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    Microwave-roasted eggplant salad

    This simple roast eggplant, pepper and onion salad is one of the first microwave recipes I ever posted and one of the most versatile.

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    Copyright 2008-13Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

New hope for lowering arsenic levels in rice

A new study has identified a key protein in rice plants that allows some varieties to keep any absorbed arsenic safely contained in a separate part of the plant from the grain itself. The authors are hoping to introduce the gene for this highly effective transporter protein into plant strains that don’t have much of it and see whether the new genetic hybrids can reduce the arsenic level in major rice crops.


Microwave Tricks: 10-Minute Tofu

Microwaved platter of low-sodium tofu with snow peas

Microwaved tofu platter in minutes, minus the big oil and salt overload of takeout. I’ve used snow peas and shiitake mushrooms this time, but you could use any greens you like and mix them up–bok choy, broccoli, green beans. Frozen snow or sugar snap peas work too.

This is the recipe I meant to put in the last post about reducing sodium in Chinese food.

Tofu is, as everyone knows by now, extremely versatile. It’s vegetarian, it’s shapeable, it’s mild but satisfying in flavor, it comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses, and it’s quick to cook–fried, steamed, stuffed, crumbled–or to eat cold. It’s also low-fat, low-sodium, nearly carb-free, and relatively high in protein, with some iron and calcium too. And it’s very inexpensive–less than $2 for a 14-oz. pad of tofu at the supermarket, about three or four servings’ worth.

When it’s hideously hot out, as it was much of September here in Pasadena, you can marinate a sliced cold block of silken tofu by pouring a jao tze-style dipping sauce over it maybe half an hour, garnish with scallion shreds or crushed toasted nuts, and serve it as an appetizer. Or eat firm tofu plain and cold, if you like it. Or throw some tofu cubes into a salad with cabbage, lightly-steamed (or microwaved) fresh brussels sprouts, scallions and halved hard-boiled eggs, and drizzle peanut sauce over it.

Or you can decide there’s no way you’re going to stand over a stove with a frying pan, but you’d like a proper cooked dinner that resembles kung pao or ma po tofu with some greens, just not doused in heavy greasy oversalted sauce or requiring a run to your local takeout, and it would be nice if it were very quick. Very quick. Like five minutes tops. And that it didn’t involve the stove at all.

When my daughter decided she wanted to be vegetarian a couple of years ago, I discovered that you can “quick-press” tofu for Hunan tofu in about 4-5 minutes for a standard 14-19 oz. pad by cutting it up, standing the pieces on a microwaveable dinner plate, and microwaving, then draining off the liquid. Then it’s ready to stir-fry and it’ll brown decently. But I’ve done it so often in the past two years that my daughter’s kind of tired of it now (and has also gone back to eating fish and chicken once in a while). But we still like tofu. And with 100-degree days filling so much of September, there was just no way I was going to stand at the stove. So….

The entirely microwaveable tofu dish below is my daughter’s current preference, because the tofu cubes are softer, steamed in the microwave in a thin sauce rather than browned, and the scallions never scorch. And it’s not bad at all, and it takes, if not a literal 5 minutes, maybe about 10, start to finish.

This is more of a technique than a recipe, really, because you can use whatever cookable greens you have and like–fresh broccoli with the stalks, green beans, bok choy, etc. are pretty classic and generally not expensive per pound, but I’m not against using frozen unsalted (store brand; I’m cheap) sugar snap peas or green beans if the fresh ones are out of season. You’re microwaving; it’ll work out, and you won’t overcook the tofu. Continue reading

Testing salt reduction on a really large scale

Microwaved platter of low-sodium tofu with snow peas

This tofu dish with snow peas and shiitake mushrooms uses low-sodium dipping sauce ingredients as its base rather than soy sauce or oyster sauce. It’s also microwaveable from start to finish and takes about 10 minutes total.

If you have a big enough–and motivated–study population, even modest reductions in daily sodium intake can make a big difference in preventing strokes and heart attacks. Last month, cardiovascular researchers from Beijing and Sydney announced a new 5-year diet trial in Science to do just that (see the general overview article, “China tries to kick its salt habit”).

China’s northern rural poor eat an estimated 12 grams of salt a day on average, considerably more than Americans’ 9 grams a day (which is still over the top) and more than twice the WHO’s recommended 5 grams or less. An estimated 54%, more than half, of Chinese adults over 45 have high blood pressure these days, and the Chinese government is taking practical steps to provide antihypertensive medications and shift the tide back–but that’s an awful lot of prescriptions.

