Disease

A whole grain contains B-vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid), minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, and iron), amino acids, and vitamin E-rich oils.  Whole grains are also packed with a complex network of health-supportive phytochemicals, lignans, phytosterols, and a variety of other protective compounds.  Most of these vital compounds are located in the bran and germ.


Hundreds of scientific studies have been written that document the link between specific plant nutrients, fiber, and non-nutrient plant compounds and the prevention of specific chronic diseases.   Fortunately, much of this scientific research is summarized and readily accessible in two thorough contemporary reports, one by the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), “Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together:  Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains; and, the other, “Whole Grains and Human Health” by Joanne Slavin, of the Dept. of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota.


These two reports confirm that whole grains contain a broad array of health-supportive factors, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phyto-chemicals, dietary fiber, resistant starch, oligosaccharides, trace minerals, phenolic compounds, phytates, and phyto-estrogens, including lignans, plant stanols, and sterols.  And, both reports state the key point that I would like you to take away, namely, that the extensive list of ingredients in a whole grain work together synergistically as a system and in multiple ways to help prevent a variety of chronic diseases.  These include cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer; whole grains also support gastrointestinal health…


“The additive synergistic effects of… bioactive phytochemicals found in whole grains may be responsible for the health benefits associated with whole grains.” (ASN)


“The essential macro- and micronutrients along with phytonutrients present in whole grains synergistically contribute to their beneficial effects.” (ASN)


“Other compounds in grains, including antioxidants, phytic acid, lectins, phenolic compounds, amylase inhibitors, and saponins have all been shown to alter risk factors for CHD.  It is probable that the combination of compounds in grains, rather than any one component, explains their protective effect in CHD.” (Slavin)


“The synergistic effect of several whole grain components, such as phytochemicals, vitamin E, Mg, or other, may be involved in the reduction of the risk for type 2 DM [diabetes].” (Slavin)


Beyond the science, what fascinates me most about traditional whole grains is their spiritual quality and the rather magical life force energy that is held in timeless suspension, a treasure of life potential, held in each tiny grain.  Science, by pointing to the intricacies and interplays of nutrients packed into a traditional whole grain, can give us every reason to be as much in awe of whole grains as were our forebears who must have intuitively sensed this.


Rotating Grains for a Wide Complement of Nutrients and to Avoid (Man-Made) Health Problems

Whole grains vary in the amount of calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fiber that they provide for a given weight serving.  Of the seven major grains—wheat, oats, barley, brown rice, maize, rye, and millet—oats rank highest in calories, protein, and fats; brown rice is highest in carbohydrates, and (hulled) barley tops other grains in fiber content.  On the other end of the spectrum, of the seven major grains, brown rice is lowest in both protein and fiber; rye is lowest in fat; and oats are lowest in carbohydrate.


The major grains eaten in the United States are wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice, with wheat accounting for two-thirds to three-quarters of the grains we consume on a daily basis.  The recent increase in gluten intolerance relates at least in part to the major role that wheat plays in our diet, as well as to the introduction only several decades ago of high-gluten dwarf wheat that is now the dominant wheat used by the food industry.  Chemicals and pesticides are another reason to rotate grains, especially for people who emphasize brown rice in their diet:  Much of the rice grown in the United States contains arsenic (rice readily absorbs arsenic residues left behind in the soil) from the days when cotton growers used arsenic as a pesticide against the boll weevil. [I plan to write about rice and arsenic in a future newsletter.]


It is easy to eat the same grains out of habit, but for balanced nutrition and to avoid gluten intolerance problems and arsenic that can affect brown rice, try to rotate grains.  Have fun experimenting with those that may be new to you.  (For recipes, see the books listed in Reading Resources, p.6)


Chew Well

Chew well, especially when eating grains.  Grains and other carbohydrates need to ground well and mixed with the enzymes in saliva to begin the process of carbohydrate digestion.  If swallowed too quickly, carbohydrates miss this  important stage of digestion.  They then sit in the stomach as proteins and fats are broken down, later moving to the lower digestive tract where carbohydrate digestion again resumes in earnest. Too little chewing can result in incomplete digestion, discomfort, and flatulence.   [Chewing food 25-30 times before swallowing is also one of the most effective ways to lose/maintain a healthy weight.]



Whole Grain Reawakening?

Nutrition, texture, and taste are inseparable partners.  This is an important principle because the more whole grains we consume, the more our taste preferences will shift to favor whole grains over refined, empty ones. Of all American consumers today, 95% do not meet the government’s whole-grain, three-servings/day guideline.   So, yes, we have a ways to go, but every time we choose whole grains over refined grain products, we school our taste buds to prefer the taste and texture of whole grains over the empty calories and empty feeling conveyed by refined products.  It’s a habit worth striving for.


Reading Resources:


Adon KK, Sorrels ME, Liu RH, “Phytochemicals and antioxidant activity of milled fractions of different

wheat varieties,” (2005).

Jonnalagadda SS, Harnack L, Liu RH, McKeown N, Seal C, Liu S, & Fahey G, “Putting the Whole Grain

Puzzle Together:  Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains—Summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium” (2010).

Liu RH, “Potential Synergy of Phytochemicals in Cancer Prevention:  Mechanism of Action,” (2004).

Okarter N & Liu RH, “Health Benefits of Whole Grain Phytochemical,” (2010).

Slavin, J, “Whole Grains and Human Health” (2004).

Spiller, GA, “Whole Grains, Whole Wheat, and White Flours in History,” (2002)

Zavala, YJ & Duxbury, JM, “Arsenic in Rice:  Estimating Normal Levels of Total Arsenic in Rice Grain”




Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt, Waves of Grain

Joanne Saltzman, Amazing Grains

Maria Speck, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Rebecca Wood, The Splendid Grain


Reliable Sources of Whole Grain Flour:

Anson Mills, www.ansonmills.com

Giusto’s Bakery & Flour Mills, www.giustos.com

King Arthur Flour, www.kingarthurflour.com

The Union Square Greenmarket Grain Initiative, www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/manhattan


Copyright 2015 Pathways4Health.org


  1. According to repeated scientific studies, whole grains support stable weight and reduce the risk of diabetes by as much as 30%; stroke by more than 30%; and heart disease by 25% or more. []
  2. Christian Elwell, South River Miso. []
  3. National Cancer Institute []
  4. GA Spiller, “Whole Grains, Whole Wheat, and White Flours in History,” in Whole-Grain Foods in Health and Disease. []

Spring 2015: The Science of Sourdough and Its Health Benefits

 For and easy-to-read pdf copy click SourdoughCulture and for recipes, SourdoughRecipes.2015


Baking with sourdough has a long history, which dates back to the early Egyptians some 5,000 years ago.  The Egyptians discovered that if they mixed and kneaded flour and water together and left it in a cool place, dough would magically rise to create pleasant-tasting, easy-to-work dough for leavened bread. 



While the ancient Egyptians did not understand the complex and fascinating science behind a dependable, long-lasting sourdough culture—a “culture” that involves healthy yeast and bacteria living in symbiotic and sustainable harmony—what they did grasp was that by adding a bit of reserve from a “good” batch of dough to a fresh mix of flour and water before kneading, they could speed the fermentation of the new dough and insure that bad bacteria in the environment did not get the upper hand.  Without knowing the underlying science, but with this simple discovery, “starter” was born.


 Bread baking as perfected by the Egyptians carried forward for centuries as village bakers and homemakers throughout much of the world used sourdough to leaven bread.  They developed a “feel” for dough and an appreciation not only for the way sourdough contributes complex taste, nuance, texture and elasticity to a simple mixture of flour and water, but also for the way it could retard mold and spoilage. 



Unfortunately, in modern times with the discovery of bakers yeast in the 1870s and the commercial development of “factory bread,” the art of sourdough baking has largely been lost.  With this lost art have also gone the many health, nutrition, and taste benefits that sourdough starter contributes to baked goods: 



Sourdough culture works on whole-grain flour both to moderate its blood sugar effect and its phytates.  Sourdough’s ability to diffuse phytates means that vital minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc contained in the bran of whole grains are freed and available   for the body to utilize.


Sourdough enhances the nutrition and enzymes in whole grains.  Sourdough fermentation, like yogurt fermentation, creates new nutrients—bacteria synthesize vitamins such as B12; meanwhile, yeast boosts lysine, the limiting amino acid in grains, to help make sourdough bread a nearly complete protein.


Sourdough adds a richness and depth of flavor to baked goods, while it contributes strength and elasticity to dough to make kneading easier and the addition of bakers yeast unnecessary.  [Bakers yeast should not be added to a sourdough cultured during fermentation because it competes with lactobacilli (the main healthy bacteria in sourdough) for the same food, maltose.]


Sourdough culture is a “pre-ferment.”  Growing a culture the day before preparing baked goods gives any bakery product a “jump start” on flavor, texture, and elasticity.  And, adding sourdough to the dry ingredients of bakery recipes and allowing the contents to soak overnight is an effective way to lower the glycemic impact and phytates in whole-grain bakery products.


Health Benefits of Sourdough Lost in the Shift to Bakers Yeast and Dwarf Wheat


Sourdough fermentation moderates the blood sugar effect of baked goods as bacteria convert the sugars in flour to lactic and acetic acids, which digest slowly and which the body retains in the digestive system for a long period of time, to help moderate blood sugar reactions.   Meanwhile, yeast convert sugars to ethanol (which burns off in baking) and carbon dioxide.  In addition, sourdough fermentation limits the extent to which starches are broken down (gelatinized), something that also moderates the glycemic impact of bakery products.




You might try your own sourdough blood sugar experiment with a blood glucose monitor (Chart 1).  To test the power of sourdough, I combined white flour and water in two separate batches, one that was baked straight away, and the other with the addition of sourdough that fermented overnight.  On two separate mornings, I ate these as a first meal after fasting overnight and then tested my blood sugar every 30 minutes until my blood sugar dropped below the pre-meal fasting level.  “White Bread without Sourdough” made my blood sugar spike at a level more than twice that of the sourdough batch and (due to the insulin response) it quickly fell back again.  In contrast, there was no spike with “White Bread with Sourdough”…my blood sugar rose slowly, smoothly, and gradually.  It peaked and leveled off between 90 and 120 minutes at a reading of 19, less than half White Bread’s peak.  As indicated, my blood sugar was sustained above its starting point for almost four hours, twice as long as for White Bread.


While this is just one home-kitchen experiment, the results are supported by repeated scientific studies:

White bread made with bakers yeast metabolizes rapidly, even more rapidly than sugar, hence spiking blood sugar. In contrast, sourdough bread has a modest effect on blood sugar, tracing a smooth curve that is roughly equivalent to the body’s modest response to eating whole grains, beans, and legumes.


Sourdough fermentation boosts nutrition.  During proofing, yeasts in sourdough boost lysine, the limiting amino acid in grains, to help make sourdough bread a nearly complete protein.  In addition, long proofing allows lactobacilli time to neutralize phytic acid (Chart 2), a natural protection found in the bran of whole grains which would otherwise block digestive enzymes (pepsin, amylase, and trypsin) and the absorption of the vital minerals found in grains such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.  Sourdough bacteria, as in yogurt, also synthesize vitamins, especially vitamin B12.

 Chart 2 - reduction of phytic acid


Gluten Issues…and Sourdough.  Gluten intolerance is a growing problem today, and it is something that is deeply rooted in factors too powerful for sourdough alone (with the strains known to science today) to be able to resolve.


Gluten intolerance is primarily related to the generally poor gut health of our population, which is something fostered by our modern diet of refined, processed, low-fiber foods, as well as to our dietary reliance on wheat, which is higher in gluten than other grains.   To make matters worse, the problem of wheat as our mainstay grain is compounded by our recent shift to a high-yield type of hybrid, extremely high-gluten wheat, called “dwarf wheat,” that was developed by scientists in the 1970s.


Compared to heirloom wheat like einkorn and emmer, which are simple (Table 1), relatively low-gluten wheat varieties that date back centuries, dwarf wheat that was developed in the 1970s has an extra set of chromosomes, something that lies outside our evolutionary norm.  Historically, sourdough has been able to at least partially break down the less-resistant gluten in heirloom wheat by inserting extra water molecules into gluten strands so that they are better tolerated by people with gluten sensitivities.  This is not the case with the gluten in dwarf wheat, which is highly resistant and breaks down very slowly.


Table 1:  Genome of Wheat 






Einkorn Triticum monococcum Diploid AA


Emmer Triticum turgidum, dicoccum Tetraploid AABB


Dwarf Triticum aestivum Hexaploid AABBDD



Scientists are working to develop strains of sourdough bacteria to more effectively breakdown gluten, but, even if they are successful, it is hard to imagine that commercial bakers would be willing to incorporate sourdough, with its need for long fermentation time, into their factory process.  I suspect the overarching problems of our generally poor diet and gut health, as well as our reliance on high-gluten dwarf wheat and the commercial use of bakers yeast suggest that even new, yet undiscovered strains of sourdough cannot be counted on to overcome these broader issues.   The easy remedy is to take up home baking with sourdough, since we can buy heirloom grains through such sources as Anson Mills and we can grow and maintain sourdough culture in our home kitchen to create healthy baked goods that incorporate the many health benefits of sourdough.


The balance of this newsletter explains how to keep a healthy sourdough culture in your home kitchen.  Also included as a separate piece are some easy recipes for using sourdough, as well as ideas for how to incorporate sourdough in some of your favorite recipes.  In a subsequent newsletter, we will describe the slightly more complicated process of how to make sourdough bread with heirloom flour, something that requires three days to let sourdough work its magic, but something that is well worth the effort.


“Why not purchase sourdough bread over the counter?”  Because most sourdough loaves sold commercially are doctored with vinegar and other flavorings to make them taste like sourdough, without the health benefits.  It is not efficient or economical for commercial bakers to allow the time required to produce a true loaf of sourdough bread.


How to Feed and Maintain A Sourdough Culture

Equipment You Will Need:  

  • Large wide-mouth Ball jar with lid; 1- or 2-quart size
  • Sourdough culture; either ¼ or ½ cup, available from King Arthur
  • King Arthur First Clear flour.  First Clear is a high-ash variety that promotes fermentation and the building of flavor by controlling pH levels.
  • Set of measuring cups
  • Long-handled wooden spoon for stirring; spatula for scraping spoon after each addition.
  • Proofer (optional) is helpful in cold weather to speed the three feedings



Directions: for Creating Enough Sourdough Culture to Make One or Two Loaves of Bread

(Use ¼ cup starter if you need only a small amount to add to your favorite recipes.)


