In 1995, I had surgery to have my wisdom teeth removed. Having fasted for 12 hours, I went into surgery on an empty stomach. When I got out, I did what most people do after having their wisdom teeth pulled—I ate ice cream. When I got home, though, I went into the kitchen to get water and collapsed on the floor. My mom was concerned, but she thought that I was probably just dehydrated. So I rested.
Six years later, after I ate a chocolate bar on an empty stomach and fainted again, my mom suggested that I get tested for hypoglycemia. (My grandpa had been diagnosed with it a few years earlier.) I did, and the test came back positive.
Hypoglycemia means “low blood sugar.” The main problems that arise with it result from “an inadequate supply of glucose to the brain, resulting in impairment of function (neuroglycemia).” Effects can range from mild discomfort to seizures to unconsciousness to, in very rare cases, permanent brain damage or death. In order to regulate blood sugar levels, people with hypoglycemia are given strict diets—eat every three to four hours and refrain from consuming sugar, especially on an empty stomach.
I wish, of course, that my body processed sugar more efficiently. It’s hard to be attached to this, as William Butler Years puts it, “tattered coat upon a stick.” Living in this weak body means that I’m unable to do traditional fasts or enjoy rich desserts. In other words, it affects my ability to fast and feast.
Perhaps that’s why I chose to write this series. Although the limitations of my body are relatively mild, I groan inwardly (and outwardly) as I eagerly await my adoption and “the redemption of my body” (Rom. 8:23). When that happens, I’ll be the first in line at the dessert table.
What Does ‘Healthy’ Mean?
Under the direction of Mrs. Obama, the White House executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses, “was directed to make more healthful desserts, and in smaller portions, that were to be served only sparingly to the first family.” He frequently replaces butter with fruit purée and sugar with honey or agave. He also often adds whole grains to desserts and picks his fruits, vegetables, and herbs directly from the White House garden.
A few weeks ago, however, Yosses announced his “bittersweet decision” to leave Washington and head to New York, explaining, “I don’t want to demonize cream, butter, sugar, and eggs.” He also said, “Not everything is about sugar, but everything is about good taste. And there’s such a thing as healthy good taste.” In other words, he thinks it’s possible to focus on healthy ingredients without stigmatizing traditional ones.
But what does “healthy” mean? For people like me, of course, it means refraining from sugar. Does it also mean, though, low in calories or packed with whole grains? It’s hard to know. Science writer Gary Taubes laments:
Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure, and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.
Healthy Eating and the Gospel
Taubes thinks the culprit is sugars and refined grains. But no matter what ingredients we personally think are healthy or not, we nonetheless have to make decisions about what we eat. And pastry chefs have to make decisions about what ingredients to use. How then do we go about making these decisions?
First, it’s important to remember that our salvation does not rest upon what we eat. As Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” (Matt. 15:11). Similarly, Paul wrote, “Food will not commend us to God” (1 Cor. 8:8).
Second, God cares about how we treat our physical bodies. We are stewards, not owners, of them. As Paul wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Third, God has given us food as a gift (Gen. 1:29) and, therefore, how we receive it from him matters. Author and CSA-user Josh Bishop writes, “I’m learning to intentionally choose food that makes me more aware of, and thankful for, the grace of God, and to eat that food with an abiding awareness of God and his goodness.”
Finally, for pastry chefs, undergirding all of these considerations is the command to love others (Matt. 22:39). This is perhaps the main reason why bakers seeking to integrate their faith and work should care about whether their ingredients are healthy. Rather than contribute to the obesity or diabetes of their neighbors, they can instead help them to lead healthy and full lives.
What then are some specific decisions that pastry chefs must consider? And how do they go about making them?
Genetically Modified Foods
Genetically modified foods (“GM foods”) are made from organisms that have been altered by genetic engineering with certain changes into their DNA. Some pastry recipes call for ingredients that may have been genetically modified, e.g., papayas, milk, corn.
My friend Annie is a pastry chef in New York, and she told me that she avoids using GM foods altogether. In her bread classes, she teaches, “If you can’t pronounce it, then don’t eat it.” And she’s in good company. Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and Whole Foods have criticized the GM movement.