Given the cost of antihypertensive drugs for such a huge population, and the cost of dealing with side effects and consequences of untreated or undertreated high blood pressure, prevention seems the better way to go. The researchers project that reducing the national average by even 1 gram of salt a day would save 125,000 lives a year in China. So they’ve recruited 21,000 villagers so far in China and Tibet, and plan to provide test groups with nutrition counseling plus a lower-sodium salt substitute for cooking, then compare their sodium intakes and rates of heart attack and stroke with those for a control group.

Most Chinese still do their own cooking at home, especially outside the big cities.  If lowering the sodium content of the salt they use works, it has the potential to get an awful lot of people off daily hypertension medication and reverse a major health threat. But will people do it if they’re not in the trial, or once it ends? Will it catch on? And is it the right answer in the long run?

Salt substitutes, with potassium chloride replacing some of the usual sodium chloride, have been tried by heart patients in the US since the 1970s or so. They’re a little more expensive than table salt or kosher flake salt, at least in the US, but they’re not all that expensive. But they’ve never really caught on here with most consumers.

Similarly, a few decades ago, a big public health campaign in Japan to reduce the high rate of stroke led to the introduction of low-sodium soy sauces, with about half the sodium content per tablespoon of traditional ones.

Not much market research is available on how many people have been buying low-sodium vs. regular soy sauce in Japan since its introduction. From the few current market reports I could find–one of them an executive report from Kikkoman–it looks like low-sodium is still a smaller if steady fraction of their business in Japan, and that it’s more popular in Europe and the US than at home.

It’s important to have a low-sodium line for reasons of corporate responsibility and even prestige, but there was no mention of its percentage of total domestic or worldwide sales. Traditional soy sauces, which can range from 14-18% sodium concentration w/v, are still apparently preferred for taste, and the Kikkoman executives attribute much of their expected taste appeal to salt rather than the other flavors in each one’s profile.

That’s kind of discouraging to me. The Japanese are known for more refined and sensitive palates on average than Americans, and their range of soy sauces and tamaris for specific food combinations is much broader and more sophisticated. The higher-quality low-sodium soy sauces are produced by ion filtration to get sodium out rather than simply diluting them with water, so most of the flavor that’s actually flavor remains. I would have hoped the key flavor signature of each match was the actual flavor of the brewed soy sauces, not the saltiness.

It’s likely, though, that the Japanese are just as susceptible as the rest of the world to the sodium tolerance phenomenon–the more sodium you eat habitually each day, the more you expect and consider normal in your food, and you almost stop even noticing it as a separate flavor.

The overall Chinese market for soy sauce is currently estimated at $20 billion and grew about 23.4 percent over the past 5 years, mostly due to population growth. The stakes are pretty high for China, but the government has tighter control of its salt and soy sauce producers than other countries do, and the will to make a broad change seems to be present, at least at a government level, and if the new study is anything to go by, among ordinary villagers as well. So maybe this time it will catch on once the study’s over.

But obviously, if you’re starting out at a 12-gram-a-day salt habit, the best way to reduce sodium in home-cooked food would be to cut back hard on salt and salted items altogether. That takes time, practice, awareness and deciding that it’s worth going through that first couple of weeks until your palate readjusts to a lower-sodium diet (which it will, but it takes a couple of weeks and a little patience).

Can cutting the salt be done with Chinese food? Not American souped-up chain restaurant caricatures of Chinese dishes, which are hideously over-the-top and greasy as well, but actual home cooking? I’ve done low-sodium Continue reading

Microwave tricks: 5-Minute Plum Jam for Fall

Italian prune or blue plums

These Italian prunes are some of the fresher, better-looking specimens from my greengrocer’s bin this week. But overripe plums work fine too.

Italian blue or prune plums are probably the last round of plums to appear at my local greengrocers for the year (well, until they start getting in carboys of plums and peaches from Chile). Prune plums aren’t much to look at–well, okay, they have a graceful enough elongated shape, but cut into one and you won’t be terribly impressed–the peel is thick and slightly bitter, the flesh is yellow-brownish, not very juicy, and a bit stickier and less brilliantly flavored than the red and black plums of summer, to say nothing of the gorgeous green and mottled dinosaur and Santa Rosa plums we can get here in LA. Many of the fresh prunes end up overripe and still untaken at the end of the day.