1 Qt Jar; ¼ Cup Starter; Yield ~2 Cups Starter     2-Qt Jar; ½ Cup Starter; Yield ~3-4 Cups Starter


Jar 1 Qt.     2 Qt.    
Starter 1/4 Cup     ½ cup    
Feedings:    Flour:  Water:      Flour:  Water:
  1st 1/8 Cup 1/8 Cup   ¼ Cup ¼ cup
  2nd   ¼ Cup ¼ Cup ½ Cup ½ cup
  3rd   ½ Cup ½ Cup 1 Cup 1 cup
Yield ~ 2 Cups       ~3-4 Cups    


  • Keeping “safety” starter in reserve in your refrigerator.  If you are feeding starter from prior baking adventures, pour off into a jar any excess that you have that exceeds the amount given above and keep this as a backup in the refrigerator so you always have viable starter should anything happen to the starter that you are currently feeding.  You can discard any old reserve starter that you have saved in the refrigerator and replace this with the fresh reserve starter every time you feed starter again.


  • Progressive incremental feeding:  Whatever amount of starter at the outset, in order to maintain a healthy balance of good yeast and bacteria, a general rule is to feed your culture in three progressive intervals… first, half; then, equal, and finally, double the amount of flour and water relative to the amount of initial starter.  You do not want to overwhelm the culture at the outset with too much flour before giving the yeast and bacteria enough time to multiply.  Too much flour can encourage foreign invaders (bad bacteria) to grow and spoil your culture.1  A small feeding at first gives the yeast and bacteria time to populate the culture to then be able to handle progressively larger amounts of flour and water.


  • Feedings:  To maintain a vibrant culture, it is best to feed it and use it once or twice a week.  A culture, very much like people, is happiest and healthiest when it is fed, exercised, and then allowed to rest (in the refrigerator) on a regular basis.  When you are ready to feed your starter and have taken it from the refrigerator and poured off a reserve, first allow it to warm it up.  Then, by feeding, stirring, and exposing it to air, you will encourage it come to life.  The purpose of three feedings is to fully awaken starter from its dormant, refrigerated state.  You will see that with successive feedings, as the starter warms and becomes more active, it will double in size more rapidly:  Doubling after the third feeding will happen faster than after the first and second.


  • Time and Temperature:  The time required to feed starter three times to reach a peak at the top of a Ball jar can take anywhere between 6 to 12 hours, depending on room temperature; the temperature of your starter, flour, and water; how often you use your starter; and the type of yeast in your culture (some yeast rise more rapidly than others).  Feeding starter works best at temperatures between 65o and 80o.  In cold weather, if you have a proofer, a setting of  ~800 will work well.  Heat above 95o can kill yeasts, so avoid extremely high temperatures.


  • First and successive feedings:  Add the flour and water and stir vigorously to “exercise” your starter and incorporate oxygen.  Yeasts use oxygen to create carbon dioxide (bubbles that will help dough rise).  Scrape down the sides of the Ball jar.  (This will allow you to keep track of the starter as it grows up the jar, see when it has doubled in size, and know when it needs to be fed again).  Replace the lid.  Covering the jar with a lid allows fermentation to take place in its normal two stages, respiration and fermentation.  In the “respiration” phase before available oxygen is exhausted, yeast converts sugars in flour to carbon dioxide; then in the “fermentation” phase without oxygen sugars are changed to alcohols (the flavorings).  Set the jar on the counter (or proofer) and allow the starter to double in size, which it will do as yeast and bacteria multiply.


  • When to feed starter again:  If you forget to feed a culture once it has doubled in size, it will fall back, losing volume.  This is a sign that the yeast has run out of food and needs to be fed again.  Yeast work more rapidly than bacteria so a culture will reach its full volume before the bacteria have completed their work converting maltose to flavor compounds.  Once starter has doubled three times to reach its maximum volume (it will crest at the top of the “Ball” label on the jar), put the starter in the refrigerator to be used the next day, or even a second day (less “lift” but even more flavor, since bacteria will continue to create flavor).  Alternatively, if your goal is to maximize leavening rather than flavor, you can use starter at the moment that it peaks on the first day after the third rise.  Yeast will at this time be most active and provide the most leavening to dough.


For a vibrant culture, feed and use it often.  Once you have a starter, you want to keep it fed and working for you.   A starter that is fed often is “happy” and active.  After a week in the refrigerator, yeast and bacteria run low on food; some have died.  I like to keep my starter active by feeding and using it at least once a week.  Starter can be kept for up to three weeks in the refrigerator, but it may require several feedings to bring it fully back to life.


Starter is unique, a product of your local environment..  Keeping sourdough starter and using it in everyday baking is the epitome of living local.  This is true even though a Martha’s Vineyard starter, like one grown in Chicago or San Francisco, starts out exactly the same, as a mixture of flour and water.   With successive feedings, each is transformed by the unique set of wild yeasts and bacteria in the local environment as these feed on the starch energy in the flour.  Shipping a San Francisco culture to the East Coast to replicate the wonderful sourdoughs of the Bay Area would not be viable, since it would soon be overtaken by the microscopic wild life of your local area.  Also, because cultures differ by region, their behavior and taste vary:  some rise more rapidly than others, and each has its own coloration of sour, yeasty aroma, and flavoring complexities.


Sourdough cultures, once they become stable, can last for years, even centuries.  Healthy sourdough cultures are each a unique combination of wild yeast and bacteria from the local environment that live symbiotically to support each other.  Most cultures contain yeast and bacteria (largely lactobacilli) in a ratio of about 1:100 (considered ideal) and they support each other since they do not compete for the same foods.  Yeasts are much larger than bacteria.  Most sourdough cultures have one strain of yeast and as many as four types of bacteria.  Yeasts vary in terms of fermenting time; those that react quickly leave less time for bacteria to develop acids and flavorings, resulting in a milder, less-complex tasting culture.


Yeasts eat the simple sugars, fructose and glucose, found in flour but they cannot digest maltose, which is the essential food of lactobacilli.  Lactobacilli thrive on maltose and set free a glucose molecule, which conveniently feeds yeast; meanwhile yeast discards compounds that support the growth of lactobacilli.  In addition, when lactobacilli eat maltose and produce acids, mostly lactic acid and some acetic acid, they lower the pH of a culture to 4-4.5.  Sourdough yeasts grow best in acidic environments and this acidic environment helps protect the ecosystem from foreign invaders like botulism and E. coli bacteria.


Bakers Yeast:  Scientists learned to cultivate bakers yeast for commercial use in the 1870s, which gave rise to factory bread as we know it today.  Bakers yeast is genetically engineered for the quick creation of carbon dioxide gas to make dough rise rapidly but without the benefit of sourdough’s complex tastes, texture, and natural preservatives.  Air, no taste.  Without sourdough’s lactobacilli, commercial bread bakers must add back artificial flavors, conditioners, and preservatives.  Unlike sourdough yeasts, bakers yeast grows best in a neutral to alkaline environment.


Since bakers yeast and lactobacilli both eat maltose and compete for the same food, adding bakers yeast to a sourdough culture will spoil the culture.  Never add anything but flour and water to a sourdough culture.  Sourdough cultures vary by locality and can be grown again and again, in contrast to bakers yeast, a hybrid monoculture product without complexity or nuance that expends with one use.


Fermentation—Texture and Taste:  When feeding starter and before replacing the lid, vigorously stir in flour and water not only to feed yeast and bacteria, but also to incorporate oxygen.  With oxygen (aerobic fermentation), yeasts convert sugars to carbon dioxide to leaven dough.  Then, when the oxygen supply is exhausted (anaerobic fermentation), yeasts switch over to produce alcohols (these largely evaporate during baking) as well as the amino acid glutamate (the savory umami flavor).  To allow for both stages of fermentation in order to develop both CO2 and flavor, stir starter vigorously at each feeding and then cover the jar to encourage both stages of yeast fermentation.


The sour flavor associated with sourdough comes from lactobacilli, the major bacteria in a sourdough culture.  Lactobacilli convert maltose to mild acids, particularly lactic and acetic acids, which give sourdough its sour flavor.  Lactobacilli and other bacteria in the culture also produce ethanol (alcohol) from which multiple flavors develop through secondary chemical reactions.


Hooch. After a starter sits for a while without oxygen in the refrigerator, it develops a layer of brownish liquid on the surface, called “hooch,” which is composed of alcohol and bacteria flavoring compounds.  Stir it back in if you like a stronger flavor for your baked goods, or pour it off if you prefer a culture that is milder in flavor.


Soaking ingredients with sourdough helps moderate their blood sugar effect.  Scientific research suggests three main reasons, all associated with fermentation, why sourdough reduces the metabolic response to grains:  (1) The major by-product of fermentation is lactic acid, which slows the rate at which the body digests starch; (2) Acetic acid, a lesser by-product from fermentation, results in the body retaining food in the digestive system for a longer period of time; and (3) Chemical changes to grain carbohydrates during sourdough fermentation limit the degree to which starches are gelatinized (gelatinization of grains and starches works to spike blood sugar because it allows for a faster digestion and assimilation).  As mentioned earlier, while bread made with bakers yeast and white flour metabolize even more rapidly than sugar, sourdough bread made with whole grain flour has a modest glycemic effect on the body, one equivalent to whole grains, beans, and legumes.



Reading Resources:

Emily Buehler, Bread Science

Karel Kulp and Klaus Lorenz, Handbook of Dough Fermentations.

Sara Pitzer, Baking with Sourdough

Lisa Rayner, Wild Bread

Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, The Bread Builders:  Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens

Ed and Jean Wood, Classic Sourdoughs:  A Home Baker’s Handbook




July/August 2011:   Phytic Acid and Health

September/October 2012:  Defending Traditional Grains

November/December 2012:  Reviving Culture and the Health Benefits of Sourdough

September/October 2013:  Living With and Experimenting With Sourdough


Copyright 2015 Pathways4Health.org



  1. A Ball jar of starter, window to our gut?  I believe there is a parallel between the concept of overfeeding a sourdough culture and the subsequent growth of “bad” bacteria and the way we overfeed ourselves with processed foods to cause the modern “leaky-gut syndrome.”  Isn’t overfeeding a starter with too much flour similar to what we do to ourselves when we ingest large quantities of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and refined flour products?  These types of calories that characterize the Standard American Diet lie outside our evolutionary norm, and they “crowd out” traditional foods from our heritage—high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—often allowing bad bacteria in our gut to seize control, resulting in “leaky gut” and a host of other ills—from behavioral issues to allergies and even autism (see Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD). []

Dietary and Lifestyle Strategies for Acid Reflux

For an easy-to-read pdf copy, click Dietary and Lifestyle Strategies for Acid Reflux


Reflux is a disease of what we eat and when we eat.  Excessive acid and fat in the diet, late-night eating, and consumption of soft drinks and alcohol are the most important and reversible lifestyle-related factors contributing to…reflux.  …Healthy function can be restored, with diet and lifestyle far more important than medication.”  

…Dr. Jamie Koufman, Founder, Voice Institute of New York


Acid reflux?  If we immediately think heartburn, indigestion, and Tums, we miss its many complexities.  Have patience with the next two paragraphs.  If you are one of the 100 million Americans who suffers from acid reflux, this detail is important for understanding reflux and its wide, insidious reach…


Acid reflux results when poor-functioning esophageal sphincters allow stomach acids to backup into the esophagus and the airway. The airway includes the sinuses, voice box, bronchi and lungs, and the throat with its sensitive mucous lining which protects the vagus nerve that lies just underneath.  The vagus nerve regulates the airway and digestive tract to control breathing, swallowing, the cough reflex, the vocal chords and esophageal sphincters.  Because acid reflux can cause injury not only to the esophagus but also to the airway, its symptoms are not limited to heartburn and indigestion alone.  Other conditions may present without heartburn, such as chronic cough, post-nasal drip, throat clearing, hoarseness, an acid taste in the mouth, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and choking episodes.


Classic heartburn and indigestion reflux, commonly called GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease), results when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) located at the lower end of the esophagus allows pepsin and stomach contents to backflow into the esophagus, causing pain and burning in the area located close to the heart.  In contrast, symptoms higher up in the esophagus that are linked to the upper esophageal sphincter (UES) range from allergy-and asthma-type symptoms, chronic cough and post-nasal drip.  These symptoms can be caused when the UES allows stomach acids and its fumes to back up and damage the delicate tissues of the airways and throat/vagal nerve.  Because tissues of the airways are readily injured and numbed to pain, they do not send out pain messages to warn of trouble.  For this reason, airway/throat reflux, sometimes called “silent reflux,” often goes unrecognized, untreated, and/or misdiagnosed.   One in every five Americans suffers from silent reflux and more than one in five from GERD.  Compared to a 10% incidence of reflux in 1970, today 40% or 100 million Americans are troubled by acid reflux, with numbers that grow daily.


Acid reflux can be a precursor of Barrett esophagus and esophageal cancer.  Esophageal cancer thankfully touches relatively few at present so it grabs less attention than other forms of cancer, but it is lethal and is today the fastest growing type of cancer in America.  Also concerning is the fact that acid reflux now affects younger segments of the population:  Once thought a problem of the obese and older age groups, reflux currently affects all age groups about equally, with more than one in three young adults aged 20-29 currently suffering from reflux.


The dramatic increase in acid reflux across all adult age groups reflects in part our modern over-worked, over-programmed lifestyle that often discourages home cooking and leads us to surrender to the convenience of commercial foods and beverages.  In so doing, our food supply has become more and more acidic with time, because soft drinks and commercially prepared foods are highly acidic.


Most soft drinks have a pH in the range of 2-4, an acidity replicating stomach acid.  In view of the 12-fold postwar per capita increase in soft drink consumption by folks aged 12-29, and the popularity of fast foods and convenience snacks, it is not surprising that young adults are increasingly troubled by reflux.


Foods prepared commercially are also a factor bending our dietary profile toward more acids compared to 40 years ago.  This is because Congress, in response to an outbreak of food poisoning in the early 1970s, passed a law policed by the FDA demanding food and beverage companies to add acids to canned and prepared foods and bottled drinks. While the goal of the Title 21 legislation was to kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of commercial foods by bringing the pH of commercial products down to equal the acidity of stomach acid, it has also added more and more acidity to our food supply.   The long-term effects of this action are unknown and untested, but the current acid reflux experience of young adults offers its own warning.  Next time you shop for canned or bottled products, read the list of additives.  Can you guess why ingredients like citric acid and vitamin C are added?  [You can wash and drain some canned foods like beans to diminish acidity.]


