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CHOCOHOLICS REJOICE! It’s Healthy(ish)! Here’s the Evidence!

I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate.  I make no apologies, and the more I learn about chocolate and the cocoa bean, the more I realize no apologies are needed.  It’s no joke, cocoa has health benefits.  Indeed, if I ruled the world, dark chocolate would be a deductible medical expense. 

Perhaps the science isn’t quite sufficient to justify chocolate as a deductible medical expense, but it ain’t junk food either.  There’s enough info on Theobroma cacao to warrant treating it with respect.  

What Makes Chocolate “Healthy-ish”?

Chocolate is loaded with antioxidants.  It contains flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory powers and benefits for the immune system.  There are several subgroups of flavonoids, such as anthocyanidins that give foods like Concord grapes and red cabbage their purple color, and flavones, found in celery and bell peppers.  It’s the  flavanols however, that give chocolate (and other foods like tea and blueberries) it’s healthful properties.

So, What’s Chocolate’s Impact On Health?

Improved blood flow: This review of the research studying the combination of eating cocoa flavanols and doing aerobic exercise improved cardiovascular risk factors and vascular function (read: improved blood flow).  Cocoa helps reduce blood pressure by relaxing the walls of the blood vessels, improving blood flow, not only to the heart, but also to the gray matter of the brain.  This doesn’t mean eating a candy bar will make you a genius, but there may be bennies from eating some dark chocolate regularly.

Cholesterol benefits: Cocoa consumption seems to raise the HDL cholesterol (the good form) and reduce the “LDL cholesterol” (the bad one you want less of).  It works best when your total cholesterol levels are high.

Reduces “oxidative stress”: In a just-published systematic review of 48 studies on cocoa, the researchers found that cocoa consumption “plays an important role in the human metabolic pathway through reducing oxidative stress.”  Oh, bring it on.  

What’s oxidative stress?  It’s caused by “free radicals”.  Free radicals in your body can “nick” or damage the cells in arterial walls, making it easy for plaques to adhere and build up, clogging arteries. Cocoa consumption seems to help prevent free radicals from forming.  Ever taste rancid oil or nuts?  You’re tasting “oxidized” food damaged by free radicals.

Adapted from Tuenter, et al.

In the Mood

In this review of studies that looked at chocolate, mood, and cognition, the authors developed a “mood pyramid”.  They placed more general mood benefits from the flavanols at the bottom, since these are benefits associated with flavanols in other foods as well.  Secondary mood benefits appear to come from the caffeine-theobromine combination in chocolate. 

More specific is a possible dopamine effect from a substance in chocolate called salsolinol.  This is emerging research, but the hypothesis is that salsolinol may play a role in the impact of chocolate on mood.  Just how much chocolate you’d need to eat is still unclear. 

The Fine Print

Yes, there is some.  Some of the research found benefits from low intakes of chocolate, as little as 7.5 grams.  Other studies used significantly more however, up to 100 grams a day and produced good results.  (How do I sign up?)

These cocoa flavanols are NOT present in all chocolate foods.  Read labels: if it says, “cocoa processed with alkali” you can pretty much forget getting any flavanols.  This form of cocoa is also known as “Dutch-processed”.  The process makes cocoa appear darker (see photo) and taste a tad less acidic but it blows the antioxidant content to smithereens.  Some chefs and bakers prefer this type of cocoa for recipes.  I do not.  Give me the lighter powder on the right.  I like my flavanols, thanks.

Chocolate isn’t calorie-free.  Solid bars have about 150-170 calories per ounce.  I keep it to a max of 2 ounces a day, but an ounce of good chocolate, at 170 calories, makes for a rich snack or even a lower-calorie dessert.  Fair enough.  Cocoa powder however, is low in calories and the most concentrated source of cocoa flavanols, so use it to make your own hot chocolate.  I sweeten with stevia or a no-cal sweetener to minimize added sugar calories, and often add some cinnamon or other spice (smoked paprika is a favorite of mine).   

Get a high — in percent cocoa.  The most benefits are seen with chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa solids.  Not a problem for me, but it takes getting used to.  Go gradually!

Foodies! Poilane’s Famous Sourdough & My Tour of the Original Brick Ovens!

