Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kombucha: The Miracle Tea? Love It or Hate It?

nirinjan singh, own photoImage via Wikipedia

Personally, I LOVE it.  I drink it nearly every day. My favorite is G.T. Dave's original formula.  

Since this became a regular habit, there has been a notable difference in my digestive system.  Without getting into the gory details, a lifetime of suffering has seemingly come to an end.  Over the years, every cure suggested or read about has been tried and, with the exception of activated charcoal and probiotics, has been a miserable failure.

It may be a combination of various factors, most notably a more balanced diet consisting of 50-75% raw food, little or no dairy, and little or no gluten.  The kombucha is most likely part of the bigger picture.  It is an acquired taste and, while it may not have been love at first sight, I am most definitely hooked.

A Strange Brew May Be a Good Thing

NAOMI MOST, a devoted brewer of a fermented tea called kombucha, keeps her “big momma” in the garage. The big momma in question is a 20-pound pancake of gelatinous and, well, rather gross-looking bacteria and yeast floating atop a vat of kombucha, a drink that enthusiasts tout as a tonic for digestion, hair loss and all manner of bodily ailments.

It’s not for everyone.

“I live with my boyfriend and he finds it really weird,” said Ms. Most, 30, a manager for a nonprofit group in Palo Alto, Calif. “He doesn’t like the smell.”

Looks and aroma notwithstanding, kombucha is gaining popularity among those who favor organic beverages, and it is showing signs of turning into a gold mine for some companies. While the poor economy and worries about health and the environment have diminished the national thirst for soda and bottled water, sales of kombucha and other “functional” juices in the United States topped $295 million last year, up 25 percent over a two-year period, according to SPINS Inc., a market researcher.

In 2009 Americans bought more than a million bottles of GT’s Kombucha, the leading commercial variety made by Millennium Products. The chief executive, G. T. Dave, started the company as a teenager in his parents’ kitchen in Beverly Hills, Calif., but the drink has grown beyond the mom-and-pop scale. Recently major companies like Red Bull and Honest Tea (of which Coca-Cola owns 40 percent) began distributing their own brands.

In the Bay Area, many fans have taken to making their own kombucha, trading recipes and selling good brews. Craigslist, for example, is full of those selling fermented patties. Several foodie groups organize regular swap meets for fermented cultures.

To make kombucha, brewers rely on what’s called a starter — a bit of already fermented tea—passed between makers and referred to reverentially as “the mother.” Once the mother is added to sweetened tea and allowed to sit in a glass jar unrefrigerated for 7 to 14 days, a glop known as a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast grows over the surface.

This “mother” will expand and split into smaller patties called “babies,” which brewers often give to friends or sell online. “I have kombucha babies available in several different types of tea (pu-erh, oolong, white tea, some others),” reads a post by Ms. Most on the Kombucha Exchange, an online forum catering to kombucha brewers worldwide who want to exchange recipes, fermentation techniques and viscous offspring.

Ms. Most gives her babies away free with an explainer pamphlet. Similar offers can be found from Argentina to Luxembourg.

The rise in kombucha’s popularity is part of a larger trend in “probiotic” foods containing bacteria, which some studies suggest benefit digestion and boost the immune system.

“It’s become incredibly trendy lately in the 20-to-30-something, foodie, intelligentsia set,” said Dr. Daphne Miller, a family practitioner and professor of nutrition and integrative medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Kombucha is like their Coca-Cola.”

Kombucha is said to have originated in ancient China, but various forms of fermented tea exist in many countries, said Dr. Miller, who traveled the world researching healthy traditional diets while writing her book, “The Jungle Effect.” Some medical professionals, however, think the drink is dangerous.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a doctor and leader in alternative health writes on his Web site: “I don’t recommend kombucha tea at all. I know of no scientific studies backing up the health claims made for it.” He goes on to warn of home brews contaminated with aspergillus, a toxin-producing fungus, and cautions pregnant women, the elderly, children and anyone with a compromised immune system against drinking it.

