Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 2

I tried making another batch of brown rice syrup last night, changing up a few things. The result? Another jar of mud.

It was not a total failure. The fact that I got eight ounces this time, rather than two, means that homemade brown rice syrup will be economical when all is said and done. By rough calculations I figured that this eight ounce jar cost me $1.21 to make (not counting labor and electricity). So a full sized jar (16 ounces) would cost $2.42. I still haven't been successful at converting all of the starches so when I do, the yield will go up even more and the cost will come down.

Even though this turned out muddier than the last one, it is sweeter and less bitter. The reason it's muddier is because I ground the rice into flour and so some of the unconverted starches were small enough to slip through during the straining process.

Here's what I did this time. I ground a cup and a half of rice into flour with my coffee grinder, then cooked it in nine cups of water for about twenty minutes. I let it cool until the temperature in the center of the pot was below 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I added the sprouted barley.

This time I also did something different with the barley. On various websites that talk about how to malt barley, they say that once the barley is sprouted it's dried in order to halt the process at the right point. I haven't been doing this, since I was using the barley immediately and didn't think it mattered. But this time I dried the barley in the oven for several hours (keeping the temp below 150F at all times). Whether this is a critical step or not, I don't know. But it did have one obvious benefit--when it was dried I could grind it into a fine powder in the coffee grinder. That made it possible to disperse it more uniformly in the rice mixture.

So I mixed the barley powder ( 1/4 of a cup) into the rice mixture and put it in the oven, where I kept the temperature somewhere in between 140 and 150 degrees. I let it cook for seven hours then turned the oven off and left it there overnight. (The only reason I didn't cook it longer is because I was heading to bed). In the morning I strained it. This time instead of using cheesecloth I strained twice through my regular mesh sieve and twice more through a really fine sieve (one of my little two-inch diameter tea strainers--a little tedious!). Still, some of the starches were fine enough to get through. This yielded six cups of liquid, which seemed like a promising amount to start out with. From that I was hoping to yield at least twelve ounces of syrup.

It took about forty-five minutes to boil it down and in the end, as I said, I got eight ounces. It's the sweetest batch so far and also the least bitter, so I know I'm on the right track. I really think the bitterness is coming from the unconverted starches rather than the barley. There still was quite a lot of rice sludge that I filtered out--at least a cup, maybe a cup and a half.

So, next time... (while I was working on this last night my friend John called and I told him there wasn't going to be a next time, but he launched into the "What if Thomas Edison had given up after a few tries, what if Albert Einstein had given up after a few tries" spiel. I told him it's not quite the same--this thing has already been invented. There's really no need for anyone to do it again. But, sigh, I am quite a persistent little bugger so I will probably keep at it until I figure it out.) Anyway, I was saying, next time I'm going to up the amount of barley maybe to as much as half a cup and I will also let it cook indefinitely. The worst thing that will happen if it goes too long is that the sugars will start to convert to alcohol. If I keep tasting it as I go, I should be able to tell when that starts to happen. Then I'll know for the next time to stop just short of that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 1

A few years ago I decided to try to figure out how to make brown rice syrup. I didn't find a whole lot of information to go on, but I went with what little information I had and did some experimenting. The result was a syrup of the right consistency but muddy looking (kind of like beef gravy) rather than translucent. Worse than that, while it had a degree of sweetness to it, it also had an unbearably bitter aftertaste. So bad that when I finished the experiment I never wanted to see brown rice syrup again nor even a single grain of brown rice. Bleck!

The problem was probably one of three things: either some of the starches hadn't converted to sugar, or I used too much barley which itself may have been bitter, or I let the barley sprout for too long and that caused it to be bitter.

These seem to be the three most important variables: how long to sprout the barley, how much barley to use, and how long to heat the mixture in order to get all the starches to convert.