When we consume acidic foods and beverages typical of our modern diet, rather than traditional foods from home kitchens of the past, we dump excessive acids into the stomach, which is already highly acidic.   Acid reflux can result, especially if we overeat, drink alcohol or carbonated beverages, wear tight belts or clothing, bend over, lift heavy objects, lie down 2-3 hours after eating, or if we are overweight.


To block excess stomach acids, the drug industry developed over-the-counter histamine-2 receptor antagonists (H2RA) that are sold under such names as Tagamet, Zantac, Pepcid, as well as proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) that are marketed as Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec.  As a testament to the growing acid reflux problem in America, PPIs have become in recent years extremely popular best sellers, with the 2012 sales of Nexium at almost $6 billion making it the premier drug of choice.


H2RAs and PPIs provide no long-term answer for reflux.  They are best used to suppress stomach acid in the initial stages of reflux recovery to complement dietary and lifestyle changes and are not a long-term reflux solution in themselves:  By suppressing symptoms, PPIs can mask tissue damage and lull reflux sufferers who do not also adjust diet and lifestyle into a false sense of well-being.   PPi’s can also cause abdominal pain, bloating, and digestive problems and often result in a rebound in acidity once they are discontinued.  Diet and lifestyle are the only lasting ways to contain acid reflux.



Controlling Pepsin in the Esophagus and Airway by Restricting Acidic Foods and Beverages


Pepsin is the major enzyme in the stomach.  It lies dormant and is inactive unless and until it comes in contact with acids.   In the stomach’s acidic environment, pepsin’s job is to digest the proteins we eat. Pepsin’s home is the stomach, but when the LES allows pepsin to backflow into the esophagus, it can have corrosive effects on the delicate mucous lining of the esophagus and the tissues of the airway.  The role that pepsin plays in acid reflux is important to understand, because it is pepsin activated by acids, not acids per se, that causes reflux-related tissue damage associated with esophageal and throat cancers.


Poor food and beverage choices that cause the esophageal sphincters to relax, as well as overeating, drinking with meals, or bending over or lying down after eating can exert pressure on the LES and lead to a backflow of pepsin into the esophagus.  There, pepsin can adhere to the tissues of the esophagus and lie dormant, waiting to be activated by acidic foods and beverages as they slide down the “feed tube” on the way to the stomach.  Pepsin is most active in a 1-4 pH environment and becomes progressively less active above a pH of 5-6.  So, by limiting acidic foods and by combining acidic foods with those that are alkalizing to raise the pH of any given food combination to or above pH 5-6, we can do a great deal just through diet to assure that pepsin does not get the upper hand.


“What Do You Mean, I Can’t Eat Blueberries?”  What to Eat for Reflux


I receive more questions from people suffering from acid-reflux than any other health issue.  There is a great deal of confusion about what to eat and what not to eat, especially about “healthy” foods like blueberries, plums, onions and garlic that can be triggers for acid reflux.


If I have a major goal in writing this newsletter, it is to try to help eliminate misunderstandings about acidic foods, which do contribute to acid reflux, and acid-forming foods, which do not.  [For a discussion of how acid-forming foods and foods that are alkalizing after digestion and assimilation affect blood pH and chronic disease, see May/June 2013 newsletter, “Alkalizing Foods to Prevent Chronic Disease.”]


As an example to illustrate the confusion surrounding acidic foods that have an ultimate alkalizing effect on the body, let me mention one of my health-conscious friends who religiously sips a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon after a heavy, late evening meal.  Indeed, this is a good “end strategy” for alkalizing the body and supporting the liver, but lemon with its pH of 2, is highly acidic and can initially aggravate reflux by activating pepsin in the esophagus on its way to the stomach. Tables of foods listed by pH can be confusing for anyone with acid reflux since most of these measure the effect foods have on blood pH after digestion and assimilation. Lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, fermented foods like sauerkraut may seem like healthy, alkalizing choices, and they can be for people who have no problem with reflux, but they are not good choices for those who do.


The concept of choosing foods with good intentions but that, in fact exacerbate reflux, extends to foods like pineapple and mint:  Pineapple contains bromelain, a protein- and carbohydrate-digestive enzyme often thought of as a good supplement to be eaten with meals, but pineapple’s pH of 3.5 can lead to reflux trouble.  Likewise, with indigestion, we might reach for mints, since mint is known as a carminative that relieves bloating and gas.  But peppermint and spearmint contain volatile plant oils that encourage the esophageal sphincters to relax.  So, mint tea and after dinner mints are also not good choices for people suffering from reflux.  Instead, try chamomile of ginger tea.


What to eat to counter reflux?  In the initial stages of healing, it is best to eat only foods above pH 6 and avoid specific vegetables like onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers, which can act as triggers.  Also avoid selected fruits, particularly all citrus, pineapple, plums, and berries.  While both food groups are loaded with vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, for the reflux sufferer, they can aggravate reflux.  Later after improvement, limit foods to those above pH 5 or combine a few carefully with high alkaline pH choices.






Perhaps counter-intuitive, foods to emphasize are animal proteins (except most dairy) and whole grain carbohydrates.  Although these foods are acid-forming after they are metabolized, their pH is in the alkaline range so they do not activate pepsin in the esophagus (See accompanying Guide).


If you suffer from acid reflux and would like a reference guide to a food’s natural pH, you might want to use the Food and Drug Administration’s 2007 guide, “Approximate pH of Foods and Food Products” http://www.foodscience.caes.uga.edu/extension/documents/fdaapproximatephoffoodslacf-phs.pdf.  FDA uses these readings to dictate to Big Food the amount of acidity they must add to their products.


Beyond pH, Additional Factors to Consider


Acidity and pH readings are important, but they are not the only issue to consider for acid reflux.  Other factors that cause reflux:  Esophageal sphincter function is important, something that is affected by how much and which kind of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates we eat.  There are also trigger foods/drinks/ spices like alcohol, excessive caffeine, most dairy and cinnamon that cause the release of excess stomach acids.  In addition, damage to the tissues of the esophagus is partly a function of the volume and acidity of stomach contents that are refluxed and the length of time these are in contact with esophageal tissues so late-night eating, fried or fatty foods that delay digestion, and alcohol soon before bed cause trouble.


Leaving behind our pH lens, let’s first think of the three macronutrient food groups:


Proteins:  Proteins in the form of lean animal meats, fish, and shellfish help to increase esophageal sphincter pressure, so they are good foods for reflux.  The exception is dairy and other foods high in calcium because amino acids and peptides that are produced from digesting the proteins in dairy products and calcium stimulate gastrin, which in turn triggers the release of hydrochloric acid.


Fats:  Trans fats and fatty food decrease sphincter pressure; fats also delay digestion, so food takes longer to empty the stomach, putting more pressure on the lower sphincter.  This is  especially important to remember when eating at night soon before bedtime.  (It takes 3-4 hours for the stomach to empty, depending upon what is eaten.  Try to consume most fats and heavy proteins early in the day, with lighter fare like vegetable soups and salads for supper.)


Natural fats like extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and butter (salted) from grass-fed animals play a health-supportive role in any program to curb acid reflux because fats satisfy hunger and can help prevent overeating carbohydrates.  As mentioned, fats are best consumed earlier in the day with lighter fare at night to allow the stomach to empty before bed.


Carbohydrates:   Many carbohydrates like whole grains, oven-roasted potatoes and root vegetables (except onions and garlic) are good choices because they are non-acidic and high in fiber.  Fiber, like fats, satisfies hunger and helps the body expel wastes.


Specific Foods to Avoid:


Foods that encourage the body to release acids, particularly those that stimulate the body to release  hydrochloric acid:  Alcohol, coffee (both caffeinated and decaffeinated), tea (those with methylxanthines), and calcium/most dairy.


Foods that relax the esophageal sphincters: Mint/peppermint, chocolate, and alcohol.  Chocolate is a particular offender because it is high in fat and contains caffeine and cocoa.


Foods that aggravate an inflamed esophagus:  Citrus fruits and juices (especially on an empty stomach), acidic foods, soft drinks, alcohol, as well as pepper, hot spices, and sometimes clove, nutmeg, cinnamon.


Foods and lifestyle factors that increase pressure on the sphincters:  Carbonated beverages, fatty foods including cheese and greasy steaks and burgers.  Also lifestyle factors like large meals and overeating, drinking with a meal, tight-fitting clothing, and bending over, lifting, or lying down soon after a meal.


Other foods that can trigger reflux:  Any number of idiosyncratic trigger foods that may be particular to you, as well as onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers that relax the esophageal sphincters.


Antidotes to Reflux (See also Guide, page 4):

  • Avoid or limit alcohol, especially at night; lose weight if overweight; avoid tight belts/clothing; bending over, lifting, vigorous exercise, or lying down shortly after eating.
  • Allow 3-4 hours between the last meal or snack and bedtime.
  • Eat small meals and avoid carbonated beverages, especially with meals.
  • Consume lean animal meats to help increase sphincter pressure; whole grains and high-fiber foods to satisfy hunger; and healthy fats, preferably early in the day, for satiety and to prevent overeating.
  • Eat “downward energy” foods, those that burrow down through the ground to grow like carrots (pH 7) and parsnips (pH 6.6).  [See October 2010 Newsletter, “The Signatures of Foods.”]
  • Chew well; consider drinking alkaline water like Evamor.  Try ginger (pH 6.5) chewing gum to stimulate the release of saliva; saliva (pH 6.5+) helps neutralize reflux.


Summary and Conclusion


Many experts believe that acid reflux can be eliminated by diet and lifestyle adjustments, and I hope this is true.  However, it seems logical to me that sphincter muscles tire under the weight and pressure of time and tend to lose elasticity as we age.  I have to wonder whether acid reflux can be totally contained by a cautious diet and lifestyle.  But, to me, it really does not matter.  What matters most is that we try to do all that we can to help our body perform as best it can with each passing year.  I believe the most important idea for someone who attempts to “follow all the rules” and still has some lingering reflux is not to give up and think that health-supportive strategies are not working:  Think of how much worse off we would be without such a regimen.  Wherever we are on the spectrum of health, our system deserves our support.

                                                                                                                                                Copyright 2014 Pathways4Health.org


Reading Resources


Gropper, SS, Smith, JL, and Groff, JL, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism

Koufman, Jamie, The Chronic Cough Enigma


Journal Articles:

Babka, JC, Castell, DO.  On the genesis of heartburn:  The effects of specific foods on the lower

esophageal sphincter.  American Journal of Disgestive Disease 1973; 18: 391-97.


Cohen S, Booth GH.  Gastric acid secretion and lower esophageal sphincter pressure in response to

coffee and caffeine.  New England Journal of Medicine 1975; 293: 897-99.


Dennish GW, Castell DO.  Inhibitory effect of smoking on the lower esophageal sphincter.  New England

Journal of Medicine 1971; 284:  1136-37.


Dent, J, Holloway, RH, Toouli, J, Dodds, WJ (1988).  Mechanisms of lower oesophageal sphincter

incompetence in patients with symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux.  Gut, 29 (8):  1020-1028.


Feldman EJ, Isenberg JI, Grossmand MK.  Gastric acid and gastrin response to decaffeinated coffee and a

peptone meal.  JAMA 1981; 246:  248-50.


Hogan WJ, Andrade SRV, Winship DH.  Ethanol-induced acute esophageal motor dysfunction.  Journal of

Applied Physiology 1972; 32:  755-60.


Johnson, N, Dettmar, PW, Bishwokarma, B, Lively, MO, Koufman, JA (2007).  Activity/Stability of human

pepsin:  implication for reflux attributed laryngeal disease. Laryngoscope, 117; 1036-9.


Koufman, JA, Aviv, JE, Casiano, RR, Shaw, GY (2002).  Laryngopharyngeal reflux:  Position statement of

the Committee on Speech, Voice, and Swallowing Disorders of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.  Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 127: 32-35.


Langevin, SM, Michaud, DS, Marsit, CJ, Nelson, HH, Birnbaum, AE, Eliot, M, Christensen, BC, McClean,

MD, Kelsey, KT (2013).  Gastric Reflux is an independent risk factor for laryngopharyngeal carcinoma.  Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, 22 (6): 1-8.


Lenz HJ, Rerrari-Taylor J, Isenberg JI.  Wine and five percent alcohol are potent stimulants of gastric acid

secretion in humans.  Gastroenterology 1983; 85: 1082-87.


Sigmund CJ, McNally ER.  The action of a carminative on the lower esophageal sphincter.

Gastroenterology 1969; 56: 13-18.


Thomas FB, Steinbaugh JT, Fromkes JJ, Mekhjian HS, Caldwell JH.  Inhibitory effect of coffee on lower

esophageal sphincter pressure.  Gastroenterology 1980; 79: 1262-66.


Wright LE, Castell DO, The adverse effect of chocolate on lower esophageal sphincter pressure.

Digestive Disease 1975; 20: 703-7.

Fall 2014: Choices? Myths? A Case for the Affordability of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

To read this newsletter in an easy pdf format, click here to download A Case for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables


We all care about food and nutrition and we probably feel well-versed in many issues that relate to good health.  One “truth” that we hear repeated again and again, so often in fact that we may take it for granted, and without much thought, is that fresh fruits and vegetables are priced out of reach and too expensive to be a mainstay in the diet of the typical American family.


As a former economist and someone familiar with government economic statistics, I have watched food lose share of the consumer dollar year after year as we give a greater priority to other goods and services, especially high-tech and recreation durables and health care services:  In the early postwar period, Americans spent 24% of every dollar on food; today, we spend less than 10% (Chart 1).  In recent decades, we seem to have traded food dollars for dollars spent on health care (Chart 2). 


chart 1 and 2


The apparent shift in our preferences away from food toward other goods and services got me thinking:




What factors explain the dramatic decline in the food/disposable personal income (DPI) ratio in Chart 1?


If we devote so little of our income to food relative to 50 years ago, isn’t there room in the budget to give a little more emphasis to food in general and fresh fruits and vegetables in particular?  [We can use fresh fruits and vegetables, for which there is historic data, as proxies for nutrient-dense, health-supportive foods.]