This most recent growth in popularity is actually the tea’s second act in the United States. In the early 1990s, before commercially bottled varieties were available, the drink became popular with health food enthusiasts and those with H.I.V. and AIDS who believed it would help compromised immune systems and increase T-cell counts. Several mail order companies shipped “mothers” across the country.

In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report linking kombucha to the death of an Iowa woman and the illness of another woman. Both experienced severe metabolic acidosis, excessive acid buildup in the body that health officials thought may have been related to their daily use of kombucha. Though the federal center did not definitively cite the tea as the problem, the incident put a damper on kombucha consumption.

But kombucha has cycled back into vogue. The tipping point in the tea’s return came around 2003 or 2004, pushed by the low-carbohydrate craze that had those people on the Atkins diet looking for a healthy, fizzy drink to replace sugary soda and juice.

In 2003, orders for GT’s Kombucha surpassed the company’s production capabilities. The next year Whole Foods supermarkets began distributing the tea nationally.

These days in college towns and cities like Portland, Ore., around the country small-batch kombucha brewing has become something of a cottage industry.

The Bay Area has at least a half-dozen kombucha start-ups, selling their products at farmers’ markets, health food stores, yoga studios, on blogs and on Twitter. Flavors range from cayenne and mango to fennel and watermelon jalapeño. It’s not uncommon to overhear people talking about their devotion to the products, all of which prompted a San Francisco food blogger, Tamara Palmer, to say recently that kombucha was on its way to becoming “the new bacon.”

But the drink’s standing as the cure-all of the moment was not the attraction for some..

Lev Kilun, 51, was an unemployed telecommunications engineer when he bought his first bottle of kombucha several years ago. He immediately recognized the distinct effervescent tang. “I called it tea kvass,” said Mr. Kilun, who emigrated in the late 1980s from what is now Uzbekistan. “In Russia it was very popular. It was like an old women’s drink. My grandmother used to make it.”

Seeing a business opportunity and feeling something akin to a birthright, Mr. Kilun started his own company, Lev’s Original Kombucha. He now bottles and sells six flavors brewed with green tea and distributes kegs to restaurants and cafes around the Bay Area. Mr. Kilun says the tea is thought to help cure a hangover, which he says makes for brisk sales in liquor stores.

Kombucha’s popularity has also attracted home brewers. Tim Anderson, founder of a 3D printer technology company, moved from Boston to Berkeley, Calif., with his “mother” — passed on to him from a friend who got it, as the story goes, from gypsies in Russia.

Mr. Anderson, an advocate for all things do-it-yourself, made step-by-step kombucha brewing instructions complete with videos for (one of over 200 tutorials he has made on everything from tire sandals to wheelchair shopping carts). Nearly 60,000 people have viewed the kombucha guide to-date, according to the site’s page-view statistics.

“I’m surprised people would pay to get this stuff,” Mr. Anderson said. “The kind you can buy tastes vinegary and dry, whereas the one you can make yourself is so incredibly delicious.”

Mr. Anderson has given kombucha culture to dozens of friends and strangers. Recently he put out a call to get some back after he neglected his brew and let the fermented patty dry out. “You can’t go around saying you killed your mother,” he said. “It freaks people out.”

March 24, 2010

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Chef's Survey: What's Hot in 2010

The National Restaurant Association compiles a yearly survey of professional chef members of the American Culinary Federation. The latest survey conducted in 2009, was based on the input of more than 1,800 chefs. Respondents ranked 214 items by how trendy they would be in 2010.

Following is a little taste of the survey results. Read all the survey results by clicking here.

