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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Food Smarts: Know what is listed in the ingredients

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I am a health conscious person and I have been a vegetarian for 18 years. I have tried a few times to go vegan, but have failed due to my adoration of cheese. I have never been a person to study food labels, just assuming that based on common sense, certain foods did not contain meat, or that cheese, for example only contained milk from an animal. Oh boy, I was wrong.
My whole outlook on consuming food took an interesting turn while at work the other day. A customer asked a co-worker a simple question about an ingredient in the Parmesan cheese, animal rennet to be exact. He asked another employee and found the answer that shock my world. Animal rennet, as it turns out, is from a mammals stomach. It is series of complex enzymes that are commonly used in the production of cheese for the use of coagulating the milk and separating it into solids and liquid.

Ok. So, I admit that I should have done this research a long time ago, but I didn't. So here I am, an 18 year vegetarian veteran finding out something that is probably common knowledge to many other people. Shame on me. However, I spent a long time looking at different cheese after I found this out and discovered that a majority of the cheeses use vegetable rennet or microbial rennet.

I did some more research though and discovered that vegetable rennet is mostly derived from mold. Yum. However, this would technically make it a microbial rennet and leave the cheese with somewhat of a bitter taste. Another option is genetically engineered rennet, which turns me off immediately because anything concocted in a lab to pass as food, makes me apprehensive. Below is a description of GM rennet from Wikipedia. It is a complicated thing and I do not think I can explain it well enough.
"With the development of genetic engineering, it became possible to insert cow genes into certain bacteria, fungi or yeasts to make them produce chymosin. Chymosin produced by genetically modified organisms was the first artificially produced enzyme to be registered and allowed by the US Food and Drug Administration. In 1999, about 60% of US hard cheese was made with genetically engineered chymosin[4] and it has up to 80% of the global market share for rennet.[5] By 2008, approximately 80% to 90% of commercially made cheeses in the US and Britain were made using GM-based rennet.[6] One example of a commercially available genetically engineered rennet is Chymax, created by Pfizer. Today, the most widely used genetically engineered rennet is produced by the fungus Aspergillus niger.

Cheese production with genetically engineered rennet is similar to production with natural calf rennet. GMO-produced rennet contains only one of the known main chymosin types, either type A or type B. Other chymosin types found in natural rennet do not exist in GMO-produced rennet."

It goes on to say that GM rennet is safe to use by vegetarians but that requires knowing if calf rennet has been used during the genetic modification and by simply reading the ingredients on the back of a package, you are not going to be able to tell. So, this poses a problem for me because my diet contains a lot of cheese. It is my downfall. I love pizza, and bagels with cream cheese and dips with cheese and cheese and crackers. All of these things I limit to indulging in only every once and awhile, but on a daily basis I put cheese in my wraps, on my salad, I sprinkle some on my roasted vegetables.
I have read that cheese can be addictive. I found a great Op piece from, by Anthony Howard, titled "Culinary Curious: Addicted to Cheese? Here's why." He explains that the primary protein in milk is casein and when humans digest it, our bodies produce casomorphins, which have a "opiate-like" effect on humans. Casein in cheese is very concentrated and therefor produces a lot of casomorphines in humans as compared to other dairy products, such as plain old milk. In addition research starting in the 80s confirmed that cheese already contains small amounts of morphine, explained by scientists as a result of cows producing it in their milk to help calm their calves. Aw and Ew all at once.

So, now I have a mountain of reasons to not consume cheese. Will I stop completely? Probably not. I wish my will power was stronger than it is, and I admire and envy all vegans out there kicking ass and taking names. However, my life is already difficult enough as a vegetarian. I love my lifestyle and food choices, but I am not going to say it is always easy. I do not crave meat, but simply making smart choices can be hard. Also, when you cook for someone who does eat meat, things get tricky. If I added no cheese to the list, not only would I be making two meals each night, but my food bill would increase, since I would probably wind up buying both dairy and dairy substitute products.

All of this information does make me eager to be more informed about exactly what is in my food. This scenario only occurred last week and since then I have turned over very package and read the ingredients. If there is something I do not recognize I look it up on my fancy smart phone. I encourage you to do the same. Just be aware of what you are putting in your body and if you are not comfortable with it, make changes accordingly. I plain to curb my cheese intake and to definitely try to only purchase ones that are made with vegetable rennet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eating Healthier: Taking in Your Food Surroundings and Options

Lentils and veggies as a fulfilling dinner

Working at Trader Joe's is a great education in food and for taking advantage of what is available wherever you buy your food. I used to go into Trader Joe's and buy the same things every shopping trip, only varying slightly from time to time. Now that I am at the register seeing what people buy and putting all of the products on the floor, I see how many other options there are, especially healthy options, that I never paid attention to.

