Other Real Foods - Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck

Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)

Chapter 8. Other Real Foods


For as long as I can remember, my mother has eaten her breakfast in the late morning. When she came in hungry from watering the greenhouse, the squash pick, or any number of early morning jobs, breakfast was two eggs in butter, yolks runny, with toast. I like eggs, too. Foolish me, I was nearly thirty years old before I resumed the habit of eating eggs for breakfast.

The complex and delicate egg is indispensable. Fried, scrambled, poached, or baked in a frittata, eggs make a meal on their own, and many wonderful dishes like mayonnaise and custard are impossible without them. But when the experts began to warn about cholesterol, the egg—specifically, the yolk—became a guilty pleasure; hence the culinary and nutritional abomination known as the egg white omelet. Eggs are rich in cholesterol, by the way, for the same reason breast milk is: cholesterol, among many other uses, is an essential part of cell membranes in mammals and thus vital to humans. That fact, however, was not enough to save the egg. In Last Chance to Eat, Gina Mallet writes of “the Egg Trauma.”

In the early 1970s, out of the blue, the American Heart Association declared the egg a threat to the heart. The egg contained 278 milligrams of cholesterol, and food scientists had just decreed that no one should consume more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. The trauma that resulted lasted more than twenty years, almost crashed the egg industry, and turned what was then the largest egg-eating country in the world against eggs. The attack would prove to be a classic case of food science gone awry … I thought of course that the scientists, being scientists, had arrived at a safe level of dietary cholesterol through proof. How wrong I was.

Curious about the fate of the egg, Mallet interviewed Donald J. McNamara, a biochemist and the executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center, the egg industry lobby in Washington, D.C. She asked how scientists had arrived at the “safe” level of dietary cholesterol. “Dr. McNamara laughed,” Mallet writes. “That was disconcerting.” In 1968 food scientists met to sort out a safe amount of cholesterol to consume. Some were opposed to the very idea, while others firmly believed dietary cholesterol had a significant effect on blood cholesterol, and after much haggling they reached a compromise. The average intake of cholesterol was about 580 milligrams per liter of blood. Halving that, they settled on 300 milligrams—a political solution. “There’s not one bit of scientific evaluation in that number,” McNamara said.

It’s now understood that the cholesterol in fresh foods has little effect on blood cholesterol. In 2015 the advisory committee, whose advice largely determines the USDA Dietary Guidelines, quietly dropped its long-standing position that Americans avoid cholesterol in foods. “For many years, the cholesterol recommendation has been carried forward, but the data just doesn’t support it,” said Alice Lichtenstein, vice-chair of the panel and a professor of nutrition at Tufts University. Moreover, it appears that eggs are good for the heart. A study of 118,000 people published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999 reported: “We found no evidence of an overall significant association between egg consumption” and heart disease. In fact, people who ate five or six eggs a week had a lower risk of heart disease than those who ate less than one egg per week.1 The researchers, led by Walter Willet at the Harvard School of Public Health, cited reasons fresh eggs might prevent heart disease: antioxidant carotenoids, vitamins, omega-3 fats, and good effects on blood sugar and insulin.

Still the egg debate continues. In 2015, researchers published a study of 37,000 Swedish men and 32,000 Swedish women in the American Society of Nutrition journal. After following the subjects for thirteen years, the team found “no statistically significant association between egg consumption and risk of MI [myocardial infarction] or stroke” in men or women and no increase in heart failure in women. They did note, however, a 30 percent increase in heart failure in men who ate more than one egg daily. In 2008, researchers writing in the heart journal Circulation found a similar pattern; this U.S. study of 21,000 male physicians found that “infrequent” egg eaters did not face increased risk of heart failure, but those eating more than one egg daily did. Based on these findings about men and eggs the American Heart Association, once dead-set against eggs, and other conventional nutrition experts seem to have settled on the advice that it’s safe to eat one egg per day. It’s not quite the exoneration I had in mind.

Meanwhile, how did the egg get framed? Kudos to Gina Mallet for unearthing the origins of the arbitrary limit of 300 milligrams of cholesterol, which sparked three decades of unjustified fear. Our understanding of cholesterol is also more sophisticated now. We know that cholesterol metabolism—what the body does with LDL and HDL—is more important than the cholesterol in foods.

I was still curious about earlier studies apparently linking eggs and heart disease. Dr. Kilmer McCully, an expert on cholesterol metabolism, told me that real eggs weren’t to blame. The studies used dehydrated eggs, which are liquidized, pasteurized, and spray-dried, in the same way powdered milk is made. Powdered eggs are mostly used in processed foods like cake mixes, but unfortunately the label won’t say powdered eggs.

The cholesterol in powdered eggs (and powdered milk) is oxidized, which causes atherosclerosis. McCully says scientists have known since the 1950s that eating oxidized cholesterol causes atherosclerosis, but natural cholesterol does not.

The home cook who favors industrial convenience foods can buy powdered eggs, which last five or ten years. Here’s the pitch from one company: “Our egg mix is mostly whole egg powder with a bit of powdered milk and vegetable oil … The egg mix has been formulated to make scrambled eggs, omelets or French toast. We think you’ll find our egg mix a labor-saving food.” No doubt, for some people, cracking open an egg is one chore too many, but I’m not sure you end up with more free time cooking with powdered eggs—just more omega-6 fats you don’t need and lots of oxidized cholesterol.

Fresh eggs, by contrast, are a nutritional bonanza. Above all, eggs are a fine source of inexpensive protein. In fact, because the ratio of amino acids in eggs is so close to the ideal for human nutrition, eggs are the model for rating the quality of protein in all foods. Compared to meat and fish, eggs keep well. A fresh egg (ideally unwashed, with its protective film intact) will keep for two months in the fridge without much change in nutrition. An older egg will, however, be much easier to peel. This comes in handy if you like your deviled eggs to look perfect—or if you think the farmer is putting you on about when they were laid.

A key ingredient in the egg yolk is lecithin, most famous as the emulsifier that makes mayonnaise creamy. Found in every human cell, lecithin helps the body digest fat and cholesterol. Lecithin is the source of choline, a B vitamin-like agent vital to the fetal brain. Eggs contain many antioxidants, including glutathione, which helps other antioxidants fight cancer and prevents oxidation of LDL. Yolks are rich in the antioxidant carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin, which are good for the eyes (they prevent macular degeneration) and show promise in fighting colon cancer, and the lutein in eggs is more easily absorbed than the lutein found in spinach.2

Along with liver, egg yolks have the highest concentrations of biotin—a B vitamin essential for healthy hair, skin, and nerves—of any food. Biotin is vital for digestion of fat and protein. Vitamin-like betaine is also abundant in eggs and liver. Betaine reduces homocysteine, an amino acid that causes atherosclerosis. All this makes chopped liver—the traditional Jewish paste of liver (chicken or beef), eggs, and chicken fat—very nutritious. It’s a pity that many modern recipes for chopped liver call for corn oil instead of old-fashioned chicken fat.

