Healthy help­ings

World Food Day is ob­served on Oct 16. It pro­vides an op­por­tune time to take a closer look at what we tuck into daily.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew SiA startwo@thes­tar.com.my

Or­ganic food as an al­ter­na­tive to pes­ti­cide-laden fruits and veg­eta­bles that flood the mar­ket.

OH no, not an­other preachy health food ar­ti­cle!” A com­mon re­ac­tion dur­ing our in­vin­ci­ble youth, when we are free to eat what­ever we want as it seems noth­ing will stop us from liv­ing for­ever – into an unimag­in­ably an­cient age at least.

But, as this writer dis­cov­ered, the steady march of time reaps a har­vest of lit­tle nig­gly aches and pains, spells of low en­ergy and omi­nous head-shak­ing from doc­tors read­ing choles­terol test lev­els.

I, too, once be­lieved that or­ganic food was an over-priced in­dul­gence of health freaks. But then I dis­cov­ered that I felt more en­er­getic be­cause it di­gested well in my body, whereas some of the char koay teow or oily curry seemed to sit for­ever in my stom­ach, caus­ing post-lunch lethargy.

Be­ing a fussy foodie used to the won­der­ful flavours of Malaysian food, I was wor­ried that healthy food was, well, bland. And I could not be­lieve that or­ganic veg­e­tar­ian food could be so tasty un­til I had tried the buf­fet at GK Or­ganic Farm near Bangi, Se­lan­gor.

The spaghetti (dressed with a pesto made from olive oil plus lo­cal peanuts and sweet basil), the French beans (served with a lus­cious peanut but­ter sauce), the corn soup and the steamed pu­lut with pump­kin and beans all earned top marks in my book.

The cook, Tai Lee Shy­ong, a for­mer ho­tel and cruise liner chef, ex­plains: “Peo­ple com­plain that or­ganic food has no kick. For me, taste and pre­sen­ta­tion are im­por­tant. We use a va­ri­ety of in­gre­di­ents like roselle leaves, le­mon, sugar cane syrup, pa­paya, cu­cum­ber and ulam raja, all grown here, to give stronger flavours.”

An­other cafe I fre­quent is Eco Green in Ta­man Tun Dr Is­mail, Kuala Lumpur (ecogreen.com.my). I love their rain­bow noo­dles made with nat­u­ral colour­ings of spinach (green) and beet­root (red) served with a zesty cream sauce made from pine nuts, al­fafa, cap­sicum and cu­cum­ber.

Its boss, Wong Kai Yuen, likes to spread the good news about or­ganic food to his reg­u­lars.

“I had hy­per­ten­sion,” re­calls this for­mer en­gi­neer. “I wanted nat­u­ral reme­dies in­stead of pills. That’s how I got into or­ganic food.”

Wong told me about the wealth of books and movies that re­veal how our food is chang­ing into “in­dus­trial” com­modi­ties churned out by big cor­po­ra­tions.

As it hap­pens, dur­ing an Emi­rates flight I took this year, the doc­u­men­tary Food Inc (which is also avail­able on YouTube) was play­ing. It showed how cows are raised on “fac­tory farms” in Amer­ica, crammed into nar­row feed lots, stand­ing an­kledeep in their own ma­nure the whole day. With such filthy con­di­tions, they are fed with an­tibi­otics to keep them alive.

Sim­i­larly, chick­ens are “ex­press grown” in half or less the time they used to need, mak­ing them so weak that their bones and in­ter­nal or­gans can hardly sup­port their bulk of flesh. And their pol­i­tics of farm sub­si­dies is so bril­liant that it’s cheaper to buy two cheese burg­ers than a head of broccoli – so that the poor blacks and His­pan­ics in Amer­ica end up able to af­ford only pro­cessed crap, and then fall prey to obe­sity, di­a­betes and heart con­di­tions.

Fem­i­nine men

Were the hor­rors of Food Inc also ap­pli­ca­ble in Malaysia, I won­dered. For chick­ens, it seems the an­swer is yes.

One chicken farmer, who fears be­ing quoted be­cause of what the “big boys may do”, re­veals that it’s now an in­dus­try with “in­te­grated” op­er­a­tors who con­trol the whole cy­cle, from eggs right up to sell­ing them in restau­rants.

“I know that they re­pro­cess the oil used to fry chick­ens even though it is high in trans-fats and car­cino­gens. And then they feed it back to their live chick­ens.

