Aug 18, 2017

Why I switched from iodised table salt

Disclaimer - I’m neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. Please read this article below with an open mind and do your research before making any change. 

If you are born in the 80s, you would have come across this ad in Doordarshan - a woman with shabby hair would crib about how messy it is to fill lumpy salt in the bottle and then a woman wearing a crisp, white saree and neatly combed hair would cut open a pack of iodised salt and pour it effortlessly into a bottle. The salt would come out in a smooth flow without spilling.

That’s how I remember iodised table salt entering our lives in the 80s. 

Fast forward to 2012. I was facing a few health issues - my blood pressure was going low, I was feeling giddy and nauseous especially in the evenings and I was drop dead tired all the time. Little did I know that all these issues was due to the wrong salt usage in my kitchen. My in-laws were staying with me around that time. Since both of them have diabetes and high BP, we had switched to “low-sodium” salt. Once I identified that this “salt” is the cause of my health issues, I stopped it immediately and my health situation improved a lot. My journey into researching more about salt began around that time. 

“Uppillaa pandam kuppaiyile” - a Tamil proverb which translates to “Food without salt ends up in dustbin”

Salt is such an important ingredient in our food. It not only enhances the taste but also promotes salivation and digestion. 

Most of us use packaged "iodised table salt" in our daily cooking. In 1960s, salt iodisation programme was introduced in India when iodine deficiency disorder (IDD) was identified as the reason behind endemic goiter and mental retardation among children. In order to meet the growing demand for iodised salt, the Govt started to allow participation of private sector in 1983.

Iodised table salt is prepared by injecting a solution of potassium iodate onto sodium chloride along with anti-caking chemicals like Tri-calcium phosphate or Calcium Carbonate.

In the last 20 years, people suffering from thyroid related disorders such as hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, goiter etc have increased. It is estimated that about 42 million people in India suffer from thyroid diseases.

I’m sure there are many factors that can be attributed to this issue. But there seems to be a correlation (not concluding on causation yet) between the widespread use of iodised table salt and increase in thyroid related issues.

Iodine both in excess or less quantity can adversely affect the functioning of thyroid glands and production of thyroid hormones. 

A Consumer Guidance note on iodised salt issued by FSSAI states that we require 150 micrograms of iodine per day, which we do not get in sufficient quantity from our diets and so iodised salt can help meet our 100% requirement.

A gram of iodized salt contains 40 micrograms of iodine. 1 tsp of table salt equals 5.69 gms. So it means 1 tsp of iodised table salt contains 228 micrograms of iodine, which is 1.5X more than our daily requirement. If we also include our salt consumption through packaged junk foods (ketchup, chips, frozen snacks etc), then our iodine intake would be alarmingly high.

Apart from iodised table salt, I wanted to understand the other food sources that are rich in iodine. I turned to my favourite source - Indian Foods Composition Table 2017

But I was disappointed to see that iodine quantity of foods wasn’t listed in this document. There was just this single line on iodine.

Even though, the iodine content of 100 varieties of Indian foods was reported by Patnaik (1934) from NRL, Coonoor, they were not included in this edition of composition tables as the topic was so convoluted that it was considered outside the scope of the bulletin.

I’ve been searching for this paper by Patnaik for the past one week but couldn’t get hold of it yet.

From various other sources, I learned that Iodine is also found in seafoods, sea vegetables, dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese), bananas, strawberries, green leafy vegetables, onions, sweet potatoes, peanuts etc.

My conclusion is that if you are eating a balanced diet, there is no need for iodized salt. 

For the past 3 years, I’ve been using these two types of salt in my cooking:
- Himalayan rock salt powder (pink) - Rs.60-70 per kg
- Unprocessed Sea salt - Rs.30-40 per kg

I procure them from organic stores or native medicine stores (naattu marundhu kadai). I use the rock salt powder for dry sabzis, salads and soups. I use the sea salt for gravies like sambhar, rasam, dal etc. Sea salt (kal uppu in Tamil) increases the taste of any dish and the quantity required is very less too. Himalayan rock salt contains various minerals such as iodine, chromium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. 