Eggs from pastured birds are superior to those from hens raised indoors, whose yolks are literally pale imitations of those from hens on grass. Pastured yolks are a rich yellow from the beta-carotene in plants. They also contain more monounsaturated fat, vitamins A and E, folic acid, lutein, and beta-carotene than indoor eggs. Pastured eggs are dramatically richer in omega-3 fats, which prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in pastured eggs is ideal (about 1:1), while an indoor egg has almost twenty times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats. The omega-3 fats come from grass as well as insects, grubs, and worms. Another source is purslane, a lemony weed loved by poultry and foraging cooks alike. Along with walnuts and flaxseed, succulent purslane is a rare plant source of the omega-3 fat ALA. Some egg farmers feed flaxseed to indoor chickens to increase omega-3 fats.

Some eggs are advertised as “vegetarian.” That may sound good, but it’s actually not ideal. Chickens are not natural vegetarians. Omnivores like us, they need complete protein and thrive on a diet of grain plus plenty of insects, worms, grubs, and other foods like sour milk. “Vegetarian” means the chickens were not fed cheap protein in the form of ground-up pigs, cattle, and poultry; that’s good. But it also means something else. You may be certain that a vegetarian chicken has never been outdoors. If it had, it might have eaten a bug or two. If you can’t find pastured eggs, barn-raised birds (not in cages) fed omega-3 are second-best.



SOURCE: Artemis Simopoulos, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Health and Disease and in Growth and Development,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 54 (1991): p.445.

The lesson of the egg trauma is simple. Don’t eat factory eggs, powdered eggs, liquid eggs, pasteurized eggs, egg substitutes, or any other kind of industrial egg product somebody invented in the laboratory. Do eat the real thing: fresh, whole eggs from happy hens eating bugs and grubs outside on fresh green grass.


People are bewildered by fats, but that’s nothing compared with the welter of myths, half-truths, fears, and health claims around carbohydrates. Let me try to cut through the confusion. There are three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Fat and protein, as we’ve seen, are essential for life. But no carbohydrate is essential. The body uses carbohydrates for energy, not structure or function, and it is theoretically possible to get all the energy you need from fat and protein. If calories aren’t required, a highly sensitive hormone called insulin ensures that surplus carbohydrate is stored (with impressive efficiency) as fat—a little security against starvation in lean times. Because they don’t cause insulin to rise quickly, fat and protein are less likely to be stored. This is the gist of low-carbohydrate diets.

None of this means that carbohydrates per se are bad for you. Let’s talk about weight first. I’m afraid my advice is not original: eat as much carbohydrate as your body needs. How much that is depends on many things, including exercise and individual metabolism. My mother used to say, “If you’re out in the cold or you work hard at physical labor all day, you can eat a lot of bread and rice.” Some people gain weight easily on carbohydrates, while others can put away stacks of pancakes. As if we could not see this with our own eyes, clinical studies are now proving that people respond very differently to low-carb diets. A serving of pasta, rice, polenta, or oatmeal about the size of your fist is probably right for most people. It’s crazy to count grams of carbohydrates in milk, carrots, or grapes. Even steak contains some carbohydrates. If you own a book listing those figures, throw it away. That’s a recipe for neurosis.

There are indeed “good” and “bad” carbohydrates. “Complex” carbohydrates in whole foods are good, and “simple” carbohydrates like sugar are not. Eating sugar depletes B vitamins, which leads to premenstrual symptoms and depression, and promotes Candida albicans, a systemic yeast infection. Sugar also causes bone loss and, of course, tooth decay—but not for the reason you might think. Sugar upsets the balance of calcium and phosphorus, which causes teeth to rot from the inside out. Remember what the dentist Weston Price found when he studied people eating traditional and industrial foods? Poor nutrition—not lack of toothpaste—led to bone deformities and rotten teeth. Last but not least, by raising blood sugar, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol, sugar leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Of all the industrial foods, sugar is the most villainous.

Complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat and brown rice naturally contain B vitamins, vitamin E, and fiber. But even these complex carbohydrates are often refined. White or “polished” rice and white flour have been stripped of vitamins and fiber. After they remove the best parts (the bran and germ), only the starch, or carbohydrate, remains. The food industry prefers white flour because whole grain flour doesn’t keep well; once grain is milled, wheat germ oil becomes rancid. White flour is fortified with synthetic B vitamins, but the vitamins in whole foods are probably superior. The bran and vitamin E taken from whole grains are so valuable they are fed to nutritionally deficient animals on factory farms. Animals on grass get all the fiber and vitamin E they need.


A grain—the starchy seed head of a grass—has three parts. Whole grain means the food contains all three. White flour contains only the endosperm, or starch. Grainlike foods, such as buckwheat, are often grouped with grains. They, too, are best whole.

Bran. The hard protective coat; contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Endosperm. A complex carbohydrate wrapped in protein; the source of energy for a new plant.

Germ. A tiny seed, capable of sprouting into a new plant; contains fat, protein, and vitamins.

The digestion of carbohydrate requires B vitamins. That’s why the two nutrients are often found together in nature: whole wheat, brown rice, and beets (a major source of sugar) all contain B vitamins. When you eat white flour, white rice, or sugar, the body uses up B vitamins merely in the process of digestion. Thus, over time, refined carbohydrates deplete the body of B vitamins.

We have seen how carbohydrates cause blood sugar and insulin to spike more than fat and protein. Complex carbohydrates cause blood sugar to rise less quickly than simple ones because they must first be broken down into simple carbohydrates called monosaccharides. The simple carbohydrates (mono- and disaccharides such as sugar and juice) are small and able to enter the bloodstream rapidly. The larger complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides such as whole wheat) must be dismantled first. That takes time, so blood sugar rises slowly.

The fiber in complex carbohydrates further delays the spike in blood sugar. Fiber explains why an apple, even though it contains a lot of the simple carbohydrate fructose, is healthier than a soft drink sweetened with fructose—or even pure apple juice. In the apple, fructose comes with plenty of fiber.

Uneven blood sugar makes you fat. But even in slim people, steady blood sugar is desirable. Peaks and valleys in blood sugar also lead to diabetes and make you moody and light-headed. With carbohydrates, this is my rule of thumb: avoid the ones that go straight to your head.

The fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and antioxidants in whole wheat, brown rice, and other whole grains prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. The government recommends three servings of whole grains daily, but the average American eats only one. The recent emphasis on the benefits of whole grains has led to an explosion of commercial whole grain breads, pasta, and baking mixes; quality is improving, too. For busy people and nonbakers, this is good news. The Oldways Preservation Trust, a food think tank, has devised the Whole Grains Stamp to alert buyers to foods containing whole grains.

Whole grain flour is nutritionally superior, but in certain baked goods, white flour gives a better texture. With pie crust, for example, you can just about get away with using one third whole wheat flour; add any more and the crust crumbles at the touch. You will have to make up your own mind about baked goods. For me, the occasional white flour crust (with lard or butter, of course) strikes an acceptable compromise between health and pleasure.


All carbohydrates consist of monosaccharides and end up as monosaccharides after digestion. Complex carbohydrates may contain hundreds of monosaccharides, so blood sugar rises more slowly than when we eat simple carbohydrates. Fat and protein are even better for steady blood sugar.