“The goal of com­mer­cial farm­ers is to be­come more ‘ef­fi­cient’ by re­duc­ing the space needed. One CEO of a chicken com­pany proudly de­clared that he could raise each chicken with only 0.75sqft ( 0.07sqm) of space, that’s about the size of an A4-size piece of paper!” Be­cause of such dense pop­u­la­tions, com­mer­cial farm­ers are al­ways wor­ried about dis­ease break­ing out, so an­tibi­otics are in­cor­po­rated into the feed as a pre­ven­tive. And some an­tibi­otics like gen­tamycin may cause kid­ney and heart prob­lems.

“It’s brought in very cheaply from Thai­land and China. Govern­ment reg­u­la­tions on an­tibi­otic use are not be­ing fol­lowed.”

Loke Siew Foong, the founder of Ra­di­ant Whole Foods (ra­di­antwhole­food.com.my), an im­porter and dis­trib­u­tor of or­ganic pro­duce, shares: “My mother used to rear chick­ens and we fed them with leftover veg­eta­bles and rice. I am concerned about the use of hor­mones to raise chick­ens. Why is it that nowa­days girls start men­stru­at­ing at the age of eight, while boys are grow­ing breasts.”

Gan Koon Chai, the founder of GK Or­ganic Farm (gk_or­gan­ic­farm@ ya­hoo.com) near Bangi, Se­lan­gor, is concerned that pol­lu­tion from plas­tics and pes­ti­cides mimic our hor­mones.

“They are called en­docrine dis­rupters. This could be one rea­son why men are be­com­ing more fem­i­nine while women are be­com­ing more manly.”

Even oil is ex­tracted through chem­i­cals, notes Loke.

“If seeds are just cold-pressed, it yields less oil than if chem­i­cal sol­vents like hex­ane are used to ex­tract the oil. And then they have to use an­other chem­i­cal to re­move the hex­ane! And they say that no traces of these chem­i­cals are left in the oil.”

An ar­ti­cle I read in the Utu­san Kon­sumer years ago caught my eye – that sperm count was de­clin­ing glob­ally due to chem­i­cal pol­lu­tion in our food, wa­ter and air.

Ar­eas which grow padi may be prone to hav­ing more le­laki lem­but (ef­fem­i­nate men).

Ac­cord­ing to Hati­jah Hashim, a se­nior re­search of­fi­cer at the Con­sumers As­so­ci­a­tion of Pe­nang (CAP), their sur­vey has found that padi farm­ers in var­i­ous parts of Kedah openly ad­mit to spray­ing their crops with en­do­sul­fan, an en­docrine dis­rupter which has been banned in Malaysia since 2005.

“The pes­ti­cide can be eas­ily bought from shops sell­ing agri­cul­tural chem­i­cals, for RM32 in an un­la­belled one-litre bot­tle. It is gen­er­ally called ra­cun Cina (Chi­nese poi­son) as the pack­ag­ing only has Chi­nese char­ac­ters,” she says.

“Farm­ers use it to get rid of the golden ap­ple snail ( siput gon­dang emas) which feeds on padi and saplings. It takes only 15 min­utes to kill the snails com­pared to two weeks with other pes­ti­cides.”

How­ever, a few weeks af­ter spray­ing en­do­sul­fan, farm­ers of­ten suf­fer from skin prob­lems and weak joints.

“There are safer ways,” says Hati­jah, “For ex­am­ple, ducks reared in padi fields will feed on the snails.”

An­other pos­si­ble gen­der ben­der is bisphe­nol, which is used to make clear plas­tic drink­ing bot­tles.

Chin Yew Wah, the founder of Long Life Or­ganic farm (% 017-483 8387) near Tan­jung Tualang, Perak, says that he is also very concerned with how oil is kept in plas­tic bot­tles (at su­per­mar­kets for in­stance).

“Plas­tic mol­e­cules have an affin­ity to oil and will leach out. Even for wa­ter, if you leave a plas­tic bot­tle in the car for some time, you can smell the plas­tic.

Gan al­leges that plas­tic is some­times added while fry­ing goreng

pisang and yeow char koay to make them more crispy.

“That’s why they are still crispy even half a day af­ter you pack them home.”

Sure, my wish­ful think­ing de­clares that can­cer and heart at­tack will never hap­pen to me. But if it’s go­ing to in­volve the crown jew­els, it was time for ac­tion! And so I re­solved to watch my

goreng pisang very care­fully. And to buy stain­less steel drink­ing bot­tles, which, by the way, look a whole lot more cool and rugged than the ubiq­ui­tous plas­tic ones.