Does price explain the steep drop in the food/DPI ratio—the food industry presenting us with cheaper food options and savings so we can spend more for other goods and services?


How much of the typical consumer dollar goes to fresh fruits and vegetables?


Have the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables gone up that much more than other foods, as well as all other consumer goods and services, to render fresh produce unaffordable?


What else is the typical American family buying that makes fresh produce feel so unaffordable?


Overview and Conclusions…


The charts and tables that follow represent ideas and concepts derived from raw data available through the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a division of the Department of Commerce.


The data suggest that some of the overarching influences on consumer spending have come not only from the relative prosperity of the postwar years, but also specifically from the growth and influence of the food and drug industries, the development of new high-tech products and medical technologies, and the powerful role of low-cost imports.   Imports, by complementing and competing with domestic products, have had a major impact on consumer behavior and shopping habits, especially in recent decades.


The story of postwar consumer spending, the expanding market basket of goods, and the role of imports is a fascinating one and the conclusions below are perhaps more easily understood in this context.  But in the interest of brevity and not to be sidetracked by too much history and too many statistics, many of which are captured in the tables and charts, let’s focus here on just a few summary thoughts and leave this story to be told in the Appendix of this newsletter, if you would like more background on the topic.


Table 1



Chart 3A


Chart 3B


Chart 3C_Page_1



While you may develop ideas from the charts and tables on your own, these are some specific conclusions that I draw from them:


  • Americans have dramatically cut back on their relative spending for goods across virtually every expenditure category in order to purchase more services.   Since the early 1950s, consumers have diverted 26 cents of every dollar from goods to services; with half, some 13 cents redeployed to health care services (Table 1, last column).
  • As a nation, we spend about three times the amount for alcoholic beverages than for either fresh fruits or fresh vegetables.  We spend twice the amount for non-alcoholic beverages (especially sugary soft drinks) and twice the amount for bakery products than for fresh fruits or vegetables.  And, we spend a roughly equivalent amount for sugary snacks and sweets compared to fresh fruits and vegetables (Chart 3A).
  •  From what we hear about the high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, we might assume that their prices have outpaced prices of such consumer favorites as beverages, bakery products, and sugary snacks, but Chart 3A suggests that this is not the case.  Prices have inched up in like fashion for all of the food categories depicted in Chart 3A.  The fact that consumers have increased their spending on all these categories at essentially equivalent rates suggests that taste and convenience, not nutrition and health, may be the key priorities when Americans stroll the aisles of grocery and convenience stores (Chart 3A).
  • Amounts spent for physician care and also for prescription drugs each account for 8-10 times the dollars we spend on fresh fruits and vegetables (Chart 3B).  Prescription drug sales have grown at twice the rate of spending for fresh fruits and vegetables (10.2% vs. 5.2% and 4.9%, respectively) and its share of PCE has increased by almost five-fold in the last 60 years to now account for almost 3% of total consumer spending (vs. 0.3% for fresh fruits!).   Americans also spend more for non-prescription drugs than for fresh fruits or fresh vegetables (Chart 3B).
  • Americans spend more on amusement parks, toys and games, air travel, and gambling and lotteries than on fresh fruits or fresh vegetables…the latter by a wide margin.  Spending for gambling and lotteries (presumably a highly-discretionary expenditure and one that entices most economic classes) has grown at twice the rate of fresh fruits and vegetables and absorbs three times the dollars (Chart 3C).
  • Compared to 60+ years ago, consumers are spending less of every dollar on food and more on beverages of all types (Table 2).  Of every dollar spent on food, consumers have shifted 13½ cents away from meat, poultry, milk and eggs, in order to spend 11½ cents more on cereals, bakery products, and “other food” which includes convenience snacks and frozen and canned prepared foods.  Economizing efforts have aimed most at milk and eggs, where consumers have cut back 8½ cents in order to spend 9 cents more of every dollar on snacks and frozen/prepared foods.



  1. Prices for fresh fruits and vegetables have not run wild; instead, they have risen only moderately faster (3.7% and 4.0%, respectively) compared to food overall (3.1%) and consumer goods and services as a whole (3.3%);
  2. Fresh fruits and vegetables account for such a negligible portion (0.3% and 0.4%, respectively) of the consumer dollar that price increases should be relatively easy to absorb;
  3. Fresh produce appears affordable in the context of the many dollars consumers spend on discretionary items like alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, amusement parks, gambling and lotteries.


We know that Americans as consumers are rational beings.  From the data, we might conclude that what many are short on is really not so much money, but time.  With more women working outside the home;  with households having fewer hours to devote to planning, shopping, and cooking; and, with screens, especially the internet soaking up more hours of our day, it is easy to be caught off guard, needing a calorie lift and with no healthy food options in sight.  It is then that consumers reach for quick options like soft drinks and snack foods.


Without adequate time to shop, cook, and prepare healthy meals and with the satisfaction and convenience provided us by the food industry’s array of sugary beverages and snacks, it is easy to see why the myth that fruits and vegetables are unaffordable has gained in popularity and gone unchallenged.


Copyright 2014, Pathways4Health.org



Overview of Consumer Spending in the Postwar:  The Shift Away from Staple Goods, Toward Discretionary Hard Goods and Services

A Discussion Shaped, in Part, by Data Outlined in Table 1


Relative peace and prosperity following World War II ushered in a period of unprecedented growth in consumer spending, as well as major shifts within the consumer market basket itself.  To the first point, the modern “consumer economy” as we know it today initially grew out of strong pent-up demand especially for durable goods following World War II.  In these early postwar years as the war effort cooled, strong consumer demand for goods came to the rescue to keep factories humming and workers on the job, filling the void left by a government no longer purchasing armaments and war materials:  In the three years between 1943-44 and 1947, government spending dropped from 48% of GDP to 16%, while the consumer share rose over the same three years from a wartime-depressed 48%-49% of GDP to 65%.  [Federal spending soared, from $16 billion in 1940 to $109 billion in 1944, and then fell sharply, from $109 billion to $43 billion in 1946 and $40 billion by 1947.]


To this day, the postwar consumer economy has continued to flourish, driven and nurtured by an environment of general affluence, the absence of global wars, and the influence and ability of advertising and the media to persuasively and effectively turn consumer “wants” into perceived “needs.”  Speaking to this marketing success is the fact that, after hovering at about two-thirds of GDP throughout the postwar period, the consumer share of GDP is currently at an all-time high of some 68%.


Not only has the consumer market basket grown in the postwar years, but the mix has also changed.  Consumers can now purchase many more types of goods such as high-tech durables, as well as many discretionary and health-related services.  These goods and services have encroached upon traditional consumer staples.  Two dramatic changes in the way consumers allocate spending dollars are illustrated in Charts 1 and 2 on the page that follows.  Americans now spend less than 10% of disposable personal income (DPI) on food, both “at home” and “away from home,” a steep decline from the 24% food/DPI ratio of the early postwar years, with the entire shortfall explained by “food at home.”  Simultaneously, as food’s share of the consumer dollar has fallen, more spending has gone to health care (Chart 2).


The role of imports.   Imports have grown steadily throughout the postwar period.  In dollar volume imports are the equivalent of 16% of GDP, up from a 4% average in the 1950s.    The stunning growth of imports means that the American consumer can select as never before across an even broader spectrum of products—from big-ticket items like automobiles to bargain-priced electronics, clothing and shoes.


Beyond greater choice, imports provide economies, due to their generally lower cost and also the competition they exert on domestic producers.  As a result, Americans spend fewer dollars per unit on such items as TVs, other electronics, and soft goods.  In the case of hard goods like TVs and computers, we are able to buy more units per household using relatively fewer dollars; or, in the case of goods like clothing, we can buy a like number of units for less money, leaving more dollars for other purchases.


Over the postwar period, the impact of  imports—due to price and competition—has been a factor allowing consumers to shift more and more spending dollars from goods to services, especially health care and financial services.   Currently, the typical American spends 66 cents of every dollar on services and only 34 cents on goods, a relationship that has nearly flip-flopped over the last 4 decades (Table 1).  Services, which are generally a product of domestic labor and little influenced by lower foreign wage rates, continue to take a bigger and bigger piece of the consumer dollar.  This is not only due to higher inflation in services relative to goods (4% annually compared to 2.4% for goods, Table 1), but also because services become relatively more important once demand for goods begins to “top out.”


We can also see from Table 1 several ways that consumers are savvy and sensitive to price:  We buy relatively more recreational vehicles, electronics (in “other durables”), and clothing in response to the low and/or falling prices of these goods.  Meanwhile, in the face of rising gasoline and fuel prices, we economize on energy consumption, through smaller and more fuel efficient cars, fewer trips, more public transportation, and better home insulation.  In fact, while energy prices have risen 40% faster than all consumer goods and services as a whole (4.7% compared to 3.3%), the American consumer has so successfully economized on energy usage that spending for energy actually takes a smaller share of the consumer dollar today than in the early postwar years (3.7% versus 4.6% in 1950-52, Table 1).


Food benefits little from the savings offered by low cost imports and foreign competition.  Like services and in contrast to most durables and soft goods, food is less affected by imports and fresh produce imports are negligible.    From our calculations in Table 1, we can see that “food at home” (technically termed by BEA,  food and beverages sold commercially for off-premises consumption) has increased at an average rate of 3.1%, which is only slightly less than the 3.3% average annual inflation rate for the total market basket of consumer goods and services as a whole.  Food is less influenced by imports because domestic agriculture, much of which is government-subsidized, is competitive globally and because food is subject to spoilage, so it travels and keeps less well than hard goods and non-food nondurables.  Table 1 also indicates that, even though the price of food has outpaced the prices of durables and most nondurables, consumer spending for food, due to slower unit growth, has risen at a slower 4.9% rate than all other major categories of goods and services (except clothing and footwear).


The biggest price increases affecting consumers are in three major areas…services (4.0%), food (3.1%), and energy (4.7%)…compared to 2.4% for total consumer expenditures (PCE).  In contrast to food and energy, where consumers have slowed their rate of spending, individuals seem less price-sensitive to services, which have grown at an average real rate of 3.5%.  Health care services (essential) have grown at a 4.1% real rate, but so too have recreational services (a discretionary purchase).  Perhaps the rather inelastic demand for essential as well as discretionary services reflects demographics, general postwar affluence, the greater availability and types of services, and the time crunch experienced in working households.  Meanwhile, while rising prices have encouraged consumers to cut back on food and energy, bargain pricing has lured individuals to stock up on durables and apparel.



Copyright 2014, Pathways4Health.org

Summer 2014: Eating for Climate Change

To read this newsletter in an easy pdf format, click here to download Eating for Climate Change


“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”
…National Climate Assessment, May, 2014


“We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last
generation that can do something about it.”  …  Gov. Jay Inslee, Washington


Last month, a group of scientists from government, academia, and the private sector released National Climate Assessment, a report that outlines a disturbing list of potential challenges posed by climate change.   The report suggests that future droughts and scorching heat will bring not only more wildfires to the Southwest but also withering damage to vital cash crops in the nation’s farming heartland.  Meanwhile, torrential rains, damaging winds, and Sandy-type hurricanes are expected to drench, flood, and ravage the Northeast.  The report concludes that if stringent policies are not soon put in place to curb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, by the end of the century, sea levels may rise by as much as three to six feet (covering much of Southern Florida) while average temperatures could increase by 10 degrees or more.


No matter your age—whether you are young and perhaps dreaming about a future life complete with family and career, or a senior wishing the same for your children and grandchildren—on hearing this report, you may have felt the same initial sense of helplessness and hopelessness that I did.  The global climate-change problem is so immense, we are left to wonder if the early actions of government and the private sector will grow soon enough and meaningfully enough to make a difference.  But, rather than sitting idly by, there are ways we can find right in our own homes to try to conserve energy and in small ways work as individuals to conserve our environment.


Some Empowering Actions We Can Take

Because modern livestock production is a major source of the greenhouse gas, methane, one way we can try to slow global warming is to cut back on our consumption of animal products, shifting instead to more plant-based complete-protein combinations.  For a discussion, please see the last newsletter, as well as the recipes for plant-based, complete-protein combinations at the end of this issue.


Another way to save energy in the kitchen is to organize refrigerator foods to keep open-door “searching time” to a minimum.  After air conditioners, refrigerators are the greatest household consumers of electricity.    Studies suggest that after opening the door for one minute, a refrigerator compressor must work full time for three minutes to return cooling to normal.  [Also, to cut down on plastic bag pollution, try to remember to carry bags with you when you grocery shop.]


Another energy-saving idea, and our focus here, is to choose foods by their energetic “temperatures”—warming foods in winter/cold conditions, cooling foods in summer/warm climates.  Aside from dressing appropriately for the season, we can use foods to help us acclimate to temperature extremes, thus saving on heating and cooling bills.


Choosing Foods to Set Our Internal Thermostat

There are many ways we can think about foods and use foods medicinally to our advantage.   Foods have a taste or combination of tastes—sour, bitter, salty, pungent, and sweet—that affect different organ systems of the body.  In addition, foods move energy in different directions within the body—upward, downward, outward, or inward, or a combination of these.


Foods also have thermal qualities.  Once digested, a food can exert either a warming, neutral, or cooling, effect.  As a result, we can choose foods to tweak our own internal thermostat so we rely less on the thermostats mounted on our walls.


A Thermal-Quality Food Quiz

So what foods are warming and which are cooling?  At a barbeque smorgasbord on a hot summer evening, would you be best choosing a pork chop, a hamburger, or a chicken breast?  What does adding salt do to the temperature of a food?  Are any fruits warming?  The answers might surprise you.


Take the quiz below, marking in the space above each food either a W or H (warming; hot); N (neutral); or C, CD (cooling;cold).  Then, check your answers using the table on the page that follows.  I hope this exercise helps to guide you in making wise choices –if you are always cold, to more warming foods; or, if you often feel too warm, to more foods that are cooling in nature.


Vegetables:  asparagus, broccoli, carrot, celery, garlic, kale, mushroom, radish, watercress.
Hint:  1 is cold (CD); 4 are cooling (C); 1 is neutral (N); 2 are warming (W); 1 is hot (H).


Fruits:  apple, banana, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, grapefruit, fig, pineapple, strawberry.
Hint: 3 are cold (CD); 3 are cooling (C); 2 are neutral (N); 2 are warming (W).