One saccharide

Two saccharides

Many saccharides




Very small



Enter blood instantly

Enter blood

Enter blood slowly


almost instantly

Cellulose and

Sugar and fruit

Sucrose and lactose


Sugar and milk

Kale, carrots, and brown rice

Grains are not a perfect match for the human gut. The complex carbohydrates in whole grains and legumes can be difficult to digest, causing bloating or cramps. Gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is another problem common with wheat. All grains and legumes contain phytic acid, called an antinutrient because it reduces absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals. Other antinutrients in grains and beans, called protease inhibitors, interfere with protein digestion by blocking the protease enzymes that break it down.

Yet these nutritional drawbacks have not stopped us from eating grains and beans. To aid digestion, reduce phytic acid, and increase nutrients, people all over the world sprout, soak, ferment, and cook corn, rice, wheat, and beans. All over the world, grains are a staple food for the poor. Dependence on grains would be catastrophic without these time-honored methods. In effect, foods are partially predigested by such kitchen tricks.

In the Americas, for example, conquistadores and colonists saw that the Aztecs soaked or ground corn with lime, but they didn’t know why. Later, corn traveled to Europe without the tip about using lime, and people suffered for it. “Peasants who lived on corn throughout the winter came down with ‘corn sickness,’” writes Betty Fussell in The Story of Corn. In 1771 an Italian named it pellagra (rough skin), but its cause remained mysterious. It was thought, perhaps, to be triggered by a kind of corn rot. Not until 1915, when the National Institutes of Health appointed Dr. Joseph Goldberger to investigate an epidemic of pellagra in the American South, did anyone suspect that pellagra was diet-related. Today we know that treating corn with lime (or some other alkali) liberates its vitamin B3, and that pellagra is caused by lack of vitamin B3, which is vital for metabolism.

Ancient cooks knew all this. An early recipe for cereals was pounded gruel. The Greeks ate a fermented, slightly alcoholic barley porridge, while Native Americans made a corn mush. After rudimentary porridge, the next development in grain cookery was unleavened bread. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel commands, “Take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt and put them in one vessel and make bread of them.” This passage also calls for sprouting the grains. Essene bread, a thin wafer of sprouted wheat flour, was probably the unleavened bread the Jews carried as they fled Egypt. Rich in vitamin C and protein, sprouts are remarkably nutritious, and some people who cannot digest wheat can eat sprouted grain breads.

Following traditional culinary and nutritional advice, I first soak the ground corn overnight with a pinch of baking soda when I’m making polenta, grits, or corn bread. According to Anson Mills, the miller of heritage varieties of American wheat, rice, and corn in Charleston, South Carolina, where I buy corn, lime also accentuates the floral flavors and aroma of grits. I soak rice for two hours or more and dried beans overnight. In effect, soaking is a mild form of fermentation.

Natural, spontaneous leavening was the basic method of Western bread baking until the twentieth century, when commercial yeast was introduced. In 1961, bread suddenly became industrial with the invention of a technique by the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association in Chorleywood, England. The “Chorleywood bread process,” as it is known, uses chemical improvers and low protein wheat, even though high protein wheat makes superior bread. Fermentation is dispensed with altogether. Unfortunately, “it’s the fermentation time that makes bread digestible,” says John Lister, a traditional miller at Shipton Mills, in the Cotswolds in England.3 Real bread also tastes better.

Perhaps you think soaking cornmeal in soda, or finding a bakery that makes proper bread, is quaint, peculiar, or just too much trouble. I hope not. It’s worth the effort, for health and flavor. But my commitment to old foodways, as historians like to call these culinary legacies, is nothing compared to advocates of the Stone Age diet, whose view of the ideal diet is far more radical. They believe that bread itself—not only industrial bread—is bad for you, and it’s worth hearing what they have to say.

In 1985, Dr. Boyd Eaton wrote a seminal article in the New England Journal of Medicine called “Paleolithic Nutrition.” Eaton noted that high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer were rare among modern carnivorous hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert, aborigines in Australia, and Ache in Paraguay. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University, was inspired by Eaton’s work and decided that we should eat like Stone Age people. What does that mean?

In The Paleo Diet, Cordain calls for liberal amounts of green vegetables, fruit, fish, game, and pastured meat, poultry, and eggs. On that much, we agree, but Cordain goes farther—right back to the Stone Age. His diet forbids all farmed foods, including grains, legumes, dairy, potatoes, and honey. Cordain is particularly critical of cereals, which he calls “nutritional lightweights” compared with meat, fish, and produce. Per calorie, meat and fish contain four times more vitamin B3 than whole grains. A one-thousand-calorie serving of vegetables contains more calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron than a similar serving of whole grain cereal. The vegetables also have five times more vitamin B6, six times more B2, and nineteen times more folic acid than whole grains.


As with apples, pork, and every other food, monoculture reigns in grains. Today the dominant crops are wheat, corn, and rice, but this is a historical blip. For millennia, people have eaten dozens of others.

Amaranth. An Aztec staple, amaranth has no gluten.

Barley. Grown by the Egyptians, barley has a lot of fiber and needs long cooking. Pearled barley is slightly refined and cooks more quickly.

Buckwheat. A cousin of rhubarb, not a grain, buckwheat contains the antioxidant rutin and is famous in American pancakes, Japanese soba noodles, and Russian kasha.

Kamut. An ancient wheat with large, yellow, sweet grains. More protein and fats than durum wheat.

Millet. A small, round grain with a delicate, nutty flavor, millet is a staple in India and delicious with butter.

Oats. Buy whole rolled or steel-cut oats and soak overnight in water with a spoonful of yogurt or whey.

Quinoa. Cultivated by the Incas, quinoa is a member of the beet family. Light and fluffy, it cooks quickly.

Rice. One of the most easily digested grains, rice may be brown, red, or black. Buy dry land rice, which contains less arsenic than flooded rice.

Rye. With more fiber than wheat, rye makes a dense bread and superior sourdough.

Spelt. An ancient wheat, with more protein, it is often tolerated by people who can’t eat wheat.

Teff. A kind of millet with a very tiny, somewhat sweet grain, it is a staple in Eritrea and Ethiopia, where they make a spongy fermented pancake called injera.

Wild rice. A swamp grass, not technically a rice, with a strong flavor and more fiber than rice.

When I delved into Stone Age nutrition, I was surprised to learn that the rise of farming was not entirely good news for human health. Archaeologists agree that early farmers had diseases and conditions not seen in hunter-gatherers, including parasites, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia, bone infections, and rickets. On the Neolithic diet, humans got shorter, a reliable sign of poor nutrition. Farming did cause a population boom—largely because grain is an inexpensive, easily stored source of calories—but general health declined.4

The proponents of Paleolithic diets have a point: the body does not require wheat, corn, chickpeas, or milk, which are relatively recent additions to the diet. All the essential nutrients are found in Stone Age foods. Given the emphasis on the nutritional value of whole grains today, it is perhaps surprising that you can get plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber without grains, but true. As for dairy, East Asian cultures thrive without it. Dr. Ben Balzer, an expert on Paleolithic nutrition, says that for the same calories, the typical hunter-gatherer diet has more vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, and antioxidants than the modern diet.