Liv­ing food

What about other food?

“If we buy beef from Amer­ica, it will most prob­a­bly be raised in feed lots and pumped with an­tibi­otics. At least in Malaysia the kam­pung cows are still wan­der­ing about,” says Eco Green’s Wong.

“Even roti canai dough balls are now pre-made in fac­to­ries. And for white bread, it’s not just that re­fined white flour has had many nu­tri­ents pro­cessed away from it. It’s a dou­ble whammy as there are other chem­i­cal ad­di­tives like preser­va­tives and loaf im­provers. The bread rises more and looks big­ger and feels softer, but it ac­tu­ally weighs less!”

An­other foodie friend tells me the way to gauge good bread: “Feel how heavy it is.”

“An or­ganic grain can sprout shoots and roots if you leave it in wet soil. It’s alive! But if rice seeds have been fu­mi­gated with pes­ti­cides and other chem­i­cals, they can last on the shelves for a long time, but the food is dead,” says Loke.

Ng Tien Khuan (% 012-219 2582) has taken “liv­ing food” to new “bio­dy­namic” heights at his Terra Or­ganic Farm in Lo­jing High­lands, Ke­lan­tan (just next to Cameron High­lands).

He used to wan­der freely in padi fields and rivers around his kam­pung of Titi Serong, near Parit Bun­tar, Perak.

Nowa­days, this ex-lec­turer and holder of a Masters in Physics from Univer­siti Malaya prac­tises bio­dy­namic farm­ing, an en­hanced ver­sion of or­ganic farm­ing.

His Physics did teach him one thing about farm­ing though.

“Con­ven­tional sci­ence over­sim­pli­fies things. I stud­ied the chaos the­ory of how com­plex sys­tems work in the real world.”

He ex­plains that in na­ture, plants ab­sorb nu­tri­ents through a com­plex in­ter­ac­tion of bac­te­ria and fungi on their roots. When plants are “hun­gry”, they se­crete cer­tain bio­trans­mit­ters that sig­nal that they need cer­tain nu­tri­ents.

“Plants ab­sorb only the nu­tri­ents that they need, and so each has a unique flavour. Whereas when you put chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers in the soil, you are lit­er­ally force-feed­ing the plant. When you eat such veg­eta­bles, for ex­am­ple toma­toes, they are bloated with wa­ter but not much flavour.

“All that ex­cess fer­tiliser, in­clud­ing ni­trates, are kept in­side the plant, and when we eat it, it af­fects our health. So nowa­days, it’s not just about the pes­ti­cides, the prob­lem is in­side the plant it­self.”

To worsen mat­ters, the over­load of fer­tiliser makes the cell wall of plants thin and weak, and eas­ily at­tacked by pests. And that’s when farm­ers are forced to use pes­ti­cides.

For Ng’s chil­dren, the farm is also their play­ground, and they wan­der freely about, pluck­ing what­ever veg­gies take their fancy and eat­ing it there and then. Talk about fresh. And so un­like other farms where the smell of pes­ti­cides hangs heavy in the air – not a place for chil­dren to frolic in.

Ng makes com­post on site, us­ing com­plex bio-dy­namic for­mu­la­tions – one in­volves putting cow dung in­side a wa­ter buf­falo horn and bury­ing it in the ground for sev­eral months.

“Com­mer­cial com­post is dry as it’s eas­ier to trans­port,” he says. “True com­post must be wet and full of mi­cro-or­gan­isms. It’s alive. It’s like bio-liv­ing yo­gurt ver­sus yo­gurt pow­der.”

Ng suf­fered heavy losses from pests ini­tially and it took two years for the soil and its mi­cro-or­gan­isms to “ma­ture and con­nect”.

“Then my plants be­came stronger and could re­sist pests on their own.”

Can’t we just take sup­ple­ments to make up for what’s missing in our diet? That is the beauty of bio­dy­namic farm­ing. All those mi­croor­gan­isms pro­duce so many mi­cronu­tri­ents that are al­most im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate.

Physi­cist Ng also ex­plains the dif­fer­ence be­tween nat­u­ral and syn­thetic vi­ta­mins.