Which, I’ve discovered this week, is actually quite a shame. Because if you buy them early and firm, while there’s still a tint of reddish purple about them, they’re closer to regular plums–crisper, juicier and livelier tasting raw. Still not the ideal eating plum, but not bad.

And if you take the ones that are fully ripe and disappointing and bland and not too pretty, cut them up and microwave them, suddenly everything transforms. Italian prune plums make a gorgeous, rose-red, vibrantly flavored low-sugar jam. A lot like cranberry sauce in both color and flavor, but somehow a little mellower, with the bitter edge off, and a hint of spicy perfumed depth.

Microwave plum jam on wholewheat toast

Five minutes in the microwave, and everything changes.

Many stone fruits react this way to heat–sometimes sugar too, but mostly it’s the heat. Even very bland, mushy pale apricots seem to bloom into vibrant flavor and acidity when baked or simmered, and sour cherries go from slightly bitter and dull raw to world-famous classic pie filling with a strong almond aroma. I’ve rescued bland, spongy supermarket nectarines and peaches by microwaving them into fruit spreads with real flavor, but obviously good fruit makes even better jams and compotes. It’s just that when the fruit is good raw, I’d usually rather eat it raw, because the season is short.

The prune plums I bought this past week don’t provoke that dilemma of choice; they’re definitely better turned into a quick fruit spread, and maybe I’ll freeze a second batch for later. These plums would also make a great pie filling, like the zwetchgenkuchen that Joan Nathan first published as a traditional German Jewish dessert for Rosh Hashanah in The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Baked conventionally, the quartered prune plums would probably hold their shape somewhat in the crust and look beautiful.

In the microwave, the plums quickly break down to a bubbling mass and gradually take on color from the peel–at first, bronze with a hint of pink, and after a minute or two the color spreads and deepens to cranberry red (as does the flavor). Sugar just to taste, a tiny squeeze of lemon, and a pinch each of clove and ginger balance out the tartness, and after a day in the fridge, the jam has mellowed and integrated beautifully.

The accents of brandy, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon peel in Nathan’s recipe make me want to run back to the store and try it this instant, but after a week of baking challah for the high holidays and prospects for 100 degree temperatures yet again, I’m not sure today’s the day. Maybe for Sukkot, which starts later this week.

But the combination of plums with aromatic spices is right on, and if you’re adventurous you could always take this fruit spread one step further and add a small spoonful of brandy, a few shakes of cinnamon and an even tinier hint of nutmeg, even a little grated lemon peel. The simple version below is good on toast, delicious with Greek yogurt and plenty complex enough for me before or after the second cup of coffee.

However, the full-on dressed-up version would probably be a wonderful accent for goat cheese tartlets or a baked brie if you were doing swanky appetizers for a dinner party. I’d test-taste a small batch of the jam first just to make sure it wasn’t too rich with the brandy and nutmeg, because a little goes a long way, but otherwise, let ‘er rip. The plum-jam-with-cheese appetizers would also be an unexpectedly good accompaniment to mead, sherry or other apéritifs for fall.

5-Minute Microwave Plum Fruit Spread (makes about a cup)

  • 5-6 ripe Italian blue or prune plums (or any other plums), washed, pitted and cut up
  • 2-3 T sugar (or more to taste–I like mine less sweet, more fruit)
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • pinch of cloves (maybe 1/8 t, probably a little less)
  • pinch of powdered ginger (a little less than 1/8 t)

Put all ingredients in a microwaveable ceramic bowl big enough to hold them with a couple of inches to spare, because the plum mixture will bubble up as it cooks. Remember to handle the edges of the bowl with a towel or oven mitt or something (folded paper sandwich bags also work okay in a pinch) because this will heat long enough for the bowl itself to get hot.

Microwave 1-2 minutes on HIGH (I have an 1100 W oven, so adjust times to whatever works for you if yours is older and lower power). The plums should be starting to break down and just starting to color pinkish. Stir the mixture and microwave another minute or so, stir again. If it’s not cooked as much as you think it should be, microwave another minute or so but be prepared to hit the stop button if you see it start to boil over. If it’s fully colored and broken down to a fruit spread, take a small spoonful, let it cool, and taste carefully. It will probably taste a lot like not-very-sweetened cranberry sauce. If it’s not sweet enough for you, add a little more sugar to taste, and maybe another squeeze of lemon, then let it cool all the way covered and refrigerate. It will thicken a little further and mellow overnight and taste more like plums, especially with the clove and ginger notes.

You can, obviously, also boil the ingredients a few minutes in a saucepan on the stovetop if you prefer. If you want it completely smooth, cool it and put it through a food mill or food processor.

