Coffee and your wallet

A cappuccino in a green cup.

Black gold

Last week I wrote about the nutritional value (or not) of coffee, this week the focus is on economic factors. This is a simplified analysis and not meant to be an economic treatise. There are no doubt, lots of angles I have not considered.

Microeconomics – your budget.

Café coffee:

As a point of reference, I am going to use my regular order of a skim milk regular sized cappuccino as the “standard” purchase. You can pay anywhere from $A3:50 – $A6:00 depending on size and location so I will use a cost of $4 per cup.

If you buy one cappuccino every day, you are going to spend $4 x 365 = $1460 per capita per annum.

So maybe you only buy coffee on the days you work. Using a 5 day work week and four weeks annual leave that’s $4 x 240 = $960.

Let’s say your working life is around 40 years;  you’ll end up spending between $40,000 – $60,000 on coffee! If you’re living as a couple, that could be $80-120,000 over your lifetimes.

SHIT that’s scary money!

That’s three years of mortgage payments! Is it worth it?

Do-it-yourself coffee – instant.

Ok, so you’ve decided you can’t do without coffee. Can you save money by making your own?

Well yes!

A  200 g jar of instant coffee will set you back around $13 from Woollies and will make around 100 cups of coffee. Plus there’s milk and sugar or sweetener if you use it. I am not going to try and factor those in here.

If we stick to the one cup per day, every day of the year you will spend $47 per annum.

Over your work life and not allowing for inflation; $1900.

BOOM!  An instant saving of $38K per person. But you aren’t going to switch to Moccona because we have all become coffee snobs who want “proper” coffee from the trendy cafe! And in reality, you’ll probably drink both the made at home/work and the cup(s) from the cafe.

Maybe you can buy a coffee machine and save money that way?

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Do-it-yourself – coffee machine.

This calculation presents a few problems. It’s a bit of a “how-long-is-a-piece-of-string” argument. Just typing “coffee makers” into Google; gives you machines ranging from $3000 to $59. If you spend $3000 on a coffee machine, it will take you 2 years to make your money back, and I bet you won’t!

Why?

Because even if you have a fancy coffee maker, you’ll still buy coffee from the cute little cafe near work! You know you will!

Using a pod machine will save you money too, BUT you’ll have to deal with the environmental cost of all those plastic or metal pods. AND you’ll still buy coffee from the cute little cafe near work! You know you will!

Of course, you could grind your own coffee too and use a plunger or lots of other methods which would be cheaper than cafe coffee so you could potentially spend much less than that estimate of $60,000 over a working lifetime.

I’m not here to tell you how to spend your money or tell you if you can afford that or not. You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but you may have not given it much thought. I think the main point is that coffee is a luxury. While some of you will argue that it is essential, it’s not. Not like food or shelter. The money you spend on it is discretionary.

Macroeconomics – the global economy

The Production Side of Coffee

Coffee is derived from two main species Coffea arabica and C. Robusta. It has only been in widespread usage as a beverage for around 500 years. It is thought to have originated in Ethiopia where it was domesticated before being distributed widely. The now huge South American crop originated from the seeds of a single plant taken from the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens.

The ten biggest coffee growing nations are Brazi, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, Peru, Ethiopia, Mexico, India, Guatemala and Uganda. The countries that consume the most coffee are (in order) United States, Germany, Japan, Italy and France.

I think you can see how things are going to pan out here. There is an imbalance between the economic power of the people who grow coffee and the people who drink coffee.

Poor people grow it, rich(er) people drink it.

The price of coffee is controlled by the commodity markets in New York and London, a long way from the growers. It is the second most traded commodity after crude oil. I have no idea how these commodity markets work, but I’m sure that the people on the floor yelling and shouting at each other aren’t thinking about whether a grower can feed his family on what he will be paid.

According to the documentary  Black Gold (2014), Ethiopian farmers are paid around 65c per kilo. It costs them 90c to produce one kilo of coffee. (huh???)  There are up to six steps in the chain from grower to consumer with each step adding to the price. The coffee part of your daily cup is only worth around 3 cents. While this data is now five years old, the principle remains the same. The growers are not given a fair price for their labour and have to endure significant hardship so you can be perky.

I recommend you download the Black Gold documentary. You can watch the trailer here or buy/rent the full version.

Watch it,  then try and drink your coffee with a clear conscience!

The consumption side of coffee

I live in the small city of Wollongong which has a population of just under 300,000. A Google search of cafes in Wollongong throws up 8 pages of results. The people at Wollongong Council told me there are X cafes. (I’m waiting on the council to get back to me with that number but it’s lots! ) That’s a lot of cafes and a lot of jobs. Multiply that by towns in Australia, and then the world. There must be a bazillion million million dollars sloshing around in coffee.

