The Oldways Table Blog

Celebrating health,
happiness, heritage,
and delicious,
nutritious food.

July 24, 2014 | Oldways Table

Are we eating better? Worse? What are the trends? According to data presented last week at a meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), Americans’ eating habits didn’t improve much between 2001 and 2010, except in one area: whole grains.

The scientists on the committee looked closely at four food groups where Americans continue to fall far short of recommendations, to see if any progress was being made. The data showed that fruit and dairy intake had stayed pretty much level over this period as these two graphs illustrate. (You can see the trends by gender and by age group, then you can see the overall trend in the last set of bars on the right -- notice how the blue and green bars are identical for fruit and for dairy?):

Vegetable intake actually went down slightly (even though popular choices like iceberg lettuce and French Fries are included in the vegetable total):

Only whole grains were up – and they increased 33% during this period. Yay. Sound the trumpets.

We’re feeling pretty good about this, especially since the increase is spread over almost every age group, for both males and females, and no group decreased its whole grain intake. The efforts Oldways and its Whole Grains Council have made to educate people about the benefits of whole grains – and to help them find whole grain products, with the Whole Grain Stamp – are making a dent. Makes us feel good about getting up in the morning and going to work.

We can’t stop here, though, as these next two graphs make clear. Even though whole grain consumption rose 33%, people are only eating, on average, less than one serving of whole grains – instead of the three or more servings (called “ounce equivalents” by USDA – don’t ask!) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. Very few people are following official advice to “Make at least half your grains whole, as the next two graphs show.”

In the upper of these two graphs, you can see that virtually no one in the U.S. is eating three servings or more of whole grains daily. Older men do best – they scramble way up to maybe 4% of people getting their three-a-day of whole grains. (And if you can see that tiny sliver of green in the women 51-70, that’s me.)

We’re pretty much all getting plenty of refined grains, though, as the lower of the two graphs shows. This time the not-so-good red bars are on the right, since close to 75% of us make more – often much more – than half our grains refined.

Oldways / Whole Grains Council Conference Tackles Controversial Grain Issues

Despite the documented health benefits of whole grains, misinformation abounds and gluten-free and grain-free diets are in the news.

If you’d like to separate the facts from the fiction, register now for our upcoming conference called Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers, taking place in Boston on  November 9-11, 2014.

Leading national experts including Alessio Fasano, David Katz and many more will help journalists, health professionals, policymakers, and manufacturers get the answers to all their questions about the best role for grains in America’s meals and snacks. (12 CPE credits for registered dietitians.)

So what happens with these data? U.S. law requires our government to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, and the process starts with the appointment of a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a dozen or so qualified nutrition professionals who meet endlessly for as much as two years to review studies that have been published since the last update. They comb through the evidence, and summarize it in a report which will be used as the key reference while USDA and HHS create the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

What will that report say? No one knows yet, but a few draft conclusions were shared at the DGAC meeting, including these:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (CVD): “…strong and consistent evidence shows that dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of CVD are characterized by … regular consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fish, and are low in red and processed meat, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.”
  • Obesity: “…moderate evidence suggests favorable outcomes related to body weight or risk of obesity by dietary patterns that are… high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
  • Diabetes: “…moderate evidence suggests that dietary patterns rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and low in red and processed meats, high-fat dairy, refined grains, and sweets/sugar-sweetened beverages reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
  • Certain Cancers: “…moderate evidence suggests that dietary patterns rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and low In some animal products and refined carbohydrate are associated with reduced risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.” “Patterns emphasizing fruits, vegetables, fish/seafood, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains were generally associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer.”

The messages are clear: Whole grains contribute significantly to health. We’re eating more of them – but still not enough to reap all the health benefits. If you haven’t already, make the switch: go whole grain next time you serve yourself some cereal, a sandwich, or a pasta meal.



July 22, 2014 | Oldways Table

Has your flour ever turned into a breeding ground for little bugs?  Maybe baking took a backburner for a few months and when you revisited your flour bag out popped a little bug? Have you seen them and wondered what to do? Do you sift through the powdery mess, discarding the bugs and save the flour or immediately throw everything away? 

We heard some rumors, mostly from around the time of the Great Depression, when folks still used infested flour.  Could this be why the flour sifter was invented? 

This pesky pest issue was one we were curious about so we posed the question to the experts: would any of them cook or bake with buggy flour?  It was added to our culinary conundrum series, and today we share what the experts would do. The answers may surprise you…or maybe not! (Likely not!)

Nope -- when flour gets buggy, we're always sure to throw it away. – Editors at Food52

My mother always did, so I don't.Melissa Clark, food columnist for The New York Times and cookbook author

Never ever!  Throw it out!Joan Weir, chef, restaurateur and cookbook author

No, I would not.  Even though I hate to waste food, this is one condition that would bother me, although in many countries insects are a food source.Sharon Palmer, The Plant-Powered Dietitian

No. Buggy flour gets tossed. That gives me the heeby jeebies. If you live in a buggy area, store your flour in a sealed airtight container. - Michelle Dudash, Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist and Chef Consultant

Need advice on storing grains and flours?  We recommend this helpful storage chart from our Whole Grains Council.

July 17, 2014 | Oldways Table

When I was in college I spent a year studying in Europe. In other words, I spent nine months trying the regional cuisines of as many places as I could visit. Of all of those tastes, one that still (years later) stands out vividly in my mind is that of the amazing paella valenciana I ate in in its namesake hometown in Spain. And while there were so many memorable flavors in that meal, the one that surprised and delighted me most was the very base of the dish: the saffron rice.