Salt by its very nature will form lumps when exposed to air. Adding artificial anti-caking agents do more harm than good. I’d rather prefer my salt to be healthy than “free flowing”.

Whatever be the brand/type of salt you use, ensure the quantity you use is minimal (<1 tsp per day). AVOID all packaged, junk foods that are high on salt. 

P.S. If you have thyroid related issues, do check with your doctor before switching your salt.

Sources:
https://www.bimbima.com/health/know-about-iron-fortified-salt-by-tata/2749/ 

Aug 9, 2017

Why we should stay away from olive oil?


A few days back, I felt quite irritated to see a popular food blogger promoting an olive oil brand for daily Indian style of cooking with the hashtag #rozkakhana. She has more than a million followers on FB.

As I visited a supermarket nearby, I noticed the most accessible shelf in the “Oils” section was lined up with different olive oil brands. The oils that we Indians typically use in our day-to-day cooking were lying in the bottom most shelf. 

I checked out BigBasket’s edible oils section and I wasn’t surprised to see the number of brands in each category.


As you can see, there are 54 different olive oil brands available, whereas there are only 5 brands of groundnut oil, 7 brands of gingelly oil and 8 brands of mustard oil. 

Why is this craze towards olive oil? Are doctors and dieticians recommending it? Are we blinded by the media and food influencers? 

This widespread availability of olive oils is only possible when atleast one of the two criteria are met:
1. Urban Indians have completely switched to Mediterranean diet.
2. They are using olive oil for typical Indian cooking.

If you belong to the latter category, then please enlighten me the need/reasons that motivated you to make the switch.

First, the food industry took all the steps required to spread the false news that coconut oil is bad for your heart, groundnut oil has cholesterol etc. And then, they come back with expensive, imported olive oils that has absolutely NO connection with Indian soil, weather or our genes.

I came across a BBC News Article from 2013, which stated that olive trees had been planted in Rajasthan, with farmers getting subsidy to grow olives instead of wheat and cotton. I’m not sure what happened after that and whether the olives had started to grow in India.

Though olive oil as a % of total edible oils consumption in India is quite low, it is growing at a rate of around 15-20% every year, triggered by the urban elite. 

1 kg of sesame oil costs around Rs.250
1 kg of mustard oil costs around Rs.150

What’s the price of olive oil? 1 kg is around Rs.900. 

Now why would people pay such an exorbitant price for an imported oil? Is there the popular bias “Higher price equals better quality” at play here? 

Olive oil is marketed as a convenient quick-fix to prevent heart diseases. Healthy living isn’t that simple. 

To keep our heart healthy, there are a bunch of things we need to do:
- regular exercise
- staying physically active throughout the day
- stopping junk food consumption totally
- good quality sleep for atleast 7 hours
- taking no stress whatsoever
- keeping our minds healthy by adopting a positive mindset

I’m not falling for the olive oil trap. Here’s the list of oils I use for my cooking needs:
Groundnut oil and Sesame oil for regular cooking
Coconut oil for tadka and Kerala style dishes
Ricebran oil for occasional home baking and deep frying
Olive oil ONLY for making pasta or exotic salads (A small bottle of 250 ml will last for 6 months at home)

I have tried mustard oil but it felt too pungent for me and didn’t suit our South Indian style cooking. And recently, I have started to use cold-pressed sesame, groundnut and coconut oils. Whatever be the oil, I try to use the minimum quantity. 

The only take-away from this article - use the oil native to your region and style of cooking, which means
Mustard oil - for UP, West Bengal
Groundnut oil - for Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra
Coconut oil - for Kerala, coastal Karnataka
Sesame oil - for Tamilnadu
This push towards a food monoculture has to stop and we should celebrate the diversity of our food and cuisines.