People who work in or own cafes aren’t exactly rolling in cash either. In Australia, there are more small traders selling coffee compared to big chains like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.  Many cafe workers are students earning the minimum wage. Then there are the roasters, the distributors, the drivers who deliver the coffee, the importers, the cup manufacturers, the barista trainers, the espresso machine makers, etc. etc. etc.!

According to IBIS World, the cafe and coffee shop industry in Australia alone is worth $10Bn with a growth rate of 2.2%. 139,091 people are employed by 20375 businesses. (I don’t think this includes all the ancillary services listed above.) Contrary to what I was thinking, this represents only a tiny proportion of the total value of Australian business which was estimated to be around $1.7 trillion in 2016.

So, perhaps the Australian economy wouldn’t fall over if we all stopped buying coffee, but it would be sleepier and grumpier!

Can you be a more ethical coffee consumer?

Yes – to an extent.

  • Buy your coffee from a small business rather than big chains or multinationals. That way your money goes to pay for a family’s expenses and not making faceless corporations bigger.
  • Choose places that offer fair trade or direct trade coffee and be prepared to pay a little more if needed.  Read more about ethical coffee buying here
  • You can look at helping finance a grower directly through an organisation such as Kiva which provides micro-loans directly to people in need. You can read about Kiva here.

 

Small Bars In Wollongong

Wollongong’s nightlife grows up.

Part 1

Somewhere between me being 45 and nearly 60, Wollongong’s nightlife has been through a metamorphosis. At one time, Wollongong had a reputation for being violent. Rolling brawls spilled out of places like the Glasshouse onto the streets and kept people like me at home.  We didn’t feel comfortable sharing noisy venues with barely-clad chicky babes and young men whose sole goal was to get “maggoted”. My friends and I stayed at home and had civilised dinner parties, sometimes venturing out to the popular Little Prince* only to be disappointed because we couldn’t find a seat.

(*I’ll review the Littel Prince in another post)

More recently and I’m reticent to use the word “suddenly” because I’m sure it has not been sudden, there has been a torrent of small bars setting up shop. These places have style, the music is quieter, the seats more comfortable and the lighting more subdued.

It’s not so much a case of Wollongong changing from an ugly caterpillar into a butterfly, because some those rowdier places are still open for business. Rather, new classier blood has moved into the neighbourhood offering more choice to a broader range of patrons. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice at the moment!

My friends and I are not looking for somewhere to “hook up” or meet a date. We want a place where we can feel comfortable alone or with a group of friends for a chat. We enjoy good food and are fussy in our choice of drinks.  We want background music that stays in the background and excellent amenities in terms of toilets, glassware and seating.

So which small bars are a good match for Old Chooks?

In the interests of research, I decided to hit the streets and review the boutique and small bar scene, systematically and scientifically. Armed with an online survey, I enlisted the help of some dedicated Old Chooks (Diane and Karen) to critically evaluate what was on offer.

So far, we have checked out six small bars over two nights in Febraury and March 2019.  We will bravely venture out again to check out more bars in the coming months. Tough work but someone has to do it!

Methodology

I must say we approached our task with enthusiasm, and frankly, I think we got a little overexcited. It was funny how having a purpose changed the dynamics of a night out, transforming it from a simple social get-together to a serious mission. It also meant we were more observant than we would have been otherwise. The methodology is simple. We each pick a bar, then work out the most efficient walking route between them. Once at the bar, we carefully check the food and drinks menu and the toilets. These are the deal breakers in our view! We try to engage the bar staff in conversation without giving our game away. We order a drink each and some food to share and then after an hour or so move onto the next bar.

Three bars, three drinks, three snacks.

In that hour, we are busy on our phones filling in the survey and discussing the lighting, the ambience, the crowd and the facilities. The survey is comprehensive, and each question is given a score. The scores are then added up to provide an overall rating. There are a few inherent biases in the method. The first bar on the list is reviewed early in the night, and it may not have yet reached its peak ambience. Another factor is that the third bar is considered after 2 drinks. Hopefully, we are not such cheap drunks that our focus is too frayed!

The reviews

Juniper Bar

121 Keira Street, Wollongong

Juniper was our first review, and we started there at about 7:30 PM. There were plenty of available tables. The crowd was made up of three male/female couples and a group of eight 30-40-year-old females. Four men walked in, looked around and walked out. Perhaps it was a bit girly for their taste? The concrete walls were sponged with pastel tones, and there was no other decoration. The wooden tables were garnished with small candles and a bit of greenery in a recycled jar. The concrete floor and walls created a noisy vibe, and the music was too loud for easy conversation. There was a definite need for some soft surfaces to act as noise dampeners. The bar itself had a charming backlit display which was very interesting.

Juniper, as the name suggests, is a gin bar. There was an extensive selection of gin but little else besides. The printed menu was very informative and gave good descriptions of the gin varietals.  They offered gin-based cocktails as well as straight nips and various tonic mixers. The drinks ranged in price from $11 – $19. The food menu was minimal (a choice a three) and there was no vegetarian option.  We chose the drinks plate: a platter of cheese and meats with very crunchy toasted bread ~ $25. The two wait staff were friendly.

