You Are What You Eat — Eating What is Best For You

Posted by Mei Ying Teh on

Get glowing from inside and out through natural and non-GMO foods

In the second half of the 19th century, East Asian countries were plagued by a strange disease. The Western world was alarmed by this epidemic that began spreading in the tropics: people started experiencing numbness or pain in their limbs, their muscles atrophying as though they were nothing but skeletons, an inability to move and even impaired sensory perceptions.[1] Others reported shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and fatalities from heart failure. Infants and adults alike were dying from the disease, and for the longest time, people couldn’t figure out what it was, where it came from, and why it was so widespread across the continent.

That was until Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutch physician and physiology professor, found the same conditions happening in his laboratory chickens in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).[2]

The disease was beriberi, caused by a severe and chronic lack of thiamine (Vitamin B1). And the source? White polished rice, which was — and still is — a food staple across East Asia.

For a couple of months, Eijkman’s chickens were fed white rice, which had been left over from military rations. They began exhibiting symptoms of beriberi, but when a new cook decided to switch back to unpolished rice, these symptoms subsided in a matter of days.[3] Learning from this discovery, Eijkman earned the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of vitamins.

If there’s anything we should learn from this story, it is that we should always be aware of what we consume. In this case, rice was polished so that it could be stored for a longer time, become less susceptible to pests, and could be cooked faster. Traders started to adopt it over brown rice, promoting it as ‘sophisticated and modern’ compared to the ‘dirty and poor’ brown rice, not realising that the polishing process had removed many vital minerals and vitamins.[4] Even after the beriberi epidemic, white rice still continued to be eaten across Asia, and vitamins and minerals needed to be artificially added back in to prevent the epidemic from happening again[5]. Even until today, many people across East Asia are still consuming white rice without realising this dire episode in history.

Thankfully, in recent years, the health benefits of brown rice has resurfaced, making it the healthier and more popular choice for those who are concerned about what they eat. Along with this trend of ‘eating healthy’, a few common topics started rising again: natural, organic and non-GMO foods. What are these exactly? Is it another case of companies exploiting our quest for health by promoting ambiguous products?

Natural and Organic Foods

In another post, I’ve discussed the pitfall of terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. Though that post had been about skincare products, a similar situation applies to foods as well, where there is little regulation for use of these terms.

‘Natural’ basically refer to plant or animal-based products, while ‘organic’ refers to manufacturing and production process. In Singapore, the ‘natural’ label is not strictly regulated, while the ‘organic’ label (thankfully) does require an inspection before attaining the certification.[6]

To earn the ‘Certified Organic’ label, the product in question must fulfil the following criteria:

  • Grown naturally without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides; and
  • Not modified or processed using synthetic products and additives.

It is no wonder that organic foods are more expensive than those sold without the label — all the special processes and research that were needed to earn that certification had to cost quite a hefty sum. Not only that, these stringent measures have to be applied for all variants of the product, including any expensive fertilisers and methods to avoid issues such as pests. But it is also thanks to this that organic foods are shown to be safe and made with quality in mind.  They are also suitable

Without any synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, GMO ingredients, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, organic foods are also shown to be safer for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, children, and people with allergies.[7] Research has also found that organic foods are free of sewage or irradiation[8], and carry more nutrients that conventional food such omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, though the actual statistics depends on the each food in question.[9]

Non-GMO Foods

Organic foods are a subset of another category known as ‘Non-GMO Foods’ (organic foods are all free of GMOs, but not all non-GMO foods are organic). Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms where a gene from another organism is inserted to alter their genetic code so that they can carry a specific trait, such as resistance to pests, or a longer shelf-life. You can basically have crops growing with special leaves that deter caterpillars, or apples that don’t brown as quickly when cut[10]. While America’s USDA does have a GMO labelling law, in Singapore, however, there is no formal system for the labelling or checking of GMO foods (but they do ensure that they are safe for consumption)[11].