The basic process, I believe, is this. You sprout some barley. The sprouting process releases enzymes in the barley, which is what will digest the starches in the rice, turning them into sugars. You cook the rice, then cool it to a temperature below which the enzymes won't be destroyed. (I've seen conflicting information on just what that temperature is, but 140 degrees Fahrenheit works.) Once cooled you add the sprouted barley (crushed, or chopped in a food processor) and then let the enzymes go to work. You have to keep the mixture heated to the 140 degree range the whole time (the oven on its lowest setting is the best bet for me) and it will take many hours. Once you've let it digest long enough strain off the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth and boil the resulting liquid down to the desired consistency.

The first time I experimented I tried to control for the amount of barley used. I divided the cooked rice into four different containers. At that point I didn't know whether I should leave the barley whole or chop it up. I thought chopping might help, but I also worried that it might damage the enzymes somehow (shows how clueless I was). So in one bowl I put a tablespoon of whole barley, in another bowl a tablespoon of chopped barley, in a third bowl I put a quarter cup of whole barley and in a fourth bowl I put a quarter cup of chopped barley. Within five minutes, the two bowls with the chopped barley were bubbly, just like when you proof yeast, so I knew that chopping the barley was beneficial. The other bowls followed along shortly thereafter, but at a slower pace. As the enzymes continued their work, the mixtures began to thin considerably. I could tell that the starches were breaking down. The bowl with a quarter cup of chopped barley did the best, so it would seem that more barley is better (sounds logical). However, I don't know if the barley is contributing to the bitter taste, so it might be the case that more is not actually better. It might be faster, but not better.

This week I decided to take another stab at it. Since the last time I experimented I'd come across a recipe in a 1975 issue of Mother Earth News magazine for what they called "Grain Honey" . It sounded similar to everything I'd tried and so I hoped that they had all the kinks ironed out for me, as to amounts and timing and all of that. The only thing I did differently was to use four tablespoons of sprouted barley instead of three. That was because my sprouts were only two days old and I was afraid they wouldn't be potent enough. So after hours of baking, then boiling it all down, I had another syrup of the perfect consistency. It was not quite translucent but at least it didn't look like beef gravy this time. I took a lick. Definitely far sweeter than the last batch...getting close...but wait, ugh, there it was again--that horrendous aftertaste!

So, it's back to the drawing board. Did that one extra tablespoon of barley ruin it? Or did the starches not completely convert? It's frustrating with all these variables to manipulate--the ratio of rice to barley, the time you let the barley sprout, and how long to let the rice cook.

I suspect there's another variable. When I experimented the first time, I chopped my rice in a coffee grinder and made it into a flour of sorts. I figured that the finer it was, the more effectively the enzymes could go to work on it. The Grain Honey recipe leaves the rice whole. So using the Grain Honey recipe, when the rice was done cooking with the barley I had rice in a watery fluid. I put that all in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and squeezed the liquid through. But afterwards I thought, if there are still rice kernels left behind, aren't those kernels still unconverted starches? And as I squeezed, wasn't I maybe squeezing out starch as well as sugar?

It seems that ideally you'd want to convert it all. Using the Grain Honey recipe I ended up with only about 2 fluid ounces of brown rice syrup. If that's all you get, then it would be totally uneconomical to make this at home. The store-bought stuff is cheaper. Yet, I was left with a massive glob of sticky rice. There has to be a way to get it all to convert.

So, it's back to the drawing board yet again. This time I think I'll try the Mother Earth News recipe again, but I'll grind the rice before I cook it, and let it cook much longer.

There are some other possible variables that I'll look into after I try this, but if this works then Hooray! I'll let you know.

[See my follow-up post The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 2.]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Corn Syrup Blues

This post is a response to the propaganda--er, comment--I received yesterday from the Corn Refiners Association on my post about giving up sugar and refined flour. I've been aware that the Corn Refiners Association launched a huge campaign awhile back, but I don't watch t.v. or or read newspapers or magazines, so this is the first time I actually saw one of their ads.

That they have someone actually sitting there every day (the poor sap), watching for every little blog post that mentions corn syrup--it boggles the mind. They are obviously spending millions and millions on a campaign that I can only imagine looks absolutely ridiculous to most people. That's how it looks to me anyway.

Before I really launch into this, here's the blurb they sent:

High fructose corn syrup, sugar, and several fruit juices are all nutritionally the same.