BEST:  Excellent subdued lighting. The bar was nicely lit and looked very pretty.

WORST: Noise levels and food choices.

Black Cockatoo.

88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (behind the Creamies gelato shop)

I felt like a secret agent entering the Black Cockatoo with its hidden entry off an ice cream parlour. I wish you needed to give a secret handshake! Once inside the dark interior was reminiscent of an American bar. Booths lined the walls with a few standing tables as well as seats at the bar. It’s a small venue with a capacity for around 30. A large painted mural of a cockatoo and a few band posters were the only decorations.  Still, it had a nice ambience tending to retro. Two 20-something men were serving. They were very casually dressed in long shorts and t-shirts. The food menu was again minimal and this time consisted of packet chips, sausage rolls and cheese and spinach pies. Don’t come here looking for a meal! The drinks menu was small and limited to canned beers, a few imported draft beers and a  small selection of wine. Drink prices were reasonable, ranging from $6 up to $15.

When we arrived at 8:30, we were the only ones there for a few minutes, and the boys were happy to chat while not being obtrusive. With a very late licence, this would be the place for a late night meet-up, not an Old Chooks night out. There was one toilet which had no hand towels although it was tidy in other respects. The music was great, probably meant to be retro but it was all our era!

BEST: The secret agent feel and the music.

WORST: Food. Although, to be honest, if you were here late at night, a sausage roll might be perfect!

Births and Deaths.

2/74 Kembla St, Wollongong

Births and Deaths has had a fair bit of cash thrown at it. The black walls frame the $6000 -worth of Italian tiles that back the bar. There is one long re-manufactured stone table in the middle of the room which would comfortably seat 30 and cafe style seating around outside of the room as well as a few stools at the bar. The bar was half full, with an interesting mix of people. B&D offered table service, a nice touch. We chatted at length to one of the owners, Jared. He explained his philosophy which focused on sustainability. He said they reused as much as possible. The straws were metal, the coasters, washable fabric. The kitchen ran on the concept of minimising waste with the beetroot and pumpkin scraps leftover from the tasting plates used to make syrup for drinks. According to Jared of Births and Deaths, my friends and I are part of the targeted demographic boutique bars in Wollongong are looking for. Cashed up and older.  Young folk, you see “pre-drink” and are stingy about buying food. Old Chooks like us, on the other hand, go out early, buy more expensive drinks and order lots of food. He is also part owner of the Howling Wolf and works in partnership with Cavaeu (a hatted restaurant nearby). He was very accommodating and chatty and talked to us about his plans and the issues of getting a licence and permission to operate.

B&D is also a gin bar but has a broader selection of wine and beers than Juniper. The food was unique, and while not vegetarian, was mostly plant-based. We tried a pumpkin plate which included morsels of pumpkin cooked a few different ways as well as some cheese and tomato toasties.

BEST: The food and the staff.

WORST: The toilet while not unisex, was not very private and it was easy to “disturb” the privacy of other patrons.

Night Parrot

69 Crown St, Wollongong

The Night Parrot was our first stop on the second research night. The technical hitches we had with the online survey (Diane’s phone going flat and Karen using the wrong form)   had been solved, so we were ready to go! A fourth researcher, Tanya, joined us. There were five other groups of people and seating was not a problem. The other patrons were well dressed and included a few couples. The decor was dark and classy with one wall lined with highly varnished wood panels. The remaining walls and ceiling were painted black and gave the place a cave-like feel.  The Night Parrot is a wine bar and features a walk-in wine cabinet which takes up one of the on-street windows. The busy kitchen was visible from the bar and added significantly to the atmosphere with steam wafting up from the stoves. There was seating at the bar as well as open tables and three padded “booths” which seated three comfortably with the fourth at the other side of the table. There was table service, and it took a little longer than expected to give our orders. I had decided to do Feb-Fast and was not drinking alcohol, and while the others were quickly served their wine, I had to ask a second time for my soda water. The volume of the music created a pleasant, unobtrusive feel and allowed for easy conversation. The lighting was on the dark side. This along with the dark walls, gave it a cozy atmosphere. The bar area was brightly lit. The one toilet cubicle was unisex. It was large and spacious with plenty of extra rolls of paper, gentle soap and a blower dryer. The decor was eclectic with a large suspended branch acting as a chandelier.

A small selection of food was on offer. I had the dumplings which were tasty and good value at four pieces for $14.  The wine selection was a mix of local and imported wines and over a wide price range. Both Diane and Tanya ($22) were pleased with their grenaches, one local ($14) one imported ($22).

BEST:  The decor and the wine selection;

WORST:  We thought that with the way the seating was arranged, it would be tough to feel comfortable as a solo visitor.