Top 20 Trends
  1. Locally grown produce
  2. Locally sourced meats and seafood
  3. Sustainability
  4. Bite size/mini desserts
  5. Locally-produced wine and beer
  6. Nutritionally balanced children's dishes
  7. Half-portions/smaller portion for a smaller price
  8. Farm/estate-branded ingredients
  9. Gluten-free/food allergy conscious
  10. Sustainable seafood
  11. Superfruits (e.g. acai, goji berry, mangosteen, purslane)
  12. Organic produce
  13. Culinary cocktails (e.g. savory, fresh ingredients)
  14. Micro-distilled/artisan liquor
  15. Nutrition/health
  16. Simplicity/back to basics
  17. Regional ethnic cuisine
  18. Non-traditional fish (e.g. branzino, Arctic char, barramundi)
  19. Newly fabricated cuts of meat (e.g. Denver steak, port flat iron, Petite Tender)
  20. Fruit/vegetable children's side items
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Tumeric: More Food As Medicine

Great article on the cancer fighting properties of tumeric by Sarah Khan, assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and founder of the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.

Tumeric vs. Cancer

The spice turmeric can reduce inflammation, combat toxins, even battle cancer cells. Recommendations by the President's Cancer Panel have, historically, stressed individual responsibility: Stop smoking, avoid too much sun, don't get fat, and beware of STDs. But the panel's 2008-09 report took a different approach: It emphasized environmental toxins.

Specifically, the panel suggested more research to understand the environmental triggers of cancer. It is estimated that about 80,000 chemicals are used commercially in the United States, yet only a small fraction (200) have been tested for safety. Some of the top environmental toxins include  polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, asbestos, heavy metals, chloroform and chlorine. The panel reported that American citizens experience "grievous harm" from the largely unregulated chemicals in our air, food and water.

With such a large number of environmental pollutants, what can we do to reduce the incidence of cancer? Prevention, according to William Li , is the answer to cancer. Li, a physician and head of the nonprofit Angiogenesis Foundation, who recently delivered a TED talk titled "Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?," points out that only 5 to 10 percent of the incidences of cancer are genetically based. The rest are caused by environmental factors. In 1 out of 3 of these cases, diet is the culprit.

The prevention or promotion of cancer involves numerous, often sequential, biochemical pathways. Many of the plant chemicals in our daily diets, for example, can reduce genetic damage, act as antioxidants or prevent toxic chemicals from causing cellular damage. Furthermore, plants, foods and spices contain not just one active ingredient but hundreds, each of which may have protective qualities. Despite reams of research, there is so much we do not know.

What we do know, emphasizes Li, is that cancers advance because they are able to form new blood vessels and grow -- a process called angiogenesis. Li has come up with a list of anti-angiogenic spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables, a group that, as research continues, may increasingly be employed in the fight against cancer. (See list below.)

One spice on Li's list is turmeric, or Curcuma longa, a rhizome native to tropical South Asia which has a striking yellow-orange color when sliced. Like ginger and its cousin galangal, turmeric belongs to the Zingerberaceae family. It's added as a coloring agent to make mustard yellow and acts as an inexpensive stand-in for saffron in yellow rice in South Asian, Latin America and Spanish cuisines. In South and Southeast Asia, where turmeric is used as medicine, it's also broadly incorporated in cooking and is a staple in many curry powders.

There are many tasty ways of adding turmeric to your diet. Tarla Dalal, a prolific cookbook author in India, serves up a spicy pickle made of turmeric and ginger that is steeped in lime juice with freshly sliced green chilies and salt. The pickle adds a bright kick to a heavier meal. For a sweeter Southeast Asian concoction, try the candied turmeric that Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman share on their informative and beautiful EatingAsia blog.

In Ayurveda, turmeric, or haridra in Sanskrit, is classified as bitter, pungent, astringent, dry and light and is believed to have warming qualities which help regulate stomach and appetite. In classical Ayurvedic texts, it's used fresh or dried, alone or mixed in powders, pastes, pills and tea-like decoctions. Mothers in South Asia frequently make warm turmeric in milk (haldi dhood) to relieve digestive problems, inhibit a burgeoning cold or reduce a cough and sore throat.