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled similarly by the body. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that high fructose corn syrup is responsible for diabetes. It is especially important to understand that Americans are consuming more calories from all types of foods today than what was consumed 30 years ago. And we expend less energy to burn the extra calories. Consider the numbers reported in the February 2009 Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data by the USDA. Total caloric intake on a per capita basis for Americans increased from 2,172 calories per day in 1970 to 2,775 calories per day in 2007 – an additional 603 calories. Where are all these calories coming from? Major contributors to this 603-calorie increase include 299 calories from added fats and 194 calories from flour and cereal products. Added sugars account for 57 calories of the daily increase.

The American Medical Association in June 2008 helped put to rest misunderstandings about this sweetener and obesity, stating that “high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.”

Even former critics of high fructose corn syrup dispel long-held myths and distance themselves from earlier speculation about the sweetener’s link to obesity as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition releases its 2008 Vol. 88 supplement's comprehensive scientific review.Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

Audrae Erickson


Corn Refiners Association

So, is corn syrup really no different than sugar?

Well, aside from the fact that it's laced with mercury and made from mostly genetically modified corn (okay, sugar beets are now genetically modified, too) are there any other distinctions?

High fructose consumption leads to what is called fructose malabsorption or dietary fructose intolerance. Everyone who consumes more than about 25 to 50 grams of fructose in one sitting suffers fructose intolerance, as the intestines are only able to absorb that much at one time. But some people are truly intolerant in that they are only able to absorb much smaller quantities of fructose. It's the unabsorbed fructose which causes problems by passing on from the small intestine to the large intestine where it begins to ferment.

A can of soda contains about 15 or 16 grams of fructose, so you can see how easy it would be for a person with even a normal tolerance for fructose to have problems if they drink more than one soda in a sitting.

Once the excess fructose ferments in the gut, people will experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea. Beyond that, according to wikipedia, malabsorption of fructose causes reduced levels of tryptophan, folic acid and zinc in the bloodstream.

The University of Iowa did a study on fructose malabsorption and has a nice page summarizing their findings. One interesting thing they note is that when they tested people with unexplained IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) they found that 30% of the subjects were fructose intolerant. So, a significant number of IBS cases may simply be a result of fructose intolerance or pure overconsumption of fructose. Imagine that.

What is disappointing in the Iowa report is their suggestion that the next step should involve a search for ways to make fructose more absorbable. Sure, that will keep it out of the large intestine, but dumping it into the bloodstream is not the answer. Don't these researchers ever consider that there might be a reason the body limits the amount of fructose it can absorb?? Why would you want to override that system? Instead of that, how about counseling your patients to restrict their intake of fructose.

But moving on. Once the fructose is in the bloodstream is it really true, as the Corn Refiners Association asserts, that the body handles it like it handles sugar, and that there is no evidence linking it to diabetes and obesity?

Before diving into the medical studies, it would be helpful to read this excellent article on insulin, leptin and blood sugar. It does an excellent job of explaining the complicated processes involved in metabolizing sugar. The key piece in the article that will help us understand the research on high fructose corn syrup concerns the role of leptin in regulating appetite:

When leptin levels get high enough, meaning you have eaten enough, then leptin permeates into your brain and tells your subconscious brain you are full. At the same time the higher levels of leptin are also telling your pancreas that you are full, which turns off the beta cell production of insulin, as no more taxis are needed.

If you ate the right amount of food for your physical activity level then blood sugar always has some place healthy to go, insulin rises and falls in a controlled manner, as does leptin.

When insulin has too many blood sugar passengers and cells don't need any sugar, then insulin stimulates the production of triglycerides (which can become stored fat). This is how you gain weight. Unfortunately, as triglycerides elevate in your blood they get in the way of leptin getting into your brain. This keeps you eating more than you need to because you don't have a full signal yet, a problem called leptin resistance. This encourages even further insulin-driven triglyceride formation, making it more likely you will gain weight.