Moominn

68 Crown St, Wollongong

Moominn is a  quirky, warm, cozy place. It reminded me of someone’s  Grandma’s lounge room. There is a mixture of seating from a few lounge chairs around a fireplace to kitchen tables with old lino chairs. Some seating at the bar is also available. There are all sorts of bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling. Baskets, flowers, light fittings,  bottles, umbrellas etc. The walls are entirely covered with mismatched pictures which scream out OP SHOP find. A large blackboard shows the specials as well as a few witty quotes. They had flavoursome zero alcohol beer, and I would have had another if we were staying longer.

 

The others all had the same red wine and seemed satisfied with their choice. The drinks were served in very simple, practical glasses.  The barkeeper was friendly and offered advice on what beer they had when I asked for no alcohol. The food was OK. I found it a bit oily although the others enjoyed the mix of deep fried mushrooms, cauliflower and cheese bites. A second plate with bread and meatballs was very garlicky. The two dishes were $50 in total. They were small servings, and this seemed expensive to me. The single well-lit toilet is out back through the kitchen.  Quaint sayings are painted on the walls, and the jumbled, over-decorated theme continues here.

The music, while pleasant, was too loud. There was a good crowd of around 20 in attendance, We originally sat at the bar and swooped on a table when it was vacated. The partons were a very mixed group with a good spattering of older people.  It would be easy to visit Mooninn as a solo traveller with the lounge chairs near the fire being cozy and private.

BEST: Quirky fun feel

WORST: Noise levels

The Throsby

2/88 Kembla St, Wollongong

The Throsby is one of the more established small bars in Wollongong and has been open for several years. I had been there before. The waitress seemed to be annoyed when we walked in, and her face showed it.  It looked like we had crashed a private party. It was only 10:10 PM. The first thing she said was the kitchen has closed. Most of the tables were empty, and there were two other groups. A group of four young men at the table nearest the door and a group of six young people at the bar.

The decor is muted and sophisticated. You could describe it as Scandi with blond timber and fine lines. A petite arrangement of flowers/leaves was on each table. The light fittings were chic woven timber. Their glassware was elegant, and I had a tasty pink grapefruit-soda water mix. The music was bland but at a reasonable volume. The one toilet was a bit messy and smelly. It might have been OK  at the beginning of the night but needed a clean at this time.

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Karen and Tanya both commented that the wine was a bit acidic. We could not comment on the food as we did not see a menu. Although the vibe was quite pleasant, we did not interact with the wait staff at all beyond ordering our drinks. We did not score the Throsby well, and we perhaps were over critical because of our less than enthusiastic greeting.

BEST: decor and glassware:

WORST: Reception on arrival. If you’re not open for business, close the door!

And the winner (so far) is…

The graph below shows our overall scores for the six bars visited to date. Births and Deaths has come out as a clear winner for many reasons. Jared was a star. Friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend time chatting with us telling us about his philosophy. This made all the difference.column graph showing scores for bars in Wollongong

(not great photography sorry!)

Is your daily coffee habit making you fat, farty, and broke?

A cappuccino in a green cup.

I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.;  it got me thinking.

Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?

My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)

Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.

Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.

Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?

Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?

Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.

I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.

With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.

On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.

  1. Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
  2. Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
  3. I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!

I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!

The Vietnam Cookery Center

A few years ago I went to Vietnam on my way home from Israel. Not exactly a direct route… but since I was transiting through South Korea it was not too much out of my way.  The main focus of the trip was to join a small group tour with Intrepid Travel from Hanoi in the north down to Ho Chi Min City. I stayed on in Ho Chi Min City for a couple of days to catch up with some friends who were living there at the time.  Vietnamese food is a favourite of mine so I was keen to try a cookery school.

Vietnam Cookery Centre - Ho Chi Min City
Vietnam Cookery Centre – Ho Chi Min City

Australia has a relatively large population of Vietnamese people who came here as refugees in the 1970’s and 80, when Australia had a more humane and sensible policy towards refugees than it does now … but that’s a different story.  As a result, it’s not hard to find a good, authentic Vietnamese restaurant.  Their cuisine has become almost mainstream with school canteens offering rice paper rolls as a matter of course. I have always found it tasty, light and satisfying.

Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leave with prawns.
Green Spring Rolls – Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leaf with prawns.

I booked an afternoon class with The Vietnam Cookery Center after reading reviews on Trip Advisor. The Cookery School is still open and gets consistently good ratings.

The School was on the fourth floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong St and easy to find. I was able to walk there from my hotel without a problem although it didn’t look like a cookery school at first!

a dark lobby area with a kitchen just visible through a doorway
View from the elevator

The three hour lesson was around $US40. There were two other women who were from Sweden doing the course with me. Their husbands joined them to eat what they had cooked after the class.

A group of 3 people two men and a women at a table waiting to start eating.
Sitting down to eat the fruits of our labours.