This post is for foodies, so be warned.  None of my usual busting of topical nutrition myths and misperceptions.  This EdibleRx post is about fun, flavor, and enjoyment of a food I love. 

I love artisan bread.  I don’t scarf it down indiscriminately, but I love it.  I do make bread, and as a native of San Francisco, I have a special affection for SF sourdough.  Then I visited Poilane.

Poilane is a famous boulangerie in Paris, and known particularly for its huge loaves of sourdough, complete with signature “P”.  It’s made in huge round loaves with an intoxicating aroma, but they’re difficult to haul in luggage.  Then I heard that Apollonia Poilane, the third-generation owner and author of Poilane, a delightful book with the shop’s recipes, would be in New York doing a book signing.  Loaves of her sourdough would be for sale at the signing, so I was all in. 

The book and the bread weren’t in though – both had sold out before the event!  No mystery: both are fabulous.  Apollonia’s conversational writing style makes you feel that she’s right there with you.  With a forward by Alice Waters and endorsements by luminaries like Ina Garten (“The Barefoot Contessa”), I couldn’t wait to get this book.

At a second signing a few days later, we were first in line for a book and a loaf, and had an absolutely wonderful, lengthy chat with Apollonia.  We’d mentioned we’d be in Paris a few months later and she invited us to visit her at the shop that started it all and even tour the basement where the ovens are that make that fabulous bread.

The Poilane Story

We were put in touch with Genevieve, who’s worked for the family for over 20 years and who arranged our visit for us.   She explained that the family business was started by Apollonia’s grandfather in 1932.  That’s when he developed his sourdough starter, or “mother”, and all the sourdough starter used since descended from that first batch.  Every day, a little of the dough from each batch is saved as starter for the next.

Apollonia’s father eventually took over the business, but Poilane’s reputation was growing and the small shop on the Left Bank couldn’t meet the demand for Poilane’s bread and rolls.  To scale up production, Mr. Poilane built the “Manufacture”, on the outskirts of Paris.  Despite larger-scale output, every loaf of sourdough is still made by hand from some of that original starter culture. 

Tragically, both of Apollonia’s parents were killed in a helicopter crash, forcing her to step up as CEO at the age of 19, while a student at Harvard. Dealing with her parents’ death and becoming head of the family company was, Apollonia admits, a strain, with added pressure to uphold Poilane’s reputation for outstanding quality. To Apolonia’s credit, she’s managed to maintain the famous hand-made, artisan quality of Poilane bread – and the deliciousness of the taste – yet still meet production demands. 

“Sourdough Central”:                          Poilane’s Original Brick Ovens

Apollonia brought us down the steep circular stairs, where we observed the brick ovens which, other than making needed repairs over the years, are pretty much the way they were in 1932.  They operate round the clock, with each loaf shaped by hand, by gifted artisans who know the exact size each loaf should be.  There’s a scale, but it’s seldom used by Poilane’s experts.  Everything for the shop is made there, with the Manufacture supplying orders for the rest of France.  (They do ship worldwide, and sourdough keeps well. Order here!)

Apollonia includes the recipe for her family’s sourdough in her book, Poilane, but I have to admit, even though I love baking bread (by hand – I like kneading it!), the thought of trying to make the Poilane recipe is intimidating.  She reassured me, “It’ll be different, because it’s your starter, not ours, but ours has been evolving for over 80 years.”  Fair enough.  I also confessed to favoring it over my beloved San Francisco sourdough, but she reminded me SF sourdough is a different thing.  Makes sense.

Taming a Big Round Loaf of Sourdough

Apolonia’s spot-on advice for efficiently dividing the huge loaf:

  1. Stand the round loaf on its edge.
  2. Hold it with your hand just off center.
  3. Slice straight down the middle to form two half-loaves.
  4. Place each half cut-side-down and slice in half from the top, making 4 “quarter-loaves.”
  5. Each quarter can then be sliced however you choose.

I wrapped three quarter-loaves in plastic wrap and placed into freezer bags, keeping one to use right away.  THIS loaf defines why bread is the staff of life. 

