IT’S CALLED A SALAD, WITH A DRESSING
Once upon a time, when by all accounts and my life experiences, people were healthier and happier than they are now, food and life was a lot simpler. I’m talking about my parents generation – those in their 90’s, many still living independently – though now needing help – and vibrant lives, those that lived simpler and less complicated lives. We hear often, that the young generation today is the first generation in a very long time considered to have a shorter life span than current generations, and that we are sicker and unhappier than ever. Somehow my mum, and those of her generation managed it all without the green smoothie or green smoothies with chia seeds. Now those of you that are familiar with my work, know that I tend to be interested in fundamentals – you can read more about those here (you will also find a fabulous rustic tart of greens recipe there, perfect for this time of the year). You will know that after 25 odd years in the ‘healthy’ food industry – which I prefer to call the ‘whole and natural foods’ industry – I am alarmed by the rapid escalation of fractionalisation that seems to be happening in the past few years. The green smoothie is a case in point. Honestly, I didn’t take much notice of it when it first appeared a few years ago, it just seemed silly and made no sense what so ever. But somehow, it’s become the poster child for ‘healthy’ eating, or ‘real, natural or whole food’. I’ve decided I’d like to weigh in on the discussion.
As always, I like to find the original source from whence things come – where did this belief that throwing lots of greens into a blender is a leading edge healthful thing to do? As it happens, from a book called Green For Life by Victoria Butenko. Now before I go on, I would like to point out that I believe we all have a path to follow and none of us have the right to question another’s path. I understand and respect this, but given this book is a treatise on the green smoothie, I think it’s worth noting a few things. The gist of it is this: the author and her family came to the US from Russia, where food was scarce and limited to mostly grains, dairy and some fruit. On settling in the United States, they were amazed at the variety and availability of food, they especially loved the convenience food and used a microwave often. Within 3 years, all of them were extremely unwell, doctors told them there were no cures for their diabetes, asthma, allergies, heart issues etcetera. So they looked elsewhere, and turned to raw food. Now I’m not going to go to deeply into this issue, but you cannot discuss the green smoothie without discussing raw food, but it would seem obvious to me that they could also have simply stopped eating highly processed food / junk food / and frequenting the microwave. However, a vegan, raw food (most likely because it was at least real) diet turned things around but after several years, they began to have problems such as a heavy feeling in the stomach, grey hair and simply no longer desiring some of the allowed foods. So, the author searched for what was missing (I’m assuming in the vegetable world only) and discovered that greens was the food group that offered everything humans needed, and they weren’t having enough. But how much did a human need to eat? For this answer, she looked for an animal that was close genetically to a human – with an approx.99.4% genetic match, enter the chimpanzee.
The author observed that humans had lost their natural way of eating – but rather than recognising the blindingly obvious problems with refined, processed and junk foods – instead considered that “it is logical to hypothesise that our diets are supposed to be 99.4% similar” (to the chimpanzee) and that understanding the chimpanzee eating habits may help us to better understand the human dietary needs? Seriously? The only thing that I can keep thinking is that we might share a lot of genetic material with a chimpanzee, yet in that difference we are most definitely not a chimpanzee. Given that the main argument here is that this is the ‘natural’ way to eat, we absolutely have to consider another blindingly obvious point – the fact that man climbed down from the trees, stood erect on two legs and developed a bigger brain. Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham (Catching Fire) (this is the guy that Michael Pollan talks about in his new book Cooked) holds the belief it was the discovery of fire, whereby cooked food enabled more and easier access to nutrient density, thus facilitating the evolution from a large to smaller gut and from a smaller to bigger brain. Others share the belief it was access to nutrient dense animal foods – notably the softer and nutrient dense bone marrow and brain that did the trick. Neither considered that it was an abundance of uncooked greens. Whilst we might share that large amount of DNA with the chimpanzee, we are yet, quite obviously not the same, and to say it is logical to hypothesise our diets should be 99.4% the same beggars belief.
At the very least, chimp and orangs have a larger colon to gut ratio, strong jaws and large teeth –perfect to chew and digest the large amount of fibrous fruits and tough high cellulose leaves (with stems) which along with fermentation in the colon, provides enough calories to support the animal. Humans have the opposite – a smaller colon to gut ratio, with a weaker jaw and smaller teeth – perfect for cooked foods, which require less energy to digest and softens the strong cellulose fiber. It was because of this absolute fact, that the greens had to be blended, otherwise they simply could not be broken down (and then because they were having so many green smoothies and not chewing – which is essential for our bone and jaw health, the author devised a rubber chewing device which you can buy from their website). Whilst certainly heat (fermentation, cooking) does destroy enzymes, denature protein and can destroy vitamin C and some heat sensitive minerals such as thiamine, it remains that cooking food provides incredible nutrient density and energy that is easily accessible – lightly cooked meat for example, makes it more easily digestible – it starts breaking down the protein molecules. Eating cooked foods has also been quite obviously, simply spectacularly successful – we did climb down from the trees and are now the leading animal (I know, we’re not looking that good right now, neither are the cultures that we’ve built, but that is another discussion). But cooking can also make some big differences to vegetables – it can soften and break down that fibrous cellulose, it helps to improve the digestibility of complex carbohydrate (especially the starch – cooked potato or sweet potato is more digestible cooked than raw) and it can break down some problematic aspects of raw foods – oxalic acid and goitrogens for example. Whilst I believe there is some hysteria around the internet in regards to oxalic acid, it does remain that it is problematic, especially if you have a less than optimal gut ecology.