This isn’t canned, so store it in the fridge for up to a week or freeze it for later. When you thaw it, taste it again–you might need to add another squeeze of lemon and/or reheat in the microwave just a minute or so to refresh it.

Artificial sweeteners causing glucose intolerance

A new study on artificial sweeteners published in Nature goes a long way toward explaining one of the most puzzling findings about sweetened drinks in recent years: that regular consumption of even diet sodas is associated with an increased incidence of obesity and Type II diabetes. Surely, if the sweeteners have no calories and negligible carbohydrate, this shouldn’t be happening? Surely people should be losing weight? But the national statistics have shown that it is, and they’re not.

According to a news summary in The Scientist (Sugar Substitutes, Gut Bacteria, and Glucose Intolerance), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, demonstrated that repeatedly consuming zero-calorie sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame (e.g., Sweet ‘N’ Low, Splenda, and NutraSweet) increases a person’s glucose intolerance by causing changes to his or her gut bacteria.

The researchers did extensive testing on mice first–fed them artificially sweetened water for several weeks and compared glucose tolerance and gut flora with those of control groups that received either glucose solution or plain water. The experimental mice had much higher rates of glucose intolerance than either of the control groups, including the one that was fed glucose solution.

They also had very different gut bacteria composition, which the researchers thought might be causing the changes in glucose tolerance. Wiping out the gut bacteria of control mice with antibiotics and then repopulating with the gut bacteria from sweetener-fed mice caused glucose intolerance in the normally fed mice.

The researchers repeated their experiments on healthy human subjects, and they got the same dramatic results. The timeframe for measurable changes in glucose tolerance was within as little as six days for one of the tests.

Admittedly, the researchers were dosing their subjects with sweetener concentrations at the highest levels currently deemed safe by the FDA. So if you only consume these sweeteners occasionally and in small quantity–say, chewing sugarless gum once in a while–you might not be causing a drastic change in your gut bacteria or glucose tolerance.

But so many people in the US consume diet sodas and artificially sweetened teas and so on in large quantity on a daily basis that it’s possible they’re coming close to the levels used in these experiments. If you consume even half the maximum defined “safe” daily level, you might well be impairing your glucose tolerance significantly. But there may not be a safe level. There’s no saying what level–if any–of sweetener per day is low enough not to change gut bacteria and raise glucose intolerance–it may be a matter of dose or it may be a matter of how long and how regularly people consume these sweeteners.

Glucose tolerance is a measure of your body’s ability to supply insulin quickly and at the right level whenever you eat or drink something with starches or sugars. Part of the gut’s function is to release glucose into the bloodstream, but Continue reading

Stuffed cabbage in the microwave

stuffed Nappa cabbage rolls-unsauced

I was originally going to call this post “Nappa 9-1-1″ because it’s about salvaging a cabbage quickly and semi-artfully from the back of my fridge, but realized how bad that would be once I read the recent earthquake damage assessments up in the real city of Napa from the 6.0 earthquake a couple of weeks ago. Things are still kind of rough up there. The Napa Valley Vintners association have donated an impressive amount–$10M–and have instructions on how to donate to the local community disaster relief fund. You can find a number of local funds to donate to online at norcalwine.com.

I love bringing home a bag (or more) of produce from my local greengrocer each week–especially in the summer, when Fresno tomatoes are in and brilliant red, green beans are green and snappy, apricots and plums and pluots are spilling ripely out of the bins at under a dollar a pound, and herbs like purple basil and tarragon and mint and za’atar are 75 cents a bunch. You can’t help but feel like you’re going to be a great cook that day, just by cutting up a few vegetables and sprinkling on some oil and vinegar and strewing herbs (and feta or Alfonso olives) on top.

I always mean to use up all my vegetables before they start showing their age, but occasionally I get caught with something unintended at the back of the fridge. This week it was a Nappa cabbage, which is longer and less sulfurous (when lightly cooked) than the more traditional green and Savoy cabbages. A little closer to bok choy. So I peeled back the rusted layers, hoping that some of the inner leaves could be salvaged, at least, and I got fairly lucky.

But what to do with them? Chop and eat raw as a salad? Always an option. But I’d bought the cabbage in the first place to try out a quick microwave version of stuffed cabbage that would fulfill a couple of challenges I’d posed myself:

1. Vegetarian (not a big beef fan, personally)–I’m using the lentil/rice stuffing I developed for stuffed eggplants and onions  three years ago (has it already been that long???), because I actually made stuffed onions again last week and had some leftover stuffing in the fridge.

