Friday, September 23, 2011

Dietary Medicine And Other Nonsense

I strongly dislike vegans. True vegans. I dislike them because of the inherent morality to their lifestyle and the irrevocable flipside of that coin: doing otherwise is bad. This of course means that what I, you, truly everyone else is doing, is wrong. They try to couch their arguments in terms that are scientific, or dietary, or physiological, but the initial motivation is always morality. Obviously, not all vegans are true vegans, some of them simply follow a vegan diet for other reasons, of which there are a few.

The second reason for disliking the moral motivation is that it is absolute. Regardless of evidence to the contrary, a vegan diet is always "best." This means that most advocates of these diets will use terms like toxins and wellness in attempts at supporting their diet as something other than morally feeling right. These are non-technical terms and prevent advocates from being sued. If they said that these diets will improve blood chemistry or otherwise quantifiably increase health, they would be lying and could be sued. The diet does do things, but not the same thing for all people.

Underlying much of this health/wellness marketing angle is the idea that food can be medicine. You can see these perspectives in "detox" diets, cleanses, purges, and foods that "do" this or that. Foods increase your sex drive, let you run longer distances, increase your strength, clean up your skin, grow hair, foster world peace, and any number of other quack claims. Again, the flipside of this coin is that we need medicine to cure something, and that something is inevitably the result of whatever the vegan hates. What they hate is more often than not corporations and anything that they produce. This brings me to my first bulleted point:

1: Food does things.

Absolutely untrue and a bad way of looking at food. Food is not medicine, food is fuel. Your body is an amazing, wonderful, efficient machine. It has been honed by hundreds of millions of years of evolution and does what it does with any food that you give it. Medicine works through the usage of chemicals that were not widely available to the evolving physiology of our bodies and as such have the ability to hijack certain physiological mechanisms. Some drugs hijack the pain pathway, such as Advil, preventing the sensation of pain. Other drugs hijack pleasure pathways and can become addictive, like Heroin. If Advil had been a common occurrence in our ancient diet, pain, which is evolutionarily good, would have grown to be produced by a different internal pathway. The goal of pharmaceutical research is to find chemicals that dance around our bodies' natural mechanisms and produce effects which it has not evolved to handle.

One of the most infuriating examples of an absolute moron believing this was Bob Marley. He had cancer of the toe and was advised to amputate the toe. He refused, citing some wacky religious beliefs. Then, as he was dying he finally sought treatment, before abandoning it in favor of holistic treatments that involved, you guessed it, dietary changes. We continue to see this absurd belief in people like Jenny McCarthy, who claims that food fixed her son's autism. This shows a shocking ignorance of both how food works and what autism is. I'll give you two guesses as to whether McCarthy is a vegan, too, but you'll only need one.

There is nothing magical in vegetables or fruits. Our bodies evolved to eat these things. Our body expects protein, and it gets protein. It then does what it does with protein. No hijacking takes place. Our body does many great things when we eat steak, cake, and Reese's Pieces. Just the same as our body does great things when it eats tofu, whole foods, and multivitamins.

There are many foods that can cause bad things when eaten over time: increased weight, triglycerides, bad breath; but what fixes that is not the addition of "curative" food, but by simply stopping consumption of the problem foods. Eating a hamburger every now and then is perfectly healthy, but eating two per day for a decade can kill you.

But even then, that doesn't always hold true. All dietary things exist on bell curves because everyone has different physiology. Some people can, in fact, eat two burgers per day for a decade and be fine. They don't gain weight and their blood chemistry remains within acceptable boundaries. This is because some bodies can do different things with the same food. To liken it to the way that different engines perform differently with the same gasoline isn't totally inaccurate.

There are a few chemicals that are found in food that may have medicine-like effects. They might lower cholesterol or decrease irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in non-dietary ways, but these connections are always slight. Drinking red wine might help with blood chemistry, but Advil will practically always cure headaches.

The perspective that food can act as medicine is the most culturally problematic nugget of pseudo-knowledge generated by the vegan/vegetarian movement. They give people the impression that eating a "detox" diet for a period of time will help flush out the residue of their ordinary life. There are no toxins. There is no residue. There is nothing wrong with you that food will cure.

