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February 21, 2019

The good, the bad and the ugly

'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is a classic Italian spaghetti western film released in 1966. In the movie, starring among Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. The three gunslingers compete to find a fortune of fold buried somewhere. Complicating matters is that they do their hunting in the middle of the American Civil War. Throughout the movie, dialogue is minimal and there is much posing, starring at each other from a distance, quivering of hands followed by many gunshots and then the clip pity-clop of a horse riding away. At the end of the movie it is difficult to conclude anything other than it is a good action movie. In a way it is like looking at salt, bread and sweetbreads.

Salt is a mineral substance, the primary ingredient being sodium chloride. The body needs the sodium in salt for essential functions like maintain the right balance of fluids, transmitting nerve impulses and movement of muscles. The salt we eat is produced from salt mines or by the evaporation of seawater or mineral rich spring water in shallow pools. In Kenya as part of the processing, iodine salts are added. Iodine is an important micronutrient that is needed by the thyroid gland to make thyroxin an important hormone in growth and development of the body.

While salt is essential to life too much is also a bad thing. American dietary guidelines recommend taking no more than 2,300 mg of salt per day. For specific populations that is; those 51 years and older, children, African Americans; and those with high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, the recommendation limit is 1,500 mg per day. Table salt is about 40 per cent sodium. One flat teaspoon of salt contains 2,400 mg of sodium. Other than salt added at the table, the major sources of sodium in the diet are processed foods including bread, cured meats, pizza, hamburgers, chicken and snacks like crisps. In some foods you can literally smell the salt in others it is hidden. A slice of bread for example contains about 100 mg of sodium.

Bread goes back at least 30,000 years. The first breads were flat breads a mix of ground flour and water baked in the sun or an oven. Eventually some oil was added. Descendants of these flat breads today are chapatti, roti, tortilla and injera. Legend has it that a slave in a royal Egyptian household forgot about some dough he had set aside. When he returned, it had doubled in size. Trying to hide the mistake, the dough was punched down furiously and baked. The result was bread lighter than anyone had ever tasted and the bread we eat today was born. The accidental additive was yeast. People also discovered that salt added to the dough improved the flavour of the bread, made it look better baked and improved the volume of the bread by interacting with the yeast. So in baking bread, about two per cent salt is added to the flour.

In traditional bread making the dough is formed, allowed to rest, it rises, it is kneaded back down, allowed to rise again before finally being baked. The process takes many hours and strong forearms and biceps. Modern bread baking factories bypass this process by using an intense mechanical working of the dough to reduce fermentation time. In addition chemicals like sodium metabisulfite, potassium bromate and ascorbic acid are added to speed up the process. The result is a tasteless loaf of bread in two or three hours as opposed to the overnight process of tasty bread. The ingredients of bread listed from one supermarket in Nairobi are; bakers flour, yeast, S.B. fat, sugar, salt and preservatives. Kenyan law does not require quantities to be specified but at least the bread does look like bread.

Sweetbread however is not bread, though it may contain bread. Sweetbreads are the culinary names for bits of offal of slaughtered animals. Specifically they refer to the thymus, pancreas, heart, tongue, parotid gland, and testicles of calf or lamb. In the west sweetbread is prepared by poaching them first in milk, then bread crumbing and frying them. Locally it is more likely to be part of a Matumbo mix, boiled first to soften then fried or sautéed. Sweetbreads or Matumbo look white and so some people advised to avoid red meat, take to Matumbo as their preferred meat. Unfortunately Matumbo is quite fatty and is usually prepared with a fair amount of salt to cut through the fat.

Just like in the movie the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, we spend a lot of time looking for the magic foods that will make us healthy and wonderful. The reality is that no single food has the answer. The general rule however is that the more natural the food the greater the chances that it is good for you. Papaya, pineapple, and oranges are rich in vitamin C. Synthetic ascorbic acid found in bread may appear to be the same thing, but which is more enjoyable to eat on a hot dusty January day?

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