The humble muffin

Let it be hereafter known to all and sundry that I am not cool. I am definitively not trendy. The only time in recent memory I’ve been on-trend is when activities I’ve cheerfully pursued for years – baking bread! sewing! growing food! raising chickens! – happened to intersect neatly with a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of a sudden, my previously-mocked Laura Ingalls Wilder skills were wildly in demand. All of a sudden, I was cool.

Sadly, it looks as though my coolness has worn off as we tentatively, gradually, carefully tiptoe back to our “real” lives. Most people have given up on sourdough, everyone is wearing cheap counterfeit N95s, gardening is probably finished and I don’t want to think too hard about what happened to all those pandemic chicks. My point here, if you were wondering, is that I am once again proudly not cool and I am still baking muffins.

Homey. Comforting. Just what we need right now.

Muffins are not cool, either. They are not a cronut or a cake pop or a brookie or a rainbow layer cake. I am doubtful that muffins have a massive following on Instagram. Perhaps there have never been muffins on Instagram? I’m pretty sure no one has made a fortune off of them recently. They’re just…muffins. They’re humble and comforting and kind and homely and they’re basically just a hug from your grandmother in pastry form and therefore they’re perfect for this weird purgatory we all find ourselves in, where things are sort of looking up but the pandemic definitely isn’t over and we haven’t exactly leaped into normal life again. It’s an odd, unsettled time, to be certain.

If I haven’t sold you on muffins yet with that confusing pitch, allow me to continue proselytizing: muffins are far and away one of the simplest things you can bake, even at altitude. They’re infinitely customizable with whatever you might have lurking in the freezer or pantry. You can use up fruits or vegetables that might otherwise get thrown out. It’s easy to make them reasonably healthy, and they freeze like a dream. What more could you ask from a baked good, honestly?

Get your mise-en-place together first!

Gather round, children, and I’ll share my own personal hard-and-fast rules for muffins. You might want to take notes! First and foremost – and I’m going to say this loud for the people in the back – MUFFINS ARE NOT CUPCAKES. Did everyone hear me? I abhor the standard Costco-style blueberry muffin which has forty grams of sugar and may as well be a dessert. That is not an acceptable muffin – my limit is one-half cup of sugar in a twelve-muffin batch. With natural sweetness from whatever fruit I’m using, plus a bit of turbinado sprinkled on top for crunch, that’s plenty sweet. There’s simply no need to eat that much sugar for breakfast or any time of day, really.

Second, I much prefer baking muffins fresh first thing in the morning, and fresh muffins are much easier when all of the ingredients are prepped the night before. How can you manage this neat pro trick? Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and leave covered on the counter. Combine wet ingredients in another lidded container and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, gently fold wet and dry together and bake. By the time the coffee is finished brewing, the muffins are practically ready. Simple and effortless and especially useful if you have overnight guests, if that will ever be a thing again.

Wet ingredients (back left) will overnight in the fridge, dry ingredients on the counter.

A few other muffin-making tips: even if you choose to prep your ingredients the night before, never mix wet and dry together until just before you’re ready to bake. The leavening agent – in this case, baking soda – will be activated by the acidic yogurt and will start a chemical reaction. If you combine the batter and let it sit without baking it, you’ll likely get no rise and a bitter, metallic flavor. Wet and dry always stay separate until the last minute.

When combining wet and dry ingredients in a muffin or quick bread batter, it’s imperative not to overmix. You only want to fold things together until it’s mostly homogenized; a few streaks of flour are not an issue. Muffins and quick breads do not benefit from vigorous mixing, as this activates the gluten strands and toughens the crumb. Gentle is the way forward here.

I love using fruit purees in muffins, including but not limited to overripe bananas, home-canned applesauce, and unsweetened jam. Whenever a recipe calls for overripe bananas, they should be well-speckled or even fully brown; as they ripen, the natural sugars intensify so you’ll achieve sweeter flavor without extra sugar. If you’ve got overripe bananas but no plans to bake soon, peel the bananas and freeze on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper, then store in a zip-top bag. You can pull out the amount you need, and they’ll soften quickly – plus less food waste!

