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Making Organic, Artisanal Cheese

Ever wondered how artisanal, aged cheese is made? One of my favorite trips was a visit to several organic farms that make products for Lucini Italia, a company that provides authentic, handcrafted gourmet foods based on Italian culinary traditions. One highlight was a visit to a small-batch artisanal producer of organic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese in the Reggio-Emilia region of northern Italy. The master cheese-makers there handcraft just six 80-pound "wheels" of cheese daily - and only three of those wheels go on to be stamped "stravecchio" (which means "extra-aged') after a full 36-month aging process. The methods I observed have remained virtually unchanged in this region for 700 years.

Take a photo tour with me as I visit an artisanal producer of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.


12 Things Your Dog Should Never Eat

Last Thursday's post covered four foods that are fine for dogs to eat. Today’s post is a more extensive list of foods; ones that dogs shouldn’t eat. Each of these can have harmful effects on a dog’s health, ranging from allergic reactions to vomiting, diarrhea or even death. Be on the safe side and restrict your dog’s access to these foods - he or she will thank you!

  1. Alcohol, including beer, wine and liquor
  2. Avocados
  3. Caffeine, such as tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate and colas
  4. Dairy products
  5. Grapes and raisins
  6. Macadamia nuts or foods containing macadamia nuts
  7. Meat fat or bones
  8. Onions and garlic, raw, cooked, dehydrated and powdered
  9. Pantry staples such as baking powder, baking soda and nutmeg
  10. Fruits with pits, such as peaches and plums
  11. Raw eggs, meat and fish
  12. Salty or sugary food and drinks

Also be aware of anything containing the sweetener xylitol, such as candy, gum, toothpaste and baked goods, as well as human medications, especially acetaminophen and ibuprofen - all can have serious adverse affects on your dog’s health.

In case your dog does eat any of the above, it’s a good idea to always have on hand the number of your vet, an emergency clinic and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435). If you think your dog has consumed something toxic, call for emergency help at once.

Visit the Pets & Pet Care center on my site for more tips on raising a healthy companion animal.


What Is Reflexology?

Feeling stressed-out? Tense? Experiencing discomfort in certain parts of the body? Consider reflexology. This therapy is based on the principle that specific areas of the hands and feet correspond to specific muscle groups or organs of the body. Some examples are the base of the little toe representing the ear, or the ball of the foot representing the lung. By applying pressure on those areas, reflexology is said to promote benefits such as relaxation, improved circulation and normalized function in the related area of the body.

A typical reflexology session runs from thirty to sixty minutes. The client removes shoes and socks and sits or reclines. (Some reflexologists offer a foot bath at the beginning of the session, but no lotions or oils are used.) Pressure is applied in thumb-and-finger “walking” patterns, resulting in gentle stretching and massaging of specific zones of the hands and feet that are thought to correspond to bodily organs. Simple self-care instructions may be discussed at the completion of the session.

Learn more about reflexology, including how to find a practitioner!


Fish Oil May Lessen Alcohol Cravings, Depression

Here's more evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may help lessen depression, at least in mice. And it may also reduce the creatures' alcohol cravings. Investigators at the Indiana University School of Medicine studied the effects of giving DHA, one of the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil, to mice bred to have bipolar disorder (the animals are depressed except when stressed - then they become manic). The researchers reported that the addition of DHA appeared to normalize their behavior. They no longer exhibited signs of depression, and they didn't become manic with stress. Surprisingly, the study also found that fish oil reduced cravings for alcohol among the mice. Those on DHA drank much less alcohol than the untreated mice. The research team noted that, just like many bipolar humans, bipolar mice seek to treat themselves with alcohol. Later, when the investigators examined the mice brains, they found that genes known to be targets of psychiatric medications were "modulated and normalized by DHA". The study was published online on May 24, 2011 by Translational Psychiatry.


Corn Syrup vs. Sugar

You’ve likely seen the advertisements promoting the idea that corn syrup is the same as sugar. There is a difference - high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has a slightly higher quantity of fructose than do traditional cane or beet sugars.

But the big downside of HFCS isn't that it is much less healthy than regular refined sugar (sucrose) - the truth is the body processes them in a similar way. The real downside is that since HFCS is so cheap, it is widely used: it's a primary ingredient in soft drinks and often hidden in processed foods including salad dressings and ketchup, jams, jellies, ice cream, bread and crackers. In short, it is one of the biggest sources of calories in the American diet, and serves as a "marker" for identifying cheap, processed, unhealthy foods of all kinds.