2: A Vegan/Vegetarian Diet Is The Healthiest Diet.

Unfortunately for those who follow specific diets, all diets, if otherwise balanced and with good exercise levels, are more or less equal. The only diet that showed scientifically significant differences was a diet where a large chunk of animal protein came in the form of red meat. Namely, following said diet increased the likelihood of heart disease.

There is small evidence to support that the healthiest diet is one of an ovo-vegetarian, or someone who's animal protein comes in the form of eggs and no other meat. But this is thin evidence. The dietary benefits of fish are enormous, chicken is a lean, mean, protein-packing machine, and even the much-maligned red meat, when eaten in moderation, will cause little-to-no increase in health concerns. Again, the body is a wonderful thing and it will do wonderful things: building muscle, removing toxins, pooping; all of which will happen regardless of your diet.

Again, vegan/vegetarian supporters will jump on this and declare that meat is optional. That is true. But there are lots of things in our diets that are optional. The only reason for picking out meat is for, you guessed it, moral reasons.

That's not to say there are not specific physiological benefits to vegan diets. Truly, there are many people who find that for sporting events, vegan and vegetarian diets help them a great deal. Many distance and endurance runners are vegans and vegetarians. But as with everything I've mentioned, not all of them are. Many of them find an endless stream of hamburgers to be the best fuel for them.

That is the reason why when talking about this proponents have to use nebulous, non-technical terms like "wellness" and "toxins." They can't legally make any claims that this food or lifestyle will result in X. Are there many people out there for whom a vegan or vegetarian diet would be the healthiest choice? Yes, certainly. But there are just as many people who would do best eating grilled chicken all day.

With all that said, veg/veg diets can do some wonderful things. As I mentioned, there are some good reasons for going vegetarian and vegan. If you are having a hard time losing weight, a vegan or vegetarian diet can help you lose it. The "if" in this situation is a big one, though. You will lose weight if you maintain that diet. This is, again, true for all diets. There are many diets that will help you lose weight, but only if you maintain them for the rest of your life. Veganism and vegetarianism are no different.

In essence, that is the reason why I hate the staunchly pro-veg/veg movement: they claim amazing properties to the diet. This has effects on people who have no interest in the actual diet, but take bits and pieces of the claims and can thus be taken in by snake-oil cleanses and detox diets. The supposedly rational consumer is shockingly stupid sometimes. For example, the exploding market for gluten-free foods. Why? Because people think these foods are healthier than ordinary foods. Why? Because special gluten free foods are, in the grocery store, usually placed next to health bars and whatnot. This one isn't even up for debate. Gluten free is not in the slightest bit healthier than other types of foods, but people are vacuuming it up.

What's important is having a good, well-rounded diet that tastes good. If that happens to be vegetarianism, more power to you! But it can just as easily be a diet that involves all forms of meat. To espouse a veg/veg diet for purely moral reasons is ridiculous. For one thing, most people won't listen, and for another, advocating an ethical theory that includes all living things is impossible to support philosophically. Leave the morals at home and eat what you want.


There are some tenable reasons for being a vegetarian based on environmental concerns. I find these arguments valid, if not entirely persuasive. I guess the ultimate point is that, if you decide to go veg/veg for environmental reasons, there is little with which I can argue.

Also, I did not discuss the Atkins diet, which while not endorsing anything moral, is just as silly as a vegan or vegetarian diet. What it does do wonderfully, though, is illustrate how diets on either end of the spectrum can show positive results in studies. All food is optional, because our bodies are wonderful things.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

PRODUCT REVIEW: Starbucks Anniversary Roast 2011

Starbucks coffees are really hit or miss, what with their massive supply line, and I briefly pondered whether the drastic increases in coffee prices would affect their quality. First, I can safely say that Starbucks quality is generally in-tact. I was surprised by the number of broken beans in the bag, but that could be a result of rough handling by anyone in the supply chain. Prices are significantly higher, though. The half-pound bag was nine dollars, and that makes the proposition of buying coffee from a local roaster all the more attractive. But this is neither here nor there. Neither over hill, nor over dale.