I fill the muffin cups to the rim, then sprinkle with turbinado and chopped nuts before baking.

When the muffins are fully baked, get them out of the pan immediately and set them on a cooling rack. Most baked goods (with the exception of a few delicate cakes) should be removed from the baking pan as soon as possible, and allowed to cool with good air circulation so the bottom crust doesn’t become soggy from heat and moisture. If you don’t have a cooling rack, grab one of the wire racks from the oven and use that instead.

Though muffins, like most pastries, are at their best the day they’re baked, they do freeze surprisingly well. I freeze cooled muffins on a sheet pan; once solid, they’re tucked into a zip-top bag to enjoy throughout the week. Since the muffins are small they’ll thaw quickly at room temperature, but thirty seconds in the microwave can speed that process along, if necessary.

Just a few ideas for what you can use in your muffins!

I use a basic muffin recipe that works well at 6,300 feet, and I customize it according to what I have on hand. Dry ingredients: two cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out up to half with spelt, whole wheat, or white whole wheat), 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1/2 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp. baking powder (leavening agents are typically reduced at altitude), 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 1/2 cup dried fruit. Wet ingredients: two eggs, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup neutral oil (such as grapeseed), 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1/3 cup yogurt, milk or buttermilk, 1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed banana, pumpkin puree, shredded zucchini and carrot, or other fruit and vegetable combination (adjust liquidity as needed). Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for five minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for about another twelve minutes, depending on your oven. (My oven has notorious hot spots, so I rotate the tray at least once. You know your oven best; adjust accordingly.)

Muffins are pretty forgiving; if you bake a lot, as I do, you’ll learn to adjust the liquidity in the batter. Mashed bananas generally won’t require additional liquid, but if you’re just using chopped fresh fruit or vegetables, like apples or carrots, you might need a bit more yogurt or milk. If you find your muffins to be either overly mushy or overly dry, you’ll know to adjust for next time – and that’s how you get better.

Some of my favorite tried-and-true flavor combinations: apple cinnamon walnut :: banana chocolate almond :: blueberry coconut vanilla :: zucchini carrot apple raisin :: pear pecan ginger :: peach coconut macadamia :: raspberry apricot :: pumpkin hazelnut raisin. There are a million more variations possible here, with a little experimentation.

Wishing you plenty of strong, hot coffee and fresh, uncool muffins this week, dear friends.

P.S. If you’re one of my treasured bakery regulars, please immediately forget everything you’ve just read. There’s no way you can possibly make these at home. Muffins are really super difficult and complicated. Just keep ordering from me.

Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.

A sweet treat

We’ve been honest about the fact that we don’t eat many sweets here at Quiet Farm – our tastes definitely lean more towards the salty and savory. That said, when we do have a sugar craving, we’re seeking something spectacular, rather than something merely mediocre. Dry, tasteless storebought cookies? No thanks. Artificially sweetened plastic-wrapped gas station pastries? Absolutely not. Homemade millionaire’s shortbread with a hot cup of coffee? Yes, please.

What’s that, you say? You are an American raised on Twix bars and you have never in your lifetime heard of this mysterious thing called millionaire’s shortbread? Well, please allow your intrepid guides to introduce you to this magical sweet. The name millionaire’s shortbread apparently originates in Scotland (totally unverifiable), and refers to the unbelievably rich layered combination of shortbread crust, sticky-sweet butterscotch caramel, and chocolate. The confection, also known as caramel slice, caramel shortbread or caramel shortcake, is well known in Britain and Australia but not so much here in the U.S. (Unless of course it’s packaged and called a Twix bar.)

This version, lightly adapted from this Bon Appétit recipe, is jokingly referred to as billionaire’s shortbread because it incorporates both whole sesame seeds and tahini, exotic (and somewhat pricey) ingredients. Tahini is simply sesame seed paste, and it’s commonly found in savory Middle Eastern cooking – notably hummus. Of late, however, many pastry chefs have started incorporating it into desserts, and I am all for this trend. There is no denying that millionaire’s shortbread is almost teeth-achingly sweet, with the decadent combination of shortbread, caramel and chocolate, and the tahini (as well as the toasted sesame seeds in both the shortbread and sprinkled on top) cut that richness. I like the crunch, the textural contrast, and the slight bitterness the sesame seeds bring to the party.

