Sunday, November 23, 2014

For the love of olives.

Before I begin my tribute to olives, I will admit that these delightful little oily specimens are probably the only food that I really, REALLY dislike. Green olives. Black olives. Olive dip. Olive bread. Greek salad. Sense a pattern? Anything with a slight olive flavour is a no go, except olive oil. So I apologise, if I offended anyone but this brings me to my next point.

 What is the relevance?

Firstly, the Jewish festival of Chanukkah (Hanukah, Hannukah, etc.) is approaching faster than you can say doughnut, where we celebrate all things oil (specifically olive oil). If you've read my previous blog posts you might remember I spoke about the story of Chanukkah and the connection with oil a few years back:

There are many other "olive" references in Judaism as it bears a lot of symbolic significance. One of these representations I found particularly relevant now. The olive branch, throughout history has been a symbol of peace. Back in the time of Noah, after the disaster of the flood had been averted, Noah sent out a dove from the Ark to check for dry land. The dove returned with an olive branch and since then it has resembled peace and harmony amongst different cultures and religions. The olive may also symbolize longevity because the trees have a long life of productivity, however it is the peace symbol that I can relate to at this point in time because of all the perverseness that has been happening in the world right now. So in celebration of the upcoming festival of lights and in the hope of peace, I'd like to shed some light (no pun intended) on the nutritional pros and cons of this funky fruit.

Agriculturally, the olive, sourced from the olive tree - is a fruit. Nutritionally, the olive is a fat. And cuisinally (not a word), the olive is a seasoning or flavouring. Unlike majority of fruit, the olive needs to be cured before eaten rather than eating it directly off the tree. A ripe olive can be black or green in colour, depending on where it's from. Olives contain something called hydroxytyrosol, which has been shown to reduce cancer risk, Alzheimers disease and prevent bone loss. Olives can also function as anti-inflammatories and anti-histamines. The fat content of olives (as you may have guessed) is pretty high, particularly in oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat) which has been shown to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. They contain large amounts of fibre, vitamin E and iron. They also contain a nice amount of phytonutrients which are a fancy word for nutrients that aren't essential (like other vitamins and minerals) but can be really helpful in reducing disease risk. The oil from olives is dissimilar to the juice from fruits, where we might lose a lot of the nutrients from the fruit.

What about the other side of the coin? Because there always has to be another side.

 As with all "good" fats, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Too much fat is still fat and even though it offers a lot of benefits, it can still cause weight gain. Another issue is that olives are often stored in salty brine which can have negative effects on blood pressure. Large amounts of olives might also cause diarrhoea (which sometimes might be a useful thing). There is also a Talmudic reference around olives and their negative impact on memory. However, it also mentions that olive oil does the opposite (which interestingly is supported by studies that show olive oil consumption reduces Alzheimers risk).

 Apparently this can be solved by eating olives with olive oil?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Scoop on Dairy

The Jewish calendar has just commemorated a nine day mourning period, where among other things; meat and chicken products are avoided. This is hardly an issue in Israel. We don't call it “The Land of Milk and Honey” for nothing.

Traditional recommendations warn us to avoid full fat dairy foods and stick to skim milk, low fat cheese and yoghurt starting at a young age. 

Where did this negative association with full-fat dairy come from?

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, a link was found between an increase in saturated fat and high blood cholesterol levels. Dairy fat is high in saturated fat (the “bad” fat) and therefore a link was made between the two. There were also studies that showed higher rates of heart disease in areas where there was high consumption of saturated fat compared to Mediterranean countries with lower dairy consumption. 
Then we have the classic view, that higher fat = more calories = more weight gain.

To put it simply – low fat dairy means less risk of heart disease and obesity.

More recently, there have been conflicting views on this subject, where it is actually recommended to consume full fat dairy. Obviously this does not mean you should go and buy yourself a full-fat double-cream-extra-fat-chocolate-chip-caramel-Frappuccino (I’m sure this exists somewhere). Funnily enough, Israel has always had a lot more full fat dairy products available.