The 2011 Anniversary Blend is the annual release of a blend onto which they slap a brand. I haven't tried earlier versions, but I suspect that the blends are whatever is available in large amounts, and since the anniversary comes out at the same time every year, the blends are undoubtedly similar.

I like the new blend. I'm a bit disappointed by the level of the roast, as I usually am with Starbucks. Instead of relying on my grind level, I'm going to start referencing how much the beans weigh per level tablespoon of unground beans. Most roasts are in the 6-8g range, while Anniversary 2011 is 4.5-5g. That is quite dark indeed.

Luckily, unlike the incredibly disappointing Tribute Blend, Anniversary retains some flavor. It's dark, roasty, very mellow, and goes wonderfully in an espresso double. It's still darker than I would have liked, and the age of the beans is very apparent when extracting a shot: the crema is thin, thin, thin. While these would have been deal-breakers in most circumstances, Anniversary is perfectly balanced and such a good "standard" coffee, that I can't help but give it a thumbs up.

I finally have a siphon pot and pour-over setup, so I can give you more rounded reports of the flavor. Unfortunately for these beans, both pour over and siphon amplify their shortcomings. Espresso does very, very well with rich, simple blends. Truly, in most espresso cases, the simpler the blend, the better. The slow extraction of pour over make the most of vibrant, complex, lightly-roasted coffees. The age of the beans is again apparent with a near-nonexistent bloom. Still, as with the espresso, it's very good "standard"-tasting coffee. Complex? No, but it's leagues better than Folgers.

So while I was disappointed by the roast level, and thus the pour-over extraction, the rich espresso and good basic flavor make up for it. My only serious reservation is the price, and it's the reason why I'm hesitant to recommend it. Nine dollars for half-a-pound is a LOT of money, especially when you can buy excellent coffee fresh from local roasters like Updike's Newtowne or Coffee Exchange for less money. Worse still, prices might get higher, rendering Starbucks a non-option (Starbucks Reserve coffees, at $30 per pound, are already the domain of lunatics).

Price aside, though, it's a good coffee. I just hope that bean prices don't get any higher, or only a maniac would buy Starbucks.

Starbucks Anniversary Blend 2011: RECOMMENDED

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Major Tip For Espresso Fans

I'm not sure how popular at-home espresso actually is. I would imagine not very, since the cheapest machines are $500-$1,000, but one couldn't tell that from the fanatical circles that arise on the internet. For example, if you know what Coffee Geek is, you probably have an at-home espresso machine.

There are a few how-to's available online, most of them bad. And you can certainly find many tips buried within the annals of message boards everywhere, but even there, the tips are dodgy. There is only one tip that isn't frequently discussed but should be known by everyone who wishes to make coffee under pressure, be it Aeropress or full-on espresso: use fresh beans.

You always hear how fresh beans are important and to never buy beans from a grocery store. These bits of advice are usually said in the same breath as some hateful comment aimed at Starbucks being only for those who don't understand true coffee. But, truthfully, fresh beans for ordinary drip coffee isn't nearly as important as simply grinding them just before use. I've used Eight'O'Clock coffee beans for pour-over and gotten a more-than-acceptable cup of coffee, simply because I ground first.

Espresso is entirely different. Crema is impossible with old beans. You will only receive thin, watery espresso with only the faintest hint of cream on top. Not the rich, creamy, sweet, oily goodness of fresh beans. The thickness and body of espresso is entirely dependent on the freshness.

Likewise, since you're producing your espresso under pressure, you need evenness throughout the puck. Whereas with drip coffee, unused grounds from yesterday will do completely fine today, in espresso, the different moisture levels in the two masses of ground coffee will reduce your crema levels and make accurate extraction impossible. You will never get good espresso with grounds of different ages. For old beans, this is doubly critical since the moisture level in the beans is already low.

So that is the end of my tip. Only use fresh beans, and only ever extract grinds that have been ground at the same time.