Pre-made tahini is surprisingly costly to purchase, but it does keep forever if refrigerated and it is a terrific addition to salad dressings, bean dips and certain baked goods. If you are the sort of person who already makes your own nut butters, preparing your own tahini will be an easy step  – simply puree raw sesame seeds in your high-powered blender much as you might almonds or peanuts. As with all nut and seed butters, tahini is likely to separate after a time, so always give it a good stir to re-incorporate the oil that might have settled on top.

Tip the crumbly dough into the pan, then press into an even layer and pierce with a fork.

Ready to tackle this? Let’s go. As always when baking and cooking – especially when you’re trying a new and/or complicated recipe – it’s super-helpful to put together your mise-en-place, which is a simply a fancy French culinary term meaning “to put in place.” I like to use the glass bowl set shown in these photos to assemble all of my ingredients; setting things up in this fashion also helps if you get distracted midway through, because you can see at a glance if you’ve added all of the required ingredients. “Did I add the salt yet, or not?” is not generally conducive to successful baking.

If it’s your first time making shortbread, here are a few tips: 1. Make sure your butter chunks are good and cold; I chop the butter then pop it into the freezer until I’m ready to use it. 2. Don’t overmix the ingredients; they won’t be homogenized (see bits of golden yolk above) and that’s just fine. 3. When you press the dough into the pan, use some effort so it stays together when you cut it later. (Also, please note that the binder clips in the photo above are simply used to keep the parchment paper in place while preparing the dough. They do not go into the oven!)

Once your shortbread crust is baked and cooled, you’ll pour the caramel layer on top. This recipe calls for a simple caramel that doesn’t require a candy thermometer, but caramel still takes a bit of experience. Whenever you’re making any caramel, use a larger, deeper pan than you think is necessary, because the mixture always wants to boil over. Remember that if you’re baking at altitude you actually want to cook the caramel a bit less, since the lower air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature here (and water evaporation is key to making successful caramel). Also, caramel (and candy-making in general) really isn’t a kitchen activity for kids; the risk of severe sugar burns is pretty high if you’re not careful.

No no no! Don’t do it like this!

Here’s a pro tip: make absolutely sure that the caramel layer is thoroughly chilled before you pour the melted chocolate on top. In the photos above, you can see that the chocolate is actually sinking into the caramel, rather than spreading out smoothly. Do not skimp on chilling the caramel and shortbread; you can even tuck it in the freezer for a few minutes, just make sure to keep the pan level so all the warm caramel doesn’t slouch to one side. And when you’re melting chocolate, avoid using chocolate chips. These are specially formulated not to melt, since their whole point is to stay whole in cookies and the like. Buy a stash of good-quality chocolate bars and when you need melted chocolate for a recipe, chop into chunks and melt gently in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water. (I am not a fan of melting chocolate in the microwave; I think it runs the very real risk of burning the chocolate.)

This happens surprisingly quickly! Don’t walk away.

Any time you use nuts or seeds in any format, be it in baked goods, sprinkled on a salad, or in trail mix, know that they’ll be much more flavorful if toasted first. Many recipes call for using the oven to toast a sheet pan of nuts or seeds; from long experience, I can tell you that this is a great way to burn twenty dollars’ worth of pecans. I always, always dry-toast my nuts and seeds in a shallow frying pan on the stovetop, where I can babysit them carefully. Depending on the variety, nuts and seeds can go from pale and raw to charred and ruined in a matter of seconds, and the oven doesn’t allow me enough control. Also, once the nuts and seeds are toasted to the level you’d like – taste them! – make sure you transfer them from the hot pan to a plate and let them cool completely. There will be enough residual heat in the pan to keep on cooking, and you might find they’re burnt anyway.

Almost ready to enjoy…but needs some salt on top.

Once you’ve poured and smoothed the melted chocolate, the pan goes back into the fridge for a final set. Feel free to sprinkle with flaky sea salt in addition to the toasted sesame seeds, if your fancies swing that way. When you’re ready to cut the millionaire’s shortbread, gently lift the entire mess out of the pan using the parchment paper as handles, and set on a cutting board. Use a serrated knife and saw into small squares; a chef’s knife, no matter how sharp, will press down on the bars and cause the caramel to squish out.