I’d like to talk a bit more about that gut ecology. If you have a ‘delicate’ or troublesome digestive system (bloating, intolerance to gluten and dairy etcetera) you will most likely have a less than healthy gut ecology. This means you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria to do the many, many jobs they actually do – including most importantly, their intimate involvement in digesting food – in particular the full and proper digestion of gluten and dairy proteins, and oxalic acid. But, what those good bacteria can’t do however, no matter how much you will it (or blend it) is to be able to fully and appropriately digest some of those more complex carbohydrates (more than 1 or 2 sugars) that include cellulose, fibre and those known as FODMAPS. This is why, even when blended some of those carbohydrates are still tricky to digest. Unless a kale leaf is very, very young it is going to be difficult to digest, even when blended – it is far easier to digest when cooked, which is how the cultures that have most experience with it (such as the Italians) generally use it.
In the end, this seems to me a discussion on eating a balanced diet. All healthy human groups include raw food (where appropriate to the food) and understand the value of that life force. However, no healthy human groups solely eat raw food – this is the findings of many, including that same Richard Wrangham who postulated the theory that cooked food is responsible for our evolution from the apes, and as a biological anthropologist found no human group eats all their food raw, as did Weston Price many years before. Nowhere is this issue of balance more evident than in a discussion on cooked versus raw. I have always (as my parents generation before me) consumed raw foods – including the goitrogenic cabbage in my mum’s favourite coleslaw and we called it a salad – indeed we had a salad generally around 3 times a week, more in summer. We consumed raw, fresh seasonal fruits and called it an apple or pear, not a ‘raw food’, but we also ate all of those same foods we ate as salads and fresh fruit, cooked. We also consumed raw animal products meats (steak tartare), raw milk and raw eggs in raw milk (mum’s egg flip) but we also had them cooked. But perhaps of most importance, is that what and how we ate was all in the context of those fundamentals I spoke of earlier, that you can find here.
There is also much more to the issue of the green smoothie – promoted by the author as a time saving way to include these greens in your diet, and their nutritional value. I’d simply like to say that in regards to the issue of nutritional value, as much as you would like to think that you are getting all those minerals in that kale or dark leafy green, if you don’t have some fat soluble vitamins with it, you won’t and those minerals can’t do what you want them to do. Those fat soluble vitamins are A, D, K and E. And, if you think that the kale or dark leafy greens (or the chia seeds) are giving you Omega 3 EFA’s, well yes they are but in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acid, which has to go through many conversions to become the derivatives that really are essential – Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and especially Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). There are some foods that just happen to be especially rich in both ALL the fat soluble vitamins and those longer chain essential fatty acid derivatives EPA and DHA – they are ALL animal foods and are : all animal fats eg butter (ghee), egg yolks, offal (especially liver) and fish (including their eggs). This is why we consistently see raw vegetable and green salads traditionally paired with dressings such as mayonnaise based, or topped with soft cooked eggs, presented with lovely crunchy fatty bacon bits or strips of barely cooked liver. You might immediately recognise these pairings as classic, traditional and delicious French, Italian or European pairings. Yes, some land sources such as extra virgin olive oil do have vitamin E, but they don’t have the others.
When choosing vegetables to eat raw, it pays to bear in mind that nature tends to provide season appropriate foods – lighter, less carbohydrate dense and higher water content vegetables and fruits in summer. These all require less cooking – they are easy to eat and digest raw – and blended if that’s how you would like them. Yet, it gives us the almost opposite in the cooler months – these denser and more complex carbohydrate root vegetables, thicker and more cellulose dense leaves (cabbage, kale and collards) and fruits (apples, quince, pears ) provide us with more fuel to keep us warm, but will need cooking to make that goodness fully available. Yes you could blend those leaves up and break down the cellulose, but that is often not enough for some and I would also ask why? I simply don’t agree, because this is what I have seen, that is offers more (better) nutrition than when cooked. And, in regards to healing, there are many paths to the one door and I’ve seen a cooked food diet do the same thing – but this is a deeply complex area, with many other co factors and one for another day.
I think it is an incredibly admirable thing to be advocating eating greens, but extreme and unbalanced to believe the best way to do so is to blend them, raw, into a smoothie (mostly with lots of fruit). They have been eaten by all healthy cultures for generations, and they called it a salad. They knew which greens needed cooking to make them optimally digestible, and what to serve with them to make all their greeny goodness and mineral bounty more bio available. The tragedy of our time is that this traditional knowledge, which served it’s people well, has been undervalued and lost. There are some beautiful greens around right now and so many delicious ways to include them in your day – uncooked as salads, and cooked (that tart I suggested earlier is delicious). This was my morning tea yesterday…..
Autumn is a great time for the easily digested family of lettuce – here I’ve used one of my favourites, Buttercrunch. I’ve added microgreens from the garden, celery heart, pink lady apples and toasted walnuts for a bit more density. Can I say, microgreens are ridiculously easy to grow, nutrient rich with little carbohydrate development at such a young stage – kale is great in this format. To make the dressing I used equal amounts of mayonnaise and yoghurt (thus supplying some beneficial bacteria), lemon or lime juice to taste, a touch of honey to taste and a touch of a nice curry powder, with lots of fresh (and easily digestible) herbs – coriander which is now in season. This dressing will keep in the fridge for at least a week, and gives me the ability to put a salad together quickly. It would be delicious with lentils tossed through it also.