2. Microwaveable in a few minutes (to combat cooked cabbage stench and do it as more fresh-tasting than long-cooked)

3. Non-stinky, and not drowning in cloying sweet-and-sour tomato sauce (my two overwhelming childhood objections to holishkes)

4. Bridges the cultural/culinary gap between European and Syrian Jewish versions of stuffed cabbage by spicing the filling AND adding garlic and onions. It can be done, and should. And yet, I’m not stewing it to death (actually, that means overturning both Euro and Syrian traditional cooking methods in equal measures).

5. Fulfills the Prunes and Lentils Challenge, or at least hints at what’s possible, since today I had (gasp) no prunes left and had to resort to leftover tamarind sauce from the aforementioned batch of stuffed onions… close enough for folk music.

Stuffed cabbage rolls, as I’ve noted before, are popular throughout at least eastern Europe and Syria. Most versions contain meat–beef for Jews, beef or lamb for Arabs, some mixture of pork and beef for European Christians. But I’ve also seen some really beautiful-looking vegetarian ones in Nur Ilkin’s The Turkish Cookbook, and those were stuffed–of all things–with whole cooked chestnuts.

Cabbage lends itself to enveloping stuffings almost as well as grape leaves, and it’s easier to work with, cheaper, and (big bonus) unbrined.

In addition to meat or lentil fillings, you could try something like curry-spiced or Mexican-style beans and/or vegetables, a mu shu or samosa filling, whole cooked grains like brown rice or bulgur with or without dried cranberries or raisins and sunflower seeds or chopped nuts, maybe even fish (though I’m shying away from Joan Nathan’s recommendation for wrapping up gefilte fish and giving them the stuffed cabbage treatment). Perhaps for fish I’d want smoked (fake or real) whitefish salad. Or sausage–real or vegetarian, smoky and spicy.

It seems to me for sauces you could go well beyond sweet-and-sour traditional: a garlicky tomato sauce, a mustard vinaigrette, a smoky salsa with or without tamarind sauce, a chili-paste or z’khug-laden soy/molasses/vinegar/sesame oil dipping sauce with ginger and scallions, a polished herb and wine-type tomato sauce with prunes or mushrooms and onions, even (maybe definitely?) Korean or Thai peanut dipping sauce, especially if you stuffed your Nappa cabbage leaves with a combination of pressed tofu and/or omelet strips, spinach leaves, maybe some sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.

Whatever version you do, this can either be a quick path to dinner (use the big leaves and more filling per leaf) or to a platter of appetizers (using the small inner leaves).

Microwaving doesn’t develop every possible flavor (in the case of cabbage, I’m childish enough to say that’s a good thing), but it’s a quick way to play around with a classic at least on a trial basis. You could always do the huge foil-covered pan in the oven thing if you decide to scale up and go old-school.

Stuffed Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 head Nappa cabbage, washed and with the core cut out
  • 1 lb (2 cups, more or less) of (in this case) allspice/cinnamon-spiced lentil hashu (made w/cooked rice or bulgur, not uncooked) OR peppery lentil mititei-style sausage filling (substituting 1/3 c. cooked rice for the wheat gluten), or your choice of savory/spicy filling, preferably one that includes some garlic….
  • 1/2 c. sauce–in this case, 1/4 c. tamarind sauce plus a tablespoon of chipotle salsa and a few tablespoons of water. OR–just tamarind sauce, or just smoky salsa, or tamarind with a bit of tomato paste and a spoonful of sugar, or peanut dipping sauce, or dim sum dipping sauce, or Asian-type prune sauce, or prune and wine sauce with some tomato paste mixed in. Or mustard/garlic vinaigrette (as a dipping sauce, not necessarily to cook with)…YEESH! too many choices…

 

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

1. Separate the cabbage leaves, put in a microwave container, drizzle on a quarter-inch of water and put on a lid. Microwave 2-3 minutes until the leaves are just tender enough to roll without snapping the center.

rolling stuffed cabbage

Start the cabbage roll with the filling at the stem end

2. Drain the leaves and lay them out on a plate for stuffing and rolling. Put a tablespoon of fairly stiff filling an inch or so from the stem end of the leaf and pack it into a little sausage shape. Roll the stem end over the filling gently but as tightly as you can manage, then tuck the side frills of the leaf over the ends and continue rolling toward the top of the leaf. Place seam-side down in a microwave container or casserole. Roll up all the leaves and pack them into the container fairly tightly.

stuffed cabbage rolls with tamarind sauce

3. If the filling is completely cooked already (the rice in the lentil stuffing is not raw or par-cooked), just drizzle a bit of your sauce of choice over the stuffed cabbage rolls, maybe with a tiny drizzle of water in the bottom of the container. Put a lid on and microwave another 2-3 minutes or until just cooked through and steaming hot. If the flavor is still too raw or radishy for you, obviously you can cook it further, going a minute or so at a time, until it smells and tastes right to you.