These are unbelievably rich and sugary, and you really only want a tiny piece. We keep ours in a covered container in the fridge for better texture and longer shelf life; I actually cut the entire tray into tiny squares and freeze most of them, so we can have a small treat as and when circumstances call for it. Millionaire’s shortbread isn’t an everyday pleasure, but it’s lovely to have a little bite of something sweet every so often.

So rich! So delicious! Enjoy with strong, hot coffee.

Have a good week, friends, and perhaps bake yourself a treat, too.

P.S. If you’re not feeling the tahini in this variation, you can find a more traditional millionaire’s shortbread here, here or here. Please note that we have tested none of these!

Kitchen substitutions

A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.

It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.

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The second week

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Hi there. How are you holding up? Like most of you, we’re entering our second week of self-quarantine. Some of you are under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has turned completely upside down over the past week, and that we’re all doing our best to make sense of a fraught situation that has no logic, no precedent, no guidebook.

I am working diligently on acknowledging what I can control and letting go of the rest. To that end, I believe that our single most important job right now is to stay healthy. For those of us who are low-risk and currently healthy, the most valuable contribution we can make to our community is to remain isolated and entirely out of the medical system, so they can put their attention and skills and dwindling supplies towards those who need it. Obviously everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s what we’re prioritizing at Quiet Farm:

Limited sugar / unlimited fruits and vegetables. When this pandemic imploded in the U.S. two weeks ago, my first instinct was to grab all of my chocolate and butter and flour and cover every available surface in my kitchen with an elaborate array of cookies and brownies and comfort cakes, like some sort of mad bakery vision devised by Lewis Carroll. Baking is regimented and precise and calming, and something we can control when everything else has gone by the wayside. Instead of filling our house with sweets, though, we’re eating as much fresh (and frozen!) fruit and vegetables as we can manage. (When everyone else was stocking up on toilet paper, we were buying citrus. There was plenty.) It’s easy to justify scarfing a lot of junk food and “emergency snacks” when we’re anxious, but sugar is highly inflammatory and I think our bodies are under enough stress as it is. We’re consuming lots of salads and green smoothies and stir-fries, and when I do bake, I bake muffins loaded with fruit purees and nuts and seeds.

(P.S. If you’re buying salad ingredients for longer-than-usual storage now, avoid anything pre-cut and think hardy brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. These are all super-nutritious and delicious shredded into a salad, and they’ll keep much longer than pre-washed bagged greens.)

Hydration. We live at 6,300 feet in a high-plains desert, so we’re naturally a bit dehydrated most of the time anyway. Dehydration contributes to headaches, irritability, muscle aches, mental fuzziness, exhaustion and a host of other ailments, none of which we need right now. We might be less active these days and so think that we need to drink less, but a cool glass of water could be exactly what we need to right our ship in this moment. We’re drinking lots of water, plus plenty of mint tea and a hot honey-lemon-ginger tonic that soothes throats and nerves. When it seems like everything is about to go entirely off the rails and I can’t take this for one more minute, I stop, breathe and drink a glass of water. It doesn’t change what’s happening in the world, but it does allow me to accept it without panicking.

Movement and fresh air. I’d much rather be outdoors than in even in the best of times, but a heavy, wet spring snowstorm this week has turned our farm into one giant muddy puddle. Despite the poor weather, I compel myself to get outside every day for at least thirty minutes, even if it’s just to empty the compost bin or watch the chickens or check on seedlings. And I never seem to actually want to go for a walk or a run, but once I’m out and moving, I never regret the decision. If you’re able to do so safely (and with appropriate six-foot-plus social distancing), please get outside, even if it’s just to feel the sun on your face. Do ten jumping jacks. Stretch like a contented cat. Skip rope. Run around in circles. Dance like a person possessed. Spring is here, and there is new growth to see everywhere, even if it doesn’t feel much like a time of hope and renewal right now.

