V for Vendetta Wednesday, Aug 21 2013 

at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

With the pace of our lives arguably becoming ever busier, those with business acumen in this domain have clearly seen the role that vending machines can play in terms of fulfilling our need to eat. Vending machines can be seen just about everywhere: stations, garage forecourts, hotels and theme parks are just a few of the locations where you’ll find them. They also take the moral low ground in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as schools, sports centres, and even at the Olympic Games.

This might be considered acceptable if the machines contained healthy foods, but they usually don’t, and while the occasional Mars Bar is not bad per se, the problem arises from the fact that vending machines give children and teenagers unbridled access to junk food at moments when responsible adults are not necessarily going to be there to guide them. I was going to shopping malls and cinemas (very vending-machine-heavy places) without an adult from the age of eleven, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. From about this age, too, especially in large cities, children make their own way to school (passing through vending-machine dominated railway stations), and while many schools have banned vending machines by now, the establishment I work at is just one school where they still reign supreme.

nicole pastry

Gail’s Pastries chef Nicole rolling gluten-free pastry

One could blame the adults for not supervising their children adequately, or for not steering them in the right direction from an early enough age so that they make good independent choices when older. But surely junk food should not be thrust into our faces at every turn? Even supposedly responsible adults have weaknesses and it seems unbelievable that the people working for these vast corporations should be more concerned about their profits than on the long-term effects of capitalising on our children’s pester power, or on our poorly-directed impulses and stressed moods. Strategically-placed displays of junk food at the ends of key supermarket aisles or at the checkout are just as reprehensible. So why not make our choices easier? I get that vending machine companies just want to make money (we all do, right?). But if people are really hungry or thirsty, then they will still eat and drink – so why not fill the machines with healthier temptations?

Students at University College Birmingham have been trying to innovate in just this regard by joining forces with the Automatic Vending Association (AVA) as part of a special project to design new healthy vending machine snacks. The students’ ideas included Caulipockets (a gluten-free pasty-style snack with pastry made from cauliflower), AM 2 PM (a snack pack containing one sweet and one savoury mini-snack – one for the morning and one for the afternoon) and Noodlelicious (a low-calorie hot snack made with rice noodles, including a vegetarian option). The winner of the project, Gail Pastries, will have its wheat-free pastries sold in AVA vending machines – proving that if the big boys of the vending machine world are on board, then this can be done.

So what would I like to see in my new fantasy healthy vending machines? Apart from the excellent inventions from the students at UCB, here’s a handy list:

  • Water (fizzy and still…Definitely no flavoured waters allowed)
  • Smoothies and fruit juices
  • Tea (no milk, no sugar…I can’t believe a machine could screw up a tea bag and some hot water, so this can only go well)
  • Milk and soy milk (I don’t personally like it, but recognise it’s a healthy drink)
  • Raw food bars. The good ones are pressed, not baked, and don’t add sugar. I’m a NAKD bar fan myself.
  • Flapjacks. The oats keep you full, the fruit can be a cheeky one of your five-a-day, and they don’t have to be chock-full of sugar and fat. Honey or fructose can be used to sweeten instead, with a healthy oil being used as the ‘glue’ to keep it together.
  • Nuts. The best ones for your health are pistachios, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.
  • Dried fruits. The possibilities are pretty much endless, but my favourites are apple, mango, cherry, blueberry, raisin and pear.
  • Vegetable or bean chips. A great alternative to crisps, these are never going to be the same as eating fresh veg, but are healthier than potato crisps while still providing that satisfying crunch. I like Tyrells, but there are MANY brands out there. Lighter crisps, such as those by Popchips and TooGood, could also be used.
  • Plain popcorn. It’s what you put on it that makes it unhealthy. If flavourings are necessary, then vending machines could sell popcorn flavoured with chilli/paprika (for a savoury version) or an artificial sweetener, using low-fat cooking oil or similar to make the flavourings stick.
  • Rice cakes…preferably not the ones covered in caramel. The ones that come with a very thin layer of dark chocolate on one side could be OK though.

The best part is that in the meantime, it’s easy enough to prepare many of these snacks at home, or to buy them in places that are less expensive than vending machines – so voting with your feet is an option. Meanwhile, with baguettes being sold out of vending machines in France, fries out of Belgian machines, and pizza out of American machines, there’s scope worldwide too for this healthy vending revolution to occur. Now back to school for the new academic year to see if I can wean our little monsters off the vending machines in our school cafeteria…


Omega-3…vegetarian style Sunday, Sep 9 2012 

It’s well-known that omega-3 is needed to keep our eyes, brains, and other body parts healthy. An essential fatty acid, it’s often trumpeted that the best source of this is oily fish, such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and sardines. While this may be true in terms of absolute or relative values, it often leads to misleading statements around the internet, such as “we need to eat oily fish twice a week to stay healthy”. I hate statements like this, as they reinforce the popular myth that a vegetarian diet cannot possibly be a healthy one. So how can vegetarians get their share of omega-3 in?

First of all, let’s look at the amount of omega-3 we actually need. Men need 1.6g a day, while women require 1.1g. This is perhaps less than we would have believed considering the emphasis on omega-3 in the media. We perhaps need to consume even less than this depending on what our diets already contain, as many popular foods can now be found in versions that have been fortified with extra omega-3, such as bread, juice, yoghurt, and even confectionery.

