(Originally published in 2005 as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Rather than give you a nice cohesive report on a single health topic, I decided this month to write a bit about a number of different trendy foods. If you’re a foodie, a health nut, or shop at natural grocery stores, you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with most of these items. Whether you’ve heard of these things or not, I hope to share with you some important details that will help you make more informed decisions about them.
Himalayan Pink Salt: We’ve been eating it and using it in our footbaths at the Dragontree for years. Pink salt is also an important ingredient in certain Ayurvedic medicines. To me, it is more flavorful than regular table salt. And it’s become popular in large blocks as cutting boards, lamps, and cooking trays (you can, for instance, bake a fish on a slab of pink salt and it imparts a nice flavor). Salt has unfortunately been demonized due to its occasional ability to raise blood pressure, but it’s quite vital for many of our organs to function optimally. In terms of its mineral analysis, pink salt supplies all sorts of beneficial minerals that don’t occur in regular synthetic table salt (which is just sodium and chloride, and often contains anti-caking chemicals). I also like sea salts for many of the same reasons, although it may be worth considering where it comes from (ideally from unpolluted water, free of mercury, oil, nuclear radiation, etc.).
There’s just one problem with using pink salt as your everyday salt. It doesn’t have much iodine in it – and most people don’t get enough iodine. And it’s really an amazing mineral. Commercial table salt is most people’s main source of iodine. It’s added to salt because salt does a good job of masking iodine’s metallic flavor. So, if you’ve switched over to pink salt, consider eating more iodine rich foods, such as seaweeds (kelp, dulse, nori, etc.), or make sure there’s iodine in your multivitamin. Or alternate between pink salt and a high quality iodized sea salt.
Quinoa: Quinoa is so hot right now, you’d think it was more special than it is. Yes, for a grain, it contains about 8 grams of protein, which is kind of a lot. Some people like to jump in here and say it’s a seed, not a grain. Whatever. The main thing is it’s a starchy seed that has a good amount of protein. It has a slightly bitter and unique flavor that some people quite like and others don’t. It’s not as versatile as rice, in my opinion, but is less of a simple carbohydrate, which makes it significantly healthier. The drawback of our new love affair with this seed is that in the high altitude places where most of it is grown – such as Peru and Bolivia – and where it has been a dietary staple for centuries, the locals can no longer afford it. We need to cut down on it and/or find some new places to grow it.
Agave Nectar: If you read my articles with any regularity, you’ve probably heard me rant about this stuff. It’s a super popular sweetener, cleverly marketed in a way that makes it appear to be relatively healthy and natural. Surely, it must be better than table sugar – it’s “nectar” after all. Sorry. It’s garbage. Almost always highly processed and quite similar in composition to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave nectar actually contains more fructose than HFCS. So often, I’ve been scanning the ingredients of a new product that seems to be otherwise healthy when – doh! – they put agave nectar in there. Back on the shelf.
Therapeutic Drinks: More and more, I see drinks in the supermarket that claim to enhance mental clarity, improve energy, promote calm, stoke libido, balance chakras, and build muscles. These products are virtually all hype. I can barely think of a legal substance that’s capable of enhancing mental focus or energy on a single-serving basis. Except caffeine. And they usually have some of that in there, too. A single dose of B vitamins (and usually a small dose at that) in your Smart “Water” isn’t going to do anything for you. It definitely isn’t healthy enough to offset the negative impact of all the sugar they put in there. Save your money and stick with real water. Or try some green tea – a fad that’s actually worth the attention.
Gluten Free Snacks and Treats: There is nothing intrinsically healthier about a gluten free food versus one with gluten in it, unless you have a known problem digesting gluten. Unfortunately, since the awareness of gluten sensitivity has risen mainly in the health-nut community, many people have come to assume that gluten free means healthy. A vegan, gluten free cookie is still a cookie and likely has way more sugar than your body needs or wants (the unhealthiest part of a cookie is the sweetener, not the gluten). Gluten-free macaroni and cheese is still just a bunch of salty starch with close to zero nutritional value. Gluten free pretzels or crackers are just empty calories. So, if you need to avoid gluten and you must have macaroni, crackers, and cookies, by all means, get the gluten free kind. Just remember you’re still eating cookies, crackers, and macaroni.
Greek Yogurt: Real Greek yogurt is made by repeatedly straining yogurt to maximize the protein content, which makes it thicker and creamier. Some “Greek style” yogurts are thickened instead with pectin or other gels, and I consider these fake Greek yogurts. The Greek Gods brand is the most popular fake Greek “style” yogurt. If you consume Greek Yogurt for the extra protein, read the label. Look for high protein (like 20 or more grams per cup). A nice benefit of Greek yogurt is, where regular yogurt that has no milk fat tends not to be very creamy, but even fat free Greek yogurt is quite creamy. In my case (and I think this is common), fat-free Greek yogurt suits my body rather well, but the kind with fat in it makes me phlegmy. If they both taste good to you, I recommend the fat-free kind (get your good fats from other sources). Also, make sure it’s either organic or at least free of bovine growth hormone (rBst / rBGH).
Goat: Goat is consumed by 70% of the meat-eating world. It’s the most popular meat! And it’s finally becoming a more popular meat in the U.S. Good quality goat (also known as chevon or mutton, and the young meat is cabrito or capretto) tastes like high quality lamb. It’s a nice lean and healthy meat. Unlike mass produced beef, goats are generally allowed to graze on grass, which means healthier, tastier meat (cows usually eat corn and soybeans, which is not just unnatural, but bad for the animal and the final product). In addition, our appetite for beef has been quite destructive to the world, through the razing of rainforest for pasture land and the ozone depleting effect of cow flatulence (seriously!), so it’s worth embracing any palatable alternative.
Finally, just because it’s over-priced and on the shelves of Whole Foods, doesn’t make it good for you. There is plenty of seriously unhealthy stuff even at “health food” stores, including nearly everything in the bakery section. Be a wise consumer, especially when it comes to selecting things you’ll put in (or on) your body.
Dr. Peter Borten