The Free Range Gourmet Free range thoughts on the finest ingredients, cuisine, and fine dining in Hawaii.

Range Gourmet

  Local Hawaii ingredients used with an international flair

        ^BNanette^K^H (Gone but not forgotten) 1946-2020


Saturday, August 18, 2007


Chinese chemicals in your "health" foods?

Astute shoppers know that many, if not most, of the products for sale in health food stores are not necessarily good for you. Maybe they're better than corresponding products in the supermarkets, or maybe not. Increasingly, shoppers are aware that these products contain problematic quantities of salt and sweeteners.

To entice you to purchase, packaged foods may be laced with added doses of vitamins and minerals that are supposed to be good for you. This is nothing new, if you remember Wonderbread ("Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 8 ways"). The "8 (later 12) ways referred, of course, to the number of added nutrients. And during the war (WWII I mean), this wasn't a bad thing. The government program to enrich white flour greatly reduced the incidence of beriberi and pellagra.

Manufacturers add chemicals, sometimes called "nutraceuticals" to health foods not to be sure you won't get beriberi, but to entice you to take them home with you. Of course, you have no idea how much of these chemicals you are really getting in each portion or where these chemicals are manufactured.


Yes, many are manufactured in China. And China has been in the news recently as a source of tainted food products.

Digging into the box

Supermarkets now compete with health food stores, sometimes with the same brands and sometimes with their own. For example, Safeway has its own brand of organics marked with the "O" brand. I also found Eating Right products, including breakfast cereal, which claim dietary and nutritional benefits. I bought a box of Eating Right Muesli Cereal, which claims to be low fat and  "good source of 14 vitamins & minerals."

Now, a low fat claim is innocent enough and a good thing. Let's read the label.

The ingredients list on the box started off with raisins, then a list of whole grains, and ended with the corn syrup, salt, and malt flavoring that usually appears much earlier in the list in other supermarket cereals. Oops, the period on the end  of the ingredient list isn't really the end. Below the ingredient list is another list, "Vitamins and minerals." It should have been part of the ingredient list. But  never mind, maybe it was a proofreader's error.

What follows is a list of chemicals. Indeed, this product is a "nutraceutical." It makes health claims based on the added mixture of chemicals which are there so that it can make health claims.

Of course, their country of origin is not given. Too bad, because some of them are likely to be made in China. Wherever they come from, they are usually produced by complex reactions from sources that are definitely not "O" for organic.

Checking the list of chemicals on my box against the index of Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger, I found, for example:

Thiamine hydrochloride--produced when crystals of thiamine are reacted with methanol, hydrochloric acid, and ethanol (p. 38). The largest plant producing thiamine is located a couple of hours north of Beijing, a joint venture between the German firm BASF and Tianjin Zhongjin Pharmaceutical Co.

According to the book, the manufacturing process varies from company to company, but usually starts with coal tar. Yup. We can argue whether that's a natural ingredient or not. The book says that "Thiamine chemicals are finished with about fifteen steps that may include, depending on the company, such appetizing processes as oxidation with corrosive strength hydrogen peroxide and active carbon; reactions with ammonium nitrate, ammonium carbonate, and nitric acid (to form a salt); and washing it with alcohol. It is edible at this point..."

Riboflavin--according to the book, the largest manufacturer in the world is Guangji Pharmaceutical Co. in Hubei, China. This plant makes over two thousand tons a year of riboflavin (perhaps also the riboflavin in this cereal?). In huge tanks that stand as much as six stories high, the book says, enzymes work for a few days to excrete riboflavin. From what, you may ask? "It might be a stinky mix of nutrient-rich waste fats, or cod-liver oil or canola or soybean oil." There are other, less noxious choices, such as millet seeds kept for a week at 90 degrees F. Whatever.

Folic acid--for this, we go to Changzhou, China, two hours, according to the book, from Shanghai. There some is made from fermented as well as petroleum products. The latter "is made from a high-tech soup of an amino acid (glutamic acid, the one that turns into MSG when mixed with sodium; ketchup is full of glutamic acid), a foul-smelling, flammable form of acetone (also found in nail polish remover), and pteroic acid, otherwise known by the catchy nickname 2-amino-4-oxopteridin-5-yl, or sometimes 4-([2-amino-4-hydroxy-6-pteridylmethyl]amino)benzoic acid, a blend of paraffin and butyric acid, both petrochemicals. ... This forms folic acid--pteroyl-L-glutamic acid--that is in turn refined, reduced in acidity, purified with zinc and magnesium salts, crystallized, dried, and sterilized until only a fine, dark powder remains, ready to ship off to the flour mills."

Beta carotene--this comes from carrots, right? No, it's synthesized. The book doesn't say where it comes from.

And how much of these fine chemicals do you get in a serving?