“The mol­e­cule could be the same but their spin and po­lar­ity, their en­ergy, could be dif­fer­ent and that af­fects the way it is used and ab­sorbed by the body. Sim­i­larly, nowa­days peo­ple talk of nor­mal and en­er­gised wa­ter, even though it is the same H2O mol­e­cule. For me, I never keep wa­ter in plas­tic con­tain­ers, only in clay­pots.”

Dead food

The won­ders of liv­ing “bio-dy­namic” food were firmly im­planted in my taste­buds as Ng served such deeply flavour­ful broccoli and car­rots at din­ner. But back in KL, was my food alive?

He re­veals that many com­mer­cial farm­ers in Cameron High­lands ac­tu­ally re­move the top­soil as it is acidic.

“They rely on fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides and fungi­cides. The mind­set is to pro­tect the veg­eta­bles only. They are not aware that by im­prov­ing the soil, you will au­to­mat­i­cally pro­tect the veg­eta­bles, too.

“Any­way, chem­i­cal fer­tiliser and pes­ti­cide com­pa­nies are big busi­ness in Camerons. It’s not in their in­ter­est to ed­u­cate farm­ers to use the bi­o­log­i­cal way.”

In­deed, the CAP web­site notes that de­spite a 10-fold in­crease in in­sec­ti­cide use in re­cent years, stud­ies have shown a pro­lif­er­a­tion in dif­fer­ent types of pests by 30%.

Wong Hock Seng, the founder of DQ Clean Chicken farm in Bukit Tinggi, Pa­hang, can see dozens of small farms sup­ply­ing veg­eta­bles to big and small mar­kets in KL nearby.

“They never stop spray­ing pes­ti­cides even at har­vest time. They are run by less-ed­u­cated for­eign work­ers.

“We can’t just blame the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment for lack of en­force­ment. They have no power to con­trol our bor­ders through which il­le­gal pes­ti­cides come in eas­ily. They can’t con­trol for­eign work­ers or il­le­gal land clear­ing ei­ther. It’s a prob­lem with the whole sys­tem.”

CAP’s Hati­jah notes that farm­ers like to mix dif­fer­ent pes­ti­cides into a deadly “cock­tail” to knock out pests which have de­vel­oped chem­i­cal re­sis­tance, while Ng says he has seen cheap, banned pes­ti­cides from China and Thai­land be­ing used in Cameron High­lands.

He re­veals that veg­eta­bles with “too much” pes­ti­cides can’t en­ter Singapore and are in­stead sold in Malaysia.

“Some com­mer­cial farm­ers will try to send in sam­ples from or­ganic farms to pass the tests. That’s why Singapore de­cided to send their own in­spec­tors to check the farms be­fore al­low­ing any im­ports.”

Dead food ex­tends be­yond veg­eta­bles.

Hati­jah tells me about formalde­hyde, a chem­i­cal that is used to pre­serve dead bod­ies. And shock­ingly, our laws ac­tu­ally al­low its use in seafood (up to 2,000 parts per mil­lion).

“When CAP brought up the is­sue back in 1994, formalde­hyde was pro­hib­ited in food. How­ever, now things have changed,” she re­veals. “We don’t re­ally know why.”

And there’s an­other killer – boric acid. In 1988, it was as­so­ci­ated with the deaths of 13 peo­ple in Perak who ate loh shee fun noo­dles. Sev­eral peo­ple also died in Jawa four years ago from con­tam­i­nated

bakso noo­dles. But a CAP press re­lease in May last year re­vealed that it was still be­ing used in bak chang (Chi­nese dumplings), yel­low noo­dles and ny­onya kuih at wet mar­kets in Pe­nang, even though it has been banned since 1985.

“Boric acid is so toxic that even small amounts can lead to poi­son­ing, gas­troin­testi­nal ill­ness, kid­ney dam­age and loss of ap­petite,” says CAP Pres­i­dent S.M. Idris.

Au­thor­i­ties may dis­miss all this with that over-used phrase of “a few iso­lated cases”. But they are not. CAP’s pre­vi­ous tests in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007 and

2008 have all found boric acid in var­i­ous foods.

“It is pop­u­larly used by traders to pre­serve the fresh­ness of fish, prawns and meat. They ei­ther soak seafood in boric acid or rub it onto meat,” adds Idris, who is shocked that it’s still around af­ter 25 years.

In this at­mos­phere of loose laws and lax en­force­ment, it’s no won­der that peo­ple are turn­ing to food pro­duc­ers that they can trust.

