Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Want Candy

           Everyone has a culinary kryptonite – cheese, chocolate, foie gras, fried flying ants (in Africa – they taste like chips), pork belly, whatever. For me, it’s candy.  I’m not talking chocolate (I’m not really a big chocolate eater – unless it’s cacao nibs.  I love the bitterness.) Candy. While I am partial to fruit flavored varieties, I will pretty much chow down anything that screams over-processed sugar.  This also means licorice, candied dried fish, chili-tamarind balls, salted mango lollipops.  If it has vast amounts of concentrated sugar, I will eat it.  Suffice it to say, my dentist is not too happy about this.  But ever since I had a child, I have had to cut back on my candy consumption – a lot. Except for the occasional late night sour belt attack, I have had to forgo candy. 
            If you are one of those persons that see having children would be an opportunity to eat MORE candy, then this post may not interest you.  But if you are like the thousands of parents that have tried to improve your children’s eating habits, then this post might be helpful.  According the America’s Center for Disease Control (“CDC”), 31.7% of US children are obese or overweight.[1] One study suggests that 40% of children’s calories are from junk food.  And half of fat calories from kid’s diets come from six foods (if you want to call it that):
  1. Soda
  2. Sugary fruit drinks
  3. Grain desserts (e.g. cookies, cakes, etc.)
  4. Dairy desserts (yes, I mean ice cream)
  5. Pizza
  6. Whole milk[2]

While the sources of childhood obesity are multi-fold and complex, the usual suspects are lack of activity (this means physical activity), poor eating habits, and genetic factors.[3]  While most of us can’t control genetic factors, we would like to think that we encourage physical activity (and in the case of some parents, you can’t-especially little boys under the age of 5) and their eating habits. 
            Easier said than done. Children are notoriously picky eaters. I am fortunate that my five-year old daughter is fairly easy in terms of feeding.  She’ll eat most foods.  But she’s not the biggest fan of green things or mushy things (but strangely enough, expensive mushy things, like truffles and mousse de canard, are well liked).  Lettuce. Eggplant. Brussels sprouts.  But probably your kid (or adult) is not so amenable. 
            Children mimic adults and one of the greatest influences on a child’s eating habits is his or her parents’ eating habits. If you don’t care about your eating habits, why should your kid?  Eating in front of a television, eating industrial food, eating no fruits or vegetables. But for many people, the basics of nutrition are not “top of your head” facts.[4] Do you know what is in your food? Do you know what your daily allowance of calories should be?  Do you know how much fat and what kinds of fat are around? Do you know how your food was made? How much protein, carbohydrates and sugars should you be getting and from what sources?
            This is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you don’t know this information, your kid won’t know it either.  Considering how many cuts there are in education due to budget constraints, innovative nutrition and gym classes are just not an option. According to one study done at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, marketing, especially in the form of cartoon characters, will influence children’s eating habits.[5]  Grocery stores are filled with candy at the front of the check-out line.  Commercials with for junk food (often labeled as “part of a healthy diet…”) are rife in children’s television programs. Who sponsors your children’s activities? Pepsi? Oh, did you hear the study about artificial coloring and hyperactivity?[6]
            There is definitely a lot of blame to go around regarding child obesity and poor eating habits. But we’re the adults. We as parents must do our share of the work. The impressionability of young minds is no excuse for us not to take bulk of responsibility for children’s health.  You can say “no” when your kid whines about not getting a cookie.  You can reward children with other things beyond junk food.  You can explain to them why junk food is junk.  You can help them make responsible food choices at the grocery store.  You can tell them how and where food is made.  You made your kids.  Now it’s your time to show them how to become adults.
Agar Agar Jello
No, there is no typo here.  Agar agar is a seaweed derivative[7] used frequently in Asian foods and desserts as well as culture medium for microbiologists (it’s the jelly stuff on the bottom of Petri dishes).  Have you had almond jelly at a Chinese restaurant?  That is made with agar agar.  Since the ingredient does not destabilize at room temperature (it dissolves at 100ºC) it’s great for making desserts that will not die in a Chicago (New York or Hong Kong) summer. It’s also the same stuff that fancy-schmancy chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria use to make their weird (but really tasty) food. As agar agar will readily dissolve in boiling liquid, it can be used with most liquid mediums (certain fruit juices containing protease will not work, e.g. pineapple, kiwi, papaya and figs) to create some funky vegan jello.  The basic recipe is below, but feel free to play with it.  You can also use alcohol to make un-frat boy jello shots (Cava, champagne, etc. are nice).  I also like to make these funky appetizers with Bloody Mary mix, pickled vegetables and chopped herbs (cut up fruit also can be added).  Also, you can use any mold you like (the silicone ones are GREAT for this) or just place it in a pan and use cookie cutters.  Your kids will never know it’s good for them…

11/2 tsp. of agar-agar powder (if you have flakes, use 1 tbs.)
2 cups of liquid
If making sweet jellies, sugar to taste (I usually add none. Fruit juice is plenty sweet)

1.     Heat the liquid until it starts steaming, but do not boil.  Add agar agar and sugar (if using), stir well and simmer until agar (and sugar) is completely dissolved.
2.     Fill molds halfway.  If you are using fruit or other ingredients (herbs, tapioca, etc.), add them after pouring the liquid into the molds, otherwise it gets messy.
3.     Let the jelly set – about 2-4 hours. You do not need to refrigerate the mixture unless there is something perishable in your jelly – e.g. fruit.
Unmold or cut out using cookie cutters and eat. 

[1] While the adult measurements for obesity and excess weight are defined by Body Mass Index (“BMI”), children are charted according to their BMI appropriate for their age and gender, by percentile.  Under the fifth percentile is underweight; fifth to the eight-fifth percentile is normal, eighty-fifth to ninety-fifth is overweight, and above ninety-fifth is considered obese, respectively.  For a measure of your child (under 19), go to the CDC website here:
[2] These numbers come from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (“NHANES”). A sample of 5,000 persons is given a series of surveys as well as physical and laboratory exams regarding public health matters, e.g. dietary habits, demographic information, socio-economic status.  For more information regarding the study, see
[3] I am not suggesting here that childhood obesity is solely a US problem.  Rising rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases (diabetes Type 2, heart disease, etc.) are strongly correlated to rising GDP and development. See Pedro Carrera-Bastos, Maelan Fontes-Villalba, James H O’Keefe, et al., “The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization,” in Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology, March 2011, Vol. 2011:2, pgs. 15-35.
[4] Most of you readers have an idea about basic nutrition, but you’d be surprised how much misinformation there is out there.  This is especially true regarding diets. 
[5] Christina Roberto, doctoral student, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and departments of clinical psychology and epidemiology and public health, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
[6] The FDA will sponsor a meeting regarding this topic today. See
[7] Agar agar can be made with a number of different red alga-forms and species, including Garcilaria and Gelidium genuses. It’s the polysaccharides that allow agar agar to gel the way it does.
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