Americans do eat too many grains and refined grains. The main villain is corn, in three forms: corn-fed beef, corn oil, and corn syrup. On factory farms, cattle eat corn that is too rich in omega-6 fats; then we eat the beef and milk lacking the omega-3 fats we need. Corn oil, the main source of excess omega-6 fats, is a major cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Corn also becomes high fructose corn syrup, the main caloric sweetener in junk food. Intake of high fructose corn syrup grew by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990, far exceeding changes in consumption of any other food. The rise of corn syrup mirrors the increase in obesity.5 Fructose also raises insulin, blood pressure, and triglycerides. If you take only one piece of advice from the Stone Age diet, stop eating all forms of industrial corn. It’s far better to eat this delicious native vegetable in the traditional way: boiled with butter or in whole corn grits—ideally soaked first.

The Stone Age diet of whole foods has much to recommend it, but I’m not convinced it’s necessary to give up all farmed foods. The human body produces enzymes such as amylase to digest starch and lactose to digest milk lactose. During the last Ice Age in North America, Siberia, and northern Europe, a wild wetland tuber called wapato was prolific, suggesting that ancient humans ate potatoes. What matters most is how we farm and how we prepare foods.6

I eat many Stone Age foods, but in my kitchen you’ll also find traditional farmed foods, including sweet potatoes, raw milk cheese, lentils, whole grits, raw honey, and miso, a Japanese fermented soybean paste. I know we’ve been eating some of these foods for “only” two or four or ten or thirty thousand years—not three million—but that’s long enough for me. Plus, I’m fond of chocolate.


In my vegan and low-fat days, I was sometimes wistful for chocolate pudding, peach milk shakes, and apple pie à la mode. To satisfy my hankering for dairy, I bought soy “milk” and “ice cream.” Millions of people began to eat soy foods, too—perhaps for the same reason. In supermarkets today, the soy section is almost as big as the dairy department, and that’s no accident. Once soy milk appeared in the chilled dairy case, next to the milk, sales took off. Not long ago, the soy beverage was an odd creature, a canned drink for people on funny diets. Now, dressed in gable-top milk cartons, soy beverages look much like another kind of milk.

Long popular with vegetarians as a meat substitute, soy foods went mainstream with the rise of the “heart-healthy” diet. In 1999, the FDA approved a health claim you may see on packaged foods containing soy: “twenty-five grams of soy protein daily, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Soy isoflavones are antioxidants, and its amino acids keep insulin in check. Soy may also prevent osteoporosis, hot flashes, prostate cancer, and some breast cancers.

These health benefits are impressive, and I began to wonder if the soy foods I was eating were traditional foods by my rough definition. Do they have a long history in the diet? Are they made pretty much the way they used to be? It turns out that some soy foods are traditional, others less so. This is what I learned about the remarkable soybean.

In China, about five thousand years ago, the soybean was grown to feed animals and build soil fertility, but not for human consumption. It turns out that we don’t digest soybeans easily. In the Chou Dynasty (1134-246 BC), the Chinese learned to ferment soybeans to make them digestible to humans, and after this discovery, various fermented foods like Japanese miso sprang up. Bean curd was fermented, as in Chinese sufu, Indonesian tempeh, and Japanese tofuyo, or “spoiled milk.”

Like all legumes, soybeans contain phytic acid, which, as we’ve seen, is called an antinutrient because it reduces absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals.7 Diets high in phytic acid stunt growth. Cooking reduces phytic acid somewhat, and both soy milk and tofu are cooked. But fermentation is better; fermented tofu contains more available iron.8 Soy also contains protease inhibitors, which interfere with protein digestion by blocking the protease enzymes that break it down. Protease inhibitors are reduced by cooking or fermentation.9

At first the chemistry of soybeans seemed arcane to me, but the effects are important. After World War II, the United States sent soybeans to hungry people in Japan, Korea, and Germany. When the Germans got headaches and stomach pain and lost weight, the Americans, guessing they were biologically different from Asians, stopped sending soy. Later, U.S. scientists discovered the necessity of fermenting soybeans—only to find that Asians knew the secret all along.

Many people think that soy provides complete protein, but that’s not quite so. Soy does contain all eight essential amino acids, but only trace amounts of methionine. The body cannot make methionine. It can make cysteine (a non-essential amino acid), but only from adequate methionine. Only animal products contain complete, high-quality protein, with the right amount and proportion of all the amino acids.

Soy is said to contain vitamin B12, but that’s misleading. The compound in soy that resembles B12 cannot be used by the body. True vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods, with one partial exception. Some B12 is created during fermentation by microorganisms—which are, of course, tiny animals. Thus yeast and beer contain trace amounts of B12. Vitamin B12 is essential, but a small quantity is enough. Eating fermented soy sauce may be one reason Asians were able to survive protein-poor diets during famines. Still, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cautions vegans: “No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B12. Fermented soy products cannot be considered a reliable source of active B12.”

In the United States, the soybean was little known until the 1920s, when the government paid farmers to grow it. Animals on factory farms eat a lot of soybean cakes, but as a raw commodity, soybeans don’t fetch a very high price. With a bit of tinkering, however, the soybean can be made much more profitable. In a remarkably short time, the food industry transformed the soybean from animal fodder into thousands of convenience foods worth billions of dollars.

Modern soy consumption is anything but ecological. Millions of acres of forest in Brazil, the Chaco, the Amazon biome, and the Atlantic forests of South America have been destroyed to create a soy monoculture, most of which ends up on our plates via industrial beef, pork, and poultry. Today the soybean yields two products for direct human consumption: oil and protein. Rare one hundred years ago, soybean oil is now the most popular oil in the world. In culinary-historical terms, it’s an overnight sensation. Annually, Americans consume eighteen billion pounds of soybean oil, some 75 percent of the oil they eat. Alas, most soybean oil is industrial. About 85 percent of the U.S. crop is genetically engineered, and most of it is treated with heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Soybean oil is pressed under great heat and pressure, and the pulp is treated with solvents like hexane to extract the last drops of oil. The oil may be washed in lye, deodorized, and bleached. It’s no surprise that industrial soybean oil emerges oxidized and carcinogenic.10

Cold-pressed oil from organic soybeans would be better; its polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E are undamaged. However, soybean oil is rich (53 percent) in the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA), and as we’ve seen, we already eat too much LA. That’s why soybean oil is the only soy food that Barry Sears, author of The Soy Zone, does not recommend. The flavor is nothing special, either, and olive oil contains all the omega-6 fats you need.

Unusually for a bean, the soybean contains more protein (38 percent) than carbohydrate. When soybean oil is made, a great deal of protein remains. Ingeniously, soy producers transformed this leftover into the key ingredient in imitation sausages, milk, and cheese. Called soy protein isolate, it’s 90 percent protein. As usual, industrial production does it no favors. Vitamins and the amino acid lysine are lost, while aluminum residue remains and nitrosamines (potential carcinogens) are created. Soy protein isolate does not have the FDA status known as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).

