Hearts on Fire

Valentine’s Day week is a great time to share with students “foods that fuel their heart” – starting with the RED ones. When we are having a discussion about fruits and vegetables in our classes, I like to point out that the natural chemicals in them are responsible for their color. They give fruits and veggies vibrant, bright colors! These chemicals are known as “phytochemicals” or “phytonutrients.”  A good example is anti-oxidants, readily found in these foods. Although they do not contain nutrition, they are still responsible for helping to protect us from disease.

Although each color performs a multitude of disease-preventing functions that may cross over into other colors, I like to associate one color with one function to help students remember it.  Sooooo, the white ones protect your immune system, the orange/yellow protect your eyes and the green prevent against cancer.

So then what do the red ones do? Protects our “red” hearts of course!

The red ones contain a chemical called “lycopene” (found in tomatoes) that is responsible for its red pigment. Lycopene may inhibit the production of cholesterol and reduce LDL or the “not so good” cholesterol in your blood. Some studies have suggested too (although results are mixed) that higher concentrations of lycopene have been associated with a reduced risk of heart attack.

So what are some of the best “red” Valentine’s Day foods you could recommend to students to help melt their “beloved-ones” heart?

  •     Tomato soup
  •     Valentine’s Day salad topped with red heart tomatoes
  •     Red pepper dip
  •     Baked red snapper
  •     Spaghetti with red lentil pasta sauce
  •     Desserts with strawberries, raspberries or cherries

A simple, luxuriously sweet, “red” recipe that you can make with your students is Poached Pears in Raspberry Sauce.

Poached Pears in Raspberry Sauce  

poached-pears-in-raspberry-sauce

 

Ingredients:

  • 3 firm Bosc or Bartlett pears
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice (not from concentrate)
  • ¼ cup raspberry jam or jelly (I use jam that is fruit-juice sweetened and not from concentrate)
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon or nutmeg
  • Pinch of salt
  • Fresh raspberries, strawberries and mint leaves for garnish

 Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
  2. Cut pears in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds and core with a spoon.
  3. Place pears cut side down in a baking dish.
  4. Combine juice, jam or jelly, cinnamon or nutmeg and salt in a separate bowl.
  5. Pour sauce over pears and cover dish with foil.
  6. Place pears in the oven and bake until they are soft (about 25 minutes).
  7. To serve, place pears cut side up on serving dish. Spoon sauce from baking dish over them and garish with berries and mint.

A popular option now is instead of cutting pears in half; cook them whole and then serve  standing up dripped in raspberry sauce.   

Sugar is Sugar is Sugar – Really?

I’ve had many people tell me that they avoid fruit because of its sugar content.  But is it really the same as other sugars?

Basics: When sugar is broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream, it causes the sugar levels in your blood to rise.  Your pancreas then releases a hormone called insulin to bring your sugar levels back down to normal, by pushing sugar into your cells. Your cells then release sugar in the form of energy to keep you going throughout the day. Sounds good, right?

But not all sugars have the same impact on your blood sugar levels.  Here’s the difference:

White table sugar or sugar is a highly processed, highly refined sugar.  It enters your blood stream rapidly and causes a significant spike in your blood sugar levels.  Large amounts of insulin are released from your pancreas to bring your sugar levels back down to normal, but sometimes it pushes them too low.  This results in what is known as the “sugar crash.” Headaches, feeling tired, lack of energy, inability to concentrate and craving more sugar may be the result.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is also an extremely refined, highly processed sugar – processed with sulfuric acid (think battery acid!). Because of their molecular structure, they are absorbed even more rapidly in the blood stream than sugar.  And they go straight to our liver where a bunch of chemical reactions turn them into fat. Over time, these fats build up in our liver and can result in a condition known as “non-alcoholic” fatty liver.  This condition may result in liver swelling or scarring (cirrhosis) and may even contribute to liver cancer or failure.