There IS a Better Way To Make Toast

Huh?  Sounds like instructions for boiling water?  Wait – Apollonia advises toasting Poilane’s sourdough under the broiler on one side only.  It gives you the crunch of toast but also the chewiness of the softer side.  I’m a convert.  Spread with butter if you like (I even like it plain, for the taste of the sourdough).  What kind of cheese is best for toasting under the broiler?  Without hesitating, Apollonia replied, “Oh, anything that melts!” 

Works for me.

Factoid: There is a London branch of Poilane, but the starter is still from the original.  Apollonia’s father took some of the starter on the “Chunnel” train from London to Paris, to make sure that Londoners would be eating sourdough that came from the original starter culture, just as Parisians do!

Food Fashions: Full-Frontal & Fickle!

It’s coming up on Fashion Week in New York and while that’s all about styles of clothes, foods come into – and go out of – fashion, too.  A previous post dealt with foods that nutritionists never thought would become popular, yet they did just that. 

Now think of the foods that were “in” — for a while.  I actually heard or read these comments recently:

  • “I’m so over kale, already.”  I read this comment by a former editor of a prominent food magazine. (Cauliflower is the new kale, if you’re wondering, but beets are gaining.)  
  • “Cottage cheese? What are you, like, 80?”  (This was said to me and no, I’m not 80 — but hey, nothing wrong with 80!)
  • “A baked potato?  A white one? Are you serious?”
  • “I don’t’ do bread.  All that gluten.  Quinoa is my thing.”
  • “She wants a Cosmo? No one drinks those anymore.”

All the above foods (excluding the Cosmo) are delicious and healthful.  They’re also “out of fashion” (including the Cosmo).  If this sounds a little ridiculous, read on.

Food Fashions Fade, Food Value Doesn’t

People may be “done” with kale, but is it less healthful than it was when it was “in”?  Of course not. It’s a superfood.  A baked potato is one of the best sources of potassium, even better than a banana, and has as much vitamin C as a tomato!  It always has!  Even so, all the buzz is that white potatoes are bad and sweet potatoes are a little better, but still a “starchy vegetable” to be eaten in minimal amounts. (Thanks, Harvard.)  

Fashion eating aside, the nutritional qualities of these foods have ALWAYS been there.  Whether it’s kale or cauliflower, or They’re as nutritious today as when they were first “discovered” by food fashionistas. 

Consider the following:

A healthful Russet Burbank white potato grown in Idaho!
  • Kale is every bit as good for you now as it was when you first tasted it.  It may even taste better now, since all that attention motivated chefs to develop inventive ways of eating kale.  Bravo.
  • White potatoes. Before you were told of their “horrors”, they were a staple food for millions of people from Paris to Poughkeepsie to Peru.  The nutrition they had is the nutrition they still have.  (Check out www.potatogoodness.com for a ridiculous number of facts and recipes. 
  • Bread?  It takes a hit for having “carbs” and gluten, which celebrities tell us are both bad (proof you should never get nutrition advice from celebrities).  Yet, it’s been a staple, indeed, the “staff of life” in many cultures throughout history.  Made with whole grains, it’s also loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals.  It’s versatile, oh, and people like it. 
  • Cottage cheese?  PLEASE!  If you think it’s only for elderly ladies who lunch, experts disagree. registered dietitian nutritionist and exercise physiologist Jim White is one guy trying to set the facts straight about the value of cottage cheese. “If your goal is to increase lean muscle, mass try cottage cheese with a serving of your favorite fruit after a hard earned workout,” he says. He educates clients that a typical cup of low-fat cottage cheese boasts a walloping 27 grams of protein for those muscles, plus 200 mg of calcium to support bone health.

Sometimes fashionable eating can have benefits.  I love anything that gets people eating more veggies, yogurt, and whole grains of any kind.   But I get concerned that people strop eating these foods when the trend fades and the benefits also go missing from their diets, especially if they replace them with something less healthful.  (Example: plant-based “milks” are more hype than benefit.)

Cut-To-The-Chase Advice

Work it.  Let food fashions motivate you to try a new food.  If you like it, keep eating it!    If it’s nutritious and out of fashion, it’s still just as good for you as it was when everyone else was eating it to be “in.”  Never be intimidated about eating healthy food you like.