Sleep. It is oddly comforting to me, somehow, to know that every single human on the planet right now is under some degree of stress from this new enemy; collectively, we are suffering together. But we’re concentrating on keeping our immune systems strong, and stress, anxiety and poor sleep are in direct opposition to this. So we sleep, as much as we’re able. There is no shame in going to bed at nine o’clock (without our phones!); no shame in sleeping past our usual waking time. Sleep is our bodies’ time to heal and to repair, and we all need that right now. If you can, get some extra sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

I’m well aware that these are small and meaningless tasks, and they’re nothing compared to what the people on the front lines of this crisis are facing. But these are things I can control, and that’s all any of us have right now. And we need to stay healthy, first and foremost.

How is your household navigating our new world? We’d love to hear what you’re prioritizing. Stay healthy and well.

Farm update: April 29

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Spring is truly here and the Quiet Farm project list expands daily! The weather has been unusually warm, so much so that everyone is concerned about our wonderful mesa snowpack melting too quickly and flooding the creeks. This sunny (and windy) week alone, we received deliveries of soil, lumber, fencing and concrete. We hauled railroad ties, hefted 80-pound bags of Quikrete, wheelbarrowed soil, hammered in T-posts and more. Our farm muscles are coming along nicely, and we’re trying hard to remember to apply sunscreen and drink enough water. When people say farming is hard work, they aren’t kidding – especially when you don’t yet own a tractor.

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The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Three

We promise that this is our last post on sugar (for now). As you’ll remember, in this three-part series we’ve already talked about sugars you have at home and sugars used by the food processing industry. Now, let’s discuss how the sugar industry has worked so hard to convince us all that sugar is not only benign, but actually good for you!

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Before we get into the sugar industry, we’d like to clarify exactly what we mean by added sugars. An added sugar is any quantity or type of sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in a specific food. A perfect example of this is applesauce: in its simplest form, applesauce is made by cooking apples until they’re soft, then mashing or puréeing them. Lots of ingredients can be added to applesauce, including spices like cinnamon and acidifiers such as citric acid to preserve color. Fresh apples contain plenty of natural sugar; primarily fructose, but also sucrose and glucose in small proportions.

Most store-bought applesauce, however, includes added sugars, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, honey or any of the other sweeteners we’ve mentioned. So if that applesauce label were adhering to the now-abandoned revised nutrition labeling laws, it would have to list both the naturally occurring sugar in the apples, plus all of the sugar added by the manufacturer. Hopefully this clarifies the concept of added sugars – it doesn’t occur naturally in the food or drink.

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Both the apple and the soda contain sugar, but all of the apple’s sugar occurs naturally. All of the soda’s sugar is added.

The sugar conspiracy is one of the most significant health-related stories to appear in the news recently. Essentially, the claim is this: fifty years ago, the sugar industry funded studies on the potential correlation between sugar and heart disease. When preliminary studies did appear to confirm this link, the studies were shut down, and research findings were concealed. The Sugar Research Foundation also reportedly paid Harvard scientists to obscure the link between sugar consumption and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead.

And that, friends, is one reason why we’ve spent decades being told not to eat bacon, eggs, butter, cheese or burgers – because they cause heart disease. While excessive consumption of the low-quality saturated fats found in most American diets definitely isn’t a healthy choice, the point is that sugar should also shoulder a lot of the blame. And we now consume a lot more sugar than we do saturated fat, and our heart disease rates are still rising.

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All dried fruit contains natural sugar, but processors add a lot, too. Buy unsweetened dried fruit (this means no Craisins!).

Humans instinctively love the taste of sweet things; sweetness implies carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to energy in our bodies. Now, however, our satiety point is ever higher: as food manufacturers use more and more sugar (or artificial sweeteners), we need more and more in order to stay satisfied and for things to taste sweet. In short, we’re hooked. Sugar has repeatedly been shown to have addictive qualities; one controversial study demonstrated that rats preferred sugar to cocaine.

Not only does eating sugar give you a quick hit of dopamine, causing you to crave it more frequently, but it also ages your skin prematurely, causes inflammation that may increase joint pain, builds up in your liver (causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and thickens your artery walls, leading to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. And obviously, we know it rots our teeth. But because sugar kills so slowly, it’s taken us decades to acknowledge its risks. Sound familiar? Indeed, this is the tale of Big Tobacco, with a different villain. (Fun fact: cigarettes contain a lot of sugar. It dramatically increases their inhalability and therefore their addictiveness. This is true.)

