…BUT NOW YOU’RE GOING TO BE THRILLED YOU GET TO EAT
CHOCOLATE: You’ve probably heard the snippets on the nightly news: “Chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease.” “Chocolate protects against cancer.” “Chocolate reduces the appearance of wrinkles.” Which would seemingly be our cue to start eating some. But there’s always something in the news anchor’s tone of voice (a tone usually reserved for human interest stories about somebody’s cat that may or may not be able to play Tetris), which implies that, as interesting as the story may be, we shouldn’t take it too seriously.
Because everyone knows that chocolate isn’t – couldn’t possibly be – healthy. Right?
Folks, chocolate is healthy. It reduces our risk of heart disease and cancer. It lowers blood pressure, and helps control blood sugar. It contains some of the same antioxidants as green tea. In one study, the equivalent of a bar of dark chocolate every day for 6 weeks reduced wrinkles in healthy women. Male Harvard graduates who consume chocolate live a year longer than those who don’t. I could go on.
Just bear in mind before you sit down to that towering slice of quadruple-layer chocolate cake smothered in frosting, you might be sitting down to a lot more than just chocolate. You could also be sitting down to white sugar and white flour and enough trans-fat to send a small elephant into cardiac arrest. So ideally, you’d look instead for something with a high content of cocoa solids and very little “filler.” In other words, dark chocolate – the darker the better. Most quality brands list a percent rating for cocoa solids. I like to shoot for 80% or better.
Better than even dark chocolate is the pure, raw cacao. The percent rating here is “100.” Actually, I like to think of it as “100-plus,” since cacao that isn’t heated holds on to around ten times the antioxidants of heat-processed chocolate.
To be honest, I didn’t like my first taste of powerfully bitter raw cacao. But that’s changed. What once tasted bitter now tastes like the pure, distilled essence of chocolate, full-bodied, complex, something to savor. The aftertaste lingers, delightfully. I sometimes add cacao nibs to ice cream. Or raw cacao powder to a breakfast smoothie with protein powder, banana, ripe pears, dates, almond butter, and a pinch of salt.
COCONUT: But isn’t coconut full of saturated fats? Why yes, it is. And aren’t saturated fats bad for us? Well, yes and no. It gets complicated. But even in a worst-case scenario, where saturated fats really are as bad as they’re made out to be, bear in mind that none – I repeat NONE – of the research implicating saturated fats in heart disease, etc., has looked specifically at coconuts.
This is important because coconuts contain special saturated fats called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are different from other saturated fats in the diet. They’re digested differently, they’re absorbed differently, they’re burned differently, and they’re stored differently.
Perhaps the biggest difference is in how the body burns MCTs. The body burns MCTs very efficiently compared to other fats. This efficiency means two things for us: energy, and weight loss. Most “normal” people won’t feel especially energized after a meal containing coconut oil, but it does make a difference for endurance athletes and others who burn through energy more quickly. Coconut oil is especially useful for people with fat malabsorption syndromes (gallbladder and liver problems, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.)
And yes, coconut oil supports weight loss too. The key here is the term diet-induced thermogenesis, which means “the burning of calories stimulated by eating.” In one study, a meal that got 40% of its calories from MCTs doubled the diet-induced thermogenesis of an identical meal that got 40% of its calories from regular vegetable oils. In another study, where the “meals” consisted entirely of fats, the MCTs increased diet-induced thermogenesis three-fold. And while the vegetable oil raised blood triglycerides by 68%, the MCTs had no effect. So much for “artery-clogging” saturated fat!
Of course, coconut oil has calories. And if you sit there eating it by the spoonful, you’re getting more than you’re burning. So for weight loss, the key is, not to add coconut oil to the diet, but to replace another oil with it.
Beyond their effects on metabolism, some coconut MCTs are at least mildly antiviral and antifungal. Two in particular, lauric and caprylic acid, are sold in pill form for these specific purposes. Caprylic acid combats candida and other yeasts. Lauric acid (or a related compound, monolaurin) fights viruses.
Did I mention that coconut oil tastes good, too? I find its subtly tropical flavor especially well-suited to crisp summer veggie stir-fries (think red and yellow bell peppers, snow peas, and scallops), Thai food, muffins, banana bread-type stuff, and popcorn. It’s not just the flavor; food scientists have long praised coconut oil for its unique and exquisite “mouth feel.”