Now let's look at the research. This article in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that consumption of high levels of fructose resulted in lower concentrations of circulating insulin and leptin and concluded:

Because insulin and leptin, and possibly ghrelin, function as key signals to the central nervous system in the long-term regulation of energy balance, decreases of circulating insulin and leptin and increased ghrelin concentrations, as demonstrated in this study, could lead to increased caloric intake and ultimately contribute to weight gain and obesity during chronic consumption of diets high in fructose.

Another study, in the journal Diabetes, concluded that a high fructose diet led to increased insulin resistance in both liver and adipose tissues, and dyslipidemia (which usually means increased triglycerides and/or increased cholesterol levels).

Here's another study, out just last month: Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Even a layperson such as myself can quickly find evidence to refute the statements made by the Corn Refiner's Association. It's not hard to do. They make such a point about how the use of caloric sweeteners hasn't gone up dramatically and that fats and flour consumption have gone up far more dramatically. They fail to mention the astounding increase in HFCS consumption over sugar consumption, and ignore the research that shows that HFCS consumption disrupts the signalling of leptin in the brain that tells you you're full. So, of course people are eating more of all things, but that doesn't mean that corn syrup isn't a major culprit.

Eat corn syrup, never feel full, eat more of everything.

To close, here's one of Dr. Mercola's (many) cogent discussions on this issue:
Dramatic Example of How the Food Industry Lies to You About Corn

Monday, June 22, 2009

Giving Up Sugar and Refined Flour

One night a few weeks ago I was going through some old papers of mine and came across the folder which contained all of my New Year's Goals, dating back to 1992. Somehow my son coaxed me into reading them aloud--how embarrassing for me and entertaining for Collin! Anyway I noticed one thing that kept coming up over and over again. In fact, you'll find it below in my New Year's post on this blog--"work on limiting refined flour and sugar in my diet".

Virtually every year I add that to my list of goals and every year I fail to make any progress with it. I eat a lot of sugar and white flour. Much less than the national per capita averages but much more than could possibly be healthy.

To my credit there's virtually no high fructose corn syrup in my diet. By varying estimates, Americans are consuming somewhere between 16 and 50% of their calories in the form of high fructose corn syrup. No wonder there's an obesity and diabetes epidemic!

No, my habits aren't that extreme, but neither are they good. As I've mentioned before, I bake all of our bread products and pastries and we almost never eat out, so I have a pretty good grasp on how much we're consuming. I purchase roughly 100 pounds of white flour per year and probably 30 to 40 pounds of sugar. I also go through a quart or two of local honey, a jar or two of brown rice syrup, about 10 pounds of whole wheat flour and incidental amounts of rye, cornmeal, semolina, teff and other flours. I ingest small amounts of corn syrup in the form of pancake syrup and also in the small amounts of processed foods that we're still buying, mostly tomato-based stuff.

Based on USDA estimates each American consumes roughly 136.6 pounds of flour per year (that's refined and whole grain flours lumped together) and 156 pounds of caloric sweeteners (sugar and high fructose corn syrup, mainly). Together Collin and I consume roughly 115 pounds of flour and maybe 60 pounds of sweeteners per year. Since Collin's only here half the time, I calculate my portion of that to be maybe 77 pounds of flour and 40 pounds of sweeteners. Gosh, that sounds obscene!

Well I'm determined that this is the year I will finally tackle this goal. And the first phase of that starts now. Collin left on Friday to be with his dad for the next three and a half weeks and I thought it would be a great time--while I'm alone--to begin making some changes.

The rules are a little hazy, but here's what I'm thinking. Nothing draconian just yet. I can have a little of this and a little of that. I can finish off anything that's still in the fridge. For instance I made homemade hamburger buns and some bagels this week and there's still one of each left in the fridge. I'm allowed to eat those. There's a little bit of leftover pasta in there too that I can finish off. I can't have sugar in my tea, but I think I'll let myself use honey (even though it's really no better than sugar). I've been sweetening my oatmeal with a little bit of brown rice syrup--so little that I can barely taste the sweetness. Fruit is okay, but I never eat extreme amounts anyway. White flour can only be used in very minimal quantities when making whole-grain breads--just enough to lighten things up a little.