Paradoxically, full-fat dairy products might actually reduce the risk of obesity. One theory is that the full-fat version will keep us feeling fuller for longer (fat generally makes us feel full, think: hot chips and pizza), and therefore we will eat less of it. Another claim is that there are certain fatty acids specifically found in milk that might help with weight regulation. These substances help us use the fat and burn it for energy, rather than store it. There are also some low fat dairy products where the fat is replaced by sugar (e.g. fat free yoghurts filled with sugar), which will result in more weight gain compared to a full fat, free-of-sugar version. Then there is the issue of what we are (consciously or unconsciously) replacing the reduction of fat in dairy products with. And then there are the natural foodies who promote eating foods closest to their natural form. The less processing the food goes through, the fewer additives and sweeteners it will contain, and the better our body will able to process it. 

There have also been a number of studies that have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids in dairy foods might be protective for heart disease. So – it isn’t necessarily that the saturated fats have no effect on heart disease, but rather there are other substances that counter this effect.

And finally, like every other association between food and disease: maybe, the long standing link between full fat dairy and heart disease, is really an association with other life style factors that come along with people that consume full fat dairy (e.g. less exercise, and other high fat foods). Yes, another generalisation.

Despite these recent findings, official dietary guidelines in Australia ( and America still maintain to consume low fat dairy products.

So where does this leave us?
Unfortunately, the nutrition world always seems send mixed messages. And, I always seem to come up with the same phrase: “everything in moderation”. In this case, if you are enjoying your daily full cream cappuccino, there is no need to give it up. On the other hand, if you are consuming a lot of dairy in your diet and trying to lose weight, it might help to go from 5% fat to 3% or 1% fat. Though, there is probably no point in having a fat free iced coffee with ice cream on top.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Watermelon + Feta = the tale of an Israeli Summer

Watermelon and Feta cheese:
An unlikely combination, but a very likely food on the menu at majority of cafes, bars and eateries in an Israeli summer.
A few weeks ago I went to an art festival in Musrara (a neighbourhood in Jerusalem). The organisation that ran the event aimed to create a meeting point between different cultures through setting up a watermelon stand (or Basta). Not-ironically they called it the “meeting point – between green and red”. They selected this fruit specifically because it is something that you have to share with people. It’s messy, delicious and vibrant in colour. Also, there is a commonality between a slice of watermelon and a smile.

This watermelon stand was offering mass amounts of watermelon and feta cheese. Families, friends and people from all different backgrounds were sitting in the park, enjoying the music and feasting on this delicacy. 

Until I came to Israel I had never heard of eating the two foods together. Pears and cheese? Yes. Apples and cheddar? Definitely. But watermelon and cheese? Other than the fact it combines salty and sweet, not so much.  By the way, I’ll be honest – I still have yet to taste the combination. But that being said, it doesn't mean I can’t write about it.

So is watermelon healthy? Is feta cheese healthy? And as two foods eaten together – are there any benefits?

Despite some claims against it, watermelon gets my tick of approval. Firstly, it’s about 92% water – which means it is a great hydrator. Sometimes it can seem like an overwhelming task to chop open one of those huge watermelons, but these days you can purchase smaller (and seedless) ones that make it less difficult, or you can just make sure to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting watermelon juice all over. It contains something called lycopene (which is also found in tomatoes) that is helpful when it comes to bone and cardiovascular health. Citrulline, an amino acid, is also found in watermelon. Our bodies convert citruline into arginine and it has be shown to help reduce blood pressure. As with many other fruits, it has high amounts of Vitamin C. Surprisingly, the watermelon rind, although unappealing also contains many hidden nutrients.

Ok, so that’s a little on the fruit side of things. What about feta?

On the downside it is high in salt and fat. That being said, it does have about a third less fat than a lot of other cheeses. Like many other dairy products, it is high in calcium (30g of cheese contains 140mg of calcium). There are studies that claim calcium can aid with weight loss, while feta cheese specifically contains a certain type of fatty acid that might aid in abdominal fat loss.

Undoubtedly both these foods offer us health benefits. As a combination? The Vitamin C in the watermelon can support the absorption of calcium from the cheese. So maybe there is something more to this delicacy other than the complimenting flavours.