With the invention of soy protein isolate, the market for soy foods exploded, and now it’s the base for chips, pasta, meatless sausage, and dairylike foods. The challenge is making these imitation foods taste like the real thing. As fans of the tofu stir-fry know, the naturally bland soybean is a good platform for other flavors. It can also be “beany” or bitter. Texture is another problem: soy “cheese” is distinctly rubbery. Aware of all this, industry scientists are hard at work on soybean hybrids and processing methods to improve soy texture and flavor. Meanwhile, industrial soy foods need a boost in the flavor department. Typical ingredients in soy “ice cream” are sugar, corn oil, soy protein isolate, food starch, and flavoring. Fake cheese often contains hydrogenated oils, and MSG is common in savory foods like hot dogs.

Because flavor is not its strong suit, much of the soybean’s appeal rests on health claims. Evidence for some benefits of soy seems strong. Soy isoflavones reduce LDL. As part of a diet low in refined carbohydrates, lean soy protein regulates blood sugar and insulin. That’s the message of The Soy Zone, by Sears, who devised a soy diet (with, I noted, added fish oil and vitamin B12) for his vegetarian daughter.

Asians have lower rates of osteoporosis than Americans, and some studies show higher bone density with soy-rich diets. Is soy responsible? It’s not clear. Phytic acid in unfermented soy reduces calcium absorption.11 In Asia and elsewhere, traditional diets also include calcium-rich bone broth and ample vitamin D, which is vital for calcium absorption. In fact, milk is superior to soy as a source of calcium. One cup of soy drink has 10 milligrams of calcium, while milk has 300 milligrams, and more of the calcium in milk is absorbed.

Because soy is rich in isoflavones (plant estrogens), it’s a natural remedy for symptoms of menopause. But the research is mixed.12 Several recent studies have found that soy isoflavones are no better than a placebo for treating hot flashes. Moreover, large doses are not without risk; eating 60 grams of soy protein daily for only one month disrupts menstrual cycles.13

On soy and breast cancer, the data are voluminous, the claims competing, and the results unclear.14 Some researchers believe soy prevents breast and prostate cancer, while others suggest it causes both. Genistein, the main soy isoflavone, can encourage cancer in breast cells, but genistein supplements are not necessarily equivalent to the genistein in whole soy foods.15 In 2001, researchers who reviewed studies on soy and breast cancer said, “The honest response to each of these diametrically opposed claims is that no convincing data exist to support either claim.”16 It may be that the estrogens in soy are bad for estrogen-dependent breast cancer, but not other types.

Given the uncertainty, most experts recommend whole soy foods rather than isoflavone pills.17 As with synthetic vitamins and fish oil supplements, foods may be superior because pills don’t contain all the biological compounds originally in soy. The breast cancer specialist Dr. Susan Love, who believes soy can be beneficial, says that “soy food and soy supplements are not the same. Soy as food is probably safe for women with breast cancer, but the final answers aren’t in yet.”18

Soy should be viewed as part of a diverse diet, not as a nutritional silver bullet. The island of Okinawa, about four hundred miles off Japan, makes a fascinating case study for diet and disease. More Okinawans reach the age of one hundred than any other population in the world. Islanders have less heart disease, stroke, and cancer than mainland Japanese. Fans of soy note that Okinawans eat more soy protein than any other group: one hundred grams daily, versus forty grams on mainland Japan, and a mere four grams in the United States.

If food does account for the Okinawans’ extraordinary health (which seems likely), I’m inclined to credit the entire diet—including raw fish, antioxidant tea, and whole, traditional soy foods. Islanders also eat fewer calories, twice as much fish, and twice as many vegetables as mainland Japanese. An American wishing for the longevity of an Okinawan would need to do more than sprinkle one hundred grams of soy protein on his cereal. It’s always better to eat real foods than pop pills. Soy protein reduces cholesterol, for example, but isoflavone supplements don’t. An Okinawan proverb sums it up nicely: “One who eats whole food will be strong and healthy.”19

In traditional Asian cuisine, soy is part of a diverse diet. Tofu is typically eaten with an animal protein such as fish broth, which provides complete protein and reduces the effects of phytic acid.20 Many foods, such as natto, miso, and often tofu, are fermented. There is a bewildering variety of traditional tofu recipes. Indonesian tempeh, a chewy soy cake made with rice or millet, is quite unlike silky Japanese tofu, for example. In China, various pungent fermented tofus, pickled and aged in rice wine, chillies, and spices, are used in specific dishes, such as steamed pork and congee (a rice gruel).

The most famous fermented soy food is soy sauce. Traditionally, whole soybeans are slowly fermented to break down the protein and develop a distinctive briny flavor. Industrial soy sauce is made with defatted soy protein, wheat, sugar, preservatives, and coloring. Using defatted soybeans speeds fermentation because complex oils need not be broken down into fatty acids, but soy sauce made from defatted soy lacks the flavor, aroma, and health benefits of the real thing.

Edamame, an ancient Japanese delicacy of fresh, young, whole soybeans, is not a fermented soy food. The beans are merely boiled. Perhaps young beans are easier to digest than mature, dried beans and thus don’t require fermentation; I don’t know. Bright green edamame tastes a bit like a sweet young lima bean and is delicious with salt.

How much soy is beneficial? The experts don’t agree. They can’t even settle on how much soy was traditionally eaten in Asia or is eaten today. Proponents say daily consumption in Asia ranges from 40 to 100 grams of soy protein, but skeptics counter that Japanese and Chinese eat only 10 grams. Even allowing for differences in actual consumption within and between Asian countries, this wide range is probably due to selective reporting from the pro- or antisoy camps or both.


Many soy foods are common in more than one Asian country. For example, fermented bean sauce is originally Chinese, but it turns up in Vietnamese and Thai dishes. You will find the following foods in whole food shops, good grocers, and Asian markets.

Amazake. Sweet, cultured rice “pudding” (Japanese).

Bean sauce. Salty, fermented soybean sauce, often spicy.

Miso. Salty, fermented paste of cooked soybeans, aged for a year or more (Japanese).

Natto. Salty topping of fermented, cooked whole soybeans (Japanese).

Soy milk. Soybeans are soaked, ground, simmered, and pressed.

Soy sauce. Salty, aged, fermented condiment, best made with whole soybeans.

Sufu. Fermented tofu condiment regarded as medicinal (Chinese).

Tahuri. Fermented tofu (Filipino).

Tamari. Liquid left after miso is made, used like soy sauce; contains no wheat (Japanese).

Tempeh. Fermented tofu cake often containing rice or millet (Indonesia).

Tofu. The traditional soybean curd; may be firm or soft, grainy or silky; often fermented.

Tofuyo. Fermented tofu said to be good for the stomach (Japanese).


✵More digestible

✵Less phytic acid (thus more minerals)

✵Fewer protease inhibitors (thus more available protein)

✵More isoflavones21

Fermentation is another factor. Critics argue that most soy in traditional diets was fermented, and for centuries it probably was, but unfermented soy is more common now. If fermented soy is better, any health benefits Asians enjoy may disappear as they begin to eat more industrial soy. Unfortunately, the following figures for actual, recommended, and maximum safe consumption don’t distinguish between traditional and industrial soy. The best I can say for these wildly different numbers is this: they present an accurate—if frustrating—picture of the conflicting views about soy.