 I pulled the inside bag from the box and noticed that the corn flakes had largely migrated to the top. At the bottom were white things that might be oats or barley along with powdered or crushed substances. So unless you dump everything out and mix it up when you buy it, my guess is that the first few servings would be short of the advertised nutrients and your last bowl could contain megadoses. That's just a guess, I'm not Consumer Reports (and too bad they don't report on things like this).

It's not like taking a daily vitamin pill. The dose you get is a crap shoot. Nor are all the ingredients necessarily effective. Remember, they are there to convince you to buy the box, not because they'll necessarily do you any good.

And who knows where they are made.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Tell me it's not true... `ono kine grindz can't leave us, it just can't

I hope Reid will reconsider. Not that I have a right to impose on a fellow blogger. But `ono kine grindz has been an inspiration. And an ideal that I can't really reach. Don't we need folks ahead of us as examples to follow?

Writing a blog isn't like doing a radio program, for example. There isn't an audience of thousands tuned in and listening attentively while stuck in traffic. Who knows why each blogger persists.

From a reader's point of view, I suppose it's mostly my greed. I enjoyed reading `ono kine grindz. I learned about great places to eat and about good food to try. Reid has a great style. He also pioneered several things, including an arrangement to post the food page of the late lamented Downtown Planet on his blog.

Sure, there are other food blogs in Hawaii, and many of them excellent. Check some of them out along the right side of this blog. Reid has a longer list in his last post. I've highlighted the last three articles of each one to encourage readers of the Free Range Gourmet to, well, graze.

Reid hints he may return. I hope it's just writer's block or something, and that he'll blow the dust off the mouse and come back soon. Hey, Cindy Sheehan couldn't actually retire. There's work to be done. I'm hoping for more from Reid in the future, when he's ready.


Market Find: India Cafe at KCC Saturday Farmers' Market

We're fans of the India Cafe and have watched them grow at their location in Kilohana Square. I remember the great dosai we enjoyed when they first opened and still operated a gift shop adjacent to the small restaurant (they've since expanded into that space). They even had a machine imported from India to ferment their dough. They could make authentic idlis, which took me all the way back to Singapore (without spending the air fare, of course). Idlis are hard to find outside of an Indian home and are totally addictive. So are dosai (the plural of dosa), which can be small or large breads or wrappers made of fermented rice and lentil flour (see pictures at their website).

I bought some lamb masala to take home. It was great to have the scents and flavors of India that evening for dinner.

It seems that their appearance at the market was an experiment, to see how it would go. I hope it went well for them so that they'll be back.

If you're also an India Cafe Fan, or if you'd like to see them back at the KCC market, visit their website and maybe give them a call (737-4600) to encourage them.


Waiting for the next Epic

I was glad to read Nadine Kam's review Chapter 2 adds little to Epic tale in today's Star-Bulletin. She confirmed our suspicions and saved us a bundle of money.

We were sitting in Little Village reading the Epic menu last week. In fact, after leaving the wine tasting at HASR that evening, we had debated trying Epic but decided to go for something familiar and comfortable instead--and so found ourselves at Little Village. They had Epic menus at the front desk (both restaurants are owned by the Chans) so we grabbed one and while waiting for our order to arrive we pondered our decision not to go there that evening.

The reviews we had read, although favorable, had put us off both the idea of going there and led us to question our trust for the reviewers. But we were hoping for some excuse to try the place ourselves. You never know. Eating is a better test than reading about a restaurant. So we were perusing the menu wondering what we might order if we were there.

A couple of things told us that we had made the right decision and that we would probably skip Epic altogether. First, the dishes seemed rather pretentiously priced. If the chef were already a recognized superstar it would be another thing. The clincher was imagining the combination of ingredients described as arriving on the same plate.

We have some respect for how traditional dishes are served in their country of origin. There's a reason why some treatments have persevered over the centuries: they work. Unagi (eel), for example, is served in certain ways in Japan because they work and have survived the test of time. Of course, innovation and experimentation are important too. The combinations we saw on the Epic menu didn't look like they would survive a couple of months, much less a few centuries. Nor does serving a shrimp on an upside down martini glass (see Nadine Kam's review) get any points in my book unless the dish is otherwise superb. It's a non-sequitur, an obstacle to the enjoyment of the food. And Nadine observed that the poke underneath this gimmick was of poor quality. The rest of her review was similarly critical.

Form doesn't replace substance. Epic seems to be, well, an overstatement.

So thanks again to Nadine Kam for her straight-talking review.

I can hardly wait for either Epic-3 or for whatever will replace it in that prime spot in Chinatown, just a short distance away from the Hawaii Theater.


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Official web pages and Tip Sheets for Saturday morning KCC Farmers' Market, Wednesday night Honolulu Market, Sunday morning Mililani Market, and Thursday Night Kailua Market


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You've read about the world-wide slow food movement. Hawaii has an active Slow Food group. Learn about or join Slow Food USA at the Slow Food USA website.

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