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Notice the percentages? If it’s only 27% juice, the rest is most likely corn syrup, water, colorings and flavorings. And even if it’s 100% juice, it’s still sugar.

While our entire standard American diet (cheap meat! low-fat dairy! refined starches! hold the vegetables!) is to blame for the astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., sugar is a big part of this – and by far, we consume the vast majority of sugar in sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola has spent millions funding studies shifting blame for obesity away from sugary drinks and onto “lifestyle choices,” and we’ve long been told that “fruit juice is part of a healthy diet” – remember every breakfast commercial with its tall, frosty glass of Florida orange juice? But soda and fruit juice are still simply liquid sugar, and we’ve been convinced that drinking our calories doesn’t count. This is proving immeasurably detrimental to our health.

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They all contain sugar. But they also contain fiber.

Drinking juice, or soda, or sweetened coffees or teas, or energy drinks, is basically a great way to mainline sugar, with no health benefits whatsoever. Eating whole fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, offers your body accessible sugar – with the immensely important addition of fiber. Fiber is key, because it acts like those traffic lights allowing timed access to busy highways: it slows the sugar down in your body, giving you more time to absorb it. This is precisely why a soda gives you a sugar rush and then a crash, but a roasted sweet potato allows for sustained energy. The standard American diet is shockingly low in quality fiber, and this deficiency seriously affects our overall health; increasing rates of various GI diseases, including Crohn’s, IBS and colon cancer, prove this. For optimum health, you have to control the way your body absorbs sugar, and the fiber in whole foods does just that.

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Salted peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie, anyone?

Let me be clear: I am in no way advocating a 100% sugar-free diet. First, it’s virtually impossible to achieve, and second, it takes a lot of the joy out of eating, which should be one of our greatest pleasures. I obviously bake frequently, and I use real sugar when I bake. But I want people to know when they’re eating sugar. When you drink your calories, or when you eat yogurt that doesn’t taste that sweet, or when you drown your industrial burger in high-fructose corn syrup, you’re consuming a ton of sugar, but you’re not getting the true enjoyment out of sweets. I want people to eat delicious, satisfying, well-made desserts, but I also want people to appreciate those for what they are: occasional treats. Hidden sugar simply does not need to be part of every single food, beverage, condiment and snack we consume, but our processed food industry has convinced us otherwise.

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So after all this lecturing, how can you reduce sugar in your own diet? It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Eat whole foods, including unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat whole grains and quality fats, like good butter and olive oil.
  • Work on your own sugar satiety point. If you regularly sweeten your coffee or tea, start by using a little less. Then a little less, then a little less again. Do this gradually. Eventually, you’ll reset your own taste buds.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Despite what the label says, there is no health benefit, and you’ll end up eating more because drinks don’t satisfy the way actual food does. Black coffee, unsweetened green, black or herbal tea or sparkling water with lemon will do just fine; stay away from fancy juice bars. And soda is poison. End of story.
  • Read every single ingredient label. Learn the names of all the industrial sugars. Then avoid them. Even better, save yourself lots of reading time by purchasing foods without ingredient labels, like fresh produce and bulk grains.
  • And above all else, cook or make it yourself. When you prepare food from scratch, you control exactly what’s in it, and you know that you don’t need six teaspoons of sugar in your morning yogurt, or eight teaspoons of sugar in your coffee.

Thanks for following our sugar series! If you’d like to read more about the processed food industry and the sugar conspiracy, I’d highly recommend these two books: Food Politics, by Marion Nestle (or anything else by her) and The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes. And let us know what else you’d like to learn more about, and we’ll get on the case!

The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Two

In Part One of our series on sugar, we discussed the most common sugars you might have at home and typically use in your own drinks and baked goods. Food processing companies, however, have access to dozens more ingredients that they can use in their products, all of which are sugar – but under different names.

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Here’s a fun game: how many different names for sugar can you find on this ingredient label?