Upper limits for safe consumption are important, because it is possible to eat too much soy. Excess genistein is toxic to the thyroid, which regulates appetite, metabolism, mood, and libido. In 1999, as the FDA was considering the claim that soy can prevent heart disease, two FDA specialists told the agency their concerns about hypothyroidism. They wrote, “There is abundant evidence that some of the isoflavones found in soy … demonstrate toxicity in estrogen-sensitive tissues and in the thyroid. Our conclusions are that no dose is without risk.”22 Japanese researchers found that 30 grams of roasted, pickled soybeans daily suppressed thyroid function in healthy people.23They called the dose “excessive.” Yet proponents recommend 40 to 50 grams of soy protein daily.

One group is particularly vulnerable to soy: babies. Studies show that soy causes hypothyroidism and goiter in babies. Soy formula may stunt growth and disrupt hormones, sexual development, and immunity. The dose of isoflavones in soy-based formula is huge: one thousand times greater than in breast milk.24 New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, and Britain advise caution in feeding soy to babies. One of the FDA soy experts cited above called soy formula “a large, uncontrolled, and basically unmonitored human infant experiment.”25

Soy is a complex food, and there are no easy answers. I would not feed soy to babies for one year, and would advise caution for adolescents, whose sexual development is incomplete. Vegetarians might consider what kind of soy foods they eat and how much, and women with breast cancer should consult a specialist familiar with the latest research. For me, industrial soy “milk” and other imitation foods made of soy protein isolate flunk the real food test. This unique vegetable is more digestible, nutritious, and tasty when prepared in the traditional way. If you appreciate soy, do as Asian cultures have for two thousand years: eat traditional soy foods.



Estimate of the typical American diet


Estimate (by soy critic) of Japanese and Chinese diets


Recommended (The Simple Soybean and Your Health)


FDA-approved claim to help prevent heart disease


Thyroid suppression in healthy people


Upper limit for women (The Simple Soybean and Your Health)


Pre-breast cancer changes after fourteen days


Estimate (by soy proponent) of mainland Japanese diet


Recommended for vegetarian women (The Soy Zone)


Recommended for vegetarian men (The Soy Zone)


Menstrual disruption after one month


Upper limit for women (The Soy Zone)


Upper limit for men (The Soy Zone)


Estimate of Okinawa diet



These foods offer about 30 grams of protein and just under 30 milligrams of isoflavones.

8 oz extra-firm tofu

12 oz firm tofu

16 oz soft tofu

4 oz soy “cheese”

24 oz soy “milk”

32 oz soy “yogurt”

30 g soy protein powder


For thousands of years, salt has been central to human life. Greek traders traded salt for slaves, giving us the expression “not worth his salt,” and Roman legionnaires were paid in salt; salarium is the Latin root of salary. In Sanskrit, lavanya, suggesting grace, beauty, and charm, comes from lavana for salt. Wars have been fought over salt supplies, and political battles over salt taxes. Like fish, salt was prized by landlocked people, who burned salty marsh grass and added the ash to food.

We seek salt for good reasons. Salt stimulates the gastric juices, and it’s necessary to emulsify, or digest, fats. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach (for digesting meat) is made with salt. Unrefined salt contains the electrolytes sodium, potassium, and chloride, which are essential for every cell function, including blood pressure, nerve signals, and muscle action. Chronic salt deprivation causes weight loss, inertia, nausea, and muscle cramps. In the kitchen, meanwhile, salt is indispensable. It enhances flavor, even making sweet things sweeter. Salt is a preservative, aids fermentation, and improves the texture of bread and cured meat.

Today, however, salt has a bad reputation. The psychology professor Paul Rozin has found that many Americans regard salt (and fat) as a toxin and believe even a trace amount is unhealthy. “This belief establishes a goal that is both extremely unhealthy, and unattainable,” he says. Early studies did correlate salt intake and high blood pressure, but more recent research has been kinder to salt. In 1983, studies in the United States and Japan found that dietary salt didn’t affect blood pressure in most people significantly.26 In the 1990s, several U.S. and British studies concluded that salt itself is not the cause of poor health.27 In 2006, data from the NHANES II study showed that death from heart disease and from all causes rose with lower sodium consumption.28 “Evidence linking sodium intake to mortality outcomes is scant and inconsistent,” said the researchers.

Official advice to reduce salt intake has been a drumbeat for more than forty years. It started in 1972, when a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that reducing sodium intake led to increased renin in the kidneys, which implied, but did not prove, a higher risk of heart disease. Today, according to the investigative reporter Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat, the organizations advocating salt restriction today—the USDA, the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, and the NIH—rely on a thirty-day trial of salt, the famous 2001 DASH-Sodium study. DASH “suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure,” writes Taubes. “It said nothing about whether this would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease, or lengthen life.”

The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that we consume 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily. The upper limit amounts to about one teaspoon of salt. But we’re not following the rules. At 3,400 milligrams, our actual average daily intake of sodium is about one and half times higher than the upper limit. This quantity has been steady for decades, which suggests that sodium needs and excretion are strongly guided by physiological factors, not individual adherence to advice or personal choice.

Meanwhile, the lower limit is strikingly low—less than half of the actual average consumption. Who is advised to eat 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, or less than one half a teaspoon of salt? About half the population, including African Americans, children, people over the age of fifty-one, and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.

When the U.S. government advised Americans to cut back on meat and fat, we replaced those calories with carbohydrates, with unhappy results for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. What would happen if Americans drastically cut sodium intake?

In 2013, the Institutes of Medicine tried to answer that question in a report entitled Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence, commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control. The authors reviewed studies on sodium and health published after 2005 (when the IOM last looked at the question). The report makes a point of stating that the data are imperfect. Still, this was its overarching conclusion: “The committee found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on health outcomes other than CVD outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) and all-cause mortality.” In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that changing sodium intake will change health outcomes, including death from all causes. The committee did find a link (via high blood pressure) between sodium intake and heart disease risk.

The committee did not find enough evidence to justify drastically limiting sodium in the general population or in any subgroup. “As you go below the 2,300 mark, there is an absence of data in terms of benefit and there begin to be suggestions in subgroup populations about potential harms,” said Dr. Brian Strom, chairman of the review committee and a professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania. (As sodium levels fall, triglyceride levels and insulin resistance rise; both contribute to heart disease risk.)

One year later, Cochrane, an independent nonprofit group focused on health, examined eight sodium-related trials involving more than 7,200 people. The 2014 report concluded:

Dietary advice and salt substitution did reduce the amount of salt eaten, which led to a small reduction in blood pressure by six months. There was weak evidence of benefit for cardiovascular events, but these findings were inconclusive and were driven by a single trial among retirement home residents … Our findings do not support individual dietary advice as a means of restricting salt intake … There is insufficient power to confirm clinically important effects of dietary advice and salt substitution on cardiovascular mortality in normotensive or hypertensive populations. Our estimates of the clinical benefits from advice to reduce dietary salt are imprecise, but are larger than would be predicted from the small blood pressure reductions achieved.