It is very easy to get stuck in a food rut, which is why I am grateful that I am in an environment that allows me to learn about different options. When checking people out at the register it is interesting to notice what people buy. It is possible to shop at a store like Trader Joe's and not buy healthy food. The cookies, candy, dip and chips there may be a better option than other places due to no preservatives or additives and organic options, but it still does not make it healthy. Also, the frozen meal options are great and convenient, but all frozen dishes are high in sodium. According to (Yes, that LiveStrong. If you still don't know what I'm talking about, it is Lance Armstrong's organization) the simple reasoning for this is taste.

"Processed foods such as frozen dinners, pizza, appetizers and snacks are often high in sodium primarily because the American palate is accustomed to salty foods. Sodium-free meats and combination foods such as pizza are generally not considered tasty and the food industry responds by placing salt where it is expected. Salt is also easier to obtain and cheaper to use than higher-quality flavorings, spices and herbs. Sodium is added as a preservative in some foods."

I started to notice that customers who looked exceptionally healthy and fit were buying simple foods, such as lentils, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, quinoa, kale, yogurt or granola. If they were buying frozen food it was frozen vegetables or fruit with nothing added to it. This is actually a good option if you are not planning on eating the fruit or veggies you buy within a day or two.

Based on this realization I decided that my shopping list needed a bit of a makeover. Now I try to buy something new and healthy each time I shop. Recently I decided to buy pre-cooked lentils. I had a few customers ask me for them so I was intrigued. I have had lentil soup before, but never just lentils prepared on their own. That night I made a dinner with them, veggies and some feta cheese. That's it. Simple, healthy, filling and something I would have not usually thought of making.

Lentils are a healthy food for many reasons. They are high in iron, which is great for a vegetarian like me. The high fiber helps stabilize blood sugar by helping with steady slow burning energy. They also are a good source of vitamin B, which helps the nervous, digestive and immune system.

 Here is the brief recipe.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 Minutes


- 1 package of pre-cooked Trader Joe's lentils
- 1 bag of Trader Joe's frozen vegetable medley
- 1 cup of Trader Joe's frozen spinach
- Crumbled Feta to taste
- Salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste

1. Boil enough water to emerge lentils package in pot. When water starts to boil, turn off heat and place lentils bag in water for 5 minutes. Remove lentils bag, cut open being careful of the hot steam and pour into a bowl.

2. Heat a frying pan on medium heat. Pour the contents of the frozen vegetable bag into the pan and coat with just enough olive oil to cover the veggies. Do not slather them with olive oil, they will be mushy and oily and gross. Cook until tender.

3. Combine the veggies with the lentils. Add feta cheese, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Freedom of Choice vs. Sugar: What is more important?

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I should have addressed this whole Bloomberg soda ban last week, but alas, I missed my newsworthy time frame. So now I will simply address it because it is interesting to me.

Mayor Bloomberg announced that he plans to enforce a ban on all sugary beverages over 16 ounces in restaurants, theaters and other establishments. This caused an outrage from people who think this is an infringement of their rights and freedom of choice. I feel ya people. I am a full supporter of freedom of speech. Although hateful speech is sickening, if I support freedom of speech, I have to support this right for all people even if I don't agree with them. So, in turn I have to support people's freedom of choice, even if I think it is stupid to drink a 16 oz soda or to be able to offer it in the first place.

I see soda as evil. I consider myself lucky that my parents did not raise me on soda, as a lot of kids are. The only time I do indulge is when I have a sore throat or upset stomach and only then do I crave ginger ale. The recommended daily dose of sugar is no more than 40 grams. According to, in a 12 oz Coca Cola, there is 39 grams of sugar, so a 16 oz soda is well over the suggested amount. Not to mention there is added sugar in a lot of food that you might not even realize, such as cereal. In a regular 7-11 Big Gulp (28 oz), there is approximately 91 grams of sugar. Apparently there is also a super big gulp and an extreme big gulp. Seriously? This research made my stomach hurt and my heart feel bad for society. Sugar is high in calories but not filling which is why it contributes so much to weight gain.