Fruit on the other hand is “sugar from nature.” It is absorbed much slower because of what it is packaged in.  Fruit is high in fiber!  Fiber slows the breakdown of sugar into our blood-stream.  This causes a slow rise in blood sugar and a small amount of insulin to be released from our pancreas.  This means that you have less blood sugar spikes and lows. A steady amount of blood sugar release gives you just enough to keep you alert and provides energy throughout the day. Fruit is generally high in water – so naturally low in calories and keeps you fuller longer. Plus fruit is generally loaded with Vitamin A and Vitamin C!

The bottom line, fruit can satisfy your sweet tooth without impacting your blood sugar levels, along with providing many other health benefits.  Sugar and HFCS – not so much.

Food for Thought: I’ve never heard of anyone experiencing the “sugar-crash” after they ate a piece of fruit! Have you?

Tune in for more discussions on sugar types in future posts……

Photo: Courtesy of “That Sugar Film”

Cherry Baby

Cherries eaten from nature are incredibly sweet, juicy and flavorful!  There are over 1,000 different kinds with the most popular being the Bing, Rainier, black and sweetheart. The rainier are considered the “princess” of the cherries because they are the sweetest and most expensive.

Cherries are great in salads, jams, cookies, muffins, breads or scones or dried and mixed with nuts, in a cherry pie or cobbler or covered in chocolate (see healthier version of chocolate covered cherries below).  They are the “cherry on the top” of a lot of rich desserts including cheesecake or cherries jubilee (doused with sweet liquor that is lit on fire).

Cherries are naturally low in calories (makes them a great snack!) and fat. They are a good source of fiber and potassium and are high in Vitamin C. They contain some protein, Vitamin A, calcium and iron.

Something you may not know is that there is about ½ cup of water in each cup of cherries.  This not only contributes to your daily water requirements, but also helps provide fullness.

They are naturally sweet, so you don’t need to add sugar to them.

And they contain the flavonoid anthocyanin (responsible for their red color), which is why they provide a variety of health benefits including:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Protecting the liver
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving eyesight
  • Suppressing cancer cells

They play a significant role in preventing cancer, diabetes, heart and neurological disease. Plus drinking their juice can reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of gout.

For a special treat, try chocolate covered cherries. Most of these recipes use jarred maraschino cherries that are bleached with chemicals and other additives. Plus they contain added high fructose corn syrup and red dye #4.  This recipe contains only “real”, whole cherries from the stem.  To make it a bit healthier, we swapped out butter and milk chocolate with dairy-free dark chocolate. We also used raw honey and 100% pure organic maple syrup instead of refined white sugar.

Delectable Chocolate Covered Cherries

Yields: 12-15 cherries

Ingredients:

  • 1/3rd pound stem removed and pitted cherries (approximately 12-15) – one for each chocolate covered cherry
  • ½ cup honey or maple syrup – use maple syrup if you prefer a vegan recipe
  • ½ tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Sprinkle of almond extract
  • ½ tablespoon arrowroot
  • ½ tablespoon water
  • 1 cup (approximately 2 bars) dairy-free dark chocolate 72% cacao – use one sweetened with coconut sugar to reduce added sugar amount.
  • Chocolate covered cherry mold

Directions:

  1. Mix together cherries, honey or maple syrup, vanilla and almond extract and then place in a medium sauce pan.
  2. Heat on medium heat until mixture simmers.
  3. While cherries are heating, mix together arrowroot and water in a small container until it forms a thick paste.
  4. Raise heat to medium high and then add paste to cherry mixture.
  5. Mix in arrowroot and cook until mixture is thick. You may need to add more arrowroot if mixture is runny and won’t thicken.
  6. Remove cherry mixture and set aside.
  7. In another pot, melt chocolate on low heat. It only takes about a minute or two to melt chocolate.
  8. Place chocolate mold on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
  9. Using a teaspoon, drizzle chocolate into bottom of each cherry mold. Add 1 cherry and some juice on top of it.  Cover with another drizzle of chocolate.
  10. Place cookie sheet in freezer for 30-40 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.
  11. Turn candy mold upside down and pop candy out of mold. Serve immediately.

 Tip: I would highly recommend purchasing a cherry pitter to remove pits as it will save you a significant amount of time (cost is around $7-10 for this).