Drain and serve with a little more sauce on the side.

FDA warning on powdered caffeine

The Washington Post carried a story yesterday on a new FDA warning about powdered caffeine’s potential for a lethal overdose. Caffeine is relatively unregulated as a dietary supplement and companies have been selling it mixed into “energy” drinks and “shots”, inhalers and other forms, including pure powder, through Amazon.com and other internet venues.

Most of the stupids (I mean, more politely, naive consumers) who buy caffeine-laced “energy” products are teenage boys and young men–no great surprise. Guys in that age range tend to have trouble getting up in the morning and being alert for class. The proliferation of the iPad, the smart phone, and game apps isn’t helping. A cheap, legal and potent stimulant seems like just the thing to counteract the effect of late nights and early exams. Combine that with a pitch about “energy” and fitness–mostly in the form of weightlifting and bodybuilding, a sector rife with dietary supplement abuse marketing, and wishful thinking about instant “buffness”, as my now-teenage daughter scoffs–and you’ve got a really bad deal.

But it doesn’t take much of the purified caffeine powder to overdose and the difference between stimulated and dead can be as little as a few milligrams–much too hard to measure accurately with a teaspoon or even most kitchen scales.

Caffeine is far from harmless even in limited doses (otherwise, why would we bother to drink coffee?) And it’s definitely a drug–I had to work with it in the lab way back in my radioactive youth. And it’s really inexpensive.

Why the “dietary supplement” label is still allowed to cloak quasi-drug and drug products from FDA control is a mystery to me. It’s a bad deal for everyone eventually, because as more of the supplement compounds are discovered to have harmful effects–think anabolic steroids or some of the “smart” drinks and relaxants added to “energy” drinks over the past decade–Congress ends up having to legislate against them one by one, and the FDA has to go through a torturous combination of warning letters and negotiations with the companies involved and attempt to draw up new regulations–a very expensive and drawn-out process. And it’s usually piecemeal and illogical–caffeine levels in soda are regulated, pure powdered caffeine is not.

In the meantime, hospitalizations from caffeinated energy drinks and other easily abused products have doubled since 2007, and there have been a number of deaths from caffeine overdose, including the Indiana teenager whose parents had no idea he was buying and consuming powdered caffeine when he died at the end of May, and whose case spurred the FDA’s attention this time. The state of Oregon is also currently going after 5-Hour Energy in a lawsuit over false advertising claims about ingredients that actually do nothing much, when the real stimulant effect is due to a dose of caffeine.

But even if you’re not a naive teenage boy, the whole caffeine-laden environment has expanded beyond anything that makes sense. More and more people are finding themselves overdosed (not lethally, usually) but with the shakes or dizziness. Between the Starbucks venti and proliferation of 20-ounce sodas as the new normal serving size, there’s a new source of trouble, because caffeine is showing up in foods we don’t expect to contain it.

Food companies are adding caffeine to candy and snacks these days as never before–even in oatmeal and pancake syrup. The FDA is taking the “negotiate with the companies and hope they back down” approach, as they did with Wrigley for its Alert caffeinated chewing gum a year ago. They don’t currently have the impetus to forbid adding caffeine to foods as they did with alcoholic caffeinated beverages a couple of years ago–the “blackout in a can” as Charles Schumer put it–but they’re at least making noises about getting it back out of foods that children and teenagers are likely to eat. I like the coffee cup graphic up on their Q&A page about it, but will it really change anyone’s mind or make them look harder at the ingredient lists if they’re already buying these products?

Why put caffeine powder in non-coffee foods in the first place? It doesn’t taste like much or stimulate the tastebuds, exactly. But the combination of mental stimulation via caffeine with eating a particular snack food is probably intended to make lackluster processed foods more attractive and even addictive in either the literal or marketing sense. Given the price of caffeine powder compared with almost anything else the companies could add, I’d be willing to lay odds on who’s going to be even more addicted to caffeine than the consumers. Cue the Pavlov effect.

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