Keep in mind that labeling laws in the U.S. require a product’s ingredients to be listed in descending weight order, with the most prevalent ingredient first and so on. Because added sugars are in at least 75% of all processed foods (a conservative estimate), manufacturers are understandably wary of listing sugar as one of the first three ingredients, even if that’s technically true. So the loophole here is to obviously identify sugars individually – that is, maltodextrin separate from high fructose corn syrup which is separate from invert sugar and so on. Did you know that sugar goes by over 60 different names on American food labels, and anything ending in “-ose” is sugar? If you see more than three of these on a product label – especially if they occur within the top three ingredients – put it back on the shelf.

  1. Agave nectar
  2. Barbados sugar
  3. Barley malt
  4. Barley malt syrup
  5. Beet sugar
  6. Brown sugar
  7. Buttered syrup
  8. Cane juice
  9. Cane juice crystals
  10. Cane sugar
  11. Caramel
  12. Carob syrup
  13. Castor sugar
  14. Coconut palm sugar
  15. Coconut sugar
  16. Confectioner’s sugar
  17. Corn sweetener
  18. Corn syrup
  19. Corn syrup solids
  20. Date sugar
  21. Dehydrated cane juice
  22. Demerara sugar
  23. Dextrin
  24. Dextrose
  25. Evaporated cane juice
  26. Free-flowing brown sugars
  27. Fructose
  28. Fruit juice
  29. Fruit juice concentrate
  30. Glucose
  31. Glucose solids
  32. Golden sugar
  33. Golden syrup
  34. Grape sugar
  35. HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup)
  36. Honey
  37. Icing sugar
  38. Invert sugar
  39. Malt syrup
  40. Maltodextrin
  41. Maltol
  42. Maltose
  43. Mannose
  44. Maple syrup
  45. Molasses
  46. Muscovado
  47. Palm sugar
  48. Panocha
  49. Powdered sugar
  50. Raw sugar
  51. Refiner’s syrup
  52. Rice syrup
  53. Saccharose
  54. Sorghum syrup
  55. Sucrose
  56. Sugar (granulated)
  57. Sweet sorghum
  58. Syrup
  59. Treacle
  60. Turbinado sugar
  61. Yellow sugar

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The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part One

It’s February, and in America that means we’re celebrating both American Heart Month (take care of your heart!) and Valentine’s Day (so much excess sugar!). Ironic, no? We’re going to return to travel posts from our winter trip to Europe shortly, but in every single one of my recent corporate presentations, I’ve been asked about sugar. Therefore, I think it’s time that your trusted team over here at FQF HQ answer some questions about this ubiquitous yet widely misunderstood ingredient – one that we absolutely need to survive but that is also making us very, very sick.

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Oh my goodness! So very many sugars! All in my own cupboard!

We’re going to start with the basics, and we’re going to break this post into three parts because it’s that lengthy and it’s that important. (Also, I don’t want you to tune out due to boredom.) I’d argue that no other single ingredient in our collective Western diet right now is as significant as this one, so let’s get a few things straight.

  • sugarany of the class of soluble, crystalline, typically sweet-tasting carbohydrates found in living tissues and exemplified by glucose and sucrose; present in sorghum, maple sap, honey, etc.; used extensively as an ingredient and flavoring of certain foods and as a fermenting agent in the manufacture of certain alcoholic beverages

Let’s break that definition down a bit further: almost every single food we eat – fruit, vegetables, dairy – contains some quantity of naturally occurring sugar. It’s a carbohydrate, and it exists in simple and complex forms, and we need it to survive. But it’s not so much the naturally occurring sugars that are killing us, it’s the added sugars in just about everything.

In this first section, we’re going to talk about commonly available sugars: the ones we might find in our grocery store or pantry, the ones we use every day in our own coffee and tea and cookies and other things we make at home. And in the second section, we’re going to talk about industrial sugars: the ones that are added in for us, the ones we’re totally addicted to and the ones we eat way too much of. Finally, we’re going to discuss how the sugar industry has conspired for decades to convince us that butter and cream and eggs and bacon are the true villains, not sugar, even though they’ve long known otherwise.

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