New clinical trials, such as a 2014 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, will be important in the salt debate. The researchers measured sodium in the urine of more than 100,000 people from five continents. The authors of Urinary Sodium and Potassium Excretion, Mortality, and Cardiovascular Events first set the study and its design in context:

The optimal range of sodium intake for cardiovascular health is controversial … Although clinical trials have shown a reduction in blood pressure with a reduced sodium intake, to our knowledge, no large randomized trial has been conducted to document reductions in the risk of cardiovascular disease with low sodium intake … Current guidelines, which recommend a maximum sodium intake of 1.5 to 2.4 grams per day, are based on evidence from largely short-term clinical trials showing that reducing sodium intake from a moderate to a low level results in modest reductions in blood pressure. The projected benefits of low sodium intake with respect to cardiovascular disease are derived from models of data from these blood-pressure trials that assume a linear relationship between sodium intake and blood pressure and between blood pressure and cardiovascular events. Implicit in these guidelines is the assumption that there is no unsafe lower limit of sodium intake. However, sodium is known to play a critical role in normal human physiology.

After taking urine samples for sodium and potassium levels, they followed the participants to find out who died of what. The results are striking. Estimated daily sodium intake between 3,000 and 6,000 milligrams per day “was associated with a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than was either a higher or lower estimated level of intake.” (Higher potassium intake, probably due to eating fruit and vegetables, was also linked to lower heart disease risk.)

The sodium question is not yet settled. Researchers on both sides acknowledge weaknesses in the available data, but there is already evidence that restricting daily sodium consumption to less than 2,000 milligrams does no good. Given the showdown nature of this particular debate, with increasingly vocal skeptics pitted against establishment thinking at places like the American Heart Association and the USDA, I expect to see more evidence soon. When the USDA publishes its new Dietary Guidelines, will it seriously consider the data we have?

Three million years ago, Stone Age humans got all the salt they needed from eating meat and blood, fish, and sea vegetables; perhaps they occasionally dipped foods into seawater for salt. Later—probably around the time they began to eat more grain and other starches—humans became salt farmers, mining ancient seabeds for salt from the earth or gathering it from seawater. Archaeological evidence suggests that about four thousand years ago, humans produced salt in central China. Consumption of unrefined salt predates industrial diseases.

My friend Daniel Gevaert, who worked on our farm as a teenager many summers ago, taught me to appreciate real salt. Back home in France, he became an organic farmer, manufactured fermented soy foods, and bought a sea salt factory. Factory is not quite the right word, in that nothing much industrial happens there. From June to September, Atlantic sea salt was harvested manually with clay pans and allowed to dry naturally in the wind and sun. The factory was a simple shed, empty but for a chute. The salt dried gently as it flowed along the chute, through screens that sorted it into fine or coarse grains. The salt was never washed, heated, or refined in any way, and nothing was added.

Daniel and his wife, Valerie, sold Danival, the company they founded, to a large French concern. That made me a little sad, but it was several years before I finished the salt from my last visit to the factory near Bordeaux. Daniel’s salt was a soft gray and slightly moist. Rich in minerals and trace elements, it had an exquisite briny flavor. Happily the shops today are full of wounderful unrefined salts, both American and exotic.

Typical commercial salt, by contrast, is an industrial leftover. First the chemical industry removes the valuable trace elements and heats it to twelve hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We get what’s left: 100 percent sodium chloride, plus industrial additives, including aluminum, anticaking agents to keep the salt pouring smoothly, and dextrose, which stains it purple. Salt is then bleached. Consuming pure sodium chloride strains the body, upsetting fluid balance and dehydrating cells.

Unrefined sea salt is about 80 percent sodium chloride, and the rest is other good stuff: calcium, magnesium (about 14 percent), and more than eighty trace elements including iodine, potassium, and selenium. These nutrients have vital functions, among them maintaining a healthy fluid balance and replenishing electrolytes lost in sweat. We need trace elements in tiny amounts, but a deficiency is serious. The landlocked American Midwest, for example, was known as the “goiter belt” for lack of iodine-rich seafoods. Today commercial salt contains added iodine to prevent thyroid disease, but the body absorbs natural iodine in unrefined salt more easily.

How much salt do you need? As we’ve seen, experts aren’t sure. Salt requirements depend on many things, including your size and genes and how much you sweat. As with fat (and carbohydrates and the rest), I don’t count sodium milligrams, and I have no idea how much potassium a head of lettuce contains, but I salt my cooking and the food on my plate liberally to taste, and I know that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is a good thing. I also know when I’ve eaten too much salt, just as surely as I know when I’ve put too much olive oil on the salad. The main clue? I’m thirsty.

The body needs a balance of the two main electrolytes, sodium and potassium. Whole foods contain little sodium and plenty of potassium, but the typical industrial diet is the opposite: it contains too much sodium and too little potassium. Do avoid sodium-rich industrial foods, including prepared meals, savory snacks, bouillon cubes, and commercial chicken stock. According to the National Academy of Sciences, processed food—not the salt cellar—accounts for 80 percent of the salt in the typical diet. When I do buy canned goods such as tomatoes and chickpeas, I look for unsalted versions, or I rinse the beans and add real salt to taste during cooking.

If you avoid industrial foods, exercise, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and drink water when thirsty, there is no need to fear traditional salt. In the kitchen and at the table, I’m liberal with unrefined salt. If you want the benefits of all the vital trace elements of the sea, the label must say unrefined. Salt sold simply as “sea salt” is refined in some way, no matter how charming and rustic the packaging. And yes, unrefined sea salt is more expensive than the rest. It’s worth more.


Every winter, around February 14, the food and health pages run amusing pieces on why women crave chocolate, or how it came to be associated with love and romance—and might even get you some. I used to find these reruns tedious, especially when they used the term chocoholic, but I have new respect for chocolate, which I consider one of the great food-drugs, along with wine and cayenne peppers. Now I skip the sexy quotes and scan the articles for hard facts on the dark, complex bean of the cacao tree, a native of lush jungles around the equator, from Hawaii to Venezuela to Nigeria. The tree and bean are called cacao. (Rhymes with cow.) The liquor, powder, and drink are cocoa. The fat is called cocoa butter.

Everyone has his poison (or ought to), and I’d probably eat chocolate no matter what, but for chocolate lovers seeking nutritional validation, here is the good news: the saturated and monounsaturated fats in cocoa butter are good for cholesterol; cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants and contains mild antidepressants.

Twelve hundred years before the Common Era, the Olmec of modern Mexico grew cacao trees and made the beans into a drink laced with chilies, herbs, and honey. The Mayans and Aztecs believed the God of Agriculture brought the cacao tree from paradise. At weddings, they served a cocoa drink called xocalatl (warm or bitter liquid), admired for its ability to enhance energy, passion, and sexual performance. In 1527, Hernán Cortés found the cocoa bean in Montezuma’s court and took it home to Spain, where it was doctored with sugar and vanilla.

Soon chocolate spread pleasure across Europe, and in 1753 the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus renamed the cacao tree Theobroma cacao, Greek for “elixir of the gods.” But chocolate lovers were not content to leave the divine bean alone; they wanted to perfect it. In 1879, chocolate was rendered smooth and creamy by conching, a trick devised by Rodolphe Lindt of Berne, Switzerland, one of many chocolate inventor-industrialists. After roasting and grinding the beans, the paste is gently swirled and heated by friction. Conching makes the particles of cacao and cocoa butter so tiny, your mouth cannot detect them—in other words, the chocolate becomes silky. Conching also releases volatile flavor compounds. I’ve tried “authentic” Mexican chocolates made as if conching were never invented; they don’t knock me out. I’m all for traditional methods of production, but to me, Lindt was a genius. With chocolate, I think, the smoother, the better.


