Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat

Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat


At the risk of becoming an all-chili-pepper, all-the-time newsletter, I’m bringing you more news this week from the capsaicin front. (Maybe it’s the wintery weather? I’m subconsciously seeking out all sources of heat…?)

A new study points to spicy pepper consumption as an overall mortality reducer, especially from cardiovascular or cancer-related causes. This study is the first-time chili’s blood-glucose-reducing, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties have been looked at in concert, amalgamating the results of nearly 5000 (!) previous studies to create a bigger picture.

“The health and dietary records of more than 570,000 individuals in the United States, Italy, China and Iran were used to compare the outcomes of those who consumed chili pepper to those who rarely or never ate chili pepper. Compared to individuals who rarely or never ate chili pepper, the analysis found that people who ate chili pepper had:  

  • a 26% relative reduction in cardiovascular mortality;
  • a 23% relative reduction in cancer mortality; and
  • a 25% relative reduction in all-cause mortality.”

These rates of reduction are stunning and immediately left me wanting to know more. But the study’s lead author, cardiologist Dr Bo Xu, says that this data is only a tantalizing taste (pun intended) of possible dietary influences of heart health and cancer prevention. In particular, future studies need to regularize exact amounts and type of chili peppers that net results, as well as other variables like study participant health info. Doing this will narrow down the “why” of chili’s effect on human health.

So, while the researchers work on their data and a final paper, I’ll kill the time by thinking about incorporating chili pepper into my diet more. While I still maintain I have nothing to prove in the spice-withstanding department, I’m happy to take a little heat for some potential health payoff. Maybe once my tolerance is up, the results will be in!

Brouhaha Boils Over Borscht Beginnings

Soup season is coming for us! The colder temps and shorter days have prompted me to haul out my giant pot and start simmering some of my family’s favourites. (Not to toot my own horn, but my classic chicken soup is legendary.)
Soup is the great unifier: Not only do most individual humans like it, but every culture boasts its own unique bowls of goodness.
Especially Ukraine; or, so says chef Ievgen Klopotenko. The Kyiv restauranteur and TV host bristles at the longstanding Russian claim to borscht, which he believes to be a dish of Ukrainian origin. He is so passionate about the issue that he has founded a non-profit and brought in the big guns — UNESCO — to claim borscht for his own country, rather than a powerful state that still represents the culturally homogenizing USSR.
“After months of research to back up his claim, Klopotenko says his application is now supported by the Ukrainian government.

This, despite that the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted last year that borscht is the country’s ‘most famous and beloved dishes.’

But Klopotenko wants to be clear that he is not looking to stir up his country’s already tense relationship with Russia over the dish. Since 2014, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin-supported militants in the country’s east, according to the Washington Post.

‘It’s not about fighting. It’s about how it is — that this dish is ours. It’s not Russian,’ Klopotenko said. ‘But Russians, they want to take that because they think that there is no such nation as Ukrainians.’”
Though this dispute seems small, it is symbolically huge, mixing ingredients like national identity, autonomy, and sovereignty in the simmering pot of international relations. But Klopotenko isn’t losing sight of the uniting force of soup. He believes that staking a Ukrainian claim in this small, tasty way, might serve to ease tensions between the two countries. (He also provides tips on what to look for in an authentic borscht: A sweet-sour balance and the inclusion of kvass, or fermented beet juice, for depth of flavour!)
I am inspired both politically and culinarily by Klopotenko’s quest. The latter is easier to respond to: The least I can do is try out an authentic borscht recipe, and see how we like it. Good thing my giant pot is still out and ready…!

Chili Sensing Device Can Take the Heat — Instead of Your Mouth

chili shaped plug-in

I am wary of spicy foods. I’m not like those competitive Carolina-Reaper-eating maniacs; I have nothing to prove. I like a little bit of heat, but not so much it becomes an impediment to enjoying my dinner, rather than an enhancement. The problem with spice though is that it’s subjective — and once you tuck into that vindaloo, or taco, or mapo tofu, you are well past the point of no return.
Well, a team from Prince of Songkla University in Thailand (a country well-experienced in spicy cuisine) is here to save the cautious among us! They have invented an adorable widget that plugs into a smartphone, which can assess capsaicin levels of samples dropped into it, instantly. Shaped like a classic red chili, the portable device uses a paper sensor to soak up the chili pepper or food sample, and turn around a result that is then displayed on the smartphone screen. The technology behind this invention is tiny and fascinating. From the American Chemical Society:
“The paper-based electrochemical sensor within the device consisted of graphene nanoplatelets doped with nitrogen atoms to improve their electrical conductivity. When the team added a drop of diluted capsaicin to the sensor, the compound underwent oxidation and reduction reactions, producing an electrical current that the device detected. After optimizing the sensor, the researchers used it to determine capsaicin concentrations in six dried chili samples.”
The team focussed on portability, ease of use, and low cost. (While other capsaicin sensors do exist, they are too bulky and expensive to bring to the dinner table with you.) For me, this invention is a game-changer: no more guessing, tip-of-the-tongue-testing, or trying to decipher what the waiter really means by “medium.” Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on a commercial rollout of this device, but I await it with bated — and fiery — breath!