Meat/Poultry:  beef, chicken, duck, lamb, pork, turkey, venison.
Hint:  1 is cooling (C); 2 are neutral (N); 2 are warming (W); 2 are hot (H)


Fish/Shellfish:  crab, lobster, salmon, sardine, shrimp
Hint:  1 is cold (CD); 2 are neutral (N); 2 are warming (W)


Dairy:  Butter, cheese, eggs, yogurt
Hint:  1 is cold (CD); 2 are neutral (N); 1 is warming (W)
Using Familiar Foods to Set Your Internal Thermostat-1-1
Comments on the Table:  If you don’t know and have to hazard a guess about the temperature of a food, a good rule of thumb is that most vegetables, fruits, beans and grains—in other words, most plant foods that are high in antioxidants and fiber and low in fat—are neutral to cooling.  Conversely, meat and poultry, nuts and seeds, and dairy—foods that are rich sources of protein and fat—are generally warming.


For vegetables, most bitter green vegetables are cooling, while sweet root and round vegetables tend to be neutral to warming.  The majority of fruits are cooling, particularly those from the tropics, yet a few like blackberries and stone fruits like cherries, dates, and peaches are warming.  Of familiar grains and beans, oats, quinoa, and black beans are warming, with most others either neutral to cooling.


No major nuts or seeds are cooling; so, adding some to any dish is an easy way to add crunch, flavor, and warmth.  If on a chilling winter night you need a warming meal with staying power, choose lamb, which is the warmest meat sold commercially.  Fish and shellfish run the thermal gamut, with much to choose from.  [If you are often cold, unrefined coconut oil (not listed on the table) is a medium chain fatty acid that metabolizes rapidly, so it is an easy way to add thermal warmth to any food.]


Dairy offers warming butter, cheese and milk which are neutral, and yogurt at the cooling end of the spectrum.  Herbs and spices are generally warming to hot.  Pepper is hot; salt is cooling.


Conclusion:  Yogurt and banana on a bone-chilling night?  Perhaps….because, of course, the weather/season is just one consideration when choosing foods by temperature.  If in winter you live in an over-heated apartment or work in an over-heated office, you may feel better with cooling foods.  Or, if you are inherently either warm or cold by nature, weather and the season may be less of a deciding factor when choosing foods.  If your body runs warm, you may feel best throughout the year with yogurt and citrus, bananas, and other tropical fruits.


The key point is to understand that foods have thermal properties and that they can be used to your advantage, so try to eat in harmony rather than at cross-proposes with your biology and the seasons.   If you are always cold or hot, check the foods you are eating to see if you want to tweak your diet.  And, no matter the weather or the season, the right foods are the ones that make you feel your best.   Above all, check in with how your feel.


Reading Resources:
Richard Craze, Tao of Food
Daverick Leggett, Helping Ourselves, Guide to Chinese Food Energetics
Henry C. Lu, Chinese System of Food Cures
Thomas Neuhaus, Chinese Food:  A Holist Therapy
Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods
Rebecca Wood, New Whole Foods Encyclopedia


Copyright 2014, Pathways4Health. Org

Plant-Based, Complete Protein Recipes

The following recipes from Diet from a Small Planet are simple, delicious, economical, and can be prepared in advance.  They are flexible and can be adapted by your own creative additions.

Tabouli (serves 6)

4 cups boiling water

1 1/4 cup bulgur

¾ cup white or garbanzo beans (1/4 cup uncooked)

1½ cup minced fresh parsley

¾ cup minced fresh mint leaves, or additional parsley

¾ cup chopped scallions

3 medium tomatoes, chopped

½ cup or more lemon juice

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Pour boiling water over bulgur, cover and let stand until light and fluffy, about 2 hours.  Shake in a strainer and squeeze out excess water.
  2. Combine bulgur with remaining ingredients and chill for at least 1 hour. 
  3. Serve on lettuce leaves.

Spanish Bulgur (serves two)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

½ cup chopped green onions

½ green pepper, diced

1 ¼ cups bulgur

1 cup cooked kidney or pinto beans (about 1/3 cup uncooked)

1 teaspoon paprika

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash cayenne pepper

1 #2 can of tomatoes

  1. Heat oil and sauté garlic, green onions, green pepper, and bulgur until bulgur is coated with oil and onions are translucent.
  2. Add beans, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, and tomatoes.   Adjust liquids if needed.
  3. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until liquid is absorbed and bulgur is tender, about 15 minutes, adding more liquid if necessary.


Oatmeal-Buttermilk Pancakes (6 servings; 18-24 four-inch pancakes)

½ cup water

½ cup instant dry powdered milk

1 tablespoon honey

2 cups buttermilk or milk with 1 tablespoon vinegar

1 ½ cups rolled oats

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

Salt (optional)

1 or 2 beaten eggs

  1. Mix water, milk, and honey and stir in buttermilk and oats.  If using whole oats, refrigerate overnight so the oats can soften.
  2. Beat in remaining ingredients and cook on a hot griddle.
  3. For even better results, allow mixture to stand 1 to 24 hours.  If batter becomes too thick, add more milk or water.


Tofu Corn Bread (from The Best of Jenny’s Kitchen)

1 ½ cups cornmeal

¼ cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ pound tofu

2 eggs

3 tablespoons oil

¼ cup honey, or to taste

1 cup low-fat milk

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Stir together cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
  2. In a blender, process tofu, eggs, oil, honey, and milk until smooth.  Add to dry ingredients.
  3. Pour into a greased and floured 9×9-inch baking dish and bake for 25-30 minutes.




Spring 2014: Creating Complete Proteins from Plant Foods


To read this newsletter in an easy pdf format, click here to download Constructing Complete Proteins from Plant Foods


“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…and should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity…


Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and [yet] its potential contribution to their solution is equally large.”


Livestock’s Long Shadow, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations



This newsletter was inspired by the current pressure on family food budgets brought about by the recent cutbacks in food assistance programs and by the severe 2013-14 drought that has caused cattle farmers to trim herds to a 21-year low.  It is also inspired by today’s serious environmental concerns and the threat of global warming.  But, while the confluence of cutbacks in food assistance, rising meat prices, and global warming challenge us, they also offer the opportunity to return to the basic nutritional wisdom of prior generations.  Traditional cultures instinctively knew how to combine plant foods for good nutrition.   By understanding how to construct complete proteins from plant foods and exploring American and ethnic recipes, plant-based complete-protein meals can become economical favorites that enable us to play a role in preserving the environment, right in our own homes.


On November 1, 2013, the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ended.  As a result, benefits for SNAP households were cut significantly—by $36 a month for a family of four, to a level where SNAP now provides an average of just $1.40 per person per meal.  Meanwhile, an eight-year drought and higher grain prices have forced farmers to trim herds, putting another pressure on food budgets.  According to the USDA, in January 2014, retail beef prices were at or near record high inflation-adjusted levels.  And, as farmers now hold back cattle to rebuild herds, beef prices are expected to increase again, by 10%-15% this year, as well as throughout 2015.


The Environment.  At the same time that trimming herds squeezes pocket books, it also brings with it a clear short-term plus by slowing climate change.  This potential is easy to see given livestock production’s large footprint on our global ecosystem, as well as its huge contribution to our greenhouse gas problem:  Through grazing and the raising of feed crops, livestock production worldwide accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the earth’s surface.   And, with respect to global warming, the FAO conservatively estimates that livestock production explains for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, measured in CO2 equivalent—a share greater than the entire worldwide transportation sector.  [Jess McNally of Stanford points out that, depending on how the figure is calculated, instead of 18 percent, livestock may explain as much as 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO 2 equivalent.]  According to the FAO, livestock production also accounts for 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, which has 23 times the global warming effect of CO2, as well as (largely through manure) 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which carries 296 times the global warming impact of CO2.


Apart from greenhouse gasses and global warming, other major long-term environmental impacts of the growth of livestock production include deforestation, especially in Latin America, as forests are cleared to create pasture and to raise feed crops; depletion of the water supply (two-thirds of the world population are expected to live in water-stressed basins by 2025); and accelerated threats to biodiversity.   Clearly, these problems will not be resolved by short-term, drought-related cuts in livestock production.


 Chart 1a & 1b



Nor can we count on the worldwide livestock production/environmental picture to brighten in the future:  With expanding populations and incomes, global demand for meat is projected to double in the 50 years 2000-2050.  This makes it all the more important that we find greater environmental efficiencies in livestock production; rely more on animal proteins like poultry and fish that have less of an environmental impact; and shift to more plant-based proteins in countries that overly rely upon meat and have a protein-margin to do so.


Omnivore’s Dilemma?


With the current pressure on household food budgets and environmental issues, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma of 2006 seems all the more fitting today.   Meat devotees and vegans face off using some of the following arguments…


Meat lovers point to the fact that only animal-based foods supply complete proteins—proteins that include not only the broad array of all 22 amino acids, but also an abundant supply of the 9 essential/indispensable amino acids, those that the body cannot synthesize on its own.   In addition, meat is the only viable dietary source of both vitamin B12 and easily absorbable (heme) iron.  Animal proteins are also easier than plant proteins to assimilate, a factor especially important as people age:  Ruminants act as a kind of “walking processing plant” doing all the grass/grain-to-protein conversion work for us—something our mono-gastric systems cannot easily do.   In favor of eating animals, some advocates of meat may also point to the jaw structure of humans to validate their claim that we are naturally designed to consume animal flesh.


Meanwhile, vegan/vegetarians will argue for a plant-based diet, believing it is more humane, easier on the pocketbook, and less costly to the environment.  In addition, a plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of chronic health issues, particularly obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardio-vascular disease.   Plant foods also provide fiber and a host of micronutrients and antioxidants that work synergistically to support health in a variety of ways, many of which are not yet understood by science.  Another important consideration is that avoiding commercially-raised animal products is one of the best ways to prevent the unintentional, indirect consumption of hormones, antibiotics, food additives, and GMOs (through GMO feed crops such as soy and corn)—all silent elements that are ingested with commercially-raised animal products.


If we look at the animal/plant protein question simply from a health standpoint, it is certainly true that most people feel best consuming a diet that includes some animal proteins, particularly during the growth years and in the later decades of life.   The goal of this piece is not to advocate for a strict vegan diet.  A vegan diet can work well for many young adults who are able for a time to run on what Traditional Chinese Medicine terms “kidney essence energy” (the finite “dry-cell battery pack” gifted at birth).  But as people age, digestive systems tend to weaken, as does the ability to extract vitamin B12 from dietary proteins, so with advancing years, protein requirements can, in fact, increase.   So, for the vast majority of people associated with the aging postwar baby boom, easy-to-assimilate animal proteins (for example, economical foods using bone stocks) may become increasingly important.


Beyond our own health considerations, of course, is the overriding concern posed by the environment, to which our own health is inextricably tied.  Within this context, it seems urgent that people in countries with a comfortable animal-protein margin understand how and be willing to trade some animal proteins for plant-based foods.


Protein and Protein Requirements


The word protein, from the Greek proteos, means “taking first place,” something that points to the long-standing recognition of the key role that protein plays alongside its macronutrient partners, carbohydrates and fats, in supporting good health.   Consuming adequate dietary protein is essential to supply the body with both indispensable amino acids (those it cannot make on its own) as well as nitrogen.  With these as raw materials, the body can then synthesize the many proteins and nitrogen-based molecules it needs for its many vital functions:  Proteins, which are the major component of cells, are used not only in routine cell maintenance and replacement, but also for building enzymes; hormones; tissue and bone; immunity/ antibodies; transport carriers to and from cells; and as buffers to regulate pH.


How much protein do we need?  According to Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, the recommended protein daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which translates to 0.36 grams of protein for every pound a person weighs.  This means that someone weighing 140 pounds might require about 50 grams of protein/day; while the RDA for a 180-pound adult would be ~65 grams of protein (package labels on foods can help you with this).   There are no hard and fast rules, however, because protein and amino acid requirements vary from individual to individual depending on age, body type and size, general health, activity and lifestyle.  Also, as a general guideline, at similar weights, protein requirements are about 20 percent higher for males; they are also about 50 percent greater for pregnant and nursing women.  Stress requires greater protein intake, as well, because stress hormones accelerate protein metabolism.


The Standard American Diet (SAD) presents little risk of protein deficiency.   For industrialized nations like the United States, per capita consumption of both meat and dairy is more than twice the global average, a multiple that is expected to remain the same through 2030 (Table 1).   On a per capita basis, the industrialized world consumes almost 10 times the meat and dairy of protein-deficient South East Asia, for example.  South East Asians are typically people of short stature, a trait that is partly linked to their heavy reliance on grains, which lack lysine (lysine is important for growth).  The tall stature of most Americans is one measure of our protein affluence.  A simple test of protein status, no matter your height or build, is to assess the condition of hair, nails, and ease of wound healing.


Table 1



While not enough protein can undermine health, so, too can too much since excessive protein can lead to an overly-acid condition of the blood.  Large amounts of high-protein, acid-forming (low pH) foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese (and soft drinks) without adequate intake of alkalizing (high pH) vegetables and fruits to buffer the acids from high-protein foods force the body to find its own alkalizing buffers.  As a last resort to deal with acidic conditions, the body will tap into its precious stores of calcium and magnesium, minerals housed largely in the bones (think osteoporosis).   [Excess acids are normally excreted through the kidneys via urine, but the system set up long ago by Nature whereby the pH of urine is unable to dip far into the acid range means the body has a hard time dealing with the Standard American Diet of today.  Urine can only do so much to correct for the excessive acid-forming foods that characterize the Standard American Diet…leaving the body to top into its mineral stores to deal with the rest.] 



Comparing Animal Proteins and Proteins Created by Combining Plant Foods


As mentioned above, consuming adequate dietary protein helps supply the body with the 9 indispensable amino acids that it cannot make on its own, as well as with nitrogen, the building block that allows the body to synthesize the remaining complement of 13 amino acids.   The quality of protein provided by a food is most importantly set by its profile indispensable amino acids (IAAs), both in terms of the overall quantity of IAAs that the body requires, as well as the proportions of IAAs needed in relation to each other (see Chart 2).  Protein quality is also affected to a lesser extent by its digestibility, a quality that is somewhat controversial, because it can be measured in a variety of ways.  Regarding the digestibility of proteins in foods, it is best to use large ranges and think of figures as rough estimates.  Also as a side note, the assimilation and digestibility of plant-based amino acids as found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is hampered by phytates, a defense inherent in seeds to protect their vital essence.  Grains and legumes need to be soaked to diffuse phytates, which would otherwise block the body’s ability to utilize selected enzymes and their vital minerals.