Sources:

Aug 8, 2017

An important health lesson to learn from animals


 A couple of weeks back, my pet cat sprained her ankle and was limping badly. It was hard to see her suffer and we wanted to take her to the vet. But we also felt that she would be more traumatised by the trip to the doctor. So we decided to wait it out for a day and then decide if we should take her to the vet or not.

The first day, she curled up under the bed for the most part. She neither ate a single bite of her cat food nor sipped her milk. There were absolutely no meows either. I was worried and I tried talking to her but she didn’t respond though she was looking at me intently. Then around 3PM, she slowly limped and came to the balcony where the sun was shining brightly. She somehow managed to jump onto the swing and relaxed under the sunshine. By evening, she was able to move around a little more easily, ate a little bit and slept. 

The next day, she was almost back to normal, though her movement was restricted. She spent the whole afternoon in the balcony, soaking in the sunlight with little food to keep her going. In the night, she was back to her cheerful self, greeting my husband returning from work with her meows. She went out for her usual prowl and guess what, she hunted a rat and brought back.

She healed herself in less than 2 days.

How did she manage to do that? 
Ample rest, no communication, little to no food, relaxing under the sunshine.

Our human bodies too have this amazing ability to heal themselves of any dis-ease, provided we don’t intervene with our quick fixes.

Over the last 3 years, I have stopped taking pain-killers or medications for common ailments like cold, cough, sore throat, mild fever, indigestion, headache etc. 

I remember many years back that I used to pop a pain-killer as soon as I felt the onset of a migraine. It gave me relief for that instant but I used to end up with acidity and burning sensation in the stomach. Pregnancy and lactation made me become aware and conscious of such over-the-counter (OTC) pain-killer medications. Later, as I read up more about the side-effects of such medications, I realised what a grave mistake I had been doing to my body.

Most of us have a dedicated “medicine cabinet” in our homes with strips of Crocin, Saridon, Cold Act, a big bottle of Digene, packs of Enos fruit salt etc. I have come across people who would gulp a spoonful of Digene after every meal for “just-in-case” digestion issues or pop a Cold Act tablet the moment they sneeze a couple of times. Not exaggerating, that's the reality unfortunately.

Pain-killers and paracetamol tablets address only the symptoms but the real cause of the pain persists and it keeps coming back. If you are getting frequent headaches, instead of popping a pill every time, think of the reasons behind it:
- Are you drinking enough water?
- Are you drinking too many cups of tea or coffee?
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Are there any specific foods that are triggering acidity and/or bloating?

These days, when I end up with any of the common ailments, 
1. I try to give myself rest. I sleep for more time than usual. 
2. I don’t over-stretch or take up strenuous tasks. 
3. I eat basic, easy-to-digest foods like rasam rice, idli, kichdi etc in small portion sizes. 
4. I support my body’s ability to heal with simple home remedies.
- Headache - warm water with few drops of lemon juice and black salt (brings down acidity)
- Sore throat - adathoda tea / warm water / honey
- Running nose - dry ginger coffee / turmeric milk
- Indigestion - tea made with ajwain, fennel seeds and cumin

Amazingly, my body heals faster with these steps and WITHOUT any side effects. 

Gut health is a popular topic these days. One of the reasons why our gut bacteria gets affected is due to the consumption of OTC medications. Next time, when you face a headache, mild body ache, sore throat etc, try to avoid the pain-killer and give yourself rest. Take a day off from work. Yes, the world can run without you for a day. “Sick leaves” are meant to be taken when you are sick. There’s no need to feel guilty about it. If you feel your boss will deny your leave request, then maybe it is time for you to look for another job.