But let’s start with those basic values that are needed by all of us each day. One large egg contains just 0.03g of omega-3, so it’s clear that as in many other aspects of nutrition, vegetarians just have to be more creative to get their omega-3 in. Seeds are a good place to start. Already extolled for their high levels of fibre, unsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals, seeds also contain significant percentages of omega-3. Linseeds, for instance, contain up to 59% omega-3. Perhaps even easier is the humble walnut: just 30g of walnuts contains 2.6g of omega-3, which is way more than a man or a woman needs as a bare minimum. Pecan nuts (0.3g/oz) and pistachios (0.1g/oz) are equally tasty sources of the fatty acid, which performs a variety of important functions, including blood clotting, and has been linked to increased memory and a lower risk of heart disease (although statistically vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of cardiac problems anyway).

Slightly randomly, the butter from grass-fed cows also contains more omega-3 than butter made using the milk of factory-farmed cows – so even more reason for vegetarians to go organic or free-range. Tofu is also 15% omega-3 – meaning you need to eat just 10g of tofu, as a female, to get your full omega-3 requirement for the day. Not bad!

However, our bodies are not great at converting ALAs (alpha lineolic acid – which is the “type” of omega-3 found in these foods) into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – which, apparently, are really the best kinds of omega-3 to have in the body. So what can vegetarians do to optimise this process?

The main thing is to make sure you eat a balanced diet in all other areas, as protein, vitamins B6 and B7, calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc all help the conversion process. If you really have to, there’s also a wide range of vitamin and mineral supplements available. Equally vital is to balance our ratio of omega-3 and omega-6: by consuming less omega-6, you benefit more from the omega-3.

The old advice to “eat your greens” is therefore valid for this reason too: leafy green vegetables may be comparatively low in omega-3, but all of the small amounts soon add up. Broccoli has 0.13g per 100g, and cabbage has 0.11g per 100g. Spinach and romaine are also good ones to go for, and all of these green leafy vegetables are higher in omega-3 than omega-6 (walnuts are arguably a bad way to top up your omega-3 levels because of this: their omega-6 level is higher). Asian vegetarians, or fans of Asian food, may also be in luck – seaweed is another excellent source of omega-3 (DHA and EPA specifically), and this features regularly in dishes such as stir-fries (dried nori, or seaweed, is also readily available at most mainstream supermarkets, making it another easy addition to a vegetarian diet). Algae is also where fish get their omega-3 – they don’t make their own, you know! So if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for vegetarians around the world.

On a Quorn-style quest for a higher-quality life Tuesday, Mar 20 2012 

We’re always being told that we are what we eat. On the one hand I am naturally sceptical of this: having suffered with acne for nigh on 15 years, and having found that no change in diet seems to have helped the spots at all, I have no real reason to believe in it. On the other hand, I spent a little over a year as a vegetarian, giving up only when I got myself a French boyfriend (now husband) and realised a move to France (the land of the carnivore) was a real possibility. During that time, not only did my food bill go down, but I was also slimmer and had more energy. Even now that I eat meat again, I am still a vegetarian sympathiser and don’t see the need to eat meat or fish every day at all.

There are plenty of health-related reasons to go veggie – as stated above, even without any meat substitute, my energy levels were through the roof and I enjoyed a slim yet pear-shaped figure (just “slim-ish” these days!). But what about those days when you just really, really miss sausages? Meat replacement products like Quorn can be helpful in this situation (although not in France, where I now live: even though the situation is improving, I have in the past picked up “meat replacement” products here to find chicken in the ingredients list). For those of you who aren’t aware, products like Quorn are made up of mycoprotein, which is a protein that chiefly comes from a fungus named fusatium venenatum. And this protein/fungus has a lot of benefits – basically, it is a superfood.

  • It’s got all 9 essential amino acids, which are classed as ‘essential’ because the body doesn’t make them – so we have to put them in. These strengthen muscles, are good energy sources, help you to stay in a good mood (yes, really – they are precursors for the magical serotonin and dopamine), and help keep your red blood cells working properly.
  • It’s low in fat, which can be good for slimming. 
  • It’s an alkaline product (other alkaline products include herbal teas, carob, and whole grains). This is good for your overall health: our diets should be 70% alkaline as our bodies find it harder to digest acids.
  • It contains minerals, including selenium (which protects cells from damage), zinc (repairs bones, celles and tissues, protects you from disease, and is essential for fertility and digestion), iron (important for muscle protein), magnesium (for body temperature regulation and energy production), and calcium (which is good for strong bones, hair, teeth and nails – which is great news if, like me, you don’t consume much dairy).
  • Quorn also contains plenty of B vitamins, which help with eye health, help with wound healing, and even reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Shepherd’s pie, made with Quorn (sadly not by me). Yes, really.

All of this made me wonder why I hadn’t tried it (or at the very least, hadn’t tried it for a very long time; I genuinely cannot remember if I ever sampled it during my vegetarian days, as I cooked a lot from scratch). I therefore set about trying to find some in France, which is as good as impossible. A shame, as I had (in a funny sort of way) been quite looking forward to sampling it. But it’s certainly affordable (£2.09 for 2 quarter pounders, for instance), and could be a good, healthy way of satisfying a meat craving without actually eating meat. All other ingredients in your recipe stay the same, so it’s hassle-free too. And if it helps your weight, your energy levels, your mood, or your digestion, so much the better, surely!

To set off on the road to a more beautiful and varied life couldn’t be easier; there are plenty of recipes to get you going on the Quorn website and elsewhere. And let others know how you get on, be it here or on my other site, Bianca’s Beauty Blog (where I discuss the beauty benefits of Quorn): make dishes! Upload pictures and recipes! Share your tips and experiences! You can also do the same on Quorn’s Facebook page.

It looks as if I’ll need to try Quorn in England if I’m ever going to (somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to convince my carnivorous French husband to become some sort of elaborate Quorn rustler on his trips to Belgium – where it is sold). But hopefully with the majority of my readers being in the US and UK you’ll find it easier to come by – and will be able to report back on its effects on your skin, your health, your mood, and your life.