We were welcomed by a young woman who spoke good English (and whose name I don’t remember sorry)  who explained what we would be doing before we were introduced to the rather stern looking Chef  – Bai Van Bao.  I don’t think he spoke the entire time and he only smiled once… right at the end.  I got the impression this was part of the performance. Very much like the Iron Chef if you have seen that Japanese Cooking show.

A chef with black hat and jacket rolling up his sleeves preparing to cook
Chef Bao – a very serious chap!

The Chef would demonstrate first and then we would copy. The ingredients were all laid out, pre-measured and chopped.

A Chef stiring a pan with various dry spices over a gas flame.
Preparing the spice mix for Pho

All the dishes were made from scratch, except the pho (a beef  and noodle soup, pronounced “fur”). The stock and meat requires about 5 hours cooking time so this would not have been possible to make in the time frame we had. The stock was bubbling away when we got there and the Chef showed us how to add the spice mix at the end and assemble to soup.

The ingredients were very fresh, the recipes uncomplicated and the resultant dishes very tasty. As participants, we made  green spring rolls with a dipping sauce; sauteed chicken with spicy sauce and sweet basil and steamed rice with pandan leaves. The pho and a fruit dessert had been made for us. We walked away with a full belly, a recipe book and a nice apron. In my mind a great way to spend the afternoon.

a bowl of beef and noodle soup with a beer on the side
Tasty Pho

Finally a smile!

a chef dressed in black smiles as he holds a cook book.
Smiling Chef Bao

These photos were taken 2 cameras ago using JPG rather than RAW which I use to shoot now. Looking at them I can see my photography has come a long way!

Reflection of the photgrapher in a mirror
A theme from this trip to Vietnam was to take mirror-Selfies.

If you are looking for other things to do in Vietnam check out this post with 50 things to do in Vietnam

Clever Guts?

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana

If you listen to the health chatter on the TV news, in magazines and on the internet  you will have heard about the importance of gut bacteria to health.  Gut bacteria seem to be responsible for everything from gastrointestinal health to mental health to reducing high blood pressure.  Modern “western” diets which are typically low in fibre and high in processed foods are are being linked to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes because of the deleterious effect they have on gut bacteria.

I have been researching and thinking about  the microbes in my gut for over a year. I started to read the research, then switched to a mostly plant based diet, deliberately increased the  amounts of probiotic and prebiotic foods that I am eating and generally trying to be nice to my gut bugs.

I bought Michael Mosley’s book – The Clever Guts Diet. I have written several other blog posts about it. (Good Mood Food; Eat Food, mostly plants; not too much; and Go with your Gut)

This time, I have put my body (and dignity) forward in the interests of science and bought a uBiome Test kit to check out what is actually living in my gut. It took 3 weeks to get the package from the US and then another 6 weeks to get the results.

The results are very comprehensive and frankly a bit of science-jargon-babble. I am a scientist and I found the data a bit overwhelming and not easy to interpret. I think they could provide a bit more help in unraveling the numbers.

I made this video about the data and my results.

Gut biome

 

So it would seem I am OK but still have a little way to go to have a gut heaven!

 

 

 

 

Go with your gut!

I have become a bit obsessed with the amazing microbiome that is present in our gut. The billions of microorganisms that live inside us and have the potential to do so much good if we look after them.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana. (The seeds and the fertilisers in one bowl!)

Gut Microbes and Health.

More and more research shows that this microbiome is essential to our physical and mental health and many of the health problems facing those in industrialized economies could be solved by paying closer attention to what bugs are in your gut.

When your bug population get out of balance (dysbiosis) your whole body is in trouble.

The gut biome has been linked to

  • anxiety
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids in the gut
  • Digestion of “non-digestible” carbohydrates which therefore affects the amount of energy that is released from some foods
  • Protection from “bad” bacteria
  • Allergies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
  • Eczema and asthma
  • Appetite regulation

 

Most studies of overweight and obese people show a dysbiosis characterised by a lower diversity[1].

Translation: Obese people have an imbalance of microorganisms with not enough variety present

It’s much better to have a good variety of microorganisms in your gut because:

The association between reduced diversity and disease indicates that a species-rich gut ecosystem is more robust against environmental influences, as functionally related microbes in an intact ecosystem can compensate for the function of other missing species. Consequently, diversity seems to be a generally good indicator of a “healthy gut.”[2]

Translation: Having lots of different species of bacteria makes your body better able to withstand challenges because what one bug can’t do another type can. They can cover all bases by working together.

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Beetroot soup! Full of fibre.

Fibre is the answer!

So how do you get a good mix of bugs in your gut? The key is consuming a goodly amount of dietary fibre and reducing the amounts of highly processed foods that we eat.

The idea is that we need to feed our gut bugs. Highly processed foods are easily digested and absorbed and don’t make it to the large intestine where most of the bug action is happening. By eating foods high in undigestable fibre, we give the bugs a meal as well.