I’m not sure I’d been aware of – let alone tasted – saffron before that rice, but you can be sure that I’ve sought out that delicious flavor and aroma many times since. In the years that have elapsed, I’ve tried saffron paired with pistachios in Indian kulfi, flavoring the sauce of Moroccan tagines, and stirred into Italian risottos colored yellow-orange by the spice. It turns out that saffron is used in a wide variety of cuisines around the globe, though it’s thought to have originated in Southwest Asia.  Saffron’s global popularity isn’t surprising when you consider that while the saffron crocus was first cultivated in Greece, it spread to Eurasia, North Africa, North America, and Oceania, all before the Declaration of Independence was written (and in some cases, much earlier).  Today, 90% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran, though cultivation can also be found in far-flung areas such as southern Italy, Spain, and France, Afghanistan, and Pennsylvania.

Saffron, like many herbs and spices, has a long and storied history. Owing to its vibrant color – like turmeric, saffron is sometimes known as much for its color as for its flavor or aroma – saffron was used consistently over the course three millennia for pigments and is still used as a natural dye today. It was also historically used as a medicinal treatment for a wide range of ailments from general melancholy to wound healing. Today, it is among the most expensive globally traded spices, due to the labor intensive nature of saffron cultivation and harvest. Planting one acre of saffron crocuses – the spice we use in cooking is the stigma of the crocus plant (also called “threads” in the kitchen) – only produces between five and seven pounds of the precious spice.

Due to the high cost of production, ground saffron found in grocery stores may be adulterated with other, similarly colored spices (such as turmeric or safflower). When buying saffron to make your favorite dishes, look for full threads or strands. While they may be pricey, a little goes a very long way. To get the most saffron color and flavor from the threads, they can be soaked in hot water before being added to a recipe. How will you use this ancient spice in your cooking?


July 15, 2014 | Oldways Table

In June 2014, one of the Hartman Group’s very interesting consumer research online reports, Hartbeat Vista delivered an astonishing fact:  47% of all eating occasions in American today are solo experiences – that’s right; almost half the time we’re eating alone. This statistic has wide ranging impacts, from the physical (individual health including weight) to psychological (family, community, home life and design), which makes understanding these impacts all the more important.

This solo eating phenomenon flies in the face of the advice given by many social and nutrition scientists and by Oldways’ Healthy Eating Pyramids.  Rather, the Pyramids include eating with family and friends as a lifestyle attribute that contributes to good health and well-being.  At least Americans may be consistent.  Perhaps it’s the same people who don’t eat their fruits and vegetables.  Less than half of the American population eats the recommended number of vegetables and fruit every day.  (From  40 maps that explain food in America.  Source:  Calculated by ERS/USDA based on data from various sources (see Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Documentation).  Data as of February 2014.)

But what does it mean that almost half of all eating occasions in America are solitary, and, now knowing that so many people eat alone, what could be done to improve the health of the nation?

Cookbook author Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrick McFarlin were so curious about what we do when no one is looking that they wrote a book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone.

The book grew out of Patrick’s habit of questioning chefs and food writers about their solitary practices when they were traveling as part of Oldways’ overseas cultural food symposiums. When Patrick handed Deborah his drawings of crazed cooks in their kitchens, she was compelled to join him in asking others about their solitary eating habits.

It’s fascinating and fun.  Deborah and Patrick discovered a wide range of solo foods of choice, ranging from peanut butter and jelly (or unusual combinations) to chocolate sundaes with extra chocolate to pork loin to ham and cottage cheese to extraordinarily complicated ethnic meals.  Check out the book in the Oldways bookstore

Technology makes it easy to eat alone.  However, are we really alone when we’re eating in front of the TV or a computer screen or texting on a mobile phone?  Not really.  Instead of eating with family and friends, technology is the connector, providing the “company” lacking in a solo dining experience.  You only need to think of Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top fascination, obsession and connection with Scarlett Johansson’s voice in the movie, Her, to get an exaggerated view of this reality.

Books and magazines and iPads and mobile phones are the companion of choice for most when dining out alone.  In the many articles I found online about eating alone at restaurants, the requisite reading material was included as often as the advice to “sit at the bar.”  One exception I found was a restaurant in Amsterdam, Eenmaal. (Eenmaal is moving to Antwerp and to Brooklyn soon.) It is the world’s first one-person restaurant and is self-described as an “attractive place for temporary disconnection.”  There is no wi-fi.

Dining connections or the advice to eat meals with family and friends are rooted in tradition and have implications for physical and mental health.  People eat more slowly when there’s conversation at the table, and, research shows that by eating more slowly, digestion is improved and a feeling of fullness or satiety comes more quickly; therefore, fewer calories are consumed.

In addition, on the social side, human beings are wired to connect.  In Scientific American, scientist Matthew Lieberman’s research shows that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water.  We need to connect and the connections create pleasure, confidence and knowledge.  Families that eat together stay together.  Timi Gustafson, RD, summarizes research results in the Huffington Post, writing that the dinner table is a place for children to learn and observe manners, the art of conversation and the skill of problem solving.  The dinner table is one place where children are taught to be part of society, part of a family. 

Despite the many benefits of eating with family and friends, solo eating is not going away, and will probably grow in popularity.  Solo meals at home, whether in the “company” of technology or not can be beautifully prepared meals or junk food feasts.  No one will ever know about your secret gluttony or techno food pleasures, or if you’re a closet Julia Child.  

If almost half of dining experiences are solo, those of us concerned about health and wellness should perhaps focus on inspiring what we do when no one is looking!  In addition to connecting through technology while dining alone, it’s time to value and connect to the food and its preparation.  Food quality isn’t only about the actual food.  Rather it’s the care and connection to food + the actual food that makes the experience one of quality.



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