Yet their decisions do not settle the matter. After meeting with Annie, I talked with another friend—a scientist named Kristen, who told me that that there is no evidence that GM foods are unhealthy. “The scientific research conducted so far,” one group reports, “has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
So can we use GM foods? On the one hand, there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so. As we will see tomorrow, human ingenuity applied to the natural world can express God’s creativity and fulfill the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28). On the other hand, however, intrinsic to science and discovery is the scientific method with its process of hypothesis and testing. Scientific research, therefore, may one day offer evidence that there are, in fact, adverse health risks associated with GM foods. Pastry chefs driven by their love for their neighbors, therefore, would benefit from paying attention to current research and, when possible, making intentional decisions about whether to use GM foods.
We also have to decide whether to use processed foods, which are commercially prepared and designed for easy consumption. Processed foods used in baking can include artificial sweeteners, synthetic trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. Not all of these foods, however, should be considered equally.
Trans fats, for example, are known to be harmful because they raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL), which can increase risk of cardiovascular disease. In recent years, companies like Crisco have made efforts to eliminate trans fats from their baking ingredients. For healthier alternatives, pastry chefs can turn to monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats (olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil) or omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed, soybean, nuts, other seeds).
Artificial sweeteners can be considered like GM foods—although some people condemn them, the scientific community cites no evidence of their danger. Therefore, paying attention to current research is important.
Despite high-profile campaigns arguing otherwise, high-fructose corn syrup is thought to be no worse than sugar in general. “The smart play,” Mayo Clinic says, “is to cut back on added sugar, regardless of the type.”
In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed major changes to nutrition labels on food packages for the first time in two decades. Since current labels are based on eating habits from the 1970s and ’80s, one of the proposed changes adjusts portion sizes to reflect modern eating. “It’s an amazing transformation,” the FDA Commissioner says. “Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically.”
Perhaps the main impetus for improving portion sizes on food labels is the obesity problem in this country. According to the latest numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, 34.9 percent of Americans are obese, which is about 35 pounds heavier than a healthy weight. Obesity, of course, has several adverse effects—type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver problems, degenerative joint disease, and some types of cancer.
Pastry chefs seeking to integrate their faith and work can see their work as a means to discourage gluttony and encourage moderation. Concerning gluttony, Asaph recalled the Israelites, who “tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved” (Ps.78:8). Likewise, Paul warned that, for the enemies of the cross, “their god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19). As to moderation, Solomon advised, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it” (Prov. 25:16).
My friend Kelly, an entrepreneurial pastry chef in Grand Rapids, intentionally makes portion sizes that don’t encourage overeating. “I almost always make cupcakes, for example, in the small to medium range because all foods, including desserts, should be eaten in moderation.”
There’s a more fundamental concern, however, with overindulging on food. Jonathan Edwards preached,
When man was first created, he was made with two different kinds of appetites: with natural and animal appetites, and with holy and spiritual appetites. The former were given only to be as servants to the latter, and so were to be in subjugation to them. . . . But if by any means they exceeded these bounds, they necessarily suppressed those spiritual appetites.
In other words, when we eat, we should be aware that our physical appetite for food must be subject to our spiritual appetite for Christ. When we overeat or indulge on large portions, then we risk deadening our spiritual cravings. As we observed on Monday, although the Lord calls us to times of feasting, he also calls us to times of fasting and, even more regularly, to times of ordinary, daily eating. In these ways, he wants us to use our eating habits as means to long for him.
Give Bread, Not Stone
When encouraging his followers to ask, seek, and knock, Jesus said:
Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:9-11)
Pastry chefs, therefore, have the opportunity to bear God’s image by making their pastries good and delicious, not unhealthy and dangerous.
When it comes to making healthy choices, though, it’s not fundamentally about calories or carbohydrates. In some ways, those are just artificial measurements of what’s in pastries and desserts. Instead, we ought to look more deeply at the ingredients. What are we using? What does the current research say about our ingredients? Can I make a traditional dessert healthier by adding certain things like whole and ancient grains or heritage wheat? In all of these decisions, pastry chefs have opportunities to love their neighbors by feeding them what is good and healthy, pointing them to the Giver of all foods and, perhaps, even increasing their spiritual appetite for him.
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Don’t forget: We’re making a TGC dessert cookbook and would love your desserts to be included! So share with us your favorite recipes by Saturday, April 6, at 12 p.m. EDT. Happy baking!