Aug 7, 2017

Book Review: The demon hunter of Chottanikkara by S.V.Sujatha


 When this title came up for review, what caught my attention was the place mentioned in the title. I remember many years back, my father had taken us to the Bhagavathi Amman temple in Chottanikkara, Kerala. I couldn’t recollect much of the temple visit now but it had a spooky feel to it. We were told - “Inga pei verattuvaanga” (they chase away the demons here).

Years later, a book with the similar sounding title based out of Chottanikkara along with a scary cover image popped up in my inbox. Curiosity pushed me to opt for the book review.

When I started reading the book, I just couldn’t go past the first 30-40 pages. It was gory, violent and I struggled to make any progress for nearly 4 days. Then on a late Sunday evening, I broke the barrier and finished reading the rest of the book in one go. 

The story revolves around Devi, a young female protagonist who is brave and skilled enough to slay the demons that attack the village of Chottanikkara. If you read “Kanda Sashti Kavasam”, you would have come across the different names of demons. All of them find a mention in this story. She knows the weaknesses of the various demons and ways to destroy them. A new demon enters the village, attacking common people in a gory manner. Devi doesn’t have any clue about this new demon. With the help of her teacher Parasurama, she learns about this demon, traces its past and finds a way to destroy her. Along the way, she also needs to take tough decisions based on righteousness. Whether she wins over the new demon or not forms the rest of this engaging story. 

I was so engrossed in the plot that I was reading it almost close to midnight while the rest of my family was sleeping. It reminded me of the times when my brother and I used to watch horror movies together late in the night.

If you are intrigued by super-natural phenomenon, rebirth and slaying of demons, then check out this book. But I must warn you, there are a few gory details and violent attacks. 

My favourite lines in the book
When Devi talks to Parasurama about how she can do nothing to stop the demon, he says,
“A warrior is only as strong as his mind"
“You do not know your enemy’s strengths or weaknesses. Yet you have already decided she is unconquerable”. 

[Spoiler-alert]
Devi’s character was well-etched and her traits of bravery and strength were well portrayed. I especially liked the part where her teacher explains the background of Yakshi and her agenda. 

The suspense could have been carried through nicely, if the author hadn’t written about how Miricha and Ela didn’t seem to fear the new demon when Devi warned them. At that point, it was easy to guess that their mother was the demon. Chapter 12 ends with a perfect revelation “A crow”. If only the author hadn’t revealed about Miricha and Ela earlier, this would have been so exhilarating. I was also expecting that Rajan had something to do with the demon but somehow his character was just left hanging. Also it would have helped if the premature blossoming of Pala flowers had an explanation.

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback of the book.

Aug 3, 2017

10+ dry snack options for 5PM hunger pangs at work


 “Don’t eat this, don’t eat that” - I’m getting bored of writing such posts and I’m sure as a reader, you do too ;-)

A couple of days back, a friend messaged me to share a few suggestions for snack options to carry to work. That sounds like a good blogpost title and felt like the perfect way to break the monotony of my angst towards packaged foods :-)

5PM is a crucial time for fitness, health and overall well-being. That's exactly the time when we commit the most food mistakes.Though we might have had a healthy, wholesome breakfast and lunch, we inevitably gorge on something junk as part of our evening snacks, mainly because of the lack of options. This becomes even more a reality if you tend to work out of an office.

I asked myself - “If I were working out of an office location on a full time basis, what snacks would I carry to eat at 5PM?" 

Disclaimer - I’m neither a nutritionist nor a doctor. And the following recommendations are under the assumption that you don’t have any health ailments or allergies. And yeah, you are looking for overall wellness and not weight loss.