And of course there’s coconut meat itself, rich in healthy coconut oils, as well as plenty of fiber. There’s coconut flour for gluten-free baking, and coconut juice (a.k.a. coconut water), which is very different from coconut milk. There’s coconut milk for making rich coconut curries, or even dairy-free coconut ice cream. It’s a snap if you’ve got an ice cream maker. Or you can buy something ready-made, like national brand Coconut Bliss, or Boston’s own Fomu.
Coconut juice is low-cal, loaded with more potassium than any drink I’ve ever seen. It’s one of my favorite hot-weather beverages, and the potassium replaces a lot of what we lose when we sweat.
BACON: Okay, just kidding. Bacon isn’t healthy. But isn’t it nice to dream?
But while we’re on the subject, I should mention we now carry salmon bacon. First store in the Northeast to do so… Made from just wild-caught salmon, coconut oil, and sea salt. It’s got two kinds of healthy fats – and plenty of healthy sizzle!
EGGS: My grandmother was born in 1917, and lived past the millennium. She saw food fads come and go. “And every ten years,” she said, “they change their minds about eggs again. First they’re healthy, then they’re not, then they’re healthy again.” So as the food faddists argued back and forth over the decades, my grandmother developed and then implemented her own simple and elegant solution to the Great Egg Controversy of the 20th Century: she would keep eating as many eggs as she damn well pleased.
Then there was the 88-year-old man who ate 25 eggs a day and had normal cholesterol, reported on in the New England Journal of Medicine. He made some headlines! Then there was the study published a few years back in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that one egg or more a day did not raise one’s risk of stroke or heart disease versus eating less than one a week.
Eggs contain cholesterol, it’s true. But they’re also our richest source of lecithin, a phospholipid emulsifier that keeps cholesterol from sticking to blood vessel walls. Lecithin also helps rid the body of excess fats, and is beneficial to the brain and liver. Egg yolks are also rich in the yellow pigment lutein, which has garnered attention for eye health. It turns out, lutein also protects cholesterol from oxidation. (A recent Tufts University study found that lutein from eggs absorbed twice as well as lutein from spinach, and three times better than lutein from pills).
Eggs are packed with fat-soluble vitamins D, E, and A; B-complex vitamins, and zinc. And as a protein source, they’re hard to beat. Truly free-range eggs are also very rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, the same good stuff that’s in fish oil. (Speaking of which, fish eggs are a superfood as well).
SALT: I remember reading an interview with some famous chef in the Boston Globe years ago, where he said that the secret to making a great steak was to sprinkle it with Celtic sea salt. He said the Celtic salt brought out flavor like nothing else.
White salt is like white flour and white sugar: a highly refined product with the healthy goodness removed. Grey salt, on the other hand, is more than just sodium chloride. It’s packed with trace elements from the sea. Not only does this add a roundness of flavor, but a nice bit of nutrition as well.
Now we can choose between Celtic grey salt, Indian black salt (“Kala Namak”), red salt from the beaches of Hawaii, pink salt mined from the mountains of the Himalayas, and many other gourmet options. Bear in mind, people on a restricted-sodium diet will want to go easy on the gourmet stuff, too. (While gourmet salts will probably raise blood pressure less than white salt, the claims being made by some manufacturers that they flat-out won’t are dangerous and irresponsible – and untrue).
So what’s next? Are we going to discover, for example, that partially hydrogenated soybean oil is heart-healthy? That yellow dye #5 is a cure for hemorrhoids? That Cap’n Crunch™ reduces arthritis pain?
Probably not. You see, there’s a fundamental difference between coconut oil and partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, between Cap’n Crunch, and a nice egg for breakfast. Coconut oil, eggs, chocolate, and salt are all traditional foods, treasured by our ancestors for millennia before the food scientists and the agricultural chemists and headline-hungry media started meddling and making their pronouncements. Once upon a time, our diets were informed by tradition, culture, and yes, wisdom. Our ancestors treasured these foods for a reason.
Now you turn on the nightly news, and it seems as though the food scientists and agricultural chemists and media are rediscovering all this. To which I say, great. Just let’s not call it a breakthrough.
Adam Stark (This column is an update of an oldie but goodie you may have missed the first time, a decade ago.)