On that note, it might be time for me to taste test this watermelon-feta-delight for once and for all.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Falafel (pha-la-phel): An age old dispute

How is it possible that I have been living in this country for 2 years and not yet paid homage to a food that has become an Israeli icon? Felafel is trans-seasonal, trans-meal (you will easily find people consuming falafel on the street at 9:00am), gluten free, vegetarian friendly and economically viable. It is so popular that a few weeks ago, Israel celebrated “Falafel day” – which essentially encouraged people to buy a falafel.

For those of you unfamiliar with the food - it is a deep fried patty made up of ground chickpeas or fava beans (or both). Other ingredients include cumin, coriander, parsley, fresh garlic and onion and it is usually served inside a pita or laffa (flat bread) with a plethora of salads and pickled vegetables. Falafel balls may also be eaten on their own as a snack (you can ask any vendor to buy a few falafel balls on their own without all the extras). Kind of like Middle Eastern sushi. 

A little bit of history…

I would be lying if I said falafel originated in Israel. It actually has a controversial history. Some say it first cropped up in Egypt – apparently the Copts (the native Christians of Egypt) used the dish as a replacement for meat during Lent. In Egypt, McDonald’s offers their version of a sandwich called a “McFalafel”. There are some sources that trace the word “falafel” to the Arabic word ‘falafil’, which means peppers or pha la phel – many beans. In Egypt, falafel is known as ta’amiya which means ‘little piece of food’. How very descriptive. The meal quickly became a popular street food throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately it has also become a point of conflict between Israelis and Arabs – where they have debated about the origin of the food. Many Palestinians believe that Israel stole the dish from them and turned into a national food icon. So much so, that the Lebanese Industrialists' Association has raised assertions of copyright infringement against Israel concerning falafel.
Who would have thought that a humble chickpea (or fava bean) could cause this much contention?
While the dish isn't specifically “Jewish” – it is still consumed by Jews all over the world.

A Spot of Nutrition...

Falafel has great potential to be a really healthy, nutritious meal. The chickpeas and beans, along with fresh garlic, parsley, onions and spices are full of fibre, good quality protein, iron, calcium, folate, low in salt and low in fat. When served with salads and techina or chummus you have the bonus of vitamins from the vegetables and healthy oils from the techina. As mentioned previously, it is a great alternative for vegetarians looking to increase their protein intake and assuming there is no added flour – it works well for the gluten intolerant. The problem lies in the deep frying of the falafel and the pita or laffa it is served in, as well as the huge doses of tahini or chummus drizzled on top.

 If you want to make it at home – try baking the falafel, or lightly frying it in a small amount of oil, it works just as well. Use wholemeal pita or wholegrain bread, or serve it on top of an Israeli salad without the bread for an alternative. Unfortunately, most falafel shops do not offer the option of baked falafel, or wholemeal pita.

What to do in this situation?

Just don’t add hot chips.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ice Coffee (not to be confused with “cold coffee”)

Summer is pending. Or it has sort of begun in the Northern Hemisphere. And what happens in Israel when the sun appears? 4 out of every 5 people (I made up that statistic, it’s not an actual fact) will be parading the streets thirstily sipping an ice coffee. Make note. Ice coffee in Israel (said in an Israeli accent – איס קפה) differs to a regular iced coffee out of Israel, in that it is blended with ice and milk. The texture is so thick that it’s probably easier to eat it with a spoon and possibly with some sprinkles on top. If you are looking for a regular ice coffee, you need to ask for a “café kar (kar = cold)”, no surprises there.

Other varieties of this ice coffee include ice mocha, ice chocolate, ice vanilla, hazelnut, irish liquer, french vanilla and probably a whole lot more that I am unaware of. For someone who likes coffee, but doesn't like the coffee flavour (yes - there are many people like this) this is perfect – you can barely detect a coffee taste. On the flip side, for those who want an extra hit of caffeine, you can request to have an extra shot of espresso, making the texture a little slushier.