The topic on GM foods is quite complicated, even in the scientific community. Some scientists believe that GMO is completely safe, with scientific studies to support them, while other scientists are careful about ‘playing God’ and altering too much of nature, which might allow potentially toxic items to slip through the net. Meanwhile, research on the safety of GM foods are often funded by companies selling these products (meaning there could be a conflict of interest), while GM critics would find themselves coming under fire and have their credibility attacked.[12] All in all, as genetic engineering is still a relatively new development, there is still little we know about the long-term effects of GM foods.[13]

Whatever your view on GM foods is, it stands to reason that you should be aware of what foods are GM foods, and what foods are not. Common GM foods fall into the grain category, with corn, maize and soy as some of the popular ones. Alfalfa, which is a major crop used as livestock feed, is often genetically modified to make it more resistant to herbicide as well. Papaya, canola, potatoes and zucchini are also common genetically modified foods as well.[14]

Buying the Right Foods

No matter what your stance on natural, organic and non-GMO foods may be, there is no doubt that the companies producing these foods would at least ensure a quality product with stringent production and manufacturing practices. Thankfully, Singapore does have a certification for organic foods, which you can check to ensure that you are picking the right ones. For natural and non-GMO foods, however, it might get a little tricky.

If you’re looking for safe and convenient choices, NOW Foods carries quite a large array of natural and non-GMO foods, which are proven to be safe and trustworthy. In fact, NOW Foods has various seals and certifications through internationally trusted organisations to back up their claims.[15]

So if you’re out to find some healthy and nutritious foods, such as grains and beans, flours and powders, or nuts and seeds, NOW Foods carries a large selection for you to choose from. Some of my personal favourite include Whole Grain Quinoa (which is Certified Organic and also a great popular replacement for white rice), Sprouted Brown Rice (they contain more vital nutrients and are easier to cook) and Roasted Macadamia Nuts (which is a great, healthy snack with no guilt that also fills your tummy if its ever itching for something). These are all purchasable online, making it super convenient and easy for you during this lockdown period!

Cooking with the Right Foods

If you’re interested in using some of the natural and non-GMO products I just recommended, why not try some of the following recipes and create something delicious for you and your family?

Organic Quinoa Salad[16]

128 g Whole Grain Quinoa
2 bunches Lacinato Kale, Deribbed and Chiffonade
1 bulb Fennel, Shaved
59 ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ Dragon Fruit, Diced
½ Lemon, Squeezed
1 tsp Salt

Just combine all the ingredients together and serve! This is a really simple and healthy salad using quinoa, that doesn’t take a lot of preparation time as long as your ingredients have already been prepared. This recipe will make enough for 2, so share it with a loved one!

Quinoa with Sausages[17]

1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 packet of Sausages, Chopped
1 Sweet Onion, Chopped
½ tsp Fine Sea Salt
1 tbsp Chopped Sage
237 ml Apple Hard Cider OR Apple Juice
128 g Whole Grain Quinoa
64 g Crystallised Ginger Slices, Chopped
1 tsp Brown Sugar
½ tsp Cinnamon
134 g Chopped Kale
3 tbsp Lemon Juice
177 ml Water

Add the olive oil into a large pot, then add sausages, onion and salt and cook them over medium-high heat until the onions turn light brown (around 7-10 minutes). Add sage and cook for 1 minute. Add cider, quinoa, ginger, brown sugar, cinnamon and water, and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan, reduce heat to medium-low heat, and simmer until all liquid is absorbed (around 15-20 minutes). Once it’s done, fluff it up with a fork, then add kale and lemon juice. For a total of 4 servings, this fried-rice-cum-quinoa-salad is perfect for the whole family.

Almond Butter[18]

454 g Raw Almonds
¼ tsp Salt
¼ tsp Ground Cinnamon (optional)
½ Vanilla Extract (optional)
2 tbsp Maple Syrup OR Honey (optional)

Preheat the oven to 177°C. Spread the almonds across a rimmed baking sheet and toast them for 5 minutes. Take them out, stir, then pop them in again for another 5 more minutes. Let the almonds cool for about 10 minutes until they are lukewarm. Toss the almonds into a high-speed blender or food processor, and blend them till it becomes smooth and creamy, then add the salt. You can also add the rest of your ingredients as you like. Continue blending until all the new additions are even dispersed, then let it cool to room temperature. Transfer the butter to a jar and store it in the fridge for use (you can keep it for up to 2 weeks!).