How much is enough? Australia’s CSIRO[3]  recommend between 25 – 35 g per day. Having said that; too much fibre can reduce the diversity of your microbiome and if you suddenly change from a low fibre diet to a high fibre diet you can suffer from abdominal discomfort and flatulence. You should spread fibre consumption throughout the day and drink plenty of water to keep it moving through your intestines.

Types of fibre

There are different types of fibre which have different properties. The main types are insoluble, soluble and resistant starch.

  • Insoluble fibre found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides bulk and can help control blood sugar levels.
  • Soluble fibre found in legumes, veggies and fruits give the bugs something to eat so they stay happy
  • Resistant starch, which is found in cooked, cooled and reheated rice, potato and pasta, as well has whole grains, legumes and under ripe bananas. Resistant starch increases the amounts of butyrate in the gut. Butyrate, a byproduct of microbial metabolism,  is important in keeping the gut walls healthy as well as keeping bad bacteria at bay.
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Cooked and then cooled rice has increased levels of resistant starch. Another excellent reason to each sushi!

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living organisms such as yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics on the other hand are foods that help the microorganisms in your body thrive.

A good analogy is that if you think of your gut as a garden, the probiotics are the seeds and the prebiotics the fertiliser.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts. This bowl is full of healthy treats for your gut bugs!

Bug zappers!

Some chemicals and medications will damage your gut bugs.

Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job, so they kill the bacteria in your gut too. You may need to take some extra special care of your gut bugs after antibiotics. There is some evidence that the appendix acts a reservoir for the microbiome and in time will help repopulate the gut with good bugs.

Emulsifiers are added to food to make oily and watery components stay mixed together. If you mix oil and vinegar together, they will after time, separate into layers unless you add an emulsifier. Some artificial emulsifiers have been linked to damaging the gut microbiome because they lead to a thinning of the mucous layer in the gut which in turn leads to leaky gut syndrome. This causes inflammation in many areas of the body. The answer? Prepare your own food from scratch as often as possible and avoid things your grandparents would not have considered as food. Be wary of foods with lots of numbers in the ingredient list and not many recognisable as food.

Omnivore vs vegan?

There does not seem to be much evidence that a well balanced omnivorous diet is any better or worse than a vegan diet. (see The BMJ article referred to below) Michael Mosley and others wholeheartedly recommend a “Mediterranean diet“. This type of diet is mostly plant based but does include meat, eggs, some dairy, healthy oils and nuts.

Further reading on gut microbes and health.

This post is only a very short summary of the growing volume of information available. Here are just a few of the articles you could read to if you want to know more.

Start with this comprehensive and easy to read article from the BMJ (British Medical Journal) Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health

These scholarly articles talk about the relationship between the gut microbiome and mental health and health in general.

The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders.

Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis

The Gut Microbiome, Anxiety and Depression: 6 Steps to Take

Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease

Some good books are

Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet.

The CSIRO Healthy Gut Diet.

 

[1] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[2] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[3] “The CSIRO healthy gut diet / Dr Tony Bird, Dr Michael Conlon and ….” http://nla.gov.au/anbd.bib-an63676915. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018. Page 25-26

 

Eat food, mostly plants – not too much.

Sishi rolls

My sister found this pamphlet when she was going through a box of old papers with my mum a few weeks ago. It’s from a c1950 Westinghouse Refrigerator User Manual.

Fridge

The part that particularly grabbed my attention was last sentence – the bit about brown vs white sugar! It points out to me that poor dietary advice has been around forever!

What is a healthy diet?

When it comes to diets just exactly who should we believe? There’s such a variety with the claims often contradicting each other. We could try:

Vegan – strictly only plants

Vegetarian- plants but also sometimes honey, eggs and dairy

Paleo – the food Ugg the cave man would be able to source back in the day – like 40,000 + years ago and way before McDonalds.

Whole 30 – beware this one has lots of rules! Whole30 program website

FODMAP – designed to help those with irritable bowel syndrome

Mediterranean – rich in veggies, olive oil, and fish like the food traditionally eaten in Italy and Greece

Ketogenic – when I was at Uni ketosis was a BAD thing. This diet has no carbs, just lots of protein and fat. 

5:2 diet – based on intermittent fasting. Fast for two days then eat what you like the other days. Developed by Dr Michael Mosley

The Clever Guts diet – another from Dr Mosley

No sugar

No cabs after 5

Atkins – only Generation X’ers and before will remember this one!

There are so many variations on how to eat healthily!  The array of information available these days is overwhelming. Even with my background in food science I find it hard to keep up.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts

Food as more than fuel

A healthy buffet selection
A healthy buffet selection from the Grand Hyatt, Incheon.

In my late teens and in my early 20’s, I was anorexic and for a short time bulimic. I ate very little. I weighed about 47 kg and got annoyed if I went over 50kg. My BMI was less than 17. (A Healthy BMI is between 19 an 24) I exercised hard and stayed very fit but perhaps not healthy. I used to replay the words from the Ford Pills Diet ad over and over in my head. It was on TV when I was only 7 but it obviously had left its mark!