“Or­ganic food should not just be for can­cer pa­tients. By then, isn’t it a bit late?” says Ra­di­ant White Foods’ Loke. “I used to be a vol­un­teer at the hospice for can­cer pa­tients. Many of them told me that their diet was a big fac­tor in their sick­ness.

“I was a pur­chas­ing man­ager (for a ma­jor depart­ment store) be­fore, so I know how it works,” she re­calls. “Ev­ery­thing is pricedriven, it’s not so much about qual­ity. When I talk to su­per­mar­kets, they hardly ever ask me: ‘Why is your prod­uct bet­ter?’ In­stead, they ask: ‘What is your bud­get to pro­mote your prod­uct?’ It’s all about ring­git and sen for each square feet of their su­per­mar­ket shelves.

“I know I can’t com­pete with the prod­ucts of the big multi-na­tion­als but luck­ily Jaya Jusco was kind enough to give me one bay (on their shelves). Sales have grown by 20% to 30% each year and now I have six, seven bays. Peo­ple are more con­scious and are will­ing to pay a bit more for the sake of health.”

For those who do not want to go veg­e­tar­ian, there are sup­pli­ers sell­ing chicken and fish clean from chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion.

For a start, Loke rec­om­mends that we do a grad­ual tran­si­tion.

“If we are too dras­tic, we may just give up. So go slowly. Start by clean­ing up the body sys­tem over two or three weeks with a detox, for ex­am­ple, with a tea­spoon of ap­ple cider vine­gar.

“Also ab­stain from trans-fats (es­pe­cially in mar­garine) and fatty meats. It’s no point go­ing into or­ganic when you keep putting junk in­side you.” Do you al­ways get coughs and colds? “I used to drink milk ev­ery morn­ing with­out fail. And I used to get flu, coughs and colds of­ten,” she re­mem­bers.

“When I stopped tak­ing milk, I was cured! Our bod­ies lack the en­zyme ca­sein to di­gest milk and so it ends up pro­duc­ing more phlegm and mu­cous in our lungs which then leads to coughs and colds.”

“I be­lieve in nat­u­ral heal­ing from within. When our bod­ies are healthy in­side, we don’t get a cold.”

Next, she rec­om­mends switch­ing away from the “four whites” – white sugar, white flour, white salt and white rice – to­wards health­ier al­ter­na­tives.

“I con­sider white re­fined sugar to be a poi­son. It not only pro­motes di­a­betes and obe­sity but also feeds can­cer cells. Try to switch to mo­lasses or honey,” she re­veals.

As for re­fined salt, there are “anti-cak­ing agents” to en­sure that it flows well in the shaker. And it has been bleached to whiten it!

“Nat­u­ral sea salt is a bet­ter op­tion.”

Heal­ing foods

As for Long Life Or­ganic’s Chin, he aims to live past a hun­dred. He worked in Amer­ica for 15 years in Chi­nese restau­rants and was al­ways fall­ing sick.

“I was eat­ing garbage. Then I cut off meat and went or­ganic and I felt my body be­com­ing strong again. I’ve not seen a doc­tor for al­most 20 years now.

“Plant­ing veg­eta­bles in this fresh en­vi­ron­ment is my form of ex­er­cise, detox and med­i­ta­tion. I be­lieve that for ev­ery day that we stress our­selves at work while eat­ing poor food, we will lose two or three hours of our life span.

“With the right sup­port, the body can heal it­self. When­ever I don’t feel so good, I fast, drink wa­ter with lime in it, and sleep early. Next day, I am fine.” n For more in­for­ma­tion on food qual­ity, watch the movie Food­Mat­ters (food­mat­ters. tv) and read the books TheOm­ni­vore’s Dilemma and FastFoodNa­tion or visit CAP’s web­site (con­sumer.org.my).

To­mor­row: Af­ford­able or­ganic

food

Nat­u­ral way: ‘We make our own com­post. When the soil is good, then the plants will be strong, healthy and able to re­sists pests with­out us­ing chem­i­cals,’ ex­plains Gan Koon Chai, the founder of GK Or­ganic Farm.

Wong Kai Yuen, the founder of Eco Green or­ganic cafe, uses lots of fresh in­gre­di­ents to im­part zesty flavours to the dishes served there.

Ng Tien Khuan’s chil­dren can pluck and eat what­ever veg­gies they want on the spot – be­cause it’s safe to eat.

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