While turmeric is a staple in South and Southeast Asian households and medicinal traditions, it is only recently getting recognition in the West. One of the main polyphenols (organic plant compounds that tend to be colorful and have antioxidant properties) in turmeric, curcumin, reportedly acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent. Last year, researchers at the University College London's Medical School reported that polyphenols and particularly curcuminoids might be valuable as a complement to pharmaceutical treatment in conditions such as cancer, cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive lung disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Some research suggests that fresh turmeric is more potent than dry.

Culinary and medicinal practices of ancient cultures, passed down for generations offer insight into the healing potential of foods, herbs and spices. Western research is beginning to document these claims. In years to come, perhaps our medicine cabinets will be found in the kitchen, filled with herbs and spices, which we'll judiciously employ to keep us healthy.

Tarla Dalal's Fresh Ginger Turmeric Pickle

South and Southeast Asian markets carry fresh and ground turmeric. In this recipe you can use just Curcuma longa and/or add Curcuma amada, a white Curcuma species still used in South Asia


2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin rounds
2 tablespoons fresh turmeric, peeled and cut into thin rounds (Curcuma longa)
2 tablespoons fresh white turmeric (amba haldi), peeled and cut into thin rounds (Curcuma amada) (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped green chili
¼ cup lime juice
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. This pickle is ready to serve after 1 or 2 hours. Store refrigerated in an air-tight container or a glass jar for up to 1 week.

Turmeric Milk/Haldi Dhood


1 cup whole milk
¼ tsp ground or ½ tsp grated fresh turmeric
1 cardamom crushed
2 tablespoon almond slivers
Sweetener, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Sip.

More info and recipes using tumeric:
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Food Allergy or Food Intolerance: What's the Difference?

Dr. Andrew Weil recently answered this question from a reader on his website.  Following is his response:

"In May 12, 2010 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review of research on food allergies that clearly indicated these disorders are problematic to diagnose and treat. However, the reviewers also determined that only a small minority of adults, less than five percent, have true food allergies.

I discussed your question with Randy Horwitz, M.D., medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and an expert on allergy and immunology. Dr. Horwitz told me that the problems that most adults regard as allergies are actually food intolerances or sensitivities. He noted that with a careful history and testing an allergist can differentiate between a "true" food allergy and what may be an intolerance or sensitivity.

What's the difference?

True allergies involve immediate, measurable reactions from the immune system, which can become life-threatening in some cases. Food intolerance or sensitivities also appear to be rooted in the immune system, but reactions to them can be subtle, are more variable, and while some can certainly interfere with activities of daily living, they tend to be annoyances rather than dangerous.

Dr. Horwitz explained that some problems with food will resolve if you strictly avoid the ones that cause you trouble for a period of time and then reintroduce them slowly one by one to see if you can handle them. If and when your physician approves this strategy, Dr. Horwitz said he would recommend clinical hypnotherapy as an adjunctive treatment. He added that emotions have been shown to play a role in the body’s responses to allergens and irritants and that in one published study, laughter was shown to reduce the reactivity of skin when testing for allergies.

Dr. Horwitz and I agree that there is no body cleanse that will eliminate residual allergens – the only potential solution is avoidance. What’s more, there are not many proven complementary or alternative therapies for true food allergies, especially those that have potentially life-threatening consequences such as the breathing problems you describe. Consulting a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine might be helpful, and Dr. Horwitz noted that a research team in New York City is testing a very promising traditional Chinese formulation that has proven to be remarkably effective in treating and preventing peanut allergies in animals.

I hope this helps and will set you on a course to overcome your problems with so many foods."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Who Doesn't Love Smoothies?

I don't know when I first heard of or tried my first smoothie but now I can't imagine not having them in my life.  One of the many beautiful things about smoothies is that they require zero culinary skills.  Just a good blender and a fertile imagination. My current favorite contains frozen fresh baby coconut meat, almond milk, banana, mango, papaya, maca powder, cinnamon and hemp seeds.  Makes for a great start to any or every day.  

Check out some of these recipes from the Incredible Smoothies website.


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