Are you too fat, too fat,  too fat to fit in the Ford Pill Figure?

Before intermittent fasting was a “thing”, I used to fast all day Saturday, with the idea I could eat what I liked on Sunday. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, dizzy and light headed. I had frequent hypoglycaemic events not because I was diabetic but because I didn’t eat often enough. I was an absolute pain in the neck when it came to eating out!

Cup cakes
Definitely a sometimes food! (Molly’s Cupcakes, New York)

I did a Food Technology degree at University and on reflection, this was no doubt my way of becoming a “food expert” and validating what I was doing. After Uni, I went on to work in the food manufacturing industry for a few years before moving into laboratory equipment sales. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to work with food in one form or another[1]. Apart from my day job I had a side hustle – being a fitness instructor. More reasons to exercise and stay thin.

Once I was married, I would cook hugely elaborate meals. My husband also enjoyed cooking and we would often spend almost the entire weekend planning, shopping, preparing and cooking fabulous menus which I didn’t eat much of. Food was always on the agenda as a hobby, and as a fuel.

I am pleased to say that as I have gotten older I have become more sensible with my diet although it is still a balancing act of energy in vs energy out.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana.

I still enjoy cooking and now that I am cooking only for myself (and I’m past the wine and wedges phase) I make it an intentional act to cook a decent meal a few times a week. There are always leftovers, so I have enough for those nights when I have less time.  I plan my weekly meals (let’s say that again:  I aim to plan my weekly meals because sometimes I don’t!!) – mainly because it means I don’t waste so much food or have to face the decision of what to cook each night.

I remain interested in nutrition and have considered returning to study in this field. When I was doing my first degree, issues like antioxidants and gut bacteria weren’t even on the horizon. Coconut oil was a BAD thing!

Nowadays, I also look out for foods that will have a protective factor against the diseases of older age.  There is some talk (but little evidence) that turmeric will reduce the inflammation that contributes to arthritis and dementia. I am now taking turmeric tablets. It can’t hurt, and it might help. In a previous post I spoke about good mood food,  food that feeds your gut bacteria and is thought to contribute to positive physical and mental health.

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Finding the right food balance.

In the end I think we all know that no fad diet will work. There is no magic bullet. If you want to lose weight you need to use more energy than you consume. If you want to be healthy you need variety. You need to be flexible and not place any unnecessary restrictions on what you can and can’t eat. Get your advice from reputable sources that don’t have a vested interest and are not trying to sell you something. I have not fact checked any of the websites I have linked to in the above list – so do your own research. I think you need to be careful if someone is making money out of selling you a fad diet.

The best dietary advice I have heard recently is summed up in seven words from Michael Pollan:

“eat food, mostly plants – not too much”

The eat food part is the trickiest part to decipher. By this he means eat real food, not processed; food your great grandma would recognise as food.

[1] https://patient.info/health/eating-disorders/features/working-with-food-when-you-have-an-eating-disorder

The little imaginary fellow on my other shoulder keeps telling me how bourgeois this line of reasoning is.  A great many people on our Earth will find this concern about he best way to eat to stay healthy ridiculous because they have NO food.. We should be grateful we have the food in the first place and do our best not to waste it and distribute it more equitably – but that’s a whole other topic for a different blog post!

Well past it….

My mum had a can or mandarin segments in her cupboard for as long as I can remember. As a kid l would look at them longingly. They shone, as if lit by some magical spotlight at the back of the dark food cupboard where all the other cans lived.

I would ask, hopefully “Mum, can we eat these?”

“’No” she would say “they’re for a special occasion”.

Exotic but forbidden fruit with a dazzling label.  The choir of angels would sing “Ahhhhhhhhhhh” and I would be turned away.

I am not sure when the mandarins come into the cupboard but they stayed there for at least 15 years and when Mum and Dad moved to the country, they moved with them. As an adult, I used to tease her about them. They must have been getting close to 40 years old when they finally got thrown out, unused. They became useless before the special occasion arrived.

I am not sure what would have warranted their opening. We had plenty of special occasions in the time they lingered. Four weddings, more than four funerals. The birth of grandchildren and the loss of one Angel baby. In the end, I am sure Mum kept them for the fun of it; as a reminder of the earlier days. I used to go looking for them each time I visited and we would have a bit of a laugh.

When I noticed a sticky brown liquid seeping over the shelves of my own food cupboard, I thought I must have knocked over a sauce bottle or something. I cleaned up the bottom shelf, sniffing at the sticky, metallic liquid. I discovered more of the same on the second and then the third shelf. I eventually tracked it down to a can of apricot nectar that had been lurking there for at least four years and probably longer. It was swollen, corroded and hissing. Not waiting for a special occasion but especially bought to make apricot chicken[1] which was no longer on my preferred food options and obviously hadn’t been for some time.