Chart 2


Animal proteins (except gelatin, which lacks tryptophan) are complete proteins because they include all the indispensable amino acids in sufficient amounts to meet the body’s requirements.   In contrast, proteins found in plant foods are incomplete, with the exception of soy and the grains amaranth and quinoa.


Plant foods are incomplete because they have too little of one or more of the indispensable amino acids.  Protein synthesis requires a perfectly-matched, complete set of indispensable amino acids.  The least of any indispensable amino acid—termed the limiting amino acid—limits the role of all the rest, no matter how abundant (see Chart 3).   The three primary limiting amino acids in plants foods are lysine (deficient in grains); methionine (lacking in legumes); and tryptophan (shy in corn).   In this example, a deficiency of lysine (10 rather than 38 in the example below), something that characterizes a grain-based diet, limits the effectiveness of all other essential amino acids that are present.


Chart 3


The principle of limiting amino acids makes it all the more important to understand some of the simple principles for constructing complete proteins from plant foods (see Table 2 constructed below, as a guide).  Successful plant food combinations can be constructed using Table 2 as a guide, by combining foods that together include “plus signs” across the first three columns of Table 2.


Table 2


Some of the more successful combinations of plant foods are legumes with whole grains (e.g., beans with rice; lentil soup with whole-grain bread); legumes with seeds (e.g., hummus made with chickpeas and sesame seeds); and whole grains with selected nuts/seeds—sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds; cashews and peanuts (e.g., whole-grain bread with tahini or peanut butter).


Because corn, unlike other grains, lacks tryptophan it is best combined with legumes and selected seeds or dairy (a taco with beans and cheese).  Dairy can also be paired with whole grains and legumes to round out the amino acid profile required by the body (e.g., oatmeal with milk; yogurt with granola; black bean soup with sour cream; chili with cheese topping).


Bridging Some Gaps: Vitamin B12, Iron, and Antioxidants and Fiber


Of course, in concentrating on food combinations to build a good balance of amino acids, we should not lose sight of some of the body’s other nutritional requirements.


Vitamin B12.  Key ideas to remember are that familiar plant foods are not good sources of vitamin B12  and also that vitamin B12 becomes more difficult to extract from animal protein as people age.  In addition, vitamin B12 is a critical vitamin both for brain and cardio-vascular health:  Vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to brain dysfunction and memory loss.   Vitamin B12 also partners with vitamin B6 and folate to contain homocysteine.  Homocysteine is a by-product of metabolism that is linked to inflammation, blood clots and cardio-vascular disease.   It follows that strict vegans who do not supplement with vitamin B12 can suffer from cardiovascular disease, just as people often do who consume large amounts of animal proteins.  Some plant-based foods/supplements that do contain vitamin B-12 include brewer’s yeast; some sprouts; fermented soy products; and spirulina.


Iron.  Heavy reliance on plant proteins may also result in iron deficiency because the non-heme iron of plant foods is of lesser quality and more difficult to absorb than heme iron found in meat.  But, no matter whether you obtain iron through plant or animal foods, it is good to remember that iron is best absorbed when accompanied by vitamin C, as well as with traditional fats (since fats assist the absorption of minerals).  Good plant sources of iron include whole grains; legumes; nuts and most seeds; leafy greens; dried fruits; and unsulfured molasses.


Antioxidants and Fiber.  While fruits and vegetables cannot be counted on to supply protein requirements, they are, unlike animal proteins, rich sources of antioxidants and fiber.  Antioxidants and fiber promote longevity and health and are essential components of a balanced diet.  Plant foods are a rich source of three primary antioxidants—vitamins A, C, and E—along with a broad array of other vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients.  These work together to counter free radical damage, something that is the by-product of many kinds of environmental pollution as well as normal metabolic function.


A Note on Soy.  While we might think from Table 2 that soy is the ultimate plant protein choice, keep in mind that most soy, about 80+ percent, is genetically modified.  Also, soy is difficult to digest because it inhibits the digestive enzyme trypsin; it also inhibits the absorption of iron.  The best soy products are those that are fermented and/or spouted, such as tempeh, tofu from sprouted soy, and miso.   Many soy products, like soy milk, soy protein powders, concentrates, and isolates often contain denatured proteins without adequate cofactors needed for proper assimilation and metabolism.   If you eat soy, try to use it sparingly as a component within a balanced diet.


Constructing Complete Proteins, Concluding Comment


Constructing complete proteins from economical plant sources—to meet at least some of the daily protein requirement— is not only cost-effective, but also efficient, because with a little planning, practice, and the right equipment, it can save time and effort in the end.  Most recipes that use plant-based protein combinations, such as split peas and brown rice, can be cooked in large batches, frozen, and later defrosted for easy meals when you are in a hurry.  Beans and grains can also be cooked in large batches and frozen in individual servings, to be defrosted and used to create an infinite variety of practically instant nutritious meals.


Remember that beans and grains are best soaked before cooking to remove phytates.  This is easy to do, either by drawing water and allowing legumes and grains to soak overnight or by doing this in the morning before leaving the house for the day.  Once you develop the habit, it seems easy.  Planning ahead is the hardest part, something that becomes second nature with practice.


If you are not familiar with recipes that use legumes and grains, the following short Recipe Section may help get you started.  I will follow up soon with more plant-based, complete-protein recipes to suit different tastes, budgets, and styles of cooking.



Reading Resources:

Lavon J. Dunne, Nutrition Almanac

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow

Sareen S. Gropper, Jack L. Smith, James L Groff, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism

Elson Haas, Staying Healthy with Nutrition

IHE Delft, Virtual Water Trade

Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet

David and Marcia Pimentel, Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment

PBS.org, “Is Your Meat Safe?”

Jeanne Yacoubou, Factors Involved in Calculating Grain/Meat Conversion Ratios



February 2010:  Investing in Stocks [Bone Stocks]

May/June 2012:  A Chicken with Gratitude–the Food Chain–And the Hidden Dangers of Soy

April/May 2013:  Alkalizing Foods to Prevent Disease




Recipes:  Combining Animal- and Plant-Based Proteins


Success in the kitchen is often rooted in having the right time-saving equipment, knives, and pots and pans of good quality.  A large stock pot, a no-fail rice/grain cooker that can be set in advance, and a slower cooker (even better, several of varying sizes) can save you time, effort, and allow you to cook in large batches and freeze for easy convenience.


The first two recipes below are delicious, economical family favorites.  They combine animal- and plant-based proteins and work as good transitional recipes for people who expect animal proteins in every meal.  With time, the proportions of meat to grains and the amount of vegetables can be adjusted to suit the family budget, tastes, and protein needs.  The last recipe for M’judra is vegetarian; it is economical, delicious, and just plain fun! 



Bistro White Chili (Makes 15 cups, serving 15)

1 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons minced garlic

¼ cup olive oil

1 tablespoons ground cumin or to taste

1 pound ground turkey

2 pounds skinless boneless turkey breasts, cut into ¾ inch cubes

2/3 cup pearl barley

2 one-pound cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 tablespoon minced bottled jalapeno pepper (wear rubber gloves) or to taste

6 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

½ teaspoon dried savory, crumbled

1 ½ tablespoons arrowroot, dissolved in ½ cup water

1 cup coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese (about 1 pound)

½ cup thinly sliced scallion

  1. In a large pot, cook the onion and garlic in the oil over moderately low heat, stirring until the onion is softened; add the cumin, and cook the mixture, stirring for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the ground turkey and cubed turkey; cook the mixture over moderate heat, stirring until the turkey is no longer pink.
  3. Add the barley, chickpeas, jalapeno pepper, broth, marjoram, and savory and simmer the mixture, covered, stirring occasionally for 45 minutes.
  4. Stir the arrowroot mixture, add it to the chili, simmer, uncovered, stirring, for 15 minutes.
  5. Season the chili with salt and pepper, ladle it into heated bowls, and sprinkle it with the Monterey Jack and scallion.

Easy, Economical, and Hearty Vegetable Beef Barley Soup (12 one-cup servings)

½ pound lean ground beef

½ cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

7-8 cups low-sodium beef stock, or 7-8 cups water and 2 low-sodium beef bouillon cubes

One 14 ½ oz. can unsalted whole tomatoes, un-drained, cut into pieces

½ cup pearled barley

½ cup sliced celery

½ cup sliced carrots

½ teaspoon basil, crushed

1 bay leaf

One 9-oz package frozen green peas; or frozen mixed vegetables

  1. In a 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, brown meat.  Add onion and garlic; cook until onion is tender.  Drain.
  2. Stir in remaining ingredients except frozen vegetables.
  3. Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and cover, simmering for 50-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add frozen vegetables and cook 5-10 minutes until tender (less if using peas).

Additional water can be added if soup becomes too thick upon standing. 



2 cups lentils

1½ cup brown rice

6 yellow onions, chopped

4 cloves fresh garlic, diced fine

3 teaspoons high quality sea salt

8 cups high quality water

2 Tablespoons coconut oil

  1. Rinse lentils and place in soup pot with 5 cups water and 1½ teaspoons sea salt. Cover pan, bring to a boil. Turn down and let simmer until lentils are tender. About 45 minutes – 1 hour. Drain lentils and return to soup pot.
  2. Rinse rice and place in separate saucepan with 3 cups water and 1½ teaspoons sea salt. Cover pan, bring to a boil. Turn down heat and let simmer very low (without opening lid) for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before opening. Open pan and fluff rice with a fork. Add rice to lentils.
  3. Sauté onions in coconut oil and caramelize. Just before onions are finished cooking add fresh garlic and sauté. Do not burn garlic. Add onion mixture to lentils. Stir everything together and serve with chopped onions on top or with fresh avocado and red pepper seeds.

Source:  Today’s Abundant Living

                                                                                                                Copyright 2014 Pathways4Health.org

Winter 2014: A New Year’s Guiding Star

To read this newsletter in an easy .pdf format, click here to download New Year’s Guiding Star


The North Star (Polaris) marks the direction north and has long been used both on land and sea to guide travelers because it retains its place in the sky while the entire night sky revolves around it.  Though not the brightest star in the nighttime sky, it is a dependable guide which can be found even under cloudy skies or a full moon.1


Working on boards and committees with my good friend and writer Amira Thoron, I often think of Amira’s expression ‘North Star’ to mark the themes we define to guide and focus our efforts.  Today, after the holiday season and with the ever-present confusion created by the array of food creations in our modern supermarkets, let’s focus on some concepts for healthy eating, some North Star guideposts for the New Year. 


In the last few months, I have started to think more and more about how our current dietary and lifestyle habits have grown far from what they were just a few decades ago; how eating outside our evolutionary norm is affecting our health and well-being; and, how we might define some simple, common-sense guidelines that can fit every situation when we face choices about what to eat.


For some North Star questions to ask ourselves, I would propose:


Could this food be grown on a traditional farm? 

Could bacteria in the environment break it down and decompose it?

Could the food be (or have been) prepared in a typical family kitchen?


To eat foods that stand up to these North Star tests is the best strategy to assure that we are eating within our evolutionary norm and walking within our biological footprint.


Modern foods in an evolutionary context.  Experts mark the start of homo sapiens at perhaps 40,000 B.C., so for almost 42,000 years our ancestors lived by the seasons; ate foods that were local and seasonal; and, consumed whole foods, first those caught or foraged, later adding more varieties that were cultivated on the farm and prepared in a traditional kitchen.


It has only been in the last century or so, with the development of the light bulb and electricity, the exodus to cities, women joining the labor force in great numbers, and the creation of convenient, commercially-prepared foods that we have strayed from the  traditional lifestyle and dietary patterns that for centuries set our biorhythms, metabolism, and digestion/assimilation.


Today, the food industry and we as consumers rely on refined food ingredients because they are cheap and have a long shelf life.  But these, which include sugar, refined flour, and refined vegetable oils, are inflammatory and foster chronic disease.  Have you ever stopped to think what we are doing to our bodies when we consume foods with a long shelf life—foods that do not/cannot go rancid? If bacteria in the local environment cannot break down these foods, how can we expect our digestive system, which is designed to break up and assimilate whole foods from nature, be expected to do so?


I have to wonder if the current prevalence of allergies, wheat intolerance, hyperactivity, and psychological and emotional issues is not related to our modern diet that so often centers on these long-shelf-life processed foods.   It is a known fact that sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and refined flour feed bad bacteria in the gut and fuel inflammation, while refined vegetables oils upset metabolism and also foster inflammation and chronic disease.


With a host of gut-related ills plaguing our society today, many of which we treat with antibiotics, we might take away a cautionary lesson from the modern, commercial cattle industry.  Feedlot cattle tell us a lot about what happens when we eat outside our evolutionary footprint:   Cattle that are moved from traditional pasture grazing into crowded feed lots where they are fed GMO corn require a steady stream of antibiotics to keep them standing, and hardly long enough to fatten for slaughter.


The “Big Three” Ingredients in Modern Foods that Dominate our Modern Diet and Push Us Beyond Our Evolutionary Norm


With the thousands of refined, denatured and chemical food ingredients used by the food industry to make foods exciting, attractive, and “timeless,” our North Star list of verboten foods would be long, indeed.  So, let’s focus just on the Big Three—sugar; refined flour; and refined vegetable oils.  These three ingredient dominate the convenience, processed foods sold today.


  • Sugar does indeed have a long history, but it was never widely used nor a major component of traditional diets.   A product of tropical environments, it was geographically out-of reach for most and also too expensive to produce.  To extract pure crystals of sugar, the chemical C6H12O6,, from the cane’s tough network of fiber, water, and minerals, required massive manpower and capital equipment.


From the way nature packaged sugar inside its tough husk of cane, we can guess this was a natural, inherent safeguard for overindulgence:  More than a foot of sugar cane is required to produce one small tablespoon of sugar.  So, in its natural form, we would be hard pressed to consume a tablespoon of sugar in one sitting.


Yet, in its denatured, concentrated crystal form, the food industry makes it easy for us to rather thoughtlessly consume the equivalent of a foot of sugar cane over breakfast, or our morning coffee break, or just about any time we grab a snack.   Take the time to read the early histories of sugar that describe the process, slave labor, necessary equipment, and the lives lost and you will come away with a real sense of how unnatural a product sugar, in its pure crystal chemical form which is now cheap and widely available, really is.