The Human Sweet Tooth and our Ancient Brain

human sweets

Finally, a scientific reason why I keep forgetting that bag of carrots in the back of my fridge until they turn into a mouldy, noodley tangle! Researchers at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands have shown one particular way in which humans have retained our “Stone age brains”: We are hardwired to remember the locations of calorie-dense foods far more accurately than “lighter” foods. Bye-bye, carrot sticks; hello carrot cake.
The study involved 512 participants, who were each guided through a room where the researchers had planted eight samples of actual foods or eight food scents (on cotton pads). The participants smelled the foods or food scents, and then rated them by how appealing they found them. Half of each kind of sample were high calorie (like brownies and potato chips), and half were low calorie (like apples and cherry tomatoes). When the participants were later asked to point out the samples on a map of the room, they were 30% more accurate at recalling the locations of the high-calorie samples — and 243% more accurate when the foods were real, instead of just scents.
“‘Our main takeaway message is that human minds seem to be designed for efficiently locating high-calorie foods in our environment,’ says Rachelle de Vries, a Ph.D. candidate in human nutrition and health at Wageningen University and lead author of the new paper. De Vries feels her team’s findings support the idea that locating valuable caloric resources was an important and regularly occurring problem for early humans weathering the climate shifts of the Pleistocene epoch. ‘Those with a better memory for where and when high-calorie food resources would be available were likely to have a survival — or fitness — advantage,’ she explains.”
Once upon a Pleistocene, this cool talent saved our bacon. But there is a downside for today’s humans. For those of us lucky enough to live where sugar and fat are readily available, the ancient instinct to zero in on it and eat as much as possible (lest we not find another source for months, or get gored by a mammoth tomorrow) is a contributing factor to the modern scourges of obesity and diabetes. Retraining our brains in a habit that is so deeply ingrained may not be possible — so I plan to rely on my frontal lobe writing me a sticky note on my fridge, that just says “CARROTS.” Once remembered, whether or not I eat them is another story…!

Black Licorice: The Silent Killer?

black licorice

With Halloween approaching, DFC’s staff fancies are lightly turning to thoughts of… CANDY! We’ll likely be keeping the traditional bowl by the front door to ourselves though, as celebrations all over are in upheaval because of COVID-19. (Besides, given our rural location, we probably wouldn’t be handing out the good stuff to the assorted Black Panthers and mermaids and Baby Yodas hoping to score big anyway.)
Which may be a good thing, given news that has come out about a particular type of candy’s very particular type of lethality. A 54-year-old construction worker in Massachusetts died last month after consuming his favourite sweet, black licorice, at the staggering rate of “a bag and a half every day for a few weeks.” According to doctors, the man’s heart stopped due to an arrhythmia caused by low potassium — the direct result of consuming an excess of glycyrrhizic acid. Glycyrrhizic acid comes from licorice root, which can be used in a variety of foods, both obvious, and scarily not.
“‘It’s more than licorice sticks. It could be jelly beans, licorice teas, a lot of things over the counter. Even some beers, like Belgian beers, have this compound in it,” as do some chewing tobaccos, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a University of Colorado cardiologist and former American Heart Association president. He had no role in the Massachusetts man’s care. […]
The FDA permits up to 3.1% of a food’s content to have glycyrrhizic acid, but many candies and other licorice products don’t reveal how much of it is contained per ounce, [cardiologist Dr. Neel] Butala said. Doctors have reported the case to the FDA in hope of raising attention to the risk.”
Black licorice is loved and hated, and the fate of the unfortunate Massachusetts fan has only rendered the treat’s reputation even more complicated. This Halloween, remember to enjoy everything in moderation — and when in doubt about your candy tastes, check with a doctor!

