Monday, April 26, 2010


(PHOTO: My homemade naan on a Sunday afternoon)

Apart from developing what Professor Emeritus John Ikerd terms, “a new food ethic,” and continuing my work to engage with the Slow Food movement, I’ve been thinking of my kitchen in a whole new way.

I’m thinking my kitchen could become my personal apothecary.

Until P'UP, I was sort of an automatron eater. Everything was on autopilot, and I didn't give food much thought beyond its caloric consequences. But now, I'm turning a keen eye to my own sense of science and satisfaction. Of course my lay science is no match for those professionals in the food industry, people who use chemistry to find the “bliss point” in the foods offered to the American market (and later the global market). This “bliss point,” David Kessler asserts as a researcher and the former head of the FDA, is an issue of addiction as serious as those associated with tobacco.

It was Kessler who helped to expose the chemical constructions and additions to tobacco products that made them, quite literally, irresistible to the brain. Kessler claims that ready-made foods, snacks, and cereals are chemically designed to trigger responses in consumers’ brains, tapping their reward centers while at the same time leaving them craving more.

In his latest book, The End of Overeating (2009), Kessler explores the ways chemistry influences consumption, and the food industry’s perfect culinary cocktail of “fat, sugar, and salt” that keeps people hungering for more.

“As more sugar is added,” Kessler notes, “food becomes more pleasurable until we reach the bliss point, after which it becomes to sweet and the pleasure drops off.” Kessler claims the same is true of fat and salt, and that the “optimal combination” food actually increases appetite instead of suppressing it by falling short of this natural indicator of appetite/taste satisfaction.

In his research with others at Yale University, Kessler discovered that overweight and obese people have significantly higher response activity in the reward centers of their brains. Certain combinations of sugar, fat, and salt can increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the pleasure centers of the brain. Kessler asserts that some foods are chemically engineered to fall just short of the “bliss point” that leads to satisfaction in order to keep consumers dissatisfied, craving and eating more.

Kessler, a lawyer and professor of pediatrics, epidemiology, and biostatistics, has a reputation as a whistle-blower. His work at the Food & Drug Administration (1990-97), and his tenure at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine involved outing practices and products that violated ethical and legal codes in society at large as well as industry. In 2007 he was dismissed from his post as dean and vice-chancellor for revealing that the dean’s office was operating in a perpetual deficit and would continue to do so. Eventually, UCSF had to publicly acknowledge that Kessler’s claims were indeed correct.

The guy seems to have the moxie to take on powerful institutions on both sides of the public and private enterprise divide, so I found myself captivated by his claims about overeating, the “bliss point,” and his research surrounding neurotransmission.

Because I’m working on a new food ethic that helps me to disconnect from corporate practices that are stripping the planet of natural resources and exploiting human lives for material gain, I decided that perhaps I had the power to do my own chemistry experiments in the kitchen. After slogging through nutrition books written by nutritionists and doctors, thumbing through health magazine articles about learning to substitute low-nutrition ingredients for high-nutrition ones, and after working with Weight Watchers premises, I feel I can testify to the following simple advice. To help rewire your taste buds (and perhaps your brain) to reach its “bliss point” in healthier ways while letting go of the salt, fat, and sugar addiction, I recommend:

1. Using vinegars (particularly rice wine vinegar) and lemon juice and soy sauce in place of or with a reduced amount of salt
2. Using natural sources like honey, coconut milk, fruit (fresh or dried), or raw sugar in place of sweeteners, processed sugars, and corn syrup
3. Increase the dietary fiber of your meals to help you feel full and to keep your body (and brain) satisfied
4. Use plant-based oils (olive, safflower, grape seed, peanut, sesame) instead of canola or corn oils, hydrogenated margarine, or butter because they contribute a flavor to foods that will naturally increase the pleasure of eating
5. Increase the spice complexity and potency of the foods you eat, including adding peppers and chiles because of the health benefits they bring to your circulatory system and metabolism

It’s not rocket science (okay, maybe it’s a little like rock science). What I’ve discovered is that many cuisines from other parts of the world, particularly the Far East, help you to make this transition. Indian and Thai recipes have helped me to rethink my own palette and to move from an overall dissatisfaction with healthier eating to a sense of profound satisfaction with it. Drawing from books such as The Healthy Low-Fat Indian Cookbook by Shehzad Husain and Manisha Kanani, Edward Espe Brown’s Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, and the gazillion Weight Watchers recipes offered online, I’ve come to a whole new level of epicurean experimentation.

(PHOTO: My homemade naan, raita, aloo potatoes, and shrimp balti)

There are spices in my cupboard that were, until recently, unfamiliar to me: cardamom pods, curry leaves, garam masala, fenugreek, black mustard, saffron, tamarind, and turmeric. I’ve got fresh ginger bulbs and garlic heads in a big bowl in my refrigerator. I’ve learned to make a tart, satisfying cheese from plain yogurt. I can now taste the difference between different types of chiles to understand what each could or would bring to a recipe. Before this experiment, I always just tasted the heat. I’m no longer buying salad dressings – I just make my own. And my refrigerator is becoming cold storage for my low-cost, high-taste experiments instead of a showcase for ready-made engineered foods.

In the process, I’ve learned which spices aid in digestion, promote regularity, or minimize gas. I’ve learned which spices turn up the heat in the body’s metabolic furnace, and which foods help the body to feel/sense an adequate source of potential energy. Not every recipe has been a success, but the ones that have worked well have been amazing (like those featured in the photographs here). I hope you'll consider taking on some experiments of your own, that you too will find a new food ethic that will connect you to yourself and those who help you bring your food to the table. But don't get carried away. This should never be work. As Edward Espe Brown directs, just "please enjoy your food." You know, really live instead of cruising on autopilot.


  1. Erica,

    Your naan looks fabulous! The shrimp balti, too--what's in that recipe, if I might ask?

  2. I'll post the balti recipe later this month - after I'm done moving.


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