Someone recently told me he thought my column was going to be all about the foods I loved as a kid, featuring my Gramma’s favorite recipes. First, as I’ve mentioned, I was a hefty kid, so my favorite childhood foods would be malted milkshakes and, though delish, they’d never make the cut, since we’re trying to be healthy here. Secondly, this guy had clearly never been served steamed green beans topped with a dollop of mayonnaise (not aioli … just mayo) with a crumbled generic Oreo cookie over a bed of unsweetened, uncolored gelatin for dessert by my grandmother’s hand. Though a great lady, and an amazing Gran’ma as she labeled herself, most of her recipes wouldn’t … err … couldn’t be featured on this column … any column, if we’re being honest.
Other people’s grandma’s chicken soup recipes, on the other hand, are often said to be medicinal. It’s the stuff that cures stuffy noses, remediates colds and cuts sick time in half. Nature offers countless remedies. From melatonin to mud packs to turmeric, which natural remedies are God’s gifts and which could be labeled “hooey?”
As a follow-up to our cholesterol discussion last week, I received an insightful question about the role of natural sweeteners in raising our numbers. We know that simple carbs and refined sugars are bad influences and not the kind of kids our parents want us to hang out with. But what of honey and maple syrup? What about date syrup and molasses? Are they in the same group with the silky white stuff, or are they in a social group all their own?
Well, as it turns out, (and thanks for asking, Mike Granger) honey and maple syrup can actually aid our cholesterol numbers. Manuka honey (native to New Zealand,) is not only packed with antioxidants, but is said to have antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits. Because of its antibacterial components, it has often been used to heal wounds, naturally suppress coughs, soothe sore throats, prevent cavities (how counterintuitive is this!?), and can improve digestion. As a result of these healing properties, the FDA approved it as a wound dressing in 2007.
In addition to boosting HDL, honey has been shown to decrease LDL (remember, this one’s the bad boy) by six percent and lower triglycerides by 11 percent. A delicious combination, both honey and cinnamon have promising effects for blood cholesterol levels and cinnamon has been said to help lower blood sugar.
Sugar is extremely refined (and as we read on, we realize that this r-word, refined, should count toward the swear bucket my daughter set up for me as a new year’s resolution). Anything refined means something is taken out — usually the good stuff.
Black strap molasses (the nutritious byproduct of the third boiling of sugarcane or beets in sugar production) is a great source of nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin B6 in addition to its antioxidant content. It is said to regulate the bowel, help with anemia and support bone, skin and hair health. It’s anti-inflammatory (now it’s just showing off) and because of its high nutrient profile, is said to enhance cognitive function and mood. BSM, let’s call it, also aids cholesterol.
This is not new info. Nutrition guru Adelle Davis has touted blackstrap molasses and other tools such as nutritional yeast as biblical installments to our cabinets. I had two mothers: mother number-1, Adair, and mother number-2, Adelle and her books, which my mother number-1, Adair, knew by heart and recited to me as necessary. Though science has moved the needle on some health issues she’s addressed nutritionally, much of her information stands the test of time, including what she had to say about black strap molasses.
It is astounding that sugar (which is eagerly vilified by everyone including those who obsess over it,) can provide a byproduct like molasses which is so nutritious that it can be ingested with little thought as to its sugar content. It is also one of those products that we might not overeat given its slightly bitter taste, which is a benefit since it, too, should be ingested in moderation.
Agave nectar, which has been said to be a better option than sugar, has recently begun to get a bad rap and has been — are you sitting down? — said to be perhaps worse than sugar?! So, perhaps that’s the hooey side of natural sweeteners. My jury is still out on monk fruit.
The not-so-sweet side
Cilantro: Some have inherited a group of olfactory receptor genes that allow them to detect cilantro’s soapy tasting compounds. But the cilantro plant and its coriander seed (am I the only person who didn’t realize that cilantro and coriander are one and the same?) can help manage blood sugar. It does this so efficiently, in fact, that those who have naturally low blood sugar or who manage their glucose levels with blood sugar medications are warned to ingest it with caution. Cilantro’s microbial effects are effective at preventing foodborne illnesses from salmonella and other bacteria as well.
Almonds: Only ironically a main ingredient in this week’s featured recipe, almonds pack a punch in any way, shape or form in which them come (save for the chocolate coated ones). Almonds are great raw, soaked, roasted, ground, salted or slivered (though maybe raw, soaked win).
They, too, lower LDL and aid blood sugar to help control diabetes. Packed with nutrients and antioxidants like vitamin E, they help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and are an effective weight loss tool because they somehow curb hunger while strengthening bones. Perhaps it’s all those nutrients.
The smelly truth
If this ending leaves a bad taste in your mouth, my apologies, but onion and garlic have potent properties that enhance our health, which is all the more reason to eat up and sprinkle on! Raw onion in particular has been shown to enhance heart health not only on the cholesterol side, but both raw and cooked onions can lower blood pressure.
Though a fresh onion may bring tears to your eyes, within our bods, it can thin the blood and helps combat fibrinogen, the stuff that forms blood clots.
Among many similar health benefits, garlic is said to promote longevity and brain health, potentially helping to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Garlic can help stimulate our immune systems as well. Should you have an issue digesting raw garlic, try roasting it before you use it in your recipes (like the one that follows).
½ cup peeled, slivered almonds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch cilantro: 2 to 3 cups destemmed (little stems are okay)
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon Himalayan salt
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine all ingredients in food processor and enjoy!