A (Subway) Bread by Any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet


I have a stumper for you: When is a sandwich bread not a sandwich bread? When the Supreme Court of Ireland rules it’s too sugary for that title, that’s when!
Jokes aside, this is not a thought experiment — the highest judicial body of an already starch-knowledgeable nation has come down hard on Subway (the sandwich chain) for the sugar content of their bread. Interestingly, it has nothing to do with nutrition but is rather a confusing tussle over taxes.
It involves an exemption of Value-Added Tax (a different name for what we know as GST) that an Irish Subway franchisee requested. The franchisee, Bookfinders Ltd. cited the fact that bread is considered to be a staple food in Ireland, and because of that, their hot takeout sandwiches (of which bread is a key component, naturally) should not be subject to VAT. The Supreme Court countered with the judicial zinger that Subway’s bread had so much sugar it could not be legally defined as “bread,” so couldn’t be tax-exempt.
“[T]he judges ruled that Subway’s bread is not a staple food because its sugar content is 10 percent of the weight of the flour in the dough; the Value-Added Tax Act 1972 stipulates that sugar, fat, and ‘bread improver’ cannot add up to more than 2 percent of the weight of the flour. (Those limits are in place to prevent things like pastries and other sweet baked goods from being labeled as ‘staple foods’ and exempt from being taxed.)

Justice Donal O’Donnell dismissed Bookfinders’ appeal on Tuesday, although he did acknowledge that some of the arguments presented on their behalf were ‘ingenious.’ An Appeal Commissioner also said that Subway’s hot sandwiches were not eligible for a zero-percent tax rate, so Bookfinders was doubly denied.”
I remember the first time Subway had trouble with the contents of its bread: Back in 2014, the scientifically-questionable “Food Babe” blogger, Vani Hari took them to task for using the dough conditioner azodicarbonamide (ADA) in their buns because ADA was also used in yoga mats and shoe soles. While the ADA flap caused Subway to drop the ingredient from their bread recipe, I doubt they will revisit the sugar content today, to benefit one tax-objecting franchisee. Besides, if Subway bread is too sweet to be “bread,” it follows that it must be… cake? A pivot to Subway cakewiches would be “ingenious” indeed!

Wine and Cheesy

VQA wine at Taco Bell

With the rolling restriction tightening that recent COVID surges have brought, I’m starting to think about hunkering down again for the winter as we did back in March. One tiny sliver of silver lining is that our food sources have had a bit of a summer breather to innovate for the dark days ahead. One such innovator is (believe it or not) Taco Bell, which, given my demographic (Canadian) and location (rural), I literally haven’t thought about in years.
But now I am intrigued with the Tex-Mex-esque chain, thanks to their brilliant recent marketing: developing and serving a wine at select Ontario locations paired specifically with their new Toasted Cheesy Chalupa. The punnily-named Jalapeño Noir was blended by Queenston Mile Vineyard near Niagara-on-the-Lake, and has “notes of wild strawberry, cherry and beetroot,” as well as “spice” and “leather.” The marriage of low- and high-brow is magnificently absurd — and now completely sold out in the two trial Taco Bell locations. From an op-ed in the Toronto Star (whose author managed to score the special):
“‘The Toasted Cheesy Chalupa promotion is exclusive to Canada, and so we wanted to partner with a local Canadian winery too,’ says Kat Garcia, director of brand marketing. ‘With Taco Bell unveiling its fanciest menu item yet, we wanted to celebrate with something equally fancy.’

Some will probably ask if it’s too fancy. I don’t think so. Somms love doing cheeky pairings with popcorn (sparkling), chicken nuggets (rosé) and fish filets (sauvignon blanc). There’s even a book coming out this fall called Big Macs and Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World by sommelier and wine writer Vanessa Price, who even goes so far as to find a pairing for Cheetos (Sancerre).”
Unfortunately for me (or actually… maybe fortunately?) the Taco Bell locations where this special is on back-order are nowhere near me. Even the winery itself is out of the whole bottles of Jalapeño Noir they were offering! I’m just going to have to wait until supply meets demand, and the perfect storm of pandemic and hygge this winter. By then, ordering out the Bell and vino will seem like a very good idea indeed.

Veggies and Introversion: Chewing on a Connection?

In our sauce and condiment line, we make room for diets of all stripes. From vegans to vegetarians, to hardcore meat eaters, all are welcome at the DFC table! (YMMV with using our products for keto purposes; and, while roasted meat is the definition of paleo, our barbeque sauces regrettably aren’t.)
So I looked with interest at new research about the personalities of our plant-based friends, and how a decisive aspect of their natures might relate to their diets — specifically, a higher tendency towards introversion. The large-scale study has come out of the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences, in cooperation with the University Hospital of Leipzig, and investigated how vegetarianism affects both the body and the mind.