While sugar has been around for centuries, albeit in limited amounts, we can assume from the modern ills linked to sugar that our bodies have not yet adapted to sugar, particularly in the vast amounts we consume today.  Sugar elevates blood sugar to foster diabetes and obesity; leaches valuable minerals from our bodies, especially from our mineral storage “banks” located in our bones and teeth (think osteoporosis and teeth problems); feeds bad gut bacteria; and supplies empty calories that “crowd out” nutrient-dense whole foods.  Sugar is also linked to depression and hyperactivity.


Alternatives:  Maple syrup, maple crystals, coconut sugar, date sugar, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey.  See June 2009, Natural Sweeteners and Kicking the Sugar Habit.


  • Refined flour as we know it today also lies outside our evolutionary footprint.  The reason is not only because currently most flour that we consume is refined, but also because the kind of wheat that we eat is a new-fangled hybrid high-yield, high-starch, high-gluten variety developed only within the last 50 years—something called “dwarf wheat.” The high amylopectin starch content of dwarf wheat makes it super-fattening and promotes insulin resistance and diabetes.  In addition, the genetic engineering of dwarf wheat creates an extra chromosome set with more and different gluten proteins than exist in traditional wheat varieties like Einkorn and Emmer.  These new, untested wheat proteins are linked to wheat allergies and celiac disease.


The prevalence of obesity and diabetes as well as gluten intolerance suggests our bodies are having a hard time adapting to dwarf wheat, particularly in its refined state—this is not something that we can blame on the amount of wheat that we eat today:  In fact, the typical American now consumes one-third less wheat than a century ago, a time when wheat allergies and celiac disease were hardly known.


Traditional cultures were sustained by whole-grain flours.  These were largely derived from wheat of heirloom varieties.  Wheat was favored because it grows in most climates and is the most nutritious of the grains due to its superior ability to extract nutrients from the soil.   Whole-grain wheat flour used by traditional cultures provided vitamin B and E, as well as essential fatty acids, proteins, minerals, and fiber to offer nutrition; and, the bran (fiber) and germ (fats) that were left intact rather than being refined away helped moderate the blood sugar effect we currently associate with refined flour products.


Today, modern refining techniques separate the starch from the bran and germ to create white flour, a long-shelf-life product that does not go rancid.  White flour is a pure carbohydrate that spikes blood sugar at an even faster rate than does sugar.   Like sugar, refined flour is inflammatory and taps into the body’s store of minerals when it is metabolized.


[As an aside, Island Grown Schools of Martha’s Vineyard, with the guidance and support of Kay Rentschler and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, as well as scientist and seed-saver/activist Gary Paul Nabhan, is now planting four heirloom New England grains in its school gardens.  We are grateful for the farmers, gardeners, seed-savers, and others who are part of the ongoing movement to support crop diversity and heirloom foods.   As Gary Nabhan notes, in 1984, there were only 99 vegetable, grain, legume, tuber, and herb varieties listed in North American seed catalogs; by 2004, there were 8494.  Seed libraries and seed banks are growing and the internet opens up all kinds of opportunities for future growth and development of traditional, heirloom grains and foods.  Stay tuned to this movement and join it if you can!]


Alternatives:  Whole wheat pastry flour, heirloom whole wheat flour, barley flour, oat flour, and whole-grain non-gluten flour.


  • Refined vegetable oils echo much the same story as sugar and refined flour.   Commercial refining that involves expensive capital equipment is the food industry’s way to create cheap, denatured oils with a long shelf life.   Refining vegetable oils requires not only elaborate equipment, but also chemicals, high pressure and extreme temperatures.


Refining oils sings the familiar chorus heard above regarding refining sugar and refining wheat:  In refining, fragile oils are first separated from the seed using high-heat mechanical pressing and solvents.  In the process, oils are stripped of vital nutrients, such as lecithin, chlorophyll, vitamin E, beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and phosphorus.   Then oils are refined, bleached, and degummed, where at each stage they are subjected to chemicals and extreme temperatures.   But, because high temperatures make oils go rancid and take on odors, they are then bleached with chemicals such as benzene and hexane and deodorized at high temperatures approaching 500 degrees.  In the process, some omegas, especially fragile omega-3s, become transfats.


By the end of the refining process, there is nothing left to taste foul or go rancid, so you never know if refined oils have spoiled.  But, stripped of their natural antioxidant protections, they are vulnerable to free-radical damage.   Missing other nutrients, these inflammatory oils are linked to cancer because their denatured state makes it hard for the body to break them down.


Vegetable oils fuel inflammation, upset metabolism, contribute to weight gain, and are linked to cancer and other chronic disease.    As products of the postwar food industry, refined vegetable oils are untested food ingredients that lie outside the footprint of evolutionary experience.  Degumming, stripping, bleaching, deodorizing, and pressure-heating vegetable oils were never part of family farming/food preparation traditions.


Alternatives:  Butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, and selected unrefined oils.


Throughout time, peoples were fed by the earth (not by factories) and were guided by the stars.  In the New Year, as we navigate the grocery isle and restaurant menus of our modern world, we can take comfort that we are eating within our evolutionary footprint and honoring our biological limits when we choose whole, nutrient-dense foods, particularly those grown close to home.  Doesn’t it feel like overreaching to do otherwise?


Reading Resources:

April 2009:  Sugar, A Depleting Chemical; and Is Sugar Toxic.

June 2009:  Natural Sweeteners and Kicking the Sugar Habit.

September/October 2010:  Defending Wheat; Restoring Wheat.

November/December 2013:  Smoke Points and Canola Oil; Other Pathways4Health article on oils.

Peter Macinnis, Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar.
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.


Recipe:  Mulled Cider for Winter Cheer


This is a very simple recipe that will fill the house with a festive aroma, which itself can convey a sense of warmth, lift spirits, and viscerally satisfy sweet cravings.  While any fruit juice consumed alone will elevate blood sugar, a small serving may fulfill some of the normal cold-weather cravings for sweets, saving calories in the long run.  Consuming some nuts, cheese, or other foods that contain fats and proteins can moderate the blood sugar effect associated with drinking this or other fruit drinks in isolation.  And, cinnamon added to any recipe not only provides the illusion of sweetness, but also helps curb the blood sugar effect of sugars and other carbohydrates. 


1 orange

2 cinnamon sticks

4 cups (1 quart) apple cider or organic apple juice

  1. Use a vegetable peeler to remove long strips of zest (the orange skin but not the white part underneath) from half of the orange.
  2. Put the cinnamon sticks, orange zest, and cider in a pot and put the pot on the stove.  Turn the heat to medium-high and heat until it is steamy—about 7 minutes.  Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Source:  Adam Reid and Edible Vineyard.



Copyright 2014, Pathways4Health.org

[1] www.earthsky.org

  1. www.earthsky.org []

November/December 2013: Smoke Points and Canola Oil

To read this newsletter in an easy .pdf format, click here to download Smoke Points and Canola Oil.


Bad fats and oils will destroy your health faster than sugar.

They cause more problems1 than any other class of food.”…Paul Pitchford


Fats and oils (fats that are liquid at room temperature) are vital to support health and sustain life.  They are also indispensable in the kitchen where they are used to tenderize foods, enhance flavor and texture, and provide a sense of satiety and satisfaction.   In addition, cooks rely on fats because they make it possible to cook foods at temperatures well above the boiling point of water.   This is because, unlike simple H2O molecules that quickly vaporize with heat, fats are large, complex triglyceride molecules (3 fatty acids attached to a glycerol).  They tend to knit together at points along their long carbon chains, so a substantial amount of heat is needed to break their bonds and dislodge them from one another.


The temperature at which a fat visibly breaks down is called its smoke point.   Smoke points vary, ranging from 225oF for flax oil and unrefined canola oil to nearly 500oF for refined canola and clarified butter (see table, p. 2).  While damage to oils does occur before a fat begins to smoke, at its smoke point a fat vaporizes, leaving behind a liquid byproduct of bad-tasting, carcinogenic chemical residue.   The fat no longer acts as a lubricant so foods begin to burn and stick; in addition, the remaining toxic chemicals spoil a food’s flavor and can be harmful to health.


What Determines a Fat’s Smoke Point?  Several factors in the natural makeup of fats influence the temperature at which they will breakdown and smoke.  These include a fat’s saturation, molecular length, and the amount of free fatty acids (fatty acids not attached to other molecules) it contains.


Butter (technically butyric acid) is a saturated fat and therefore reasonably stable, so you might think that it would have a rather high smoke point.  Instead, two factors work against its heat resistance:  butter’s short molecular length (only 4 carbons, the shortest of all fat molecules) and its composition (included are some proteins and carbohydrates, which burn at relatively low temperatures).  Butter’s 350o F smoke point can, however, be elevated by heating and removing these substances.  The result is clarified butter which is far more heat- tolerant (see table below).


A fat’s profile of free fatty acids also affects its smoke point.  The more free fatty acids, the lower its smoke point.  Animal fats and unrefined oils inherently contain more free fatty acids than refined vegetable oils.  This is another reason why animal fats and unrefined vegetable oils are not generally used for high-temperature cooking.


Smoke Pts, NoText



The freshness and purity of a fat also affect its natural smoke point:  Heating/reheating and the accumulation of food particles and impurities will quickly reduce a fat’s smoke point.  A fat that is heated repeatedly to high temperatures and/or contains residual food particles (as in fast-food deep-frying) will be damaged and smoke at successively lower temperatures every time that it is used. As a general rule, the fast food industry fails to take this into account.


Commercial Refining and Health.  Commercialrefining is, of course, the food industry’s standard way to artificially and dramatically elevate smoke points, while also creating cheap, denatured oils with a long shelf life.  Refining essentially doubles the smoke points of vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, and canola.  This magical transformation requires elaborate equipment, chemicals, high pressure and extreme temperatures:


In refining (see diagram, p. 4), fragile oils are first separated from the seed using high-heat mechanical pressing and solvents.  In the process, oils are stripped of vital nutrients, such as lecithin, chlorophyll, vitamin E, beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and phosphorus.   Then oils are refined, bleached, and degummed, where at each stage they are subjected to chemicals and extreme temperatures.   But, because high temperatures make oils go rancid and take on odors, they are then bleached with chemicals such as benzene and hexane and deodorized at high temperatures approaching 500 degrees.  In the process, some omegas, especially the fragile omega-3s, become transfats.


The Processing Steps from Seed to Refined Oil



By the end of the refining process, there is nothing left to taste or go rancid, so you never know if refined oils are bad.  But, stripped of their natural antioxidant protections, they are vulnerable to free-radical damage.   Missing other nutrients, these inflammatory oils are linked to cancer because their denatured state makes it hard for the body to break them down.2


Concluding comments:  I personally believe that all refined vegetable oils should be avoided.  They fuel inflammation, upset metabolism, contribute to weight gain, and are linked to cancer and other chronic disease.    As products of the postwar food industry, refined vegetable oils are untested food ingredients that lie outside the footprint of evolutionary experience.  Degumming, stripping, bleaching, deodorizing, and pressure-heating vegetable oils were never part of family farming/food preparation traditions.


As far as cooking goes, there simply are not many healthy options for high-heat cooking.  Our healthiest strategy is long, slow cooking at modest temperatures using traditional fats—butter, unrefined coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil.  This is easiest to do in a slow cooker or a moderate oven.   For stove-top, high temperature applications, clarified butter/ghee is a reliable and traditional choice (see recipe, p 7).   But, because heat can damage oils well-before they smoke and because high-heat cooking can create carcinogenic acrylamides, foods cooked at high-temperatures are best eaten in moderation.


Canola Oil (a GMO Derived from Rapeseed) in the Context of Smoke Points


Because rapeseed is very adaptable to genetic manipulation, plant breeders have been able to develop varieties [such as canola]…Because of its high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, canola is partially hydrogenated for many applications…Unhydrogenated canola oil that has been refined loses a substantial portion of its omega-3s.” ((Mary Enig, PhD, Know Your Fats, 120.))


Canola remains the rising star of the food industry, but as a new food ingredient and a genetically- modified oil, it is my least favorite of all the refined vegetable oils.  I hate to come down too hard on canola because I have many friends in the food and nutrition field that use it often, but I feel  that it has gained the spotlight due solely to the self-serving interests of the food industry.   If canola can be banned from infant formula, am I being too harsh?  While corn, safflower, sunflower, sesame, and peanut oils are inflammatory omega-6 oils, at least they are derived from real plants with centuries-long histories—something that canola cannot boast.


Canola’s Story.  Rapeseed, the mother of canola, has no historic roots in Western dietary tradition.  In its natural form, rapeseed is a most unlikely food because of its high concentration of glucosinolates.  Glucosinolates are bitter-tasting natural toxins that interfere with proper metabolism.  Rapeseed also contains problematic levels of erucic acid, a substance that is linked to heart disease.


Using selection-mutation breeding and DNA technology, botanists in the early 1970s were able to reduce the glucosinolates in rapeseed and transform most of its erucic acid into omega-9 fatty acids.  The result was a low-erucic acid oil (initially named LEAR oil) plant that could be successfully grown in the colder climates of Canada and the United States.  The first genetically modified varieties were quickly adopted by Canadian commercial growers, who renamed the oil “canola,” short for “Canada low-acid oil.”


The U.S. food industry quickly recognized the money-making potential of canola as the economical substitute for olive oil.  Using its political clout, Big Food successfully convinced the USDA to bypass its normal years of research and testing to grant GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to canola in 1985—hardly 10 years after its initial development and a good 10 years before it began to appear on grocery store shelves for widespread use and real-life testing by the general public.


Once canola could be made somewhat palatable and won USDA approval, it did not take the food industry long to turn it into a major cash cow.  Not only could canola be grown in the cold, inclement climates of the United States and Canada where other crops could not, but it could also be promoted as the healthy alternative to other vegetable oils, particularly since it ranks highest in omega-3s.  In addition, canola welcomed genetic manipulation, allowing scientists to create varieties to suit just about any commercial farming preference, engineered to just about any “need” imaginable.  By inserting transgenic genes into rapeseed-derivatives, scientists have been able to create Round-Up Ready, Liberty Link, Clearfield and other canola varieties.3  With the strong marketing support of commercial farmers and the food industry, canola has come from nowhere in the last decade to account for about 10 percent of all edible oils sold in the United States today.