Regular consumption of HFCS, in fact the regular consumption of any sugar, may contribute to obesity, which in turn is a risk factor for several types of cancer and diabetes. In my opinion, HCFS is definitely bad for you and should be avoided - read food labels carefully and minimize your consumption of items that list HFCS as an ingredient. Also be aware that the Corn Refiners Association wants to rename HFCS as “corn sugar” - if this is approved, you will need to look out for that term on food labels as well.

Learn more about different types of sugar, all of which should be consumed in moderation.


Lose Weight for More Vitamin D

If you're female, overweight (or obese) and your vitamin D levels aren't what they should be, you may be able to give them a boost by losing a few pounds, or more precisely, by dropping more than 15 percent of your body weight. This news, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, follows one of the largest studies ever to assess the effect of weight loss on vitamin D levels. The participants were 439 overweight-to-obese Seattle area women age 50 to 75 who were postmenopausal and sedentary. About 70 percent of the women had less than optimal levels of "D" at the year-long study's start. When it ended, the research team reported that the women who lost five to 10 percent of their body weight showed a relatively small increase in their vitamin D levels. But those who dropped more than 15 percent of their starting weight nearly tripled their vitamin D levels. All this occurred without dietary changes that might have boosted vitamin D. Conventional wisdom about vitamin D holds that overweight and obese people have lower levels of "D" because the vitamin is trapped in fat stores. Weight loss may release trapped "D".

My take? This is very good news. Most adults in the United States don't get enough vitamin D, which we need for bone health and, accumulating evidence suggests, for protection against a number of serious diseases, including many types of cancer. Our bodies synthesize vitamin D with exposure to sunlight, but it's tough to get optimal exposure, particularly in northern latitudes during the dark winter months. Another problem: with advancing age, the skin cannot synthesize vitamin D as efficiently as it once did and the kidneys are less able to convert vitamin D to its active hormone form. Losing weight is a win-win option: not only may you increase your vitamin D levels for the good of your bones and for the health benefits "D" may provide, but you also reduce your risks of death due to diabetes, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and kidney and gallbladder disease and, perhaps, for some types of cancer. Obesity is also a risk factor for the development of osteoarthritis and sleep apnea.

More: Vitamin D for Mental Sharpness


4 Healthy Foods for Dogs

Creating a healthful, well-rounded meal from scratch for your dog requires an understanding of your pet's nutritional needs as well as a significant investment of time. Like humans, dogs are omnivores, meaning that they eat both animal and plant foods. If you want to cook for a dog, I urge you to talk to your vet or consult with a veterinary nutritionist about the individual needs of your companion animal and how those needs change with age. You'll also want to pay close attention to how much home-cooked food your dogs should eat in order for them to maintain a healthy weight. Follow the guidelines in this and tomorrow’s Daily Tips for information on foods that dogs can eat and those they should avoid.

  1. Lean meats. Thoroughly cooked meats with visible fat trimmed off and all bones removed are acceptable for dogs.
  2. Vegetables. Many dogs enjoy carrot sticks, green beans and cucumber slices - all are low-calorie treats that are healthier than many store-bought dog snacks. However some veggies should be avoided - see tomorrow’s tip for more information.
  3. Fresh fruit. Sliced apples, bananas, oranges and watermelon can be a safe and tasty treat, but be sure to remove all seeds, stems and leaves first. Some fruits should be avoided – again, see tomorrow’s tip for more information.
  4. Cooked rice. Cooked white rice can offer relief from stomach upset in some dogs.

Additionally, be careful to avoid these toxic foods for dogs.


MSG Can Pack on Pounds

You may not know you're consuming MSG on a regular basis, but this flavor enhancer is everywhere - not just in Chinese food but in all kinds of processed foods, from chips to canned soup. And this common food additive may be responsible for weight gain. A new study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests that the more MSG you consume, the more likely you are to be overweight or obese. This holds true even if your intake of calories and exercise habits are the same as those who don't consume MSG. Researchers followed more than 10,000 adults in China for about 5.5 years, measuring their MSG intake and asking them to estimate how much they consumed over three 24-hour periods. Results showed that individuals whose daily MSG intake was highest (about five grams) were about 30 percent more likely to become overweight by the end of the study than those who consumed the least MSG (less than half a gram daily). After excluding study participants who were overweight at the study's start, the risk was 33 percent. The study was published in the June, 2011, issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

More information on the safety of MSG and some natural ways to get that great "umami" taste in foods.