Here’s a list of 10+ dry snack options that can be easily carried to work:

1) Fruits - bananas, guavas, pomegranate, Indian apples, Indian pear, Indian grapes (Stay away from all fruits that are imported and have high food miles)

2) Dry fruits and nuts - cashews, dates, raisins, figs, almonds, walnuts

3) Sundal varieties 
Sundal is a South Indian lentil-based snack. You can use either Kabuli channa, brown channa, black eyed peas, horsegram or Bengal gram dal. 
Soak a handful of any of these lentils overnight. Cook till they are al-dente
Heat a pan, add a few drops of oil, splutter 1/4 tsp mustard, pinch of asafoetida, red chilli. 
Add cooked lentil, salt. Mix well for 2 min. Add a tbsp of grated coconut. Saute in medium flame for 2 min.
When the coconut is sautéed, the Sundal stays good till evening. 

4) Dry bhel / Salad
You’d need 2 stainless steel or glass boxes with airtight lids. Let’s avoid plastic as much as possible. And yes that means Tupperware too.

In one of the boxes, take a salad of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, capsicum, boiled corn and/or boiled sweet potato.
In the second box, you could take either
- boiled peanuts
- boiled kabuli channa / brown channa / black eyed peas
- roasted peanuts
- puffed rice (pori)
- roasted black channa - same one used to make sattu drink (“uppu kadalai” in Tamil)

Make a quick dry-bhel, mixing the two boxes together. Add required salt and pepper.

Adding salt to the veggies tend to release water and so by evening, the salad tends to become soggy. So I’d recommend you sprinkle salt just before eating.

5) Theplas
One of the perfect snacks to carry in a box. Can be made with methi greens, bottle gourd, carrot, radish or a mix of vegetables. Filling, wholesome and non-messy. 

6) Energy bliss balls a.k.a laddoos 
Make laddoos over the weekend with either
- ragi flour
- bajra flour
- urad dal
- moong dal
- poha
- health mix (satthumaavu)
- roasted gram dal (pottukadalai)

Use jaggery instead of sugar. If you make with ghee, the laddoos stay good for 4-5 days.

7) Sweet poha
Get the two boxes again.
In one of the box, add organic poha, preferably the red variety
In another box, carry powdered jaggery and pinch of cardamom powder

Around 5 PM, add water to the organic poha and let it soak for 10 minutes. Once water is absorbed and poha has softened, add the jaggery+cardamom powder. Mix well and eat it. Filling and yum.

8) Idli cubes smeared with molagapodi
I can eat idli for any meal of the day. Do try this option if you are a idli lover.
Cut idli into bite-sized cubes. Toss it in chutney powder + sesame oil mixture. Pack it in a steel box.
Try a variety of idlis using rice and/or millets.

9) Chikkis
It is the only “packaged ready-to-eat food” I buy regularly from the market, because I’m too scared to make it at home (getting the right consistency of the jaggery syrup is the key here). 
Peanut chikkis (ID brand has recently launched chikkis too), sesame chikkis, rajgira/amaranth chikkis, flaxseed chikkis - so many options available to choose from.

10) Homemade Indian savoury snacks
I’m referring to snacks like murukku/chaklis, ribbon pakoda, thattai/nippattu, chivda etc. Yes, I’m serious that these are healthy choices. Most of these snacks are made with either rice flour, gram flour and/or roasted gram flour. They can be made more nutritious by using millet flours like ragi flour, bajra flour etc. If we ensure they are fried in fresh oil (not reheated), they make a perfect snack. Since they are deep fried, you wouldn’t be able to eat more than a couple of pieces (or a handful of chivda). These are much better options when compared to a pack of say, Lays chips or the much expensive Pringles. My first choice would be homemade. If that’s not feasible, I’d buy such Indian snacks from a small-scale condiments store. 

Things to stock up in your office drawer / locker:
- Apple slicer
- small-sized salt and pepper shakers - which can be refilled once a week
- Nuts and dry fruits
- Chikkis

I wouldn’t recommend any “energy bars” from the market as they are loaded with sugar and/or preservatives. And I wouldn’t recommend “bread” based snacks like sandwiches too, because of the fact that most store bought ones use maida (including whole wheat bread) and raising agents.

If you have any other suggestions for snacks that are easy to carry and healthy, please share in the comments below.

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