Canola—All things to all people?  The food industry promotes canola as the healthiest, most economical choice among vegetable oils because, of all the oils to choose from, it is the lowest in saturated fat (7%) and highest in omega-3 essential fatty acids (10%).   Many professional cooks and dietitians are also told to use canola because it stands up to heat; it has a neutral taste that does not interfere with the natural flavor of foods; and, it remains liquid when refrigerated so it works well in salad dressings and marinades.


When we hear these claims particularly within the context of what we know about smoke points and unrefined versus refined oils in general and canola in particular, we need to ask, “Which canola are we talking about?”—the one with a smoke point of 225oF or refined canola with a smoke point of almost 500oF?  As much as the food industry would like us to believe that canola can simultaneously satisfy both claims, good sense tells us otherwise.


Canola cannot be both a rich source of healthy omega-3s and stand up to intense heat.   Unrefined canola, a potential source of natural omega-3s, is too bitter, too fragile, and has too short a shelf life to claim supermarket shelf space.   Only refined, damaged canola is marketed widely and readily available in grocery stores.  The canola we buy is a manipulated byproduct of a very fragile, highly unstable oil composed of omega-3s that have undergone intense heat and chemical manipulation.  The result is an oil that not only withstands heat but also contains transfats.


Some experts estimate refined canola contains 4.5% transfats.4  Transfats are linked to heart disease, obesity and diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and infertility, to name a few.  The food industry gets around labeling transfats because a serving can contain up to 0.5% transfats and still be labeled “0% transfats.”  But, since serving sizes stated on labels often understate how much we actually devour at a sitting, it is easy to consume a harmful level of transfats when eating processed and/or fast foods.


Concluding, summary comment.  Canola is a GMO, untested by the USDA, and has no real-life track record.  Unrefined canola is also high in omega-3s, making it a very fragile oil with a smoke point on par with flax oil—an oil that we would never use in cooking.  Due to it fragile nature, scientists tell us not to heat unrefined canola above 120oF.  How, then, can virgin canola be refined at high temperatures and come out on the other end as a safe oil, free of transfats?


I personally believe that given its genetic status and naturally high content of fragile omega-3s, canola is one of the most dangerous—the highest in transfats and damaged molecules—of any of the refined vegetable oils.


Strategies to Promote Health.  Since canola, like all processed vegetable oils, is used widely by the processed food and fast food industries, it is best to read labels, ask questions in restaurants, and cook at home with known ingredients whenever possible.  When cooking, try to rely upon the traditional fats and oils that have supported good health through the generations:


  • Butter from grass-fed cows, as well as grass-fed butter that is clarified (ghee).  Butter from pastured animals has an ideal 1:1 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6 fatty acids.  Ghee is a short-chain (4 carbon) fatty acid that is highly saturated and free of other substances, so it withstands heat;
  • Unrefined coconut oil, which is  high in anti-bacterial/microbial lauric acid; 92% saturated for stability in cooking and baking; and free of cholesterol;
  • Extra virgin olive oil, the first cold pressing, to be used at the table and for low-heat cooking;
  • For baking, if you do not want to use butter or unrefined coconut oil, sourdough can be used successfully in some recipes to replace vegetable oil; it provides body, texture and a moist crumb.


Recipe: Clarified Butter (Ghee)


Yield:  1 ½ cups.  Time:  30 minutes.


Because the milk solids are lightly browned, ghee has a slightly nutty flavor.

You can substitute ghee 1:1 in place of vegetable oil when you bake; butter cannot be substituted in as simple a way.


Ingredients:   One pound, unsalted butter

  1. Line a sieve with cheesecloth or butter muslin and place the sieve over a medium-sized bowl.
  2.  Put the butter in a heavy saucepan and warm it over a medium
    heat. When the butter begins to foam and splutter, lower the heat and allow
    it to simmer gently for 20-30 minutes. When it begins to brown around the
    edges, it¹s ready.
  3. Pour the hot mixture through the cheesecloth or butter muslin,
    and then discard the strained milk solids. What remains in the bowl is ghee.
  4. Store ghee covered, either in the refrigerator or at room
    temperature. As with butter, protecting it from light will preserve its
    flavor and keeps it fresher longer, for up to several months on the counter
    top or longer in the refrigerator.

Source:  Ellen Arian, ellensfoodandsoul.com


Reading Resources

  • Mary G. Enig, PhD, Know Your Fats
  • Udo Erasmus, Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill
  • Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
  • Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods


  1. Fats and oils (triglycerides) and phospholipids (which contain a diglyceride molecule) are members of the lipid family.  Lipids repel water.  Traditional fats and oils are the raw materials that the body uses to construct cell membranes of proper permeability, which is an exacting science:  Cell membranes act as “intelligent” barriers between cells and the intercellular environment; and, they act as sentries for what passes in and out of cells.  The body needs an adequate supply of traditional fats to build cell membranes for proper function.  Transfats so cleverly mimic traditional fats that the body can be fooled into incorporating them into cell membranes, a factor linked to metabolic issues, obesity, cancer, and other chronic diseases. []
  2. Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods, 181. []
  3. For a sense of the food industry’s manipulation and marketing of canola, see http://www.canolainfo.org/canola/index/php?page=7. []
  4. Fred Pescatore, MD, PPH, CCN, “The Science of Fats, Fatty Acids, and Edible Oils.” []

September/October 2013: Living with and Experimenting with Sourdough

To read this newsletter in an easy .pdf format, click here to download Living with and Experimenting with Sourdough (2)


I am just loving feeding, nurturing and using my sourdough starter.
Thank you, Carol, so much for introducing me to this wonderful form of baking

                                                                              …Judy Crawford, Martha’s Vineyard



I love caring for and working with sourdough.  In many ways, my sourdough culture has become my loyal pet now that our family dog and cat are no longer living.  My starter, made of flour and water, is a magical mixture of live yeasts and bacteria feeding on the flour’s starch.  It is fascinating to sense the presence of these invisible creatures that whoosh about in our everyday environment.  I see them at work every time I feed my starter with flour and water and then give it a vigorous stir.  Invisible, yet they leave a visible footprint of their labors:   After each feeding, my starter bubbles to life, rising higher and higher in its “keeping” jar, a tall two-quart canning jar that is now flour-encrusted from use.  To keep it vibrant, I feed my starter and bake with it often.   Baking sourdough bread and experimenting with sourdough in other recipes is a remarkable, whimsical, and endlessly fascinating science.


My fascination with the science and the art of sourdough baking led me last fall to write a newsletter that I called Reviving Culture.1   In that piece, I explored sourdough in its many aspects, including its science, health benefits, and many advantages compared to commercial yeast bread, while also offering a series of tested sourdough recipes.  But, at that time I left out an important piece of my research concerning sourdough’s positive, modulating impact on blood sugar—something that has important implications for the prevention of insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity.   I felt then that my experimental results required more testing, and so now I want to share these results with you.


But first, a quick review of sourdough’s other many benefits…


Using sourdough in baking contributes to taste, texture, and extends shelf life.  Beyond curbing blood sugar reactions, our major focus, sourdough promotes good health in a variety of other ways:  Sourdough degrades the phytic acid found in the bran of whole grains which would otherwise block digestive enzymes (pepsin, amylase, and trypsin) and the absorption of the vital minerals found in grains such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.  Sourdough fermentation, like yogurt fermentation, also creates new nutrients—bacteria synthesize vitamins, including B12, while yeasts boost lysine, the limiting amino acid in grains, to help make sourdough bread a nearly complete protein.
Sourdough can also help alleviate digestive issues related to gluten intolerance by reducing gliadin and avenin, two culprits that elicit an immune response in all people.  And, sourdough supports gut health and immunity by slowing the fermentation of fiber; generating polysaccharides which contribute prebiotics; and feeding micro-flora in the intestinal wall.


The Power of Sourdough to Control and Sustain Blood Sugar


One of sourdough’s greatest selling points, and our subject here, is its ability to curb the blood sugar spike and insulin reaction— “metabolic stress”—often associated with the consumption of  carbohydrate-rich baked goods.  It is a well-documented fact that adding sourdough to the dry ingredients of a baked good and allowing these to soak for some hours before baking reduces the glycemic impact of flour.  The scientific reason that sourdough is able to do this is that lactobacilli in sourdough feed on the maltose in flour, producing lactic and acetic acids.  These acids then slow the rate at which starch is digested and assimilated (see Reviving Culture for complete discussion).


What is interesting from my research using a buckwheat muffin recipe to which I added varying amounts of sourdough (see Charts 1 and 2 and related comments on the page that follows) is that in all cases, my blood sugar peaked not at 30 minutes after consuming the test samples, but rather at 90 minutes…an entire hour later than what might be expected.   And, with an extreme ratio of sourdough used in buckwheat muffins, 75% sourdough and 25% buckwheat flour, my blood sugar (line 3, Chart 1) actually dipped initially after eating.  This is probably due to the modulating blood sugar effect not only of sourdough but also of the fat (coconut oil and egg) and protein (egg) in the recipe, since protein and fat also help blunt the blood sugar reaction to carbohydrates.  Note in line 5, Chart 2, for example, how spreading a fat like butter on a muffin will limit and delay the blood sugar reaction.   Incorporating sourdough, or protein or fat for that matter, helps curb and sustain blood sugar to spare the body from sending oodles of insulin to the rescue.  Charts 1 and 2 speak to the power of sourdough to modulate and yet sustain blood sugar; they illustrate in graphic form the satiety and feeling of satisfaction provided when sourdough is added to baked goods.


As mentioned earlier, when I did these experiments last fall, I felt that I should go a step further and test sourdough in isolation to try to confirm the timing of these results.  I wondered how my blood sugar might react on two separate mornings if, as the first morning meal , I tested sourdough starter baked as “bread” against a white “bread” made with the same type flour, with water and yeast added.  Granted, this is not my favorite breakfast, but it was worth giving the time on two mornings, pricking my fingers, and recording my blood sugar reading from a blood sugar monitor to try to answer this question.


Charts 1& 2 Sourdough


Chart 3 - Power of Sourdough to Cub Metabolic Stress

Testing Sourdough Versus White Bread.
  Chart 3 traces the results of my 100% Sourdough versus White Bread experiment.  Both tests were conducted using a fixed two-ounce serving of bread as the first meal after a 12-hour overnight fast.  As would be expected, my blood sugar peaked at 30 minutes (28 points above my starting blood sugar level) after eating White Bread.  And within two hours my blood sugar fell below the zero line (initial fasting level).  Presumably, in reaction to the excessive blood sugar caused by consuming a solitary carbohydrate, my body sent so much insulin to the rescue that my blood sugar then quickly fell below zero.


The White Bread graph in Chart 3 illustrates what can happen to our blood sugar when we do not take time for a well-balanced breakfast.  A carbohydrate breakfast on the run—perhaps a plain bagel, English muffin, or Pop Tart—might trace a similar graphic footprint:  The body would respond to a surge in blood glucose with a round of insulin; we would momentarily be energized, only to soon become light-headed and even hungrier than before eating the breakfast snack.


In contrast to the White Bread experience, the morning that I ate 100% Sourdough “bread,” my blood sugar rose slowly, smoothly, and gradually.  It peaked and leveled off between 90 and 120 minutes at a reading of 19, one-third below White Bread’s peak.  My blood sugar then slowly drifted lower, but it was sustained above its starting point for almost four hours, twice as long as for White Bread.


The test results for sourdough seem to underpin and support the results I first obtained last fall in my test of buckwheat muffins.  They also validate other tests I have conducted in the past with my artisanal sourdough bread.  Friends who eat my sourdough bread tell me they feel it sustains them throughout a busy morning.


I invite you to join in the fascination of keeping sourdough starter and to experiment by using it in your favorite recipes.  Several of my own recipes that follow will give you an idea of how you might incorporate sourdough into recipes.  You may want to test your recipes with a blood glucose monitor.   Or, then again, you might simply want to use sourdough for its advantages of taste, texture, long shelf-life, health benefits, and “staying power” and just enjoy how you feel!

Reading Resources:

  • November/December 2012:  Reviving Culture & the Health Benefits of Sourdough 
    • This newsletter includes ideas for purchasing, feeding, and/or growing your own sourdough from scratch.
  • May 2011:  Monitoring Metabolic Stress
    • This article explains blood sugar monitoring in greater detail and blood sugar reactions to a variety of foods, from soda on an empty stomach to balanced meals of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
  • Emily Buehler, Bread Science
  • Karel Kulp and Klaus Lorenz, Handbook of Dough Fermentations.
  • Sara Pitzer, Baking with Sourdough
  • Lisa Rayner, Wild Bread
  • Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, The Bread Builders:  Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens
  • Ed and Jean Wood, Classic Sourdoughs:  A Home Baker’s Handbook

Recipes for Baked Goods Incorporating Sourdough

Buckwheat Blueberry Muffins (or Squares)

  • ¾ cup buckwheat flour
  • ¾ cup stone ground whole wheat flour
  • ¼ cup sourdough starter
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • ½ t. salt
  • 6 T. honey or maple syrup
  • ¼ cup coconut oil or butter, melted
  • 2 t. vanilla
  • 1 cup dried wild blueberries, dusted with flour
  • And ½ cup chopped almonds.


  1. Mix the first four ingredients through water and allow to soak for 12 hours at room temperature.
  2. Add the baking powder and mix.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat egg and add the remaining wet ingredients through vanilla.
  4. Gently combine wet and dry ingredients.
  5. Fold in blueberries or other dried fruit and nuts.
  6. Pour batter into a 8 ½” square well-oiled baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees 25-30 minutes. Batter can be baked as muffins, reducing the baking time to about 20 minutes.


Gluten-Free Corn/Buckwheat Bread

Follow directions as above, but substitute cornmeal for whole wheat flour.


Sourdough Cornbread

  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 1 cup stone ground whole wheat pastry flour
  • ½ cup sourdough starter
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • ¼ cup coconut oil
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 1 t. sea salt


  1. Mix together the first four ingredients and let rest at room temperature, 6-8 hours
  2. Stir in baking powder.
  3. Add remaining ingredients
  4. Bake at 375 for 20-30 minutes.


Sweet Potato Sourdough Cornbread

Follow directions above but add 1 cup mashed sweet potato with Step 3.


Gluten-Free Sweet Potato Sourdough Cornbread with Pumpkin Seeds

Substitute brown rice flour for whole wheat flour. Add mashed sweet potato and pumpkin seeds at Step 3.

  1. See http://pathways4health.org/2012/10/22/novemberdecember-2012-reviving-culture-and-the-health-benefits-of-sourdough/ []