Nutrition wise? As you might have guessed, it isn't high up there on the food chain. Take a look at the nutrition information from an ice coffee in Aroma café (one of the popular coffee franchises in Israel). The coffees are usually given as a 500mL serve, sometimes there is the option of ordering a smaller size (like in Aroma). The amount of calories it contains is equivalent to about 4 slices of bread. Or a piece of steak. Or two slices of pizza. Or 10 carrots (yum yum). Anyway, you get the picture.

Where do these calories come from? The full cream milk and sugar, making you come back for more, and more, and more. So while you think you are simply gulping down a drink to quench your thirst, or satisfy that sugar hit – you are essentially eating a full meal. On a positive note, drinking through a straw might slightly alleviate the damage the sugar is doing to your teeth.

Fret not however; there are diet versions available in some cafés – depending on where - they use low fat milk and artificial sweetener. The diet variety has about ½ the amount of calories as a regular (150kcal). Then again, there has been many times where I've noticed the same machine being used for “diet” and “regular” so who really knows?

Nutrition Information

Saturated fat

If you are looking for some ice-y alternatives this summer here are a few ideas:
-       - Previously mentioned cold coffee which is just milk, ice and coffee – assuming you don’t add too much sugar and use skim milk these have about 1/3 of the calories.
-       - Icy poles or “ices” depending which country you’re from. Ice, sugar and a bit of flavour on a stick – refreshing and low in calories at the same time.
-      - Frozen fruit – try freezing oranges/grapes/pineapple or anything really and the finished product is another thirst quenching addition to your summer menu.
-       - Vegetable juice. It may sound unappealing but is surprisingly good. Go to any juice bar and get a mix of carrot, celery, beetroot, and some ginger or mint for an added kick.
-       - Make your own iced coffee by blending up milk, ice, coffee or use fruit instead of coffee for a fruit smoothie.
-       - Add mint or fresh fruit to water with ice if you find water a little bit tasteless

-      ...... Oh and speaking of water – drink water!

    And in case you want to try making this at home (if you are not in Israel, or just feel like experimenting) - here's is a recipe:

  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 Tbsp instant coffee
  • 4 Tbsp white sugar
  • 1 packet vanilla sugar (2-2½ tsp)
  • 1 bag milk (1 litre)
  • 1 bag shoko (about 1 cup chocolate milk)
  • 1 Tbsp chocolate liqueur (optional)
1. Stir coffee into water in a large mixing bowl, blender, food processor, or whatever else seems like a good idea. Add sugars and stir again until dissolved.
2. Add milk, chocolate milk, and liqueur if using, and mix until evenly combined. Store in the fridge or freezer

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Communal Dining

On this blog of Jewish food and nutrition there has been different categories of things I have written about: Traditional Jewish foods and their significance, foods pertaining more specifically to Israel and general concepts around food in Judaism like fast days and the separation of meat and milk. A common thread among all these things is that the combination of food and Judaism - will undoubtedly result in some sort of communal dining experience. Jewish holidays – both festive and serious, celebrations and commemorations, Israels Independence Day, the Jewish New Year and so on and so forth. When there is food, in come the aunts, the uncles, the 3rd cousins once removed, the friend’s friend and the neighbours dog.

We don’t even think twice about having two large meals with 15 people every week. But is there a benefit to communal eating other than the social aspect?

I recently read an article talking about this very topic. It compared the dining experience 
of a single person eating alone each night, to a family or group of friends eating together.

Scenario 1: Person comes home from work. Person is lazy to cook for him/herself. Person sits in front of the TV or computer and eats a packet of food “x” or orders in pizza, or doesn't eat all together.
Scenario 2: Person comes home from work. Person is lazy to cook for him/herself – but decides to invite some friends over for dinner. Friends cook dinner together, eat slowly, talk and end the night feeling happy and satisfied.

Ok, so maybe the two situations are a little exaggerated but you get the gist.
Back to the article – conclusion was that eating with other people has been shown to have health benefits as well, and this goes for all age groups. In nursing homes, having a communal dining hall will inspire the elderly to eat adequately compared to sitting in their room on their own. School kids are more likely to eat a nutritious dinner when eaten together with the family.  Adolescents are less likely to develop eating disorders and skip meals. Children also eat by example and will learn healthy eating habits from their parents.
And then you have the miscellaneous group of people aged 20+ that live on their own and are more likely to skip dinner/eat quickly/order take away food/eat a  tub of ice cream for dinner. 