And then there's the question of other starchy things. What about potatoes, and rice? I just bought a 5 pound bag of potatoes, so I will eat them. Don't want anything to go to waste, of course. As for rice, I guess I should stick to brown rice instead of white. Blah. I never have been able to acquire a taste for brown rice.

When I told Collin what I was planning to do, he said "But what will you eat, Mom??" I said "I know!!" He knows me only too well.

We'll see how all of this goes. I just wish the garden were a little further along, so I'd have a lot of interesting foods to distract me. I'll post an update once I get a little further into this challenge and let you know how it's going.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Popping Pills for Health

To me the whole concept of popping pills for health is a bizarre one, whether we're talking prescription pharmaceuticals or herbal remedies. Health doesn't come from a pill. Health comes from whole foods and the right lifestyle.

My biggest gripe, naturally, is with pharmaceuticals. The body wasn't designed to be assaulted with straight chemicals. It has an elegant system already in place to extract just what it needs from food, air, water and sunlight. Dump straight chemicals into that system and the whole thing gets thrown off-kilter. Dump multiple chemicals in there and you get bizarre interactions nobody could possibly anticipate.

According to, run by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2007 the average American between the ages of 19 and 64 had 11.2 prescriptions filled. Children from birth through age 18 averaged 3.9 prescriptions and seniors aged 65 and older averaged a staggering 28.6 prescriptions. And those numbers slightly underestimate the facts because the data excludes the 6.9% of prescriptions filled via mail-order. Even more shocking is to view the state-by-state statistics, particularly if you check out the southern states.

Granted, most of these represent monthly refills so it might mean a person is taking two or three medications year-round, rather than 28.6 different medications. I would hope so. But even three chemicals assaulting your body on a daily basis is three chemicals too many, in my opinion. The problem is that the majority of these drugs only treat the symptoms and do nothing to address the underlying biological cause of disease and often create more problems than they solve. They can create a lifelong dependency and often require regular visits to the doctor for blood work and other tests, thus further lining the pockets of the medical establishment.

My problem with herbal remedies and other supplements is somewhat different. For one thing, the industry is unregulated and I just don't trust that what you're getting in a lot of cases is really what the label states you are getting. Now, I have great faith in herbal remedies, but if I'm going to take one, I'll take the straight herbs or I'll make the remedy myself. I guess I'm just not a very trusting person. A little gelatin capsule filled with unidentifiable powder has no appeal to me.

For another, holding the belief that popping pills of any sort leads to health probably leads me farther away from true health. To be healthy we need to dispel the notion that there is quick fix, a cheater's way to achieve well-being. It's the attitude that's the problem here. Health is as much mental as it is physical.

My approach to health involves eating my medicine, preventatively. My diet is my medicine. Each year I work to create better and better medicine for myself. When I read a few years ago that the Bushmen of the Kalahari regularly ate from 85 different plants while enjoying good health and relatively little disease, I began trying to incorporate a greater variety of foods into my diet.

My goal was to eat from at least thirty different types of plants per month and over the course of the year incorporate at least 85 different types of plants. I tried this for a few months and failed miserably. I think the best I did was about 22 plants. This was a few years ago. Now that I'm growing a garden again, I should start charting my diet again. I have over thirty types of things planted out there, so I should easily be able to reach thirty plants per month while the garden is in full swing at least. I don't know about the 85 plants per year, but it's something to aim for and when you include herbs, beans, nuts, seeds, and grains as well as fruits and vegetables how hard could it be?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Call Before You Dig...Your Garden. Seriously.

I learned that the hard way this weekend. Definitely call before you dig anything--not just footers and trenches and post holes--anything. If your little kid is going to be out in the dirt with his Tonka trucks, call and have them locate the buried lines first. I'm serious.

Here in Colorado, the Public Utility Commission only requires the phone company to bury their lines 6-12 inches. That's gardening depth, that's kids-playing-in-the-dirt depth, that's a depth people (like me) might not even consider real digging. But, take my word, any digging is digging. Planting a tiny sapling is digging. And rototilling is digging too--my next door neighbor cut through his phone line with a tiller.

So there's my public service announcement for today. Call before you dig.