There are additional reasons why sugar is bad for your health which are explained nicely on the Nutrition Diva's Web site. The stop five reasons it is bad for you are:

1. Sugar suppresses the immune system
2. Sugar promotes inflammation
3. Sugar suppresses the release of human growth hormone
4. Sugar promotes glycation
5. Sugar raises insulin levels

Admittedly it is hard for me to imagine ever drinking that much soda. I live for water. As humans, we all do, but I actually love it. I have one of those fancy pitchers that hold fruit in the middle to give it flavor, courtesy of my brother and his wife because they got too many for their wedding shower! However, things like that make me happy. Not soda.

I understand both sides of the argument regarding Bloomberg's policy. It may seem like it is constricting on freedoms, but the guy means well. He is watching out for the health of his people and I respect that. I understand that if people really want 16 oz of soda or more they will just buy two sodas, but that is also more money out of their pocket, so hopefully they draw the line when they start to see their bank account slim down, and in turn they will see their waste slim down as well.

The soda issue hurts me most when it comes to kids. There was a pre-teen boy who would come into one of my restaurants with his mom every week. Every week he would gulp down no less then 6 sodas. He was an obese child and my heart ached for him and my anger mounted toward his mother for letting him continue to order another soda. There were times when I would ignore them so I did not feel obligated to bring another soda and contribute to this kid's health decline.

In conclusion, Bloomberg might be pissing some people off, but his heart is in the right place. I know when I have a family all soda will be outlawed in my house. This policy doesn't directly effect my life routine, but to all those who are feeling the pain from this, please take this opportunity to consider cutting back on the added sugar from soda. I promise after a week you will feel better.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Creating the Perfect Bite: Lemon-Blueberry Yogurt Muffins

A few weeks ago my boyfriend told me that he was having a breakfast food party at worked and asked me to make some muffins. I send him to work with a packed lunch (because I am a dork and need to know that he is eating and eating healthy) and sometimes that includes muffins that I make. His co-worker had tried one and liked it and had actually suggested to him that I make the breakfast muffins. So, I got really excited and motivated and went a little crazy with them, but they were awesome, so that is all that matters.

I decided to adapt a lemon-blueberry yogurt loaf recipe that I found on pinterest from the blog Sweet Pea's Kitchen. I made muffins because at a work party it is more convenient to just grab something and go. I even went out and bought a muffin carrier. I told you I went a little crazy!

The recipe called for confectioners sugar and when I was first thinking about making them, I did not have any so I googeled confectioners sugar substitutions and wound up finding out how to make it, which is really easy! Powered sugar is ground up granulated sugar and cornstarch, which works as an anti-caking agent. I used 1 tsp of cornstarch (which I did have on hand) for every cup of sugar. I mixed them together and ground them in my food processor on high until I had the consistency of powered sugar. It worked and was really fun and interesting to do.

I have never worked so hard to create a baked good. This recipe took almost two bags of lemons, which I hand squeezed for all the lemon juice needed. These are not a vegan treat, but there is no milk in them, which is my biggest concern. I love food, a lot. But it is not every bite that makes you instantly relax and be thankful for what you are consuming. That actually happened for me when I had my first bite of this muffin. Maybe it was because I worked so hard on them, or maybe they were just great. I hope both. Here is the recipe from Sweet Pea's Kitchen. Give them a try.

For the Loaf: (Muffins in my case)
  • 1 1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (I used organic low-fat vanilla yogurt)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (approximately 2 lemons)
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen, thawed and rinsed
For the Lemon Syrup:
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup sugar
For the Lemon Glaze:
  • 1 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease bottom and sides of one 9 x 5-inch loaf pans; dust with flour, tapping out excess.
  2. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla and oil. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix the blueberries with the remaining tablespoon of flour, and fold them very gently into the batter.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake 50 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes before removing loaf to a wire rack on top of a baking sheet.
  5. While the loaf is cooling, make the lemon syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir together the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved. Once dissolved, continue to cook for 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.
  6. Use a toothpick to poke holes in the tops and sides of the warm loaf. Brush the top and sides of the loaf with the lemon syrup. Let the syrup soak into the cake and brush again. Let the cake cool completely.
  7. To make the lemon glaze, in a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and 2-3 tablespoons of the lemon juice. The mixture should be thick but pourable. Add up to another tablespoon of lemon juice if the mixture is too stiff. Pour the lemon glaze over the top of each loaf and let it drip down the sides. Let the lemon glaze harden, about 15 minutes, before serving.