Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Vanilla/Mosquito Connection

Last year I received a phone call from a popular call-in talk radio station asking if imitation vanilla would repel mosquitoes. Word was out that wearing the vanilla would protect you from being bitten. I also received several e-mails from people, and one man in Canada actually considered creating a mosquito repellent with a vanilla aroma.

At the time I was busy completing the history book and I didn't get around to testing the theory. I know that spiders aren't wild about vanilla and that you can put a vanilla bean in furniture polish to keep them off the furniture (at least until the aroma wears off), so it seemed reasonable to me that mosquitoes might not like vanilla either.

This year I decided I should try the vanilla approach to combatting flying insects. I live next to a lake and it is full-on mosquito season here. West Nile Virus has shown up in the area and health officials anticipate a real problem, so the time was right use myself as a guinea pig. I bought some imitation vanilla at the grocery store and put it on the left side of my face, neck, and left arm. On the right side of my face, neck and right arm I put pure vanilla extract.

The first thing I noticed is that the pure vanilla smelled better on my skin than the imitation. I also found that the aroma seemed to fade fairly quickly, at least to my human nose. Undaunted, I went out into my garden to work. It was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were definitely coming out in force.

The results? Two bites on the left side of my body; two bites on the right! Now, I probably should have had more bites given the number of mosquitoes buzzing around me, but one bite is one too many if the mosquito is carrying a virus. So, chalk up the buzz to another urban legend!

One thing that DOES work is citrus peel. I was out in the fields alongside a river in Mexico several years ago. The mosquitoes were everywhere and all I could think of was malaria or dengue fever. However, we were walking through Mandarin (tangerine) trees, so we picked some Mandarins and I introduced my Mexican friends to the joys of smelling like a Mandarin. I rubbed the fragrant inside of the peel over my face, neck, arms, and hands, and they followed suit. The result kept us from being "eaten alive."

I spoke with the local company that is working on mosquito abatement using natural methods rather than spray. The director said that the most effective mosquito protection continues to be DEET. Although Deet's producer says that it's safe even for small children, it can lift paint off of things, so it can't be perfect. He said that there is a product called Picindirin (or something close to that) that's a little less invasive and there should be a new lemon eucalyptus product coming out next year. Finally, there is a product called "Off." If you have any additional ideas, please let me know and I'll post them.

The moral of the story is that while vanilla may be able to help with cancer prevention it doesn't make it with mosquitoes!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Power Foods

After receiving the information about vanilla as an anti-mutagenic and that it can repair DNA strand, I've thought a lot about how we can incorporate more vanilla into our diets as yet another healthy food to use in cancer prevention. As many of you know, I was diagnosed 15 months ago with advanced breast cancer, and I'm now cancer-free. Was it the vanilla? Who knows. All I know is that I'm currently fine and I'm working hard to stay well. And...I'm certainly incorporating vanilla and herbs and spices into lots of what I call "power" foods, foods known to be high in vitamins, minerals, phyto-chemicals or amino acids.

Here are some examples: White tea -- especially silver-needle white tea -- is extremely high in antioxidants and quite mild in flavor. Further, you can brew the leaves from white tea several times and still get the health benefits it. Adding a few drops of pure vanilla extract enhances the flavor and boosts the health benefits further.

Research at Pace University in NY showed that white tea is better than green at slowing the growth of viruses and bacteria. The Linus Pauling Institute has found that it helped prevent tumors in laboratory studies more effectively than other teas.

The Wall Street Journal rated white teas, giving Upton Tea Imports Organic China White Paklum the highest rating.( They also recommended Adaggio Teas, White Peony, the most affordable (, and The Republic of Tea's Silver Rain White Tea ( excellent. The only downside of white tea is cost; it's considerably more expensive than green or black teas as only the youngest tea leaves and buds are used, limiting the harvest to days or hours for the very finest tea leaves.

Green tea is also very high in antioxidants, is considerably less expensive and is easy to find in the marketplace. I experimented with both teas. The white tea doesn't have the slightly bitter aftertaste that is typical in green tea. It has a very delicate flavor and I found that the addition of vanilla extract enhanced its flavor. I wasn't sure how I'd like vanilla in green tea as its flavor is stronger. In fact, what I discovered is that it cuts the bitter aftertaste and I could add more vanilla to it than I expected I'm now drinking white or green tea daily with a little pure vanilla in it.

It's a "no-brainer" to add vanilla to yogurt and fruits, oatmeal, milk, cereals, power drinks, shakes, etc. Add 1/2 teaspoon or more per serving. It will only make these foods taste better. Add a little cinnamon (especially true cinnamon as opposed to cassia) and you've given the foods an additional boost. Pomegranates, cranberries, raspberries and blueberries are especially good fruits for cancer prevention.

A less obvious choice is to add pure vanilla to vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash are all high in beta-carotene and antioxidants, are really good for the body, and are all sweet vegetables. Vanilla makes them even sweeter and more appealing. Get the bottle out and add 1/2 teaspoon or more per serving. You might also consider adding a little turmeric, the bright yellow herb found in curries. The curcumin in turmeric is known to be an anti-angiogenic. Be judicious at first, as it can cause slight stomach upset for some people.

Green vegetables are also high in antioxidants and also benefit from vanilla. This afternoon I had a mixture of steamed rainbow chard, English peas and fava beans, all spring vegetables. I added flaxseed oil, fresh lemon juice, Kosher salt and a pressed garlic clove all blended together, and then added 1/2 teaspon pure vanilla extract. The vanilla was subtle as the garlic was the predominant flavor.

Be playful and experiment. Share your best discoveries with us; we'd love to post them for others to use.
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Yesterday I spoke to a group of Culinary Historians in Los Angeles. It was sunny and warm outside, with a pleasant breeze. However, what really impressed me was the Los Angeles Main Library. At 10:00 a.m. when I arrived, people were lined up at all the entrances, despite the beautiful day! I asked the librarians about the crowd and they confirmed that the library is always very busy. There was a photo exhibit featuring the towns and people of Venice Beach, Encino, and Tarzana on the main floor and lovely gardens where people could go outside and read in the sun.

My slide-show and book reading was well-attended, and volunteers had baked cookies from The Vanilla Chef to serve with coffee at the reception. I mention this because with all we hear about the television and computer dominating people's lives, people DO still read and attend educational events! I really enjoy doing programs like this because people are genuinely interested in knowing more about vanilla and its uses, but they're also interested in the people who cultivate it around the world. It's fun to bring my "show on the road."