While one may argue that having large meals with a lot of people might result in over consumption (hello – Jewish world) – it also  brings the opportunity to consume foods like salad, soup, roast chicken (as opposed to a burger and chips) and in general – less processed foods. People are less likely to binge eat in the company of others (usually) and may be inspired to try new foods. Food usually tastes a lot better when eaten with others. Although, now with people posting their lunch on Instagram, it sort of replicates the experience of sharing a meal in real life (does it?).
Instagram & Co.: The Mobile Era of Food Photography

There has also been a trend for communal dining restaurants that offer the opportunity for strangers to eat a meal together at one table to benefit from this experience.  

Yesterday in Israel was an example of communal eating being brought to life. Israel celebrated its independence and it seemed like the entire country filled any single outdoor area despite the not-such-great weather. Family and friends sat together over a BBQ and enjoyed the fresh air, food and company. Nothing else quite like it..

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Quinoa - The Passover Solution

Quinoa (keeeen-wa) has been in the food media for quite some time. It's been hyped up to be a “superfood”, great for vegetarians and vegans, coeliacs and pretty much anyone. I would have to agree that it certainly is a healthy grain to be consuming. However, what I am more excited about is the introduction of this new food source to the Passover diet.  As an Ashkenazi Jew, for as long as I can remember the only two sources of carbohydrates we eat each year for Pesach are: Potatoes and Matzah. And if you want to count potato starch and the plethora of try-hard baked goods that include potato flour or ground up Matzah. The Sephardim know what they're doing by including other grains like rice, corn, peas, beans, lentils and legumes. But alas, we must complain no more – because now we can all merrily eat this super grain – quinoa! Hip-Hip-Hooray! Thank you South America.
* Please note - not everyone agrees that this is acceptable, as with all things Jewish, it continues to be controversial.

Where does quinoa come from you ask? I will tell you.

It originated about 3000 years ago by the Incas (Indigenous South Americans), where the crop was thought to be sacred. It was known as chisaya mama – or “mother of all grains”. Then it got the boot. When the Spanish invaded South America, they mocked the grain and called it “food for the Indians”. They forbid the cultivation of the grain and the Incas were forced to grow wheat instead. Look how far we have come since then.

Grain (uncooked)
Fat (per 100g)
Protein (per 100g)
Calories (per 100g)
Fibre (per 100g)
Rice (white)
Rice (brown)
Barley (pearl)

This is a table comparing quinoa to a few other grains that would be used in a similar way. Ironically quinoa is technically a seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant (I also never knew such a plant existed).  Calories between them all are pretty similar. While quinoa does have the highest fat content, it contains the good fat that helps lower bad cholesterol. Not only does it have the highest amount of protein compared to the other grains, it contains the best quality protein. Best quality, meaning it has essential amino acids which are usually obtained from protein foods like meat, eggs and dairy. It also has good amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus and high in fibre. In a word – it’s good stuff (even if you don’t agree with the word “superfood”). There are a few different varieties of quinoa that come in different colours – giving them all a slightly different nutrient profile.

A lot of people get turned off quinoa because they don’t know how to prepare it. It ain’t that hard. The first thing to remember is to rinse it before cooking to remove the bitter coating (saponin). Even though the manufacturing process usually removes this coating, there is sometimes still a bit of a bitter residue. The rest is similar to rice – for every 1 cup of quinoa, add 1 ¼ cups of boiling water. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Let it stand for 5 minutes and fluff. The end! You can serve it hot or cold. It has a really interesting nutty/grainy flavour. Try it in a salad, or with roast vegetables, with fish, as a stuffing, in a stir fry, veggie burgers, tofu, nuts, on its own with spices or even served as a kind of porridge with cooked fruit, nuts and cinnamon. 
Or maybe with Maror?