Coconut Energy Bites[19]

237 ml Cashew Butter
63 g Macadamia Nuts, Dry Roasted and Salted
32.5 g Coconut Flour
4 drops French Vanilla
32 g Shredded Coconut, Unsweetened

Place a parchment paper on a pan. In a chilled bowl, combine the cashew butter, macadamia nuts, coconut flour and French vanilla liquid until they become a smooth mixture. Roll the mixture into ½-inch balls, then roll the completed bolls in shredded coconut until they are completely covered. Place the balls 1-inch apart on the sheet pan, then pop it in the fridge for at least an hour. Serve and enjoy!

Fiesta Mason Jar Salad[20]

64 g Sprouted Brown Rice
55 g Baby Spinach
40 g White Onions, Chopped
40 g Avocado, Diced
3 tbsp Cheddar Cheese
3 tbsp Corn
2 tbsp Black Bean
1 tsp Jalapeno, Diced
2 tbsp Coconut Cooking Oil

Using a mason jar, add all of the ingredients in, leaving the coconut oil last (treat it as your salad dressing). Close the lid and shake until all the contents are well-mixed. Open up and serve!

While it is important to eat healthy and be conscious of the nutrients you are consuming, there’s also a limit to going too far into it. Not all food types carry an abundance of organic and natural foods, and limiting yourself might cause you to cut off options to vital and healthy food types like fish or fruits.

Meanwhile, just because something is natural and organic doesn’t mean that it would definitely be healthier. In the case of the 19th century beriberi epidemic, white polished rice can still be considered natural and organic, as its milling process merely removes the husks of the rice and does not add anything artificial into it; and yet, its lack of vital nutrition led to the deaths of many over several decades. Of course, you can argue that the artificial removal of a part of the grain should be considered ‘non-organic’, but that is a whole debate in and of itself.

It is unlikely that we will get another widespread issue like beriberi, but it’s always a good idea to be aware of the limitations and benefits of the things we eat. It was ignorance that caused beriberi, and the same ignorance might get us there again in ways we don’t realise.

If you’re interested to find out more about natural and healthy food options, this post on a particular miracle fruit might pique your interest! Otherwise, feel free to explore the rest of this website and blog for other topics that may interest you!

 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889456/

[2] https://www.britannica.com/science/beriberi

[3] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1929/eijkman/lecture/

[4] https://ips-dc.org/why_billions_eat_unhealthy_riceand_shouldnt/

[5] https://academic.oup.com/jn/article-abstract/42/4/501/4725911

[6] https://singaporelegaladvice.com/law-articles/certified-organic-food-singapore-meaning/

[7] https://time.com/4871915/health-benefits-organic-food/

[8] https://www.simplyquinoa.com/benefits-of-organic-food/

[9] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

[10] https://caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu/2016/11/all-natural-organic-and-non-gmo-what-does-it-all-mean/

[11] https://www.gmac.sg/Education/Index_FAQ_Genetically_Modified_Foods.html

[12] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/

[13] https://www.healthline.com/health/gmos-pros-and-cons

[14] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/diet-and-nutrition_b_4323937

[15] https://www.nowfoods.com/now/about-now/seals-certifications

[16] https://www.nowfoods.com/now/recipes/organic-shaved-fennel-quinoa-salad

[17] https://www.nowfoods.com/now/recipes/cinnamon-holiday-quinoa-turkey-sausage

[18] https://cookieandkate.com/homemade-almond-butter-recipe/

[19] https://www.nowfoods.com/now/recipes/french-vanilla-coconut-energy-bites

[20] https://www.nowfoods.com/now/recipes/fiesta-mason-jar-salad

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