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The offending can of Apricot Nectar carefully transported to the bin like a ticking bomb!

The mandarin segments and the apricot nectar collided in my brain to create a metaphor. The merging of waste, waiting and the passage of life. The special occasion mandarins ended up wasted as they waited for an ill-defined special use. They could have enriched a meal years earlier. Adorned a special birthday pavlova decades before. The mandarin tree took energy to grow them, the factory used energy to can them and they took up space in at least one packing box as they shifted from a city life to the rural bliss of Bellingen.

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They symbolise a life held in limbo – waiting. Waiting for the right time for something to happen.

They were nothing but a cheap can of fruit that could have been easily replaced. I imagine that lots of families have the equivalent in their own cupboard and this is not meant to be a criticism of my own family. We apply this ‘special occasion’ mentality to lots of life’s good things… the special crystal bowls; the special tableware or the special outfits. If we buy these things and they sit there year in year out in the back of a cupboard we waste money and resources.

I sorted through the cans and bottles and discovered lots of out of date food. Food bought and not used either because I had not been careful in my stock rotation or because I had changed the way I cook and eat. I looked at the pile I had set aside and estimated it was worth at least $40-50. Not a lot, but still a symbol of wasteful affluence that I was not happy with.  Add to this cache, the bits of wilted, slimy or mouldy veggies that get thrown from the fridge each week and it represents not only a waste of my own money but of the world’s resources. It is, on some level, immoral. Here was proof that I was consuming more than I needed to. My wasteful approach to food is past its use by date. I need to make some changes.

This exercise in cleaning has given me two new goals:

  1. To reduce the amount of food I keep stored. I am lucky that I have resources to buy what I need and failing a nuclear holocaust I don’t need to stockpile.
  2. I am going to eat life’s mandarin segments in fancy crystal bowls and enjoy them because life is too unpredictable to wait for the special occasions.

 

small cans
My aim is to reduce the canned foods to close to zero.

 

[1] You know the one. The 1970’s cordon bleu dish of chicken pieces,  French onion soup mix and a can of apricot nectar poured over the top and shoved in the oven for 40 minutes. Simple, fast and kid friendly!

 

Food photography is a crock of shit!

food3

I work full time. I have a good job and can pay my bills even though I am in debt. I am divorced and have a big mortgage.  I don’t want to work forever.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 1: I could choose not to work. I have a roof over my head and I have a cupboard and refrigerator (over) full with nutritious food.

Over the last year, I have been planning my life more deliberately. Looking for side hustles so I can quit my job sooner rather than later. At the same time, I am looking to reduce my impact on the planet and use less stuff.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 2: I have some agency over my own life. I can make choices about how I will spend my time. I can choose whether I consume or not.

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This one’s a bit blurry I know but the concept is good!

Over the last few years I have developed some photography skills and I think this could be one of the ways I can achieve my goals.  One of my other interests is cooking and nutrition. I can see myself writing some freelance articles for magazines about healthy eating, maintaining good mental health through a diverse gut biome and uploading sumptuous shots of various lentil dishes to Instagram. So, to this end, I bought an online food photography course to get the professional lowdown.

Woe is me: Third World Problem Number 3: I have skills, I am educated. I can read and write. I have access to fast internet and (un)social media.

 

Right now, I am feeling angry with myself and the developed world. Why? As I was watching the video lessons on food photography and saw the well-fed, well-dressed photographer with her huge Canon camera and  even bigger lens fuss about the styling of a wooden board loaded up with citrus fruit, my hackles began to rise.

‘I think the white pith on the pomegranate is too much.’ she said

Stylist removes white pith and balances the corners of the board as the photographer pulls faces.

‘I am looking for more tension in the plate.’

Tension? WTF! Oranges are not tense!

She flips over some peel to show the coloured side rather than the pith. Oh! Yes!  That’s so much more tense!

‘Have you got a crustier plate – I want it to look gnarly and poor…

Props boy scurries for a gnarlier board.

There were at least 8 people on set. Camera crew, food stylists, go-fers plus the “audience” which is supposed to give it a live classroom feel.

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I had to hit the stop. I was sitting there swearing at the computer.

‘Of for fuck’s sake you wanker. Just show me how to light the shot!’ I shouted.

I paused a little longer and felt overwhelmed by my luck.  I had been kicked in the head with a huge dose of reality. I can afford to photograph food when around 20% of the global population is undernourished.

What a futile enterprise. As I sit here and write this post for my blog, the irony is not lost.

 

What to do?

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I can’t solve the world’s problems. One little me?  I could hide back in my cocoon of privilege and drink my wine as I get angrier and angrier. Or… I could do something… What?

olive

I will think on that a while…hang on while I pour myself another wine and check my Facebook feed.  I need to do some research.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 4: Feeling like I have no part to play. Where is my power now?

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