First cacao beans are removed from the pods. The best chocolate makers ferment the beans to remove tannins and develop flavor and body. Next the beans are roasted (again for flavor), shelled, and broken up into little shards called nibs. Nibs are ground and heated to make cocoa liquor. If you remove all the cocoa butter from the liquor and dry it, what’s left is cocoa powder. If you add more cocoa butter, plus sugar and perhaps vanilla, to the liquor, you get a chocolate bar. The most exclusive chocolates are “bean-to-bar”—they buy beans, make chocolate, and make bars or other bon bons. One who buys block chocolate—called couverture—and remelts it is a chocolatier, not a chocolate maker.

The cacao tree is an unusual plant. Cocoa powder contains large amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, and more iron than any vegetable. It is very rich in polyphenols, particularly a group called flavonoids, which account for the rich pigment in red wine, cherries, and tea. These antioxidants promote vascular health, prevent LDL oxidation, lower blood pressure, reduce blood clots, and fight cancer. A one-and-a-half-ounce (40-gram) bar of milk chocolate contains as many antioxidants as a five-ounce (150-ml) glass of red wine. Polyphenols are found in cocoa solids, not cocoa butter. Thus pure cocoa powder has the most antioxidants by weight, then dark chocolate, and finally milk chocolate. White chocolate—made of cocoa butter without any cocoa powder—has none.

The polyphenols in chocolate may prevent obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure—all risk factors for heart disease. In 2005, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that eating three and a half ounces (100 grams) of dark chocolate daily decreased blood pressure and significantly improved sugar metabolism by increasing sensitivity to insulin. Insulin sensitivity is desirable; recall that in diabetes, the cells are deaf to insulin. White chocolate did not have the same effect.29


Each of the following contains about 200 milligrams of polyphenols. Chocolate from fermented beans contains more polyphenols, and dark chocolate contains more polyphenols than milk chocolate.

✵1.5 oz milk chocolate

✵1 glass red wine (5 oz)

✵12 glasses white wine (5 oz each)

✵2 cups tea

✵4 apples

✵5 servings of onions

✵3 glasses black currant juice

✵7 glasses of orange juice

SOURCE: John Ashton and Suzy Ashton, A Chocolate a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.

The fats in chocolate—mostly monounsaturated and saturated—are also healthy. Chocolate is unctuous because cocoa butter melts at mouth temperature. The better chocolate bars contain added cocoa butter, which is roughly equal parts stearic, palmitic, and oleic acid. Extra stearic acid is converted to oleic acid, so the net effect of these fats is good for cholesterol. A 2004 study in Free Radical Biology and Medicine found that chocolate increased HDL and reduced oxidation of cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol causes atherosclerosis. Chocolate keeps well because saturated fats are stable, and any oxidation from heat or light is inhibited by cocoa’s abundant polyphenols.








Lowers LDL

Lowers LDL

Lowers cholesterol

Leaves HDL intact

Converts to oleic acid

Lowers LDL

Is chocolate addictive? The Chocolate Information Center—a research lab funded by the Mars company—prefers to call the craving for chocolate a “strong desire.” “Theoretically,” its scientists write cautiously, chocolate could “contribute to feelings of well-being.” Chocolate contains the alkaloid theobromine, a stimulant, vasolidator, and diuretic; a little caffeine; tyramine and phenylethylamine, which are uppers; and anandamide, which mimics cannabinoids, natural pain killers. (Anandamide derives from the Sanskrit ananda, “internal bliss.”) These natural drugs are found in trace amounts in chocolate. Chocolate also stimulates the release of enkephalin, which creates feelings of comfort and joy.

Craving a certain food is sometimes regarded as signaling an acute nutritional deficiency, but in the case of chocolate, I’m not convinced. Chocolate is rich in magnesium. If a woman needs—and perhaps craves—magnesium before menstruating, she might just as easily have a strong desire to eat magnesium-rich foods, like broccoli, tofu, or kidney beans. Rushing to the corner shop for broccoli, however, is not part of PMS folklore.

What often goes unmentioned in discussion about the desire for chocolate is sugar. I suspect that sugar plays a large part in the urge to finish a bar of chocolate once you’ve broken off a corner. Sugar quickly brings on a gentle high, which is why so many people crave it in low moments. Unfortunately, the high is often followed by a crash. The answer is to buy high-quality dark chocolate with minimal sugar.

Studies show that capsules containing the compounds in cocoa don’t satisfy the desire as well as real chocolate, which suggests that the aroma, flavor, and creaminess of chocolate, as much as any mood-enhancing chemicals, are key factors in chocolate craving. In Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, Mort Rosenblum considers all these factors, including the mood-enhancing agents in chocolate, and concludes that chocolate fails the two tests of addiction: “It is not dangerous to the human organism. And no symptoms of withdrawal appear when consistently high consumption is abruptly stopped.”


Nibs are little pieces of fermented, roasted, and shelled cacao beans—the raw material of all chocolate. More like nuts than candy, crunchy nibs are about half cocoa butter. They have a tannic flavor, like espresso or red wine. Try them in place of chocolate chips in cookies and brownies or sprinkle on ice cream. Toss nibs on roasted pumpkin or add to Mexican mole. They pack a little jolt of caffeine.

How much chocolate is good for you? John Ashton and Suzy Ashton, the authors of A Chocolate a Day Keeps the Doctor Away, who are unabashed enthusiasts, recommend no more than two ounces (55 grams) of chocolate each day, preferably dark chocolate, which has less sugar and more antioxidants. It also has more flavor than milk chocolate, which is why connoisseurs the world over prefer it. Once you’re used to the bold, complex flavors of chocolate unmasked by sugar, the average milk chocolate will seem cloying. Not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with milk, which goes very nicely with chocolate. After all, ganache is nothing more than blended cream and chocolate. If you like milk chocolate, look for a bar with more cocoa than sugar.

Sugar makes me fat and grumpy, so I get my chocolate fix from dark (70 percent cocoa) and sometimes very dark (85 percent) chocolate bars. Our children drink chocolate milk made with unsweetened Pernigotti cocoa powder and fresh milk or cream, which is just sweet enough to balance the bitterness. Do buy the best unsweetened and dark chocolate you can afford. Without sugar there is no concealing shoddy chocolate. Cheap chocolate can be bitter or metallic.

With chocolate desserts I recommend the same thing: less sugar. When you make chocolate mousse (or any dessert), use half the sugar called for. You will taste the chocolate first, instead of the sugar. When sweetness is not the dominant sensation, your appreciation for a particular flavor will grow; chocolate may seem fruity, nutty, or herbal, for example. Other flavors will change subtly, too. Next to dark chocolate, savory foods such as almonds, coconut, and cream are almost sweet. If you’re used to sugary desserts, you may find “half-the-sugar” desserts not quite to your taste at first. But I swear by this rule. I follow it every time I try a new recipe for ice cream or pumpkin pie or anything else. As my mother used to say, “If it’s sweet on the first bite, it will be too sweet by the last.”