Interestingly, the leading tidbit coming out of the study seems to me the most obvious: That folks who eschew animal products in their diets tend to have a lower BMI, and therefore weight. (This could be for many reasons — for example, plant-based foods are higher in fibre than those made from animals, and fill you up quicker.) But it’s where diet meets personality that my interest was piqued. Here, the study was also broad, attempting to detect correlations between vegetarianism, and “Big Five” personality factors like extraversion and neuroticism (as well as a connection with depression that previous studies showed evidence for).
“It was shown that people eating a predominantly plant-based diet are more introverted than those mainly consuming animal products. ‘It is difficult to say what the reason for this is,’ says [study author] Veronica Witte. ‘It could be because more introverted people tend to have more restrictive eating habits or because they are more socially segregated because of their eating habits.’ […]

[The researchers] determined personal diets by means of questionnaires in which participants were asked to fill in how often they had eaten individual animal products in the last 12 months — ranging from “several times a day” to “never”. Personality traits such as extroversion and neuroticism were assessed by means of a so-called personality inventory (NEOFFI), while depression was assessed by using the CESD test, a questionnaire that records various symptoms of depression.”
All of this just begs for a multitude of follow-up studies, that the authors and the Max Planck Institute both acknowledge. But even these preliminary results are tantalizing: Does it mean that, like the lower-BMI connection, someone who wants to harness the powers of introversion should start piling on the veggies? Or should organizations looking for thoughtful leaders or good listeners hit the local vegan lunch joint to find their next CEO? I am very interested to see where this thread leads — and I can rest secure in the knowledge that no matter who is involved in the research, we can feed them all! 

Ancient Wine Windows Serve Glasses of Cheer During Coronavirus

wine window

by Maureen Gualtieri
When I visited Italy, what stuck with me most about its people was that they were very used to — and very good at — celebrating life in the face of hardship. My trip there took place well before COVID-19, but, for example, the geological threat to the vibrant Naples region, and impact of climate change on historic Venice have been happening for a long time, and the culture has pragmatically worked with it.
But the new pressures of the pandemic are reinvigorating a different old Italian good-times-preservation technique — wine windows! These tiny arched openings in restaurant walls are unique to Tuscany and are most numerous in the city of Florence. Originally built starting in the Middle Ages as a way for wine merchants to serve the lower classes, they were repurposed during the bubonic plague of 1630-33 for all customers — under conditions that sound startlingly similar to today’s.
“[W]ine producers who were selling their own wine through the small wine windows in their Florentine palaces, understood the problem of contagion. They passed the flask of wine through the window to the client but did not receive payment directly into their hands. Instead, they passed a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar before collecting them.

Wine purveyors also attempted to avoid touching the wine flasks which were brought back to them by the client, in two different ways. Either the client purchased wine which was already bottled, or the client was allowed to fill his or her flask directly by using a metal tube which was passed through the wine window, and was connected to the demijohn on the inside of the palace. So, the wine merchant either filled new flasks for direct purchase or placed the demijohn in a slightly raised position so that the wine would flow down the small metal pipe into the client’s bottle.”
Many of Florence’s modern buchette del vino owners have diversified their businesses beyond wine, and today are serving gelato, coffee, cocktails, and takeout through the wee windows. With delicacies like that, served in a contagion-conscious way, getting through the depths of our own pandemic might be slightly easier. Thank you for your foresight, medieval Italian merchants!

Old Apple Tree Offers Glimpse of Genetic Past and Future

an old apple tree - before and now

With high summer behind us and fall on the horizon, I’m looking forward to the season of one of my favourite fruits: apples! And when I bite into my first hand-picked Ambrosia this year, I will say a mental “cheers” to a recently fallen relative — the Old Apple Tree of Vancouver, Washington.
CNN reports that the venerable community landmark died this summer, at a staggering age of 194. Planted by Hudson’s Bay traders in 1826, the Old Apple Tree not only formed the centre of a park and annual festival devoted to it but was regarded by the region’s apple specialists as the “matriarch” of the Pacific Northwest’s apple industry — in spirit, if not in genetic fact.
“A DNA analysis performed by experts at Washington State University’s Apple Genome Project revealed that the Old Apple Tree is genetically unique.

‘The Old Apple Tree is not identical to any other named variety in a worldwide collaborative data set of several thousand apple variety DNA profiles,’ Cameron Peace, a professor of tree fruit genetics at WSU told CNN.

‘The Old Apple Tree is therefore unique, one-of-a-kind. It will carry genetic factors not present in other heirloom or modern cultivars,’ Peace added.
Scientists were able to establish that the Old Apple Tree is almost certainly a grandchild of the French Reinette, a 500-year-old variety dubbed ‘the grandmother of all apple cultivars,’ Peace explained. The French Reinette is a close direct ancestor of most modern varieties and also a parent or grandparent to many heirloom varieties.”
Descendants of the tree dot the area — cuttings had been given to attendees of the Old Apple Tree festival to plant in their own gardens since 1984. Plus, as the original tree died, new saplings began growing out of the old root system. One of the saplings will stay on the site, becoming essentially the reincarnation of its mother!
Preserving apple diversity is a serious task, and it warms my heart that one of the founding trees of the North American gene pool has given her adoring apple fans one last gift — the continuation of her legacy! I’ll eat to that.